What is God?
Let’s get this straight off the bat. An atheist doesn’t believe that God exists in the same way that people don’t believe in the existence of Santa Clause. Sure the idea of God exists, just as the idea of Kris Kringle exists. However this is examined, the actual physical existence of God cannot be proven. This is true for a very good reason: God is not a physical entity. God has no height, weight, body type, hair color or anything associated with human beings. God is not a human being.
In my imagination, I hear the Christians objecting to this thought. Hey, what about Jesus? He existed, was a human being and also God. Don’t get me wrong. I actually believe that Jesus did walk this earth, but his name was Joshua. He was Jewish and got crucified by the Romans for doing bad things, by their estimation. I learned all about Jesus during my indoctrination into the Roman Catholic Church. At about the age of eight, I started down the path of becoming an atheist, but I do know what you mean by God.
Early Religious Training
God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. I learned that and accepted it. Even at that young age I could grasp the concept. Okay, so there’s this Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. So far it was fairly easy. But then the Catholic Church had to come up with this idea that only Catholics can go to heaven. Hey, wait one minute there! What about my very good friend? He was Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. What do you have against the Jews? Or Lutherans for that matter. What’s so special about the Catholic Church?
It took a few more years to realize that every dang religion has the same exclusivity idea, except for maybe Buddhists and Hindus. By the time I hit high school, I had thrown out all the ideas about God and embraced science as the only true way to know anything at all. In college I learned about the great philosophers, which entrenched me more tightly into science. I majored in biology at first.
From Science to Literature and the Wilderness
My path toward becoming an atheist seemed to have solidified. Yet things happened in college that gave me second thoughts. Maybe something like God exists, but not what people generally think of God. No creator and no old guy with a white beard up there in the clouds, but something else altogether. My curiosity led to an extensive independent study on religions, and that brought me into literature. I changed my major to English, since I was reading the books anyway. Remembering what I had learned as a kid, the way to God was often found in the wilderness. The Biblical wilderness was a desert. That did not appeal at all to a young man who grew up in the northern forests of Minnesota, so I went out into that kind of woodsy wilderness on long backpacking excursions instead. I was an atheist in search of God or whatever God had been way back in the Old Testament.
I found something. It was not a voice in a burning bush. It wasn’t a clear apparition of Jesus beckoning to me. There was nothing miraculous about it. At the time I had no words to describe what I had found, but now I know it was what people call God but cannot explain. So they use bad analogies to attempt an explanation, which may or may not work. Those bad explanations sure didn’t work for me. I had to experience this thing called God firsthand in order to understand what was actually going on.
For decades I’ve pondered on this subject and read further into how various religions got their start and developed. This is one reason why atheists tend to know a lot about religion. It’s not just to come up with clever arguments against God, playing devil’s advocate in a way, but to see if there really is anything to the notion.
Here’s what I’ve figured out so far:
God is what you personally think He, She or It is. Your ideas about the subject are as good as anyone else’s.
The overwhelming feeling about God is universal love. That’s what most people feel when coming upon God. If the feeling is something else like fear or shame, that’s probably not God.
Too many people manipulate a lot of other people in the name of God. These people are charlatans and don’t have the first idea about God. They know about sales.
Religions don’t get along. They compete for membership like a corporation recruits warm bodies. I don’t think they are really needed, so I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in any of them.
People need religions, so they keep on existing. Religions will continue to exist as long as people need them. Not all people need them, but a whole lot do. There’s a universal truth in this, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. It may have to do with young and old souls, but then again, it may just be a characteristic of the human condition.
I won’t force you to accept my atheism. Don’t even try to force me to accept your religion. You would be engaging in a knife fight with a plastic fork because I know more about your religion than you do. Out of compassion, I try to avoid arguing religion with true believers. It never turns out well. Sometimes people beg for it, and my resolve slips. Sorry.
It’s very difficult to have faith in something that seems voiceless and ethereal. This is especially hard when a person feels abandoned by God after having worked so much at having faith. I am very sympathetic to people going through this crisis and have been there. Hang on, things do get better.
True faith in God is actually suspension of belief and the embracement of trust. Don’t do this with people. People are untrustworthy. We are selfish, deceptive, manipulative and largely evil creatures, except for those who are not. Confusing? You bet.
On this last point, I don’t believe in God, but I know what you mean by God. It’s a Zen paradox. I don’t believe in God and am thereby always with God. The universal love walks with me always. It has a constant little voice in my head that assures and encourages but never demands. I can turn to the universal love for guidance and strength during hard times. If I put out an effort to make conditions better, things start falling into place as if by magic. Exactly how this works, I don’t know and don’t care to know.
This much I do know – believing in God is not a prerequisite to knowing God. It is just a tiny first step that most children can make effortlessly. When adults start to inject their own nasty ideas into the situation, they kill the faith of a child. The children then spend entire lifetimes trying to bring it back to life, and so we have this yearning that needs to be filled.
A good portion of my life has been spent becoming an atheist. I have no idea if this will pay off in the end, as so many religions claim to be the reward for following their teachings. Tickets to heaven along with promises of enlightenment are among the hooks. Heaven and enlightenment mean very little to me. What comes next will come no matter what, so my thinking goes right now. At other times I have had experiences that hinted at what might be coming, but when I’m honest with myself, those were impressions. Perhaps they were simply wishful thinking and not revelations.
The little voice that still accompanies me through life has nothing to say about this. As a result, I am convinced that worrying about what comes next is not worth the effort. Life is to be lived in the constant state of here and now, but with the imagination to look ahead and the courage to look behind, honestly and compassionately, with forgiveness and understanding, with trust and faith if not belief. Belief is for children. Trust and faith are for adults.