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Is There a God? — the Real God?

Here is an email I received in response to one of my essays.

Is There a God, The Real God

Chris Brooking : : 2001-06-17

I have often used your Java resources and I was very interested to see your essays on religion. I was particularly interested in your section on the real God because I too have come to similar conclusions (act in ways that would benefit other members of our species, other species etc.). The difference in perspective is that you appear to be primarily a rationalist, accepting that there may be a God, where as I have strong feelings that there is a God, but accept the possibility that this is some sort of wired in God instinct.

You may be interested in an argument that I thought up, to show that following rules of consideration to others is a rational act. I suppose that there is some similarity between this and the holy blackmail argument, though it does not totally ignore the possibility of other religions being right.

You might also compare the holy blackmail argument with Pascal’s Wager and Bedford’s Wager. I find that notion that you would tell a lie to yourself for gain even more ignoble that telling one to others. You may act to protect yourself from unlikely occurrences, but you should not lie to yourself or others that these extreme outcomes are the most probable.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
~ William Shakespear (1564-04-23 1616-04-23 age:52) Polonius in Hamlet Act I scene iii giving advice to his son Laertes.

Suppose that you act in a way that gives consideration to others and believe that this is doing God’s will. There are several possibilities:

  1. That whatever you will do will have no effect past this world. This covers the case where there is no God, but also the cases where God is indifferent to our actions (e.g. everyone may be forgiven or everyone punished!). In this case you have gained or lost nothing on a cosmic scale, but have done something to improve this life. For many people this will be a happier way of living anyway.
  2. That God conforms to our idea of good and evil and will judge everyone on their actions. This may be a pass/fail judgement (i.e. you get into heaven or not) or an outcome based on your life (for example the Hindu/Buddhist idea of Karma). In this case you win.
  3. That God likes destruction, greed and evil and rewards the selfish and punishes the just. In this case you lose! I think it very unlikely that a God that supported evil and destruction would reward anyone, I would have expected everyone to lose in such a case, but there is a small chance that an evil God that exceeds our understanding may well do this. At least you would have the satisfaction in knowing that your actions show that this evil God is not omnipotent. Yet there does seem to be far more evidence for the existence of such a God, Murphy, god of computer programmers, than anything resembling Yahweh the sky god.
  4. That God is a legalistic God and you have to do/believe some arbitrary thing to be rewarded. This would include fundamentalist Christianity; those who are good but don’t believe in God/Jesus will be punished but those who believe will be forgiven anything. In this case you may lose too, but the chances of picking the right action/belief are so small that it does not justify picking any one of these religions. If such a God allowed so many false beliefs, what is to say they are not all false? Even if you pick the right one — such a nit-picking unjust God would probably delight in throwing people out for not meeting the small print in other ways. I can imagine such a God saying "No, you believed in Jesus — the name is Yeshu… and sorry you didn’t get in heaven either because it needs to be written in Aramaic…".

I know its not a 100% logical argument, but it does at least equal that of many who try to convince me of their religion. Pointing out that the Christian idea of God is a legalistic God rather than a merciful one has certainly put off some preachers that have come to my door in the past!

Fortunately, I find the possibilities 3 and 4 very unlikely.

I have noticed that Karma sometimes hits with spooky speed. That is not necessarily the same thing as God punishing/rewarding, but it often appears improbable and supernatural, perhaps requiring some sort of ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) to explain. I have had many experiences that simply don’t fit with the usual view of how reality is constructed. Generally though, God has such a hands-off attitude to life on earth, completely oblivious to the billions of prayers offered up each day. It seems unlikely he would have a totally different attitude toward people after death when it is too late for punishment to have any practical purpose. Whatever/whoever created the universe was no prude! Periwinkles form sexual daisy chains. The creator of periwinkles does not sound like the sort of God who is going to get upset over a bit of lust, no matter what it is directed at. Therefore I think all the religions that freak out over sex can’t possibly be the true religion. That eliminates most of them.

In addition to my own religious feelings, which I don’t expect to convince anyone else, there are other reasons to believe these unlikely. For one, aside from a few psychopaths, most people who act in a selfish way that harms others know that this is not a good way to act. They may justify it as being for the best in some other way, or that they would have done it to me, but the fact is we have a built-in sense of right and wrong. Why would an unjust or legalistic God give us that? It points to either a just God, or no God (survival instincts for a social animal that has to work in groups). What about the possibly that this sense of right and wrong is purely social. Every culture has its own rules of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. God did not give it to you, your mother did. Look what brats children are when their mothers fail in that duty. Secondly, even those who do wrong would not like to be treated that way themselves. Given that there is no evidence that some people (or creatures) are more important to god than others, this means that God is unlikely to approve of these actions. Of course, this is consistent with there being no god too. Thirdly, you could point to most religions calling for mercy, goodness etc., even though this message is not always practised by followers. Since cases 1 or 2 seem most likely, three are strong reasons to act altruistically rather than selfishly and as long as you do that following any particular religion is unimportant.

It so childish to determine your behaviour on whether you think you will get caught. Surely adults can see the obvious benefits of behaving well, both for the self and the society. Creating bogeymen to make others behave the way you want them to will eventually lead to irrational behaviour because the bogeyman you create may live long after you do, long after conditions have changed.

Thank you for your great website.

Chris Brooking

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