The Other I

July 4, 2010

Reasons to believe in god

Ernst Tugendhat, a German philosopher, says he thinks that, although we need to believe in God, we can no longer do so in the light of modern science without fooling ourselves.  (

I’m extremely uncomfortable with this view.   I think Tugendhat is asking the question the wrong way around.

Instead of suggesting that we are in a cleft stick because we need to believe in a god that does not exist, I think we should ask what needs our various constructions of god are being used to meet.  I think we will  discover that our concepts of god change quite radically, depending on the purposes we are using god for.  Sometimes these purposes are generous and noble, sometimes they are ignoble and self-serving, sometimes they are intellectual, sometimes cultural, sometimes terrifyingly pathological.

Some people use god as the answer to the question of how the universe came into being and is the kind of mystery that it is.  This god might be highly impersonal, a force that initially created the universe which is now left to its own devices.  It might still be a god that inspires awe, but not a god who intervenes with our lives, who answers our prayers, or who is comprehensible in human terms.

Sometimes god is the answer to our desire to know what happens after we die.  Do we simply return to the handful of star dust from which we were originally formed?  or does something of ourselves continue beyond death?  and if it does, what is it?  The god who answers these questions is often more personal, rewarding those who have lived good lives, punishing those who don’t.  Heaven and hell are the usual Christian version of this reward or punishment.  Reincarnation for those not yet ready for nirvana is another alternative.

Then there is the more immediate question of whether life has a purpose, has any meaning beyond our sheer existence.  Am I supposed to accomplish something during my time on earth, or am I simply part of an inexorable mill through which I am processed for some short time?  Sometimes the god who is constructed to give us purpose is a loving god, sometimes a vindictive, angry, punishing god.  This god may be singular or plural, beyond human understanding or embarrassingly human, belong to all people or the sole possession of only a single peoples.

These punishing and rewarding god are the ones most often used to increase group cohesiveness and exercise power and control.  They are the gods often called upon during social and political conflicts, and are used as justifications for trying to control, punish and even kill those who do not submit to the god associated with the most powerful group.  This is the concept of god, I think, which history shows has been used for the most self-serving and abusive purposes.  For the leaders within these groups, aligning oneself with an all-powerful god and even claiming to be a god’s representative adds an invincible authority to their commands.  For every follower, this god is a great escape from insignificance or failure.

I am a psychologist who believes that self-knowledge is by far the hardest knowledge to acquire.  We will go to the most extraordinary lengths to protect ourselves from seeing our own self-serving motives, however glaringly obvious these motives may sometimes be to others.  And so I think insights into the real needs that may be met by our concepts of god are hard-earned.

And indeed, our “god” may change quite dramatically during our lives.  In my youth, I believed in a god that was going to give my life a great purpose and importance.  Now I find the attempt to control the behavior – of myself or of others, but especially of children – with threats of heaven or hell highly unacceptable.  Fundamentalist religions in clear contradiction of modern science are equally unbelievable for me.  Preaching that God causes earthquakes and tsunamis as punishment for our sins simply seems ridiculous whatever concomitant good its followers may achieve.

This is why I would not ask if we need to believe in god.  “God” is too amorphous a concept in this context.  I would ask instead what needs we have that we use our concepts of “god” to meet.

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