Secular Jews And What I Mean By The Term “God”

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I get a gnawing sense that when I talk about God, my secular Jewish friends hear, “la la la la la la la la”. When I read atheist blogs, or comments on religious Facebook posts, I see this wild disconnect between what people of faith mean by God, and what atheist think we mean about God.

To put it simply: a believer talks about believing in apples, and a non-believer sets out to argue that oranges are just as foolish as a flying spaghetti monster. And just like my strange metaphor, the whole darn thing becomes a mess.

The problem is really two-fold.

When believers talk about God, they use the poetic, artistic, emotional language of scripture…and that’s a problem for Secular Jews.

Believers talk about “feeling God” or “having a sense of God”. The way people talk about God is the same way that musicians talk about playing guitar, or that nerds talk about the new Star Wars movies, or that any sane person talks about Chuck Norris.

That doesn’t line up well with the empirical, scientific method, and so for non-believers, it just doesn’t work. And rightly so.

Proving the existence of God is like trying to prove that Eric Clapton sucks. There’s no way to measure Eric Clapton scientifically against, say, Black Flag, but on a certain level…yeah…Eric Clapton just isn’t that cool.

It’s emotional. It’s subjective. But it’s also very real. Like love, and hate.

On the other hand, believers can be pretty bad communicators.

When we hear about something like the God Particle (which is neither God, nor much of a particle), we start blabbing on and on about how finally, those moron scientists understand what we have been talking about this entire time! Reality check: we were never talking about science. But science is real, and to us, God is real. So we jump the shark and start flame wars on Facebook. We can’t help ourselves. Our passion makes us do really silly things.

So when I talk about God here at PunkTorah, OneShul or elsewhere, here’s what I’m personally talking about. This is The-God-Of-My-Understanding.

God means…

Consistency

Our universe is ruled by some pretty basic rules. Throw a ball in the air, and it’s going to come back down. It’s simple really.

And yet, it’s not, if we read about quantum mechanics.

Sure, ball goes up and comes back down. So never mind the fact that the ball may not actually exist, or that the very act of viewing the ball may be the reason why it fell, or that the ball may exist as potential balls in multiple universes all at once.

It appears like we have a rational, no-nonsense universe, that is built on some wild, inconsistent, bizarre-o land of rules that make no sense. Yet, the darn ball still falls when you throw it up in the air.

God, through the consistency of the laws of nature, keeps faith with us that reality is real, that we can know reality, and that by having a universe that appears silent to us, we are actually better off. Like children, we crave consistency. And God gives it to us. So the Bible reads, “your faithfulness continues to all generations; you established the earth, and it stands” (Psalm 119:89-90).

Eternity

The universe does not waste anything, or anyone. The same stuff that made up the Big Bang makes up who you are. God does not discard anything.

We used to believe that if you burned paper, it simply went away and was never more. Now, we know that a burned piece of paper still exists, albeit in a new way: as ash, as the chemicals released in the air, as the transference of heat energy. While the paper as we understood it is gone, the fundamentals of the paper are still there. They simply become something else.

Human beings have mastered resurrection through legacy. Through our impact on people when we are alive, we have the ability to live eternally. We still read books by people who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago. Like the piece of paper, their consciousness never went away — it just became something else, something that lasts into eternity.

If a piece of paper never goes away, then I have to believe that human beings do not, either.

Even the intangible never goes away. Love is the greatest of eternity’s blessings. Today, you are alive because someone loved you. And they were alive because someone loved them. There is a chain that goes back to the beginning of time: and love is what it is all rooted in. We may die, but the love that was given to us, and that we give to others, never goes away. “I have loved you with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you” (Jeremiah 31:2).

Creativity

Living in a reality where things remain consistant and constant is pretty cool. When I step out my door, I don’t have to worry that the laws of gravity are going to cease to exist, and that I am going to float off in the sky.

And because I live in the modern world, much of what I need is readily available to me.

That gives me a lot of free time to pursue the creative. And that’s another place where I believe God rests.

When we think of the Garden of Eden story, we tend to think of a place that is wild, with two wild humans laying around in luxury eating, sleeping and playing naked without a care in the world.

But really, the Garden of Eden was work. Adam (a Hebrew metaphor meaning “humanity”) was commanded to work this garden as the steward of it (Genesis 2:15). Gardens, back in the old days, were not the wildflower front lawns of hippies with gnomes and Buddha statues. They were orderly. God’s world is orderly, at least according to the Book of Genesis, and humanity is tasked with continuing that order.

It begs the question: what did God want the Garden of Eden to look like? I would suggest that God was leaving that up to Adam to figure out. Adam was given the tools to do the job, but his vision of the garden was up to him. No rule book: just some seeds, some dirt, some trees, and the responsibility to make it pleasing to God.

Creativity is not an empty vacuum. The color of paint is pre-determined, until we mix the paints together to reflect our own design. A musical instrument is already assembled, until we figure out cool, new ways to make sounds out of it. The stuff we need is already there, like the Garden of Eden. It’s our responsibility, from God, to take the stuff and turn it into something that is sacred.

So there you go. When I say God, I’m talking about Consistency, Eternity and Creativity.

What do you think?

This piece was written by Patrick Aleph, founder and Executive Director of PunkTorah. He’s addicted to coffee, tattoos and loud garage rock. Friend him on Facebook.


 

  • Aron G.

    I don’t personally feel I fit the mindset of a believer in God. Sorry. But I do find certain practices valuable in themselves, even if I don’t feel I can know whether deities exist or not. I’m an agnostic. So I live my life, but I do know I share this world with other beings, both humans and non-human. Since I’m a human, I want to understand other humans, even if we disagree. I believe in dialogue. So I appreciate Patrick’s post.

    Just throwing people we disagree with under the bus bothers me, because it seems like it’s ignoring the idea of caring for the stranger. I can honor these stories, even if I believe they are stories written with a probably fictional characters. I like thinkers like Martin Buber, who associate relationships to any idea of God. For me largely, God represents the interconnectivity of all life. You matter. Believers matter. Nonbelievers matter. Even if we don’t agree all the time.

    Yes, there are people here who don’t clearly believe in God. I don’t use the word atheist to describe myself, but if others did, I have no objection. I consider myself an agnostic humanist these days, yet I practice prayer and meditation because I think it helps to clear my mind, focus my intent, etc. I honor the holidays because I’ve found things in these practice that support my values. And so on…

    It just discourages me in forums like this that people assume “nonbelievers” aren’t around and don’t want to contribute.

  • Aron G.

    Sorry, the this message was directed as a response to Michael Benami Doyle who responded on Facebook, not Patrick.

  • David Hart

    A friend of mine linked me to this post, and said that up until the words “It’s emotional. It’s subjective. But it’s also very real. Like love, and hate”, it was a fairly accurate summation of her own position. So, having prepared a reply, I figured I might as well post a version of it here on the original post as well.

    Firstly, isn’t it a bit dishonest to have a picture of Einstein? Einstein who used ‘God’ only as a metaphor for the impersonal laws of physics that he devoted his career to figuring out? Einstein who had to explain with some frustration that he did not believe in any kind of personal god?

    But, to the text:
    I have to say, this piece looks exactly like what PZ Myers is describing as ‘squishy’ theology in his
    squishies and crunchies blogpost that I had recommended to my friend and which I think is very germane to this post here. Aleph says “a believer talks about believing in apples, and a non-believer sets out to argue that oranges are just as foolish as a flying spaghetti monster.”

    Like so many ‘squishy’ religionists, he either deliberately or inadvertently fails to give a concise definition of a god, and doesn’t seem to notice that if you fail to adequately describe the thing you’re talking about, you can’t blame someone else for misunderstanding what you’re talking about. But religious people generally still behave in a way that suggests they had a concise definition – they behave as if a god were a sentient supernatural entity that is capable of influencing the universe and that it is a worthwhile project to try to communicate with using prayers and rituals. Until they come up with a definition of gods that renders that obsolete, we who doubt that gods are actually like that, or indeed real in any meaningful sense, are entitled to critique people’s beliefs on the basis of what their behaviour suggests their beliefs actually are.

    “When believers talk about God, they use the poetic, artistic, emotional language of scripture”

    There’s nothing wrong with doing this as long as it illuminates, rather than obscures, what you actually mean. If believers are always talking in metaphor, they need to be able to stop and say, every so often, “This is just a metaphor” and at some point explain what it’s actually a metaphor. Otherwise they’re being obfuscatory, and again, can’t blame others for misunderstanding them.

    “Proving the existence of God is like trying to prove that Eric Clapton sucks. There’s no way to measure Eric Clapton scientifically against, say, Black Flag, but on a certain level…yeah…Eric Clapton just isn’t that cool.”

    Whether Eric Clapton sucks or not is a subjective assessment that varies from person to person. If you like Clapton, the he doesn’t suck as far as you’re concerned. Are gods really just a subjective thing happening in our brains that some of us experience and others of us don’t? Then gods by definition cannot be entities that have an independent existence outside of our brains, capable of predating us, indeed, creating whole universes for us long before we arrive on the scene, and it would make no sense at all to meet in a building every week to pray to such a being. If gods are just bits of software that run on some people’s brains, just like ‘appreciation of Clapton’s music’ is a bit of software that only runs on some people’s brains, then everyone who even has a god has a different god from everyone else by virtue of the fact that everyone has a different brain. If a god actually has an independent existence – if a god was capable of continuing to exist after someone who had that particular god had died, then gods are not at all like someone’s appreciation or non-appreciation of Clapton’s music, and the author is being obfuscatory.

    “It’s emotional. It’s subjective. But it’s also very real. Like love, and hate.”

    Exactly the same objection applies. Love and hate are ‘real’ not in the sense of them being made out of stuff and having an independent existence in the universe, but because they are subroutines that run on our brains (which are made of physical stuff and do have independent existence in the real world). If gods are merely emotional states like love and hate are, then religious people should stop pretending to believe that gods are sentient entities that are capable of creating universes – or at least, when they regularly meet to behave as if they thought that, they should be absolutely clear and up-front that that is not what they actually believe.

    Whether the universe was created by a sentient supernatural entity that is capable of hearing our prayers and having an opinion about what language we talk to it in, what day of the week we take off work and what sort of headgear we wear is absolutely an empirical question about the nature of reality, that absolutely must have a simple yes/no answer. If it is impossible to prove such a being’s existence, it is impossible for very different reasons from the reasons it is impossible to prove that Clapton sucks. ‘Clapton sucks’ is a value judgement that varies from person to person, and thus the only data we could possibly get a handle on is to do a wide enough survey, and find that a majority of people think that Clapton sucks – that is, one could get data suggesting that Clapton sucks on average, but that is the best we can do.

    But whether the universe was or was not created by a supernatural entity that it is worth praying to – that is a claim that is either true or false about the universe (and not merely true or false of each individual person) and therefore the only reason it would be impossible to answer is that we don’t yet have a sufficiently accurate way of detecting the existence of supernatural entities, or of distinguishing universes that were created by supernatural sentiences from universes that weren’t. This is a problem of technology, and it is a problem that may never be solved, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an answer, and it doesn’t mean that the people making the positive claim that the universe was created by a supernatural sentient being don’t have the burden of proof heavily upon them – a burden they have not once in millennia of trying ever been able to discharge. The opposite claim – the claim of modern physics – is essentially “we are still working on the origins of the universe, but we have not yet discovered any aspect of it that appears to bear the stamp of supernatural intelligence, so that hypothesis should be provisionally rejected until evidence in its favour turns up”.

    This is by far the more reasonable, more parsimonious position to take. And until religious people come up with a clear, concise and (ideally) testable definition of their respective gods, everyone else is entitled to conclude that they are not making any honest effort to accurately describe reality, but rather, they’re just making stuff up and expecting everyone else to treat their fantasies as if they did accurately describe reality.

  • JamminGirl

    Consistency, though true of God, is abstract. Eternity, though true, as He is The I Am, that I Am, always existing, outside of the realm of time, is also abstract. Creativity, is also abstract and very conceptual. So the question to you is this, Is God merely conceptual to you or is He a sentient being like Moshe or Elisha demonstrated Him to be?