MY EVOLVING THOUGHTS ABOUT OF GOD AND RELIGION
Why do I exist? What is my place and humankind’s place in the universe? What, exactly, is the universe, and how did it come into existence? What does death mean? These are all questions that have been asked by many people, over many years, and sometimes answered by referring to one or many Gods. I’ve been asking myself questions like these for as long as I can remember.
This is the story of how I got to my current place of way of thinking about the idea of a “God” and religion, which has always been, and remains, a work in progress. I would describe myself currently as agnostic. While I think it’s not possible to disprove the existence of God, the idea simply doesn’t make sense to me, for a number of reasons.
I must admit that my religious education was far from the most rigorous. My family always did, and does, practice Judaism. As a child, growing up in New York City at first, I attended religious school for just a very short length of time. Though I did have a Bar Mitzvah, I didn’t perform as much of the service as I’ve seen many kids do in ones I’ve attended. Basically, I was trained, during the several months before the event, to read the blessings before and after the Torah reading. These details of my early Jewish education were due, I’m sure, in large part, to the circumstances of my life then. My mother was the person who was most important in raising my sister and me in that period, since my father had passed away when I was 3 years old, and my sister’s (actually my half-sister) father (my first step-father) died when I was 8 years old and she was 3. The strongest religious, Jewish, influence on me was my maternal grandmother, who belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, where I remember attending High Holy Day services. I remember going to these with my mother and grandmother, but sitting on the men’s side, by myself, as men and women are separated in Orthodox synagogues. After my Bar Mitzvah, after moving to the Washington, D.C area, when my mother married my second stepfather (who was “Dad” to me for almost 60 years) I did attend regular confirmation classes at the synagogue where my family belonged, and I was confirmed there. We always attended services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but otherwise weren’t regular temple-goers, and my wife and I aren’t now. Judaism was the only religion I really knew. From a pretty early age in my childhood, I questioned myself about whether I really believed in God
While I currently count myself as a non-believer in God, I have a long and increasing interest in the subject of religion, because I realize that religion is an important force in the world, whatever my opinion of its veracity might be. I’ve tried to learn what I can about religious thought and origins, in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Eastern religions (such as Buddhism and Confucianism), though I’ll admit that most of what I’ve read is about the “Abrahamic” religions.
REASONS USUALLY GIVEN FOR BELIEF IN GOD
This is the idea that, at the beginning of all things, of the universe and everything in it, an something (“God”) must have been responsible for that event.
- Moral and ethical rights and wrongs:
Our concepts of morality and ethics all comes from “God”, as most famously codified in the Ten Commandments.
- Prayer’s meaning:
We are able to influence what happens to us in our life by praying to this “God” and asking for his/her/it’s intercession in things we care about. We’re rewarded by “God” for what he/she/it considers “good” behavior and punished for behavior that’s “bad”.
- Life cycle events:
Births, coming of age, weddings, and deaths are usually “celebrated” in the context of a religious event of some kind.
MY REASONS FOR NON-BELIEF
The following are reasons that it’s difficult for me to accept the idea that there is a “God”, at least as described in any of the world’s religions:
- Different ideas of what “God” means:
Although it’s frequently said, in the interest of bringing people together, that “we all worship the same God”, that really doesn’t seem to be the case.
Jews worship the “one and only God”, who created the “world” and gave them their Covenant of rules they must live by (the Ten Commandments) , in return for which he made them ”His” (note the pronoun) his “Chosen” people who would have some kind of favored place in the world. The first four of Commandments are clearly “self-serving”, with God announcing his being, demanding that the one and only God be the only one who’s worshipped, forbidding taking His (God’s) name in vain, and observing the Sabbath. The First Commandment, “Thou shall have no other gods before me”, is ambiguous to some people—does it mean “God” is the only one, or just the most important one? For me, the most important and best principles of Judaism, which are the subjects of the other Commandments, relate to how we should behave related to other people. There’s not an emphasis on an “afterlife” or “eternal life” in a place called “Heaven”, none of which is worthy of belief, for me. I think the emphasis on justice and “doing right” by other people is a good aspect of Judaism (but that doesn’t require the existence of a supernatural being).
Christianity, which still confuses me in many ways, professes to worship the same “God” as Judaism, but in addition worships Jesus. I am able to believe that Jesus was a historical person. But he is also called the “Son of God”, being the product of God and another human named Mary (in Greek terms, I think he would be a demi-god), and that assertion is something I don’t believe is true. From everything I’ve seen and heard about Christianity, Jesus seems to take primacy over God, although I think I’ve heard the idea that Jesus is another aspect of God. I think a main, or THE main, important aspect attributed to Jesus for Christians is that he died by crucifixion (like hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in the Roman Empire) to atone for all of mankind’s sins (prior to and after his death), and then was “resurrected” as a divine being, the last idea being totally undeserving of belief to me. A doctrine of Christianity, or, at least Catholicism, which I am very opposed to is that of “original sin”, stemming from the myth of Eve’s eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge at the Garden of Eden, which claims that each person is born into life “in sin”—I think this is one of the most pernicious ideas ever concocted. I often wonder whether, when Christians go to church, they pray to God or to Jesus (I think it’s usually the latter), or if they’re really both considered to be the same entity. It’s still largely confusing to me. Clearly, Christians don’t worship the “One and Only God” in the same way that Jews do. Also, Christianity has an important emphasis on “eternal life after death” in “Heaven” for those who live according to its precepts (or in a bad place called “Hell” for those who don’t). At least in some versions, I think, “living by its precepts” translates to “accepting Jesus”, which means accepting his resurrection after death and his divinity. A very interesting and wonderfully written book, When Christians Were Jews 1, by Paula Frederickson, describes the early period, when what was to become Christianity was a small sect within Judaism, and how the transition to becoming a new and larger religion occurred.
I’ll admit to knowing less about Islam. I have recently read a fine short book by Jack Miles called God in the Qur’an 2. From what I can see, Muslims do worship the same God as Jews do, they just claim to have the latest, most accurate understanding of “Him”, from their founder, Muhammed. Islam reveres Muhammed as its most important prophet, but not as a divinity, and so, in my mind, is more clearly monotheistic than is Christianity. From Miles’s book, a major difference of Islam relates to the claim in Judaism and Christianity that God “made man in His own image”, which would seem to imply that God actually bears a physical resemblance to human beings. Apparently, the Qur’an makes no such assertion, which appeals to me. In many ways, the Bible (basically the Old Testament, since the New Testament is really about Jesus, and not God), “anthropomorphizes” God, attributing to God emotions such as anger, love, jealousy and the like, which are human emotions, and, if the “made in his own image” quote is taken at face value, saying that God actually looks like a human being.
I’m even further from any expertise in Eastern religions, such as Buddhism. From what I’ve read, Buddhism doesn’t actually include an entity that would be called “God”. My understanding is that the chief emphasis is a striving to achieve a state of “one-ness” with the Universe, which requires separating oneself, as much as possible, from the normal aspects of life, such as passion, desire, ambition, love. It seems to render all the normal aspects of life trivial, and I find that very hard to accept as a plan for life. Hinduism which I think is considered the oldest religion that’s currently practiced, contains a number of gods, so would be labeled “polytheistic”. From what I’ve read about Confucianism, it’s more of a “way of living” than a religion that pays homage to a god or gods.
The several ideas of who or what “God” is, as described above, all differ, and each claims to be the only truth. Obviously, they can’t all be true. I think none of them are.
Given, what I’ve said so far, it’s no surprise that I don’t believe that people who pray are really communicating with God. I think many prayers are simply stating (to ourselves or other people) what we hope and wish for. Many others are given to express thankfulness (to God). I’ve always believed that it’s possible to be thankful for something, without “Thanking God”, and, for myself, I do feel thankful for the many good things and many good people in my life.
This word is generally taken to mean a wrong against God or “God’s law”, although there is a prayer in the prayer book we for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement (for sins) that states, “ For transgressions against God, The Day of Atonement atones, but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”. That statement has some appeal for me, but given my non-belief in a God, I would say that all meaningful “sins”, or wrongs, are, in some way, against another person, or people (I would have to include wrongs against the natural world in which we all live). In Judaism, “God’s Law” is the Torah, as in Islam, I think it’s the Qur’an, and these would be the laws whose disobeying would constitute sin. As I understand Christianity (admittedly incompletely), the basic “law” is belief in the divinity of Jesus and the reality of his resurrection (and not believing in those, the basic sin). In any case, I firmly believe that the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur’an are not the written words of “God” but are the words of the men and women who wrote them. As things have developed throughout history, it’s mostly people (and mostly men) with religious authority (Popes, archbishops, rabbis, imams) who have decided what’s to be considered sinful. I also think the idea of what are “sins” has changed over history, and isn’t the same for all people even living at the same time, as is obvious even now if one considers the opposing attitudes about abortion being a grievous sin versus anything opposing a woman’s “right to choose” and govern what happens to her own body being sinful. It’s very obvious to me that the principles of morality, the correct and acceptable ways for people to behave toward each other, are created by us human beings. They’ve changed, mostly for the better, over mankind’s long history. It’s generally accepted that all of mankind is of one species, and equally deserving of the same treatment and rights, dispensing with the idea that any “races” are inferior or superior to others (or dispensing with the idea that the idea of “race” has any meaning at all), although there are plenty of people for whom old attitudes haven’t died. Similarly, the old ideas of women being the “weaker sex” are old-fashioned and out of favor. Many previous ideas of what was immoral versus what was moral behavior were based on older “truths” (think of interracial and same-sex marriages), and are, at least, in the process of changing as the “older truths” are no longer considered to be valid, at least by many people. My point is that I think morality is a creation of humankind, not “God-given”, as in the Ten Commandments (I believe that the Ten Commandments, as well as all religious scripture, were all written by men, and women).
I do believe in the finality of death, and don’t accept the idea that one’s soul goes to a place named “Heaven” or “Hell” after the end of life. Although all the mysteries of the mind’s workings haven’t been discovered, I don’t accept to idea of a “soul” separate from one’s person.
- Why do bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad ones?:
If God is omnipotent and supremely good, why does the above situation exist? A man like Donald Trump, who I consider bad in every way thinkable, was elected President of the United States. On a personal level, our daughter, who was as nice, loving and generous as a person could possibly be, has recently passed away due to lymphoma. If “God” does exist, “He” is either not “all-good” or not “all-powerful”, or else such a tragic event wouldn’t happen. On a much larger scale, if God is omnipotent and all-good, how did “He” allow the Holocaust to occur? If there is a “God” who fits the above superlative descriptions, why are things like that so? The most famous Biblical example is in the Book of Job, which is about a supremely good man to whom many bad things occur. The answer God gives to Job is along the lines of “it’s none of your business”, and “you have no right to ask such a question”, which are really non-answer answers. I think the answer is that either God is not all good or not omnipotent, or that there is no God.
Along a similar line, one of the most troubling Biblical stories to me has always been the sacrifice of Isaac, where God demands of Abraham that he sacrifice his son to prove his allegiance to God (avoided in the end when God “provides” a ram as a substitute). The moral of the story is supposed to be the proof of Abraham’s (and Isaac’s, who doesn’t protest) faith. For me, a central question is, what kind of God would demand that a person sacrifice his son to him, even “in jest”? Would I want to worship such a God—I think not.
Since the writing of the major religious texts, the Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an, thousands of years ago, we’ve learned very much more about the creation and evolution of life on earth, and also about how the universe we know today began as a huge explosion known as the Big Bang. We’ve at least been able to speculate how life began, even before the beginning of things like cells. We have a pretty good idea of how stars began from the early universe and how they evolve, and galaxies come about. When the above-mentioned texts were created, there were no concepts such as cells and galaxies, or the Big Bang, and “stars” were just those bright points of light in the night sky, since nobody knew they were other suns (many far larger than ours). Things that people couldn’t explain simply “came from God”.
7.We are not alone:
A major interest for me, for as long as I can remember, has been astronomy. Growing up in New York City until age 13, the Hayden Planetarium was just about my favorite place to visit. Although my abilities in mathematics weren’t good enough to be able to pursue a career in astronomy, with the physics required, I continue to read as much as I can of the good “layman’s” books on the subject to learn about the latest discoveries,
Richard Dawkins has defined faith as belief in something for which there is no objective evidence. In that sense, I confess to a faith in the idea that humans are, very likely, not the only intelligent form of life in the universe. As far as I know, all the religions assume a special place for mankind as the highest form of life in this world. However, all those religions began when the “world”, our planet Earth, was seen as the center of the “universe” and the only home of sentient beings (us). What we know today as planet Earth was “the world”, stars were just points of light in the sky, other planets were “wandering points of light”, other galaxies were nebulas or “clouds of light in the sky”. Today, we know that stars are other suns (and our Sun is a pretty ordinary star), those “wanderers” are other planets (worlds) in our solar system, other stars (probably a majority of them) have their own planetary systems (many with earth-like planets that may harbor life), and those “clouds of light” are actually galaxies of millions to perhaps a trillion stars, and are countless in number. The marvels of modern astronomy have discovered to date over 4,000 of “exoplanets” (planets outside of our own solar system) so far, just in our “nearby” neighborhood within our own Milky Way Galaxy. The number of planets within the entire universe, considering the number of galaxies and therefore the number of stars in it, must be staggeringly huge. Although actually discovering life anywhere but on our Earth is yet to happen, I do have faith in that discovery occurring sometime in the future. I think nobody, including me, would dispute the statement that humans are the highest form of life on Earth, in terms of intelligence and ability to control the circumstances of their life there. However, it’s entirely possible, and likely, that there are other lifeforms in the universe that match or far exceed our abilities. If there is other intelligent life “out there”, the likelihood that it worships the God of Abraham, Jesus, or Allah is zero, I think. The biggest impediment to finding other intelligent life apart from Earth, of course, the immense size of the universe. As far as we know, the upper “speed limit” is the speed of light (186,000 miles per second). With the closest known star that has a planet, Proxima Centauri, being about 4 light years distant, light itself takes 4 years to make the trip to Earth. The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest large galaxy to our Milky Way Galaxy. It’s larger than our Milky Way, and, one would assume, has many stars with planetary systems. It is 2.5 million light years away, so what we see of it is actually the way it looked 2.5 million years ago, and a ship travelling at lightspeed would take 2.5 million years to make the one-way trip. We Earthlings haven’t come close to creating a vehicle that achieves light speed. So, therefore, the likelihood of humans visiting one of these places any time soon is very remote. Unless and until the lightspeed barrier is overcome by us, or “somebody else” in the universe, our meeting with any non-earth beings isn’t going to happen for a long, long time. For me, I can still have faith that they exist, in the sense of a belief in something that hasn’t been proven, but for which there’s scientific evidence that makes it at least possible.
The amazing picture below is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field View, taken from the Hubble Telescope. The view taken represents a miniscule speck of the sky we can view with our unaided eyes. Each bright “spot” in it is not a star, but a galaxy, each containing millions to maybe a trillion stars. From what we know now, a large percentage of those stars have planets circling them, and a significant number of those planets could support life.
The following next incredible picture is of two planets, shown by the arrows, each larger than Jupiter, orbiting around another star—what are now known as exoplanets (planets outside of our own solar system).
WHAT IT ALL COMES DOWN TO
When I think about the reasons for religion, the most obvious one is that it tries to answer the existential questions about why we and the world, or universe exist, and what do those words mean. Science tries to answer the same questions with provable, or disprovable ideas (a concept that doesn’t apply to religion at all). There are certainly good things for which religion is responsible, such as encouraging charitable and humane behaviors between people. To the extent that religion is what encourages such behaviors in some people, it does some good, I must admit. Certainly, many “life cycle events”, such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, are closely tied to religions by tradition and ceremony—but I think these really don’t’ require the idea of “God”. I think that another true reason for religion is that religion is a way for people to control the thoughts and behaviors of other people, with the threat of “damnation” to those who don’t obey those “in charge”.
For some time, I’ve been saying that, if I were asked the question, “Do you believe in God?”, my answer would be, “What do you mean by God?”. If it’s a “supernatural” being, as in the God of Abraham, Allah, Jesus Christ as a divinity, Zeus or the like, then the answer is “no”. Is it possible (without sounding too much like the narrator on the “Ancient Aliens” television series) to take the term “Supreme Being” in the sense of the state of Being (as opposed to non-being), in which case we are all part of it, since we “are”, and Being is, in that sense, part of us. When I’ve tried to think about it, the idea of “not being” is impossible to conceive. I’m sure this is true for just about everybody, even though that’s the case after we die (and before we’re born). I suspect that this inability of each of us, as individuals, to conceive of our “non-being” is the reason for the idea of an immortal soul. This idea about being a part of a “Supreme Being” says nothing about things like creation or morality. As far as creation goes, I’m a believer in the Big Bang Theory, though it doesn’t answer the question of what came before it, or where it ends, if ever. As I’ve already said, I think morals and ethics are creations of people, in the past and present, and are constantly evolving.
So, it’s certainly fair to ask, “why do I still belong to a synagogue?”. I think the fairest and truest answer is that it’s important to my wife and my family, and I love and respect them very much. I’m not really sure if my wife is more of a “believer” than I am, but the aspect of “tradition” (holidays, etcetera) is important to her, and I can go along with that. Life cycle events, such as births, bar mitzvahs, weddings and deaths are largely celebrated as religious events, and are all important.
I am very thankful to be alive, and for the many good people in my life and the good things that have happened to me during it. I realize that no life is perfect and I just must learn to live with the parts that are not so good (and try to do what I can to make them better). I am in awe of the immense universe we live in, and one of my strongest motivations continues to be learning about new discoveries about it. For me, the most important thing to say about the purpose of my life is the importance of relating to the other people in my life, family and others, and to be helpful and useful to them, and to try to make a difference in the world in whatever small way that I can.
- When Christians Were Jews, Paukla Fredriksen, Yale University Press, 2018
- God and The Qur’an, Jack Miles, Vintage Books, 2018