Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The God Box

Some people have a vision of God in some primeval garden painting patterns on butterfly wings.  This is supposed to be the same guy who invented hurricanes. 

Many theists view their concept of God as the all-powerful deity that created the sun and the moon and the earth. Maybe this idea is stretched beyond the immediate to include whatever stars they see when they look up at night. Simultaneously, however, they visualize a personal god who is intimately involved in their life. This view or concept of the Creator tends to only extend to about the area that they are able to see with the naked eye. It is a contradictory concept that is explained away by stating that the all-powerful, all knowing God that exists everywhere at once of the Universe cares about and loves them. Because he is perfect, you see. Recently, I had a conversation with a theist about this Epicurean Problem of Evil. That it is logically inconsistent for a single entity to be omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.  Her response is that my view of God was too small.

It is impossible to think about the Abrahamic God (and many other god concepts) without creating parameters. Even the term "unlimited" must recognize the boundary of human imagination. There are attributes one must give a god in order to conceptualize him.  Some people visualize an anthropomorphic deity who literally sits on a throne and dresses like an ancient desert tribesman. Others imagine a formless/faceless consciousness who radiates love and light.  Our impression of God is usually dictated by our upbringing and the surrounding culture. We create a mental image of a god (usually as children) and form a conceptual God Box.  We then fill this box with whatever is instilled in us as well as our own speculations about his characteristics and abilities. This assignment of familiar human characteristics is something that “organically” occurs due to the human need to anthropomorphize.  Some believe that God has a personal interest in them as an individual.  This God cares about what you think, what you say, what music you listen to, even what clothes you wear. Just like your parents.  Some think that God creates earthquakes and diseases.  Sparing individuals from these catastrophes for his own fickle reasons while murdering others en masse. Some even imagine a God who is childish enough to plant the entire fossil record under our feet simply to test our faith. People with conservative political views tend to imagine a more authoritative deity. Liberals lean more toward a compassionate and forgiving god.  One that does not mete out punishment to the living (although passively watches suffering with an omni-eye). Individually and culturally, God’s box tends to contain whatever we need it to.  
When I find myself talking about the size of the known Universe I am often talking to people who have a very basic idea of the size and scale or no concept at all. For example, the Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years in diameter. This is a huge number if you understand anything about astronomy. We use light years since that is a better measure of distance and easier to discuss. The other option to convey size is to discuss it in measurement terms regular people will immediately understand, such as miles. So the galaxy is 587,849,981,421,001,300 miles in diameter. That is a hard number for the human mind to process. I can’t even say it nor would I bother trying. That’s what light years are for.  And that is just the Milky Way! The Universe itself is just too big to measure. The observable Universe, what we can see, is approximately 92 billion light years. I’m not going to convert that to miles—there is no point. Within that vastness, according to our best estimation, there could be as many as 200 billion galaxies in the Universe. There is just under seven billion people on Earth. Seven. Billion.

200,000,000,000 > 7,000,000,000

When I was a child, I often imagined that God was somewhere off in the Universe spinning galaxies like that guy behind the counter in the pizza shop.  I thought of God as some massive, yet distant creative force. This was my childhood explanation for his apparent absence. As I grew and continued to chew on this idea, I became what I now understand is a deist.  My belief in God was reduced to a Prime Mover. This was before I understood the blind and fumbling process of evolution. I thought evolution was guided by the environment, which was purposely created with the final product in mind. My God Box was too large to justify a personal relationship. I recognize that for some theists the notion of the creator of the Universe taking notice of them is an attractive idea. The presupposition that this divine being actually loves them is both comforting and empowering. I was once among their number.

My God box was the opposite of the God of the Gaps.  Instead of filling in the mysteries and unexplained aspects of the natural Universe, he was the Universe in it's entirety.  He was every space.  Not just the spaces we didn't understand.  Ultimately he became too big to be contained by Christianity. Too big to exist.  The process of “losing faith”  is not simply slowly or abruptly not believing. Once religious ideas are seen as conflicting with each other or reality the cognitive dissonance creates a sort of existential anxiety. One either begins the process of doublethink:  ignoring that conflict by dismissing reality, or they rationalize in the other direction toward disbelief. The notion of a Personal God seems too convenient and, well...small. “He” then becomes larger and more universal, but less involved. The god concept is less about the minutiae of the day to day life and more about the Universe and natural laws. These ideas refuse to fuse together coherently, the conflict builds momentum until it overcomes the gravity that holds it's pieces together. This concept of God has grown too large and loosely defined until it collapses in upon itself and explodes. This process of apostasy is a supernova.

Christian to deist to agnostic to atheist, I still have a mental picture of what attributes an actual god would need to possess.  The more I learn about the Universe, the larger my box becomes. The  discovery of the quantum world and the very real possibility of a multi-verse makes it larger still. A deity who is more complex than a Universe, or several requires a bigger box, or perhaps a box full of smaller boxes. I didn't stop believing because the box was too big for my puny human mind.  I could not overcome the dissonance of belief in such a specific mythology that contradicted nature as I understood it. I could not maintain a belief that there was a firmament separating water from sky or that light was created three days before the source of that light. Revelation does not overcome reason.  Faith cannot stand up to fact.

Think about it.  While you read this ~ the Universe is expanding exponentially and with ever increasing speed.

What's in your box?



Anonymous said...

Thanks Adam, for a very thoughtful and eloquent essay.