For a large percentage, probably a majority, of the people on this planet, the existence of God, in one of many incarnations, is taken as a given. There remain, however a significant portion of the population who don't believe that a god exists. The big question is that if there is a God, then why the doubt?

(Please don't say 'God works in mysterious ways'...we're all philosophers here, so well-considered argument is the name of the name)

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The pedant in me wants to start by defining, or at least talking about, the terms. The key term here is "God". Aristotle and the ancient Greeks talked about the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause and so on. These abstract realities seem to correspond to an aspect of what most believers call "God".

So the first motivation for enquiring about "God" is the desire for philosophical knowledge. We just want to know what is true and what isn't. There isn't any necessary attachment to any particular creed or other.

The other motivation seems to be finding "God" as the ultimate ground for the meaning of life, a project that may or may not be beyond the capacity of simple philosophy to fully engage.

How's that for a beginning?
For specific definitions are you questioning the existence of an imminent or transcendent god? This is a somewhat important matter.
I think you've both put your fingers on an important question...what type of God is the god that most people on Earth believe in? I would suggest that based on the religious practices of most major religions, that people believe in an active God, who is willing and able to influence events on this planet.

In responce to your first question Joel, I'm what I would describe as a skeptical agnostic. I don't personally believe in God, but I'm happy to be disproved. I'm particularly interested in understanding WHY people believe in something for which there is essentially no impirical evidence.
True, but let's examine this from a demographic perspective.

Islam is a purely Transcendent god. God is without form or substance that we can possibly comprehend while living, unless one is a Suffi, in which case meditation, ritual, prayer, and the ritual of the dervish can possibly bring one, while on this earth, closer to god.

Judaism, depending on the sect, is both Imminent and Transcendent. Some sect believe in a skyfather style god, hence the preponderance of rain, lightning, wind and other storm imagery in the central Judaic texts, while others devote themselves to a truly unitary and mono present deity.

Christianity can be split into three main camps. Protestants, Mainline catholics, and the Majority of Catholics. Protestants, be they baptists, lutherans, anglicans, or unitarians, are virtually universal in a Transcendent god. Mainline catholics toe the line with their light saint worship, but with a church dogma that is heavily devoted to the singular god. The majority of catholics, in South america and Africa, largely through papal indulgence, have been allowed to retain direct saint worship, the reification of god, and the inclusion of non christian entities into the church.

Then we have Hinduism, which is entirely imminent, with gods present in all things.

Buddhism, which is, depending on the sect you ask, one of three things, Transcendent, Imminent, or completely without gods period.

To finish it off we have Shinto, which is a modernized shaman faith, Atavistic and elemental. Utterly Imminent.

Also remember that only 2.3 billion out of the 6 billion and change on the face of this earth belong to the Abrahamic faiths, with at least 4 billion identifying as religious, and that number possibly climbing as high as 5, so generalizing from Allah or Yahweh is not strictly speaking fair.

To be clear, I withhold all judgement on any faith here, it's practices or it's rules. I am simply outlining it as I am informed.
It's an interesting point, but do we need a god for these things to exist? There seems to be a need for humans to ascribe wonderful things to someone other than themselves. Personally, I think that beauty and compassion are far more amazing when viewed as part of a world without a god than with one.
Peronally, I'd rather see more research into why we can perceive beauty or what the evolutionary reason for compassion is. I think that doing anything other than this is paying hommage to Dawkins' "God of the Gaps" - a god that hides only in those areas not fully explained yet by science.

If you had said instead "what if God is Science", I would have a harder time arguing against you. I think that "God" is a construct that we ourselves have created in an attempt to come to grips with phenomena which are confusing to us. Science now fills this gap for us, so from this point of view, I don't think that God is needed any longer.

So why do we need a God? Is that we take comfort in understanding? Or tradition? Or is there actually a god?

Let me throw another one out there. Is God merely cultural indoctrination? Or conversely, is there any way to have religion without culture (or mental defect)?
I think the biggest problem with the "God because compassion/beauty/art/etc" argument is that it takes a solely evolutionary perspective on these traits. Yes, if a rabbit started making carrot sculptures, that would raise questions, but humans face far stronger social pressures than any other species.

On the one hand, we've all seen/heard of the guy who sits shirtless under a tree on the quad strumming on a guitar with a woman on either side. Even if he says he just loves the music, we all know he has an ulterior motive.

On the other hand, as human society went from a "make your own spear, make your own moccasins" culture to a "I'm good at making spears, you're good at making moccasins, let's trade" culture, it became possible to support oneself, at least partially, on art. And now we find ourselves with people like Yo-Yo Ma who make beautiful music because the music is beautiful-but they probably wouldn't do it if they couldn't make a living off of it.

Finally, compassion, a real toughie. But here's my take on it. There are plenty of examples of selfless behavior in the animal kingdom: naked mole rats sacrifice themselves for their brethren (sustainable because they're all pretty closely related) to predators sharing a kill (sustainable with tit-for-tat, I help you now, you help me later, behavior). Humans take it to another level for two reasons. One, to start with, our ancestors had such tight social groups that, even though not everyone was related, cooperation and even compassion was necessary for the survival of all. Second, as society grew larger and more complex and people became driven more by social than evolutionary pressures, we find ourselves where we are today.

It may be I've had just enough biology to be dangerous, but that's how I see it, anyway.
I was raised in the church, but have found my own way thru life. I believe gods were created by the smartest of men to explain, that which is unexplainable, to rest of mankind. When the question of "why did that happen" arose and no one truly knew the answer, then the village leaders would reply, "it must be god's will", or something to that affect. But for me personally, I have found that today's science can answer the many questions we still ponder upon.
@ Joel: In his book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins proposes exactly why it makes good evolutionary sense for selfless behavior. Interestingly, the "selfish" actions of genes lead to unselfish actions by organisms.

I propose that despite the total lack of any credible evidence in favor of the existence of a god or gods, and the overwhelming contradictory evidence against the existence of a god or gods, that any and all attempts to justify a belief in a god or gods all boil down to fear. You are either a victim of fear, or you are exploiting the fear of others.

There are many fears. The fear of our mortality, the fear of living a meaningless life, the fear of living without hope, the fear of living without a blueprint or guidance, the fear of living in a lawless world without some ultimate authority figure, the fear of not having an afterlife, etc. God is only here because we fear. He is a sort of all-powerful invisible friend. Our Gods seem perfect at handling these sorts of fears for us because we are so afraid, we make Them up to do just that and even excuse Them when they do not.
There will always be extremes on the bell curve. we do have super-niceness and it seems it would by virtue of its being encouraged, to have a stronger hold on sticking around than super-badness, which we also have. Evolution apparently has not stamped out either extreme yet. Throw in human emotions and there you go. Interesting article by the way, thanks.

As for my suggestion that fear is the reason we have religions and god(s) I am going to have to stand behind it. Your statement, "For those who take the Judeo-Christian-Islamic scriptural narratives seriously, YHWH and Allah are hardly beings that assuage one's fears, even for their followers. YHWH kills many of his own in the Torah along with his enemies. Sometimes seemingly for arbitrary reasons." re-enforces rather refutes my suggestion that fear is behind it all. It is like the old fire-and-brimstone preachers that attempted to scare people straight.
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. ~Voltaire

To myself, this quote makes complete sense, and is in fact exactly what man has done. Many people say that without God, man would not exist. In fact, these people have it backwards. Without man, God and any concept of him would not exist.

The most relevant portion of the quote for this discussion is, ". . .it would be necessary to invent him." While I disagree that it is a necessity, I can certainly acknowledge many "reasons" why it would seem necessary. We can look at some of these by examining the roles that God and religions play. Here are a few.

1) Popular etymology among the later ancients (and many modern writers) connects it with the word religare "to bind fast". It is a way of forming groups and by binding humans to a god or gods a population of similarly bound people create binds with each other. It creates a group feeling of "us" and provides a sense of belonging. Simultaneously and unfortunately it also creates the opposite divisional construct of "us and them", or most unfortunately an "us vs. them" feeling. Of course this sense of belonging to a group provides a type of safety that people seem to need. It is no different from any other cult or even street gangs. People are attracted to belonging to a group because they are uncomfortable (or fear to some degree) the entire range of not belonging, to being on the outside, to being viewed as "them". By providing this type of safety, they avoid the fears they have of the perceived dangers of not belonging. Furthermore, these religions and their rites provide traditions which people seem to feel comfortable keeping as anchors on a ship prevent drifting away from the perceived safety of where they presently are. Of course, God and religion are also perverted by rulers to promote their own power through fear to bind groups of followers.

2) People are afraid of the unknown and thus invented, unscientifically, a way of explaining things they don't understand, a type of philosophy if you will. Armed with some type of explanation people feel less afraid.

3) All manner of events occur. Some of these events are perceived as good and some are perceived as bad. Man invented God(s) as the scapegoat for these events. When the Superbowl is won, the players thank God. When disaster strikes, then it is said, God works in mysterious ways to provide some type justification for the event. Man feels more comfortable assigning praise as well as blame for both good and bad events respectively. I may have been unclear about this earlier, but I was not being contrary.

4) Man seems more comfortable with a punishment/reward system. Live a good life and God judges you worthy of entering heaven. Live a bad life and you run the risk of God condemning you to hell. This is the ultimate fear tactic. I also, have to agree with Richard Dawkins in that raising a child this way is tantamount to child abuse.

Joel, if you know of other specific roles that God and religions play, please list them and I am fairly confident we can find some sort of reason for them and how that reason comes about through some fear.

As for your statement, "God in the monotheistic tradition was evolved and changed over time in order to speak to the issues of the day." I say it had to or it would have faced extinction sooner but religious people are afraid to let it.
Depending on who you ask the answer is either "There is doubt because God wishes you to have faith through love not faith through proof" or "There is doubt because God does not exist and there is a war being waged between our mind and our heart, between what we know to be real and what we wish for".

My answer is: There is not a god. We don't need gods. The more we depend on gods the more we will suffer. Gods divide us now for unverifiable promises for the future instead of unifying us in the present.


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