This essay is another in the “What’s the Point” series. It’s the most basic religious question, really. Rather than talk about whether God exists, today’s post is about why we humans have a belief in God, given that a search for God yields results that are not universally accepted as truth. Here are some possibilities to consider.
God as Moral Authority
Some view a belief in God as necessary to know the difference between right and wrong. It’s one of the reasons that we as a country have never elected an openly atheist President, and to disavow God is usually the shortest route to not getting elected to any office in the US. The majority of Americans are at least agnostic if not religious believers, and often highly skeptical of an atheist’s ability to live a moral life, assuming their lack of belief in God makes them amoral. For those who hold this view, God is the moral authority in a person’s life: no God, no morality.
Karl Marx considered religion and God to be human tools to control others, claiming “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” We’ve been binge-watching The Americans, the series about KGB agents in the 1980s living and working illegally in the US during the 1980s. One theme the series explores is the difference, and more importantly, the similarities, between the Americans’ religious fervor and the KGB agents’ patriotic fervor. Our anti-heroes are fervent patriots, soldiers in the cold war who despise religion, but when their daughter becomes interested in religion, they also don’t want to alienate her. It puts them in a bind. Over time, they try to mold her spiritual curiosity and personal values into a “higher” (political) purpose that aligns with their own views. Her father even uses prayer (pretending religious devotion) to get out of an unsavory assignment while still being able to manipulate his target.
These secret agents see a belief in God as weakness while at the same time they are often blind to the weakness inherent in their patriotism. Late in the series, an exchange between Philip and Elizabeth (the married KGB agents) reveals their growing disillusionment with the KGB:
Philip: You’ve always done exactly what they’ve told us to do. I was trying to get you to think. Yes. To ask questions. To be a human being about us.
Elizabeth: You don’t think I’m a human being?!
Philip: That’s not what I’m saying. I would do anything for you. I always did. I just did. But not anymore. You do whatever you want, but please, some of these things? We believed in something so big. They tell us what to do and we do it, I get it, that’s how it works. But we do it, not them, so it’s on us. All of it.
This illustrates the weakness of outsourcing one’s morality to an entity or organization that exists outside of one’s own internal conscience or values. Without that kind of gut check, we can be convinced by humans who claim higher authority to do things that conflict with our own internal moral compass. To fail to do so is to be cast as a traitor.
God as Creator
How did we (humanity) get here? How did our souls or consciousness come to be? What separates us from the other animals?
Another reason people believe in God is to explain how Creation happened, how to understand the origin of humanity. Even accepting evolution as the process by which beings develop traits to survive and thrive as a species, this doesn’t explain when or how we developed a soul or the ability to become people who live by our minds and not just our physical strength and ability to procreate.
For many, God is the origin story of humanity. Divine intervention was required to make primates something more. The story of Adam and Eve’s creation in Genesis, and the Greek myth of Prometheus encapsulate the idea of this divine spark that bettered humanity. In Genesis, we are told:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
In Greek mythology, Prometheuscreat was a Titan who turned coat and sided with the Gods. He created mankind out of clay to stand upright and function and look like the Gods. His patron Goddess Athena completed his creation by breathing life into his creations.
These are but two of the dozens of creation stories found scattered throughout human history.
God as Protector
In 2007, we visited the ancient city of Carthage in modern day Tunisia. One of the highlights of our trip was to a Phoenician graveyard that had been discovered right in the middle of the city, basically in someone’s backyard. It contained hundreds of graves of children sacrificed to Baal. If there was a famine or a dangerous storm in this seaside town, the citizens believed that only divine intervention could save them. The storm or famine might be a sign of divine judgment or disfavor, and the people would respond by making a sacrifice to the gods, to convince them to intervene on their behalf.
Eventually, the graves of children were replaced by graves of pets that were sacrificed, which believe it or not prompted an audible outcry among our group of tourists who had heard about child sacrifice with an unsettling level of stoicism. Ancient people from around the world saw these natural life-threatening events that were beyond their control as beyond their power. Powerlessness led to a series of rites intended to control what was out of their control. Anything that was so much more powerful than humans must be a “higher” or superior power, and their aim in believing in gods was to persuade that power to be benevolent rather than malevolent.
This thinking puts God in the role of protector, but in the way the mafia is a “protector” when they say “You have a nice store here. It would be a shame if something happened to it.” The God described in the Bible is capricious at times, destroying and saving, killing and protecting.
“He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Matthew 5:45
Philanthropists and philanderers alike benefit from his bounty.
God as a Divine Parent
That last reason is similar to one that will sound familiar to most Christians: God as Father.
Our human parents, imperfect though they are, are physically larger and stronger than we are growing up. As children, they protect us from physical harm. They help provide shelter and food for us and other things we need to survive. They may behave in self-sacrificing ways for our benefit. They advise us and mentor us as burgeoning adults. They dispense the wisdom they have acquired in their lives, or at least what they believe to be wise.
Sometimes parents have tempers or commit domestic abuse. Sometimes they are selfish and terrifying. Some human parents are a bad example rather than a good one. Some are narcissists or have other psychological disorders. Believing in a divine Parent erases the potential for these parenting failures, giving us a counter example to those human frailties, a Parent who only dispenses the best wisdom, one who loves us unconditionally.
God as a Boddhisattva
In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is able to reach nirvana, but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings. The bodhisattva does this out of compassion.
In Christianity, Jesus is viewed as a redeemer, someone divine who is willing to live and die as a lowly human to save humanity, and a Father who is willing to allow this although it grieves him. In 1 Nephi 11 we read of an encounter between Nephi and an angel in a vision:
“And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?”
“And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things”
“And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
“And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!
“And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.
“And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!”
The condescension of God fosters the belief and hope that humanity warrants saving, and that a divine being is willing to save us despite being debased to our level in the process. God deigns to meet us where we are.
God as Arbiter or Judge
This is related to the idea of God as the moral authority who sets the rules for right and wrong, but it is another facet of that role. What happens after we die? Do we get a reward or a punishment? Who is a good person and who is a bad person?
Victor Frankl, the famous psychologist who was experimented on by Nazis during WW2, observed that every human being has both good and evil choices within, and in every moment we have the ability to choose our actions. He noted examples of people who committed terrible crimes against humanity during the war, only to devote the remainder of their lives to helping those in pain or in need. He also noted those who suffered greatly during the war at the hands of oppressors only to treat others cruelly and callously afterward.
In India, a common dinner conversation starter is “Was Ghandi a good man?” In the western world with our limited exposure to Ghandi, we immediately think of his pacifist contributions, his world leadership, and his quotes full of wisdom that have inspired millions of people. But the dinner conversation also weighs in the balance Ghandi’s indifference toward his own family and his cruelty toward his wife. Was he a good man if he also did bad things to those who were his closest relations?
How do we, as imperfect humans, determine whether a person’s mix of good and evil choices is overall a “good” life? We know our judgments are flawed. We long for a divine being who can make that determination for us. How much do intentions way vs. outcomes? How much should we attempt to resolve our errors, and what is required to make restitution?
The TV show The Good Place explores this premise. I won’t give spoilers here, but a post I did previously may be of interest. In the show, people are sent to the Good Place based on a complicated point system, including things like: letting someone merge in traffic (7329 points), hosting a Syrian refugee family (272,775 points), ignoring a text message while having an in person conversation (1076 points). There are negative points as well for things like: steeling copper wire from a decommissioned military base (-16 points), overstating your connection to a tragedy that has nothing to do with you (-41 points), committing genocide (-433,115 points), using Facebook as a verb (-5.5 points), and blowing nose by holding one nostril closed and blowing through the other (-1.4 points).
God as Exalted Human
This is one Mormons will recognize that is fairly unique to us. Joseph Smith taught, in a breath-taking epiphany, that God was embodied, just like us, and that he had lived a human life and progressed to the point of divinity, becoming an exalted person over time.
Theosis, though, wasn’t an entirely unique idea in Joseph Smith’s day. Theosis is either defined as a human becoming divine or as a human becoming one with God. Anthropomorphism is perceiving God as a being in human form, recognizing human qualities in God. Joseph Smith revealed a hybrid of these concepts, that God was once a human being, and that human beings can become gods.
The Greek Gods were anthropomorphic. Each of them represented various human traits, and despite their power, they also exhibited human frailties like jealousy, anger, lust, and so forth. They were capricious rather than steady. Humans saw them as more powerful than humans, but otherwise, mostly like squabbling humans with their own personal and political agendas. They could even mate with humans!
Superman is a comic book hero (often compared to Jesus) who is like a human being but invincible. He cannot be killed by enemies (yeah, yeah, I know of “The Death of Superman”). Yet he is also (unlike the Greek Gods) superhuman in his personal qualities as well. He is morally superior to human beings. He is self-sacrificing, compassionate, and uses his powers only for the good of others. He doesn’t seek his own glory (well, maybe the cape, or is that for aerodynamics?). He is living among humans, but because of his power, his actions cannot judged by humans. He represents what humans could be, a perfected, greater force for good.
In the movie, The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais (an avowed atheist) invents the story of God as a way to comfort his dying mother. His view (as an atheist) is that humans invented God to deal with the unknown–our own mortality, our sense of fear about what comes after we die, our inability to deal with the abyss of our non-existence. His story is flawed, but still comforting. People are angry that the God in his story doesn’t prevent suffering, but they still feel a little better about the prospect of losing the people whom they love. That’s his view on why people “invented” God, although it feels like a very modern perspective.
Historically, people had many more reasons to believe in God. They saw divine miracles in things that we have now explained through science. God brought people closer to each other, and helped them to strive to do better as communities through a shared belief system. God gave inspiration and enlightenment to people in difficulties.
There are many reasons people believe in God. When I ask “What is the point of God?” I don’t mean to imply there is just one point. Like, voting for POTUS, there are different aspects of candidates that we find important: foreign policy, bipartisan appeal (ability to get things done), focus on national security, plans for domestic policy improvements, personal integrity, etc. But different people prioritize different things in addition to assessing candidates’ abilities differently, which is why we have such a great divide in politics.
- What aspects of God do you consider most important and why?
- If you were explaining God, which description would you use?
- Do you think your concept of God is mainstream for Mormons, or is it unique?
- Is there a better descriptor for God than those listed here that works for you?
- Why do religious people fight so much with other religious people?