God as a Semantical Signpost

Children, who are least equipped to understand the answers, ask the most questions. As we grow older, and become better equipped to understand, we also learn to stop asking. Yet it is part of human hypocrisy that we are rarely told (as Death tells the Knight in The Seventh Seal) to cease asking questions; instead, we are given answers that are themselves signals to shut up. To a child, "We'll see" is one such answer; "Maybe" is another; but the greatest non-answer of all, to child or adult, is "God."

To see what I mean, imagine you are a bright new being with the ability to formulate questions but with none of the answers. (Put aside everything you know or believe for a moment.) You ask who created the world and I answer, "Og."

"What is Og?"

"Og is."

"Who created Og?"

"No-one created Og. Og always was."

You may think you have received an answer, because I said words in response to your question. But the subtext is I have just told you to shut your trap, which you will come to realize over time. Og may or may not be, in my estimation, a being, a personality, or a framework for belief; whether or not Og is any of these things to me, Og is certainly a signpost, marking the boundary beyond which I do not wish to wander. I am not curious about such questions and I do not wish you to be, either.

There is a double standard in play. I want you to accept answers from me, that I would not accept from you. If I came into the house and found the cookie jar broken, and you told me that Og did it, I wouldn't be satisfied with the explanation that a magical being I have never heard of entered the house just to break our cookie jar. Yet, I expect you, a four year old, to be satisfied that an equivalently unknown being made the Universe.

In fact, if you told me God broke the cookie jar, I still wouldn't be satisfied, though I believe I know who God is. I would believe you were using God to avoid responsibility for your actions (which people in fact do all the time.)

So then why should a child believe that my reference to God absolves us of the need to ask questions, or responsibility for seeking out and understanding the answers?

Theology is a very lonely branch of knowledge, because what you are studying can never be objectively verified, and therefore no theological knowledge can truly stand on the shoulders of prior knowledge. No thesis about God--that God is man, woman, or wears red socks--can ever be disproved; no Kuhn-style scientific revolution in our views of God can ever occur, based on new facts that need to be explained. The simplest explanation for this dilemma--Occam's razor--is that theology studies a nonexistent subject matter.

This is why God works much better as a signpost than as a topic of conversation. No-one I have spoken to has ever been able to tell me anything very specific about God. Most of the people I know who believe in God can only tell you why they need to believe. My Uncle Sy says: "Because we have a short life and there is a void before and after it we believe in God." Many others are certain there is a Supreme Being but know no more. A coworker describes God as a form of energy. By contrast, Freud's psychotic Dr. Schreber could talk to you endlessly about the "forecourts and hindcourts" of God--but what he had to say could only be of interest to a student of the mind, not a student of God. I maintain that, though this is more obviously true of Dr. Schreber, it is true of everybody: God is a phenomenon of the mind. Anyone--like Martin Luther--who creates a radical new relationship with God has simply cleared his mind of the detritus of generations. But, unlike Galileo, he hasn't discovered anything new. He has only produced a new configuration for the student of minds, like Eriksen analyzing Luther.

The proper study of religion is what it is and why we need it. Religion is a meme that reassures us that we are not alone, unloved drifters in a chaotic universe. But, in order to get that reassurance, we must close our minds against fearful questions, which we do by putting all our faith in a word with practically no content, a word, which like "Og", really explains nothing. We do it, because we are incredibly needy, and would rather not ask questions that will give us headaches.

I am not arguing that only atheists are responsible for any progress. Many brilliant thinkers believe in God, but, in order to make progress in their fields, simply make another accomodation. They either push the signpost all the way back (and believe that God created the quarks and the weak force) or, in some cases, even turn God into a favorable sign for their studies. Einstein's remarkable statement that God does not play dice with the universe is an example. But such thinkers are in the minority. I cannot follow Einstein there without some evidence, nor can I believe it just because he did.