The Nature of Deity

In my time commenting here, I have often found in a situation where I felt like I was playing the role of Heracles fighting the Lernaean Hydra without a torch. I would develop and present a devestating argument against one person's theology, only to have someone (or sometimes even the same commenter) claim "That's nice, but that argument doesn't apply to my theology." Once I turned against that person's theology, another commenter would make the same protest, all the while my arm grew tired from the labor of whacking off heads. Meanwhile, the immortal head of Liberal Christianity smirks, knowing that it is so malleable that any attempt to pin it down would be like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. So, for the sake of understanding one another better, I would like to ask two questions of everyone who wishes to join the discussions here.

My first question is to all posters, theist and atheist. According to you, what is the nature of deity? In other words, what are the characteristics absolutely required for something to be called a god, so that if I convinced you that a rock had these features, you would state "This rock is a god." This question is especially important for the atheist/agnostics to answer; how can we call upon the theists to provide evidence that god(s) exist if they don't know what we mean by god?

My second question is, of necessity, directed only at theists. Very few people here claim to know the full nature of God, but almost all of them claim to know something about God. So, I would like to know from every theist who wishes to join the discussion, what do you consider to be the defining characteristics of the god you pray to? What are the characteristics which, if even ONE OF THEM were missing, would cause you to no longer worship that god? This question is fundamental to the argument for theists, just as the first question is fundamental for atheists; how can you expect us to convince you that the existence of your god is improbable if you won't tell us what your god is?

I hope our commenters here will seriously consider these questions and answer them. While I don't think in most cases that this question will allow for the debate to be settled, it will at least help ensure that we are speaking the same language.

29 comments:

Shygetz said...

In fairness, here is my answer to the first question. My definition of a god is a rational entity that can, by force of will alone, alter or disregard one or more of the natural laws that govern the universe.

Note, I'm not talking about an entity that can alter or disregard what we think are the laws of nature; it must be able to alter or disregard the actual laws of nature. This does mean that, as our understanding of the natural laws of the universe changes, my notion of what makes a god will change. I can live with that.

Also, please try to be precise in your definitions. In other words, don't say God must be "transcendent" unless you are prepared to specifically define what you mean by "transcendent".

Brother Crow said...

Great question(s) shygetz. Here is my answer to number one - the only one I feel qualified to answer at this time. A god (for me)would be very much what Thomas Aquinas defined as the Prime Mover...that which exists and beyond which nothing else exists. This would be a personality, not just a force of nature. It would be the source of everything else. It would be self-creating, dependent upon nothing else for its creation, existence, motive, or purpose. And, as you say, it would be able to alter or disregard one or more of the natural laws of the universe because it is the ultimate source of those laws.

There you have it. I hope it makes some sort of sense. I have tried to steer away from humanizing this god...but I suspect that I being human may not be able to do it! Hah.

Stargazer said...

And clear communication in whatever form needed of intention/being so there would be no question of the cause of the alteration being connected to the effect.

David B. Ellis said...

As to the definition of God, I am not claiming "there exists a thing I call God". The theist (of whatever variety) is doing so and I leave it up to each one individually to define it. If I am going to argue concerning their contention this is the only course open to someone who doesn't want to make a strawman of the others position.

As to what I mean when I say I am a nonbeliever in God I am referring to, and including, the set of normal usages of that term. From the traditional "omnimax" God of traditional western varieties of theism to the, usually, non-omnipotent polytheistic gods to distant deistic God to a pantheistic impersonal cosmic/spiritual "force" to the equally vague transcendent spiritual force.

When they get any more vague than that I don't so much contend that their God doesn't exist as that they have descended into incoherence.

Lee Randolph said...

My working hypothesis is that god is as it is described in the bible.

with that in mind, I set out to test it as best as I could. One way I tested it was to try to find out where the bible came from.

In my mind it is more important to know how a thing is known before I commit to it. So far, I haven't found the method for knowing about God to be very convincing.

There seems to be no independent corroboration on the divine inspiration of the bible. That causes problems. There are plenty of characteristics of the bible that should cause reasonable doubt about that claim. For example its internal inconsistency in facts.

Other examples come from conceptual inconsistencies. One is the good God concept. The christian will say that god is good, then when we mention child rape/murders they say, we don't know enough about god to judge whether he's good or not, so at that point, logically it is a contradiction both from the point of view that the bible tells us something about gods goodness and that rape and murder of toddlers is tolerated by a good god. We all know the principle or law of non-contradiction works pretty well in everything else so by precedent, I presume it will work in determining the truth of claims in the bible.

The principle of non-contradiction can be used to show reasonable doubt about Gods biggest alleged characteristics.
- can he create a stone he can't lift?
- can he have free will if he already knows how things are going to turn out?
- if he already knows how things are going to turn out, what is the point of letting them play themselves out?
- how can there be things like child rape/murder if a good god exists?
- how can there really be free will if one persons free will supersedes or restricts anothers?

The only way that I can see to get around that is to say that God is somehing less than he is reputed to be. If that is the case then we are back to not knowing as much about god as we thought we did, and that brings us back to how do we know anything about god in the first place. And that brings us squarely back to scripture and the lack of independent corroboration about its divine or semi-divine origins.

To say that creation is evidence of God is to fall back into stinking thinking enabled by judgement heurstics, cognitive bias and hasty conclusions.

John W. Loftus said...

Since there are several conceptions of God among believers, from Anselm's "perfect being" to Tillich's "ultimate concern," this is the nature of the beast. One argument against a particular conception of God may not apply to a different one.

That's why I choose to debunk evangelical Christianity rather than other views of Christianity. It's about focusing on a certain sets of generally accepted beliefs.

When a believer says to me I haven't effectively argued against his particular conception of God or particular theology, sometimes I just tel him or her to start a blog to settle the issue among believers and come back to me with the agreed upon view. Then I'll debunk that view. Or I simply ask them what they think.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

A brilliant question, Shygetz. It is sad that so far only those of us on 'this side' have chosen to answer it. I was wracking my brains to come up wth my own, but I think I will just concur with David Ellis here.

I do want to ask you about your answer, though. (Let's play 'God or No God!') Which of the following classify as 'gods' under your definition?

1: A strictly deist Creator. That is, some One who creates the Universe -- or a Universe given the 'Multiverse' concept -- but who does not in any way interact with it after the Creation. Who merely 'sits back and watches how it all turns out.' (I assume, though not as a necessity, that this One does not have omniscience.)

2: A 'theistic' Creator God -- i.e., one who does interact with the Universe created, but who also creates the 'rules' of the Universe, the 'natural laws' and, voluntarily or involuntarily, binds himself by these laws, thus prohibiting him from interacting through 'miracles.'

3: a being in the Universe who has the power to 'alter or disregard one or more of the natural laws' but who is, in all other ways, similar to other natural inhabitants of the Universe, i.e., he is mortal, bound by all other laws, etc.

Which of these classify as 'gods?' (I should state that I am agnostic towards the first, can derive the second from some types of Christian and Jewish theology, and see the third portrayed in various types of fiction, fantasy, science fiction, 'sci fi' (not the same as 'science fiction' I'm pedantic about that) or comic books.

David said...

I'm not a theologian, nor am i passionately apologetic; so I'll answer with that disclaimer.

Deity:
A deity would need to be eternal. From any beginning with no end (unless self defined). Would also need to be rational, not inanimate. Cheating death is the ultimate trump card over natural laws.

My God:
Must be the creator and must have origin tracible back to the beginning of time. I am not interested in any god created by man's imagination. Is God good? I believe he is, but I have left the definition of good and bad to him, so how could I possibly call him bad?

That's it. Does he need to love me? No, but I'm glad he does. Does he need to save me? No, but I'm glad he did.

B H said...

A great question. The definition has really come into play during the discussion of Dawkins's "almost certainly no God" argument. I have heard many theists (particularly Muslims, Jews, and Bahaists, but some "liberal" Christians) define their deity as a "simple" force to skirt the issue of an intelligent being occurring on its own. To me, the object they describe doesn't even sound like something worth worshiping. But to each their own, I guess.

I've learned that, when discussing culture, it's essential to let the object culture write its own definitions. So personally, I don't define "god" and just try to adapt my use of the word (if I must use it at all) to the discussion. Whether the god is defined as a fundamentalist Christian god, a member of a creator species external to our universe, or a member of a group of animistic entities, I don't believe in it and put it upon the believers engaged in the debate to define the object in such a way that it can be argued for or against.

Outside of debate, I'm much more interested in the variety, psychology, and sociology of religious experience. If religion wasn't involved in public politics, I probably wouldn't even be interested in debating theists of any color. I'd much rather discuss cognitive operations or socialization than whether ancient Middle Eastern texts have any bearing on a state's definition of marriage or on a young girl's right to control her body.

Shygetz said...

prup,

Let's see...I would say that two of the three would be gods. Number 1 would be a god, as it would have been able to violate laws of thermodynamics in a gross fashion. Even if, after the moment of creation, the entity chose not to use its power, it would still have them.

Number 2 would not be a god, although it would have been a god in the past. This is, of course, assuming that number 2 has strictly bound itself to the laws of the universe.

Number 3 would be a god in my opinion. I do not think that, in order for a being to be a god, it must exist outside of the universe. I also don't think that immortality is a necessary component of gods; consider the Jesus myth itself. He was mortal, bound to most of the laws, although able to set at least some aside by force of will. Yet Christian theology considers him to be a god (or an aspect of a god).

david, as the only theist thus far to answer the question, I'd like to make certain I understand you. It seems like you are agreeing with Brother Crow, in that the God you worship must be the creator of the universe, and must have existed since at least the beginning of time. Is that correct?

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Hmmm, but, by conservative Christian belief, Satan, too, can 'violate Natural Law." So is he alsso a God?

David said...

I missed y'all at church this morning.

Yes, he needs to have created not only me, but the natural world I live in. This does not preclude other realities or worlds. I tried to precipitate it down to creating me only, but it didn't really fit unless he created the natural world in which i live. This implies intelligence, logic, power, and an existance well above the time and space that I exist.

Since you defined God as necessary parts, I excluded my Christian faith. Without Christianity, I could still believe in a god. I struggled with the word 'worship' that you used where 'believed' would normally go. Would I worship a cruel god? Then I got hung up on what is cruel and my thinking kinda bogged down.

There are things that would shake my Christian faith, but I tried to precipitate everything down to my view of God only.

Shygetz said...

Prup, I would consider the incarnation of Satan that you are referring to to be a god, yes. He seems to be no less worthy than a Loki, or an Ares, or a Hades.

David, my use of the word "worship" instead of "believe" was intentional, and for precisely the reason that bogged you down. You decided that the word "good" meant whatever the creator was. That means that, say, if the tradiational Satan were, in fact, God, you would worship what you now call evil, and would call it good.

I think this stands as an interesting question, and one I may expand upon in an article. The God of the OT acts in ways that, were a human to act in such a way, would be clearly immoral. Therefore, if absolute morality comes from God, it must be different than the God's own morals for Himself (arguably, because God has more power and knowledge, human morals are not salient).

Would you like to reconisder your answer to require the god you worship to act at least partially within your moral sense? Or would you like to require that any existing deity also provide you with a moral sense upon creation, whether or not the deity itself acts by the same morals? Or do you want to stick with the answer you gave, which indicates that you would worship any creator, regardless of its cruelty? (Please note, I'm not trying to make this a "gotcha" question; I want to give you an opportunity to reconsider your answer so I know where you are coming from).

Shygetz said...

That's why I choose to debunk evangelical Christianity rather than other views of Christianity. It's about focusing on a certain sets of generally accepted beliefs.

But John, we have both seen significant important variations in belief even when it comes to evangelical Christianity. For example, the meaning of an "omnibenevolent" God; does "omnibenevolent" mean good in a way that humans recognize (in which case, the PoE requires that a greater good be the result of any evil, and all evil to be strictly necessary), or is God by mere definition "omnibenevolent" (in which case, the PoE means that humans don't know what good is)? I think getting people on the record is important, and can also cause people on both sides to really focus on the fundamental questions, like "What do I really worship" and "what unsubstantiated belief do I really object to".

David said...

Shygetz,

I find the definition of worship as murky as the definition of good. If adoration and thanksgiving is a necessary component, that is one thing. If it is only respect and fear of god, that is another.

From the benevolent god case, how do i know what i need? I tend to think i need comfort and ease. However, medicine tastes bad. Hardship builds character. How do i even KNOW that God has ill will toward me?

From the cruel creator case, what use is withdrawing my worship? If i was created for his cruel pleasure, how do protest? How do you even define cruel creator?

Isn't that what we see with pharaoh in the Bible? After each plague, God hardens his heart. Pharaoh is not making the choice. Then in Romans 9 it says I raised pharaoh up to display my power. Should pharaoh withdraw his worship?

It is awful slippery to try and define 'worship' and 'good' together here. It is a bit too protracted and abstract for me.

Shygetz said...

By worship, I mean not just fear. I mean to love, idolize, and show devotion to. As to the purpose of withdrawing worship, it would help prevent you from being an agent of evil. Even as an atheist with supposedly no objective moral base, I would object to being a witting agent of evil.

And if you don't know what "good" means even in the most general terms, then please stay away from me and my family.

If i was created for his cruel pleasure, how do protest? How do you even define cruel creator?

Isn't that what we see with pharaoh in the Bible?


Why yes, yes it is...

After each plague, God hardens his heart. Pharaoh is not making the choice.

What happened to the essential sovreignity of Pharaoh's free will?

Then in Romans 9 it says I raised pharaoh up to display my power.

Why will Yahweh so readily tinker with Pharaoh's free will in order to "display his power" to an insignificant captive audience by slaughtering innocent Egyptian children (and cattle), but would not tinker with Hitler's free will to save millions of his Chosen People (as well as many other non-Jews) from a horrid fate? Do you, who have an objective moral sense granted directly by God Himself, find this to be a good act? If so, please explain. Is it solely because God did it, and he is powerful, so might makes right?

I hadn't intended for this topic to get into the moral virtue of God, but you brought it up and I couldn't resist.

David said...

Shygetz,

So, if I have limited free will like Bible characters Pharaoh or Judas then it is largely a mute point.

Given free will, I would not harm other created beings.

But morality would be defined by God, so he would not ask me to be immoral.

God would not need to subscribe to the same morality that I would.

I would withdraw worship if God declared himself cruel (wicked laugh perhaps) or if I could find him cruel by some other test. Not sure that is possible.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

David: (Again this is more curiosity than a challenge.) You say "I would withdraw worship ...if I could find him cruel by some other test. Not sure that is possible."

You say 'withdraw worship' not 'withdraw belief in.' I assume you would say the same (if I'm wrong, pls. correct me) if you found him a deceiver.

But when I realized that the 'God of the Bible' had to be either a deceiver or an incredibly incompetent communicator, this was proof to me -- as his 'cruelty' has been to other people here -- not that he was 'unworthy of worship' but that he didn't exist.

Why would that not be your reaction, or is my assumption wrong?

Shygetz said...

But morality would be defined by God, so he would not ask me to be immoral.

I believe you contradict yourself; you just granted that God made Pharaoh do something that he later punished Pharaoh for doing. So, either God made Pharaoh do something immoral, or God punished Pharaoh for doing His will.

I think this is a topic that might be well served by a full post.

David said...

Prup,

Existence was an assumption going in for me. That last time Shygetz sent me around the tree, the leash kinda snapped my neck. Not sure if I could wind it back that far.

Pharaoh's action could not be immoral without free will. If God raises his hand to kill, and God is beyond morality, then no immoral action took place.

"deceiver or an incredibly incompetent communicator, this was proof to me -- as his 'cruelty' has been to other people"

This is where we need to part ways. God declares his benevolence in the Bible. Incomplete/deceptive information, perceived cruelty, creating people with immoral tendancies, pain/suffering; these things I declare on faith that we will understand someday if God makes them known to us. I don't expect the answer to come in this lifetime. You must declare them all evidence to the contrary and take your answer now.

For instance, without the context of God, I can't understand pain and cruelty. Obviously it stands to prove his non-existence around here.

Irreconcilable differences.

Shygetz said...

David said: "Pharaoh's action could not be immoral without free will. If God raises his hand to kill, and God is beyond morality, then no immoral action took place."

Then why was Pharaoh (and all of Egypt) punished? Like I said, God punished Pharoah (and also Pharaoh's people) for doing His will.

For instance, without the context of God, I can't understand pain and cruelty.

Animals understand pain and cruelty well enough without any context of God. You understood pain and cruelty as a child before you understood God. Grown atheists (and, indeed, many grown theists) understand pain and cruelty without placing it in the context of God. Pain hurts; it's instinctual. Cruelty is causing needless suffering in others, and activates our empathy (which many animals also share, and which makes socialization possible in the animal community).

I think you underestimate yourself.

Shygetz said...

This post has been here almost a week, and thus far only one theist has been willing to answer the question (major kudos to David; he has done a fine, honest job and has taken more than his share of scrutiny).

Should I take this as evidence that other theists on this blog are unable to address the question, or unwilling to pin themselves down and thus make themselves vulnerable to criticism?

I would find it hard to believe that serious theists would find the question "What is God" to be uninteresting.

akakiwibear said...

Lee saidwe are back to not knowing as much about god as we thought we did, I agree and the substance of this post is that there are too many concepts of God. JWL ( there are several conceptions of God among believers) recognises this and therefore targets only the God of the bible literalist. I might think that to be a cop out, but I see why JWL has little option but to pick on the ‘fundies’ if he wants to maintain a focus, rather than to take on theism per se.

I see David and Shygetz getting caught up in the detail, with Shy trying to trap David’s God in the land of the inerrant literal bible. Shy can well challenge the literalist OT God, but that is not the God of the majority of Christians and certainly does not encompass all theists.

Now Shy, you have challenged me to say what I believe. If you had visited my blog you would have course have known, but you do tend to be quick on the trigger.

Now given Lee and JWL’s recognition of a variety of concepts of God would you expect a nice OT God from me? No?

I see God as a metaphysical collective consciousness acting with common purpose.

I have no problem with shy’s description of God being rational, but I challenge shy’s qualifications to the judge what is rational. Based on the evidence of Shy’s writings I have strong reservations. Being able to behave contrary to the laws of nature being this physical world, of course – God is metaphysical. As for many other ‘characteristics’ of God I am not sure they are necessary for a belief in God.

Lee raised the murder of children and David and Shy launched into the ‘argument of evil’ and free will – the July post Atheist argument - finely crafted, but lacking on my blog deals with this topic. Free will and suffering and a benevolent God are not a challenge to me, but it seems to challenge a lot of atheists.

The notion that we have to know everything about God is of course fundamentally flawed. OK so it presents some atheists with the problem of shooting at a moving target. Again I say “Get over it guys!”. Theology is a developing field of study, old ideas tested and some discarded, new ideas introduced, some not yet tested, some retained. As a theist I certainly don’t expect there to be no new though leading atheists (that said it is a shame some of the emerging ones are so weak on reason and strong on rhetoric).

Shygetz said...

I will leave aside the personal attacks and focus on the meat of akakiwibear's comment.

I see God as a metaphysical collective consciousness acting with common purpose.

So how does this lead to to Christianity? Remember, the important question for theists is:

"what do you consider to be the defining characteristics of the god you pray to?"

Almost all religions posit a metaphysical consciousness acting with a purpose. Your definition, curiously, defines the consciousness as "collective" and therefore states it has a "common purpose". This seems closer to Gaia-worship than Christianity.

I see David and Shygetz getting caught up in the detail, with Shy trying to trap David’s God in the land of the inerrant literal bible.

Then you need to learn to read. I'm trying to figure out what David's idea of a "good" God is (or, better yet, get him to think about what it means to say "God is good"). The PoE has not yet come up, and will not come up if David insists that good is whatever God is, rather than that God is good. The latter brings up the PoE; the former renders the adjective "good" undefinable and meaningless to humans.

I have no problem with shy’s description of God being rational, but I challenge shy’s qualifications to the judge what is rational.

Rational in this case means "having the ability to reason". If you show me a chimp that can bend time and space by force of will, I will acknowledge it as a god, even if it unable to parse a sentence.

The notion that we have to know everything about God is of course fundamentally flawed.

I challenge you, dare you, and defy you to show where I EVER said we have to know everything about God. Straw man.

OK so it presents some atheists with the problem of shooting at a moving target. Again I say “Get over it guys!”. Theology is a developing field of study, old ideas tested and some discarded, new ideas introduced, some not yet tested, some retained.

Which makes the entire idea of a changing idea of god unreasonable; it is, by intentional design, untestable and unfalsifiable. Therefore, it can never be demonstrated or defended in a reasonable manner, as rational inquiry requires falsifiability.

Which is why I asked the fundamental question; if your idea of god is so fluid, at what point does your idea of god change so much that the result is something you consider no longer worthy of calling god? The hope is that the theist can name something that is at least potentially falsifiable and can therefore be reasonably discussed (NOT to try to pin someone to an OT god, as you unjustly accuse).

For example, David indicated that his God must be the creator of the Universe. Now, I cannot currently disprove the notion that God created the universe; however, it may be falsifiable in principle. At the least, it gives us a notion where we can state definitively "David's God can regress this far, but no farther."

Your notion of the God you worship is, by design, unfalsifiable, and cannot therefore be reasonably discussed. What can be discussed is why you chose Christianity.

akakiwibear said...

Shygetz you are rude Then you need to learn to read and for me a thread of this gravitas needs polite company to pursue.

Shygetz said...

Oh please; you call me irrational and make a false accusation. Then you have the nerve to call me rude?

Feh.

Caleb said...

I maintain a very loose definition of "godhood." As far as I'm concerned, a god is simply a term given to any being or force so far removed from humanity in terms of power or ability as to give the illusion of being supernatural (obviously there cannot be anything that is truly supernatural, given that the word "nature" encompasses our entire understanding of all existence).

Would I necessarily worship such a being? If it was an issue of my own ultimate well-being, then yes. If I were reasonably convinced in the existence of an actual god that would send me to an eternity of torment for failure to offer him such worship, then by god I would most certainly worship him/her/it.

If, however, such a being existed but demanded nothing of me, then I would see no reason to offer it any manner of devotion solely on the basis of its existence. The Christian practice of praising their God for his "inherent" and "immutable" attributes is downright laughable for this very reason: why would anyone ever offer him worship for attributes over which he apparently has no control?

Joseph said...

Good points, Caleb. When I was a Christian, a was occasionally struck with the oddness of worship. Is God an egomaniac that he must receive constant praise? Think of what endless boredom and drudgery awaits the saved when they get to heaven!

Shygetz said...

I never found the fact of worship to be unusual. I can say that, if I met a god that was omnibenevolent and able to bend time and space with its thoughts, I would probably worship it whether it demanded worship or not.

I did find the notion of the Christian God demanding glory from its creatures to be more in line with a petulant child than a godhead, though.

The Christian practice of praising their God for his "inherent" and "immutable" attributes is downright laughable for this very reason: why would anyone ever offer him worship for attributes over which he apparently has no control?

Yeah, I agree; graphite is inherently and immutably made of carbon; does graphite accept burnt offerings, or should I just send cash?