Sometimes I have the dubious pleasure of sitting in a room (in a church basement, not uncommonly, or what passes for a basement in sunny California) listening to a bunch of recovering alcoholics talk about how God is working in their lives. Sometimes the evening’s reading is drawn from a chapter euphemistically mis-named “We Agnostics,” in a certain large book.
I no longer care very much about anonymity, but to preserve appearances, I’m not going to mention the name of the book.
Tonight, while I was patiently listening, a couple of things occurred to me. First, if there were an incredibly cosmic, powerful, benign, sentient, aware being called “God,” why would that being care a fig whether you or I believed in Him or acknowledged His wonderfulness? What kind of insecure, penny-ante deity would actually place a shred of value on our belief? This notion makes no sense at all. If there is a God, we’re certainly entitled to hope that God is both secure enough emotionally and benign enough not to put the slightest importance on our beliefs.
The obvious conclusion is that when good things happen in our lives (doled out to us, presumably, by this benign spirit), our belief or lack of belief has nothing whatever to do with it. God does whatever God feels like. You’re just a pawn. If God sends you cancer or a terrible auto accident, or miraculously rescues you from same, it can have nothing to do with whether you believe or how you pray.
The corollary is an observation that’s certainly not original with me, but perhaps it’s worth repeating. If this “God” actually did care, for some reason, about having humans acknowledge Him as the ruler of the universe, how inept would He have to be to allow so many different religions to propagate themselves across the world? Their various views of this God fellow and what He wants and expects of us can’t all be right; logically, most of them must be wrong.
Yet this is the popular view of “God,” at least in the part of the world that I inhabit: a being who is both insecure, in that He hopes and expects to be explicitly acknowledged in exchange for bringing good things into our lives, and very inept about explaining Himself and His urgent admonitions with respect to human comportment.
The “We Agnostics” chapter (which should have been called “You Agnostics,” because it certainly wasn’t written by an agnostic) makes a number of bizarre and easily shredded assertions. One of my favorites is the sentence, “Either God is everything, or He is nothing.” This idea is deployed, of course, in the sincere hope of convincing you agnostics to fall on your knees and worship Him, that being (in the view of the authors of the book) the only means of distancing oneself from the temptation to indulge in strong drink. The subtext, which can easily be unpacked, is, “If you’re not a complete 100% dogmatic atheist, and we’re sure you’re not, you must believe in God.”
Unfortunately, the sentence as stated doesn’t even begin to cover the possibilities. There might, for instance, be many Gods, none of them supreme. That is, none of them “everything.” Some of them might be evil. There’s an interesting strain of religious thought in gnosticism that holds that the God who created the Earth and human beings is not the Eternal God. Clearly the God described in the Old Testament is a sadistic monster, and the gnostics seem at least dimly to have sensed that. If the Old Testament God is the one that created the Earth, we’re going to have to dig deeper to find a God that we’ll actually want to hang out with.
There’s lots of other ridiculous stuff in that chapter, but I’ll save it for another time.