Do I Believe in God?

Yes. No. Maybe. It depends. Sort of. What do you mean by “believe” and “God”?

This hemming and hawing is usually seen by the person I am talking to as sign of confusion on my part, or an inability to take a side. The idea hangs in the air: “It is so straight-forward. Do you believe in God? Just yes or no?”

I reject the strait-forwardness of the question. I reject that I have to give a single answer which I affirm in all contexts, with all people, in every moment of my life. Instead, the answer I give varies with who I am with.

If I am with believers, I say “I believe in God”. If I am with atheists, I say, “I don’t believe in God.” If I am with Christians, I say, “Christ is my savior.” If I am with Hindus, I say, “Krishna is God.”

Am I being wishy-washy in being like this? Blatently contradictory? No.

“Does God exist?” is not like “What is the square root of 144?” The math question has a certain unifying feature in that anytime it is asked, in any context, of any person, it can be taken for granted that the people talking have the same understanding of “square root” and of “144”.

This is not a magical property of the concepts of square root and 144. It has to do with how these concepts are introduced and function in our society and practices. And that is that the concepts get introduced in a way independent of any cultural or social differences between people. A rich person, a poor person, someone blind, not blind, black, white, etc. – when they learn math, the right answers to math questions have to be taught independent of any of these social distinctions. Math is a certain kind of equalizer. How math is taught might not be so neutral – the teacher might be biased towards the rich kids as being better at math. But nothing in the reasons given for why the answer is 12 makes any reference to being rich. Not explicitly or implictly. In no way. Call these kind of questions decontextualized questions, in that the answer doesn’t depend on any particular context.

A question like “Is caviar delicious?”, in contrast, is a contextualized question. There is no answer to this question that applies across the board to all human beings, independent of their tastes, social class, values, etc. It’s not just that poor people or vegetarians, etc. might not know what caviar is or what it tastes like. It’s that there is no answer to the question which applies to someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t like the taste of caviar. Contextualized questions – far from generalizing across the board to every person – in fact highlight differences between people, and how those differences result in different legitimate answers to the question.

Sometimes we tend to treat the question, “Does God exist?” as a decontextualized question, as if we are just asking a question as abstract and as concerned with truth independent of humans as math questions. Hence the feeling of saying, “Yes or no? Which is it? Pick a side.”

The assumption that questions regarding God are decontextual – that they apply to all people – is nothing more than a remnant of an older time when communities where defined by their shared adherence to how to think of God. A thousand years ago in Rome, it was out of bounds to say “There is no God”, because it was socially believed that this was not a question that was up for contextualized differences – everybody had to believe it because it is The Truth, just like 12 is the square root of 144.

Often modern atheists continue this assumption that questions of God are decontextual, and so they affirm an answer which they see as applicable to everyone, in every context -that there is no God.

But to treat questions of God as decontextual is to ignore the diversity implicit in our society. There is no longer any one institutional power – the Church, the temples, etc. – which can claim the ability to speak for all people in the society about how to answer that question. When one asks, “Does God exist?”, which God are we talking about? In what context? Why?

This is the characteristic of a confused philosophical question: when a contextualized question is treated as if it were a decontextualized question. I suggest this is true for all the big philosophy questions: Do we have free will? What justifies morality? Is art objective? Is mind different from the body? In each of these cases, there are different meanings and shades to the questions depending on the context in which they are asked.

When the question is treated as a self-contained, decontextualized question – akin to math or certain scientific questions – we start to look for the one, universal answer to the question, assuming that that answers must have the form of “yes” or “no”, or “materalism” or “dualism”. One set answer for all time, for all people. We look over the possibility that what is unique about philosophical questions is precisely that they don’t admit of such a set in stone, universalized, decontextualized answer.

So, do I believe in God?

I don’t torture myself by forcing myself to have a single answer to that question at all times, in all moments, irrespective of who I am talking to, in whatever context.

I try instead to cultivate a certain skill for responding to the question. And that is to see what is the most pertinent meaning of that question in a given moment, and a given context, and to respond appropriately in that context.

What I value is cultivating and developing meaningful conversations and relationships with people, and I treat philosophical questions like “Does God exist?” as opportunities for cultivating shared meaning.

If I am talking to someone, like my grandmother, who is religious and believes in God, where for her belief in God seems to mean living in good will with all people, I am happy to say I believe in God. If she starts to conflate her belief in God with certain institutional values, like not being ok with gay marriage, then I try to use the shared assumption of belief in God, to question her stance on gay marriage.

Similarly, if I am talking to a committed atheist, I don’t try to begin by questioning that person’s atheism. I am happy to say I don’t believe in God. And then use that shared space to question together what it means to believe in God, or to not believe in God.

Within any philosophical conversation, there are dozens and dozens of moments at which the conversation can push boundaries in a way that holds a creative and productive tension – a space where there is mutual trust between the people talking, and where within that space of trust, there is real navigation on core beliefs and values.

The art of philosophy is maximizing the ability to enter into such spaces of creative and productive tensions, into spaces of cultivated trust. Poor philosophy is being unable to enter into such spaces because one is cutting off the spaces of trust by holding onto decontextualized answers as the right answers from the very beginning of the conversation. Good philosophy is vulnerability and strength in thought – the kind which builds bonds and community, while navigating through the painful emotions and habits which have regidified into views which are treated as decontextualized truths.

Philosophy as simply the search for decontextualized truths (either God exists or doesn’t exist) is a low level of philosophy. It is like a musician who is able to play music, but in a crude, simplistic way. Like someone who thinks they have mastered the art of music just because they are able to play a tune. Our public discourse is where it is at because it hasn’t gotten beyond philosophy at this level. As it happens, neither has academic philosophy to a good extent.

But a master musician moves beyond playing a tune, to infusing the playing of music, and the listening of music, with greater and greater shades of meaning, possibility, complexities, ambiguities – all in a way which ultimately uplifts, inspires and transforms the musician and the listener, and builds bonds of trust and community in the process.

Good philosophy is like that as well.

3 thoughts on “Do I Believe in God?

  1. Gautam

    Nicely put! Another way of getting at the same point: when someone asks “Do you believe in God” , there are a lot of assumptions packed into “believe” and “God”. For example, whether the questioner understands God to omnipotent, eternal, personal, merciful, judgmental, have specific form or is formless or encompasses everything, etc. Likewise, “believe” can mean a creedal statement (like a Catholic catechism), or “a faith in things unseen”, or an awareness of the presence or immanence of God.

    So the response to “Do you believe in God” often has to be, “What do you mean by God?”. Hopefully, this leads to a discussion which is just the sort of contextualization that you call out.

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Another way to put the point is like this. Suppose John asks Bill, “Do you believe in God?” One way to engage with that question is that it is a self-defined statement which is clear to both sides, and the point of the question is to abstract away from the life contexts of John and Bill. It’s like if John asked Bill, “What is Godel’s incompleteness theorem?”, they wouldn’t then talk about their lives. Objectivity suggests that they engage just with the theorem itself and not themselves.

      One instinct is to treat “Do you believe in God?” the same way. As if it independent of John and Bill’s lives, and so not even about what they mean by “God”. But this only makes sense if John and Bill actually share background uses of “God” and the contexts in which they are asking the question. Is it idle curiosity? Is it that John just lost a loved one and is questioning his own faith? Are they having a conversation about terrorism? None of this is evident in the question itself understood abstractly.

      Here is my motto, which I think in our interactions you have also affirmed:engage with the person one is talking to, not the question or concepts as self-defined entities. The questions or statements are merely tools for greater understanding between the individual people having the conversation. Don’t sacrifice, or ignore, the conversational context in the name of some higher truth or objective reality. One doesn’t find truth that way. One only reifies certain concepts and loses the opportunity to have a fuller human interaction in the moment.

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  2. Gautam

    Agreed. The God question is treated as if it is akin to, “Do you believe there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?”, whereas it is often closer to, “Do you believe in justice?”.

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