A number of the girls I’ve dated have believed in what I’d call a “generic God”. I have to wonder how common this is, and how common this is becoming. It’s a belief that a God exists, created the universe, wants people to act morally, grants an afterlife, and has a timetable for when people die. But, this generic God isn’t necessarily associated with Christianity or any other religion and it isn’t dogmatic.
My current girlfriend actually has these beliefs. She was raised Catholic, and a number of months ago, she set out to read the Bible because she wanted to see what it was all about, and what so many Americans base their lives on. She managed to read through the New Testament, and the first six (or so) books of the Old Testament. She wasn’t that impressed. She’s surprised that people think the Bible is divinely inspired. She says many of the initial stories in the Old Testament have no real point – they are often strange and contain no lesson for the reader. She also said that the Old Testament God behaves “like a tyrant”. However, she believes in a kind of generic God. This generic God isn’t the same as the God of the Bible. I have to admit, it’s a slippery concept to actually debate or test. The generic God doesn’t have to answer for any of the actions of “God” in the Bible, nor is there any belief that Christianity is the only way to God.
She doesn’t necessarily believe that prayer has any effect on the world – which means that studies showing the non-effect of prayer doesn’t say anything about the existence of God. In fact, she thinks that if God has a plan for the world, then prayer must be ineffective because petitioning God to answer a prayer would necessarily be a deviation from God’s plan. If God thought that you should: be healed, get a new car, or whatever, then He would make it happen; prayer is irrelevant.
We haven’t really gotten into why God would allow atrocities – ranging from the holocaust to serial killers to Josef Fritzl. Or why God would permit disease to afflict humanity, and if disease was part of God’s plan, why humanity would be allowed to find cures.
At the heart of it is the fact that she likes to believe in a higher power. She said that if she lives her whole life believing in God, then dies and there is no God or afterlife, that it would still be a good thing to believe because it would be a happier life to believe in all those things. (My own view on that is that I would prefer to know the truth, even if it was a less-happy belief.) In this case, it comes down to an issue of the burden of proof. From my perspective, I don’t think there’s any good evidence for God, or a loving God in particular. The burden of proof is on the believer to show that God does exist, rather than the non-believer to prove God doesn’t exist – which isn’t even theoretically possible (at best, we can make God an entirely superfluous explanation). From her perspective, I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, or that there isn’t an afterlife. She wants to believe they do exist, and, as long as there is a window of possibility, she will believe it because she can and because it feels good. She’s also lived her whole life believing in God, and she misses some of the ritual of belief.
Now, there’s nothing about her belief that would cause her to do anything irrational like I see in fundamentalists (like fundamentalists who blindly support Israel because “it’s what God wants”, believe that God is directing them to a particular course of action, or claim that we don’t even need to think about global warming because only God can destroy the earth or avoid making decisions because ‘it’s in God’s hands’). As long as her beliefs don’t make her skirt personal responsibility or make irrational decisions, then I don’t need her to think exactly the same as I do.
One of the snags is that she wants children who believe in God like she does. She wants them to go to church – despite the fact that she doesn’t really believe in Christianity. She likes to pray because it gives her a minute to think about her friends and what their needs are (not because she believes God will actually answer prayers). She also started going to mass recently – not because the teaching is divine, but because the priest gives a little nugget of wisdom to think about. I’m not quite sure what to think about it exactly. I would feel silly sitting in church listening to a priest/preacher teach something that I know isn’t true, plus I often see them making factual errors. To me, most religious teachings just sound like a bunch of fiction that people made up because it feels good to believe it. At the same time, if we did have kids, I wouldn’t want to be that Dad that stays home when mom took the kids to church. I remember families like that when I was growing up, and I always hated that. Admittedly, I was a Christian at the time.
(All of this makes me think about the Christians who claim that atheism is just something people believe because it’s the easy way to do what we want. Well, atheism is not the easy way when it comes to relationships and living in a predominantly theist nation.)
The whole thing has caught me a little off-guard. Assuming we got married and had kids, we could end up going to church. She would believe in God, but not really in Christianity. I wouldn’t believe in God or religion. Yet, we’d be showing up to church every Sunday? Are there other people like that? I understand that there are probably some “Christians” who go to church as part of a program to “climb the social ladder”. I also realize there are churches that aren’t Christian (so “church” doesn’t necessarily mean “Christian”). A friend of mine who is Buddhist goes to a church which has a series of speakers from different religions. I’m probably less opposed to that – if for no other reason than the fact that I like to hear what people believe. Although, I would probably still be irritated by the stream of feel-good fiction supported by zero evidence, which exists in all religions.
Personally, I don’t really have a need for feel-good fiction. Some people do. I have to wonder about the ability of atheism and agnosticism to really make much headway with people who hold beliefs in a generic God and enjoy believing it. At least these people are unlikely to stand in the way of science (say, in the evolution-creation debate) or dogmatically assert that homosexuality is wrong and we need to support Israel or invade a country because “God told me”. I can’t help but wonder how much “generic religion” is on the rise in the US, whether people continue to practice religious ritual because it feels good and gives people a community, and whether people are showing up to Christian churches out of belief in a generic God.