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The debate over the existence of God is an ancient one, but in modern times this debate has been sullied by the unbearable blattings of woefully unsophisticated and gratingly unapologetic empiricists who first insist on one trivial definition of God or another, and then proceed to point out the fact that there is no physical evidence for their carefully chosen definition, and thus no reason to think that God exists.
Since this problem begins with definitions, I will start with a simple look at a dictionary.
I keep a cheap paperback dictionary by my desk for simple spelling and usage reference. In it, I found:
"God (god) n. 1. God, the creator and ruler of the universe in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim teaching."
The entry goes on for a while after that. Better dictionaries have much longer entries, and there are plenty of conflicting ideas in the various dictionary definitions. But let's start with the first one, which I've quoted above.
I didn't research the matter at great length, but I did look into a bit of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim teaching, and lo and behold, there was the idea of God, the creator and ruler of the universe. God, therefore, according to the first definition I found in the first dictionary I opened, does, in fact, exist.
Now this is, I'll admit, all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but there is a serious point to be made here, one whose consequences are seldom explored by the mental juveniles who waste everyone's time with their dull rehashing of the pink burden of unicorn proof, or whatever other pet syllogism they might fancy.
To start with, God exists as an idea so widely recognized as to have its own word, with that word appearing in just about every general reference book you can find. God as idea exists just as surely as the ideas of love or negative numbers or extraterrestrial intelligent life exist. Moreover, if we sift through reference books for a while, we find that god exists as a particular type of idea; God exists as an ideal. God, in this aspect, exists as surely as human rights and international law and feudalism exist. Finally, God can be said to exist as a living component of society, as an ideal or collection of ideas that many people currently try to organize their lives around, though there are variances in the interpretation from one nation or component of society to another. In this last regard, God exists as surely as Democracy exists.
To prove that God exists in this manner, as a sociological or anthropological artifact, one need only open a newspaper. Since I am in a somewhat playful mood, I will now coin a term to refer to acknowledgement of this socially defined existence of God, a term calculated to infuriate some of the more infantile evangelical atheists I've run across: weak theism.
This incontrovertible existence of God, this easily observed sociological phenomenon, has nothing to do with the sort of material or physical God that immature atheists are so eager to debunk. Interestingly, accepting this phenomenological definition of God gives acknowledgement of God's existence exactly the sort of predictive power that stubborn atheists are so fond of demanding. For example, if we acknowledge the sociological existence of God, then we can predict, for example, that a new abortion clinic will meet with greater protest in a community where God's existence is more strongly expressed.
In fact, a great many self-described atheists admit to weak theism when they bemoan the countless atrocities committed in the name of God throughout the centuries. To fault belief in God for these acts is to admit the existence of God as a powerful ideal capable of directing human affairs.
Now there are, I suspect, many theists who would regard this description of weak theism as heresy, not least because it describes God exclusively in terms of Man. There are probably a few people out there who mean to imply nothing more than weak theism when they claim to "believe in God," but I suspect most theists have a broader conception of the almighty.
There are, regrettably, those who insist on the existence of a material God. They posit a hand on a lever behind the Big Bang, or a vast conspiracy of atoms, whispered behind Heisenberg's screen, or perhaps an unseen thumb on the quantum scales, tipping the random into the deliberate. I will not say that believers of this ilk are idiots, but in addition to providing the figures on which the bleating atheist children model their men of straw, they engage in an activity that I suspect is exactly what is cautioned against when one is advised to avoid attempts to know the nature of God. We might refer to belief in a physical God in nature as materialist theism.
In addition to the weak theist and the materialist theist, there are a great many theists who, while they don't seek to place God in nature, do believe that God has some greater meaning or reality. After all, God to the weak theist is more real than a unicorn only in the sense that God represents more, and to more people, than the unicorn. The unicorn exists as well, of course, as a widely understood mythological character, but the breadth, complexity, and currency of the unicorn are far less than those of God. Similarly, the pink unicorn quite clearly exists, but its existence is even less consequential than that of the unicorn, as the pink unicorn, existing solely (and ironically) as a rhetorical device deployed by unschooled atheists to demonstrate nonexistence, lacks the extra symbolic attributes of the more mythologically grounded non-pink unicorn.
For those who regard God as something beyond a more current and vastly more complicated unicorn, there are many avenues of belief available. At this point, I'd like to nod in the direction of the dual nature of the phrase "believe in," meaning both "consider to be real or credible" and "put one's faith or trust in." I will make no further note of this, as it is surely familiar ground by now, but it might be interesting to keep the dual meanings in mind in what follows.
To many theists, belief in God is belief in absolute (though perhaps never perfectly known) morality. It is belief in a discoverable right and wrong. Theology, to such a believer (and comparative religion too) is, in large part, an ongoing effort to more closely approximate our human understanding to that absolute. In such a context, to say that one "believes in God" might imply that one believes that the human ideal can be approached through the study of and devotion to God.
There are many other non-material definitions of God, and countless means of extending weak theism to lend greater significance to God. I will not describe or even attempt to list these possibilities, but I will outline one that ought to appeal to the wankers who spend too much of their time composing point-by-point rebuttals to post on the inter-worldly web-net.
The particular extension of weak theism that I have in mind is one implied by the very first words of the Bible. If we take the notion that in the beginning there was the Word, and that the Word was God, then we might situate God in the act of communication, or even go so far as to define God as language itself. In this conception, to place God above the material world is to place communication before object. An agreeable moral code might be built on this foundation, though I'm sure there would be some quarreling over the details.
Those who are uncomfortable pondering anything beyond the material need not feel left out of this little study: consider Physics. In modern physics, it is thought by many that the four fundamental forces of the universe might all be explained by the emission and absorption of particles (indeed, only gravitation is in any doubt); in other words, the forces of the universe can all be attributed to a single basic form of communication. Thus, according to our definition, particle exchange would be the manifestation of God in the physical world.
Please do not mistake that last wanky notion for my own belief, as I
am hardly prone to such pop-science nonsense in my personal
theological musings. Indeed, the origins of this short essay lie in a
exercise, one which I felt obligated to take up after a bit of goading
provoked an adequate response.
Though the issuer
of the initial challenge, sadly, does not seem to be able to meet the
terms of his own game, I would encourage those who are able and
willing to continue in the original spirit of the exercise.