What do I look like to the believer? Many atheists bristle at the mention of God, and slap him down and fix their definitions to His face as if that changes His nature.
So listen to me when I say: The way I write and act is all to do with the great war between Empathy and the Desire to Dominate. I suspect it is the same for many other atheists.
I have watched enough history to know that religious morality is at times self-contradictory (when two denominations can preach different things about homosexuals from the same holy book, say) and at times aberrant. In practical terms, being a part of a religion and believing in God does not prevent you from committing atrocities, or allowing them to happen. Even if you spend your life fighting for justice and truth, a group of people who are theoretically your co-religionists will always be among those who oppose you and fight for authoritarianism on Earth.
Many of my friends, online and in person, explicitly believe in God, and they are fine and upstanding people. But it is this use of the word God that aggrieves me. Murtaza, who is very much on my side, tells me that God can only exist in this world in human form, which humanizes God to a great extent and makes him into a caring teacher. But this view is entirely compatible with the common beliefs that the true God is power incarnate, God is the determinant of all moral law, God is who you owe your life to. And these beliefs are in turn compatible with far darker ones. You didn’t listen to the teachings, and God made it perfectly clear that you deserved hell for turning away from him. You deserve to be tortured eternally because you aren’t convinced by my ‘profound mystery’. The object of Torture is Torture, yes! Let me go find my thumbscrews.
Do you see? One moment God can be calling your name from heaven, the next he can burn entire populations alive, all with a sense of his own righteousness.
It is this compatibility which is at the heart of the problem for religious people. That the use of the word God to describe so many things makes God’s message impossible to find among the noise of so many beliefs.
For example, you may know these three apologetics arguments that all end with a similar phrase: “we call this first cause God“, or “we call this unifying force of nature God“, or “we call this resurrected human God“. Here, one word is ascribed to three very different things. Is God the creator of the laws of the universe, or is He the beautiful law binding the universe together, or is He the incarnated person of Jesus? In my limited experience, God just becomes whatever you want him to be at the time. Once more, His nature is compatible with many things that are mutually incompatible. This may be what makes religious people so agonizingly tenacious in an argument; even if they understand that (say) what they call God, an atheist would call an unknown causative agent or series of infinite receding causes, they can retreat to one of the many other things that are God and the argument begins again – sometimes even proceeding in a circle. The great Christian theologian and debater William Lane Craig once said that even if all his apologetics arguments were defeated, his personal experience with God would be more than enough proof. Oh deary me.
To ask the religious to let go of the word God is a whimsically unrealistic task. Oh well. I started with myself.
Incidentally, the word ‘atheism’ has almost the opposite problem as God does. The word precisely and simply defines whether you believe in a personal God – and says nothing of your personal ethics. Many people feel that we require a new name for the moral, empathic Atheism, and though some names have already been devised, I find none as satisfactory as the original. So that’s why I’m still an atheist, with a lower-case a, sharing a rather risky categorization with the likes of Stalin.