Belief in God

Do You Believe in God? This question makes most people wary, because we don’t all agree on who or what God is, let alone where God is, or how God might be contacted.

A Concept or an Awareness

“God” is not a well-defined concept. If one is asked about belief in democracy, capitalism, climate change, or name recognition of a public figure, it is possible to give some kind of an answer, because most people do share concepts of democracy, capitalism, the weather and know something about some public figures. People even just nominally attached to a theistic religion such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam can easily say “yes , I believe in God.” For other people, the answer one chooses will depend on what one perceives to be the agenda of the person posing the question.

Some people say they have a direct awareness of God -- more than just a concept. God may be perceived as a personality who can communicate. Many Christians claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who they think is a manifestation of God. All through history, mystics have made contact with the divine. For those who have this awareness, belief in God is natural and obvious. For the rest of us, belief in God is a matter of faith.

If one person answers the belief in God question with “I am a Christian,” and another answers “I am a Muslim,” we can be sure that when both are asked to describe how God works in the world, they will produce two quite different stories. To start with, two different scriptures will be referenced.

Even two people both answering “I am an atheist” will tell different tales when getting into the details of belief. Atheists don’t necessarily agree on what they have rejected.


Christianity, Judaism and Islam clearly do not share a common concept of God. It sure sounds like they ought to, but they don’t. All three religions claim to worship the one God of Abraham described in the Bible; this makes them all monotheistic. But wait -- if they all worship the one God, why do they remain three very separate religions? The One God they share can't get them all on the same page for divine worship?

Maybe there really is no single concept of God. Perhaps the awareness of God reported by mystics is derived from many different sources. Are most mystics kidding themselves?

Pew Poll

A pollster has had a go at the question of belief in God.

Between 2011 and 2013, a Pew Research Center survey asked a question:

“Is belief in God essential to morality?”

The question was posed to 40,080 people in 40 countries. This website describes the poll and gives the detailed results.

In summary, the Pew poll found that:

In Africa and most of the Middle East, a strong majority is sure that believing in God is necessary in order to be a moral person, ranging from Egypt(95%) to Lebanon(69%). In Israel only 37% responded yes. Evidently no poll was taken in Saudi Arabia or Iran, perhaps because both countries are theocracies.

In Asian and South American countries, a belief in in God is thought central to having good values by a majority of respondents in: Indonesia(99%); Malaysia(89%); Philippines(99%); El Salvador(93%); Brazil(86%).

It goes the other way in the highly developed countries. Most people in those places do NOT think belief in God is necessary for morality. Only 15% of the French population answered the Pew question in the affirmative; Spain(19%); Australia(23%); Britain(20%); Italy(27%); Canada(31%); Germany(33%); Israel(37%).

In the US, about 53% think that belief in God is essential to morality. Many of these Americans believe that atheists and agnostics lack a divine moral base – that these nonbelievers are essentially living in sin. These days, it’s a rare US politician who will deny belief in God, at least in public. Americans are notably more religious than the French or the English. The USA is not a theocracy, even though some US evangelical fundamentalists would like to have it that way --- for a large lump of the American electorate, being an atheist is being evil – something like being a witch used to be.

Atheists in Prison Cells?

Interestingly, this American attitude toward atheism conflicts with a study by a research analyst at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which determined that atheists are thoroughly underrepresented in prisons -- the places where immoral people such as rapists, thieves and murderers tend to end up. While atheists make upward of 15 percent of the U.S. population, they only make up 0.2 percent of the prison population.

Options for a God Concept?

Should the Pew Poll have provided respondants with possibilities for a God Concept, or does than make the poll too complicated?

Neither Pew nor any other pollster for God ever prefaces their belief question with a multiple-choice list of possible concepts of God. One single concept is always assumed to be self-evident to everyone. This may be a bad assumption.

So What Do People Agree On About God?

The Pew poll did find one thing. Whether God is thought of as a patriarchal white-bearded man who lives up in the sky, or an invisible immaterial spirit who lives everywhere, nearly everyone agrees that God is the definer of morality. God personifies the ultimate authority; God is the source of the rules by which people should live.

God Had to be Invented?

God, at least the definition of God, is quite likely a human invention. In 1768, the French philosopher Voltaire famously remarked “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Perhaps Voltaire meant that people require an outside authority in order to compel their moral behavior. After societies become large, the moral authority of the leader of one’s family or tribe was not enough.

In the days before monotheism, people acknowledged many gods. Every nation, every tribe, even every major city had its own god – the law-giver and protector of that group of people. The Judeo-Christian God got started as one of these tribal gods. When one group of people conquered another, it was thought that the god of the invader had been shown to be more powerful than the god of the people subjected.

Origin of Monotheism

Polytheism has a God for every aspect of Nature or of human activity. In ancient times. some people required a solid object to touch, such as a statue thought to represent a god. During some sacred seasons, the statue was thought to be inhabited by the god’s spirit.

Back in about 1300 BCE, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten tried out monotheism. For a while, Egypt abandoned its traditional polytheism in favor of worship centered on the sun god Aten. This monotheism didn’t take; most Egyptians preferred polytheism. After the death of Akhenaten, traditional religious practice was gradually restored. Later rulers discredited Akhenaten and his immediate successors. It is possible that Akhenaten’s monotheism survived among a minority group and became the Hebrew monotheism, which Moses brought out to the promised land.

The God of monotheism originally was thought to allow worship of other gods, as long as they were understood to be subordinate divinities. The Greek and Roman pantheons both had a top level “father god” (Zeus/Jupiter).

God's Wrath

So, if God is the altimate authority who defines morality, how does God his laws? Bible scripture, especially if thought to be divinely inspired, provides a written definition of morality, but what does God do if his laws are violated? Plague? Hurricane? Drought? Earthquake? Economic depression? There are some preachers who see all major storms and floods as evidence of God’s displeasure with some people’s moral behavior. The Bible tells stories about God communicating displeasure verbally, using Isaiah or some other prophet as a spokesperson.

No Pictures of God

Judaism’s Jehovah made it clear that there would be no worshiping of idols or graven images. There is no pictorial representation of the One God. A dodge around this representation restriction is showing pictures of holy people, those thought to be in some way inhabited by God. Jesus, considered to be both God and man, is shown in art as a tall, long-haired, bearded, handsome male figure wearing a robe. Muslims strictly forbid any artistic representation of Allah or Mohammed. The Buddha might be considered inhabited by the divine; it's not clear whether any of those chubby dreamy Buddhist statues look anything like Siddhartha, the man who became the Buddha.

God the Holy Spirit

Another popular concept (not elicited by that Pew survey) is that God is an immaterial spirit. It is not possible to see God, touch God, to shake its hand. It may be possible to be personally punished by immaterial God.

Other Issues

Does God pervade the universe and guide it? Is our perception of the laws of physics an illusion? Does the universe actually run under God’s detailed control – or maybe on divine whim?

Just when and where do we get divine intervention? Is a major hurricane the result of God being unhappy about same-sex marriage? Did God really destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Does God really punish us today for our immorality? Does God even punish us for our wars? What’s a good example of something sure to result in God’s wrath? How do we distinguish the wrath from bad weather or bad luck?

And what about the “one true religion” claim? Is there any more basis for that than for the notion that there is one God?

My Personal Concept of God

I don't think I'm an atheist. I'm almost sure I'm not a polytheist.

I call myself a "minimal polytheist" because I believe in exactly two (2) gods.

I'm aware of "cosmic god," which is not a personality, but the mysterious reason for why the universe exists, is so awesomly huge and appears to run on laws of physics. Praying to cosmic god may make one feel good, but I don't think cosmic god is listening.

I'm aware of "god within us." I think we generate our own morality as the result of our collective experience, and an instinct for group preservation. God within us is approachable by prayer, because we can talk with our fellow humans. This God is as close as I get to the traditional God of Judaism, Islam or Christianity.

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