I do not deny or defend the existence of God. My agnostic approach to the Divinity, which I expressed in a recent article, generated quite a variety of reactions. The notes at the extremes, from radical atheists or ardent believers, were both much more intolerant than open-minded. Out of the received comments, I assigned the gold medal to someone who defined agnostic as “an atheist who does not want to come out.” Does this mean that I feel comfortable in my skeptical seclusion? I do not think so; it is not comfort but realism. It is impossible to accept or reject something that is confusing.
Agnosticism claims that human understanding has no access to notions such as the Divinity that are beyond direct experience and the scientific method. Many thinkers agree. Mythologist Joseph Campbell defines God as “a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.”
The difficulty with the notion of God is that, due to its abstract nature, every religion has its own version of Him, and its followers eventually develop their own personal profile of their Creator. (Every devotee, of course, considers other faiths’ gods as fictitious and mythological). Likewise, atheists should also have an accurate idea of the god they are rejecting; before denying something we should have a representation of it—you cannot say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a puzzling question.
There should not be such confusion. Dictionaries generally have only one entry on the ‘Almighty God’: “the Supreme Being worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.” The interpretation of God, however, is dynamic. As belief systems disseminate to other societies or they are enforced on them, they change the mores of the conquered culture but, in the process, the newly converted also adjust the invading religion to their own habits. Consequentially, there are many versions of every creed.
Christians and Muslims worship one single God but their numerous branches have remarkable differences in their saints and angels as well as in their beliefs and rituals. Hindus are amazing: They can be monotheists, polytheists, atheists or agnostics. What brings Hinduism together is their principle of unity in all existence. Could such principle correspond to the God of other faiths? The Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi Devi says, “God is pure Consciousness that dwells within everything.”
There is no possibility of agreement on what Divinity is. Some definitions are less rigid. For architect Frank Lloyd Wright, God is “the great mysterious motivator of what we call nature”; for novelist Leo Tolstoy, “that infinite All of which man knows himself to be a finite part”; for philosopher Baruch Spinoza, “the orderly harmony of what exists”; for biologist Stuart Kauffman,” the ceaseless creativity of the universe.” You have to accept, atheist friends, these interpretations are rich points of view.
If we are to argue about the notion of God, we must first delimit the subject to discuss. (Right up front, agnostics, say, “we pass”). Religious wars start out of non-sense because the God of each cult is ‘the only and absolute truth’ for His followers.
Religions originated both from our curiosity about the remote start of everything (where did we come from? how did all this start?) and from the fear of our uncertain end (where will we go when we turn off the engine?).
According to cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, among many other scientists, before the big bang that supposedly started the universe, there was nothing—neither matter nor energy nor space nor time. With apologies to the atheists, for me to accept such statement is an act of supreme faith. (The math involved is beyond my brain’s skills.) Musing over so huge mystery, American science journalist Steve Nadis suggests that, while the universe itself may have resulted from nothing— explain, please!— the laws of physics had to be in place beforehand “to govern the something-from-nothing moment that gave rise to our universe and the eternal inflation that followed”. These laws of physics, I add, could well be another definition of God, quite different from all the previous ones.
Atlanta, August 8, 2013