Sunday, March 27, 2016

God is neither a question nor an answer. God is irrelevant

It was a tad cool and overcast.  The flag atop the neighbor's was furiously fluttering in the wind.  But, no raindrops. As long as it was dry, well, I couldn't justify not going for a walk.

The full river.
The green shoots of spring on trees.
People jogging.

One does not have to believe in a god to appreciate life.  This is paradise on earth.

I passed a homeless man who was lugging his belongings on an overfilled backpack, with his dog walking alongside.

What is my obligation to that homeless man?

One does not have to believe in a god in order to answer that question.  Bringing god into this is a distraction.  I could choose to help him.  Or, I could ignore his very existence.  I could try convincing myself that it is somebody else's problem.  God is irrelevant to figuring out how to react to the sight of a homeless man in this paradise.

If the case of the homeless person is not convincing enough, consider the following:
•            It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.
•            It is wrong to enslave people.
•            It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.
•            Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required
to try to stop it.
Aren't all those true.  Well, a Dick Cheney or Donald Trump will favor torturing prisoners of war.  But, an overwhelming majority of us--irrespective of what we think about god or any religion--will agree with those statements, right?
To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists.  That seems to me to be a remarkable claim.  If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.?  There’d be nothing wrong with torture?  The pain of another human being would mean nothing?
So, then, what has god got to do with any of those situations?

Over the years, I have come to understand that it is a humongous waste of time to argue over whether or not god exists.  It does not matter one bit.  What matters is how we live our lives, which includes our relationships with fellow humans and with other life forms and non-living matter all around us.  Consider the flowing river.  Will it be ok for me to dump sewage or factory waste into that river?  Or, the joggers.  Would we want to prevent them from enjoying their activity?  Whether it is about slavery or about dumping sewage, why worry about whether or not god exists?

So, back to the homeless person.   He makes me feel uncomfortable.  Not because I worry about the safety of my life or my property, but because I do not know how to react.  Should I ignore him?  Shrug my shoulders and move on?  Should I engage with him and try to help?  Should I donate to the organizations that help the homeless?  If I do not donate, does it make me a bad person?  Do I want to be a good person?  What does it mean to be a good person?  Why have I not figured out the answer despite all these years?

God is irrelevant in trying to sort out these questions.


Ramesh said...

Well, all your regular commenters will heartily disagree. To us ( and I am suspecting Sara is in this camp along with Anne and Mike - she's missing recently by the way), God is important to us and each of us in our own way consider it highly relevant to what and how we are. I respect that you do not find it relevant, but to many of us, the moral compass that you talk about is very much part of what we value in the concept of religion.

The fact that untold atrocities have and are being committed in the name of God does not detract from our beliefs. Religion is very personal and I have lots of problems with it being in the public domain. I don't have an answer to the dilemmas you pose, but I am able to deal with them in my own way because of a belief in God.

Anne in Salem said...

Sriram, you are correct that one does not have to believe in God to appreciate life. Faith and belief in God make the appreciation keener for knowing its source.

I agree with Ramesh's statements. To believers, as he, Mike and I are, faith is more than relevant. It is central to our being, our thoughts and our actions.

But I understand Sriram's point as well. Our obligation to the homeless man, the Syrian refugee, the Boko Haram victim, the person starving in South Sudan, the person in Nepal still struggling to recover from the earthquake, to all fellow human beings is to help in whatever way we can. Faith or faithless, we are all humans and must care for each other. Faith in God is not a requirement for a caring and generous heart, as Sriram and many other atheists demonstrate.

How does God fit into the equation? Faith can provide a framework, a structure. We want to do God's work on earth. We see God in each struggling, suffering person and want to help. Living our faith in this way glorifies God.

For Christians, the Bible says "Just as you did it (fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, etc.) to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Serving others, whether a homeless man or a refugee, is serving God. All people are gifts from God. Knowing that makes serving the struggling easier and more fulfilling. I am not sufficiently conversant in other religions to address this particular aspect for them.

Belief in God adds purpose and richness to actions our humanity requires.

Sriram Khé said...

Looks like Anne has taken care of Ramesh's comments. So, I will focus only on where I begin to disagree with Anne.
"We want to do God's work on earth" is the kind of statement that triggers any number of interpretations and questions. What exactly does god want his/her believers to do? What does god want as a response from a believer who sees the homeless man? Why does a believer think it is ok for an affluent society to have homeless, who are often mentally ill as well?

As we go through example after example, like what you have listed, and the gazillions more out there, it seems all the more odd to me that believers are apparently quite ok with all those problems continuing all around. Which can then mean only one thing: a belief in god does not have to anything about this real world. The belief in a god is nothing but a Pascal's Wager.

Thus, to me, debating whether or not god exists is a waste of time. We could, instead, go around asking ourselves and others, questions like:
What should we do about the homeless?
What should we do about the victims of Boko Haram?
What should we do about female genital mutilation?
What should we do about those lacking drinking water?
What should we do about the glaciers that are melting away?
What should we do about the polluted Ganga?
God is an irrelevant distraction in all these.

Mike Hoth said...

God may be an irrelevant distraction if you choose to turn to him for guidance in every decision (I preached on that once) but religion isn't necessarily supposed to answer every question you have when it comes up. That's what preachers are for!

Joking aside, God is relevant to many when it comes to empathy. When I meet a homeless man or am confronted with refugees and survivors of abuse, I don't pick up my Bible and search for a verse. I recognize that Jesus is my role model and that he would seek to lessen the suffering of those people. Most Muslims would note that charity is one of the pillars of Islam and do their best to assist. God isn't necessary for morality, but the common belief in a God does increase the value of human life. If a being does exist that is more advanced than humans, I think it is very relevant how that being would treat the unfortunate. We seek wisdom on these matters from somebody smarter than we are.

Sriram Khé said...

Re. "We seek wisdom on these matters from somebody smarter than we are."
But, our actions do not even remotely suggest that we are acting wisely ... I refer you to the examples listed ...

Anne in Salem said...

I had so many thoughts running through my mind reading your response to my comment that I had to take time to organize them into coherent answers.

"What does God want His believers to do?" God wants us to care for one another to the best of our ability. If we see a homeless man, we should feed him or clothe him if he would accept such help (Corporal Works of Mercy). We should donate money to responsible charities and follow up with volunteering at food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc. Mike said it well: God wants us to "seek to lessen the suffering."

"Why does a believer think it is ok for an affluent society to have homeless?" "It seems all the more odd to me that believers are apparently quite ok with all those problems continuing all around." Why do you think believers find such situations any more acceptable than non-believers? What is the source of your reasoning behind these statements? Do you think believers should be able to solve these problems simply because they believe in God? Believers don't find these situations any more acceptable than non-believers. We grieve the loss of life, we empathize with the struggle, we mourn the victims like anyone else. And we do what we can through donations and volunteering.

You ask what God has to do with our actions in the face of suffering. God teaches us what to do. He leads by example. In my experience, those who are religious are more generous with time, talent and treasure; more empathetic; and more aware of suffering than non-believers. Of the believers and non-believers I know, the percentage of believers who contribute to charities is significantly higher than the percentage of non-believers who do. The impulse to help seems more natural in believers than in non-believers. God shows us the way. That is why God is not irrelevant to this discussion.

Sriram Khé said...

"God wants us to "seek to lessen the suffering."
My response will be the same as before: our actions do not even remotely suggest that all our actions are consistent with that mandate.
Which is why I keep saying that whether or not god exists, or whether or not one believes in god, becomes irrelevant. The relevant question is if "to lessen the suffering" is the bottom-line, then what should we do about the homeless, about the refugees, about the endless list ...

gils said...

It depends on how one visualizes god. If you identify God in knowledge, in wisdom, in compassion for fellow beings, none of your questions would be deemed irrelevant. If you visualize god as a resident of an architecture of specific kind, it would require you to dive deep to understand how it all synchs up to the questions you've raised and how accurately relevant it becomes. End of it all, whether you call the process of acquiring that knowledge, bask in its wisdom and share it with compassion to fellow beings or simply restrict yourself to the rituals as God, it doesnt matter. Its all one and the same.

Sriram Khé said...

Well, but to the believers who interpret life only according to their gods, they easily close off the empathy faucet when it comes to believers of other gods. The compassion is restricted to the "familiar" ... And that was the point of departure in a different post: