Lots of reasons exist to not believe in God. Many good and honest people simply do not see how the universe as they know it can be reconciled with popular concepts of a Supreme Being.
One challenging concept – a personal God – may seem absurd. A huge, unbridgeable gap exists between a person who has been given life and requires a host of other givens to survive, and a Creator independent of any need. Indeed, we seem to have inherited the concept of a person-like God from the classical Greeks and Romans, whose multiple mythical gods were a little bit too much like people. Ultimately, whoever or whatever God is, that God must be far beyond our comprehension by definition. The founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, has perhaps said it best, explaining:
Ten thousand Prophets, each a Moses, are thunderstruck upon the Sinai of their search at His [God’s] forbidding voice, “Thou shalt never behold Me!”; whilst a myriad Messengers, each as great as Jesus, stand dismayed upon their heavenly thrones by the interdiction, “Mine Essence thou shalt never apprehend! – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 62.
But the God revealed in this quote from Baha’u’llah still seems person-like, expressed as a “Me” in the verse above. So, even for those who understand how incomprehensible God must be, there is some sense in which God must be like us – or rather we must be like the God who created us. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic-Baha’i tradition, we are made in the image of God, and in the Hindu tradition we are too – because our self dissolves in the Self of the Supreme, and is part of the same substance, as the Adhyatma Upanishad explains.
We don’t need to believe in anything literal when we consider a personal God – instead, we can conceive of God as like us only in the sense that we can experience God as somewhat familiar, an intimate. In this sense, God is near, immanent, within us.
But we usually understand the notion of a personal God as a contrast to an impersonal or transcendent Creator – and philosophers have long since understood that God must be both personal and impersonal. A Supreme Being must be immanent, because we are connected to God; and transcendent, because God is greater than us. Though we may experience inspired thoughts about God, in the end they are just limited human thoughts. Indeed, the Bible explains that God declares: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways …” – Isaiah 55:8-9. So, God is like us and not like us – a mystery and a conundrum beyond our ability to comprehend.
The notion of a personal God also gives those of us who use the English language, and others similarly encumbered by gender distinctions, the habit of ascribing a gendered pronoun to God – usually “He.” But few really think of God as male, and any such preference for representing God as male is easily countered by the awareness that the God within us could also be represented as female. But while God is clearly beyond gender, a one not a two, a whole not a half; on occasion, God must be referenced in gendered form to reproduce or match literary custom, or simply to follow the rules of a particular language.
Beyond the limitations language imposes when we consider a personal God, other problems arise. How can we square the notion of a personal God who cares for us, like a person, with the impersonal destruction we see inflicted upon innocents all the time in the natural world? This does not seem like something a person-like God would allow – if that Creator cared about creation.
So here we arrive at Voltaire’s objection in Candide to Leibniz’s argument that because God is perfect, this must be the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire’s rakish rejoinder to Liebniz’s argument explored what he saw as comical and absurd extensions of this thought.
Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a more perfect world. For example, a world without floods, tornadoes and earthquakes would be nice. What is hard to know, however, are the effects of living in a world where nothing can go wrong. Indeed, the possibility of terrifying events, like floods, ignites in us the spirit of problem-solving and raises us up, sometimes literally, but always socially and technologically.
It may be, then, that these natural disasters call upon us to participate in making this the best of all possible worlds – and the Creator we worship put this desire for perfection in us. We are, the Bible informs us in the very beginning, made in the image of God, and part of this image seems to manifest itself in us as a continuing desire for perfection. If you believe it, that desire perfectly reflects the Creator – a proof of God’s work in us, and thus a proof of God.
Certainly, people also do bad things, sometimes causing massive suffering. The world would have been better had Hitler found an occupation in his art, his first intention, instead of national politics. So, those inclined toward disbelief ask, how could a caring personal God allow such a travesty?
To remove the possibility of humans doing bad things, however, may not make the world a better place.
A world without choice, a completely prescribed and safe world, would clearly not be a perfect world. We would be automatons. Free will, it seems, is necessary if we are to own any of our choices.
Finally, it may be, as Leibniz argued, that we are simply not in a position to know what is fair or good from the Creator’s perspective. Even the death of innocents, from the Creator’s perspective, may be a good, a relief from suffering. To be fair we must concede that we do not have all the facts. We do not know if in dying we are lost or found, destroyed, transformed or liberated.
The message of religion is that death is not an end, but for innocents and the righteous a beginning in another and more wonderful existence. This is not outside the realm of possibility. Even in this life we have indications that death may not be an end – we find non-being difficult to conceive, and recognize in dreams and ponderings that our soul is not permanently tethered to our body. Could not death be liberation, as the Baha’i teachings say?
O Son of the Supreme! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendor. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom? – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 11.
If we are more than just our bodies, more, as Whitman said, than what is between our hat and boots, and if there is a God, then other worlds of God may open before us at death and welcome us in.
One more thing: it could be, as Jefferson and the deists proposed, that God made the Earth and then left us here to figure it out. That way, a personal God cannot be blamed for our misdeeds – as He’s no longer around. The trouble with this, however, is scripture – any scripture, as the whole point of scripture is that God has not left us alone. Instead, God left us with remembrances, records, and books containing insuperable guidance. Scripture is the story of God’s intervention, as best we understand it, to save us. Even in the forms of Buddhism where God is seldom referenced, scripture still prescribes a spiritual way of life. So our social problems do not provide adequate justification for our failure to see God’s work in history. Indeed, our problems are the reason God must continually intervene, reminding us of the old and also responding to new contingencies.