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14. Belief in God

When we ask whether there is such a thing as God, which god are we talking about? The one of Christianity, Islam or the many gods of Hinduism or the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon? That in itself indicates this question is problematic to say the least. I read somewhere that there are some 5,000 different gods currently worshipped by humanity, and all those believers assume that they worship the "true" god or gods…

The idea of God or gods stems, probably, from a projection of the idea of self, the needs of the individual in an environment that was/is dangerous and unpredictable and a projection of the leader of a tribe/state. We created God in our own image.

There have been several attempts throughout history to prove the existence of god or gods. Such a proof was not intended to show that god or gods actually exist, but that they should exist based on philosophical or logical arguments. But, alas, for every proof, counter-evidence has been found. See, for example this article.

The existence of God or gods has not been proven (for now). At the same time, it is logically impossible to prove the non-existence of God, or anything else. For that, see an (unpublished) article by Bertrand Russel, in which he says the following:

"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."

Bertrand Russel, in this article

Another analogy is one from Carl Sagan:

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage"
"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle — but no dragon.
"Where's the dragon?" you ask.
"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.
"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."
Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."
You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick."

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Thus, the existence or non-existence of God or gods is clearly a matter of belief and not a scientific fact. Religeous people, however, do not need proof. Non-believing people do. In fact, there is a whole range of possible views, as is the case with all ultimate answers. A good example of the many possible answers to this ultimate question is Anne Provoost's "religiometer", where you can choose from a number of answers to the question, "Is there an overarching universal principle?" See here for a more extensive article, which is in Dutch.

In "The God Delusion", Richard Dawkins states that "the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other. He then proposes a continuous "spectrum of probabilities" between two extremes of opposite certainty, which can be represented by seven "milestones." These "milestones" are:

  1. Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of Carl Jung, "I do not believe, I know."
  2. De facto theist. Very high probability but less than 100%. "I am not sure, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that He is there."
  3. Tends toward theism. Higher than 50% but not very high. "I am very unsure, but I tend to believe in God."
  4. Completely non-partisan. Exactly 50%. "God's existence and non-existence are exactly equivalent."
  5. Tends toward atheism. Lower than 50%, but not very low. "I don't know if God exists, but I tend to be skeptical."
  6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but not much more than zero. "I'm not sure, but I think God is very unlikely, and I live my life assuming he's not there."
  7. Strongly atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction that Jung knows there is."

Dawkins argues that while there seem to be plenty of individuals who would place themselves as "1" because of the strictness of religious doctrine against doubt, most atheists do not consider themselves "7" because atheism stems from a lack of evidence, and evidence can always change a right-thinking person's mind. In print media, Dawkins called himself a "6," but when interviewed by Bill Maher and later by Anthony Kenny, he suggested that "6.9" would be more accurate. Source: Article in Wikipedia

I consider myself a '6' as well.

Deep religious belief

There are those who say that they are absolutely certain that their immortal, God-created souls will end up in an afterlife and that their actions and thoughts in life will affect the kind of afterlife that awaits them. These believers will not be convinced by any reasonable (counter) evidence. Indeed, their belief is of a different order than that of reason. Not all religion is about probability, certainty, or agreement with various truth claims. If it were, it would probably be soon done with most religiosity. There is an aspect to religion that is completely beyond the reach of reason, something that in turn is incomprehensible to a rationalist like myself.

Ludwig Wittgenstein spoke about this in "Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief" (L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Reflections, Boom, 1998). He points out that it is impossible to assess religious belief as a cognitive language game. For a believer, attitude and action are far more important than scientific or reasonable criteria. After all, it is about his or her life!

I must say that reading Wittgenstein on this was an eye-opener for me. What is an academic discussion for me is something quite different for a deeply religious person! But in any case, conversely, their belief cannot convince me, because, like Wittgenstein, I do rely on reason, and that in the same way I do not believe - and cannot believe - in gnomes or in God - and do so because there is no evidence for the existence of either. Whereas the believer simply does not need proof! I, on the other hand, do. And we both can't help it, I'm afraid. As baffling as this is to me, apparently there are spiritual attitudes that are completely incompatible. There is not much choice but to accept it and let go of my arrogance toward those "ignorant believers." But I do not understand it, nor am I jealous.

I do understand that there can be a big difference between a grounded, religious faith and all kinds of superficial new age spirituality and superstition, but it is still only belief, not knowledge and certainly not knowing. And so the difference is at most a gradual difference in attitude.


Not believing can also be a special form of believing. You can be supposedly "convinced" that God doesn't exist and be a member of atheist Facebook groups, but that doesn't mean you know that God doesn't exist. Okay, you say, but there is no conclusive evidence at all for the existence of God, is there? No, but neither is there any evidence to the contrary.

Also, it sometimes seems that atheists necessarily think they are right and are sometimes as fanatical as any Muslim fundamentalist. If you think something doesn't exist, what are you worried about? Stronger: maybe a God does exist, you just can't know for sure!

And many people who call themselves atheist or non-religious think of religiosity only in terms of the practices of the major, formal religions: going to church on Sundays or Saturdays, praying five times a day in the direction of Mecca, participating in all sorts of rituals such as fasting, baptism and church marriage. At the same time, many of these people see no harm in burning a candle for someone, attending séances or donating food to an ancestor. There is much more belief than the "official" expressions of established religions. See also, this article.