When faced with the question of “Do you believe in God?” the immediate response should be “Which one?” This query goes to the heart of the inherent ego-centrism of the initial question. Let’s face it, the person uttering it is not at all interested in getting into a long and winding philosophical discussion about metaphysics, the nature of knowledge and the degree to which personal experience is relevant to claims about reality. No, they’re asking whether you belong with them, and by them of course is meant those who believe in their particular deity. The quizzical look that passes at the response is an indication of just how myopic their vision of human experience is, that of course when that funny three-letter word is used, particularly when capitalized, it can only mean the god they believe in. Any others are but pale human-made facsimiles.
The term “god” has no inherent content, it’s like a Platonic form waiting to be filled in by actual experience. At best, “god” can allude to some transcendent principle or being or experience, but beyond that there’s no details as to what any of those actually entails. As when we hear the term “chair” or “table” or “car,” we have an immediate framework for what such means and our minds supply images. Utilizing the proximity principle of cognitive heuristics, the images that come up are often what we saw last or are most often interacting with. Similar occurs then when we hear the term “god.” The mere ability to come up with an immediate image or idea in no way proves the legitimacy of that image or idea, it just points to the tendency of our minds to fill in the gaps of uncertainty. As such we can utilize god to mean anything from a transcendent principle like love or purpose (“god is love”), to a panoply of deities (Hinduism, pagan traditions, etc.), a monolithic supernatural person (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and as synonymous with the holistic quality of being in the universe (Ernest Holmes, Jerry Goldsmith, Ralph Waldo Emerson).
As with “god,” so it is with “religion.” At best we can consider religion to be an identifier for a particular social construct focused on a transcendent purpose, containing rituals that bind people together and may contain the presence of a deity or deities. Nothing here demands the form such rituals take, what people are included in the group or how many or what type of deity is being promoted. For that matter, there’s no reason to even have a deity, at least not in any humanoid form. There is absolutely no necessity for a religion to have any particular deity nor is there any necessity that a religion adhere to any particular set of metaphysics, i.e. belief in a supernatural or a-natural forms or places. This is true regardless of whether such a religion does currently exist or how long any such religion has or will last
All too often when attempting to remove or limit the extent to which conservative supernatural religions employ their concept of deity, humanists and those aligned with similar purpose forget to differentiate between the social structure and particular loathsome or unsubstantiated ideas. Railing against “god” or “religion,” these well-meaning and humanity-promoting individuals miss what is at the root of the problem they’re rightly incensed about.
Rituals are not (barring those which actually do harm) in themselves harmful or anti-human or anti-rational. Each and every one of us partakes in rituals every day, from the way we put our clothes on and brush our teeth to the broad way in which we conduct our lives going through day-after-day of work and personal activities. Rituals give a false sense of control that, with repetition, we smilingly look past their foolishness. Getting rid of them would be like removing fundamental aspects of our humanity. When refusing to acknowledge the very real difference between the particulars and the socialized generalities of “god” and “religion,” there is a link being made between wanting to get rid of one and the other. Little wonder that a common argument against atheists is that atheism or science is a religion or that the same people believe in nothing. The arguments are not foolish, they simply reflect the inevitable linkages people make between life and the demand to create structures of meaning from within it.
The heart of the problem in particular conceptualizations of “god” and the “religious” frameworks that support them is when they cross over from offering potential meaning or potential ways of understanding experience and into being the one and only actual meaning or understanding. God and religion are not the problem faced by humanity, absolutism and its religious form of dogmatism is. A person who fills the concept of “god” with love and understanding is not going to blow up buildings, but a person who believes their “god” is the one and only who’s dictates are never to be questioned certainly will. A person who’s religion is about fellowship through non-judgment and equality is not going to deny basic civil rights based on sexual desire, but a person who’s religion denies skeptical inquiry based on a divine revelation to their eyes and ears only will certainly not hesitate in removing from society those deemed less worthy.
Meaning and purpose are cognitive and social constructs, a means of determining intent in a world that has no similar conscious quality. We are in the world and a part of it through these mechanisms of social cohesion and connection. Only when such sets people apart from each other and demands subjection of self and the skeptical queries of a searching mind do they become a plague. When talking with people who adhere to a god or religion, it is best then to remember that their humanity brought them into such circles and it is their humanity which will bring them out.