Do you believe in God, and does it matter?

Ultimately, the question, ‘Do you believe in God?’ is a deeply personal one, and people's responses may vary for a wide range of reasons, argues Gurnam Singh

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By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

Do you believe in God, and does it matter? Though I am rarely asked this question, when I am, my reaction in typical academic parlance goes something like, ‘hmmm…”, followed by a non-committal, “yes and no!”

Pressed further to get off the fence, I would say something like, “It all depends on what you mean by ‘believe’ and ‘God’?” Often, those who are very certain about their belief in God will simply see my answer as ridden with doubt. Hence, they will assume I am a ‘non-believer’ who is not willing to state this as the case for any reason. My take is simple, whether one ‘believes in God’ or not is less significant than the fact that such belief pervades our culture, language and perhaps even our psychology.

The main problem with this question is that one is presented with a rather polarised position, what philosophers term a ‘Manichean argument’. This is derived from the Iranian prophet Mani in the 3rd century CE and, in very basic terms, it refers to a dualistic approach that divides the world or a particular issue into two opposing and irreconcilable forces or principles, often representing good and evil. Indeed, it is this kind of binary oppositional thinking that lies at the core of many ongoing religious conflicts, both within and between different traditions.

Throughout the history of at least 50,000, each human society has developed its peculiar ways of expressing beliefs in ‘God/s’, spirits and spirit worlds, or what philosophers refer to as metaphysical forms, places and forces. However, though manifest in a wide range of practices and rituals, there is overwhelming archaeological, anthropological and historical evidence that such beliefs are universal.

In terms of where/how such beliefs originate, broadly speaking, there are two explanations: The first being that they are born out of the uniquely human ability associated with language, and creativity, to develop complex culture and at a personal level, a theory of self that allows us to imagine our existence beyond the physical realm. The second, and in some sense’s simpler explanation, is that the prevalence of such beliefs is evidence of the presence of a metaphysical entity, commonly referred to as God, that is not bound by time and space, that can impose its will on all of existence, including human beings.

So, the question arises, do we will or create God or does God will or create us? If the answer to this is the former, namely, that God is a manifestation of the human imagination, then one is normally categorised as a ‘non-believer’. Conversely, if it is the latter, namely, that a metaphysical, all-powerful, all-pervasive entity does exist and that it creates the universe and all that exists, including humans, then one is normally referred to as a ‘believer’.

However, given the pervasive nature of faith and belief in human consciousness and culture, answering the question “Do you believe in God?” is not as straightforward as the likes of Richard Dawkins author of the ‘God Delusion’ will have you believe. Why, because ‘belief’ in anything is not such a black-and-white affair and second, the meaning of this question will depend on the context, perspectives and lived experiences of the respondents.

That is to say, belief in God/s, spirits or the supernatural is fundamental to human existence/nature and our evolutionary journey as a species! If that is the case, then in some senses, even if we reject the idea of God, we are impacted by the beliefs associated with a divine/spiritual/supernatural aspect of human culture and psychology!

The idea that God is real because we can perceive this to be the case in our minds is sometimes referred to as the ‘ontological argument’. There are many versions of this but broadly speaking, the ontological argument begins with imagining the possibility of an all-powerful being (God) existing in our world or all possible worlds, whether they are physical or not. It is then logically possible for God to exist in reality. An alternative perspective on this argument can be framed as follows: Even when one chooses to dismiss their belief in God, it inherently involves acknowledging the concept they are rejecting, as it is impossible to reject something that lacks existence. The simple counter-argument here would be that, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, then evil should not exist, hence, there is no such God.

Another way to understand what lies behind the question of belief in God is to think of it as a portal to many other existential questions that take us beyond the confines of religion regarding the nature of existence, the origin of the universe and indeed, the meaning of life itself.

Another complication with responding to this question is the word ‘God’. While professional philosophers may well be able to take a nuanced view of the noun, its use in everyday discourse, is profoundly impacted by cultural references and symbolism. And so, despite prohibitions by many of the religious traditions, God is most typically represented in the image of an elderly white man with long hair and a beard, dressed in white robes. Indeed, even the noun ‘God’ as opposed to ‘Goddess’, implies male gender! Such popular conceptions of God would suggest he is simply a socially and culturally constructed idea that every so often gets a makeover.

If we go further and enquire where the noun ‘God’ originates, one uncovers a complex set of historical and cultural processes. Though the noun has become universally recognised, it is also the case that each faith tradition has its names for its respective divine entities. This has resulted in a rich tapestry of names reflecting the diversity and complexity of human spiritual expression.

Most typically the term “God” is associated with Christianity, though within this tradition, various names and titles are used. For example from the Old Testament, the names “Jehovah”, and “Yahweh”, which is also used by Jews, can be found and the Hebrew term “Adonai,” meaning “Lord,” is often employed in worship and prayer.

In Islam, the Arabic word “Allah” serves as the universal name for the divine, though there is a reference to Allah having 99 names reflecting the multifaceted nature of the divine in Islamic theology. Interestingly, you can find cultural terms for God transcending faith traditions as is the case in the Punjab region, where the term “Rabb” is used by Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians to refer to God.

In Hinduism, ‘Braham’ is the term deployed for the formless ultimate reality, though this tradition is also known for its polytheistic perspectives and diverse pantheon of deities and rituals. Whilst ritual forms a central aspect of Buddhism, most notably worshipping the Buddha, because it rejects the idea of a supreme deity, there is no name for God as such.

Like Buddhism, Sikhi has no specific noun for ‘God’ and references to the supreme are mostly expressed about expressions of wonderment, such as ‘Waheguru,’ literally meaning ‘praise to the entity that provides enlightenment’, ‘Satguru’ or ‘true enlightened entity’, and ‘Paramatma’ or the ‘primordial, transcendent soul’. Sikh teachings do not condemn the development of descriptive nouns of which there are many, but it makes it clear that the divine boundless true entity cannot have a name. Guru Arjan, the 5th Sikh Guru and compiler of the Ad Granth or prime sacred text of the Sikhs in Maroo Rag p 1082 states that “though I chant the many Names given to You with my tongue your true and primal name is truth. Elsewhere in the Jaap scripture attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, which forms part of the daily Sikh prayers, though there is great emphasis on the nature of the Divine as devoid of form, colour, caste, race, gender, birth and death, there are 950 descriptive names attributed to God.

The fact that there are countless names for the divine across different religious traditions serves as a testament to the rich tapestry of humanity and the deep connections between human evolution, culture, psychology and belief. The names that each tradition has developed for the divine aspects of existence, range from nouns that associate God with certain divine characteristics, to actual words that a faith tradition claims to be the name of God, such as ‘Allah’ in Islam, not only provide a glimpse into the theological nuances of each faith but also highlights the shared human inclination to seek a connection with the divine, which may be expressed in both religious or secular traditions.

Ultimately, the question, ‘Do you believe in God?’ is a deeply personal one, and people’s responses may vary for a wide range of reasons. It’s a question that continues to ignite existential discussions for centuries, and in that regard, it does matter. However, perhaps it is time to move away from such a black-and-white approach to belief and faith and adopt a more open approach that can encourage open reflection on what motivates and unites people of various beliefs in their quest for a better appreciation of the sacred, divine and spiritual aspects of life.

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.

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