This week I offer you a short post on a big topic; God. Not a god or gods, nor the thousands of religions humans have developed to understand and worship them. Just God – the idea that behind this vast and glorious reality there is a conscience responsible for it.
Like most people, the idea fascinates me and both scares and comforts me in equal parts, and ironically, the fact that I’m an atheist actually seems to increase my interest in the topic. The notion that there is some sort of being out there responsible for creating and controlling this universe – a universe which we as a species are only just starting to get our heads around – is massive. Imagine if you could communicate with that being? The consequences for how we see our reality and our lives would be immense – literally the meaning of life laid bare by the source itself. Who knows a creation better than its creator?
Imagine the comfort we could have from knowing that, no matter what we may do, how badly we screw things up, or whether we die, there will always be God up there, steering things along. God in that sense is the ultimate father figure, there to steer things right, watch over us and make sure all goes to plan, even if we can’t possibly hope to understand what that plan is.
And yet at the same time this concept is utterly terrifying. The human mind can’t really even begin to grasp the sheer size and complexity of the universe itself, let alone something capable of creating it. A creature beyond all possibility of our understanding, overseeing all of our tiny tiny lives down to the minutest particles? Holy crap man, it’s the sort of thing that will drive you mad if you think too much about it. Don’t believe me? Check out this nebula NASA found a few years ago. Full-screen that picture and really look at it. Regardless of what my rational brain tells me (it’s just a cloud of gas seen at the right angle), looking at that monstrous trillion-kilometre-wide thing, there is nothing I can do to stop my subconscious screaming like a child and turning my adrenaline glands up to 11.
And yet, despite this mind-destroyingly incalculable concept, nearly every single one of us seems to think of God as a crotchety 50 year-old white guy with a temper.
Have you ever sat back and wondered what God would think about the religions we’ve created to worship him? If we’re talking about a serious creator god (as opposed to gods that are part of the universe like Zeus and the other Greek and Roman gods, rather than separate from it) then omniscience and omnipotence aren’t just interesting features, but necessary for God to be considered a God – if a god is bound by the rules of creation then it’s just a really powerful creature, not a creator. And yet none of us, include the religious institutions that make it their business to know and describe God, seem to grasp the significance of those qualities.
Omniscience, or absolute knowledge, means awareness of everything that is happening, all the time, on every scale. I can barely keep track of where I put my pen. A creator god must be constantly and unceasingly aware of the location and movement of every single atom and its components for all of history. This includes your every though, concern, need, worry and joy and all the millions of things that affect your perception of reality every day. This is an amount of information we can’t even begin to comprehend, let alone process – literally an awareness of all the information that has ever, or will ever exist, all at once.
Omnipotence, or absolute power over all of creation, does not just mean the power to influence events within the universe, by recruiting humans or moving matter around. It means complete control over existence itself; time, physical laws, the very make-up of the universe. A truly omnipotent god could simply stop time, tinker around as it saw fit, and start things up again with us none the wiser. It has no constrains whatsoever within this universe because it created this universe.
To put this into context, it is extremely possible that when you started reading this article you were a large pink elephant, in a society of large pink elephants that communicated through interpretive dance. A truly omnipotent god could not only change reality instantaneously (including the fundamental rules of physics that currently make dancing pink elephants physically impossible), but could also alter our memories so that we believed it had always been this way.
And I’m not talking about slapshod brainwashing that leaves the possibility we might have vague memories about things once being different. No, a truly omnipotent creature could re-write history itself right back to the moment of creation at a whim, any time it felt like it. How? Because a creature that exists outside our universe does not need to adhere to the rules of this universe. Sure, there may be rules that affect it in whatever reality it inhabits, but since that is outside our universe and by definition that makes it beyond our ability to gather data on it, we have no hope of knowing the nature or constraints of God beyond what it chooses to share with us – assuming it cares to share anything with us at all.
Consider the sheer awesomeness of such a being – knowledge so utterly complete and control so profound that it boggles the mind simply to consider it – and now look me in the eye and try to tell me that God cares whether I masturbate or not.
How could a being of such immensity possibly be so simple as to decree that all humans will either go to a perfect heaven or a nightmarish hell, based entirely on a simplistic set of rules? Or based entirely on whether we specifically accept one guy as our personal savior, despite his ideas being a bit naive and there not being any indisputable proof he actually existed? Or whether we pray 5 times a day? Or whether we eat certain types of food? Or what we personally enjoy mashing our reproductive organs against?
How could you possibly tell me that a being who knows us far better than we know ourselves could blame us for falling into temptations? For fulfilling lusts inherent to our biology? How could a god which knows the complete mess in our heads so very intimately be so completely black and white in its judgments of us? Why on earth would a being capable of altering reality as it saw fit at any moment, in any way, give a damn whether I have sex before marriage, or wear the right clothing, or avoid specific foods? And how can we say that such a god is not responsible for these things when it could all be changed so very easily by an omnipotent being?
Why do we insist on thinking of God as such a stupid arsehole?
Ultimately all this is still speculation. The very prerequisites of what makes a God mean that we cannot and will never be sure that such a being actually exists – it is simply impossible for us to gather information from outside the universe we inhabit, let alone comprehend it if we could. Maybe each of the various religions is correct and God did set such specific rules for us long ago, never to appear again. Maybe God does have a serious problem with homosexuality, eating shellfish and/or killing cows.
The only thing we can be certain of is that we don’t know for sure – hell, even if God suddenly decided to show up and discuss the matter with us directly, what’s to stop him from lying to us? For all we know revealing the truth about creation might be too much for us. For all we know God’s already told us the details, watched our heads explode, and reset everything back to how it was and not repeated the mistake.
But there is one way we can hope to understand such a God – by studying his handiwork. Just as you can learn a lot about an artist by analysing their works, so too can we understand the nature of God by studying and understanding the reality it created. And that is exactly what science is all about – the study and comprehension of reality. From quantum physics at the smallest scale, right through to the ethical analysis of ideas at the biggest scale, science seeks to understand the universe absolutely, so that we can minimise the number of mistakes we make and maximise the good that we achieve.
What do you think would most please a being that knows everything about us in excruciating detail? Loud proclamations of faith that God exists? Or sincere efforts to understand what God has created?