Which is More Powerful? God? Or Belief in God?

The word “atheist” is fluorescent light clinically accurate. Here’s the formula:  a [without] + theos [god] = without god. Godless. God not present, not in thought, word, deed, or intent. Add ist [one who is, does, or makes], and an atheist is someone without god — a godless person. Add ism instead [system, doctrine, practice], and atheism is godless practice.

I never thought I’d be without God, a godless person, or engaged in godless practice. But now I’m all three.

“Atheist” usually calls up the notion of belief or lack of it – we say that an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. The corollary assumption is that God is out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter, waiting for us to get with the program. If we don’t get with it, we’re an atheist.

That’s the way it usually goes down. It’s not the way it was with me.

“Without God” is risky. You need to be careful of your surroundings. Aatheism is punishable by death in thirteen Muslim countries. Hindu regions offer up lots of gods you can get crosswise with and ways to make you pay if you do. In a quarter of countries around the world, being an atheist won’t get you killed, but don’t go having an attitude about it or the anti- blasphemy laws will get you – which is currently the case in Pakistan, where it’s okay to be an atheist but a 26-year old woman was recently sentenced to death by hanging for posting caricatures of Mohammed on her WhatsApp account, joining 80 other prisoners currently held under sentences of death or life in prison for violating anti-blasphemy laws.

Here in the USA, patriotism is the state religion, fueled lately with heavy doses of Christian Nationalism. We have our own iconic images that you don’t desecrate – some of which are caricatures of themselves – like football field sized American flags or the line “one nation under God.” As for God, we, like the Muslim countries, aren’t too concerned with offending Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna or the rest of that bunch, but mostly concern ourselves with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – minus the Muslim modifications and plus the Christian ones.

You really need a good guidebook if you want to practice safe religion.

But belief is invisible, so how could anyone know what somebody else believes? Well, they could make like Pope Sixtus IV and authorize Ferdinand and Isabella to round up Jews and Muslims who acted like Christians but were obviously faking it, and let the Grand Inquisitor’s 28 Articles torture the truth out of them. The Inquisition started in 1478 and didn’t end until 1834. That’s a long time to torture the invisible belief out of people. The USA declared itself into existence about fifty years before the Inquisition finally ended, and several former colonies passed laws banning atheists and ministers from public office to ensure separation of church and state. Presumably a minister would admit to being a minister, but I wonder how forthcoming the atheists were. It took a couple hundred years, but the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared those laws unconstitutional in cases decided in 1961 and 1978, but some of those laws are still on the books, and lately Republicans have been trying to get the minister ban lifted. The atheist part? Not so much.

And then of course there’s always the Taliban to keep the world pure.

Moving right along…

About the time the Inquisition had gotten several decades of brutality under its belt, French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote an essay in his Pensées (thoughts) that deals with the high stakes God vs. without God issue. His resolution is known as “Pascal’s Wager,” and people still rely on it (although I’m guessing most don’t know it by name – I never did, not until I became on atheist).

“God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline?” Pascal asked. Trouble is, “Reason can decide nothing here.” Uh oh. At least in this country we like to do our own research and make reasonable decisions (on things like Covid vaccination vs. horse de-wormer). But now here’s this French guy telling us we can’t reason our way to God. Yes, there are people who claim they’ve done it, but somebody else always comes along and makes them look stupid. So now what? “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is,” Pascal suggests, “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Ironically, although you can’t reasonably determine that God exists, it’s reasonable to bet that He does. (The Bible’s God definitely uses male pronouns, and with initial caps – kind of like referring to yourself in the third person.) Since we can’t know if God exists, we can save ourselves by believing that He does instead. It would be unreasonable not to, since the consequences of not believing are so bad. If God exists, we’re good, and if he doesn’t then nothing ventured nothing gained. But if God exists and we don’t believe, we’re seriously screwed.

It’s not reasonable to think God exists, but it is reasonable to avoid punishment. And oh by the way, that punishment happens on the other side of death’s door, so there’s also no reasonable way to know if it’s actually waiting for us when we snuff out.

Seriously?

Pascal’s Wager is Basic Childhood 101 – the religious version of “Wait ‘til you father gets home.” The threat of being eternally subjected to the Grand Inquisitor? No way to know. Better play it safe.

Just take the Wager, Dude. It’s not that hard. Anybody up for pizza?

I never heard of Pascal’s Wager when I was a Christian, and never settled my God issues that way. I just unthinkingly bought the assumption about God being out there waiting for me to get with the program. We used to claim that our faith was reasonable, but looking back at it, it was reeaonable only in the same way that Pascal’s Wager is reasonable – you start with belief, and reasons steps in to clean up after that fact. It’s reasonable to believe in order to acknowleddge the existence of God, which can only be done by believing. After that, every “reasonable” thought falls in line with what belief got started.

Okay. I think I got it.

But then the unthinkable – the unreasonable in light of beief thing – happened:  I became an atheist, but not by choosing to not believe in God anymore. God vs. not God was never the issue – not when I became a Christian and not when I un-became one. The whole thing went down the way Screwtape told Wormwood it would:  “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” It all happened — slow and ( not always) easy like. Life changed, I changed, and along the way God just kind of… went away. It was like being on a road trip, taking a rest stop, and realizing a ways down the road that God hadn’t gotten back in. For years I tried to figure out how to go back and find him, haunted by a proverb I’d heard at church– “If God feels far away, guess who moved?” If God hadn’t gotten back in, it was my fault. (That’s how it works in Christianity – it’s always your fault.)

I never did find the way back. I went seeking for it but did not find it. I thought maybe God would do the seeking and finding – you now, flag down a passing motorist and chase me down – a modern version of Jesus’s parable about the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to look for the one that wandered off.

Apparently the expiration date on that parable had expired.

In the absence of finding or being found, my life made a slow motion U-turn from “with God” to “without God” and neither God nor I seemed to mind.

Years later, I had the most stunning thought:  I made that happen by not believing.

I know, duh. But stay with me.

Belief was the common thread in all of that torturing and law passing and philosophizing, also in my first believing in God and then not believing anymore. None of that happened without belief or lack of it. Either way, belief rules – by its presence or by its absence. God goes away if there’s no belief in him. That makes belief more powerful than God. I bring God into my life by believing in him. I delete God from my life when I don’t believe anymore. God present or God absent, and all the things the human race does and has done in the name of God – all of it depends on belief. Belief is more powerful than God – it can bring God close or send God away.

The Inquisition? Dying for lack of belief in Allah? Laws against blasphemy that threaten you with death by hanging? Laws against ministers and atheists holding public office? None of it needed God to happen. None of it needs God to keep happening. Belief made all that happen., and belief can take it from here. Belief does all the work. There doesn’t need to be a God out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter. By believing, we rule.

I didn’t abandon God. He wasn’t out there, existing apart from my opinion on the matter, waiting for me to say I was sorry and take the first step, rev up the belief again, reach out to him and reconcile. I thought God would care, would make the first move, but he didn’t. Now I realize I did all the work, by believing or not. God was irrelevant, absent.

Hell wasn’t on the other side of death’s door.

My old man wasn’t going to come home and give me a whoopin’.

And Pascal just probably needed some time off.

The self-helpers and life coaches love this stuff about the power and primacy of belief. They’ve been telling us we can believe the Italian villa with the Lamborghini out front into existence for some time. But let’s not go gently into the good night of Napoleon Hill’s “whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” It’s dark over there. Belief has a dark side that poses a greater risk than Pascal’s Wager.

Let’s talk more about it next time.

Reparations [4]:  The Essential Doubt

And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.

Kathy’s Song[1]
Paul Simon

We saw last time that the U.S. government could waive its legal defense of sovereign immunity to pave the way for slavery reparations. It would take more than a legal reckoning for that to happen. Law lies on the surface of society, readily visible, but it has deep roots in history and ideology, national identity and mission, values and beliefs, ways of looking at the world and how life works.[2] These ancient root systems invoke fierce allegiances deeply embedded in human psyche and culture. Because the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity is grounded in Biblical doctrine,[3] laying it aside requires doubt and dissent of the highest order – national treason and religious apostasy in a single act.

Doubt of that magnitude is rare beyond description but not without precedent. Consider, for example, Germany’s reparations for World War II, which required not only the international banishment of Nazism, but also the German people’s moral renunciation of Nazism’s philosophical and political roots stretching back to the 19th Century.[4]; In comparison, the USA”s roots of slavery (and hence racism) extend back to the earliest New World settlements, which imported English common law, including the divine right of kings and its nationalistic version, sovereign immunity. Renouncing the latter to pave the way for slavery reparations would require a similar American moral renunciation of centuries of related social, economic, and political ideology and set new terms for a post-racism American state.

That, in turn, would require a reckoning with the “first cause” roots of the divine right of kings and sovereign immunity.

The First Cause Roots of Sovereign Immunity

A “first cause” satisfies the human desire for life to make sense by assigning a cause to every effect. Trouble is, as you trace the cause and effect chain to its remotest origins, you eventually run out of causes, leaving you with only effects. That’s when a first cause comes to the rescue. A first cause has no prior cause – it is so primary that nothing came before it but everything came after it. Since knowledge can’t reach that far back, a first cause is a matter of belief:  you take it on faith, declare the beginning into existence, and go from there.

Western civilization’s worldview historically identified God as the ultimate first cause.

“First cause, in philosophy, is the self-created being (i.e., God) to which every chain of causes must ultimately go back. The term was used by Greek thinkers and became an underlying assumption in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many philosophers and theologians in this tradition have formulated an argument for the existence of God by claiming that the world that man observes with his senses must have been brought into being by God as the first cause.

“The classic Christian formulation of this argument came from the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who was influenced by the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aquinas argued that the observable order of causation is not self-explanatory. It can only be accounted for by the existence of a first cause; this first cause, however, must not be considered simply as the first in a series of continuing causes, but rather as first cause in the sense of being the cause for the whole series of observable causes.

“The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant rejected the argument from causality because, according to one of his central theses, causality cannot legitimately be applied beyond the realm of possible experience to a transcendent cause.

“Protestantism generally has rejected the validity of the first-cause argument; nevertheless, for most Christians it remains an article of faith that God is the first cause of all that exists. The person who conceives of God in this way is apt to look upon the observable world as contingent—i.e., as something that could not exist by itself.”[5]

God is the ultimate Sovereign from which all lesser sovereigns – the king, the national government — derive their existence and legitimacy. God’s first cause Sovereignty justifies God’s right to rule as God sees fit. The king and the state, having been set into place by God, derive a comparable right of domination from God. The king and the national government are to the people what God is to them.

The Divine Right of Kings

When kings ruled countries, their divine line of authority took legal form as the Divine Right of Kings.

“The divine right of kings, divine right, or God’s mandate is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It stems from a specific metaphysical framework in which the king (or queen) is pre-selected as an heir prior to their birth. By pre-selecting the king’s physical manifestation, the governed populace actively (rather than merely passively) hands the metaphysical selection of the king’s soul – which will inhabit the body and thereby rule them – over to God. In this way, the ‘divine right’ originates as a metaphysical act of humility or submission towards the Godhead.

“Consequentially, it asserts that a monarch (e.g. a king) is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from divine authority, like the monotheist will of God. The monarch is thus not subject to the will of his people, of the aristocracy, or of any other estate of the realm. It implies that only divine authority can judge an unjust monarch and that any attempt to depose, dethrone or restrict their powers runs contrary to God’s will and may constitute a sacrilegious act.”[6]

The Divine Right of Kings was a favorite doctrine of the first King James of England, who commissioned what would become the King James Version of the Bible partly in response to Puritan challenges to the Church of England’s doctrine of an ordained clergy that could trace its lineage to the original Apostles.

“Divine right of kings, in European history, a political doctrine in defense of monarchical ‘absolutism,’ which asserted that kings derived their authority from God and could not therefore be held accountable for their actions by any earthly authority such as a parliament. Originating in Europe, the divine-right theory can be traced to the medieval conception of God’s award of temporal power to the political ruler, paralleling the award of spiritual power to the church. By the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the new national monarchs were asserting their authority in matters of both church and state. King James I of England (reigned 1603–25) was the foremost exponent of the divine right of king….”[7]

“While throughout much of world history, deified potentates have been the rule, in England, absolute monarchy never got a solid foothold, but there certainly was the attempt. Elements of British political theory and practice encouraged absolutism—the idea and practice that the king is the absolute law and that there is no appeal beyond him. Several movements and ideas hurried along the idea of absolute monarchy in England. One of those ideas was the divine right of kings,

“In England, the idea of the divine right of kings will enter England with James VI of Scotland who will come and rule over both England and Scotland as James I in 1603 and will commence the line of several ‘Stuart’ monarchs. James had definite ideas about his role as monarch, and those ideas included the divine right of kings. Here are just a few of James’ statements that reflect his view that he ruled by divine right:

      • Kings are like gods— “…kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods.”
      • Kings are not to be disputed— “… That as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy….so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power.”
      • Governing is the business of the king, not the business of the subjects— “you do not meddle with the main points of government; that is my craft . . . to meddle with that were to lesson me . . . I must not be taught my office.”
      • Kings govern by ancient rights that are his to claim— “I would not have you meddle with such ancient rights of mine as I have received from my predecessors . . . .”
      • Kings should not be bothered with requests to change settled law— “…I pray you beware to exhibit for grievance anything that is established by a settled law…”
      • Don’t make a request of a king if you are confident he will say “no.”— “… for it is an undutiful part in subjects to press their king, wherein they know beforehand he will refuse them.”

“James’ views sound egotistical to us today, but he was not the only one that held them. These views were held by others, even some philosophers. For example, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote a work called Leviathan in 1651 in which he said that men must surrender their rights to a sovereign in exchange for protection. While Hobbes’ was not promoting the divine right of kings per se, he was providing a philosophy to justify a very strong absolute ruler, the kind that the divine right of kings prescribes. Sir Robert Filmer was a facilitator of the divine right of kings and wrote a book about it called Patriarcha (1660) in which he said that the state is like a family and that the king is a father to his people. Filmer also says that the first king was Adam and that Adam’s sons rule the nations of the world today. So, the King of England would be considered the eldest son of Adam in England or the King of France would be Adam’s eldest son in France.”[8]

King James, Witch Hunter

King James had no impartial academic interest in a Bible translation that supported his divine right:  during his reign, the “Cradle King” accumulated a long list of covered offenses that included mass murder, torture, injustice, tracheary, cruelty, and misogyny.

“The witch-hunts that swept across Europe from 1450 to 1750 were among the most controversial and terrifying phenomena in history – holocausts of their times. Historians have long attempted to explain why and how they took such rapid and enduring hold in communities as disparate and distant from one another as Navarre and Copenhagen. They resulted in the trial of around 100,000 people (most of them women), a little under half of whom were 
put to death.

“One of the most active centres of witch-hunting was Scotland, where perhaps 
4,000 people were consigned to the flames – 
a striking number for such a small country, 
and more than double the execution rate in England. The ferocity of these persecutions can be attributed to the most notorious royal witch-hunter: King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 became James I of England.

“Most of the suspects soon confessed – under torture – to concocting a host of bizarre and gruesome spells and rituals in order to whip up the storm.… James was so appalled when he heard such tales that he decided to personally superintend the interrogations… while the king looked on with ‘great delight’.

“James’s beliefs had a dangerously misogynistic core. He grew up to scorn – even revile – women. Though he was by no means alone in his view of the natural weakness and inferiority of women, his aversion towards them was unusually intense. He took every opportunity to propound the view that they were far more likely than men to succumb to witchcraft…. He would later commission a new version of the Bible in which all references to witches were rewritten in the female gender.

“Most witchcraft trials constituted grave miscarriages of justice…. If the actual facts of a case were unsatisfactory, or did not teach a clear enough moral lesson, then they were enhanced, added to or simply changed.”[9]

When the new King James Bible substantiated the King’s divine right to carry on these activities, and when the USA imported the king’s divine right into its legal system as sovereign immunity, both acknowledged God as the first cause of these legal doctrines. Like the King, the U.S. government also has a long list of covered offenses:  the treatment of slaves during the reign of legal slavery mirrors King James’ obsession with brutalizing, lynching, and murdering witches.

In the U.S., where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of Americans believe in God  (depending on how the question was asked), there remain many ”Christians [for whom] it remains an article of faith that God is the first cause of all that exists.[10] As a result, we see in the USA’s current social and political climate both explicit and implicit affirmation of the following Bible passages (which the online source appropriately expresses in the King James version) to substantiate the ability of national leaders to avoid accountability for acts of governance that sponsor this kind of horrifying treatment of citizens.[11]:

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” Romans 13:1-5, KJV

“Lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck. For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.” Psalms 75:5-7, KJV

“Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding:” Daniel 2:20-21, KJV

“This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.” Daniel 4:17, KJV

“I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by my great power and by my outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto me.” Jeremiah 27:5, KJV

“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” Proverbs 21:1, KJV

“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king. And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD. And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.” 1 Samuel 15:23-26, KJV

“And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” Acts 12:21-23, KJV

The Ultimate Focus of Doubt:  God

In “Abrahamic” cultures — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian – the Biblical God is the first cause of the divine right of kings and sovereign immunity. The full force of patriotic nationalism and religious zeal therefore originates with God – which explains why a surprising number of European nations had blasphemy laws on the books until not that long ago, and why some nations still do.[12]

“Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, or sacred objects, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.”[13]

God, it seems, like kings and sovereign nations, has much to be excused from. Aside from the Biblical God’s sponsorship of war, genocide, mass murder, rape, torture, and brutality to humans and animals, a list of modern labels would include misogynist, homophobe, and xenophobe. But of course you don’t think that way if you’re a believer, because that would be blasphemy, often punishable by death, often after the infliction of the kind of cruel and unusual punishment reserved for the faithful and unfaithful alike. As for the latter, the Bible makes it a badge of honor for the faithful to suffer in the name of God:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,” Hebrews 11:  35-39.ESV

Transformation Made Possible by Doubt

Nonbelievers not vexed with these kinds of rights of the sovereign and duties of the governed are free to doubt God’s first cause status and its derivative doctrines, laws, and policies. In the USA, doubt embraced on that level would open the door to any number of contrary beliefs – for example:

    • The state does not enjoy superior status — historically, legally, morally, or otherwise – that gives it a right to act without consequence.
    • The people governed are therefore not bound – theologically, morally, or otherwise – to submit to government that is not responsible for its actions.

Once you’re no longer worried about breaking faith with God as the first cause of your national institutional structure, a while new “social contract” (also discussed last time) between government and the people becomes possible – a contract that would, in effect, not be satisfied with paying only descendants of slaves “damages” for past harm, but would look to establish a fresh national vision of the duties of those who govern and the rights and freedoms of the governed. The result, it would seem, is the possibility of ending the USA’s institutionalized racism for good.

[1] Who was Paul Simon’s Kathy? And whatever happened to her? See this article from The Guardian.

[2] See the Belief Systems and Culture category of posts in my Iconoclast.blog.

[3] The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, Andrew L. Seidel (2019). Although the USA was not founded as a Christian nation, its core values and beliefs, like those of other Western countries, are Classical and Biblical in origin.

[4]  See Alpha History and The Mises Institute on the historical origins of Nazism.

[5]  Encyclopedia Britannica. See also New World Encyclopedia and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.

[6] Wikipedia – The Divine Right of Kings.

[7] Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.. See also the New World Encyclopedia

[8] Owlcation

[9] Borman, Tracy, James VI And I: The King Who Hunted Witches,  History Extra (BBC Historical Magazine)  (March 27, 2019)

[10]  Encyclopedia Britannica. See also New World Encyclopedia and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.

[11]Bill’s Bible Basics.”

[12]  Wikipedia – Blasphemy law.

[13]  Wikipedia – Blasphemy.