When I first heard it I thought it was an unorthodox way of looking at faith. However, over the last few months as I have talked to various believers it has become almost the universal response. " Me, I am not about religion, I don't subscribe to all these creeds and rules and pastors pontificating as if they know it all, I am just about following my God who transcends all of these man made religions."
It is the kind of response that sometimes makes Christians who stumble across my blog consider that we are in agreement. When they see title ' No Religion Know Reason' they nod and say, "Yes I don't believe in religion either, we would probably be better off without it we should just concentrate on God." I think this is actually quite a remarkable shift in the way people look at things, particularly in the Caribbean. When I was growing up it would have been considered nothing short of blasphemy to decide you were going to just go with your own personal faith, turning your back on the tenets of your church's teachings. So perhaps that makes these persons consider themselves progressive believers within there own environments of conservatives, but to me they still have a way to go.
Often when you ask these believers to describe what THEIR God is like, you get some very vague descriptions. However, in many cases their God is not so far from the religion they claim they are free of as you may think. Some I have spoken with still consider themselves to be strong believers in Jesus and many still view the bible as the text that they live their life by. Some will say they are unsure about the Jesus thing, but still say they believe in ONE God who they would often still call HE. Now these people, in spite of their protestations to the contrary, I still consider religious. And when I say 'No religion' I am including them too.
Greta Christina recently talked on this subject about the problem with such believers hoping that atheists will give special acceptance because they are saying, that they don't fall into the neat box of a traditional belief system. You can read her account here. I feel her a lot when she says that. When they construct or customise their personal belief system they use the building blocks of religions and faith traditions they have been exposed to. Are they saying that Jesus was their own private revelation? What about the one God? It is interesting that everybody I have met who clams to have found God on their own acknowledges one and only one. I have found no one who has told me their personal search in faith has led them to GODS. As vague as the deity they claimed to have found there is always ONE of HIM, just as is the case in the Judeo- Christian - Islamo faith that they claim to have no link to. But why? If you admit you really don't know much about the deity how can you be sure about attributes of gender and number?
The people who have these very loose God definitions regularly admit that they are not sure at all about many of the characteristics of their God and will concede that there is indeed much mystery about him we have yet to unravel. From this perspective they will consider that they are not much different from the atheist, in that they are not making presuppositions. Their minds are open, unlike many of their colleagues who have dogmatically declared in detail exactly who God is, what he wants and how he will judge our actions. When atheists asks these moderates why they are insistent that there is a God at all, they constantly point out the gaps in science. They rightfully claim that science has not adequately answered questions of origins either of the universe or biological life. They feel that with these gaps they are at least justified in tentatively assuming a God exists until such time as science finds better answers. They can't conceptualise a universe without some sort of starter upper and they just throw in God as that entity even if in practice God at this point becomes no more meaningful than unknown variable'X'
This kind of God belief I see as a ' placeholder' God. The believer is simply putting God in for the time being in the absence of better evidence . This type of approach is not altogether unreasonable. I have done it in my working career from time to time. There are a lot of software programs particularly that use excel that don't allow you to leave 'cells' empty. So there were times when I had to put in 'dummy' variables to show trends in energy prices or demand when I couldn't get all of the exact data I needed. Electronic surveys sometimes don't let you continue until you have given an answer to certain key questions. At school, it was considered a 'sin' to not give an answer to a multiple choice question Even if you had no idea of the answer, you always had a chance of guessing right.
I think putting an idea about God into a scientific knowledge gap in the mind is more like filling the empty apartment than making that eeny, meeny ,miney, mo determination in a multiple choice exam. For one thing at least the suggested answers in multiple choice have some feasibility about them.Often all are somewhere close to the right answer. The God response on the other hand could be light years away from the truth.
There can be serious consequences for inserting a random belief in your brain where the appropriate response is " I don't know." Just as there are dangerous implications for accepting 'just anybody' into an apartment you have for rent without any background checking. Tenants in a new home, settle themselves in once they are giving the go ahead from the landlord that they can stay, even if they are told they may be one day asked to make way if an estranged family member returns. They pick out their furniture, choose the colour of their drapes and put down their carpets. Soon after their family photos are on the wall along with the paintings from Egypt that they got on their vacation of a lifetime 10 years ago. Before long they are talking with their neighbours and their kids are running around with the eight year old boy next door. They sing lustily and drink heavily at the annual Christmas party in the avenue. They are a part of the community and feel just as entitled to its benefits as the guy who lived in the area since 1970.
New Beliefs moving in
Beliefs, however loosely held, do the same thing once you give them a place in the mind. They become a part of you and they mix with the other ideas next door and feel just as much a part of you as those others in the area that had to go through a much more rigid vetting process to be allowed in. Yes, faith ideas and scientifically justified ideas run around and socialise in the mind just as the tenants of all different ilk do in the neighbourhood. Not surprisingly, after a while it's very hard to tell different types of ideas apart when they have all been living together for so long. Perhaps many would say it doesn't matter ultimately, but the problem comes when one day that better answer comes along, the one you want to take the place of your 'placeholder' God. You find the tenant you were looking for years ago, the one that will keep the place exactly as you would want it and pay you exactly what you want for it. But, it's not so easy. What do you do with the incumbent in the place. Yes, you did make it clear that he might be out sometime if circumstances led to it, but how can you just throw a family that was living there for years on to the street? Common decency and humanity just wouldn't let you do that.
Even if you resolved that you would ask the family there to leave, you still at least have to give them time to move out, get their stuff together and find alternative accommodation. Apart from your own misgivings, there will be friendships made in the neighbourhood that will be hard to let go.To me, ideas like 'God placeholders' are no different when we put them into our minds. As much as people talk they will not be able to just let go of them when they find the right answers tomorrow. Ideas have an emotional attachment to the minds they inhabit and there is no way they are just going to get up and get out of there right away. There is always baggage that comes when these thoughts move in and in some cases there may have been a family of ideas that have emerged from the original beliefs during the period of stay. Getting these ideas out of the mind are difficult. Sometimes it is so hard you have to reject this ideal tenant, the perfect idea, because it's too impractical to get the old one out. Other times the new one can come in but it has to wait for the moving out process to be complete and this just leads to frustration. By the time the new 'right' idea moves in so much time has been lost its almost not worth it. At the end of it all it would have been so much easier if you had just waited a bit longer and kept the apartment empty until the right tenant came along.
Darwin's Accommodation Woes
Maybe you are still not convinced that the analogy holds. A landlord might reject an 'ideal' tenant but surely no one is going to hold on to a bad idea when presented with one better? Well that didn't seem to happen when Mr.Darwin came knocking in the 1800s. Armed with his fossils and finches Darwin tried to checked in to many places but so often it was simply a case of no room in the Eden Garden Inn. Fossils for many just did not seem to fit with their beautiful paradise apartments, so in many places in spite of his well developed theories and answers to so many questions Darwin just could not find a place to lay his head. Even today he is left out in the cold in many places, and there are many that are so snobbish they don't even want to give him the privilege of coming to one of their tea parties.
Thankfully Darwin has found more places to live as the years have gone on , but it has not always been easy for the bearded biologist. There are many landlords who have recognise the value of Darwin and seek to accommodate him in their dwelling, but for reasons we have talked about earlier, they have not been willing to put out the couple that has been in there since the Genesis. So in neighbourhoods all over the world Darwin has been asked to share the flat with Mr. Adam and Mrs. Eve. It has been a relationship, that has not surprisingly been filled with tension. It is bad enough sharing an apartment with a couple that insist on running around half naked but Darwin as the new guy has had to play by some strange rules. There are fruits on display that he is told he is forbidden to eat and he has been told he can only study his fossils if he is prepared to complete all his specimen dating within six days. Sleeping has been no picnic either, there have been many times he has woken up to find a cold slithery body moving up his torso. Yes, he has had to deal with an in house reptile too. However, perhaps nothing has been more scary in this living arrangement than the old man that has his bedroom upstairs. He rarely emerges from his room but he just shouts his commands and expects complete and immediate obedience. " My way or the highway!" is the message Darwin has gotten in this place everyday.
Well, us residents of Atheists Avenue have done or best to help Darwin with his difficulties in finding suitable accommodation. By not yielding to the temptation over the years to bring in the young fig leafed couple, Darwin has been able to settle easily into our abodes and do all of his fossil dating and verifying of nested hierarchies without bother. He can move all over the apartment without limit and no one will complain about bones left all over the floor. He's been able to expand his work and now DNA models are laid out on tables which in other apartments were laden with forbidden fruit.We have really created a Darwin heaven and we believe it has made the world better.
Likewise we atheists have a special apartment open for the special creator should that time ever come.
When I was a Christian I was often told that it was important to wait on the Lord. Wait on him to provide the right job, the right spouse, the right country to live in. You just couldn't rush him and try to make a decision before he was ready for you. Well, we atheists have been waiting on the Lord too. Indeed we have been patiently looking out the window for centuries, but no one supernatural has yet come knocking at our door. Still, the moment that he, she, it or they show up we will be sure to usher whoever or whatever straight into that empty apartment that we have always kept in mind for them.