According to the Wikipedia entry on “major religious groups”, 85% of the world’s population subscribes to some kind of religion. While in reality the world is obviously not divided neatly into “religious” and “non-religious”, and while religion and theism are not quite the same thing, this statistic nevertheless shows that the various concepts of the divine continue to hold considerable sway over human thought.
For some, this is an unequivocally bad thing. According to this view, generally associated with the New Atheism movement, the concepts of the divine are essentially bronze age delusions that are inimical to reason and human progress. It is clear, however, that merely stating this view is not going to make religion disappear any time soon, so we have an interest in trying to understand why such concepts remain so prevalent, and how we wish them to evolve in the future. This article focuses especially on the monotheistic conception of God that emerged within the Abrahamic tradition, as a kind of merger between the Israelite concept of Yahweh and Greek Platonism. This emergent phenomenon, which occurred during the Hellenistic period, is at the root of the major monotheistic religions of today, namely Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
One obvious reason why these concepts have proved so durable is that they have served as a means for various élites to maintain their hegemony over the masses. In the Abrahamic tradition God tends to be conceived as some kind of a (male) authority figure, with clear views about how we should be living our lives, frequently associated with catastrophic consequences if we rebel against our wishes. It is only since the European enlightenment, and especially following the emergence of explicitly atheistic creeds such as Marxism, that the role of theism in maintaining hegemonic systems of oppression has declined.
In addition to being a vehicle for oppression, however, God has also played the opposite role of providing a rallying point for rebellion and reform. An example of this is the role that Christian evangelical such as William Wilberforce played in forcing the abolition of slavery. More than anything else, the idea of an all-powerful Being who is in charge and who sits above human authority, either condoning or condemning it, is an idea that resonates deeply with the human psyche.
This influence is waning, however, and the very fact that 15% of the world’s population claims not to subscribe to any religion is evidence of this. Modern concepts such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech have provided a safe space for different ideas to flourish, and it has become increasingly clear that it is perfectly possible to lead a successful and meaningful life without believing in God. While this may seem obvious to contemporary secularists, this is a comparatively new idea. Another problem for God is that the mainstream religious traditions with which He tends to be associated are riddled with contradiction and falsehood, and this has tended to discredit the whole idea.
Not all conceptions of God are nonsensical, however. It is possible, for example, to conceive of God as an embodiment or personification of all that one considers good. This has the advantage that it then becomes possible to worship and pray to a Being that, even though imaginary, is nonetheless worthy of such worship. One does not have to believe that such a God is in control—a quick look at the world around you shows that she1 isn’t—but is seems clear that praying to such a Person is likely to have greater benefits for some people than less personal forms of meditation.
The problem is that such enlightened conceptions of God remain very much in the minority, especially in the developing world where mainstrain religions are growing the fastest. And the more popular, anachronistic conceptions of God are wreaking havoc on humanity’s ability to steer its way through current challenges towards a brighter future.
Ultimately, whether one finds God a useful concept or not is more a matter of taste and personal circumstances than a matter of truth. But what none of us can afford to do is to allow ourselves to tolerate harmful beliefs about God. Just like other toxic, limiting beliefs, we need to be constantly prepared to challenge and refute such notions whenever we come across them. The aim should be to ensure that the concept of God, to the extent that it continues to wield influence over human thought, takes on increasingly benign forms.
1I am using the female pronoun here as a counterweight to the older patriarchal notions of God, not because I think that women are inherently better than men.
Peter Wicks was employed for 16 years at the European Commission, working mainly on environmental policy, and now works as a consultant.
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