IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > Personhood > Vision > Contributors > Peter Wicks
How Should the Concept of God Evolve in the Future?
Peter Wicks   Dec 11, 2012   Ethical Technology  

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.

1 I 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.


We can be candid to the religious without necessarily being tactless, though if we tell them exactly what we think they are obviously not going to like all of what we say.
We can be reductionist without being excessively so; we can say religion is social club+, refuge+, charity+, succor+, etc. But it would be disingenuous for us to tell the religious we think what they offer is Divine (high case ‘D’); plus we ought to tell them for instance satanists (small case ‘s’) are as legitimate, though not orthodox, as any other faith.
We don’t want to make it appear we are reducing orthodox religion to mere fetish, however we also don’t want to lead the religious on to assuming we think their religions are Divine.

Re “I 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.”

Yes Peter, I am watching you!

The concept of God, god willing, will undergo a reversal in it’s relationship to man. Very much in line with the conception of god as a representation of everything that is good. We have in the past believed that God created us, we will in the future understand that we created god. Not simply in the sense that man conceived of god but more precisely that god, or godliness, exists in our relationship with each other and our environments. That the universe is inherently a cold and turbulent place and that all stability and justice we know comes not from a divine presence but from our own efforts to create what we believe should be.

I suspect we need a lot more work on what believers really mean when they express “belief in God.”

But whether you believe in God or not, religious devotion to the Deity makes supreme sense from the viewpoint of Tibetan vajrayana Buddhism.  Sadhana (visualization) practices are about arousing devotion to an archetype, aka “yidam,” which symbolizes various idealized traits, e.g. wisdom and compassion, praying to the archetype, imagining oneself connected to it ... the archetype in the course of the ritual becoming instantiated in oneself. (There’s a bit more, but the above gets to the point.) 
Analogously Christian, Jewish or Muslim theists may do somewhat the same.

Additionally Arif and Norenzayon have shown that some theists may think of God as present and watching them, and that this influences their moral behavior.  So I suspect that this behavior is meant to “maintain their relationship with God,” in whom they have invested their greatest moral aspirations. 

Hard to have a problem with that.

The only cure for world religions is to accept that, whatever you may be accustomed to thinking about god must be set aside in favor of the single, top level recognition that LOVE IS GOD. No cult that thinks otherwise is intellectually sound or honest and no cult whose communicants behave otherwise does anything of value for them or the greater society.

There is only one possible and True religion and that is derived from the declaration LOVE IS GOD. Absolute equivalence. No exceptions. Love includes all erotic senses and much more. All love is god and all god is love. Nothing else has any place in the vitalization of life and life’s purpose, much less the personal experience of daily immortality.

Expanding this concept defines a vision of one’s relatedness to the occasions of life in the universe of time and space that explains how Love, the Supreme Being of our existence, defines and opens the clear and direct path to personal immortality. The power of the Supreme, of Love, of God in the universe derives from the actions we, as individuals, take in the light of Truth to do Good to another.

We are the power of Love in the universe. If we do not act then who will do the Good and show the power of the Supreme? We are bringing the Supreme into full power through our actions as its agents.

Terasemian said it well, but does not speak of the possibility that the rest of the universe is well-developed and, in most cases, a pretty nice place to exist forever doing Good to others and making Beauty through harmony. In other words, a very friendly place, given the limitations of time and space. A place you could be happy forever building towards and giving meaning to your part of the final destiny of all.

A productive use of this annoying delusory tendency of ours would be to deploy it as we have the Huns, Jews, Commies, Turrists etc.: an external enemy around which we can build social cohesion and focus our collective efforts. God wants to send hurricanes, supernovae, aging at us? We’ll show Him.

How should the concept of God evolve in the future?
It will probably develop in the line of thought of for instance Henry Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Michael Dowd, Ervin Laszlo, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Peter Russell, Francis Heyligen, Duane Elgin, etc. And of course we will have a better understanding (Iain McGilchrist) of how we ourselves are responsible for the concept of God, to what degree we have invented God and gods and all religion, as we have invented it’s subsequent denial in atheism and materialism and secularism. To understand that this reality we inhabit, most probably isn’t just mindless and meaningless matter moving about, but some kind of creative enterprise that only just has started.

To answer the question directly: I don’t know; but the future cannot be predicted—though it can be altered.
So it’s what one does now to change the concept of God if one were inclined to do so.

All good comments, ought to go into a bit more detail than usual:

“Additionally Arif and Norenzayon have shown that some theists may think of God as present and watching them, and that this influences their moral behavior. So I suspect that this behavior is meant to ‘maintain their relationship with God,’ in whom they have invested their greatest moral aspirations. Hard to have a problem with that. ”

Works both ways: if virtue/morality is what one does when no-one is looking, then if God is looking one can be absolved because God hypothetically forgives transgressions—whereas if no God exists there’s no Deity to do the forgiving.
Some Christians believe for instance that when Christ is accepted one is above the Law (which naturally is open to interpretation).
BTW, Catholics are fairly tame since they have developed their religion for about 1,975 years. Best thing to do is tell the tame religious we accept their faith but not their politics. I tell them the issues they raise are often petty whereas existential threats and cancer, etc., are exponentially more important. We can be candid without being tactless albeit at times conversations will become heated. We are not as Spock the emotionless, always logical Vulcan.

Thanks for the comments!

One issue we really need to deal with, and to fight with SHaGGGz-like passion, is the huge (and largely unconscious and unacknowledged) pressure that many religious believers have to maintain whatever beliefs are prevalent and regarded as essential within their religious communities, irrespective of the evidence. This creates huge blind spots, which while not always creating immediate problems (many people live and die happily with their religious delusions), many of the world’s most bitter wars, broken relationships, and mental suffering are the direct or indirect result of such cognitive distortions.

Of course, groupthink is by no means limited to religious communities, but the sweeping nature of religious belief (and practice) and the extent to which it is bound up with ethnicity and living communities (as opposed to the more superficial relationships of professional organisations or interest groups) makes it particularly potent.

A central tenet of all religious or quasi-religious belief, whether explicitly (mono)theistic or not, needs to be that not only doubt but also outright apostasy is to be not only tolerate but actually welcomed. Group loyalty has to be earned, and one of the ways it must be earned is through a genuine commitment to critical reasoning and tolerance for all types of empirical belief, provided that they are genuinely held and accompanied by goodwill towards both the group and outsiders.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: The Inevitability of Intelligence and Critical Thinking Leading to Empathy and Altruism

Previous entry: The Future of the Religion Business Part2