After watching and participating in innumerable discussions with atheists over the existence of ‘God’, I am coming to feel that the word ‘God’ itself is an almost insurmountable obstacle to communication.
To an atheist, to believe in ‘God’, means:
That you believe a Supreme Being hand-crafted each species of life separately, and then made it look like they descended from each other. That you believe this Being created the universe 6,000 years ago but gave it an apparent age of billions of years. That you believe this Being, while being wise and benevolent, throws tizzy fits, destroys his enemies if they anger him, changes his mind, orders the slaughter of innocents, plays favorites, asks for human sacrifice as a ‘test’ of obedience, requires elaborate rituals, is pleased with animal sacrifices, and engages in all the other odd behaviors a casual reading of the Old Testament would suggest. That you believe this Being, in the New Testament, is willing to accept the awful torture and murder of his own innocent Son as an acceptable substitute to punishing people who are clearly guilty. That you believe that in spite of his omnipotence, this being is unable to communicate his will in written form without apparent contradiction. That you believe that in spite of wanting to save everyone, this omnipotent being is unable to persuade many people of his very existence. That you believe that this being will totally forgive and eternally reward those who approach him with the right formula, but will condemn to everlasting torment those who were unaware of this formula or were unable to correctly pick this formula from the several competing formulas. That you believe the condemned group above will suffer eternal torment in spite of the possibility of their being more moral, sincere, honest, and trying harder to find the truth than the first group that followed the correct formula. That in spite of an infinite love and goodness, this Being will permit such things as for a small child to suffer a horrible, painful death all the while calling out in vain to this Being for help, so long as it serves his purpose. That you believe in a Supreme Being who’s followers don’t show remarkable signs of being more moral or more intelligent than anyone else ? in fact often LESS so. That you believe in a Supreme Being who’s followers invoke his name as a reason for killing other human beings.
The list could be elaborated on a bit. However, taken as it is, and without any mitigation, the atheist’s position seems entirely sensible. Who would believe in such a Being? Even if he DID exist, what sort of moral blindness would make us want to worship such a being? The only thing more despicable than the being described would be a person who could be bribed into worshipping and obeying such a being for the promise of rewards.
Now some of these issues may be straw men to some degree (although you can probably find a believer out there somewhere to argue for any or all of them.) Others may have reasonable explanations. Still others may not be relevant. But the fact is that in order to even get to the point of having a neutral discussion on the existence of God, you often have to first overcome a list like the above, point by point and line by line.
I’m wondering if I’m not doing a disservice to people by trying to persuade them to believe in ‘God’, when, if I’m successful, there’s a danger they might believe in something like the being above. Clearly, to go from atheism to a belief in the being above is a giant leap backwards. I have a friend who over the course of several years and a lot of conversation, has come to believe in something transcendent, but still refuses to call it ‘God’ because of all the ‘baggage’ that comes with the word. Perhaps it would sometimes be better if we should start from scratch ? pick some more neutral word to talk about the transcendent, and then work our way up. Something like ‘Spirit’ for example.