Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A One-God Universe

"The 'God' that an atheist does not 'believe in' does not correspond to that aspect of existence to which I refer when I use the word 'God.' It took me a long time to understand that faith is not simply the act of swallowing the unprovable assertions contained in a religion's catechism, but rather an assenting, inquisitive stance toward/within the mysterious ground of all being. I have always chafed at the phrase 'believe in God.' It sets up such a dualism: me here, God there, and between us this louche transaction of belief. One might as well ask the eye whether it believes in 'blue.' If 'God' corresponds to any aspect of reality -- and if religion does not relate to reality, what good is it ? -- we are swimming in God, saturated by God, we breathe God and God breathes us." - Paula, from Theobus, Paula's House of Toast

There are few blogs that humble me quite as much as reading Paula's House of Toast. Paula has found a unique but consistent voice, and expresses profound truths in a disarming, intimate way. It says much about her prowess that a great quote like the one below almost slipped under the radar without much notice, so cool is her attitude and style.

Upon hearing that I'm a Buddhist, people often ask me "Do you believe in God?," as if I have any idea of what they mean by "God." They, in turn, probably have little idea of what I mean by "I," or what I mean by "believe," and even I'm not always sure what I mean when I use the word "God."

And that's not agnosticism, either. I have no quarrel with agnosticism, as in the opposite of "gnosticism" (just as "atheism" is the opposite of "theism"). Agnosticism questions any knowledge (gnosis) that doesn't come from within. That questioning is to me the very essence of Buddhism. But in colloquial terms, agnosticism has come to mean an indecision as to whether or not there's a God, and that's not my position. My doubt is greater - I'm not sure what this "me" is that has this doubt, or what doubt or faith exactly are.

Richard Dawkins proposes a spectrum of beliefs, from extreme theism to militant atheism, with agnosticism in the middle. Although the spectrum is continuous, it has seven milestones along the way:

  1. Strong Theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, "I do not believe, I know."
  2. Very high probability, but short of 100%. De facto theist. "I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there."
  3. Higher than 50 % but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning toward atheism. "I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God."
  4. Exactly 50%. Completely impartial agnostic. "God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable."
  5. Lower than 50% but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning toward atheism. "I don't know whether God exists but I am inclined to be skeptical."
  6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."
  7. Strong Atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.

Since category 7 is as much a faith-based conviction as category 1, most so-called atheists can be included in category 6, hence, statements such as "there's probably no god" appear in the atheists' advertisements. But this one-dimensional spectrum is limited to the observer's concept of what is meant by "God," as well as what is meant by "I" and "belief." While I can agree that it is probably safe to say that there most likely isn't an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, vengeful, male deity of the Old Testament variety, that possibility may not be the one what Jung "knows."

"Consider the impasse of a one-god universe," Burroughs once remarked. "He is all-knowing and all-powerful. He can't go anywhere since he is already everywhere. He can't do anything since the act of doing presupposes opposition." Burroughs adds, "His universe is irrevocably thermodynamic having no friction by definition. So he has to create friction - war, fear, sickness, death."

But what if we thought of Dawkins' spectrum not as the only continuum, but one of many between dual points, like the needle of a compass? His theism/atheism axis may be thought of as the equivalent to north/south, but what are the points representing east/west? Could there not also be a spectrum between, say, absolute belief in the cosmos as the absolute, that is, a creator not separte from the creation, and refutation of the cosmos as the absolute? And what, then, would be the points in between these ordinal positions?

And letting our imaginations wander a little further, is there a third dimension, off of the compass' references?

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