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Chapter One: Defining God

Section 3: Perception and reality

If God exists, our perception of him may be very different from the reality.

Is there such a thing as Reality? It's the kind of question that has entertained and baffled philosophers and scientists for centuries.

1.3a Ultimate Reality

Let's define Ultimate Reality as the Answer to Everything. It explains the Universe, it IS the Universe. It's whether God exists and whether time has a beginning and an end and if anything travels faster than light. Ultimate Reality is whether there is life after death (or before birth), the number of dimensions there are (three, four, eleven or innumerable) and whether there is only one universe or an infinity of multiverses. And so on.

Restricted as we are in time and physical space, with a limited ability to perceive and interpet the universe around us, human beings are far from recognising and perceiving Ultimate Reality.

1.3b Human Reality

We may not be able to perceive Ultimate Reality, but we can observe and deduce the simpler reality that directly affects us: laws of nature such as the temperature of boiling water at sea level and the chemical composition of blood, the existence of such diverse phenomena as our own bodies, radio waves and distant planets.

Our understanding of that human reality continues to increase. It is coming closer to Ultimate Reality, but it will never reach where we Understand Everything. If we did Understand Everything, we would no longer be human. We would be God.

1.3c God and Reality

Let us assume that there is a God. If we can somehow prove God's existence, he is part of Human Reality. If he exists and we cannot prove his existence, he is part of Ultimate Reality.

But if God is part of Ultimate Reality - an Ultimate Reality that humans will never be able to detect or interact with - he is the Deist God that is irrelevant to human lives. And if he is irrelevant to human lives, he is not God, because God is only meaningful in human terms when he is part of our lives.

Chapter One: Defining God

Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we describe God? What versions of God are on offer?

1.1: God, faith and religion
Do they need each other?

1.2: What is God?
God comes in several styles and models

1.3: Perception and reality
Is what we see what we get?

1.4: The evolving God
From prehistory to today

1.5: El, Yahweh et al
The Old Testament family of gods

1.6: Three's company
The Christian Trinity

1.7: Allah
Over to Islam

1.8: Majors and minors

1.9: The unknowable God
Is he there?

1.10: Your god or mine?
Made in our image

1.11: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter Two
Problems with God

The real God – if such a thing exists – may be very different from the god portrayed by Jewish, Christian or Muslim scripture.

But whichever picture of God we look at - from the Bible and Koran to the images presented by other faiths and believers - we are confronted by problems. When examined closely, God's nature is so contradictory that it is unlikely, if not impossible, for him to exist.

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If God exists, therefore, he must be real in human terms; we must somehow be able to prove that he exists and that he interacts with us.

1.3d God's Reality

Assuming he exists... what is this God like? What is the reality of this God who can be perceived by human beings? The previous section described his possible characteristics. The problem for believers is that only one set of characteristics can fit the bill. As a matter of principle, the deity cannot be at the same time the Christian God (knowable) and the Islamic God (unknowable). He cannot be both the Jewish / Christian / Islamic God who is involved in his creation and the Deist God who is uninterested in it. He cannot be both the single god of the Jews & Muslims and the triple God of Christians and Hindus.

When it comes down details, the same problem exists. God cannot be homophobic and misogynist, as some Christians and many Muslims claim, and approve of women and gay clergy, as other Christians and a few Muslims assert. He cannot both approve and decry the eating of pig-flesh or beef. He cannot have one set of commandments for one group of believers and another set for another group.

God may be the most powerful being in the universe, but his reality is limited. Whether we are discussing the basic principles of his existence - his omniscience, his knowability etc - or the minutiae of his relationships with his creation - what we eat, who we have sex with - there can be only one God with one set of rules for his worshippers to live by. God can only have one Reality.

1.3e Human perception

Still assuming that God exists... On the one side we have God's Reality. On the other side we have human beings' understanding of that reality. Consider what believers say about God. Christians do not agree with Hindus, nor Muslims with Buddhists. Within each religion there are strong disagreements. Even the most minor of issues - such as whether women or gay men can become priests - are ultimately disagreements over the nature of God. (God's nature is such that he either welcomes breasts behind the altar or he abhors them.)

The problem is not God's Reality, but believers' perceptions of that reality. And as we all know, our perception may be wrong. We think that our friend John is arrogant, but he is desperately insecure and shy. Our ancestors were convinced that the sun revolves around the earth, but the reality is that it is the earth that moves. Some of us believe that easy access to guns reduces crime, and ignore the statistics that show that gun-free nations have fewer violent deaths. Anything that believers tell you about God's nature may be true, partly true or completely false.

1.3f Perceptions and Reality are different

The lesson to be drawn is simple: perception may not match reality. Pat Robertson's perception of God differs from that of Rick Warren, as they both do from Ayatollah Khamenei and the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Each of them, along with every other believer, may argue that their perception of God reflects reality, but that is impossible; only one set of beliefs can be right and perhaps none of them is. (In fact, as we will see later, each believer's perception of God is based much more on their personality than any underlying reality.) Furthermore, at this stage of our analysis we have to accept that the atheist's perception of Reality - that God does not exist - may be wrong.

Where does this discussion of reality and perception lead us? We come to the conclusion that only one of the following statements is possible, which means that the other two are wrong:

i. God exists and and some people's perception of him is accurate;
    some believers are right, some believers are wrong and all atheists are wrong
ii. God exists and nobody's perception of him is accurate;
    all believers and all atheists are wrong
iii. God does not exist.
    all atheists are right and all believers are wrong

1.3g So what?

Surely this is common sense? Do we need to be reminded of this? Actually, yes. Most believers are convinced that their perception of God matches reality. Many get upset when you tell them, well, yes, God may exist, but he may be very different from the way you think he is.

But you can only have a rational discussion about God when you separate perception from reality. If God exists, he does so independently of each of his believers - our goal is not to investigate people's ideas of God, but the reality that may, or may not, be out there.

Chapter One: Section 4: The evolving God

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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