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Chapter One: Defining God

Section 9: The unknowable God

If God is unknowable, how do we know if he exists?

Believers do not agree whether God is knowable. Most Christians say that he is - he made himself known to us as Jesus and even today we can experience him in our daily lives.

1.9a From many gods to one

Some Christians, and most Jews and Muslims, say that God is beyond knowledge or understanding. The prophets talked with him, but the age of prophets has past. We can never personally experience God.

We saw in Section Four that the unknowable god is a logical step in the evolution of religion. As our understanding of the physical world improved, so our concept of the gods changed. Their first incarnation was as spirits controlling the forces of nature. They then transformed into powerful beings on Olympus or in Valhalla, so close to us that we knew their every idiosyncrasy, jealousy and sexual dalliance.

Such gods still thrive in India, but elsewhere they have been replaced by a single deity who is more interested in in our long-term spiritual welfare than in the daily weather. In temperament, however, the Jewish / Muslim god has changed little from Zeus or Odin; he frequently displays the very human traits of anger, violence and he is highly obsessed with sex. Only in Christianity did God continue to evolve, manifesting in Jesus as a loving, compassionate being.

This evolution from many gods to a single god also lies at the origins of Judaism / Christianity. As we saw in Section Five, there are several

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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gods in the early chapters of the Bible, and Yahweh is not the most powerful. As the Old Testament progresses, Yahweh overcomes the other gods and they fade into oblivion.

1.9b Now you know him, now you don't . . .

Two thousand years later, perceptions of God continue to change. As science and common sense continue to undermine the idea of a supernatural being who brought the universe into existence, created sentient beings and introduced them to unhappiness and pain, the only rational response for many who continue to believe in him is to see him as ever more distant and unknowable.

Unknowability explains the contradiction between a god who created the universe and a universe that does not need a creator. Unknowability also resolves the contradiction between the idea of a perfect God and the highly imperfect being who appears in scriptures - the appearance of imperfection tells us that our image is wrong and we can never know him. Unknowability allows believers to resolve a contradiction: we believe God exists but we cannot prove it, and we cannot prove it because God is unknowable.

1.9c Take your pick

We are nearing the end of our research into the nature of God. We now know that there are three options defining our relationship with the deity:

a. God is knowable. One or more scriptures is at least partially true; God has a
    personality with human-like emotions. Believers can experience him directly.
b. God is unknowable. Scriptures tell us little or nothing about the deity. God
    cannot be described in human terms and believers cannot experience him
c. God does not exist. Scriptures confuse history with myth and imagination.     What believers experience is not God, but a reflection of their longing for a

The first option is the God of most Christians, somewhere between the angry Father of the Old Testament and the love represented by Jesus. It is the God of those who are certain not only that God exists but that they have a personal relationship with him. For some, scriptures are the unerring word of God; for others scriptures are man's fallible interpretation of God's words and will.

The second option - God is unknowable - is the stance of most Jews and Muslims, but it poses a problem for these two religions. On the one hand they say that God is unknowable - but on the other hand their faith is rooted in scriptures which both give a clear indication of God's personality and describe occasions when God has clearly made himself known to human beings. This idea - that God is both unknowable and revealed in literature - is contradictory; like the Christian Trinity uniting three personalities in one, it tries to reconcile opposite statements

An alternate vision of the unknowable God is the Deist version. This God is the most distant of all. He may have created the universe but now shows no interest in it or the human race. Alternately, he is interested in his creation but he is beyond experience, making scripture irrelevant. For the Deist God, faith is irrelevant; the Deist God comes closest to the Atheist God, for he either has no need of believers and cares nothing for them, or he cares for his believers but does not communicate with them.

1.9d From knowing to unknowing; from unknowing to nothingness

This path - from many gods to one; from one knowable god to a god that cannot be known - is one that millions of rational people have followed in their own lives. It is also the path that has been followed by Western and Middle Eastern cultures over the last three thousand years. Believers in a knowable God are stuck half-way along this path. Believers in an unknowable God have progressed further, but they insist that the path ends where they stand. Rationalists say they are wrong; the path - the argument - is not at an end, but can and should be followed to its logical conclusion, which is acceptance of the fact that there is no God.

Looking back, rationalists turn to those who have rejected the tempestuous God of the Bible and Islam and who cling to the idea of an unknowable God, and ask the question: if God is unknowable, how do we know if he exists?

Next: Chapter One: Section 10
Your god or mine?

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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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