Breaking Down God

I live in a strange, interstitial space between atheism and theism. While I no longer consider myself a Christian, I refuse to cut ties with the Christian world and my progressive Christian community. At the same time, I feel a great deal of kinship with the pagan and witchcraft communities, as well as the atheist and skeptical communities. My own religious home is The Satanic Temple, and I consider myself a practicing Satanist. I call myself a nontheist and reject unverified claims of the supernatural.

To many people, the question of God’s existence is simple: either there is a magical sky daddy or there isn’t. For me, however, this question is getting increasingly complicated. God is about more than just existence or nonexistence: it is also about definitions, worldview, and culture.

In my conversations with theists and atheists alike, I’m realizing that simply saying, “I don’t believe in God” without further clarification might be unhelpful. “It sounds to me like you don’t disbelieve in God,” my Christian cohost Timothy told me, “but only certain aspects of God.” From his perspective, with his specific definitions of God, he’s right. “God” is defined in so many disparate ways, often by the same person, that I’m finding it more helpful to ask people what they mean by God, and then break down their definitions into component parts.

Many atheists get frustrated when theists define God as “the universe” or “everything” or “the ground of being” instead of simply, “a conscious being who created the universe and cares about me.” I think this is a silly complaint. Humanity has been defining and redefining God forever. As I write these very words, there are theists across the United States who hold sincere, complicated, and seemingly contradictory notions of God that include pantheism, panentheism, materialism, and more. To get annoyed that people define God as anything other than a skydaddy is to not grasp the rules of the game. In this article, I’m not concerned with whether or not certain definitions “should” be applied to God. Instead, I want to have a discussion about God on theist’s own terms.

Last night on twitter I asked my audience: “Dear Theists: what is your definition of God?” I’ve grouped the answers into various categories:

God is that which is beyond understanding and definition

The first objection that came up for theists, of course, is that God is ultimately undefinable. Many people balked at the wording of my question. Betsy, who is a Quaker, responded,

“I can no more define “God” than I could define my mother, or my child. The efforts to define God (or list attributes, same project) are intellectual constructs that don’t capture believers’ lived experience. As one wise Quaker told me, “All I know about God is that I’m not it.””

Ryan added his understanding of God: “Something to do with/undergirding the mystery of existence. Something tied to the phenomenon of consciousness, somehow. The rest is apophatic.”

Liam responded, “Cop out answer but God is ultimately undefinable 😉 I really like what St. Augustine’s said that “if you can understand it, it’s not God”. I’m cool with the idea that God is love (even is this answer is overused), but I think theres more to the divine than sentimentality.”

Bill had this to add: “It’s a sort of funny question isn’t it? It sort of presumes the possibility of defining a subject which transcends our categories. Somewhat analogous to asking for a definition of C.S. Lewis. Is a Person define-able?”

Do I believe in unknowable mystery? Do I believe that there are mysteries simply too big for the human mind? Yes, I do. Do I stand in apophatic awe of the unknowability of the cosmos? Yes I do. Do I believe that there are aspects of the universe that simply defy description or human understanding? Yes, I do. Does this make me a theist? With this definition alone: God as the undefinable and unknowable, then sure, I believe in God. For a theist who has a definition of God that includes “God is that which is undefinable” saying, “I don’t believe in God” probably won’t make much sense to them.

God is a Person/Being/Creator

Some of the answers above go a bit further than just “mystery” and “undefinable,” however. They also express God as a person, or a being. Other answers lean a bit more heavily into this concept:

“This is still in flux, but most days, I define God as the Creator of all things who works through us to bring about Their Dream of a holistic, sustainable creation into being on earth. In short, I see God as a Creator who continues to create.” – Lindsey

“God is the being who is in relationship to the universe.” – Free Spirit Christian Church

“The Creator of all things, available for intimate relationship.” – AnnaZ

“Designer, creater, sustainer, redeemer” – Jason

“Transcendent, benevolent creator and sustainer of the world, with a special care for human beings.” – Zena

“I mean, for me, he’s someone there who cares. Someone who loves me when everyone else has failed me. And if this concept is just something I’m holding on to from my past to cope or for reassurance, then so be it I guess. Life’s hard enough as it is.” – Amelia

I relate much less to these definitions of God. Even when I was still a Christian, I progressively found it more and more difficult to identify with God as a person capable of creativity, will, consciousness, and relationship. When I look into the universe, I see no evidence of design, and no evidence of cosmic being, or will. I simply see mystery.

I therefore reject these definitions of God for lack of sufficient evidence, even as I accept that there is profound and unknowable mystery in the universe. I don’t see any good reason (yet) to believe in God as a person, a consciousness, or a being. I have plenty of evidence of cosmic mystery, but none of a creator. I have no more reason to believe in that sort of God than I do in Pennywise the Clown. Based on this definition alone, I am not a theist.

God is Love

Another answer that came was a bit too vague for me to wrap my head around:

“Love” – Scott

“Infinite compassion” – Meister Earnhardt Jr.

And then not quite the same, but similar:

“Truth, Beauty, & Goodness” – Nicholas

I struggle with these definitions. They are obviously a direct reference to 1 John 4:7-10 (“whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” NIV). I do, of course, believe in love. But I also believe that love and compassion are human emotions and experiences, and I have no reason to believe that they transcend the human condition.

I must, of course, acknowledge the long history of mystics experiencing ultimate reality as love. This is an experience I’ve had myself. In prayer, in worship, in meditation, I had experiences that I could only describe as cosmic, overpowering love, so mighty that I felt completely overwhelmed and even annihilated by it.

But does this mystical experience point to anything beyond my own brain? I don’t know, so I must withhold belief on this particular point. I cannot trust everything I think or feel. Therefore, with this definition of God alone – God as love – I am not a theist.

God is the Ground of Being

This is my personal favorite definition of God – God as the source and foundation of the universe itself. Several people on twitter expressed this:

“God is that from which being comes. The Ground of Being.” – Adam

“The closest thing that doesn’t elicit a follow-up “yeah but” from me is “Source”.” – Steve

Do I believe that reality is contingent upon something? I think so. Do I think that the universe was started by something? Yes I do. Do I assume that there must be Some Foundational Thing at the very bottom of existence? Some Theory of Everything? I think so. This, then, would mean that I believe in a Ground of Being. With this definition alone, I believe in God. To a theist who includes “ground of being” in their definition of God, saying “I don’t believe in God” wouldn’t make much sense.

These were just a few of the answers given. Some were more exotic (God is a society of superhumans) that would require quite a bit more discussion than I have the time and energy for now. The point of this exorcise is to explore how conversations about God can become complicated. In my experience, many theists hold multiple concepts of God at once – as I myself once did. They may see God as Trinitarian, panentheistic, incarnate in the person of Christ, that which is undefinable, and the Ground of Being. With so many different definitions of God, I find it more helpful to dig deep into the various components of God, and discuss them individually.

But that’s just me. What do you think? Please write me an email or leave a comment below. If your comment particularly excellent, I will feature it in my Best Comments series.


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15 thoughts on “Breaking Down God

  1. I’m been trying to think about why I (a non-theist, non-supernaturalist) found myself feeling so frustrated as I was reading the section about theists describing God as undefinable / ineffable. I think it was frustrating me because the answers came across to me, on some level, as….. dishonest. Now, please don’t get me wrong: I do not think the people who shared those answers were lying or being manipulative. But I found myself feeling “annoyed” because their answers SEEMED TO ME to be dishonest, and it got me trying to understand why I felt that way.

    At the core of it, any conversation about definitions is (in my experience) a conversation about what traits you associate with a thing. Ask for a definition of a cat, and people will start listing traits of cats. Ask someone what they thing “love” means, they will start listing attributes: either how people act, or how they feel, or what kind of history they have together, and so on.

    So, my thought process goes like this: Either you have, in your mind, traits that you associate with God or you don’t.

    Now, if you don’t have ANY TRAITS AT ALL associated with “God”, then saying “I believe in God” has the same semantic status as saying “I believe in Snogfloogle”…. which seems unlikely. So if you claim you don’t have any traits in your mind about god at all, you seem dishonest to me.

    However, if you do have some traits in your head that you associate with “God”, then any conversation about how you define or understand “God” is obviously a conversation that is trying to get you to discuss those traits…. and so, if you avoid talking about those traits by saying “god is ineffable”, it feels deceptive. You’re being shifty, and avoiding the question.

    At this point, some people might object “Well, it’s impossible to come up with a definition that completely encompasses God!”

    That’s true, but also is trivial. Definitions never “completely encompass” anything. If you asked those same people, “what is your definition of cat?” they would probably NOT come back and say: “It is impossible to capture every single cultural and personal association that exists with cat-ness, the full myriad of feelings and connotations of The Cat are overflowing to the point of being indescribable!”

    That’s not how they would answer, even though, in a certain sense, that answer is 100% true!

    They wouldn’t answer the at way, because they know that when a person asks for a definition of “cat”, that person isn’t asking for a universal all-encompassing set of words that PERFECTLY CONVEYS all things cat-related. They know it’s not possible, for “cat” or any other concept. So they cooperate in the conversation, they understand implicitly that that is not what is being asked, so they answer in the normal way: “A cat is a mammal, and it purrs, and it sits inside cardboard boxes…” (or whatever).

    So why don’t they use the same conversational pragmatics when asked about God? They are choosing to fall back on the non-answer. They are choosing to be non-cooperative in the dialogue.

    That’s why I think it feels very dishonest to me. When I’ve actually sat down with people who say they believe in God, there is always something that they can say ABOUT the god they believe in: something that makes God different from Snogfloogle.

    Even if I asked them a single question, such as “did God exist yesterday?”, I believe they would probably have an answer. They would probably say: “Yes, the God I believe in is a being that existed yesterday.”

    So, there you go: it’s not really so “indescribable”, after all, is it?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. All Hail Snogfloogle!!!!!!

      I love this. Challenging the very nature of what we’re actually even doing when we attempt to approach concepts and definitions reveals a lot about what people believe and how and why they (and we) got there.

      Why they say “god” is ineffable, indescribable, or unknowable is usually attributable to the fact that their “god” is exactly that: theirs. They’re having a connection with their greater Self, but they don’t know that. When a person imagines “god,” each person has their own unique image of what he/she/it/they look like, sound like, feel like, and so on.

      While there are shared archetypes, the image of each archetype will always manifest uniquely to the individual, including such dead symbols as the cross. Believers want to arrive at conveying a foundation of knowledge about their “god” the way they would about their cat, but they haven’t gotten that far in their education and probably have no intention of diving that deep. You can’t know what is unknowable; and so, if “god” is unknowable, there is no such thing, as far as you can ever know.

      On the other side of that continuum, we have C.G. Jung in “The Red Book” talking about Abraxas and the Pleroma (creation and destruction; the emptiness and the fullness). He arrives at a way of mythologizing divinity with language that indicates an impersonal unknown. I think that when people are attempting to explain and defend their “god,” they want to accomplish that task but don’t know how to do it. To be fair, it’s bloody difficult; so while I don’t blame them, I still become irritated by people who succumb sincerely to stupid superstitions.

      When the intellectually uninitiated faithers/believers say that their deity is indescribable, are they being dishonest? Yes! However, they do not know of their own self-deception. They’re unwilling to examine a sufficient amount of existing literature to learn about how people created these myths and what their options are moving forward; however, I don’t think that such folks have the direction nor the access to remedy this problem. They’re not being dishonest on purpose, they’re just working within their own limitations. This doesn’t make them any less annoying. It’s as if they’re perpetually in religious puberty: always thinking that they know more than the adults, never learning that they don’t.

      This is why I often relay the notion that faith is intellectually lazy and irresponsible, but hey, I don’t wanna hurt anyone’s feelings x).

      Awesome thinking, Greg. Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! Your point about God being subjective to every human being is one I made in a podcast I did with Greg a while back. I think nontheistic Satanism’s ability to see that symbols are subjective works in our favor — we implicitly know that my Satan will be different from your Satan, and that’s ok. But theistic religions don’t necessarily have that ability, so they have to constantly reinforce belief in the “same” God, but are unable to do so.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I love this, thanks so much for sharing. I experienced a similar frustration on the twitter thread in part because I know *for a fact* that many of the people claiming that God is undefinable hold specific claims about God — that God is trinitarian, beyond gender, incarnate in Jesus, etc. So instead I pivoted to asking them for “attributes” of God, but found the same resistance. You articulate above why I found that so frustrating. While I tried to remain neutral and generous in the article, I struggled with whether or not I should bring up this frustration, so I’m glad you articulate it here.

      I hope some of the people who responded with the “indescribable” answer read this thread and offer their perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Brilliant. And I would add, one of the things that bothers me about the way so many people choose to believe in their “god” or what they call their “higher power” (I go with “greater” because it’s omnidirectional) can be found in pretty much any addiction/alcohol recovery room where theism (largely some form of Christianity) is often the default, accepted worldview. It goes like this: “I know I just need to give it up to God; I gotta give it all to Jesus and have faith that He’s gonna take care of me!”

        While I have sympathy and even sometimes empathy for the people who choose to interpret what “god” can do for them in this way, I still personally think that it is not only intellectually irresponsible, it is morally and personally wrong and is at the core of so many problems with individuation and in the world.

        In recovery, we learn to admit that alcohol/drugs have made our lives unmanageable and that we need to seek external help of some kind to become and stay clean and sober. There is a fundamental cognitive dissonance that I think occurs between personal responsibility around one’s recovery and how one ought to enlist a greater power to help.

        My empathy only extends so far as how many people will never be able to dive deeper than this into theology because, let’s face it, this subject is brutally hard and many people are happy if they can put food on the table and keep out of trouble. My sympathy only extends so far as people needing a simple process and power to keep recovery simple so that they can stay clean and sober. It makes sense that if our lives have become unmanageable that we need something more than ourselves to achieve a radical “spiritual” or psychological transformation.

        However, I draw the line at two things: 1) the suggestion that their way is the only way, and therefore can be assumed to be the default way; and 2) that if they “give their problems” to “god’ that miraculously they’ll find the strength to make it through the process with less of a struggle than anyone else, and that there is literally a being out there with a stake in human events dedicating time to this individual to make sobriety happen.

        In short, I think many people get the wrong idea that somehow giving something to “god” means that they don’t have to be the one to do whatever that part of the work is. The Lord, or rather The Dark Lord, helps those who help themselves in cooperation with others and a greater power; but ultimately we as individuals must take responsibility and be the change we want to see in the world through our own hard work and collaboration. Maybe in the beginning many need to believe that something else is going to take their pain away, but that is a slippery slope that if not held in check could once again lead to addictive thinking and relapse.

        So, when people claim to believe in this mysterious being that they can’t describe as a way of not having to take responsibility for whatever outcomes they are looking for, I think that’s a massive error in any religion that teaches such a thing and if it were remedied would probably solve a lot of problems with what others believe to be “faith.”

        I can honestly say that my beloved literary Satan is everything and more of what I needed to finally admit that I am an addict/alcoholic (taking that personal responsibility) and to enlist Satanic thinking (all work will be my own) to push myself into a program of my own making, supported by other addicts/alcoholics (the real power that gets us through when we’re fatigued). Just for myself, I call my personal, individual program “Sober Satan” and I am rewriting any addiction literature that comes my way to be in alignment with the tenets and themes of Satanism.

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  2. From: @onesundown666

    What is the human value of the word “god” and the meaning we assign to it? Etymologically and Ontologically, this word has permeated all aspects of the human experience and psyche; and yet it points to an unverified, indescribable, and most likely unknowable entity.

    It would be a vast improvement in human culture, religion, and our evolving consciousness to abandon the word “god” (especially as it insinuates a literal being) and continue to explore whether or not one or more entities with greater consciousness exist; and if it or they do, what might be their relationship to or with us, if any. Considering our relationship to beings of lesser consciousness, we’re most likely not terribly important to a mind or minds that transcend our own.

    Our cities must be no more amusing to them than anthills are to us.

    I suggest that a being or beings of greater consciousness who might’ve initiated or participated in the creation of our universe would most likely not have a stake in human affairs.

    What would be the point? Oh, I couldn’t know? “God” works in mysterious ways? Perhaps that’s because it’s all a mystery and no one knows anything about a consciousness greater than our own. So why bother thinking about it?

    Because we certainly can identify a connection to a greater Self (C.G. Jung), which is what I think people have mistaken for a “god” in the first place. Same goes for other events of the mind and Nature that can be mythologized as gods, devils, angels, and demons.

    They’re handy stories and images that help us to communicate otherwise extremely complex concepts.

    In a more scientific context, if we were ever to discover a greater consciousness and have some kind of interaction with it, the word “god” would still have nothing to do with that being since “god” is a human notion invented by men (in its current conception) to control others.

    We would or will need to ask them to teach us what they can about themselves; suggest how we might cooperate; and if they have a name, I’m sure they’ll let us know.

    Assuming a being with greater consciousness does exist and eventually makes contact with us, it would be amusing if they had been following our stories all of this time and thought they’d have a laugh by quipping, “call me God.” 👹🖤🤘👹🖤🤘

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  3. Hindu psych: behind the 5 senses (what we miscall ‘the world’) is the mind (manas), behind that, the higher intuitive mind (buddhi). Behind that, the soul (atman), which is one with the all-pervading consciousness/creator (Brahman). This can be directly experienced as ecstasy.

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      1. Yes. Mysticism–the direct experience of the divine, of heaven within–is mainstream in the East, aberrant in the West. St. Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, are examples.

        The East is scientific about the process of going within to find “satchitanand”, a word with no equivalent in the West. Being or Truth (that which truly is, underneath all the changing phenomena of mind, emotions and senses, and the illusion that ‘the world’ is solid and objective) is Sat. Consciousness is Chit, Anand is Bliss. “What exists, is the ocean of formless vibrating consciousness, whose nature is bliss.”–that is what is meant by God–an EXPERIENCE.

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  4. Posted on Patreon and realized that’s not where the action is 😂 Also I see several smart people have beat me to the discussion of the philosophical/linguistic legitimacy of “ineffability” but here’s my post again anyway:

    I also love the notion of apophatic/negative theology (though I’m not sure I buy it tbh). If you’re looking to get nerdy about it, I’d suggest “Religious Experience Reconsidered” by Ann Taves. I tend to think that claims of ineffable experiences or beings are based in something like a linguistic illusion. Saying something is inherently indescribable seems to function to protect the “something” in question from any potential rational critique. Not to say religious folks are doing this on purpose, or disingenuously, but I’m not sure there’s a meaningful distinction between “something that’s indescribable” and “nothing.” I realize theists tend to ascribe indescribability to signal reverence, but I think it might be a bit of a dubious move. However, I can feel the intuitive pull of this type of thinking too, so I’m unsure if there are things that are beyond the scope of language. Great post 👍👍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not describable, but TOTALLY experienceable. I can throw words at it like a poet, but the word “kiss” is not a kiss. And the experience you get from reading the words, will not resemble what I describe. An experience outside the mundane phenomena of existence for which language was created, is totally real AND ineffable. Arrogant intellects are actually the barrier to getting out of mental prison into direct experience. And I say that as a person who got 800s in math and chem, before going beyond the limited epistemology and mythology (and theoretical science IS a mythology, as much as any religion) of the hard sciences, into yogic, shamanic and esoteric sciences, which take consciousness far beyond the worldly intellect into worlds unthought of by those conventionally educated.

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    2. ‘I’m not sure there’s a meaningful distinction between “something that’s indescribable” and “nothing.”’ To the intellect which knows next to nothing about reality, perhaps. To the person who has gone beyond manas (mind) to buddhi (intuition) to atman (direct experience of Pure Consciousness beyond all forms, the clay out of which all experiences–mental, emotional, sensory–are made)–there is a total distinction.

      To the yogis, “God” is consciousness itself, whose nature is ecstasy–the “kingdom of heaven within you” that JC talks about, the “peace that passes understanding”, the “pearl of great price”, the “treasure that moth and rust don’t corrupt, and thieves can’t break in and steal”. To experience the Self as formless, constant, pure substance (when the duality between subjective and objective dissolves)–is both joy, and higher intelligence (including the “siddhis” like telepathy and precognition)–and power. Yeah, there are all kinds of tricks you can do from that state–as long as the corrupt ego drives don’t get in there.

      Heisenberg once said that Eastern philosophy explained quantum far better than Western science (after talks with fellow Nobel-er Tagore in India).

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  5. And Jung–one of the mightiest intellects of the century–when asked, “Do you believe in God?”, said “I experience God.”

    I don’t believe in a chocolate eclair–I eat it. I don’t believe in heaven. I go there, as often as possible, just like running every day to stay strong and alert, happy and healthy.

    Heaven being the direct experience of Substance (sat), pure consciousness as my true nature (chit) and ecstasy (anand).

    Then you no longer play life looking for satisfaction. You ARE satisfaction. And it radiates. Sensitive people can pick it up like a tuning fork. I once took my sister to see a Master, and she was allowed to walk through for 2 seconds to see him. She came out in the drizzle, and said “I don’t know where my shoes are, I don’t know where my purse is–and I don’t care.”

    But that teacher is totally grounded, flies his own plane around the world to speak, has raised 4 kids, and has run an international organization from the age of 16. Heaven and earth are totally compatible.

    So yeah, call it God or Self or The Great Wow. Ineffable and totally real. But it can be fun to talk FROM the experience, not explain the experience. Pleasure shared is pleasure doubled.

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