So Do You Believe in God?

Published on Friday, January 8, 2010 By mwinell

I get this question so frequently, I’ve decided to make a better effort to reply.  To be honest, I don’t like the question because it presumes we know what those words mean.  Here are some responses, touching on more or less serious aspects of the topic.

1.  Which god? Do you mean Zeus, Baal, Athena, Shiva, Allah, Jehovah, or some other?  If you mean one of those, then no.   I am not a theist.  I don’t believe in an individual being that created and now controls the world.

2.  What is belief? Is it a cognitive conclusion that I have reached basic on logical consideration of evidence?  That would assume I have access to all the information, and I do not.  Is it an emotional feeling for something beyond myself?  Well, my emotions vary, and some days are hopeful, other days are dark.  Emotions are a rocky basis for “belief.”  Do I make a leap of faith, not knowing anything really, but simply wanting to “believe,” and putting stock in a “scripture” to give it support?  This is also difficult because knowing about the origins of “scripture,” I know the complexity; they were not simply dictated.  Also, the strength of my blind faith can also vary and I’m not sure how completely I am supposed to convince myself in order to say I “believe.”

3.  The concept of “God” usually meant by this question is some sort of being that exists “out there.” The god of the Bible is very separate, superior to humans, but anthropomorphic in many ways.   Other gods are also considered “out there” and have controlling powers we do not have.  A more New Age notion of god includes “the divine” in all of us, and still involves the notion of “spirit” infusing people.  There is an assumption in most approaches to spirituality of a kind of “force,” which can be called by different names, but which is a thing in a universe of other things.  As such, I do not resonate with this idea of “god” as an entity.

4.  If I must use the concept at all, I would equate it with the “nature of being.” This is close to “ground of being,” a phrase coined by John Robinson many years ago in Honest to God.   For me it involves a perception of existence grounded in the profound science of modern physics.  Most ordinary people do not know much about this.  Yet, we now know from findings in both relativity theory and quantum physics, that the universe is much more strange and incredible than we ever realized.   It calls for massive humility because there are things no one understands, yet we now have good reason to question all of our basic assumptions about “reality.”  The difference is bigger than finding out the world is not flat.

We have evidence for questioning our ideas about matter, linear time, cause and effect, and more.  String theorists agree there are eleven dimensions.  Yet the general population operates all day every day assuming things that are completely out of date.  The knowledge has not reached the masses.  This is akin to having everyone act as if the earth is still flat.  The issues are intensely profound, with implications for everything we do.  The big words for me are “mystery” and “possibility.”  Feelings are humility, awe, and excitement.  There is no religious description of “god” that matches the grandeur of the universe as it is – elusive, ever-changing, impossibly mind-boggling.  And this includes us.  We are part of the fabric; there is no separation.   If this is believing in god, then by all means, a hundred times YES!   But I’m still not drawn to the language.

A couple of quotes that I find consistent  with this:

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”`

-Carl Sagan

“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

-Albert Einstein

5.  Dispensing with the “god” word, it makes a little more sense for me to address “spirituality,” although this word has often meant a focus on other-worldly things.  I prefer to describe spirituality as a way of living which is here-and-now.  These are attributes rather than a definition.  They involve feelings and perceptions and experiences which depend on openness.  This openness can be chosen and developed.  Rather than escaping into a different realm, I think of spirituality in terms of how we live our lives – the choices, the consciousness, the texture of daily life.  There are several aspects of this:

Accord. This is the experience of feeling attuned with the rest of existence – a feeling of belonging on earth, being a part of the rest of nature, and in harmony with everything around. When you are in accord, you move along with the vast river of evolutionary change, feeling connected in a fundamental way with the harmony and power of the whole. You feel as though you are tapping into a rich resource that is beyond you, much larger than yourself. Your inner spring of god-within connects with the vastness of god-beyond, a “deeper power” rather than “higher power,” a subterranean aquifer connecting all of life. This produces a sense of trust and safety, a knowledge that you fit, that you have a place.

Awareness. With awareness you are alive and awake, fully experiencing life. This means being totally grounded in the here and now. Your sensory experiences are vivid, and you notice what is happening when it is happening, both around and inside you. You do not reject uncomfortable experiences or deny pain; you are open and embracing of all that life has to offer. This makes it possible for you to enjoy things more intensely and to learn from difficulties. You are not trying to be on some other plane of existence, but are willing and happy to be here now, like a curious child.

Growth. Growth is a natural process. You are not static or inert; you are a changing, growing being. And your experiences can propel you to develop further. As a plant needs the attention of water and food to grow, you need to attend to your needs and consciously make opportunities to learn and change. This aspect of spirituality is active, complementing the more receptive elements of accord and awareness. As humans we are granted the exciting option of making conscious loyal commitments to move in positive directions. Learning will often occur anyway, as a neglected plant will often survive, but informed with a sense of accord and awareness, you can take action on your own spiritual behalf.

Transcendence. There are moments of awe for us in life, those times of being overwhelmed with wonder at beauty, or love, or natural power. At these moments you get clues about the immensity of the cosmos, like pinpricks in the veil around your limited consciousness. You are humbled and thrilled as you gaze at a sunset or a torrential waterfall. A moment of pure love can be ecstatic. Let your vision extend into the night sky, and you may experience a blissful dissolving of your individual ego. Not needing to understand or control, you can experience a sense of total Mystery. These moments are gifts that reflect your spiritual capacity, gifts that become more available as you open to your sense of the ultimate. This is not ultimate in the sense of above or better, but simply beyond your usual mode of consciousness. These are moments of realization knowing that the sense you have of “god” within is not only in contact with but one and the same as the transcendent “god”-beyond.   You are a wave in the ocean, individual in a sense but also part of something much bigger – the immensely huge and powerful ocean of existence.   You don’t understand and you don’t need to understand.  All of this is multiverses away from “believing in God.”

So even though I would have to say I don’t believe in God and I am an atheist in the true definition of the word, ie, not a theist, I obviously feel compelled to question and reclaim the language being used and make this rather inadequate stab at describing my lived experience.   It’s a bit defensive and that’s because the stereotype of the cold, shallow, hedonistic, selfish atheist needs to be challenged.  In my opinion, it’s all about how we live, and not what we “believe.”


  1. Once-Reluctant says:

    My personal favourite is, “Do you KNOW the Lord?”

    What a loaded question and a complete abuse of the language! Somehow when it is said, you can hear the underline or caps of the word, “KNOW”…

    Personally, I think the word ‘god’ is too powerful to leave in the hands of the overly religious. It needs a new definition for today, a definition that demonstrates no one can have an authoritative ownership of it. So, I really like what you say about transcendence.

    Have you heard of Gretta Vosper’s book, “With or Without God”? She is addressing that very issue you mention in the last sentence, “it’s all about how we live, and not what we “believe.”

    All blessings,


  2. Shaurya Swaraj says:

    Do you mean that it doesnt matter what we believe,,only matters how do we live……??????
    and if it is like that it is the hypocrisy that you do not live upto your beliefs…and if you dont live on the facts you believe than what kind of person are you…Its all about whether we live upto the facts we believe or not….dont seperate them…ther are corrolaries….

  3. Jack says:

    I liked the part about the mind-boggling character of our universe, but I’d toss in this challenge: Science is one way among others of revealing this character, but that’s not the actual point of science. Science’s job is to unboggle, that is, to understand. It has succeeded partly but marvelously and it has hopes of further successes. Religion also reveals mystery, but it’s point of religion–when it’s authentic, I’m afraid I need to add–is not to understand it but to have a relationship with it. For the best theologians, just as for the mystics, “God” remains the name of a mystery. “Ground of Being” is a useful description, but I think the mystery also needs a name if we are to relate to it. I don’t think we will ever be able to do without the name “God.”

  4. Rob Wood says:

    I was 13, and late (as usual) to my 3rd period science class. I raced down the hall, skidded around the corner, and barely managed to keep from colliding with a crowd of students milling around outside the classroom. The entire class was out there, and the last bell had already rung.

    “What’s going on?”
    “The teacher’s not here!”
    “Why are you standing out here in the hall?”
    “The door’s locked.”
    “Really? Are you sure?”
    I walked up to the door, turned the knob, and walked into the classroom. Boy, were they grateful for revealing the truth! Right. They hated me for making them feel foolish. That’s what these arguments about God and religion are really about – not truth – but about fitting in and belonging to something. Had I been a little smarter, I would have tried the knob, found it was unlocked, and just stepped back and said, “Yep. Locked alright.”


  5. Marlene Winell says:

    Thanks for the comments; it’s always valuable for me to see how others respond to these ideas. I always find language interesting and important. So often people use words, thinking they know what they mean, and assuming other people are using them the same way. Language is very limited for bridging the gap between what we are individually experiencing in our separate realities, but it’s the best we have so far. So, in my opinion, we have to be humble about it, and as careful as we can. In this article, I was pointing out some of the pitfalls of certain words like god and believe. I would venture to say that every person who used the word “god” has a different conception, and every Christian who claims a “personal relationship” with Jesus has something different going on. My main problem with “god” is the anthropomorphic way it is used. Since humans are incredibly limited in what they can do or understand, It seems that the gods created by religion are also small. While they are said to be all-powerful or all-merciful, they appear wildly affected by strong emotions like we are, their creation looks to be quite out of control, and their beloved creatures suffer immense pain. Perhaps it is because I’ve had a lifetime of association with this, but I need to get away from such a personage in order to appreciate any cosmic transcendence whatever. I realize that many folks use “god” to mean something much broader, such as Einstein’s use of the word (which he explained well) but the fact is, that is just not how most people use the word and right now I’m talking about language.

    I agree to some extent with the comment about not separating action from “belief.” But again, that is a word which for me, connotes mere cognition, and also implies doubt. For example, in a court room, if a judge asks, “So was the car green?” the witness might say, “I don’t know for sure; I believe so.” Scientists do not tend to use the word; they talk of “preponderance of evidence.” I have a friend who is a leading evolutionary biologist and we have discussed belief in creationism or evolution. Regarding evolution, he says “It has nothing to do with belief,” but rather acceptance. There is a huge body of evidence, and until we have a better explanation, we accept the theory (just like the theory of gravity). Science never claims to know everything; that’s why it’s still in business.
    On the personal level, I would prefer to use the words, “hold to,” when describing my relationship to the principles that guide my choices in living. That is, I think I “hold to” the golden rule instead of believing in it. I try to hold to honesty, compassion, courage, and justice. More concretely, I hold to meaningful friendships, doing work that is both enjoyable and of service to others, maintaining a close family, being aware and involved in the world, and experiencing fun and pleasure. When I did my doctoral work, I did research on “personal goal hierarchies,” which involved broad ideals and values all the way down to everyday behaviors.

  6. Marlene Winell says:

    (Part 2 of my comment:)

    It’s a very interesting area; people say a lot of things, and their behavior is not always consistent. We all contradict ourselves and in that sense, we are all hypocrites. In fact, the “self” is not one entity; that is how we manage to hold different views simultaneously and not suffer too much. However, there is a word in the literature I find interesting and useful, both in thinking about mental health and mature character development. The concept is “intentionality,” and refers to the match between the values a person claims and the degree to which their behavior serves those values. Living with intentionality means living according to one’s values. This is why I like “hold to” (my term) instead of “believe.”

    It does matter quite a lot to clarify one’s values – in order to know how to live. When someone comes out of a fundamentalist religion where all the rules were laid down and morality came from a book or pulpit, it takes some rethinking to construct a new framework.

    But what of mystery and ambiguity and not-knowing? These are part of the adjustment and the freedom after leaving the faith, I agree. But it makes a difference what domain we are talking about. In Christianity, you are asked to “believe” in being kind, loving your enemy, not stealing, and so forth, as well as “believe” god created the earth in six days, you were born with original sin so god had to die for you, there is a heaven and hell, and Jesus is coming back. In my opinion, these are vastly different domains! In fundamentalism, they are completely confused. That is, you are taught that you can’t be good without being cleansed first and having god work through you, so you have to “believe” in the atonement before you can “believe” in being an unselfish, loving person. One domain is a set of supposed facts and the other is a set of principles for behavior, and you are told that one hangs on the other. (It’s a matter on controversy whether these two have any causal relationship, and one could even say that linking the two will make the latter less likely, not more, because you will be disempowered).

    In recovery, I suggest you disentangle these, put one set aside, and take personal and full responsibility for the second, i.e., leading your life the way you see fit. Do you have to know if there are angels or not? If Jonah really was swallowed by a whale? What happens after you die? Well then, how about leprechauns or whether it’s safe to open an umbrella indoors? No, you do not, no matter how much you may think you need the security of this “knowledge” in order to live. Moreover, “believing” does not make any of it any more true.

    However, there is no way you can roll out of bed and just behave randomly every day without going mad. If you try to have no guidelines, you will not function. So, leaving the unanswerable questions in domain of mystery, you can move on to clarifying who you are and how you want to live in the here and now. Call them “beliefs” if you like, but may I suggest word options like guidelines, principles, or “working assumptions”? I also like using the latter term because it implies that my understanding is always in process and I am able to change and evolve with learning.

    Sometimes, after the experience of authoritarian religion, a person resists the notion of defining any guidelines for behavior. But realize that these are your guidelines, and they are not set in stone. They enable you to proceed and live your life with some structure based on your own rational thinking, intuition, and yes, feeling. You can feel less lost, less depressed, more grounded, and more empowered. And as I said, you don’t actually have any choice. You can’t be alive without making decisions. That’s why it takes courage to be a human being. The existential dilemma is to embrace both freedom and responsibility.

    And how about the vast unknown? On the one hand, it takes courage again to not have “answers” to all of our questions. But as a member of the animal kingdom, which we accept as we settle in to the idea of being part of this earth, we can take lessons from our fellow beings – the squirrels romping in the trees after storing their food, the birds soaring through the air, or even our cats dozing in the sun. They manage to enjoy life.

    As humans, we are different in that we are aware of our mortality, and that is a challenge. We are able to imagine fearful things, and religions have power because of this. But this is all the more reason for us to take responsibility and get more clear about who we are and how we want to live.

    Focusing on the end of life, as fundamentalisms would have it, is a poor way to spend the life that we have. Rather, I believe it helps to think of life as a piece of music. Reaching the end is not the goal or the important part. Nor does the fact that it has an end take away one bit of its value. In fact, won’t you destroy your enjoyment if you are worried about the final stanza? Alan Watts used this musical analogy as well, and spoke of reaching the end and realizing we were supposed to sing and dance.

    As far as wanting answers, one of our human joys is to pursue knowledge. Scientists and explorers have had many thrilling discoveries over the centuries. Far from having no answers to anything, we now know a great deal about our universe, and much of this information helps us live better, less fearful lives. Knowing about germs helps us manage illness instead of fearing it as demon possession. Understanding climate helps us refrain from burning witches for causing storms. (could someone please explain plate tectonics to Pat Robertson?). Learning about crop rotation has helped us feed ourselves and water sanitation helps us stay alive. Discovering radio waves lets us talk to each other, and telescopes give us awestruck wonder at the cosmos. If you want the satisfaction of “knowing” things, just read about advances in science, or do your own investigation. Curiosity enlivened the cat.
    But there is always more and we are always faced with limitations. In my view, it can be so liberating to just say, “so what?” to that. In Joseph Campbell’s more eloquent words, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.”

    So let’s be sure we remember to sing and dance. Perhaps that is one of the most important “guiding principles” to hold to for staying sane, getting along, and being happy. (Of course it won’t help to “believe” in dancing ☺. Intentional living would mean we actually dance.)
    And perhaps it doesn’t have to all “make sense.” Maybe we can actually enjoy absurdity. I’m sure we can laugh more – at life and at ourselves. I always loved Dr. Seuss; he was both wise and hilarious. A wonderful quote from him seems to apply to the fact that life is finite:

    “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” –Theodor Seuss Geisel

  7. Mriana says:

    I don’t know if I ever left a comment on this, but I really like what you said, because it is similar to my own thoughts on the matter.

    Here’s another quote I like by Carl Sagan and he sums it up well too:

    “The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.” [Carl Sagan]

    Emotionally unsatisfying or not, I’d much prefer this concept over some sky-daddy concept and it is closer to reality. In the end, the word “god” is nothing but a human concept and means absolutely nothing, spirituality means more. There is a book by a former Anglican priest Anthony Freeman, titled “God In Us: A Case for Christian Humanism”. He was excommunicated for writing the book- well actually for the words, which were taken out of context, “I don’t believe in God”. Be that as it may, it is a good book, even though I do not agree with redefining the god concept just to use the word and I recommend it for those exploring and on their own journey out of religion, because it touches on some of things you mentioned, Marlene, and gives the person a few things to ponder. (BTW, Spong supposedly tried to defend Freeman and even invited him to the States to be reordained. Freeman declined and went another career path, but he is involved with Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith, UK and he speaks to some humanist groups.) To this day, he will not retract the statement in question on p 9 of his book, which in context actually states he does not believe in the pre-defined Church definition. The man has guts, because he was “damned” by the Church in text or out of text.

  8. Mriana says:

    BTW, because the word “god” is nothing but a human concept, it is why I say, “I do not believe in the god of religion… any religion.” Now if you are talking about neurology in connection with nature, other human beings, other animals, etc… AKA transcendence, numinous feelings as define in Webster definition #3, well that is a whole other ball park.

  9. April G. says:

    Thanks for writing this Marlene.

    You’ve given me some things to think about. Last summer I went to the northwoods Wisconsin, I hadn’t been there since moving out of state for the cult….anyhow my sis & I were laying on our beach towels & it was past midnight. It takes that long to get really dark…& we laid in the grass looking at the sky. we saw some shooting stars & the milky way…I felt close to God then. :)

    Anyhow, I LOVE this quote that you wrote,
    “In my opinion, it’s all about how we live, and not what we “believe.”

    That’s pretty much where I am at because for the years in the abusive religion it was all about
    what one believes. Actions & treating others with human compassion & understanding took backseat to “correct doctrine”. Also cruel actions towards others such as shunning, cruel rebuking for petty offenses such as disagreeing, etc…were justified as being the “loving” thing to do because of supposed “correct doctrine”.

    Well…I’m not sure what I believe, but I think I know what I don’t believe.
    I could consider myself a Deist…but I wouldn’t want to “join” anything….;)

  10. April G. says:

    Wanted to add……
    Marlene wrote in part II:

    “Focusing on the end of life, as fundamentalisms would have it, is a poor way to spend the life that we have. Rather, I believe it helps to think of life as a piece of music. Reaching the end is not the goal or the important part. Nor does the fact that it has an end take away one bit of its value. In fact, won’t you destroy your enjoyment if you are worried about the final stanza? Alan Watts used this musical analogy as well, and spoke of reaching the end and realizing we were supposed to sing and dance.”

    Yes, we ARE supposed to SING & DANCE & enjoy this life we have in this world.
    SO TRUE!! and LOVE Dr. Seuss. :) He actually helped me, well, not “him” personally, ;) but his awesome books! I enjoyed reading “Yertle the Turtle” after exiting the group, it was so brilliant & so true. I’m loving life, it’s not perfect, I’m not perfect, but I’m going to do the best I can with what life I have left. I can’t let what happened to me cause me to crawl under a rock & not live…nope. I will live a good life with what’s left of it. that’s my goal. :)
    Take care & thanks

  11. Loved the article Marlene……loads to think about here. I agree I don’t personally believe there is a specific “God” but think there is energy/power in nature and the universe if that makes sense!

    I think there are a lot of things we don’t know… say everything is clearcut and concise (which is what religions indeed do) is quite bigotted, I feel. The more I think about it the fact christians base their whole life around a book, the more I feel it is utterly ridiculous. I read somewhere (could be a Richard Dawkins book) that if all life ceased, and there was another “big bang” and life started again, humans/other lifeforms (!) wouldn’t be looking for a book to live by. They would need food, water, companionship…..and then later guidelines and morals on how to live their lives. Anway I am diverting (again!) sorry!

    You are right Marlene. Fundamentalists spend their entire lives thinking about the afterlife. However, they (and I include myself in past times – as I was a christian too) waste their lives away in the process. In my opinion all we have is the present, so we should enjoy it and live a good life. Treat others as you wish to be treated, work hard, be caring, bring your children up with morals. As you say:-

    ” I try to hold to honesty, compassion, courage, and justice. More concretely, I hold to meaningful friendships, doing work that is both enjoyable and of service to others, meanwhile, being aware and involved in the world, and experiencing fun and pleasure”.

    I also like another quote of yours:-

    “It seems that the gods created by religion are also small. While they are said to be all-powerful or all-merciful, they appear wildly affected by strong emotions like we are, their creation looks to be quite out of control, and their beloved creatures suffer immense pain”

    How true this is!!! How can a loving God with strong emotions treat humans and animals in such an awful way? Children/adults are dying of starvation, as well as being tortured, raped and abused. There are people who have suffered nothing but pain in their lives, whether it be physical or emotional or in other ways. Of course christians would say that earthquakes and natural disasters are signs of the “end times”. However, while God is proving the “end times” (apparently!) these poor unfortunate souls are suffering in the most horrendous and cruel ways. Quite frankly if the God the christians believe in permits this to happen, quite I want absolutely NOTHING to do with him!!!!

    You are in your own words “spot on” Marlene!!

  12. Knowledge_Seeker says:

    It makes much more sense to believe in a creator of this universe than to Believe that there is no creator. Would any of you be willing to accept that the monitor from which you are viewing this comment was infact not manufactured rather came into being “by chance”? That it had no designer/manufacturer/inventor? That it had no logic behind its creation? Ofcourse not. Then if that is the case for just a tiny viewing port then what about Allah, the creator of the heavens and the Earth?
    I would personally recommend all of you to read the book entitled “The man in the red underpants”. Its E-Book version is available online. I hope my comment did not offend anyone :)

    • Drew Stedman says:

      @Knowledge_Seeker First, thank you for taking the time to read the article and engage in conversation. I don’t see what in your comment would be considered offensive. I would rather hope we all have thicker skin than that : ) You are correct that from the obvious design of the computer monitor it would be unreasonable for us to not infer design. This is the classic watchmaker argument for inferring design from nature. The argument is that because a biological organism for instance is so complex and so well “designed” that we therefore must infer a designer. Now, here I agree. Life certainly is too complex to not require an explanation. But there are a couple of problems with this argument. 1. It assumes that the designer is supernatural and had intention and purpose. 2. It makes a false analogy between something that was clearly designed, in this case a computer monitor, and say a biological organism. The key difference between these two things is that a biological organism is self replicating, it reproduces with variation. Some of those variations benefit the survival of the organism and are more likely to be passed on to future generations because of the non-random process known as natural selection. This is very unlike a computer monitor because a computer monitor must be made from scratch, every time. It is manufactured, not reproduced from an ancestor. And that is the key difference. Also, complexity does not necessitate design. Take a canyon for instance. A canyon can form solely by well understood natural processes such as erosion, as gravity works in tandem with water to carve it out over time. This occurs naturally, so we would not say that a canyon is designed even though the structure of it may end up being enormously complex. It is the result of natural processes behaving lawfully. The same is true of life, which while being much more complex also has a non-random mechanism driving its development. This process, which is well understood and documented, is called evolution by natural selection. It is a powerful explanation for the variety and complexity of life, and it requires no outside input to work. I would encourage you to honestly consider the evidence for evolution. I wrote one article about evolution and the fossil record which is available on this site and there are many books on the subject. I hope this is helpful in understanding why many people do not feel the need to infer a supernatural agent from their observations of nature.

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