An Atheist's Definition of God -- and Why People Still Believe

“Men make themselves believe that they believe.”



“The idea of God is the sole wrong for which I cannot forgive mankind.”

Marquis de Sade

What does it mean to “believe in God,” as 95% of the population professes to do? As an academically-trained linguist and a secular humanistic Jew, I’ve thought about this question for many years and listened to how people answer it. I’ve collected several answers.

(1) “Bible God:” God is a conscious being, like us, but a lot stronger and smarter.      

One answer I’ve observed is “I believe in Bible God:” a supernatural being who communicates with people and intervenes, albeit mysteriously and unpredictably, in earthly events – not unlike the God of the Torah (whose violent and vindictive streak has been whitewashed by centuries of “commentary” and who now appears in movies as Morgan Freeman or George Burns).

Many people behave as if God listens to prayers.  Most of the worship services I’ve attended consist of endless adulation and supplication, often accompanied by physical prostration and other humiliating body language.

But people talk to God outside of church as well, especially since public piety has such enormous social value in America.  They also give him credit when things go well. “Thank God” is an established, almost involuntary verbal tic — even I have used it, God help me.

(2) “Cosmological God”: God as Watchmaker

Other people believe in what I call “Cosmological God”– he/she/it created the universe and set the laws of nature in motion, but that’s it. 

This version of God doesn’t talk to people or intervene in human history.  Nevertheless, there are educated, sophisticated people who believe all this and still attend prayer services.

Advantages of Cosmo

It doesn’t surprise me to discover on the Internet (March ‘07) that a scientist who’d been an atheist suddenly decided that Cosmological God must exist, because the universe is the way it is. 

With Cosmo (as I’ll call him, sort of like Seinfeld’s feckless Kramer), you can have it both ways — belief and belonging, but without praying and pretending to believe in Biblical folklore. 

Many people use a variation of Cosmo to denote what earlier generations called “Fate, “Providence,” or “Destiny.”   They can thus talk about God in an offhand way — “Its all in God’s hands” — and give the appearance of belief, along with the (entirely appropriate) resignation in the face of the uncontrollable.

(3) “God is anything that’s important to me.”

Beyond this, the semantics start to get a bit slippery.  This is the “many definitions of God” school of thinking.  God is love, God is nature, God is the Ground of Being, God is gaia, God is the infinite potentiality that underlies all matter and energy, God is the force behind the creation of the universe and the laws of nature…the list is endless.

People who define God this way are ignoring the fact that we already have names for all of these items: love, nature, the ground of being, and so forth. By declaring that one of these things is God, one is saying, “this is very, very important to me.”

Such a declaration also sounds (at least to me) like an implicit message to the people who believe in “Bible God” (i.e., the vast majority), a message that says something like “Hey, don’t exclude me – I believe in God too.”


“God is love” and all other such expressions are a way of subtly avoiding “Bible God” and “Cosmo God” – but not rejecting “God” and in fact being able to bond with others by talking about God.

(By the way, the same logic applies to self-proclaimed “humanists” who don’t actually believe in God  — but spin the Torah and character of God, so that both seem worthy of great reverence.  These folks are hypocrites in two ways, believing neither in the traditional program nor in the bold alternative first articulated by Rabbi Sherwin Wine over 30 years ago: Judaism without God.)

Gods exists in the mind.

I do not believe in God, but I most certainly believe in belief in God.

To a secular humanist, committed to the truth of experience, God is an undeniable phenomenon.  There is no question that God exists in the minds of at least some of those who profess to believe in him (I will, to save words, omit the other two pronouns her and it, but they should be understood). 

Entire schools of theology and divinity are predicated on God’s existence.  Countless hours are devoted to communicating with him.  People may say that God does not exist in the physical but in the metaphysical world.

But how is “metaphysical” different from “imaginary”?   If an entity is not physical (incuding the entire observable universe and electromagnetic spectrum), where is it, if not in your mind?

Subjective reality

I do not mean to imply that God is not real to the people who believe in him.  There is abundant evidence that the reality created by the mind can be perceived by the mind as identical to reality produced from outside, i.e., from the sense organs.  Classic examples include hallucinations, psychoses, phantom limb pain — in fact, many psychosomatic illnesses, including chronic pain that seems to have no physiological basis.

God or Shania?

In July of 2006, Funny Times reprinted a news item about a man who was acquitted of criminal DUI charges “after psychiatrists concluded that his latest accident was the result of a sincere belief that singer Shania Twain was helping him drive the car.  (A 1996 brain injury might have given him a disorder in which he believes that celebrities communicate with him telepathically.)”

Believing in God is a subjective event, for some a reallity.  Believing in Shania is a “disorder.”  What’s the difference?

The fact is, God is not real for those who do not believe in him, real for those who do.

An analogous example would be an alien abduction experience: yes, perhaps you were drawn up into an alien spaceship and anally probed, but if I had been there, what would I have seen?

So, discounting doubt and hypocrisy, it appears that the difference between sincere belief and sincere non-belief is somehow related to actual differences in neurology, which lead to differences in subjective experience.

God is a shared, consensual subjectivity.

This brings us to an atheist’s definition of God: a shared, consensual subjectivity.  “Shared,” because the same mental images are (or are professed to be) shared by all believers. “Consensual,” because everyone agrees to take part in the group delusion.  “Subjectivity,” because God exists only in the minds of those who act and think as if he exists.

Why people continue to believe

On the Qualitative Believability Scale, God rates just behind Superman.  Both of them have elaborate backstories, and the exploits of both have been voluminously chronicled.  But at least we agree on what Superman looks like.  God doesn’t have the verifiability of, say, Julius Caesar.

Then what keeps the believer’s faith so strong?  Over the centuries, anger, fear, violence, and ostracism have been powerful conformity tools of every religion.

Violence is one of the most pernicious results of trying to apply ancient and medieval texts to modern times.  It’s possible to choose to read an ancient religious text as a prescription for violence. 

You can find passages in Deuteronomy which consist of instructions for ethnic cleansing of the lands that the Israelites are to conquer.  But the Jews gave up violence for many centuries.  Still, the passages are there.

There are also powerful positive motivations to believe in God.

Social belonging is a huge motivator.  Nobody wants to be left out of the circle of family, friends, and community.

Then there are the rewards that religious belief and ritual provide: God offers what no superhero — even Superman, who can go back in time — can deliver: relief from existential anxiety about the harsh realities of personal accountability (“God/Satan made me do it.”), of chaos (“it’s all part of God’s plan”), and, best of all, of death (via the promise of reincarnation, heaven, etc.).

The price of belief

All this comfort comes at a high price – and that’s in addition to all the humiliating praying and the other meaningless, anachronistic worship behaviors.

One big downside of belief in God is that it encourages a dangerious passivity.

Resignation in face of the inevitable is not bad.  But passivity that can actually affect one’s life is bad.

Letting someone else decide that you should accept a miserable existence because of the payoff in the next world…or that an ancient text with impossible events is not only true but sacred…and that you should kill other human beings because they happen to disagree with you or even read that same text differently — these are extremely bad. They are, to one extent or another, the core beliefs of a billion Muslims. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, eloquently describes why Muslims are such a clear and present danger to the future of humanity.

Another huge downside is that correct ritual can excuse inhumane behavior — everything from Crusades and Inquisitions to spouse abuse and child molestation.  As long as you do and say the right things, you can get away with anything.

Believers and nonbelievers will never convert each other.  It’s pointless to try.  But among the seeming-to-believers and the trying-to-be-believers, there may be those who are open to doubt.

Secular humanism and spiritual salvation.

There may be people who have never heard any but the official program, who imagine there must be some alternative, but who can’t figure out what it would be.  For such people, secular humanism may be the path to spiritual salvation.  You really can be good without God. 

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Comment by Alan Perlman on June 14, 2012 at 11:23am

Johnathan...thanks for thoughtful comment.  What's it going to be like after I die?  Same as before I was born.  We should all wring the most out of every moment and be glad we had the chance to experience life.  Religions have it exactly backwards, committing so much effort in this life to preparation for the imagined afterlife.  In The End of Faith, Harrris marvels at the amount of time devoted to prayer and ritual, all of it pointless.  I don't feel sorry for them, these Rapture-ready idiots who think they're going to be swept up to heaven.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 13, 2012 at 8:58pm

Thanks Steph...uncoupling morality from religious fantasy is one of our main tasks, propaganda-wise.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 13, 2012 at 1:50pm

Great aphorism -- like something that Thomas Paine or Voltaire would say!

Comment by James Yount on June 12, 2012 at 7:44pm

If men held god to the same standard that they hold each other, we would all be atheists.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 12, 2012 at 7:18pm

Thanks, Joan...made my day.  I'll keep 'em coming.  By all means, share.

Comment by Joan Denoo on June 12, 2012 at 4:44pm

Alan, you are a blessing in disguise! May I share this on my Facebook page, with attribution, of course?

I wrote, "The Passive Gospel" in which I define advice given to battered women by religious leaders, teachers and members to "yield, pray, obey, submit, love the batterer to the lord, live your life in imitation of the crucified christ, and rejoice in your crucifixion."

Sick philosophy, psychology, and theology!


Comment by Alan Perlman on June 12, 2012 at 4:25pm

Thanks, Blackbeard...much appreciated.

Comment by Edward Teach on June 12, 2012 at 4:13pm

Well done!

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 12, 2012 at 4:01pm

Everything that happens is God's will -- the ultimate in resignation.  But then why pray and do rituals if God has it all planned out anyway?  Is he going to listen to a billion prayers a day, not all of which will agree with his plan?  Don't believers ever think this stuff through?  I guess not -- otherwise, they wouldn't be believers.  Thanks for comment.  23rd Psalm carries the sheep metaphor to the max.

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on June 12, 2012 at 3:42pm

Interesting point about passivity. If god is the adult in charge then the sheep are relieved of all sorts of responsibility.



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