There’s a lot to unpack here. I’ll begin by thanking you for having the discussion as I think it’s important. However, I’ll be frank: it’s a philosophical & scientific conversation masquerading as a spiritual one. For me, questions like the existence of god block the path to anything like spiritual experiences of transcendence. Clearly, to you they seem fundamental. When we use words like “real” and “exist” we automatically enter into the field of dualities Joseph Campbell referred in the quote I posted earlier. Real implies its opposite, unreal. Existence implies its opposite, non-existence. Dealing with concepts like god on these terms implies that god is a question that requires us to resolve these dualities, or if not resolve them at least pick a side. As I said in my opening response I prefer to embrace a middle path that requires neither acceptance nor denial. That said, it’s a path I admittedly walk imperfectly.

It is through the opening created by the choice to make this about the “reality” of god where people like Richard Dawkins come in. He may refer a bit too often for your taste to the “god as old man in the sky” concept, but having read him, Sam Harris and other “new atheists”, I can assure you they ultimately couldn’t care less whether you or anyone else actually thinks god takes such a concrete form. What matters to them is the power you attribute to god.

You state explicitly in one of your replies above that you believe that “Sometimes God just reaches in and changes things. If you created the physical laws of the universe, you’re entitled to break them at will.” That, right there, is the problem Dawkins and others have. It’s also my problem, though I would come at it from a somewhat different direction than the new-atheists do. If you attribute this power to step in and alter the natural laws of the universe randomly to a being, that’s equally problematic whether the god you are talking about is an “old man in the clouds” or “pure spirit”. So your claim that god being an “old man” is a strawman argument is itself a strawman argument because people that have issues with such very traditional notions of god’s power don’t care what form your god takes, physical or otherwise. They are concerned with what you think your god can do and the implications that has down the line for solving real questions about the nature of reality.

Now, having stated explicitly what you mean by God we must grapple honestly with your definition because it raises some very difficult questions. For example, does this deity have good reasons for occasionally violating the laws of the universe (assuming for the sake of argument that he can) or is he just acting on a whim? If the former, why not just concern ourselves with the reasons (which I would argue is just another name for the laws of the universe) and skip the middleman, or in this case middle-deity? To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the really interesting question isn’t whether God created the universe but whether or not He had a choice.

If God is acting on a whim, on the other hand, this implies he can do things like declare genocide, slavery, rape, and murder moral one day while issuing commandments against such behaviours the next. Indeed, some of his followers have at various times through history said he has sanctioned all of the above behaviours. One need look no further than the Old Testament for examples of genocide and slavery allegedly sanctioned by God. After all, if God can freely violate the physical laws of the universe, He can also violate moral laws to the extent such things can be said to exist. What separates this god from the rest of us isn’t his goodness or mercy but his power.

You raise the concern that I’m using the word physical and natural interchangeably in earlier posts. Guilty as charged. We have seen no evidence of anything in nature that isn’t either itself physical or a product of physical forces. That said, I’m happy to just stick with natural laws if you prefer. It’s a distinction without a difference so far as I’m concerned.

That said, it is not an act of faith on my part to say that if we observe something in the natural world (which includes the universe in its entirety and any other universes that may exist) its existence in and of itself is sufficient to demonstrate its consistency with the laws of nature. This is a self-evident truth. This would be true even if we assume for the sake of argument a god that can interfere directly with the natural world. After all, we can interfere in the natural world in ways that would have appeared god-like to humans just a few centuries ago and nothing we can do violates any natural laws. (Please note, the ability to do something shouldn’t be confused with the argument that we should do it. I’m not someone who thinks natural necessarily equals right or good). So, for example, I would simply say in reply that if your god can cure someone of a disease that at our current level of understanding and technology is terminal to all humans that come down with it, then in doing so he needn’t violate the laws he used to create the universe to do it. Why wouldn’t god just create a universe in which the natural laws allow him to interfere whenever he wants instead of one that requires him to violate the laws of that universe to get something done? Why are you at all concerned with whether acts of god are natural or not if, as you argue (if inconsistently), it matters not at all from a spiritual perspective? Likewise, if things like angels and demons actually exist in the universe your god created these beings must be naturally occurring phenomena within your god’s universe. This seems to me very much like a how many angels can dance on the head of a pin argument that brings us no closer to god, however we define “him”.

Finally, I agree with you that some scientists (not to be confused with science as a methodology properly understood) do sometimes give their explanations more power than they have. But then so do some theists. To say a gene explains everything is little to no better than arguing that God did it explains everything. In both cases an awful lot of questions are left begging.

So, for example, knowing that the hormone oxytocin plays a necessary role in what we refer to as love does not tell us anything about what love feels like. Nor does it come close to fully explaining why we fell in love with person X instead of person Y. It provides only a limited explanation which makes sense primarily in a biological and/or evolutionary context. Furthermore, scientists that understand how hormones like oxytocin function do not suffer from a diminished capacity to experience love, including its many wonders and mysteries. I seriously doubt any scientist tells their spouse or children that “I oxytocin you” instead of “I love you” or feels any less profound a sense of loss at the death of someone because they have uncovered information regarding what’s going on chemically when we have these experiences.

What seems to separate the two of us and to divide at least some believers from the scientific community (absolutely needlessly IMHO) is what appears to be an insistence on grounding the transcendent rather than letting it fly. By discussing concepts like god using terms like “real” on the one hand while embracing phenomena that by your own admission violate the laws of nature on the other you muddy the spiritual waters and invite criticism from the likes of Dawkins. I frequently hear believers say things like “if this is all there is I couldn’t cope.” Now “all there is” is a hell of a lot: billions of galaxies and counting, with untold trillions of stars and apparently hundreds if not thousands of trillions of planets. That’s just in our known universe. I can’t begin to fathom what’s out there that we know nothing about. If we accept, as a growing number of astronomers and astrophysicists now apparently think is likely, that our universe is just one of an infinite number and that all of it is eternal (just like god) you can’t have anything more than that. Science, in this light, can be a profoundly spiritual and awe inspiring experience.

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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