Thursday, September 22, 2011

What Good is God?

I had a debate recently on YouTube about whether there is a purpose to life or not. YouTube is not the best platform for debate, however, limiting argument length to something like 400 characters, but we did have a lively exchange. In the end, I think she pegged me for hell-fodder and went away.

One thing the debate made clear, though, was how crucial is the existence of God in order for life to actually have a purpose. Then today, I received a book in the mail called "Letters to a Buddhist Jew" written by a Rabbi, who confirmed this:

There cannot conceivably be anything more important than the existence of God. In the light of God's existence literally everything takes on vastly greater proportions; not only do moral obligations, for example, take on meaning in the deepest sense, but the very notion of meaning itself comes to life. In a godless Universe, does anything really matter?

So, it seemed like a good time to do some "divine critiquing" of a sort.

Why criticize God, you may ask? Because, like the idea of "purpose", God is among the more pernicious human delusions in existence, defining much of our destiny as individuals and as a human race, and not at all in a good way. That and because people keep trying to tell me that God is great and has a plan for me, and so on. So, this is a response to that as well.

It seems plausible that the best way to help someone under the influence of a delusion may be to show them the pointlessness of their beliefs, rather than the wrongness of them. It's an interesting tactic, at the least, and one which mirrors Buddhist practice quite well; as the Buddha said, "when one becomes disenchanted with suffering, that is the path of purification." (Dhp v.277) When one sees the uselessness of something, one gives it up; this is very much the way of Buddhist practice.

So, if it were only possible to show that something like God is useless, then perhaps one might help ameliorate the human condition in the sense that we would no longer have to persecute others or blow ourselves up over what really amounts to little more than an imaginary friend (yes, I talked to God... grew out of it around the time I hit puberty).

To that end, we ask the question, what good is God? And it seems to be a rather profound question, at that. It cuts through all the debate over whether your bible or my bible is the unerring word of the guy, and asks, "what's the point of it all anyway?"

There are some aspects of this question that are easily dealt with, for example the whole idea of how God adjudicates at your death and sends you either to eternal heaven or eternal hell, according to whether you followed his rules or not. This one quickly fails the usefulness test - such a system is so incredibly grotesque as to need little argument against it - it is a system of punishment without a mote of rehabilitation and an incredibly poor deterrence factor, based on nothing more than hearsay and conflicting legal documents. If it were true, it would involve meting out absurdly disproportionate punishment for crimes like adherence to evidence-based views, and bestowing equally absurd rewards upon those who believe in things without any good reason. In short, it is a useless system, better replaced by just about any of the flawed legal systems of modern day secular society. Imagine a supreme court judge waiting at the pearly gates to bestow wisdom and rational judgment on everyone who would pass through - now that would make a good bible!

This can be taken even further, however, to ask "what use are heaven and hell themselves?" Suppose, contrary to the ascriptions of the world's god-followers, God actually had a set of rational laws and commandments, and made sure that everyone either went to heaven or hell based on them. If hell is eternal, what good is it? As a deterrent? Even supposing that people knew for sure that if they did bad deeds they would go to hell for eternity, we would have to ask, "why go to all the trouble of creating hell just to stop people from going there?" Pretty pointless, really, and certainly not the best way to get people to give up evil. After all, if one's only reason for avoiding evil is to avoid the fires of hell, is it reasonable to suggest that one is cured of evil? And, if one behaves well only because one thinks it will allow one to go to heaven, is this true goodness? It seems reasonable to suggest that under this system, there would probably be a lot of repressed and superficial individuals in heaven along with the genuinely good ones.

So, hell is pretty pointless. What about heaven? The question relates very much to the idea of having a purpose - if your purpose is to go to heaven, what about when you reach heaven? You then have no purpose. Suppose we accept the illogical assumption that heavenly existence has a beginning but no end. What then? What is the point of heaven? Even if all beings could be sent to heaven after they die, cleansed of their sins like Yudhisthira of the Mahabharata, what would be the point? The absurdity of it boggles the mind - that we could be put on this Earth just to go to heaven after a brief stint in the mud turns reality into a less-believable tale than the epic Hindu fable itself, but what about its usefulness? Imagine us all up in heaven, praising God for eternity, or even in some undefinable state of bliss. Can we really attribute some meaning to such an existence apart from, "it is what it is"?. Can we really define a qualitative difference between Earth and heaven? I think not; one may be more pleasant, but that is a quantitative different. If the only goal is to attain maximum pleasure and minimum pain, why Earth at all? And more importantly, why God? Why not just heaven?

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. God is pointless. Even if one were to ignore the absurdities that have been written in his name, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he truly is wise, beneficent, and, well, perfect, we still have to ask, "so what?" So, God is perfect. What good is that to us who have to live in an imperfect world? He can't be much good as a role model, being invisible and all, and he certainly hasn't shown any of his perfection in teaching us how to live our lives in harmony and peace. At best, it seems like he could be a sort of grandfather type who gives you the odd word of wisdom but mostly just spoils you on candy and lets you get away with murder. Really, what good is God? Given his ineptness in creating us and the world in which we live, wouldn't we be better off without him? Probably the first thing we should do if we learn how to really communicate with God is petition him to let us create our own world. Wouldn't that be something? Have God come down and say, "okay, I give. You guys can do it your way. Here's the tools, here's the keys, make your own universe." If we had the power, I can't think we would have done much worse (in fact, it's pretty clear we would have done exactly as we say he did).

In short, if you want to make an argument in favour of God, you have to show that God serves some purpose. So, let's go back to our friend the Rabbi and take his argument apart:

There cannot conceivably be anything more important than the existence of God.

Why? Even if I assume the existence of God, why should it have any importance for me at all? He’s proven himself inept at creating anything but a big mess and negligent to the point of senility. I’d say, “Let’s picket the pearly gates, get the big guy impeached and set up the first anarcho-syndicalist commune in heaven!” Imagine what we could do if WE were at the wheel; we could put an end to misery AND delusion. If only it were so easy as they say it is, we could surely do a lot better than the miserable excuse for a creative force currently in power.

In the light of God’s existence literally everything takes on vastly greater proportions; not only do moral obligations, for example, take on meaning in the deepest sense, but the very notion of meaning itself comes to life.

No, as Socrates pointed out, God doesn’t give any meaning to morality. It is moral because it is moral, not because God says it is. Nor does he give rise to the concept of meaning - suggesting God gives meaning to life leads only to infinite regress, as I’ve hopefully made clear – if God gives meaning, what is the meaning, then, of God? Either he exists or he doesn’t, and if he exists, he is a part of the meaninglessness of existence; if he does not exist, well, need one say more?

In a godless Universe, does anything really matter?

In a universe with God, does anything really matter either? Why? And why does that matter? And why does that matter? And so on. You can’t answer one question without blowing the lid off Pandora’s box.

The correct answer is, no, in a godless universe, nothing really matters. Life is, as it always has been, what you make of it. We’ve made a big mess of it all by ourselves, without needing the invisible hand of an invisible being to help us. The good news is, this means we actually have the power to clean up the mess all by ourselves, if we choose to do so. To me, this is the most profoundly liberating truth of our existence; we can spend eternity mucking around in samsara, or we can unravel it all and be done with it. It's the theory of unintelligent design. We have created out of stupidity, not intelligence – anyone who tries to say that the universe was created out of intelligence should be given a thorough lesson in history, both little and big.

This of course leads to a final question, as was proposed as the clincher for the argument against life having no purpose: “why get out of bed?” It makes a pretty poor argument for a purpose to existence – whether the realization that existence has no purpose would lead everyone to lie in bed all the time or not has no bearing on the fact or fiction of the matter. The fact of the matter is, though, that lying in a bed all day and night is a pretty stressful thing to do; one would have to assume the existence of some great purpose in doing so. Enlightened beings may have no purpose left, but that doesn’t make them act unnaturally in any way. On the contrary, it is clear that an enlightened being would act more naturally than an unenlightened one, allowing their bodies and minds to follow the flow of experience at all times in all situations. One might think them to be the most natural of beings, without needing any purpose whatsoever.

In the end, the attachment to God and purpose can only be imputed to four things: clinging out of desire, clinging out of aversion, clinging out of delusion, and most especially clinging out of fear. We cling to God and purpose out of the fear that we will lose something important if we give them up; we don’t realize how pathetic we have become as a result, clinging to this insignificant rock in a remote corner of the vastness of the universe. We are like birds clinging to the side of a cliff out of fear of heights, our wings clipped by no physical impairment, but only the mental handicap of not knowing they exist in the first place. Rather than work for our own salvation, we cling to God like birds to a mute rock, thinking somehow the rock will save us from falling to our deaths. Few are those who learn that they can actually fly!

yassāsavā parikkhīṇā, āhāre ca anissito.
suññato animitto ca, vimokkho yassa gocaro.
ākāse va sakuntānaṃ, padaṃ tassa durannayaṃ.

Whose stains are removed and who clings not to sustenance;
Whose resort is empty and traceless freedom;
As with birds in the sky, the path of such a one is difficult to trace.

– Dhp. v.93


  1. Hi Yuttadhammo, thank you for your teachings on meditation. I find them very useful. However, I did not find your arguments regarding God useful. I apologize in advance for being disrespectful, but I found your arguments very puerile, although I am sure they appear to be very logical and sound to you. Puerile arguments are not a mark of enlightenment, but of unbalance.

  2. Dear Peter,

    Thank you, I'm glad you found the teachings useful. I'm sorry you didn't like my arguments about God, but calling them childish is not a very good way to rebut someone's arguments. Perhaps you can point out what seems illogical or unsound about them to you?

  3. Hi Yuttadhammo,

    I pronounce the letter z as "zee". Others pronounce the letter z as "zed". Which way of pronouncing the letter is right? Would you argue with someone who pronounced it differently than you?

  4. Certainly not... but if you're suggesting that the only difference between having a purpose and not or believing in God or not is pronunciation, I'm afraid we might have an argument :)

    You might as well ask yourself, if it is all about interpretation, why did you post a response to my weblog at all?

    Post-modernism is not a defense, it is an excuse.

  5. I'm afraid that I don't knowwhat post-modernismis. If you want to have a discussion,I will oblige. If you want to have an argument,I wouldask why you want such a thing?

  6. Hi Yuttadhammo,

    The edits that you have made to your blog post, are, in my opinion, an improvement. I appreciate your effort in that regard. The final two paragraphs, are, I believe, the most useful.


    Peter D.

  7. What is the purpose of life...truly? Today it seems to be simply to have a good time, party, make money, have sex, drink, smoke, waste least for most people, but for others, they have found the path and follow the way. What is the use of all the material in this world, it is impermanent, only useful in distracting us from seeing things as they are. The world was quite fine before technology came along...although some forms of technology are quite useful, such as electricity, plumbing, AC, and perhaps the computer if used correctly. God is but a name...for what was God called before there was a name for God? If God created the universe, where did God come from? I do not understand the use of God, and looking at people who worship God, I wonder why they do not follow God's teaching correctly....there is no reason to think of such a thing, work your way through life with the Buddha's teaching diligently, and perhaps will understand these questions.

  8. Fantastic post.

    Truly the idea of an all-powerful deity who punishes the bad and rewards the good is the epitome of juvenile mentality and an illustration of the power of fear and tanha.

  9. To Yuttadhammo: The idea that something does not exist unless it can be quantified and experienced by you, and that you proclaim it useless and a manifestation of illusion is the essential opposite of Metta Sutta and you blindness to others experience can also deteriorate intelligence and perpetuate ignorance...I'm glad that you are spawning an interesting debate, but maybe you are also judging based on your limited experience with the subject of God, and what does your judgement have to do with acceptance of that which you so obviously have no knowledge. Your attitude of solid discreditation sounds like a reflection of your own suffering.....and certainly not Buddhist.

  10. Thank you for your comment... I'm curious what the Metta Sutta has to do with the existence of unexperienceable things? And what's the difference between something that doesn't exist and something that can't be experienced?

    Yes, I have no knowledge of God. I submit, humbly, that neither do you and neither does anyone.

    The point of the post was to help those clinging to an illusion let go. Perhaps I failed in this, but that was the intent; I think, in that respect, it is quite Buddhist.

  11. John Dashiell9:46 AM

    "The correct answer is, no, in a godless universe, nothing really matters."

    You then must admit that you are a nihilist. The "The Brahma-jâla Sutta", however, would lead me to believe that the Buddha rejected the beliefs of the 'Annihilationists'. What, then, do you you think was the Buddha's view on meaning? I would propose that he was, at the very least, agnostic toward the matter. Or, perhaps, you could point me to specifics quotes of the Buddha that would clarify his position.

  12. What does meaninglessness have to do with nihilism? I speak, as the Buddha did, of the annihilation of attachment to anything at all.

  13. Dan Ignat6:48 AM

    Excellent post. I found the last paragraph very inspiring. Thank you.