As I understand it, one way of defining an atheist is as someone who thinks the statement, "There does not exist an x such that x is a deity" is true. But religions have different ideas about what constitutes a (or "the") deity, leaving atheists in the position, "For any reasonable definition of 'deity', there does not exist x such that x is a deity". How do atheists manage this universal quantifier, without allowing "deity" to become weak enough that "nature" or "the universe" provides an example?
God is a personification of the universal superrational strategy for asymmetric games. This is "ethical God", and it is what religions are pushing predominantly. In addition to this notion, which is interesting, important, and true, there are other notions which are ridiculous:
Creator God: created the universe, set it in motion.
Snoopy God: snoops on you while you have sex, and waggles his finger.
Supernatural God: looks at the list of daily prayers, and comes down and rearranges atoms to make things better for religious folks.
These things are ridiculous to anyone who has any sort of scientific sense. The creation of the universe from outside (as opposed to its evolution from inside) is not something which can be probed by instruments of tests, and you can believe whatever you want about it, including that the universe was created 3 minutes ago, or it hasn't been created yet, we are just in the "false memory" stage right now. These questions are meaningless in the sense of Carnap, and this debate is just ridiculous, nobody needs to worry about it, because there is no sense in it.
Snoopy God is sort of like saying that when you hand-calculate pi to 20 digits, and you get the last 6 digits wrong (this happened to me), you have somehow tried to change the value of pi, and pi gets angry and comes to haunt you in your dreams, then banishes you to mathematician's hell. It doesn't. But you still made a mistake.
The problem is that the ethical God baby, the self-consistent entity whose desire is absolute good, is thrown out with the superstitious bath. If these concepts are separated clearly, I think there will be no more debate, or rather, the debate will be about the best course of human action in various circumstances, given circumstances of tradition and history, rather than about superstitious or positivistically meaningless nonsense. The debate on ethical behavior is informed by the knowledge that there is a self-consistent notion of superrational ethics extending to all games, and that some 3rd century saints and martyrs had an inkling of this, and made all sorts of arguments about how to determine the universal ethical good which one should not ignore.
A related concept is the concept of eventual determination of the truth or falsity of every arithmetic statement from a strong enough axiom of higher infinity. This is tantamount to the idea that by approximating ordinals closer and closer to the Church-Kleene ordinal, one creates mathematical systems which are ever closer to the otherwise hard-to-define concept of arithmetical truth. The concept of Arithmetical truth is generally an article of faith of mathematicians, and the idea that one can approach it by evolutionarily producing bigger ordinal names is parallel to the idea that one can approach an understanding of God by debating ethics within historical time, while reading and accepting/rejecting the opinions in religious texts. Evolution is required, because no fixed system is going to produce all arithmetic truths.
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The problem is that you need a name for the superrational ethical system, and "God" is the name the religious people standardized on. What can you do? It's really their idea in essence, not anyone else's. How can you deny them credit? If you strip away the superstitious stuff, you can see that they really were talking about the exact same thing, and 2000 years ago. That's not even close in terms of priority.
The hokum version of God is already dying, it's been gone in serious thinking since the enlightenment. But the problem is that whenever it dies for real in any society so far, it takes down the non-hokum version along with it, and you get horrible Neitzsche Ayn-Rand Fascists running the show. Nazis are worse than superstitious religious folks.
Abrahamic religions tend to define God as an all-powerful, all-knowing, sentient being. I don't believe such a being exists.
Some religions claim there was a sentience behind human life. I don't believe that.
Some religions define gods as super-powerful beings that take an interest in humans. I believe we have no evidence such beings exist, though I suppose there might be powerful space aliens out there somewhere.
Some religions posit a supernatural realm exists -- a realm that's not material but that can interact with matter. I don't believe in that.
Some religions define gods in a vague way. I can't say much about that, because it's vague.
Some religions use the word "god" as a synonym for natural forces, e.g. "God is the Universe." I believe that the Universe exists. I'm not sure what the point is of calling it "god," unless you're claiming it's sentient. I don't believe it's sentient.
The top part of your answer buys into the semantic confusion that lies at the heart of most modern discussions regarding theism/atheism/agnosticism etc.
What is meant by 'being'?
Either you mean something like a carbon-based life form on Earth - basically a man, or you don't.
If you don't, then the only other possible definition is 'the Universe'.
People throw around words like 'being', 'force' and 'power' to define 'God', but that is just replacing one undefined noun by another.
I've yet to meet an atheist who can define 'God' as anything other than an all-powerful human who controls the universe.
Atheism is reactive. If theists had posited deities, atheists wouldn't have anything to disbelieve.
I'm aware many theists don't think of God as a biological entity. If they did, they'd be worshipping a space alien, not a god, and that's not what they're doing.
But every theist I've ever met worships something sentient. In my sloppy way, that's what I meant by "being." I don't know if it's best to call it a sentient "force," a sentient "universe" or what, but sentience seems to be at the heart of it.
Do you disagree? Do you think most theists believe in a non-sentient god?
By "being" I mean a sentience that created life and/or is involved in human affairs. That's what I don't believe in.
"Universe" is vague, because, depending on one's believe, it could be sentient or non-sentient. If a theist believes that the Universe is non-sentient and has no special interest in humans -- because, being non-sentient, it can't have an interest in anything -- then he and I are in agreement.
To me, the Universe is "just" all the stuff that exists: all the iPhones, rocks, planets, galaxies, chessboards, petunias, asteroids, etc. If you want to call believing in that "theism," then I'm a theist.
There's something else I am: a person who doesn't believe in a universal sentience that was/is involved in human affairs or the creation of the universe or of humans. What should we call people like me?
On reading your thoughts, I immediately looked up 'sentient':
"having the power of perception by the senses; conscious."
The thing that follows from that is to look up the word 'conscious', but I already know that no proper definition exists (because science doesn't yet have a handle on what 'consciousness' is).
So one is then arguing about 'something which has the power of perception'? I hope you'll agree that's a shockingly fluffly basis upon which to hold a discussion about metaphysics.
It's not you being sloppy - the problem is that discussions regarding 'the existence of God' are almost entirely a gigantic semantic confusion, in that no one know's what it is they are talking about.
The fact that such confusions represent such a large proportion of modern Western theological discussion should makes them no more intellectually respectable.
In my view, the terms 'theist', atheist' and 'agnostic' should be considered redundant unless one can come up with a definition for God that isn't basically 'man'.
Great to correspond with you.
Sure, you can break down pretty much any term to a point where we find it rests on fuzziness. On a fundamental level, we don't know what we're talking about when it comes to anything.
I'm sitting in a chair? Really? How do I know chairs exist? How do I know I exist? Even if I do, how do I know I'm sitting? What does it even mean to "exist"? Etc.
On a "higher" level -- on a level where we tend to ignore some metaphysics -- I have a belief that some objects or systems are intelligent while others aren't. For instance, humans are intelligent and rocks aren't. If I say that and you say, "Wait! You haven't defined your terms," I respect your point (you're not wrong), but I'm not going to engage with you. I reserve the right to have a human-level fudge factor.
(If you insist on getting down to epistemological foundations, I hope you do it with everything and not just God. I hope you're just as inclined to say "We have no idea what we're talking about when we say 'cat.'")
If theism was the belief that rocks are intelligent, I'd be an atheist. You can say, "Well, those terms don't make sense unless we can defined rock, human and intelligent down to their foundational levels." I agree with that to some extent, except that it makes discussion impossible.
I feel pretty comfortable saying that rocks are non-sentient. And I feel pretty comfortable saying that they weren't designed. Steve Jobs (and company) designed the iPhone. No one designed rocks. That is to say, no self-aware entity planned out what rocks should look like and then manufactured them. That's what I believe.
Yes, there's a ton of fudging over low-level details in that last paragraph, but -- again -- that's true of everything we say. It's not a special problem to atheism and theism. It's just as true of "cows have four legs." (Do they really? What's a four? Did fours exist prior to the Big Bang?)
Another way of saying it is this: If my friend and I see an iPhone and I say "It was designed" while he says, "No, it just emerged via an unintelligent process," I don't think that's a trivial or pointless-to-discuss distinction. Though I would agree with you that, if we want, we can bring up some interesting epistemological issues with it.
On the overly-simplistic lever of discourse I'm happy to inhabit, some people think an entity consciously designed the Universe. I don't. On the level of human discourse, I think that's a pretty major difference of point of views. You're free to disagree.
I'd go along with most of what you say, but I think you're missing my point ...
I'm not trying to pick holes in your definitions for the sake of being clever, I genuinely don't think that anyone has the vaguest idea what they are talking about.
I refer you to the excellent phrase or Eric Pepke to this very question:
"I am unaware of any other field of discourse other than theology where you're allowed to get away with making such strong claims about something you cannot even vaguely define."
Humans, consciousness and beings (insofar as we understand, or can point to examples of, them) are all incredibly specific phenomena. If God doesn't mean 'man' or 'the universe', then it has absolutely no ontology whatsoever.
Asking for a definition of God isn't a trick question.
The definition of God I'm talking about is something like a person, which is certainly what the Abrahamic religions (and some other religions) claim.
Imagine a human so paralyzed that he can only think. If you can imagine that, you have the concept of a sentience. A human sentience is the part of us that still exists when we can't move our arms, legs, etc. It's the part that can dream and think.
Now imagine that part somehow existed without a body.
Now imagine it could affect matter. It could bring matter into being and shape it into various forms.
That's the god I'm talking about. That seems to be the God most Jews, Christians and Muslims are talking about, though each sect adds various other qualities to Him.
As an atheist, I don't believe there's a disembodied human-like intelligence that created matter.
I can't completely define "human-like intelligence," but I can circle close enough to a definition that it's something I can point to to believe or disbelieve in.
For instance, a human-like intelligence is one that could "talk" to humans. That's to say, it's one that, if it wanted to communicate with us and did so, we'd recognize it as "an intelligence."
There are two main criteria:
It has a human-like intelligence. It could be (and presumably is) way more intelligent than humans, but if it talked to us, we'd recognize it as a mind. Yes, there's a lot of fuzziness there, but there's also fuzziness when you talk to me and I recognize you as a mind. I recognize you and a table as fundamentally different. To me, you seem to be a self-aware, volitional creature while a table isn't.
It is a causal agent in the creation of matter.
Without the second criterion, we could be talking about a powerful space alien.
Ultimately, due to the epistemological issues I brought up in my last comment -- which I think are real issues and not attempts to "be clever" or "pick holes" -- it's up to each individual to decide whether something is defined enough to discuss.
To me, #1 and #2, above, make God a coherent-enough concept to discuss, accept, or reject.
To respond belatedly--- #1 and #2 are coherent, but one can accept the notion of a sentient disembodied intelligence which cares about what you do, without any damage to a scientific worldview, and without requiring that this entity has any physical or nonphysical form in any objectively agreed upon way.
The concept of intelligence is easy to define precisely nowadays--- it's a big computer. A computation can be networked, and disembodied, your own neural computation is networked and disembodied in a certain abstrac sense, and when there are many people around, their sum-total computation is greater than the computation in any one brain, and it is even more networked, through speech and writing, and even more disembodied, although the collective embodies the body in some sense. Paul would say "The congregation is the body of Christ".
This is the notion of God--- it can be productively defined as the collective intelligence of human beings acting ethically together, communicating through speech and literature, and internally striving to act in harmony, in the limit that the community becomes infinitely large. The intelligence so produced is much larger than any individual, you can't individually prove Fermat's Last Theorem alone, but a community of mathematicians has. The collective limit is obviously only approximately realized at any stage, since every stage is still finite, but as time goes on and the community grows and learns, the limit becomes revealed through time more perfectly. This is a standard Catholic doctrine regarding God--- that God is revealed gradually through new texts, and the working of the Holy Spirit.
The collective mind of human beings acting ethically is the logical positive essence of the conception of God in theology, it is a collective intelligence which is produced by human beings, but which has a teleology, it has its own wills and desires. This is not quite God, the God is only in the limit that the community keeps working and thinking. it also doesn't mean individual action is wrong, it only asks that the individual action be coordinated with the community will, so that it serves a purpose in the infinite future limit. This is something people do constantly--- they consider the long-term consequences of their action, and try to evaluate it using a collective measure of good optimized for the long-term future, which is not exactly the same as the measure of happiness of their own individual selves.
There's nothing more to the concept of God, when you look at what it asks from a believer, nothing supernatural, and nothing that changes how atoms come into being or get moved around. You don't have to take the supernatural stuff seriously, and you don't have to believe in miracles, or that God created the universe in any literal sense.
With this definition, you can say "I believe that humans together produce a great intelligence which converges to a large intelligence which has a wisdom regarding what I should do in this or that situation", and this is the position of a theist. You can say, alternatively, that "I am an individual intelligence, completely cut off from other intelligences and doing everything alone, for the purpose maximizing my own personal happiness", this is often the default position of the atheist. A person who calls herself or himself an atheist and acts according to a long-term cost-benefit analysis that includes all people of the present and future might end up indistinguishable from a theist who does the same thing, and says "I am following the will of God". So there is no distinction in practical terms between behaving ethically and believing in God. The real distinction is between the person, theist or atheist, who makes calculations regarding benefit which are short-sighted in light of the collective needs of all present and future persons. This sometimes is justified by ignorance, but not usually.
Whether God "exists" is not the productive question, because existence is not well defined as a term of logical positivist discourse. But whether human collectives can inform individual action to a great extent, and whether ethical behavior forms people into a large collective that approximates an ever smarter computation that can be effectively personified as a super-smart individual, this is not a nonsense question, and I think that the answer is yes.
I honestly don't know whether that makes me an atheist or a theist. I think I can honestly say that I am both, since the question involved is logically positivistically meaningless, and so I can take either position or both at the same time, with no worry of contradiction, and with no effect on my thoughts or behavior.
But I think it is better to define such a position as theistic, because the default position of atheism is to reject all guidance from a large collective intelligence, and to maximize utility using Nash equilibria, which I think is just plain wrong.
I believe it's useful to factor out noise and talk about collective human actions. That's essentially what we mean by "culture." Culture is the sum of all the actions (beliefs, etc) of a group when you factor out some individual quirks. E.g. in American culture, TV is popular, even if individual eccentrics dislike it.
If you want to attach the label "God" to that, I don't have a major issue, except that I think your way of using words is confusing. Huge numbers of people use that same word in reference to something supernatural.
Maybe label confusing is useful in the sense that it can hide disagreements and so stop arguments. Bob and Mary can happily discuss God without knowing that Bob means Jehova and Mary means collective human moral action and thought.
"one can accept the notion of a sentient disembodied intelligence which cares about what you do, without any damage to a scientific worldview"
I don't know about the word "damage," but if a supernatural entity interacts -- in any way -- with a natural one, it crosses over into a domain claimed by Science. At that point, there's at least the potential for conflict. I do agree that if the sentience just "cares" about us -- and we can't be affected by its caring -- then there's no conflict with Science. But that's a pretty boring concept of God.
You seem to be splitting the world into people who care about others and people who just care about themselves. That's a useful distinction. And I think we need labels for those two types of people. But I wouldn't use "theist" and "atheist" as those labels, because that would be confusing.
In the real world, most theists are more "fleshed out" than that. They engage in very specific rituals, such as praying, (yay!) helping the poor, (boo!) suicide bombing. I'm not trying to paint religion in a bad light. I'm very pro religion. My point is that it's confusing to say that theists are "just people who engage in some collective practices." Specific theists engage in specific collective practices.
In my view, there's no such thing as a theist. The term is a useful abstraction, but like all abstractions, it's a partial lie. Just as there's no such thing as "women" -- there's just Barbara, Alice, Kelly, Lisa, etc. -- there's no such thing as "theists." Rather, there are Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, etc. In fact, even that's an abstraction. There's really Mike, who calls himself "Jewish" and believes blah blah blah, which makes him similar in a lot of ways to other people who call themselves "Jews."
Also, specific theists make much more specific claims then you're suggesting, e.g. some claim that God is a distinct character who (e.g. according to scripture) said specific things at specific times. Those are truth claims one can agree with or disagree with.
In other words, Jesus rose from the dead or he didn't. Many, many religions make historical and cosmological claims.
And aren't you ignoring the afterlife, which is a pretty integral part of many religions and may have very specific effects on how one behaves on Earth?
Finally, I'd say (it sounds like) you have a much more positive view of culture (collective thought and action) than I do. That's not to say I have a negative view of it. Via culture, we have produced amazing, wonderful things. We've landed on the moon, cured polio, created great works of art, etc.
We've also murdered six millon Jews, kept black people as slaves, burned "witches," and are currently destroying the planet.
In my view, culture doesn't quite work as a synonym for God. You may disagree, but I associate God with the sacred. Whereas, to me, culture is never sacred. It's a mixture of sacred, profane, good, evil, and a large dollop of mundane.
The historical and cosmological claims are obvious bunk, and nearly everyone knows they are bunk, including the religious people who pretend to believe them. They don't believe the things, they believe it is their duty to claim they believe these things. These are two different activities. These people don't think Jesus literally woke up, or that all the animals went on a boat, they just think that the collective God of their religion wants them to lie about this, and so they do.
They do believe that Jesus spiritually rose from the dead to rule over Rome, and this is in a sense true, since the congregation is the body of Christ, and it took over Rome.
There is not a single sane adult person in the world today who literally believes the Genesis account, the ones who say they do just believe that God wants them to lie, because the lie furthers faith.
The notion of God is not the same as "culture". The notion of God is a limiting conception of ethical behavior extending into the future, in the infinite limit. You can have a culture which behaves coherently within its own boundaries, but which is contrary to the will of God, the most obvious example being nazi Germany. The Germans during the period of naziism were under the impression that they were behaving ethically, since they evaluated their actions using a peculiar ethical calculus derived from Kant, which suggested to them that certain actions are worthwhile, even if they are repugnant to their ethical intuition, so long as they further the cause of Germany and ultimate victory and hegemony.
The notion of God is "culture, in the limit that the cultures come together to make a superrational super-culture of infinite size and complexity, and ponder everything forever". It's really a super-smart agent that knows everything and tells you what to do, and cares what you do. It's just not supernatural.
No modern religion claims God is supernatural, they almost all deny that supernatural events occur (at least today, they differ on whether they happened in the past).
If you want to understand how this works, just look up superrationality, and then you can understand how "gods" and God are formed. the "gods" are the "cultures", the God is the limiting conception of al lthe cultural gods playing games and forming a super-duper uber-collective over everything.
"They don't believe the things, they believe it is their duty to claim they believe these things."
Do you have evidence for this?
It's hard to get evidence for this. I suspect it strongly from the time when I first understood religious experience. Once I got it, I understood it simply was impossible to make claims about cosmology or history from this experience, the religious experience was simply neutral regarding such things.
But it was also clear that the religious experience compels you to support other people who also have it, since they are your superrational brothers and sisters, so you support them in every way you can. These folks include the people who wrote all those silly cosmology and history claims, so you feel you have to support them, even though they are talking nonsense in a factual meaning of the word.
I was also (very briefly, and very unsuccessfully) internally tempted to lie about such stuff, since it feels like a betrayal of your fellow-believers to be honest. Lying about this stuff makes it easier to explain the concept of God, which is really important, but it's also wrong to lie about this, and it's not necessary at all--- you can explain the concept honestly without the supernatural baggage.
The best evidence regarding the dishonesty of the religious folks is simply the self-serving stupidity of their arguments. I understand their theological and ethical arguments, and I can see how subtle and correct they are, so it's not that these people are stupid. But you can see that they are ethically compelling themselves to go along with their standardized cosmology and history, and rationalizing every contradiction with fact.
it's very hard to distinguish a sincere position from one that one feels it is one's duty to put forward. The difference is the degree to which you are willing to rationalize the stupid parts, the parts that conflict with everyone's experience. The folks who do the rationalization might be fooling themselves as well, but I think they aren't that stupid--- they are just lying to others. I can't reconcile the large gap between their subtlety of thinking in ethics and theology with their unsubtle acceptance of obvious crap, like that all the animals were really on a boat, or that the world is 6000 years old. Really, they can't believe that nonsense, it's just impossible psychologically to be that mentally defective, and at the same time to understand the concept of God.
It sounds like you're extrapolating from yourself to others. You may have great confidence in that sort of logic. I don't.
My grandmother wasn't crazy. She was an uneducated woman who had spent most of her life being told certain stories. She had no knowledge of the Scientific Method, so, to her, both "gravity" and "God" were things experts claimed were true.
And it felt to her like God -- the supernatural one -- existed. So she believed.
Are you saying that she was bullshitting? Do you think she was truthful but an eccentric outlier? Do you think there's almost no one in the world like her?
I've had many friends, educated and uneducated, who have sincerely (as best as I can judge sincerity) had a personal relationship with God. God is a "person" they talk to.
My closest friend is a former atheist who is now a Christian. We're very, very close. He has no reason to lie to me. I believe him when reports his beliefs in the supernatural.
He's a smart guy -- smarter than me. He has degrees in Math and Computer Science and works at the CDC.
I think one can talk to the God I am talking about and not be deluded, it is a rational entity that knows all about anything, and you can get a sense for what it is thinking the same as you get a sense for what your buddy is thinking that you've known a long time.
It's not a delusion, but it's not supernatural.
That thing will not convince you of facts about nature, it's just not in it's purview. It will just give you some guidance about how you are supposed to behave. It tells you what you should do, not what happened 10,000 years ago, at least not reliably scientifically.
I don't think that these people are delusional, I have the same experience. I think they are following the guidance that "God is good, God says read the Bible, and the Bible says the world is young", to then conclude "the world is young". They don't believe this in the scientific sense, they believe it in the ethical sense, that they feel compelled to believe it through their system of ethics, which comes from their friend, from God.
This God is the same God that I think I am talking about. So it's not that I reject this view. It's just not necessary to take those historical or factually ridiculous claims seriously. And I don't think those people would have any trouble with a person who understood the concept of God, agreed to live by the dictates of this concept, and rejected all the supernatural aspects, they would just say "this person doesn't adhere to the standard dogma, but the religious sense is still compatible with mine."
I don't think they would classify such a person as an atheist.
I am not sure about people who have no access to education or information about science, I don't have much experience there. I am thinking more about a modern believer, on the internet, claiming to believe that the Earth is young, or that there were literal miracles in the past, or that Moses was a dude who literally spoke to a literally burning bush. That stuff is just dishonesty.
Perhaps there is an honest version, but these people must be really sheltered to not have heard about evolution or the big-bang, and to not see the evidence plastered all over Wikipedia.
As an atheist, I am an equal opportunity unbeliever. I have no belief in any god or gods. That's it. For me, a god must have some element of the supernatural, and it's that supernatural part in which I have no belief. If someone wants to use the word god as a metaphor for something else -- as Einstein often did, to the confusion of many believers -- then, as far as I'm concerned, that's a metaphor, not a god, and I'm not interested.
Einstein's "God" is not the same as the God people usually talk about, it's a manifestation of the regularity of the laws of nature, and their comprehensibility, something which appears magical, but is not that surprising nowadays, once you understand Turing machines, complexity, and quantum mechanics (Wigner expressed this puzzle best in "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences). The complexity of the laws of physics is just not very large, and you shouldn't expect it to be, because in most interactions you are dealing with the interactions of a few subatomic particles, two or three, or coherent interactions of many particles that all act in the same way, if you are in the classical limit. But Einstein didn't get quantum mechanics 100%, so for him, the mystery was why the laws of purely classical mechanics should be so mathematically elegant, as General Relativity is. They are elegant because they are the leading low-energy renormalizable interactions of elementary particles, and this produces false simplicity. The full laws of string theory are elegant in a different way, due to the limited computational power of a few particles in quantum mechanics (you can only make an S-matrix which is fully computing in classical mechanics). If you look at high-energy gravity, the Lagrangian for the effective interactions includes higher order terms in an infinite series, all but the first few (the elegant ones) are infinitesimal at enormously long scales, by renormalizability. This answer to Einstein and Wigner was only fully understood in the 1970s, with the modern understanding of renormalization, and with string theory. The fact that one can answer and understand this God relatively completely shows it's not the God God people talk about in religious texts.
Einstein's God is not the Jewish or Christian God, it isn't a personal God, although Einstein also understood the concept of a personal God as a source of ethical guidelines, but he didn't take it so seriously, as he thought the metaphysics was wrong, and you could replace the concept with some idea of "shared ethics". This is sort of true, but the result is, in the end, equivalent to a personal God in all ways that matter, so that Einstein could have gone further. He didn't do to bad, however, he understood the reasoning behind religious ethics, and he also understood the reasoning behind Marxist ethics, a religion closer to his time (although Einstein was never an ideological Marxist).
The idea that God must be supernatural is denied by nearly all modern religious faiths. It is not required that you believe in the physical rebirth of Christ to be a Christian (at least not in all denominations), only in the spiritual rebirth of Christ as embodied in the congregation and in the abstract Platonic sense. In the Jewish faith, at least since Spinoza's time, you are allowed to reject supernatural events if you continue to maintain the tradition--- your actions within the community are what is judged, not the beliefs regarding supernatural events. Within Islam, God is not really portrayed as supernatural, only in the borrowed tradition, and the extraneous elements like the Djinns and so on, which are purely spiritual things, you don't have to believe in magic. In Buddhism, God was never supernatural to begin with, and within Hinduism, the stories of the Gods are not at all meant to be interpreted literally as stories of ancient magic, but as social texts to guide life. So in arguing against the supernatural, you are ultimately arguing against a straw-man.
But there are a lot of people who believe in supernatural stuff anyway, like praying for a person will heal a somatic disease without intervention, or that prayer will get them rewards, or in strange rituals, and so on, and to these people, you can just say "stop it! That's a load of dangerous horseshit!"
The notion of God is simply the statement that our ethics are derived from an all-knowing entity who knows everything about every circumstance, and makes consistent decisions about right and wrong. This is just the superrational ethics extended consistently to all people at all times. It is a requirement that we follow this ethics, and it is ultimately the only way to make sense of rational ethics.
The convergence of rational ethics to religious ethics (with caveats, like rejecting the supernatural), means that one can give a reasonable definition of God which is satisfying to the logical positivist, which does not make metaphysical or ontological requirements on the believer, but which just says "behave as if an all-knowing being who knows everything was telling you what to do". The "being" is from self-consistency in the Von-Neumann morgenstern sense, and the requirement to behave this way is from superrationality--- the goal being to maximize the utility of everyone both present today, and who will be present in the future, and to honor and remember the past. These things are the purpose of religion.
When fighting religion, if you don't say, "Ok, I don't believe in the supernatural, but I understand why I should behave as if I did." Then you are encouraging people to behave according to Nash rationality, which is a short-sighted mistake. One should behave ethically, that is, according to superrationality, and the only way to fully make sense of superrationality is to introduce an agent which is indistinguishable in the logical-positivist sense from God.
So ultimately, one should say your ethical ideas for what people should be doing in this or that circumstance to explain one's religious stance, not make metaphysical proclamations on what metaphysical entities exist or do not exist, as these proclamations are just hot-air, they have no real logical positvist meaning.
Well, I said if there's no supernatural element, then as far as I'm concerned, it's not a god and I'm not interested.
I'm not sure how you can have an all-knowing entity that is not supernatural, Ron. Are you saying this all-knowing entity exists in nature in our physical world? Can you demonstrate that?
I can explain it, and I think the explanation is persuasive, but it is not something that one can demonstrate. One can always say "I won't do it. I will behave according to Nash rationality, and I'll be better off no matter what anyone else does." And you would be right.
The demonstration is simply as follows: when you decide what to do, you are maximizing a utility function (assuming you are rational in the Von-Neumann Morgenstern sense). But you know there are other rational players out there, and you want to coordinate your actions to a certain extent in prisoner's dillemma situations. You could say "I won't coordinate in the absence of punishment, because it's irrational", and this is the position of Nash-rationality. I reject Nash rationality, and accept superrationality. Within superrationality, all the superrational players behave as if they were all coordinated to act together to maximize the benefit (in a symmetric situation), assuming that they all act the same way.
This position introduces a communal will, the shared will of the superrational collective, and if you extend superrationality to the nonsymmetric situation, this collective will has a utility function which is not the same as that of any player (the two coincide in the symmetric payoff case). So if you accept superrationality, you act according to the collective decision for best behavior, meaning you act to maximize the utility of the superrational decision-making entity, the "god" of the collective.
This "god" is a computational entity, it no more exists than Microsoft Windows (the program) exists. What exists are physical copies of this program, or physical instantiations. But you can say that the program exists as an abstraction, and in this way, the "god" of the superrational collective also exists as an abstraction. If you assume the collective ethical decision making is consistent in the Von-Neumann Morgenstern sense, this collective will of the god is a utility function which encodes the preferences of a rational entity, but this entity doesn't have any more physical presence than the one provided by the community, to the extent that they have a model for this agent, and can communicate this model to the superrational collective.
But now, you can imagine collectives playing against each other, and there is a sensible idea that the collectives should behave superrationally too. This is the statement that the gods, when playing games, should bow down to a higher god. The upper-most god is the ideal superrational strategy for all circumstances, and the requirement of self-consistency in the Von-Neumann Morgenstern sense tells you that there is a universal utility function encoding the will of God, which tells you what to do in all circumstances. This abstract idea is the will of an all-knowing entity, but it is even more abstract than the little gods, since it is a limiting conception of what happens to the little gods as they get bigger in a self-consistent superrational way.
The result is that it is plausible to say "in order to behave ethically, imagine an all-knowing being who knows everything, all circumstances, all history, and who makes ethical decisions about what you should do, and then act according to this will." This is what religions say, at least in the logical positive essence. You can ignore the metaphysics or the unmeasurable stuff, this is not verifiable. But the injunction to behave as if an all-knowing totally good entity was watching over you is just the statement that the religion aspires to the universal superrational ethics.
One cannot strictly prove that the superrational ethics converges, one can barely become aware of some of the desires of the lower level gods, like the gods of your workplace, or the gods of your government agencies. But once you work out the will of collectives, the hive-mind, you can get a good sense of what is right and what is wrong, and this is ultimately according to the as-best-as-you-can-figure will of the tippy-top God, the ultimate superrational strategy.
One can say "I don't believe in supernatural Gods", but one must also say "I will behave according to my best insight and intuition, and calculation, and rational thinking, about what the heck the self-consistent superrational ethics should be." If you say the latter, you are basically saying "I will live according to what God thinks, as best as I can figure out", and then your ethics will not be so different from the religious ethics.
But when people say "I am an atheist", usually they also say "... therefore I will screw over such and so in business, because I can get away with it, and I know there is no supernatural force which will punish me." That's true, there is no supernatural force that will punish you, but you shouldn't do it anyway, because then you are rejecting the non-supernatural superrational conception of God, and this is important.
it is so important, in fact, that I worry that by separating the two concepts, it will weaken the incentive people feel to follow the superrational strategy, and I am starting to see why people always state this idea along with some form of Earthly or supernatural punishment for those who choose not to behave this way. It might be the only way to get a superrational majority. But God tells me not to lie, and I think we are all grown up enough to say "no, there is no superrational punishment, but I will behave superrrationally anyway."