God is a very powerful idea. It is probably the most successful idea, too, as it's as old as humanity.
In this article I'm firstly going to deal with the question, what does signify God?, as we need to understand what we're dealing with, in order to talk about it.
With the rise of scientific thought and logic, people started trying to actually prove the existence of God. Thus at the same time we're going to look at how people have tried to prove that God exists, based on how they defined it, or her/him?. Then, I'm going to try to answer the question whether God exists as unbiased as possible. And finally, we're going to have a look at criticism of the concept and the question whether belief in God is actually necessary.
So, what is God?
What is god?
Traditionally, philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas said, God is the first, timeless, absolutely simple, and sovereign, completely transcendent being. So, God according to this definition has and will always exist, is sovereign and completely independent of all we know.
This priority and timelessness is the basis for some of the simplest proofs of the existence of God by Thomas Aquinas: He made three very similar arguments all involving the cause-and-effect relationship of things. Basically he argued, that every effect has a cause and nothing can cause itself while there cannot be an infinite chain of causation. Thus follows the existence of something that caused everything and is itself not caused by anything else: God.
There are however, much more views of God than there are Gods, so the question is, can we consolidate all of these?
Today, it seems most believers in God agree that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good. Not judging, whether God is completely transcendent.
The benevolence of God sparked another proof of God's existence, once again by Thomas Aquinas: "Goodness", he argued, is always relative in degree to a maximum, and this maximum of goodness he identifies as God.
However, not all Gods have been identified as good per se and in fact, the question arises, if God is completely good and all-powerful and knows everything, how can God let happen all the suffering in the world due to evil people? If God is really good, shouldn't she/he/it do everything in their power to prevent suffering? This question is the question of theodicy.
Since suffering can hardly be denied, many people have concluded that one attribute of God must be compromised: Maybe God is indeed good but doesn't know about all the suffering (perhaps, because the universe is so huge), or perhaps God is good and knows about all the suffering, but isn't powerful enough to do anything about it, or God knows about the suffering and even has the power to stop it, but doesn't want to do anything about it and is thus in fact not benevolent.
In the face of the Holocaust many people arrived at the conclusion that God cannot exist or at least cannot be good, since if he existed then he let all those terrible things happen. There is, however, another possible explanation: Alvin Plantinga argued that God had created humans as free creatures and one couldn't convincingly call them free if God could prevent them from doing evil things. If the world is better with free creatures in it than with only unfree creatures that are prevented from doing evil things, then we can still consider God to be good.
Does god exist?
A hotly debated question between atheists and believers is of course the question, whether God actually exists or is just a figment of imagination.
God's attributes vary greatly and are subject to a lot of inner and inter-religious debates. From the most agreed-upon attributes (omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence) it is not clear whether God is actually a part of this world or this physical universe or perhaps resides outside it. He might even consist of everything in it. So, these are the three crucial cases to distinguish in answering the question of God's existence.
If he resides inside this physical reality, that would mean we cannot find proof of his existence, because he is omnipotent and is thus able to defeat physics and logic. We cannot, however, prove or disprove that something illogical exists.
If God resides outsides this physical reality, we cannot by definition prove his existence via scientific thought or experiment.
If God consists of everything in this reality, we can probably identify God with the laws of nature. God would then just be a different name for those laws. This would above all render most religions pointless, because God wouldn't have a will or an agenda, but would just be a possibly cruel law. Again, that can still be true, but there is no way to prove it.
Why do we believe in god and is it necessary?
So, God is above existence. This is an interesting thought: It doesn't mean he doesn't exist. It means that it cannot be decided and that this doesn't matter to the concept.
So, why do so many people choose to believe in God?
This has to do with our shortcomings and frustrations. There are things that we cannot influence, that are out of our hands, just as there are things that we do not know and there are times when we don't do the right thing. This makes us sad and hopeless, and at this point the thought that there might exist someone that has everything in their hands, knows everything and always does the right thing, like a parent, can be very comforting. It can reassure us and strengthen our confidence.
Sometimes though, the confidence or even the statements of "believers" suggest that the healthiest way to go through life is with faith in God.
Ludwig Feuerbach, a German Philosopher once turned religion upside-down by theorizing that religion is in fact worship of man and mankind itself.
He argues that all things attributed to God are actually human attributes:
You know no higher human good than to love, to be wise and good. Equally, you know no other happiness than to exist, to be a being, for your consciousness of good and happiness derives itself from your consciousness of being and existing yourself. God to you exists, is a being for the same reason that he is to you a wise, blissful, and benevolent being.[...]
So, this might indicate that God is in fact a mere fiction of human imagination. However, Feuerbach goes on to argue:
The concept of God depends on the concept of justice, kindness, and wisdom – a God who is not kind, not just, and not wise is no God. But these concepts do not depend on the concept of God. That a quality is possessed by God does not make it divine; God possesses it, because it is in itself divine, because without it God would be a defective being. Justice, wisdom, and, in fact, every determination which constitutes the divinity of God, is determined and known through itself; but God is known and determined by the predicates. Only in the case where 1 think that God and justice are identical, that God is immediately the reality of the idea of justice or of any other quality, do I think of God as self-determined. But if God, the subject, is that which is determined, and the quality or the predicate is that which determines him, then the predicate, and not the subject, in truth deserves the primacy of being, the status of divinity
He goes on to explain how our relationship and view of God changed throughout history:
As long as man is a mere natural being, his God is a mere natural deity. Mere man lives in houses, he encloses his gods in temples. A temple expresses the value which man attaches to beautiful buildings. Temples in honour of religion are in truth temples in honour of architecture. With man’s progress to culture from a state of primitive savagery, with the distinction between what is proper and what is improper for man, there also arises the distinction between what is proper and what is improper for God. God expresses man’s notion of majesty, highest dignity, religious sentiment, and highest feeling of propriety. Only at a later stage did the culturally more advanced artists of Greece embody in their statues of gods the concepts of dignity, spiritual grandeur, rest without movement, and serenity. But why did they regard these qualities as divine attributes? Because they held these attributes in themselves to be divine. Why did they exclude all repulsive and low emotions? Because they regarded these emotions as something improper, undignified, unhuman, and, consequently, ungodlike. The Homeric gods eat and drink – this means that eating and drinking are divine pleasures. Physical strength is a quality of the Homeric gods – Zeus is the strongest of all gods. Why? Because physical strength in itself was something glorious and divine to the Greeks. The highest virtue to ancient Germans was the virtue of the warrior; that is why their highest god was the god of war – Odin; that is why war to them was “the primeval or the oldest law.” The first, true divine being is not the quality of divinity, but the divinity or the deity of quality. In other words, that which theology and philosophy have so far regarded as God, as the absolute and essential, is not God; but that which they did not regard as God, is precisely God – quality, determination, and reality par excellence.
How could you perceive the divine through feeling if feeling itself were not divine? The divine can be known only through that which is itself divine – “God can be known only through himself.”
All in all, it is not clear if God exists and what exactly is meant by God. However, believing in God is explicitly not about facts and logic and it can be helpful for individuals to believe in God, even though it might make more sense to embrace and "worship" the human virtues that underlie the concept of divinity.
(Post image: "The creation of Adam" photographed by Larry Koester, licensed under CC-by 2.0)