Jolly Pilgrim +2 (… Spiritual Architecture Continued)


Since publishing my book, I’ve made it my business to ask anyone using the noun ‘God’ (and who is up for discussing such things) to define what they mean by the word.

My experience (and at this point I’ve asked quite a few people) is that the only available (coherent) definitions are: ‘a man’ or ‘the Universe’.

I think it’s instructive that people struggle to usefully define a word in such wide and ubiquitous usage, and of such profound cultural and historical significance.

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On that note, here is the latest piece of follow-up to The Jolly Pilgrim:

Cultural Evolution, and God


Theism-atheism debates

To my mind, almost all the theism-atheism ‘debates’ in the western world are mainly fluff and nonsense, and really arguments about semantics (i.e. words) not metaphysics (i.e. the underlying nature of reality).


  • Atheists (I know a lot of these) ‘don’t believe’ in an ‘all-powerful’ invisible sky-man, and are often smug and self-righteous about (what they regard as) the bullet-proof intellectual credibility of their position.


  • Theists use ‘God’ to describe their general sense that there is an underlying rationale and order to the universe, which it is appropriate to have faith in (admittedly, some of the less empirically minded ones are prone to sounding-off with goofy metaphysics).


I don’t think the two positions are necessarily at odds with one another, let alone mutually exclusive, and if the word ‘God’ can’t be defined, then the classifications ‘theist’, agnostic’ or ‘atheist’ are non-useful sources of confusion.


What might ‘God’ mean?

‘God’ either means:

(A) A man
(B) The Universe
(C) Something which is neither a man nor the Universe


(A) Includes when the vague nouns often used to define God (e.g. ‘force’, ‘power’ or ‘being’), but which don’t really mean anything, are substituted for slightly more blatant anthropomorphic projections (e.g. ‘consciousness’ or ‘sentience’) – i.e. words that describe qualities of some of Earth’s life forms.

If it’s (C) then it needs an ontology (i.e. meaning) and until it has one, arguing about its existence is pointless.

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Religious Evolution

If it’s (B) then, in my opinion, this would lead to the view that:

1) There is a synergy to all the extant non-goofy world views both modern/scientific (based on data) and traditional (i.e. the doctrinal belief systems of the established religious traditions, formed before we had much data). I appreciate plenty of people have previously suggested this.

2) The productive conversations regarding: ‘God’/religion are really those about the underlying nature of the Universe, and our context within it.

Those strike me as precisely the conversations worth having.

And I’m not trying to tell anyone they’re wrong in their religious beliefs (in most cases) – but that the belief systems of the 21st century do not represent the final word on anything.

That link again:

Cultural Evolution, and God


While I’m on the subject, if you fancy setting aside an hour for learning, here are two of the most engaging minds in the world talking about some of the most interesting things one can talk about:

Steven Pinker and Robert Wright talk about deep stuff

In peace, and with hope

Pete Baker


I am unaware of any other field of discourse than theology where you’re allowed to get away with making such strong claims about something you cannot even vaguely define. – Eric Pepke


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2 Responses to “Jolly Pilgrim +2 (… Spiritual Architecture Continued)”

  1. Owen Kellie-Smith Says:

    Much more modest words are also hard to define but can still be useful. E.g. Mathematics .

  2. Peter Baker Says:

    Owen – my current view is that outside of suggestions (A) and (B) above, definitions of God are not at the stage of being tightly defined (or not), but of being defined in even the most vague or fluffy way.

    When I’ve been through these chains of reasoning with atheists, the only concrete thing that can, in the end, be said about ‘the force’ (or whatever) that they ‘don’t believe in’ is that it is ‘basically a man’ (woman, human, higher Earthling life form etc). But when I have put that definition to a theist, that’s not what they ‘believe in’ at all.

    A couple of atheists have said to me that ‘however the theists define it’ is what they don’t believe in. But there are plenty of definitions of God (all of which can be summarised using (C) above) that said atheists presumably would not ‘not believe in’.

    For example, Leibniz (I have been told by a friend who is a professional philosopher, I’m obviously no authority) defined God as the ultimate facts about the Universe that are simply true, once you follow the chain of cause-and-effect of individual phenomena to a point where they cannot be reduced any further.

    That strikes me as definitionally straightforward, Leibniz would have self-identified as a theist (although of course he would have very incredibly sophisticated views), and it’s difficult to see who one would ‘not believe’ in a God defined thus.

    Other self-identified atheists have said to be that ‘[they] don’t believe in God, but they do feel there is “something” about the universe.’ This always struck me as basically the theist view, albeit expressed through a slightly different cultural meme.

    My view is that when historians look back on the contemporary mainstream theist/atheist debates (as undertaken by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Alain de Botton and their adversaries), once the noun ‘God’ is not taken for granted in the way I feel it is today, they will struggle to understand what the underlying metaphysical dispute was – in the same way as the first Amerindians to meet Catholic and Protestant missionaries struggled to grasp why there was any differences in the two world views, even though said missionaries regarded those differences of being of cosmic significance.

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