What Do Most People Believe About God?

(By the way, there aren't enough toes on that Deinonychus. They had three toes -  two to stand on and one to rip down lemons from lemon trees!)

(By the way, there aren’t enough toes on that Deinonychus. They had three toes – two to stand on and one to rip down lemons from lemon trees!)

Previously on this blog, I put up a video promoting my forthcoming book There Is No God And He Is Always With You. In this video I said something like, “I don’t think most people who consider themselves spiritual believe in an anthropomorphic creator God who is basically a giant white man on a throne in the sky.” Or that’s what I would have said if I’d sat down and written out my answer rather than speaking it off-the-cuff to an interviewer. I’m not sure if it came across like that or not.

At any rate, my using the words “most people” opened me up to being challenged by folks who like to quote statistics. Both on this blog and on Facebook people chimed in saying that 46% of Americans believe in that sort of God. I did a little research and discovered that this statistic comes from an article published on Huffington Post in June 2012 titled 46% of Americans Believe in Creationism According to Latest Gallup Poll. The question these Americans were asked was this:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?
1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,
2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process,
3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

According to Huffington Post, “Respondents were categorized as believing in theistic evolution (option 1), evolution (option 2) and creationism (option 3) depending on their answer choice. Forty six percent Americans believed in creationism, 32 percent believed in theistic evolution and 15 percent believed in evolution without any divine intervention.” And the article goes on from there. You can read it for yourself if you like. There’s lots of graphs and charts and stuff to look at too.

And yet I still have my doubts. In spite of what the Gallup Polls tell us, I suspect that real belief in that kind of God is on the decrease. It appears to me that the desire to believe in such nonsense still exists. But I’m not sure if all those 46% of Americans honestly believe what they say they believe.

Here’s why I suspect this. People are afraid that if they believe in evolution there will be nothing for them to do after they die, that they’ll never be reunited with lost loved ones, that life has no meaning and that there’s no reason to behave morally because nothing really matters. If I felt like I had only those two choices, I’d side with the anti-evolutionists too. Seriously. I absolutely would. I think any sensible person would, especially in light of the idea that moral action only makes sense if there is a creator God sitting up in the sky keeping a list of all of our naughty and nice actions.

And yet all of us are faced every single day with the products of science. We have laptops and X-Boxes and Blu Ray players, all of which are based on the principles of science. We know science works. Our airplanes don’t fall out of the sky. Our satellite radios work so that we can hear right wing pundits denounce science on them. And many of us fear our own knowledge and want to try to turn things back. But we can’t. We may not want to believe in science. But we have to. It clearly works.

I find it interesting that the debate in America seems to hinge on just two options. Whenever I see a debate about Creationism vs. Evolution both sides seem to want to bring it down to just two options. Either you teach evolution in schools or you teach the Bible. As if the Christian Bible contains the only religious creation story. If I was on a school board I’d say, “Sure. Teach Biblical Creation if you want. But if you do that, you have to teach the Vedic creation story, and the many often contradictory Buddhist creation stories, and the Shinto creation story, and every African creation story, and the Mayan creation story…” You get the idea. There is essentially just one scientific creation story (though there are a lot of minor variants to it) and countless religious ones.

But this whole debate bores the shit out of me. Honestly. It is so ridiculous that the only reason I ever pay attention to it is for a quick laugh.

And yet I understand why it’s scary to a lot of folks. There are people in high places in the US and elsewhere who profess some really idiotic beliefs when it comes to God. But we all know what politicians are like. They’ll say whatever they think is going to get them the most votes. Even if it’s not what they really believe. They’ll do this on any subject. Why would they be different when it comes to the matter of God?

At any rate, the foregoing debate wasn’t at all the point I was trying to make in that video. I’m sorry if it comes across that way. I was really just trying to express my deep disappointment at the shallowness of the debate itself.

To give you an example, I was kind of excited when I saw Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Because I thought it was going to be a scientific look at why human beings believe in God. I thought he’d go into the evolution of religious thought or the neurological research into how and why human beings started creating religions in the first place. I though it might talk about why religion was apparently selected by evolution as a useful trait in human beings. It seems to have been strongly favored by evolution. All societies have some kind of religion. Why? Evolution only selects what helps an organism survive and reproduce. How does religion do that? That is interesting to me.

I think there is a book about that stuff. But The God Delusion isn’t it. It’s just a long essay about why it’s dumb to believe in a Big Boss Man in the Sky kind of God. And I already knew that. So do most of the religious people I’ve encountered in my life, including those who consider themselves Born Again Christians. In Ohio! That shit is played out.

The other neo-atheist books I’ve picked up are similarly shallow and kind of boring. Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great is, unfortunately, not that great. Sam Harris’ The End of Faith was better, but still pretty shallow if you ask me. And these are the three most important books in the movement! I was totally let down!

All of these books seem to dwell on the simple either-or type of choice that the folks who wrote the Gallup Polls came up with. If I’d been given that poll I’d have to answer “none of the above” and thus my point of view wouldn’t be represented. Because there’s no room for a more nuanced idea.

Note the three toes.

Note the three toes.

When I first encountered Zen Buddhism I heard it was a “religion without God.” This is one of the longest standing, most often quoted shorthand descriptions of Zen. I’d had enough of religion by that point in my life. It was obvious to me by the time I was 8 years old that the Big Boss in the Sky version of God was stupid. And yet I could not deny that there were aspects of my real experience that could be called “spiritual.” Zen practice allowed me a way to connect with that. I came to the conclusion that there might be an intelligent way to talk about God.

And that’s what I’m trying to do in this forthcoming book.

Wish me luck!

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68 Responses

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  1. Mumbles
    Mumbles May 30, 2013 at 5:37 am |

    Correction: The title I was referring to above was Consciousness and the Absolute, not Prior To Consciousness, although all of Jean Dunn’s compilations of Maharaj’s talks are highly recommended.

  2. Fred
    Fred May 30, 2013 at 7:34 am |

    Thankyou, John.

    ” Nisargadatta spoke from and about The Absolute. He did this from his own realizations and did not quote from other sources, nor was he a scholar, but an ordinary family man”

  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 30, 2013 at 7:59 am |

    ‘God may exist but only if there is an “I” to perceive it. Without an “I” to perceive it, who will confirm his existence? The “I” creates God!’


  4. Fred
    Fred May 30, 2013 at 7:59 am |

    My mother was a spiritualist, but never spoke of it to me.

    I knew there was no God when I was 5 years old. It came from within much as
    an other might experience the presence of God.

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 30, 2013 at 8:07 am |

    Nisargadatta taught with a different set of assumptions than Gautama. Nisargadatta states that ‘whatever appears in Consciousness, disappears in Consciousness. But Consciousness is ever-present.’ Gautama taught that consciousness only existed as a result of contact between sense organ and sense object, and the continuity of consciousness was an illusion.

    I am certain that the choice of words is the choice of basic assumptions in a logical system, as it were, and that the contradictions that may be derived from an overly-broad domain of discussion don’t necessarily mean that the system can’t be used to describe most of the range of experience consistently.

  6. shade
    shade May 30, 2013 at 8:15 am |

    Okay this is the last time I’m commenting on this post lest I become one of the people who spend all their time ranting on the internets (heaven forbid). I’ll try and be as concise and coherent as possible.

    Yozilla said:

    “It seems to me that at some point in the last 15 or 20 years atheism has shifted from being a philosophy, or at least belief to being an active movement…. The goal of which seems to be, apart from creating memes that make fun of Christians and generally feeling outraged by everyone else’s stupidity, is making society a better place by disproving the existence of god.”

    This to me gets the heart of the matter. Personally, I’d consider myself about 85% theist, and list heavily toward Christianity (as an aside – this is one of the things that has caught my attention about Brad’s latest book – the fact that he appears to be dipping pretty deep into that well. Not necessarily what people expect or desire from the Zen gang). However, I don’t have any problem with atheism per se; I don’t think God or Jehovah or whoever is impressed when we lie about our beliefs and convictions, – whatever they may be – to Him, to others, or to ourselves. This includes people who are unsure of their convictions. I have no problem with agnosticism either.

    My problem is with the kind of atheist who’s whole raison d’et is to show up “believers” and has utter contempt for anyone who doesn’t adhere to a secular/rationalist/materialist creed. People who think it’s really cool to categorize Christians, Muslims, Jews, ect as morons and bigots (interestingly they are far less likely to attack Buddhists it seems). The other kind of atheist I have issues with is the Brave New World variety, who attributes every atrocity perpetuated by man to religion, clericism or “faith”. Even a superficial glance at the history of the 20th century shows this to be pure nonsense. Mao was an atheist, and so was Stalin. Yet, strangely, many of these people are highly educated.

    I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here. There seem to be very few of “those” kind of atheists attached to this particular blog (also I’m starting to sound a little bigoted myself). I confess I have a bit of chip on my shoulder in regard to this topic.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 30, 2013 at 8:42 am |

    Ok, mostly off-topic amusement, from the “favorite quotes” thread on Tao Bums (can’t resist):

    “We are afraid of the known and afraid of the unknown. That is our daily life and in that there is no hope, and therefore every form of philosophy, every form of theological concept, is merely an escape from the actual reality of what is. All outward forms of change brought about by wars, revolutions, reformations, laws and ideologies have failed completely to change the basic nature of man and therefore of society.”
    Thomas Jefferson

    “The way to live a long time – oh, a thousand years or more – is something between the way a child does it and the way a mature man does it. Give the future enough thought to be ready for it – but don’t worry about it. Live each day as if you were to die next sunrise. Then face each sunrise as a fresh creation and live for it, joyously. And never think about the past. No regrets, ever.”
    Robert Heinlein

    “Markets are living things with bi-polar personalities prone to enormous temper tantrums, but in the end, they always come to their senses. All they need is time-out. But whatever we do, don’t lose faith in them, we’re warned. Their wrath will rival a vengeful God.”
    Rudolf Kerkhoven

    “Most people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in ten.”
    Nigel Marsh

    “He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”
    Douglas Adams

    “I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”
    Ernest Hemingway

    “A thorough reading and understanding of the Bible is the surest path to atheism”
    Donald Morgan

    “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
    Stephen Roberts

    “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
    Ambrose Bierce

    “We are a fountain of shimmering contradictions, most of us. Beautiful in the concept, if we’re lucky, but frequently tedious or regrettable as we flesh ourselves out.”
    – Gregory Maguire

    “I am very optimistic about humanity, and very pessimistic about humans.”
    Rudolph Henkel

    “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
    Morrie Schwartz

    “I knew a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex, and rich food. He was healthy right up to the day he killed himself.”
    Johnny Carson

    “The first man to raise a fist is the man who’s run out of ideas”.
    H.G. Wells

    “The greatest tragedy in life is to spend your whole life fishing only to discover that it was not fish you were after.”
    Henry David Thoreau

    “Why do we try to define people as simply good or evil? Because no one wants to admit that compassion and cruelty can live side by side in one heart, and that anyone is capable of anything.”

    “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”
    GK Chesterton

    “Everyone has a right to be an idiot. Some people abuse the privilege.”
    Joseph Stalin

    “If you think nobody cares if you’re alive, try missing a couple of car payments.”
    Earl Wilson

    “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”
    Jerome K. Jerome

    “Society exists only as a mental concept; in the real world there are only individuals.”
    Oscar Wilde

    “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
    Mark Twain

    “Money is not the most important thing in the world. Love is. Fortunately, I love money.”
    Jackie Mason

    “Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant filled with odd little waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don’t always like.”
    Daniel Handler

    “Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell.”
    Frank Borman

    “As a group, lemmings have a rotten image, but no individual lemming has ever received bad press.”
    Warren Buffett

    “Modern man drives a mortgaged car over a bond-financed highway on credit-card gas.”
    Earl Wilson

    “At what age do you tell a highway it was adopted?”
    Zach Galifianakis

    “If you’re falling off a cliff, you might as well try to fly.”

    “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
    Oscar Wilde

    “There’s nothing to match curling up with a good book when there’s a repair job to be done around the house.”
    Joe Ryan

    “Some people would rather die than think. In fact, they do.”
    Bertrand Russell

    “Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right.”
    Isaac Asimov

    “There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody.”
    Florynce Kennedy

    “Man’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.”
    Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

    “The human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.”
    Leonardo Da Vinci

    “The boldness of asking deep questions may require unforeseen flexibility if we are to accept the answers.”
    Brian Greene

    “I asked a Burmese why women, after centuries of following their men, now walk ahead. He said there were many unexploded land mines since the war.”
    Robert Mueller

    “Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.”
    Henry Miller

    “The belief that there is only one truth, and that oneself is in possession of it, is the root of all evil in the world.”
    Max Born

    “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
    Albert Einstein

    “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
    Woodrow Wilson

    “I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.”

    “The only reason I survive is because of the common folk superstition that it’s bad luck to kill a journalist. Walking under ladders, breaking mirrors, killing journalists – all very bad luck.”
    Robert Stacy McCain

    “People find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than for being right.”
    J.K. Rowling

    “Being broke is a very efficient educational agency.”
    Edwin Lefevre

    “Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting, and self-stopping, self warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it”
    Ralph Ellison

    “It’s the simple things in life that are extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them”
    Paul Coelho

    “Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”

    “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
    Albert Einstein

    “When others demand that we become the person they want us to be, they force us to destroy the person we really are. It’s a subtle kind of murder. The most loving parents and relatives commit this murder with smiles on their faces.”
    Jim Morrison

    “Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.”
    George Patton

    “I find television very educating. Every time someone turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
    Groucho Marx

    “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they have been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact; It is an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration; It is a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
    Richard Bullock

    “If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can’t be done.”
    Peter Ustinov

    “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.”
    Kurt Vonnegut

    “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those, who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear, which is inherent in a human condition”
    Graham Greene

    “The human brain is a wonderful organ. It starts to work as soon as you are born and doesn’t stop until you get up to deliver a speech.”
    George Jessel

    “You are the same today that you are going to be in five years from now except for two things: the people with whom you associate and the books you read.”
    Charles Jones

    “Think wrongly, if it pleases you, but in all cases think for yourself”
    Doris Lessing

    “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”
    Ernest Hemingway

    “The best intelligence test is what we do with our leisure time.”
    Laurence J. Peter

    “Never confuse movement with action.”
    Ernest Hemingway

    “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life… I think that what we’re really seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we can actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
    Joseph Campbell

    “You become what you think about.”
    Earl Nightingale

    “Every man’s memory is his private literature.”
    Aldous Huxley

    “The really tough choices … don’t center upon right versus wrong. They are genuine dilemmas precisely because each side is firmly rooted in one of our basic, core values.”
    Rushworth Kidder

    “We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.”
    Japanese proverb

    “I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them. If I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”
    Robert A. Heinlein

  8. Andy
    Andy May 30, 2013 at 9:33 am |

    Mika wrote: “I’m with Shodo on this one, all the talk Brad has had about God or god or whatever seems to be him redefining the word to mean what he wants it to mean, just so he can say he found God with(in) Zen.”

    Sorry, I’m not interested in God or god, my zazen doesn’t need those kind of illusions.


    Proulx Michel wrote: “Anyway, my take is, if you use the G word, you are almost FORCED to say “He”, “Him” and “His”, which automatically dotes him of a dick and a pair of balls (of which he’s supposed to have no use, after all…)”

    Michel, in terms of the conventions of language usage as is, then I would agree. But the meanings and conventions surrounding usage change – and besides they are not uniform. When people think differently, words can drop out of usage or take on wholly different meanings that suggest different ways of using them and their cognates. As for pronouns, it is an easier adjustment, given the embedding of a a different type of thinking, to use ‘God’ instead of the pronoun.

    Indeed, I can imagine a situation where in certain discourses both ‘God’ and words like ‘Universe’, The Ineffable’ etc might be used interchangeably as a means of expressing and emphasizing as aspect or character of such, within certain contexts.

    Consider, for example, the subtitle to Brad’s new book. ‘X is Always With You’ is an conventional expressive formula – certainly in the Christian world. In human relationships this sort of phrase has more intimate power than it’s materialist version “The universe is always with you” or the more philosophical “the unconditioned/the ineffable is always with you”.

    I’m thinking of a situation where someone is being comforted, perhaps in despair:

    Despair: “I’m lost, alone. What’s the point? How do you cope?”

    Friend: “I don’t. I try to remember that God is always with me.”

    Despair: “Everything just seems dead and lifeless – God? Hiding well!”

    Friend: “For me, God is the Universe. I just forget it, sometimes. And stop looking.”

    Despair: “You said the other day that God was the ineffable, unknowable…”

    Friend: “Hiding in clear sight, I suppose.”

    Despair: “Yeah, right. Hasn’t done me a lot of good. How’s it working out for you? ”

    Friend: “Sometimes I feel lost, alone.”

    Despair: “So that makes two of then. Great.”

    Friend: “Yes. It means we’re alone together.”

    Despair: “Amen!”

    Friend: “Gassho!”

    Okay. A bit flaky.

    But I think should have some faith in language’s ability to reflect the efforts we can make to not only change how we think but how we connect with others. Which brings me to:

    Mika, I think you are dispensing with an important part of Brad’s premise, and which suggests that those outside Zen from many different religious and even non-religious traditions are tapping into something which at root has important similarities, and that the overlap might be worth a great deal. Moreover, there’s already – from Scientists and philosophers much (re) defining of such terms, and perhaps to a much greater degree over the last decade or so.

    So, while to an extent Brad, of course, is defining God in terms that are his own, this doesn’t mean that these terms are necessarily just an individual’s attempt to project and shoehorn differences into his take on things. I see it as an attempt to connect where different beliefs and assumptions can have folk talking at cross purposes. If we can see that different folk are often talking about the drinking of water, why not say so using the term water, no matter how much different groups swear by their wine, coffee, milk, tea, juice etc.

    One is not under the thrall of a illusion if one talks using he term God, any more than say ‘universe’. What is important is how and when we relate to such terms and how and when we relate them others.

    I remember Dawkins getting stymied for a second or two in a debate with a Scottish christian once, when, after having disavowed ‘faith’ as a notion, the Scot asked him if Dawkins had faith in his wife. How much shoe-horning is really happening if we attempt to show that the ‘faith’ of Dawkins and the ‘faith’ of the Scottish Christian had not only so much in common, but perhaps was the most valuable aspect of the term.

    ‘God’ might draw from and lead into long standing anthropomorphic assumptions, beliefs and habits of thought. But if we deal with that side of things, we might also see that we needn’t throw the human intimacy aspect of this convention out with the bollock-hairy bathwater. And, perhaps, Zennies might sometimes express themselves to others and each other – and perhaps to themselves – in ways that can be somewhat cold, contracted in terms that have a materialistic/philosophical and come across a little too exclusive and antagonistic as a result.

    While cold hands, warm heart might often appear to have more integrity and veracity than warm hands, cold heart. It isn’t always the case

  9. Pat
    Pat May 30, 2013 at 12:26 pm |

    There is a UK program called the secrets of stonehenge skeletons – it’s from channel 4 – you may get it on youtube in the US – evidence shows that real early peoples were already ritualising their lives – but for me what jumps out of this program is the fact that stories,myths, rituals and gatherings may have been a kind of lexicon which identified and bound together family,friends and allies – if you didn’t know the stories and the rituals you clearly were outside of the tribe. A tribe that works for the benefit of the whole tribe is clearly an evolutionary advantage – keeping out those who do not belong i.e. stone age spongers is also an advantage.

    looking forward to the book


  10. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs May 30, 2013 at 1:55 pm |

    Again, unlike The End of Faith, which I haven’t read yet, I believe Sam Harris has started to address the issue of an intellectual spirituality with his book The Moral Landscape and will dive into the topic more in his next book Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, and Spirituality. He said he wants to “write a ‘spiritual’ book for smart, skeptical people–dealing with issues like the illusion of the self, the efficacy of practices like meditation, the cultivation of positive mental states, etc.”

    Read more about it here: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/look-into-my-eyes

    In the article, he talks about how gurus use the method of maintaining eye contact to convey spiritual power, using an example of Osho (video included).

    About Osho, Harris says this:

    “Osho always seemed like a genuinely insightful man who had much to teach, but who grew increasingly intoxicated by the power of his role, and then finally lost his mind in it. When you spend your days sniffing nitrous oxide, demanding fellatio at 45-minute intervals, making sacred gifts of your fingernail clippings, and shopping for your 94th Rolls Royce… you should probably know that you’ve wandered a step or two off the path.”

  11. Curt
    Curt May 31, 2013 at 10:57 am |

    Thank you for posting those quotes, Mark. I’ve found more than a few of them that really resonate with me.

  12. Mumbles
    Mumbles June 1, 2013 at 1:00 pm |

    Yes, I agree, I especially liked this one:

    “I knew a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex, and rich food. He was healthy right up to the day he killed himself.”
    Johnny Carson

Comments are closed.