What Is This God People Say They Believe In?

Everyone is still talking about the Bill Maher/Sam Harris/Ben Affleck dustup regarding Islam and whether or not it's dangerous, or any more dangerous than any other religion, and the subject came up last night among a group of friends gathered here on a chilly October night after dinner in the Fire Island Pines.

Our friend M. expressed the opinion that belief in God is mental illness, riffing on Dawkins' idea of a "God delusion." I'm somewhat sympathetic in a sort of how-can-people-believe-such-obvious-horshshit way, but in the end a mental illness diagnosis isn't for me an adequate explanation since it implies that really everyone before the Enlightenment was mentally ill.

I argued that belief in God is impossible to speak of as a single phenomenon because different people, even among the group of people who would call themselves devout Christians, have radically different ideas of what God is, from a white-haired old man sitting on a cloud to a universal spirit immanent in all creation to the embodiment of everything good to pure love.

M. was of the opinion that there are those who believe in a God who is a male supreme ruler of the universe and then there are those who have other, less anthropomorphic, conceptions of God -- and the latter are what we call "agnostic."

I went on to argue that there is a very large group of contemporary American Christians (maybe even a majority of non-fundamentalist Christians?) who do not have such a literal, limited understanding of God, who believe that the essence of God is essentially unknowable, and that the Bible and the traditional stories about God as a "being" are a way of approaching an understanding of God but not meant to be taken literally, and that such an understanding of God as something that is beyond human understanding is not incompatible with their sincere faith. M. argued that Christians believe literally in an anthropomorphic God and other such Biblical and traditional ideas as a literal heaven, hell, Satan, etc., and that those people who do not believe these things are not properly called Christians.

In an effort to understand just what the fuck American Christians do believe (and of course to prove myself right), I've been researching, googling, emailing an old friend who is a scholar of religion, and learning quite a bit but not really zeroing in on the issue. There's no shortage of polls asking about belief in God, but it never seems to be asked exactly what people mean when they say they believe in God.

It's only coincidental that I'm thinking and writing about God on a Sunday.