Q: Is there really a God? Isn’t the idea of God something people invented so they could use it to dominate other people?
A: Let there be no doubt about it: Religion has always been used by the powerful to oppress the weak, and it will probably continue to do so in the future. It is just too efficient a tool that someone would conceivably give it up as long as it is to their advantage. For example, during the Christian middle ages in Europe, the pope’s authority provided the justification for kings and emperors to rule, and if a prince did not comply with the pope’s wishes, he and all of his subjects could be excommunicated (to be cast out of the church, which often meant social refection for many). In very recent memory we saw how the Taliban was using their understanding of Islam to oppress the people of Afghanistan. And, of course, in India the caste system has been used by many who are high on the social ladder to exhort people who are occupying lower rungs to stay within their subjugated condition. The message in these and many other religious contexts is very clear: If you violate the social order, you are not just going against society’s norms, but you are rebelling against the religious order as well. Those who are beneficiaries of the system may speak very sympathetically to those who are not, but may ultimately reply to someone’s complaints that they are sorry; they are only doing what God has commanded them to do.
It is, then, an inescapable observation that not only can religion be used to justify injustice in society, it has been exploited to that end many, many times. This thought fits in very well with the contemporary post-modern idea that all religions were specifically designed by those in power in a given culture or society in order to oppress those without power. In other words, people would not just be misusing religion in order to attain their ends, they may even have invented the religion to begin with so that they could bring about their own selfish ends. For instance, feminist writer Lucinda Joy Peach claims that
world religions are all patriarchal and sexist in origins, development, leadership, authority, and power. . . . Because religious beliefs are generally highly valued within a culture, sexist religious beliefs that are presented as representing the “divine will” are used to legitimate patriarchy and sexism in society. . . . Religion has a crucial role in presenting patriarchy as inevitable, inescapable, and ultimately correct.
The same argument could be used to indict other dominant groups, whether it be one ethnic group enslaving another, a higher caste oppressing a lower caste, or one economically advantaged group exploiting those less fortunately situated, not to mention the notion that holding to a particular religion automatically makes someone a superior human being. In all of these cases, one could, like Peach in the above quotation, argue that the very origin of the religion stems from the fact that the dominant group created a religion in order to perpetuate their dominance. This is a tempting idea, and there seems to be quite a bit of evidence to support it.
But I said “tempting” and “seems” because, on closer inspection, this charge will not actually hold up. While there can be little question that powerful groups in societies have used the idea of God to subject others to themselves, the further idea that they created the idea of God in order to do so is fraught with problems. Now, let me proceed very, very carefully here. I certainly do agree that many religious practices have been invented precisely for this purpose, e.g. the supposed divine right of kings or a caste system (which, by the way, is found in various forms not only in India, but in other cultures as well). Those kinds of institutions strike me as bearing all the marks of having been devised by people who hold all the power in society in order to maintain their power. What I am specifically trying to exempt is the very notion of God itself. When we come to the idea of whether there is a God or not, we cannot simply ascribe this belief to the impulse of the powerful to dominate others. To get ahead of my argument and let the reader know where I’m going with all this, my point is going to be that God, rightly understood, does not underwrite the ambitions of the ruthless and crushing, but challenges them to repentance and contrition. The true God is the God of the weak.
For one thing, there’s certainly no valid logical inference from the fact that people have abused something to the conclusion that therefore it’s not real or was invented by them. People in power are liable to exploit various legitimate human motivations—love of other people, the need for food and shelter, etc.—without those motivations thereby losing their legitimacy. Crafty people can even use ideas that are directly contradictory to their aims such as the notions of freedom and human dignity in order to exploit people, but they have not invalidated those ideas per se. Instead, one should look at the true meanings of freedom and human dignity which such people might actually be violating.
In the same way, the fact that people have abused the idea of God does not imply that, therefore, there is no God, let alone that such people have invented the concept. As this discussion stands so far, we need to clarify if there really is a God, whose true nature these people would then actually be denying. That question needs to be settled on grounds other than looking at the actions of people who have claimed to believe in him.
As a matter of fact, it turns out that there are good independent reasons to believe that there is a God. This is not necessarily the God as described in many religions; as a matter of fact the descriptions of God in various religions do contradict each other. But it is the God who has the fundamental qualities of being infinite, personal, the Creator, and the originator of a moral law. Ultimately—and again I’m getting somewhat ahead of my story—this is the concept of God most closely associated with the God of the Bible.
I would suggest that we can find evidence for God’s existence in the following areas. I don’t mean for these to be full-blown premise-by-premise arguments as one might study them in philosophy classes, but indicators of the areas in which one should look in order to find good reasons to believe that there is a God.
A Moral Sense. Human beings come with a basic understanding that they ought to do what is right and should not do what is wrong. People who might deny this statement would undoubtedly be quick to object if they were forced to do something against their will or if they were unjustly accused of a crime. Surely they would let us know that such a thing is just plain wrong, and they would be right. We might differ in the specifics of our moral duties, but we would all agree that we ought to do whatever is right. Now, the interesting thing about this idea is that it does not mean that all human beings always do what is right; obviously they don’t. We are not describing how people act, but how they ought to act. And so, the suggestion runs, there must be a source for our fundamental obligations that is not just a summary of what people do, but is a moral law giver who stands outside of ourselves and enjoins people to do the right thing, even if they don’t. Such an absolute source for right and wrong would be God.
The Design of the Universe. It seems like every day that we learn more about the cosmos the story gets more and more remarkable. It’s not just the complexity and intricacy of the universe; we are now learning that in order to arrive at its present state, in its earliest moments the universe had to pass through several windows of extremely high improbability. Left to chance, the universe could not have happened. Many people suggest that the very nature of the cosmos shows that it must have been made by an intelligent designer, namely God.
The Existence of the Universe. On a more abstract, philosophical level, the very fact that the universe even exists leads us to conclude that there must be a God who created it. This line of thought could take us in a number of different directions. For one, we can reckon with the fact that whatever had a beginning in time must have had a cause, and that this principle applies to the universe as a whole. Or we can conclude that the existence of the universe as a finite (albeit admittedly very large) entity requires that it must have been produced as well as be maintained in existence by a cause outside of itself. In either case, the conclusion is that there is a God who first of all brought the universe into existence.
Religious Experience. Needless to say, when people of different religions talk about their lives within their religions, they are going to tell very different stories. Still, there seems to be something humanly unavoidable in the basic need for something spiritual, something transcendent, in their lives. People who deny the spiritual reality of one religion are very likely going to find it in another religion or context. Even atheists wind up elevating some idea of theirs to the level of something transcendent or religious. It would appear that if there is a real need within all human beings for God—and a real need is something stronger than a hope or wish—then there should be a God to fulfill that need.
So, let me suggest that there is, in fact, good independent reason to believe that there is a God. I did not go into the specifics for these ideas because that would take us too far into detailed arguments, but I would strongly urge that, once the whole picture has been put together, it is more plausible to believe that there is a God than that there isn’t.
But by itself this assertion will hardly address the problem raised in this essay. After all, if God is the tool used by the powerful to oppress the weak, and we have concluded that there really is a God, so much the worse. We could just be left with the horrendous realization that there really is a God who condones the unjust oppression of human beings.
However, there is one understanding of God that would not fit into the category of an oppressor, and that is the God of the Bible. Now, I have to tell you that as I am writing this, I can already almost hear the responses from many readers. Sure, you might say, are we forgetting about how the Christian church has oppressed people in the name of God? Are we just supposed to ignore how many times the God of the Bible has been invoked in order to subjugate and exploit people? Are we simply going to rationalize the crusades, pogroms, colonial abuses, and so forth, that have been perpetrated in God’s name?
Well, I don’t want to do any such thing, and I’m personally tired of people who try do so (and not just in Christianity for that matter). Christians need to be aware of the many unforgivable actions that have been carried out under the shield of Christianity in general and the name of Christ in particular. Most importantly, these are precisely actions that are condemned by the God of the Bible.
It is a fact that many people who share their opinions concerning the God of the Bible have never read through the Bible. One of the worst areas in this regard is talk of the “God of the Old Testament,” who is frequently portrayed as a stern wrathful deity ready to destroy anyone who gets in his way. This is a topic worthy of much discussion and refinement, but let me point out one very crucial piece of information. The God of the Old Testament is not a God who underwrites the exploits of the political or religious establishment. In the Old Testament God shows his wrath, to be sure, but never so blatantly as to those who abuse the position of responsibility that he has given them. The three greatest heroes of the Old Testament are perhaps Abraham, Moses, and David, and yet each one of them disobeyed God at some point and had to suffer the consequences. As you read the stories of the various kings, you discover very quickly that the rulers, though appointed by God, are also accountable to God and receive punishment when they violate God’s trust.
So, if the God of the Old Testament is not automatically on the side of the kings, he must be on the side of the priests, right? That’s the way it might function in other religions, but again in the Old Testament the picture is different. The priesthood does not have God in its pocket either. They represent the people to God, but they do not represent God to the people, and they are as liable to condemnation as anyone else if they break faith with their calling. The God of the Old Testament is not the God of the establishment.
And furthermore, in the Old Testament no one comes under God’s scrutiny more than the wealthy. The Old Testament does not condemn wealth as such; in fact, it sees it as a sign of God’s blessing to those who are faithful to him. However, particularly among the prophetic writings, there are many passages condemning anyone who gains wealth by injustice or who in any way takes advantage of the poor.
And what goes for the Old Testament becomes even clearer in the New Testament. There were many dimensions to Christ’s teaching, but one undeniable factor is that his life and message were radically opposed to the established political and religious order. He did not teach political revolution, to be sure, but he (as well as the Apostle Paul) taught that God’s standards of justice and righteousness supersede those of any human being.
My point, then, is this. Not only is there good reason to believe that there is a God, but there is also one conception of God in which God actually stands alongside the oppressed minorities rather than justifying the deeds of the oppressors, namely the God of the Old Testament. Yes, there is no gainsaying the many times when God or religion have been used as a pretext for institutional injustice. But anytime anyone speaks out against such abuses, he puts himself—in this respect at least—on the side of the God of the Bible.