Non-believers are often faced with the theist’s complaint as to how we attempt to “humanize” their God-concept, or how we complain their God-concept doesn’t act as we expect it too. They complain we approach the theistic question on the basis God acts like a human—only bigger.
I will attempt to explain why this is so.
As humans we are constantly attempting to figure out the world about us. Why did that tree fall? How can I measure twice, yet the plank is too short? Why do we become sick? Why is traffic stopped and can I get around it? In doing so, we communicate with other humans. We develop language, grammar, and skills to learn information, and figure out the world we live in.
Since we are human, understand human thinking, human emotions, human instincts and human knowledge, it is within that arena we base our communication and attempts to relate our observations. Think of this simple statement:
“My wife’s cat loves me.”
Now, I don’t know the psychology of cats. I don’t know how they obtain knowledge, what emotions they have, or what instincts they contain. We can speculate on such things, based upon observation, but no cat has learned human language in a way it can communicate exactly what it is feeling towards humans.
Look at the first part of the phrase, “My wife’s cat…” I suspect the cat would be stunned to learn it is “owned.” That it is a possession. If a cat is self-aware, it would be repulsed by the notion a human “owns” it. Secondly, how do we designate a certain individual within a household “owns” a cat?
Yet as another human, you understood this statement with no problem. You understood, despite current appearances, at one time the cat was a gift specifically designated for my wife. In my house, my wife has a cat, my son has a dog, my oldest daughter has a cat, and my youngest daughter has guinea pigs. While they all live in the same house, and are all fed by the same person (my wife)—we have broken up ownership amongst various persons.
Now look at the second part: “…cat loves me.” Again, I don’t know how a cat loves. I don’t know what the word means to a cat. I use a human term—“love”—that the other human understands so we can communicate a concept. What we expect from such a statement is that the cat prefers to sit on my lap as compared to my wife’s (it does) that it comes to me for attention (it does) and that it generally prefers, when it allows company, to be in my presence (it does.)
No one hears the statement, “My wife’s cat loves me” and thinks, “You are attempting to humanize the cat” or “You are saying, ‘If I were a cat, I would ____’” No!—we understand the use of the English word “love” is communicating a certain idea where we expect certain actions to align with the word.
We anthropomorphize things all the time:
“My car didn’t want to start.”
We know cars don’t have “wants” or desires. But every one of us (most of us have probably said that very thing) understood the phrase to mean the car was mechanically having difficulty. Does anyone complain, “Your idea regarding vehicles is human-centric”? Of course not!
“The ball wouldn’t go in the goal.”
“My locker door hates me.”
“Traffic was a bitch.”
“The rock refused to budge.”
Each phrase uses a human feeling to convey a concept. Sure, we understand rocks and locker doors do not have feelings or motivations. We utilize these words NOT because the locker door is supposed to understand what we are saying; we use them so the other human can understand the idea.
Now back to the cat example. I say, “My wife’s cat loves me.” But you observe the cat always runs away from me. It hisses at me when I approach. It arches its back. It claws at me if I pick it up. It never purrs with me; never jumps in my lap. This appears to be an incongruity. We have certain expectations from the word “love.” We understand a cat’s emotional base is very different from humans; when a human tells another human something “loves” him—that word “love” presents certain anticipated behaviors. Cars that “love” us are expected to have fewer mechanical problems. Projects that “love” us are expected to be easier than first thought.
And cats that “love” us are not expected to hiss, and claw and run away.
The word “love” is intended, even when applied to non-humans, to portray a communicable idea.
Turning to God…we understand a God is not human. It is different. But in order to discuss this rationally, theists must grasp this seemingly simple fact—non-theists do not have a specific definition for God.
I comprehend to theists, when I say the word “God” a certain mental image pops in their head. A Hindu thinks of multiple Gods with various personalities. A Catholic thinks of a certain Abrahamic version of God. Muslims a different Abrahamic version. Jews yet another Abrahamic version.
The problem I often see, is that this idea is so obvious to the theist, they cannot identify with a God being anything but what they picture in their mind. “Of course God is this” or “God is that” and the notion God could possibly be anything else is as crazy as a thin Santa Claus, or a tall leprechaun.
Yet to non-theists, we do not have a locked-in version of God. Sure, we understand the notion it could be a creator, or that it could have personality, or could exhibit something akin to emotions, or it could be bound by logic. Notice those are all “could’s.” What we are looking for is what actually IS; not what “could” be. So we ask the theist to describe their God-concept.
Because we are human (surprise)…and the theist is human (surprise)…the theist describes their God-concept in…will this be a surprise?...human terms.
The theist may say something like, “God loves humans.” Now to us non-theists, this is an attempt to depict God, using terminology we understand. We get (we truly, truly do) this is not intended to be EXACTLY like human love. We get (we truly, truly do) the thought communicated is a similarity, and that this God, being a completely different species, would have different emotions, feelings, thinking, etc.
The same way we understand “My cat loves me.”
And once this sentiment is expressed, we start to question it, in light of what we observe. We question “My cat loves me” when we observe the cat claw, hiss and run away. We question the sentiment “God loves me” when the God orders genocide, kidnap, and stealing. These are incongruous with our understanding of what the word “love” means.
I am NOT questioning God; I am questioning the human who claims this is what their God-concept is. Much the same way I don’t question the cat, “Why don’t you love him?” I question the owner, “Why do you say these actions are loving?”
If a believer in the Tanakh God indicated God was petty, jealous, malicious, and very powerful—we non-theists would simply nod our head. These words, even though they are human emotions, conform to what we observe relayed in the Tanakh. It is only once a person tries to say such a God is loving, or merciful do we question how those human terms apply to such a creature.
When you say, “God has X characteristic” where “X” is a human description of an emotion, feeling, thought or concept, we expect this God’s actions to align with our understanding of X characteristic.
It is NOT that we expect God to act like a human; it is that YOU have described God in human terms, and we question inconsistencies with that human term. We do not expect cats to act like humans, but if you describe a cat along human terms, we question inconsistencies with that term.
It is NOT that we say, “If I were God, then I would…” rather we are saying, “You claim your God-concept has X characteristic. I understand humans (including me) exhibit X characteristic by doing certain things. But you claim your God-concept does things contrary to exhibiting X characteristic. How do you line that up?”
The same way we do not say, “If I were a cat, then I would…” rather we are saying, “You claim your cat loves you. I understand how humans act when they love someone. But your cat does not act that way. How do you line that up?”
Is this making any sense?