Thursday, November 12, 2009

God’s a Big Human

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?


  1. I think I understand. As humans, we grasp the definition of the word "love." If we describe someone as loving, other people would have certain expectations of that person's behavior.

    If someone describes God as "loving," we have certain expectations. Sure, God is different that us, but the definition of the word love doesn't change.

    Could it be sort of like this: a child has an unloving father, but the mother reassures the child that the father DOES love the child. This creates confusion in the child's mind. They learn to not trust their own judgement. Or they come to have a sad idea of what "love" is.

    Or if I told a mother whose child is dying "God is a loving god." She could say "Really?"

  2. I like how Lynn says here: "Sure, God is different that us, but the definition of the word love doesn't change." I feel like I've tried to say that in other areas, only Lynn has summed it up right there, whereas it's taken me paragraphs.

    Can this "humanizing" God work in reverse? After all, no one says that we're reducing God to a mere human when His love is explained in that He loved the world so much that He gave His son for it -- yet that matches the definition of love we all have. Or that section in Romans 5 where the proof of God is so great because Jesus died while people were yet sinners, while for us, we might brave death for a good man. That also matches our definition of love: when you love someone, you would die to keep them safe (and it doesn't even have to be human. Animals die for their offspring. I believe if elephants come across an elephant carcass, they mourn for it. Is that humanizing the elephants? No, it's assigning a word with a set definition to a witnessed behavior).

    So when God is described as love, it does match up to those examples I just listed above. Yet no one says that anyone has "humanized" God.

  3. I am still in awe of how individual brains work. Man you are a cerebral one. ;)

  4. Yes, it MAKES sense and I think you've acquitted yourself very well indeed!!

  5. After all, no one says that we're reducing God to a mere human when His love is explained in that He loved the world so much that He gave His son for it -- yet that matches the definition of love we all have.

    Speak for yourself: Sacrificing my child is nowhere near anything even remotely resembling my definition of love, for my son or for anyone else. Indeed, as I do not wish to believe you're a sick, sadistic psychopath, I must conclude that you're mindlessly repeating a meaningless slogan ingrained into your mind by years of indoctrination and propaganda.

  6. Seriously, OSS: I have just slit my son's throat and let him bleed to death for my love for you. Do you a) praise me for my incredible sacrifice and show the deepest gratitude for the sincerity and depth of my love for you or b) call the cops and hope I'm imprisoned for life?

    If that would be a profoundly immoral and unloving act for me to perform, in what conceivable sense are you using the general definition of love, the definition of love that "everyone" has?

    What is it about religion that causes even generally intelligent and well-meaning people to simply shut off the logical part of their brain when they discuss religious concepts?

  7. The Barefoot Bum,

    I'm unsure if you're assuming I'm a Christian, or simply focusing on the "no one/we" aspect in my use of the John 3:16 quote of "For God so loved the world ..." and saying that by my stating that it fits a general concept of love, it places me in an indoctrination/propaganda camp (or the psychopath camp), regardless of religious affiliation. I'm also uncertain if the point behind my original comment was clear, so I'll elaborate.

    I was involved in a discussion recently regarding the Catholic priests and how not only did some of them rape children, but the Church dealt with the problem by moving the priests to another parish. I said that if one describes God as both love and a father, then those characteristics cannot be reconciled with someone who does nothing when a priest rapes a child. A father does not remain inactive under those circumstances. Nor does someone who loves that child. The response to that was that God is not merely loving, but another response could've easily been that I was putting God in a box, or humanizing God, or building a God in my own image.

    Yet if we take the idea of God loving the world that He sends His son as a sacrifice, and that the very definition of "love" would include sacrificing someone that meant a great deal to you for the greater good (indeed, I have seen a few posts by Christians who say that the love of God astounds them even further when they had children, because they get an even bigger sense of the sacrifice God made). Our definition of love -- how we define love -- includes an aspect of sacrificing objects or even people of value (and I would say that we have instances where we do "sacrifice" people of value. Wars, for instance, if people encourage their family or friends to fight for a greater good). I'm not focusing on the morality or lack thereof of the parent sacrificing the child, I'm simply focusing on how the element of sacrifice ties to the definition of love.

    Yet when God's love is defined along those lines, Christians don't say that it humanizes God, or places Him in a box. He's not some sort of idol. In fact, if I said that it did humanize God, I'm pretty sure that Christians would tell me that it's not humanizing, it's what the definition of love is.

    Yet as soon as that same principle is applied to instances such as where the children were raped, suddenly it's no longer about reconciling the definition of love with a certain action or lack of action, it's that the non-Christian is humanizing God.

    For the Christian, it's a means of asking why both instances don't apply to humanizing God, or why one serves as an example of love when it matches their definition of love, and the other becomes a means by which the non-Christian dismisses/reduces God in some fashion.

  8. First, I'm making no assumptions; I'm responding to your sentence as stated: John 3:16 does not match the definition of love we all have. That's the complete opposite of what I call love; indeed it is to me the most depraved cruelty and evil.

    Frankly, I have a little more sympathy for those like Fred Phelps who put their psychopathology, and hatred right out there where people can see it than for so-called "moderates" who sugar-coat their cruelty.

    Civilization cannot be too quickly rid rid of the despicable, contemptible and evil charade that is Christianity, fundamentalist and moderate.

  9. The Barefoot Bum,

    Do you understand why I used John 3:16 in the first place, and my overall point? The answer is not “You’ve been indoctrinated.” I’d understand the indoctrination answer if I was addressing the question “what is love.” But I wasn’t, and if DagoodS post had asked for the definition of love, I wouldn’t have answered John 3:16 at all. For the sake of the main argument, I was using John 3:16 to assert something about love in order to ask a question on the methods used behind the claim of humanizing.

    Or do you just not care and feel that my use of it in the first place is the symptom of a much bigger problem of moderate religion, regardless of why it’s being used?

    If the answer is the latter, then the rest of my post is probably a waste of space. But here it goes, anyway.

    My impression is that John 3:16 the best way to explain God’s love in Christianity. Christians might compare it to the idea of a parent allowing/sending a child off to war so that a country can be protected, I don’t think they would say anyone is humanizing God (although, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an example used … I made mention earlier of how Christians appreciated God’s love even more after they had a child of their own, as they couldn’t imagine making that kind of sacrifice, and sending a child off to war in the name of freedom or human rights or a bigger concept than one’s self is along the lines of that sacrifice. And regardless of the reasoning behind the wars, I think a lot of the ordinary people who were actually sent or going off to war did out of the idea of some sort of “greater good.” Whether it’s a concept like freedom or the idea that one’s country must be protected from something). If they tie the idea of Jesus offering to die to save people the same way a parent might step in front of a bullet to save his/her child, I don’t think they would say that anyone is humanizing God. They would say that the action itself meets the definition of love. Why did I make that the definition and generalize it? Why did I apply that to everyone? Because I was playing in their ballpark, and that's one of the first Biblical quotes they use to show how grand God's love is. I would say it’s a defining quote for them when it comes to describing love, and they would probably jump on the war similarity, without ever saying that we're putting God in a box. Or they’d jump on how humanity should show love for God by surrendering to His will, following His plans and not their own, willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of Jesus, and so forth. I don’t see how their defining attributes of love in relation to God can be separated from sacrifice.

    Yet if we also have a God who did absolutely nothing as priests raped children -- that doesn't fit the definition of love. Not if this is the same God who is so desperately in love with humanity that He sent His own son, and so forth. And when Christians are asked about situations such as this, the rebuttal no longer focuses on the definition of love, it focuses on how God is not only a God of love, or how people are angry that God doesn't behave as they wish, or they found a perfect God-shaped box.

  10. Part Two:

    So to use one of DagoodS favorite questions: what method is used to determine when God is being humanized, or turned into an idol? Why does one situation -- the Christian using John 3:16 -- apply to their definition of love -- and the second situation of rape suddenly become focused on the non-Christian's attitude towards God?

    But the aspect of the sacrificial love was addressed to the Christian who might say someone is humanizing God, and I made a generalization and grouped everyone together – it was easier than typing everything out, which I’ve now ended up doing anyway. I took a shortcut, and jumped right into their mindset. Obviously, you didn’t like my shortcut. If I had made mention of the concept of justice, and tied it to the penal substation theory and said that Jesus dying on the cross matches the definition of justice everyone has, in that there must be punishment for wrongdoing, maybe you would've narrowed in on that comment, too (and note here that I am using this to make a point and not make a declarative statement on that Jesus punished for people’s sins is justice. It’s not justice). But Christians justify that concept of justice by humanizing God, when they say that just that just as a judge can’t let a murder just go free and there must be a punishment, neither can God simply let the “guilty” go free, and thus Jesus took on the punishment. Do I believe that? No. Justice demands that any punishment be tied to the one who actually committed the wrong deed. If an innocent party steps in to take the punishment, then it makes a mockery of the whole concept of justice. It’s no longer about justice, it’s just about vengeance, and making sure that blood is spilled from somebody. And I would’ve taken that same shortcut – the whole Jesus dying on the cross – to get to my main point, which was when Christians compare God to a human judge, they don’t say their humanizing God, they say that they’re showing how the concept of justice works by using a human example. If they’re told how the concept of eternal punishment or the innocent suffering isn’t actually justice and a human example is used, then they say that people are humanizing God. The same approach is used in both examples, so why does only one get called humanizing?

  11. Do you understand why I used John 3:16 in the first place, and my overall point? ... Or do you just not care and feel that my use of it in the first place is the symptom of a much bigger problem of moderate religion, regardless of why it’s being used?

    As I mentioned in the linked post I'm not at all interested in whether or how anyone's imaginary friend is or is not -- or can or cannot be -- humanized.

    I'm very explicit about taking exception with your definition of love. I simply don't buy that you're using a John 3:16 definition only "for sake of the main argument". Your words are unequivocal and direct: John 3:16 "matches the definition of love we all have."

    It does not. Quite the contrary: I argue that it is peripheral to or fundamentally contrary to even Christians' definition of love, at least as such a definition pertains to the ordinary, prosaic expression of love in the real world.

    I also believe that elevating sacrifice to the definition of love -- to love someone means that you want to sacrifice for them, and the purest expression of that love is to actually perform some sacrifice -- is a fundamentally cruel, evil and depraved construction of the most elevated complex of human emotions that I would prefer to believe you invoke this definition out of thoughtless habit than because you yourself are fundamentally cruel, evil and depraved.

  12. Seriously, OSS: I have just slit my son's throat and let him bleed to death for my love for you.


    I am actually not sure what OSS is trying to say, but knowing how smart and insightful and non-fundamentalist she is, I will have to read her initial comment again before giving my opinion.



    My first thought when I read your post was similar to what I think OSS is trying to say. A Christian would say, "Well, I only have human language to explain how God loves me, so I will express it in human terms."

    It also made me think of good writing. Great writers humanize everything, so as to appeal to the readerships deepest sentiments.

    "The river roared as ..."
    "The sun exploded behind the mountains..."
    "As the trees stood in front of me.."

    But if I understand you correctly, you're trying to say that since God doesn't exist, humans have come up with a way to make an image of him using words we would use were we describing a human.

    If that's it, I agree


  13. Lorena,

    As I'm finding that my original comment was not clear, I'm hoping that you read the other two comments before giving the opinion -- assuming those two are at least clearer.

    **you're trying to say that since God doesn't exist, humans have come up with a way to make an image of him using words we would use were we describing a human.**

    The danger I could see with this type of explanation is that the Christian could come back with "you're expecting God to behave like a human because you're describing him like a human." And thus never address the point the skeptic raises. The skeptic, to the Christian: "You say that God loves us passionately. We understand a passionate love to include preventing people from starving to death. Yet millions do starve. How do you reconcile the non-prevented starvation with your understanding of the word love?"

    You know, in retrospect, since I've seen one response to this be that God isn't only a loving God, is that some sort of acknowledgment that God's behavior does in fact violate the definition of love? Because what's essentially being said there is "Yes, I know that not preventing starvation is an unloving thing to do, but God just isn't a loving God."