Several commenters had concerns about my post on not believing in God. This is understandable, since there I take a concept that a large chunk of the world’s population has oriented their lives around for over a thousand years, dismiss it in a couple short paragraphs and spend more than half the post instead discussing why I avoid calling myself an atheist.
That is to say that the topic of disbelief in God deserves more attention than I gave it there. And as most commenters pointed out, it does depend heavily on how you define God. The idea of God that I have the strongest objection to is an omnipotent omnibenevolent being, one who is all-powerful and perfectly good. Such a being seems to me manifestly absurd given all the terrible suffering of the world, which no such being has put a stop to. Given what we observe every day (let alone what we see on the news), any existent omnibenevolent being would have to be weak and struggling to achieve good in a universe far more powerful than it, and any existent omnipotent being would have to be an unfeeling brutish monster. In this respect, the connection that ibn Sīnā makes between God and the world makes it much harder for me to believe in a God. For ibn Sīnā, God is not just one more entity to add to the world; the existence of God changes how we understand the world itself. If there is a God, the world must be built according to divine plan. I have tended to accept ibn Sīnā’s conditional statement. But where ibn Sīnā responds to that conditional with a modus ponens – there is a God, therefore the world exists according to divine plan – I respond with a modus tollens, that the world does not exist according to divine plan, and therefore there cannot be a God.
Commenters, however, spoke of conceptions of God quite different from ibn Sīnā’s, ones that did not involve an omnipotent omnibenevolent being. Ted noted, correctly, that gods appear in the stories of the Buddha; Elisa Freschi spoke of “the god attained through worship and one was connected to Him through a loving relationship.” Neither of these needs to be omnipotent; they may not even be omnibenevolent.
Such an entity is Mañjuśrī, the celestial bodhisattva to whom I pray every night. I take him to be omnibenevolent, personifying compassion for suffering beings like me and others, but not omnipotent. His existence is not a contradiction of reality in the way that I take the Abrahamic god to be. And yet, despite those nightly prayers, I still do not believe he exists.
Why not? Because, as far as I can tell, such a belief would be unscientific. I am aware of no evidence suggesting such beings exist, or have any efficacy in the world beyond human beings’ belief in them or actions with respect to them. That latter form of efficacy is major; it is why “religion” matters a great deal even for atheists. But it does not imply the beings’ existence. Stalin’s belief in Lysenko’s biology had major (negative) effects on the world; those effects do not make Lysenko’s ideas any less false. My own prayers to Mañjuśrī do have effects on me, too, but that does not mean either that Mañjuśrī is real or that I believe he is.
There is a technical sense in which I believe Mañjuśrī exists. I believe Mañjuśrī exists in the sense I believe Superman exists – in our minds as a work of fiction (and one which, like Superman, holds out a model of virtue). Predicates of truth and falsity do apply to fictional entities: “Superman was born on Krypton” is true in a way that “Superman was born on Uranus” is not. This distinction is crucial to Anselm’s argument – even for one like me who disbelieves in God, a concept of God still exists in the mind. The conclusions Anselm draws from this regarding his existence do not follow, though, and even if they did, they are not supposed to work for a being like Mañjuśrī who is not perfect (because, even if omnibenevolent, he is not omnipotent).
I think an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God (like ibn Sīnā’s and Anselm’s) is impossible in principle – the obvious suffering of the world makes a mockery of any such being. A lesser god, such as Mañjuśrī or such as Elisa describes, is not impossible. Such a being could exist. I just think we have no reason to believe that it does – and sufficient reason to believe that it doesn’t. Nobody has found a replicable way to demonstrate such a god’s effects on the world beyond simple belief. That natural historians have combed over most corners of the world and never found a unicorn is, I think, sufficient reason not to believe in the existence of unicorns. I don’t think there is greater reason than that to believe in the existence of gods.