Godfearing by Barbara G. Walker (March 1995)

“Just suppose,” my Godfearing friend said, “that you might be wrong about the nonexistence of God, the afterlife, heaven and hell, and all that. Suppose you have an immortal soul after all. Suppose everything the believers say about it might turn out to be true. Shouldn’t you be a little worried that you might have to face this God you haven’t believed in, and might end up suffering for eternity, regretting your hardheadedness? Wouldn’t it be wiser to reserve judgment, just in case you might be letting yourself in for something terrible? If there isn’t a God or an afterlife, you won’t have lost anything; but if there is, you’re in deep trouble. Doesn’t that bother you just a little?”

I’d heard the same argument before from Godfearers who thought I should be hedging my bets. After all, they’d say, no one really knows one way or the other. If God exists, and expects certain behaviors and attitudes, why risk offending him? “It is a fearful thing,” says the apostle, “to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

Well, yes. It would be a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the kind of God that the Godfearers have pictured. Despite fulsome praise of his kindness and mercy (which sounds a bit like the Greeks calling Furies Eumenides, “kindly ones,” to placate them), Godfearers have given God a character of amazing vengefulness, misanthropic bigotry, and the egocentricity of an Oriental potentate surrounded by his court of fawning sycophants, who are expected to sing his praises every minute of every hour, forever. Is God so insecure that his ego must be propped up with such endless flattery?

The “bliss” we have been promised in heaven usually seems to consist of joining this endless chorus of praise. If that’s all there is to it, I’d be content to give it a miss anyway. Choral singing might be fun, but it’s not that much fun.

In fact, when I ask Godfearers to describe how their dutiful Godfears might be rewarded in heaven, they become extremely vague. Apparently there is no workable idea about this vaunted bliss. The old pagans had a comprehensible notion that the bliss of gods and other heavenly spirits was like a perpetual orgasm; but this idea went by the board along with all other pagan celebrations of sexuality. Patriarchs were afraid of sex, afraid of women, and generally afraid of enjoying themselves too much lest they arouse their God’s hair-trigger jealousy. Their imaginations boggled, therefore, at the task of describing bliss, although they had plenty of precise ideas about the torments of hell. Naturally, they knew all about torture. I might take my Godfearing friend’s advice and suppose, for the moment, that I have an immortal soul which faces the post-mortem wrath of a God in whom I have failed to believe. Beside me in the afterworld stands the soul of, say, a mafioso who spent his life injuring, robbing, or killing people, and helping to ruin many lives by trafficking in drugs, prostitution, gambling, and so on; who, nevertheless, remained a firm believer, regularly went to mass, confessed his sins, and was officially shriven before he died. Will God accept this person and reject someone like me, who remained scrupulously honest and never knowingly injured anyone in my life? Apparently so. I contend that a God with that kind of morality is not a God I would want any truck with in the first place. By my human standards he is a hypocrite and the shallowest of egotists. I would also find it impossible to like–let alone worship–a God so petty as to resent the disbelief of a few of us human insects on a remote, insignificant planet circling an unremarkable star on the outer edge of a minor galaxy amid all the vastnesses of his universe, if he indeed owned such a universe as this one. What divine being, if he were truly divine, would bother his head about my opinion of him one way or another? My idea of “divine” seems to be much grander than such a God’s idea of what he ought to be. And as for the elements of belief that I have been told he expects of me: well, it seems exceptionally silly to trust a God who allegedly gave me a rational mind, and then requires me to insult my own rationality by believing a host of impossibilities and absurdities as the price of my salvation.

And yet, I do fear the petty, hypocritical, egotistic God that men have created for themselves. Not for the reasons they would wish on me, but because he has always so readily served as an excuse for evil human thoughts and actions here on earth. I have heard believers contending that God made all blacks inferior to all whites; and God commands women to abjectly obey domineering husbands; and God would sanction systematic slaughter of all (Jews, homosexuals, abortionists, pagans, or any other minority of your choice); and God is so vicious as to condemn tiny infants to eternal suffering if they happen to die before baptism. In Victorian times, clergymen opposed the use of anesthesia in childbirth because they knew that God wanted women to suffer. Throughout history, innumerable such nastinesses have been widely attributed to God, including the use and abuse of animals and the ruthless exploitation of the earth.

Now all those whose notion of God is somewhat kinder will protest that he isn’t really like that; hatemongering and cruelty result from human (or devilish) denials of God’s will. But if humans (or devils) have such power to deny God his will, he still isn’t what I would call divine. On the contrary, he looks more and more human and perhaps even incompetent. How is everyone so sure of what God is “really like”?

When men want to be ruthless killers, suddenly God wants that too. When men want women to be subservient, that also is the will of God. I’m always astonished by the accurate knowledge of God’s opinions that many men profess, and by the remarkable similarity between God’s opinions and their own.

It is generally believed that God talks to people. Some of the people he talks to are sainted, others are locked up in loonybins, still others become televangelists. But whatever they may say, we are always assured that their words come straight from God’s mouth.

Of course that gives the whole game away. Their words are from God’s mouth, because their God is themselves. Men talk of “playing God,” but frequently enough they aren’t playing at all. They mean it. Such men may indeed pride themselves on having a personal relationship with God, because it is certainly personal.

Is there any reason to assume that belief in God creates a higher personal or social morality than disbelief? Actually, there is more reason to assume the opposite. “Sociologists note that some of the highest-crime areas of the country also happen to be places where religious belief and practice are strongest.”1 However, neither the sociologists nor anyone else seems to be making the obvious connection. It has been shown that the proportion of believers among criminals and prison inmates is higher than among the general population.2 In view of such findings, there can be no clear-cut correlation between religious belief and moral behavior. Social responsibility and respect for the rights of others are not necessarily associated with credulity on the subject of God. Impeccable morality is found among unbelievers as often, and perhaps even more often, as among those who fear a deity’s punishment.

So, what is the God I have failed to believe in, or failed to fear? Is he an incomprehensible power or intelligence somehow in charge of an incomprehensibly immense universe? Or is he an Oriental potentate amid his hordes of flatterers? Or is he a ruthless, implacable warrior cutting down every enemy without mercy? Or is he a torturer enjoying the agonies of those who offended him? Or is he a loving father, making a pleasant world for his children? Or is he an oddly perverted puritan dictating that our children must not witness two women kissing on television, but they may witness thousands each year of brutal beatings and murders on the same medium?

Tell me what your God is, and I can tell what you are. He is, after all, simply human.

It’s the human spirit that makes God, not the other way round. God is the collective dream of men as they would like to see themselves: all-powerful, invincible, having his own way in everything.

The Goddess was once the collective dream of women, and may be so again. Many hands are working on her reconstruction. But she is a radically different sort of deity: recognizably and admittedly a human projection. Given a chance, she may reflect the basic honesty and other-directedness of women, call men to account for their hypocrisies, and point the way to a kinder, more wholesome society in which the two sexes can comfort one another instead of battling. Perhaps her morality will not be so easily perverted.

I fear the God that men have made because I fear the sort of society that men create along with him. Morally speaking, it’s an uncomfortable place to live. I have a persistent feeling that the place of the Goddess would be more tolerant, and also rational enough to remain consciously aware of her real existence, enthroned not among the stars, but in the human heart. I don’t want to settle for anything less.

1 U.S. News and World Report, April 4, 1994, p. 57

2 Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper & Row, 1983, p. 851

Barbara Walker is the distinguished author of 19 books, including the monumental sourcebook, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, and many feminist books published by Harper & Row, including The Skeptical Feminist and the investigative Book of Sacred Stones: Fact and Fallacy in the Crystal World. Multi-dimensional, Ms. Walker has worked as a journalist, dance instructor, designer, lecturer and workshop leader, and is well-known in the knitting world for Treasury of Knitting Patterns. She lives in New Jersey with her husband Gordon Walker.

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