Request to define God is very popular in discussions with new atheists. They can’t argue whether something does or does not exist unless that thing is properly defined, the scientific method prohibits them from doing so. What to say in response to such requests? I don’t really know, nothing seems to work, but it does make me think about it over and over.
To start with, I’m not comfortable with the word “define”. What does it mean exactly? Do they expect God to be defined as an instance of a class, or should He be defined as some animal species? Or should He be defined in philosophical terms? I don’t really know what they want. They say “your god, you define it as you want, we’ll deal with whatever you give us”.
Fair enough, but then the pressure shifts back on us to present a definition that would satisfy them, and that’s even before they begin their testing if God exists according to this definition or not. Should the responsibility to define God be ours, however? I disagree.
If we come to preach then we present Kṛṣṇa the way we want Him to be seen. We introduce Him as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, which is a definition in itself. We can also talk about Him being the most attractive person, or about Lord Caitanya being the most merciful. Or we can talk about Him being present in the heart of every living being in His Paramātmā aspect. In this case, preaching, we are free to introduce Kṛṣṇa in any way we want so that people form relationship with Him on our terms.
Of course they are not real relationships but that’s how people would think of Him from that moment on. We can say that He is the slayer of demons and people would think, yeah, it’s great that God kills those annoying atheists. We can introduce Him as the protector of His devotees and people would turn to Him for shelter every time they sense trouble. It is a kind of relationship already.
So, once again, when we preach we define God however we want. When atheists demand the definition the situation changes and we don’t have the same freedom anymore. We have to guess what kind of relationship they want to have with God and then present Him accordingly, we don’t get to share our attitudes, we don’t get to share our appreciation, we don’t get to share our devotion.
Shouldn’t this be a reason to turn around and walk away? If people ask for definition to prove that God doesn’t exist – why should we help them? Who would benefit from that? Not them, not us, not Kṛṣṇa. And yet they are asking about God so some sort of an interest is there and we can always hope to fan that spark.
When I think about what they actually want I come to the conclusion that they want a fight and are somewhat open to the possibility of defeat. In some cases defeat is not an option and so there’s nothing for us to do there. It’s hard to read people right away but it becomes clearer as the conversation moves alone. There are all kinds of atheists, some reject God, some are agnostics, some are ignostics, some believe in a higher power but not God of Christian tradition, let along Allah, some are against organized religion, some are against dogmas. It’s hart to tell unless you get to know the person a little better.
Bottom line – we need to know what that person wants from God first, then we can start thinking about accommodating his desires.
Everybody is after the Absolute Truth, that much is clear, but exact aspect of the Absolute they want is a hard guess. Then we need to reconcile the object they are searching for with “God”, a person. Maybe they are after impersonal Brahman. Most of the time your garden variety atheist sees Absolute Truth as logic and rationality. At first they might say that Absolute Truth is what they can test with their senses, ie empiric reality, but if they talk about God chances are they are open to possibility of God being transcendental if this theory checks out logically. Reason and rationality allows us to talk about non-empiric reality so it’s theoretically possible for God to be found there. Arghh, it’s complicated, they want so many things with so many conditions, and they are never quite clear about it themselves.
So, when they ask “define God” they ask for a logical definition of a personal aspect of the Absolute Truth. Okay, but logic is impersonal. How can we use an impersonal tool to define personality? In the material world every definition strips away a personal aspect of the object. If you say “my father”, for example, you define that man as a generic figure stripped of all personally identifying features. If there are five men of the same age in the room, “my father” doesn’t really identify anyone in particular. And if you say “a man with a mustache” you’d strip him of his relationship to you. Even if you say “my father who is a man with a mustache” it still doesn’t tell us anything about your unique relationship with him, we assume it’s like between every father and son, nothing personal.
In these cases definition helps us to identify one person in the group but God can’t be classified like that – He is not a part of any group, as far as material world goes. We can’t single Him out in a lineup.
I’m not sure atheists are aware of that when they ask to define God. They might every well be asking to point to an object in this world that we call God. This object would then definitely exist and be testable, and so all requirements of their scientific method will be fulfilled, but it won’t be God, of course, and they will prove it by classifying it as a material object with material origins and material properties.
There’s another fundamental difficulty with definitions – they are all circular. You take a word, look it up in a dictionary, then look up meanings of the words defining it, and in no time you’ll get caught in a loop with no way out. Big dictionaries might have something like a hundred thousand words but they also carry another number – how many words are used to define them. If you don’t know the meanings of these words from outside the dictionary, it can’t help you. After all, a dictionary is just a book, it has no connection to reality it tries to define. That connection you have to create yourself. You have to know what words like “water”, “up”, or “go” mean in the real world first. Or put it another way – you can’t learn a foreign language by reading a dictionary alone (I don’t mean dictionaries with translations).
God has no presence in the real world, however. We cannot construct Him from building blocks of words related to physical phenomena like we do with any other concept. That’s probably why impersonalists are so fond of “neti neti” method – it’s much easier to say what God is not rather than say what He is. This method also does not lead to personal realization, so is it even possible to satisfy atheists request to “define God”?
Probably not. They won’t accept impersonal aspect of Godhead either, for the reason that it’s not perceived by the senses. After all, it takes impersonalists decades of thinking and analyzing things while keeping their senses under control to realize Brahman. Modern day atheists would never qualify. For them Brahman might as well be non-existent.
I don’t know what to do here. Let them worship logic and reason, that would eventually lead them to impersonalism. They won’t complete this journey in one lifetime and there will be hell to pay for all their sins, but in the long run the process is unstoppable.
And yet they can’t stop talking about God as a person so they must have some kind of relationship with Him. Probably based on envy, but it’s still better than nothing. What would we advise Kaṁsa, for example? Should we ask a person like that to concentrate more on Kṛṣṇa, even if he hates the Lord, or should we try to change his hate into devotion? How does Kṛṣṇa want to relate to Him? Kṛṣṇa wanted to kill Kaṁsa, if Nārada Muni converted Kaṁsa into a devotee and Kṛṣṇa came to kill him, wouldn’t it spoil the whole pastime?
“Always remember Kṛṣṇa and never forget” might be a higher principle here. This means that atheists should be encouraged to talk about God no matter what. Is this how we should accommodate their requests? Just keep them talking? How about intensifying their hatred so that they really always think about the Lord?
Hmm, once again I came to the conclusion that preaching to atheists is a waste of time. However useful, fanning someone’s hatred for Kṛṣṇa is not what we should be doing as Lord Caitanya’s servants.
Unfortunately, no other ideas come to mind.