older men and long white beards

"Do you believe in God?" is a stupid question. It's stupid in the very trivial hair-splitting sense that equates the word "in" with the word "inside" so that the question becomes "When you do your believing, are you inside God?". But it is also stupid in a more significant sense related to the meaning of words, and the differences between the sign, the signified and the signifier.

In the significant sense, the question is stupid because the answer depends on what is meant by "God". If you were to ask an ancient Greek, "do you believe in a man called Zeus who hurls thunderbolts?" the reply would be in the affirmative. If you were to ask that same question of a Christian, the reply would be in the negative. If you were to ask a Hindu, "Do you believe in an old man with a long white beard who made the universe and everything in it?" the reply would be, "of course not, you stupid, stupid person".

"Do you believe in God?" is a stupid question. "Do you believe that God [insert attribute]?" is a more productive question because it at least enables a discussion on what the attributes of God may or may not be. However, even in that more productive sense, the question is still stupid because it drives the ship of meaning crashing into the rocks of language. Here's a dialogue to illustrate.

Copyright © S R Schwarz 2007. All rights reserved.

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