In many debates/conversations between atheists and theists, there’s an elephant in the room, an unacknowledged and certainly unanswered question: what are we all talking about? (Admittedly, this comes up most often in discussions with deists or the very liberal religious, who don’t adhere strictly to any scripture’s claims.) Before we can really tackle the question of whether some god exists, we have to pin down what the word “god” means. What would a god be like? What are the properties of a god that are distinct from the properties of other beings?
We use the word “god” to refer to a wide variety of concepts, from the omni-everything Abrahamic god, to the polytheistic gods that each have their own realm to which their power is limited, to “trickster gods” that seem more like imps or gremlins. Is there some way we can define god that encompasses our understanding of what it means to be a god, while not being too inclusive of things that clearly aren’t gods?
It’s tempting to begin with a criterion such as: a god must have powers and abilities that surpass those of most other intelligent beings. This allows for a pantheon of gods in which some gods’ powers may be the ability to travel very fast or to be extremely alluring, while other more powerful gods may also exist. On the other hand, it would also imply that Usain Bolt is a god, and maybe every Miss Universe winner too.
So, maybe we need to add that gods’ abilities must be supernatural. It’s not enough to be very fast; you have to be able to zip around the world instantaneously, breaking the laws of physics. It’s not enough to be very beautiful; your mere presence must exert complete psychic control over another person, forcing them to be unable to think of anything but feelings of love and/or lust. Wizards and witches, or others with the ability to perform magic, would count as gods by this definition, too. (And maybe that isn’t a problem. My instinct says that in a world where magic is something that individuals innately possess, wizards are more godlike, and in a world where magic is something to be studied and practiced, wizards are less godlike … but I don’t know.)
Except … the word “supernatural” introduces as many problems as the word “god” does. If a being is able to zip around the world instantaneously, that’s part of reality. If “magical” things are possible, that’s part of reality too whether it’s possible through some innate attribute of a person or through years of study. It would mean that our laws of physics are wrong and need to be revised so as to explain phenomena such as those. (“The laws of physics” means the real and complete laws of physics, not just the ones we are aware of.) Ditto for our understanding of consciousness and the mind/brain, if telepathy is possible. If something is real, it’s natural — “supernatural” might as well be a euphemism for “not real.”
So where does all this leave god, religion and faith in general? Essentially, I think, “religion” how we describe the things people believe without any sound reason. Religion, and the concept of god in particular, is so ill-defined that as soon as you get a handle on it, it stops being religion anymore. When I talk about science, I’m talking about our attempts to describe and understand the reality we live in. If you tell me that your religion is a completely separate thing from science, what you’re essentially telling me is that it isn’t real.