God is a Red Herring


“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” ~Voltaire


What is a red herring? It’s a diversion intended to distract attention from the real issue. It’s an abstract issue having only surface relevance to the original issue. It’s used to mislead.


Governing this precept, it stands to reason that the concept of God is itself a red herring. Indeed. God is perhaps the greatest red herring of all time. The ultimate distraction.


So, if God is the red herring distracting us from the real issue, then what is the real issue? The real issue is that not a single one of us has any clue what it’s all about.


The real issue is our vast ignorance regarding the “why?” of reality; coupled with a very real death anxiety. Both create an existential vacuum that must be filled, lest we slip into a state of soul-crippling meaninglessness and seemingly unmanageable fear. It creates a dissonance so powerful that we must invent an even greater assonance to relieve our existential angst.


This creation is God: the ultimate red herring.


God is an abstraction of an abstraction. God is beside the point. God is moot. But, as with all red herrings, God is terribly useful. After all, it gets us off the hook for really trying to face the scary truth. It distracts us from our death anxiety and provides a comfortable afterlife where big daddy God keeps us safe from the terror of infinite nothingness.


But what happens when we are able to sidestep this red herring and instead embrace the existential angst and accept our utter ignorance in nearly all things? What happens when we toss the fat red herring of God back into the primordial sea? What if we were able to pull it off the hook of our fear, take it into deep consideration, and then simply let it slide off into the infinite nothingness? What if, instead of relying on magical thinking as our bedrock, we simply tossed out the magical part and focused on thinking. What then?


Painful reason over comfortable delusion:

“I cast my net into the sea and hoped to catch a fine fish; but I always drew out an old god’s head.” ~Nietzsche


Accepting our own ignorance is a very difficult thing to do. There is so much we don’t know that what we think we know is but a flash in the pan, and the pan is the size of the unknowable universe.


This can be quite daunting. So rather than think through the dwarfing magnitude of it all, we simply default to a comfortable belief. Rather than go through the difficulty of thought, we tend to make it easier on ourselves by simply believing in something that can fill in the void left behind by the daunting, dwarfing, overwhelming magnitude of what we don’t know. That something is God.


No matter what flavor of God our cultures decide to cook up, the recipe is almost always the same: ignorant humans cowering before the awesome scale of an unknowable universe desperately create a diversion, a distraction from the real issue, a red herring.


Out pops God. The most comforting diversion ever conceived by humankind. The perfect excuse to not have to think about how overwhelmingly soul-shattering the weight of reality really is. It’s the ultimate copout.


But what if we didn’t copout? What if we took responsibility for our discomfort? What if, rather than avoidance, escape, and evasion, we instead used acceptance, reason, and courage to embrace the overwhelm? What happens when we get real?


The short answer is freedom. The freedom to question, to imagine and to reason. The freedom to adapt and overcome an ever-changing universe. The freedom to re-create God, again and again. As many times as we need to keep adapting and stay ahead of the curve.


The long answer is infinite. Or, rather, Infinity itself (the true God) is unleashed.


Navigating Death Anxiety:

“I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” ~Aldous Huxley


Mathematician George Cantor’s greatest discovery was the discovery of greater and lesser infinities. Counterintuitively, some infinities are more infinite than other infinities. It was, and still is, a mindboggling discovery. It gave birth to the infinite mathematics of set theory.



As it turns out, the same thing applies to the concept of God. Once we are able to dodge the distraction, to outmaneuver and outthink the diversion, and to finally toss the red herring of God back into the primordial sea, we discover a greater God—Infinity itself.


But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First comes thought. First comes reason. Then comes imagination and the courage to question everything. The tripwires of belief, blind faith, and dogmatic thinking must be sidestepped.


Death anxiety must be reconciled through cathartic release. Existential angst must be met with the courage to take responsibility for creating our own meaning (hopefully meaning that’s in accordance with the greater cosmos).


Our death anxiety and existential angst have us clinging for dear life to the slippery red herring of God. It flips and flops in our tentative and insecure grasp. Fear keeps us anxious and clinging. Fear of death. Fear of the unknown. Fear of an overwhelming universe. Even fear of God, ironically enough.


So how do we cure our death anxiety? How do we relieve our existential angst? The salt-in-the-wound answer is—we don’t. We can only ever hope to reconcile it, to surrender to it, to accept it, and to adapt to it. Avoidance and repression are the worst thing we can do.


But reconciled death anxiety is a powerful tool. It helps us leverage meaning into an otherwise meaningless universe. It helps us discover purpose. It puts life into perspective and guides us toward our destiny. It counterintuitively teaches us how to appreciate life, freedom, health, and reason by shining a light onto our devastatingly short but unique and precious life.


A leap of courage is all it takes. But the flavor of this ‘leap of courage’ is particularly unique, as it calls for a leap of courage out of belief and into thought. It takes courage to release the red herring of God that we’ve been clinging to for our entire life. It takes courage to surrender ourselves to a universe where we are not distracted and diverted by the red herring of God.


What is reality? What is infinity? What does it all mean? Nobody really knows. It’s a Great Mystery. It’s a giant question mark that feels like a giant exclamation point. But at least it’s open ended. At least it leaves room for error.


Having ditched the red herring of God and embraced thought, reason, and rationality, we give ourselves room for improvement, improvisation, and adaptation regarding the every-moving target of Truth.


As Mark Twain said, “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” Indeed. The delayed perfection of the red herring must be cooked into the continuous improvement of truth, lest we starve at the table of delusion.


Image source:

No Red Herring

Definition of red herring


About the Author:

Gary Z McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide-awake view of the modern world.


This article (God is a Red Herring) was originally created and published by Self-inflicted Philosophy and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Gary Z McGee and self-inflictedphilosophy.com. It may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this statement of copyright.