The God question: listen to your inner voice
And what remains when disbelief is gone?
— Philip Larkin
It is more rational to believe in God than to believe there is no God. In fact, belief in God is much more rational than atheism. The resting place of the mind, its natural equilibrium, as it were, is belief.
This is, in truth, a statement of the obvious. But it seems radical, shocking. This is because in Australia, and in Europe, many of our leading figures, certainly the loudest of them, and a substantial and growing minority of the population believe, or at least pretend to believe, in the religious faith of atheism, the faith that holds there is no God.
In subscribing to atheism they are in radical opposition to the vast majority of people on the planet today, and the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived in history. There’s our first clue.
Last week the Institute of Public Affairs published important research that showed most Australian university courses make no coherent effort to teach the main elements of Western civilisation. This is partly because Western civilisation, like most civilisation and human nature itself, rests on the knowledge of God.
Knowing and believing in God has always been entirely rational. It is not only rational, of course. To know much more about God than merely that he exists requires faith.
But faith is not, as it is frequently represented, the enemy of reason. Rather, faith is the basis of reason. Almost all of rational life is based on faith. Most often faith is not a question of what you believe but who you believe.
I have faith that I am the son of my parents. I have no real empirical evidence for it. It makes the most sense as an explanation of my life, it is the proposition that best fits with everything I know. But the main reason I believe it is faith, my regular, normal faith in my parents. So this is a faith-based belief, entirely rational, confirmed by experience, but certainly not rationally proven.
Most of our lives are lived in this way. I have faith that my car will work when I turn the key in the ignition, but I have absolutely no idea why or how. Nonetheless I am convinced that my faith is consistent with rationality, that my faith itself is rational.
Part of the crisis of belief in our society is a crisis of knowledge. Because the high points in our elite and popular culture have been colonised by a militant and intolerant atheism, our young people have been denied the fruits of thousands of years of intellectual effort on matters of faith and belief by the best minds humanity has produced. This is wickedly unfair to children.
To have a rounded sense, even intellectually, of the idea of God it is necessary to use all the human faculties — reason, spirit, intuition, emotion, conscience, memory, imagination — to name a few.
Nonetheless, you can get to a knowledge of the reality of God through reason alone. It is important to understand that atheism is also consistent with rationality. Atheism does require its own radical leap of faith, but its biggest problem on rational grounds is that it is inconsistent with the world and life as we know it. It is a hypothesis with feeble powers of prediction. But it is not altogether irrational.
Modern science has not made atheism any more or less rational. Science tells us a great deal about how, but nothing about why. It is a misuse and a misrepresentation of science to pretend that it answers the why questions. There were atheists in the ancient world. The Psalms of the Old Testament refer to people who deny the existence of God. It was always open to a person to say: the world is complex, I don’t understand how it works, but I don’t believe that God created it.
And some people did think that. It is the most insufferable condescension and unjustified vanity on our part to think of all of the rest of humanity, in the past, and beyond our little slice of the West today, as trapped in superstition, while we alone are wise, enlightened and free.
For while more than just reason is involved in faith, reason always played its part. The philosophers of ancient Greece, long before the birth of Christ, reasoned their way to God. This is most often associated with Aristotle, but it was a movement among many philosophers and poets of ancient Greece.
Their insights were integrated into Christianity in the 13th century by the greatest of the Christian philosophers and theologians, Thomas Aquinas.
Famously, Thomas provided his five ways to God through reason. Some Christians mistakenly took to referring to them as the five proofs of God. In truth, by reason alone you cannot absolutely prove God or disprove him.
Thomas was trying to understand, not to prove, though understanding often leads to belief.
First, Thomas suggested that motion had to start somewhere, that there had to be an unmoved mover.
Second, the chain of cause and effect is so long, but it too had to start somewhere; there had to be an uncaused cause.
Third, contingent beings — that is, beings who rely on some antecedent for their existence — must inevitably proceed from a being who relies on nothing for their existence, a necessary being.
Fourth, there is so much goodness in the world, it must correspond to or proceed from a self-sufficient goodness.
And fifth, the non-conscious agents in the world behave so purposefully that they imply an intelligent universal principle.
That is a crude summary of what is called Thomas’s argument from design (which bears no relation to the modern fringe theory of evolution called Intelligent Design). And it all seems pretty dry. People don’t generally come to any serious belief in God purely through this or any other rational process.
But it is important to understand that there is nothing in reason that contradicts God. That our public culture so routinely suppresses this knowledge, mocks it and teaches the reverse, demonstrates just what a strange and dangerous cultural dead end we have wandered into. Yet even in our moment, in our society, there is already a nostalgia for God.
Reasoning from first principles, of course, is not even the primary rational way you can come to a rational knowledge of God.
For it is one of the central realities of humanity, one of the deep mysteries of the human condition, that all truth involves a balance of truths. Rationality needs a context in order to be rational. In isolation from all the other human faculties, it becomes a cult of hyper-rationality. And this is not more and better rationality but distorted rationality, and often leads to irrational conclusions. For example, you may describe in exquisite, painstaking rational detail a finger pulling the trigger of a gun, which fires a bullet, which kills a child. The description can become extraordinarily detailed and rational, following an unassailable logic. You can claim as a consequence that you have rationally and exhaustively explained the death of the child.
Yet you have not explained murder. You have said nothing about the morality, or even in a larger sense the cause, of the child’s death. Rationality alone is not sufficient — necessary, yes, but not sufficient.
Consider something entirely different. In one of the most important decisions we make in life, rationality is a part, but only a part, and not always the most important part. When you choose, say, your life’s partner, the decision is partly rational but not purely or wholly rational. There is a spark of romance, an intuition of commitment, an excitement, a sense beyond the rational of adventure and deep homecoming.
These types of considerations are not irrelevant to a rational belief in God.
Let’s look at that a bit more. The subject that humanity understands best, and has the most experience of, is humanity. The proper subject for the study of man is man.
What clues does humanity itself offer us about belief in God?
All of our strongest instincts, all of our strongest desires, correspond to a strong reality. Hunger indicates food. Tiredness suggests sleep. Sexual desire implies sex.
This is true not only of physical desires. Loneliness implies friendship. The desire to behave decently implies the existence of decency.
And as long as we have known human beings, they have yearned for and believed in God. It makes you ponder, this long, consistent, human intuition, or it should do. The long hunger for God implies God.
These are just clues, they are not proofs, but they are clues that are powerfully consistent with God.
In his magnificent book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery, Brendan Purcell, among countless scintillating insights, assesses our professional or scholarly knowledge of several of the earliest human burial sites that we have found.
These date back many tens of thousands of years. Almost every one involves some ritual, and some symbolism. Many involved artefacts, or tokens, or tools buried with the dead, which paleoanthropologists believe indicate a belief in the afterlife. The tools buried with the dead are symbols of what the person would take with them to the afterlife.
There are clues and questions beyond humanity, which belief in God answers rationally but to which the faith of atheism offers no answers at all.
Why is there something rather than nothing? How come our world is so incredibly receptive to the evolution of life? It’s highly improbable statistically. What caused the big bang? Why is nature so regular from one minute to the next?
Most of these questions are not necessary or sufficient proofs of God. They are open to atheist conjecture. But cumulatively they make more sense with God.
There is a variety of sneering, intolerant and remarkably poorly informed atheism popular on TV talk shows and the like. It is faux clever but strangely old-fashioned, trotting out a venerable retinue of cliches and platitudes but demonstrating an almost complete lack of familiarity with theology or metaphysical philosophy.
This kind of atheism is associated with figures such as Richard Dawkins, who wrote The God Delusion, which sold three million copies. Dawkins is an eminent scientist in one field, with no particular expertise in any other field and an apparently wilful ignorance of the variety and subtlety and history of the claims and ideas of Christianity. He is a kind of atheist fundamentalist and he conjures an extreme, fundamentalist Christianity, a rhetorical straw man (unrelated to the main lines of Christianity) that he can beat down with science.
This kind of atheism is also associated with Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was in some ways a splendid journalist, brave and witty and engaged, but he was a poor philosopher, a tremendously tendentious historian and an astonishingly ill-informed theologian.
With a few other popular atheist celebrities, men such as these seek (or sought) to impose the new, and frighteningly narrow, religious orthodoxies of our day. They mount a million wild attacks on belief in God, most of them absurd. Let’s consider just two.
One is that evolutionary science has replaced God in explaining humanity.
This is nonsense. Evolutionary theory and science offer marvellous explanations of how, they offer no explanations of why. This is no challenge to belief in God. In fact, it is a fundamental point. If God brings the physical universe into being then of course he uses physical processes. Understanding the processes a bit better doesn’t bear on the questions of why, of purpose, of meaning, at all. Most scientists believe that evolutionary science is consistent with religious belief or atheism. I think they’re right.
Nonetheless, evolutionary theory poses a much bigger problem for atheism than it does for religious belief. Some atheists argue that human beings evolved a religious instinct because it enhanced their chances of survival.
There is some appeal in this proposition, and also a lot of logical problems with it. But let it pass.
Consider, however, its implication. If the rational power of the human mind is so feeble that for countless millennia it could believe in God, when this belief is a delusion for which allegedly there is no evidence at all, how can we now accept that this same mind has miraculously developed a new capability to get to the truth and to understand evolutionary theory? If the mind is shaped by evolutionary theory to irrational ends throughout history it might just as well be shaped to irrational ends when it embraces evolutionary theory. This is not what I believe but it is an inescapable implication of the Dawkins style of atheism.
If our minds and personalities and consciousness are no more than physical atoms and electric impulses, what basis do we have for believing that the mind can reliably apprehend reality at all?
The answer is that there is no basis for such belief within this atheist framework. You have to take it on faith. It is one of the many leaps of faith required in atheism.
The other frequent ground for a sneering assault on religious belief arises out of the science of the big bang itself.
That we now know so much more about the history of our planet, of our solar system, of our galaxy, leads some to the mistaken conclusion that God is superseded as an explanation.
I think rather that what all this knowledge really indicates is the majesty and generosity of God. That the physical universe we know is apparently 14 billion years old tells us nothing about who created it or why.
Dawkins and Hitchens and the others spend hundreds of pages claiming that God is impossible. Then when they admit that they cannot disprove God, they assert, with absolute dogmatic certainty, that God wouldn’t behave in a manner they deem inefficient or unsatisfactory or worse, profligate.
How would they know how God would behave?
It strikes me as absolutely characteristic of God that he would spend 14 billion years preparing a gift for human beings.
There are countless clues of God throughout our world and within humanity itself. There is the strange phenomenon of joy, the even stranger delight of humour, the inescapable intimation of meaning in beauty and music. There is the mystery of love, along with the equal mystery of our consciousness and our self-awareness. It’s a lot of clues to ignore.
There is one clue I like more than any other — the clue of the inner voice. Is there a single person alive who has not said, in some difficult moment: let it be this! don’t let it be that!
Who are we talking to at those moments?
Most of our life is spent with our inner voice, thinking things over, weighing things up, rehearsing our triumphs, dreading our failures, contemplating the people in our lives, anticipating the future, interpreting the past.
Isn’t there a sense in all this, that we are involved in a conversation?
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