On the existence of God

Does He exist ?  Do gods generally exist ?

This article is contributed by Pericles, not by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London ;  in particular it is not a reflexion of the Mayor’s view of the subject.  Let us therefore pray, having issued this disclaimer, that we not see headlines such as ‘Mayor confirms/denies existence of God’.  (Fret not, best beloved :  I might come up with the winner of the 13.45 to-morrow at Catterick but do not seriously expect to determine on these pages the question of the existence of God.)

The search for truth

Tony BlairChristopher HitchensAt the end of November, in Toronto, as part of the series of Munk Debates organized by the Aurea Foundation, former British Prime Minister and recent convert to Roman Catholicism Tony Blair and journalist and self-described anti-theist Christopher Hitchens wrestled with the motion ‘Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world’.

(Photo :  Mark Blinch/Reuters)

(If you’d like to hear the whole debate, follow the link at the foot of this article.) 

Their subject is really only tangential to ours but the debate (which included a session of questions from the Toronto audience) raises a relevant point :  the distinction between God (or gods) and religion.

I cannot help wondering whether Mr. Blair was slightly off-topic on occasions.  He pointed out that the religious (‘people of faith’ in his ghastly modern diction) do much good work in the World ;  he’s right ... but that was not the subject in debate.  So, to that extent, he was playing the rôle of the reluctant examination candidate, answering not the question set but the one he wished had been set, the one for which he had an at least presentable answer.  Those same people — the ones Mr. Blair thinks are good by virtue of their religion — would, I suggest, be just as good in its absence ;  they do good because that’s the kind of people they are.

Incidentally :  Paul Harris, reporting for The Guardian, seemed to think that Mr. Hitchens had won the debate, having started with the majority (57% to 22%, with 21% undecided) and apparently finished still with the majority but with the previously undecided vote split more or less down the middle :  68% to 32%.  Well ... perhaps (certainly he seemed to have the sympathy of the studio audience) but — ignoring the unknown number that switched sides, usually few in such fora — he convinced only about half his target audience, the erstwhile undecided.

In tackling our subject we shall have ample opportunity to come up with ‘presentable answers’ just like those of our supposed examination candidate.  It is perhaps best then that I start by capitulating, acknowledging our inability — certainly my inability — actually to answer the question.

As we approach the celebration of what has become one of Christianity’s most significant festivals — for many to-day the only one acknowledged — adoration of the Magi it is perhaps appropriate to ponder not (as Mr. Blair and Mr. Hitchens) whether religion be a force for good but whether there be any supernal being at all.

Were we to conduct such a quest in the realm of the natural sciences, we should first turn our attention to the existence of what we sought ;  then to its nature (although it is true to say that we often discover things by observing their effects rather than the things themselves).

It might be worth mentioning here that, in the field of the natural sciences, nothing is ever proven.  Any ‘proof’ is really only the latest hypothesis (‘a placing beneath’ is the literal meaning :  a statement of what underlies the observed phenomenon) ;  it remains the explanation of the phenomenon till — and only until — a better explanation can be found.  Even what we are pleased to call the ‘laws of physics’ are merely hypotheses we have given up trying to disprove.

In our quest to determine the existence of God, however, we likely need first to establish the nature of God ;  to decide just what we’re looking for.  Whereas those involved in the Munk debate were trying to convince their audience that religion was a force for either good or bad, we are about determining the existence of God ;  trying, in other words, to find the reason for religion itself.  Patently, if we were to find God non-existent, we could not justify religion.  (Note that, were we to determine somehow that he does exist, we should still not have established a justification of religion — an artifice of man.)

The Nature of God

I shall confine myself to discussion of the ‘Christian God’, largely because this is the one with whom I was raised and of which I have — at least a little — understanding ;  in the context, however, my reasoning, such as it is, applies to them all.

What then is the nature of God ?  The book of Genesis tells us that God made man in his own image.  On what authority are we told this ?  The authors, writing in the sixth century b.c., adduce no evidence (other than the somewhat incredible story of Moses on Mount Sinai) ;  did not the authors of the Pentateuch in fact create God in man’s image, a prerequisite — for their purposes — to the creation of man in His ?

man-in-his-image

Do the good and the evil in the World tell us something of the nature of God ?  When I was a child, God was described to children as uniquely good ;  I’m sure none of my elders — family members, clergy or teachers — would have dreamt of saying anything like, “Well, of course, there’s an evil side to God too.”  I have little doubt that the same story is told to-day.

So it was and, to the young minds of to-day, must still be rather confusing to learn that God is also omnipotent ;  why then, omnipotent, does He not intervene to prevent the evil inimical to His design ?

Our imaginary child might concede the occasional evil act — a murder or a robbery, perhaps — and that sometimes there’d be suffering resulting from a natural disaster.  What, however, about things like the rule of Stalin ... or Hitler or Pol Pot ?  What about the genocide in Rwanda or in Bosnia-Herzegovina ?  Where, the child might reasonably ask, was the ever loving God, when these extensive and prolonged evils — of which He can hardly have been unaware — were being perpetrated and His creation needed him ?

God is
good
God is
omnipotent
Evil
abounds

As long as we persist in seeking evidence of God’s existence in his works we shall be perplexed by this contradiction.

The eternal search

What, then, are we seeing here ?  Is it that there is no god — no supernal being to intervene for good and against evil — or is it that God exists but chooses not to intervene ?  Perhaps He is not omnipotent, His intervention limited by yet another force beyond our ken.

What can ‘science’ contribute to this search ?  Einstein described science without religion as lame, religion without science as blind.  In his recently published book Hawking points out that the laws of physics would have given rise to the formation of the Universe ;  that it was ‘not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going’.  But science cannot offer any physical evidence ;  cannot furnish the proof either of God’s existence or of his absence.

Note that Professor Hawking did not say that God does not exist ;  only that his intervention was unnecessary.  Might God have so cast the laws of physics that He Himself became unnecessary to their continued operation ?

If I decide (for myself) that the God of man exists, then, absent any other evidence of his existence, that conclusion rests on the following premise :  God is the belief by man in God.  Suppose the Earth were to be swallowed up to-morrow by the Sun (an event, incidentally, not expected for several billions of years, so don’t call your insurance company just yet).  Man would be wiped out and with him his belief in the God of man ;  on the assumption I have just made — that God is the belief by man in God — what evidence would be left of His existence ?

What do the followers of religion know — I mean really know — of this matter so fundamental to their practice ?  Certainly they have faith but faith is belief that underlies itself, not something resting upon proof.  They might be right :  the lack of a probable foundation of their belief does not prove them wrong.

At the outset I wrote of my inability to answer the question I had posed ;  I conclude still unable to do so.  I am — as in fact are we all — agnostic :  I simply don’t know.

Contributed by Pericles

ΠΞ (his paw-print)

~ · ~

The author, it should be pointed out, does not expect admission to the Kingdom of Heaven ... but very much looks forward to meeting Andy Hamilton !

(The Munk debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens is, for the time being, available at the b.b.c..  About an hour’s duration.)

~ · ~

20 thoughts on “On the existence of God”

  1. I plucked a crumb of mince pie from my sweater, and reached for my beaker of mulled wine. I surveyed the Christmas tree, a very inadequate specimen, adorned only with dangling Jesus decorations.

    “Couldn’t you have used baubles and tinsel like everyone else?” I asked.

    Joshua tried, but failed, to suppress a smug expression.

    “You do know why we celebrate Christmas, don’t you?”

    There was a moment of contemplation from all the guests. Sayyid broke the silence.

    “He wasn’t the son of God you know.”

    Joshua started nodding, slowly but emphatically.

    “Oh yes he was.”

    Sayyid started shaking his head, in synchrony with Joshua’s nodding, neither wishing to succumb first. I breathed in the wine’s warming aromas, before rolling the spicy liquid around my mouth. Meanwhile, Arthur, an Atheist, moved a muscle.

    “It’s all bollocks!”

    I spat out my wine, uniting the group in laughter

  2. I suspect that if God was proven not to exist, then all religions would benefit wonderfully, and the numbers of their adherents would multiply exponentially.
    God, I think, is a minor issue in religion. It’s the faith bit that sells.

  3. Atheists often deny the existence of God on the basis that many wars have been fought over religion therefore we should abolish religion and with it, faith in God. They would never argue the point that many wars have been fought over land therefore land does not exist and we should not believe it does. People also assume that the purpose of life is to have a wonderful time all the time and therefore support their God-less belief on the basis that evil and suffering in the world illustrate the abscence of God.

  4. Peter Williams: ‘the Boris team of ace writers…you are all saints’.
    Hmm. You are aware of the existence of Edna?

  5. Have you seen the man who sued god?

    Billy connoly sues the churches as his boat is struck by lightning and the insurance companies say it is an act of god. So to win the case the church must proove that god does not exist or be innundated with countless claims from people that have suffered acts of god.

    ………………………………………………..

    I am athiest myself (well perhaps agnostic, if a hand swooped down from the sky and told me i was going to win the lottery i would probably believe it) Many wars are fought over religion yes however, i believe that if there was truly a god above us (or below) then there would be no poverty, fammine, illness or pain and certainly….

    NO LABOUR PARTY!

  6. Janina, I am sure that an omnipotent, all-knowing God could deal with poverty, famine, illness and pain. I have less confidence in such a supreme being having the powers to understand the mysterious ways and workings of socialists.

  7. You know, it’s nice that readers take the trouble to leave comments but some of them carry the corollary of the mistake Mr. Blair made during the Munk debate.  Whereas, in their particular forum they were trying to decide whether religion were A Good Thing, he wanted — effectively — to discuss the existence of God.

    We, on the other paw, should like to find a way of proving or disproving His existence ;  the comments I have in mind are addressed to the benefit we derive or harm we suffer from religion.

    I doubt any-one sane would deny the existence of religion ;  or that humans do both good and evil in its name.  Nor, I think, would he deny that most belief in God is founded on faith (sc. not dependent upon physical proof.)

    (There’s something of the Squire Haggard about Ron’s contribution :  nostalgic — to all of us that used to love The Morning Post in Michael Wharton’s day.  I do like Janina’s hypothesis :  as there is a Labour Party, there can be no God !)

    ΠΞ

  8. Whether God ( or gods ) exists or existed or not is not important. Who knows if God ( or gods ) exists or existed?

    When people are in danger, difficulty or lonely, they tend to pray or talk to God ( or think of God ) and ask him for his support and blessing. It’s best to use God ( or gods ) as your guidance to keep us in the right path away from the wrong path spiritually.

    It’s extreme to use the name of God ( or gods ) to force one’s unresonable laws onto fellow human beings or to exercise one’s un-authorized violence or unreasonable authority towards fellow human beings, i.e human rights abusing in some Arab countries, those human bomb fanatics, the Irish anti-abortion laws etc.

  9. Oh hang on. Please, God, let me point out a few things right here and I promise I will never miss Mass again, thanks.

    CHRISTMAS PANTO 1:
    Julian Assange claims he is a fighter for freedom of information, freedom of speech, freedom of expression yet he begged the judge not to reveal his bail address (!).

    In an open letter to his mother Christine read out in court, Assange wrote: ‘ … now we know that Amazon, eBay, Master card, Visa card, Debenhams card etc. are USA’s instruments. Please do what you can to protect my works and my colleagues…’

    You can tell Assange talks like a man who has been brainwashed by a cult, some religion or even by his own invented cyber cult.

    Assange is angry at leaking of his sex case: 18.12.2010 The Guardian newspaper published previously unseen police documents which accused Assange in graphic detail of sexually assaulting two Swedish women. One witness said: ‘Not only had it been the world’s worst screw, it had also been violent.’

    WikiLeaks’s supporters said any newspapers that had printed WikiLeaks cables ought not to report about his sex rape case at all (!)

    A spokesman for the Guardian said: ‘assange is not a confidential source. The argument that the newspapers involed with the WikiLeaks cables should not reprt critism of him is one all journalists would find rediculous.’

    Even Daily Mirror’s Mark Austin wrote:
    ‘MARTY TO WRONG CAUSE – One of the more amusing moments of the week came when WikiLeaks champinion of openess and truth, Julian Assange, argued that his bail address should remain secret.

    But what is less amusing is the way his campaign for more goverment accountability has become blurred with the serious sex charges against him.

    Yes, his focus on secrecy in government is to be applauded, but why do his supporters believe that should mean rape allegations should automatically be dismissed as false?

    We should perhaps be wary of whom we make martys.’
    ————————————————————
    CHRISTMAS PANTO 2:
    Liz Hurley has ditched Shane Warne after he was exposed by the News of The World newspaper yesterday for sending sex texts to an OLD married blond who runs her leather clothes shop opposite his office in Melbourne, Australia, AT THE SAME TIME as while he was wooing Liz with his public flirtatious Tweets.
    http://www.metro.co.uk/showbiz/850953-liz-hurley-ditches-cheating-shane-warne-over-sex-texts-claim
    ——————–

    The above two examples are people with low morals. Assange is a hypocrite. Warne is sex cheat who loves nobody but himself. Even beautiful Liz is only a notch on his bed headrest. Poor Liz now might want to talk to God for his guidance. She’s only a victim. Bless her.

  10. Atheists often deny the existence of God on the basis that many wars have been fought over religion therefore we should abolish religion and with it, faith in God. They would never argue the point that many wars have been fought over land therefore land does not exist and we should not believe it does. People also assume that the purpose of life is to have a wonderful time all the time and therefore support their God-less belief on the basis that evil and suffering in the world illustrate the abscence of God.

  11. Your point about proof and the laws of physics isn’t true.

    to determine the existence of God, however, we likely need first to establish the nature of God” you can’t detirmine the nature of something you cannot understand, nor touch, see, smell etc. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist, and the existence of God isn’t necesarily the reason for religion.

    we are about determining the existence of God ; trying, in other words, to find the reason for religion itself. Patently, if we were to find God non-existent, we could not justify religion. (Note that, were we to determine somehow that he does exist, we should still not have established a justification of religion — an artifice of man.)” Not true. But I’m interested to know how you ‘find God non-existent’, given that you’ve correctly declared from the outset that you can’t.

    As for your section ‘The Nature of God’ you’ll find The Shack by William Young accesible and under discussion.

    What do followers of religion know, I mean really know? I know what I can, as we all do. Oh, and I’m a scientist. In addition to Hawking I think you should consider Darwin and Wallace.

    God is the belief by man in God” whether you decide God exists or not doesn’t cause Him to be or not to be. Using that logic you seem to write from the perspective that if you didn’t believe in God then he wouldn’t exist. That also is not true. We don’t create God.

    Also, Christopher Hitchens does not say that God does not exist, last time I looked (although I haven’t listened to this debate). He says he doesn’t know.

  12. As a 23 year old it blows me away that academics of such high calibre continue to debate (poly)theism. I can only imagine the contempt that their contemporaries will feel in years to come.

    I once heard a man compare the label of atheism to that of being a ‘non-stamp collector’. A succinct summation if ever you needed one.

    Of course Boris is right, by default we are all Agnostic.

  13. people should not be defined by which Middle Eastern fairy story they subscribe to. its the “biblical or Muslim “God” that seems to be the subject of this debate.

    What about Odin, Loki and Bridget and Zeus? There is at least as much evidence for their existence no?

    polytheists of the world Unite!

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