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
At 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’.
(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 — 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 ?
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 ?
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.)
~ · ~