Head to Head
One of the most
divisive issues facing Christianity since the 17th century has been that
of whether or not intelligent human beings can believe in a personal
God, a deity who created the vast universe, including time itself, and
yet who cares intimately for each one of us. How, it is asked, can a
caring, personal God to whom we can relate as a best friend, also put in
place a creation in which whole star systems can be destroyed by natural
once more find themselves at odds with each other on the problem.
Theism holds there is but one God who created the universe and
continues to be involved in the ongoing creation and evolution of the
universe. In the case of Christianity, God reveals himself through the
life of Jesus Christ and through the prophets. Moreover, God is a
personal deity who is concerned about every individual and is inclined
to hear their petitions.
Thus, as a baseline the theist
must believe in a supernatural or non-material reality.
This is the first hurdle. It is at this entry point that atheists
bridle. Recently there has been a plethora of books by atheist authors
who condescendingly characterize theists as unintelligent, non-rational
people. They point out that there is no physical evidence of a
non-material reality. God is a mere superstition and such superstition
leads to bad things in society.
As there is no way to physically
prove the existence of God, there is, of course, no way to disprove
there is a God. I know one cannot prove a negative with purely rational
Thus, to be a theist requires a
choice to believe or better yet, to have faith. It is a choice of a
world view that I find uplifting and supportive. So, I say why not adopt
it? If adopting a theistic world view is congenial, I see many positive
reasons to continue it. Mick, I anticipate hearing considerable
disagreement with this position.
I respect your position as one way of framing a response to the
absorbing issue of the ultimate in our lives - though your approach
tends to put the matter into a
'Useless to Discuss' drawer.
begin to narrow any gap between us by considering theism's antithesis.
understand it, an atheist has no need for the divine in his or her life.
Sometimes this shows in active denial of the possibility of God. Some
atheists say that any statement about God is essentially unintelligible;
others that the existence of evil and suffering leads them to reject
God; yet others that we project human nature onto that which is by
definition unknowable. There is a wide range of similar views, the most
prevalent of which agrees that there might be a God but that, on balance
of evidence, the existence of a deity is unlikely.
however, I observe atheism as lack of interest - or if not obvious
unconcern with God, then a partitioning of life into the secular and the
sacred. A life so split I reckon is essentially atheist.
atheists have produced extremely good arguments. Can we react other than
by urging people to have faith?
I am not sure I agree that atheists have produced extremely good
arguments. First I would need to have you cite the specific arguments so
I can respond appropriately. But let that go for now. I fully intend to
discuss theism further and not put it in some obscure
'drawer', as you
say. I am aware of no credible judge who has made the case that either
atheism or theism has the deck stacked for the winning argument.
In his classic treatise, The
Varieties of Religious Experience, the eminent American philosopher
and psychologist, William James, quotes the American psychologist,
George A. Cole, who states,
ultimate test of religious values is nothing psychological, nothing
definable in terms of how it
happens, but something ethical, definable only in terms of what is
[emphases in the original].
This account makes sense in the
context of our debate. In other words, in the case of religion (belief
in God) it is what it does for the good of humankind that counts - and
not whether it was adopted because of reasons held to be suspect by
If we forget our ontological
arguments and say that neither theism nor atheism can be proven and are
only artifices of the human psyche, it seems to me an appropriate test
of either's validity would be in what they produce for civil society.
In this regard I refer you to an
article entitled Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious
Practice on Social Stability, by P F Fagen. The article summarizes a
number of sociological studies showing the positive affects of religious
practice on areas such as illegitimacy, welfare dependency, crime and
delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and depression and even
physical health. The author states,
"Social scientists are discovering
the continuing power of religion to protect the family from the forces
that would tear it down."
The article goes on to discuss
the differences between
"Extrinsic" religious behavior.
William James, previously cited, was the first to make the distinction
between these forms of religious practice.
Intrinsic practice is God-oriented and based on beliefs which transcend
the persons own existence. Research shows this form of religious
practice to be beneficial. Extrinsic practice is self-oriented and
characterized by outward observance, not internalized as a guide to
behavior or attitudes. The evidence suggests this form of religious
practice is actually more harmful than no religion.
I am aware of no studies that
support the idea that atheism is in any way conducive to creating a
better civil society. I would further suggest that had Jesus Christ
not been considered divine by the early church fathers, Christianity
would not have endured these two thousand years.
You�re correct: neither theists nor atheists can come up with convincing
final answers. And I have considerable sympathy with your argument that
theism (religion) makes for better individual lives and a more effective
society. Some humanists in Europe are beginning to see that and wonder
why their solutions to social problems are not as effective as they had
Be that as
it may, two difficult problems present themselves.
hard to convince humanists using your argument because for every good
outcome presented, they can find a bad one. Potential examples of the
latter are many - from religious inquisition and genocide, to the
stunting of personal growth and autonomy by religious thought control.
theism is identified with a way of talking about God which many today
find difficult, to say the least. I don't think of myself as a theist
because the word is identified with a type of God-talk which doesn't fit
the way I construe the world.
I suggest we
search for new ways of talking about God. We might start (as Muslims do)
by refusing to describe God - for example, not saying that
"God is a
person". For when we use that phrase, we really mean that God is like
a person. I grant you, simile in all its variety has been useful. But
let's ditch it as a device and just think of a mysterious
Paul Tillich's God as the
"Ground of our being" could be put aside.
(It's actually a simile: God is like the solid ground we walk on.")
this would help cure is what seems to be an inevitable human tendency to
reify similes and, having done that, insist that everybody subscribe to
the �truth� they purport to enshrine. A moratorium on simile would
perhaps clear the decks for new ways of construing God.
Some years ago, I created an aphorism: Those who keep score are playing
games. It is apropos to this discussion. Does a secular humanist want to
compare the number of deaths caused by the Inquisition (putatively the
Church) to those incurred by the atheist Nazis or Stalin�s communist
As the American psychologist,
Steven Pinker said in 2007 before a conference entitled Beyond
belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival that ...
Something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler
� Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been
getting kinder and gentler.
hard for me to comprehend such an assessment of recent history in the
face of the realities I alluded to. One could go on playing this game of
counting bodies but I will stop in the hopes I have made my point. It
was not the Catholic Church that created Zyklon B.
Undoubtedly, some individuals have been stunted in their development by
religious control. But to characterize the broad influence of the
Christian Church as anti-human development is an extreme view not in
keeping with the overwhelming good it has done for civil society. I
suspect those making the charge are referring to fundamentalist sects,
not only Christian but of other religions as well. To this form of
oppression I will admit.
seems to me that doing away with
would do away with language itself. I consider language as a vast
collection of similes. I can see pre-linguistic humans crawling out of
their caves and attempting to communicate with sounds. They probably
associated certain sounds with objects or actions in their environment
and thereby created similes. With increasing complexity and
sophistication similes multiplied to create rich and varied languages.
If the concept of God, for whatever reason it was conjured, is real to
an individual it seems logical for that concept to find a simile with
something already extant in the lexicon of experience.
one says (referring to God),
"just think of a
mysterious other," a simile is created no matter how vague or
abstract that mysterious
other may be. Mysterious other
neither the atheist nor theistic world views can be proven and some
people reject the idea of faith, what can be said in support of either
camp? Deciding for either of the two views is a decision with which
every human being is or at some time will be confronted. It cannot be
avoided unless agnosticism is considered a middle ground default.
then consider what faith in God does for the individual and for the
society in which he or she lives. In my book, by these criteria, faith
in God wins the day.
Let's assume that I fall into the category you think of as middle-ground
agnosticism (maybe I do and maybe I don't). As such the best I can do is
to use (to take your point) minimalist similes for God like
mysterious other - rather than
suchlike. So let's give you your argument and take up just your final
I suppose that you are now bound to urge me to get faith and join you in
the ranks of theists. If I'm correct in this supposition, what next?
What do I do, or how must I change, to get this
"faith"? What will be
the essential difference between me now and me with
"faith"? After all,
faith in God wins the day, does it not?
It is the furthest thing from my mind to
proselytize you, Mick. I hold that every individual has the sovereignty
and prerogative to believe in God or not.
Coercion of faith is futile and indeed, harmful particularly with
such an informed and rational person as you.
good Lutheran, I adhere to what Luther wrote in his Small Catechism:
I believe that I cannot come to my Lord Jesus Christ by my
own reason or strength [emphasis added]. But the Holy Spirit called
me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept
me in the true faith.
It is God who seeks me out, I cannot find Him by my own powers. He is
the Hound of Heaven who tries to overtake me. The answer is in the wind,
the wind of the Holy Spirit if we will stop to feel it on our cheek.