Religion on the Level: #1
What is the Use of God?
In 1970 we bought a cottage in Perthshire, above a river, a few yards
from a farm. I learnt later that the farmer's wife had complained to her
neighbours that a "God botherer" had moved into the empty cottage down the road.
Annoyed at the time, I came to cherish the description as containing a lot of
truth. God does bother me or, to be more accurate, I am bothered about God.
There are people of whom that cannot be said. They either have a settled belief
in God or a settled unbelief. In either case the question of God does not bother
them; they have resolved it, one way or another.
The use of the verb "resolved" suggests the result of a process of applied
consideration, the end of an exploration or period of research into the matter
that yields acceptable conclusions, either for or against the question, "Is
there a God?"
I suspect, however, that it is never really like that. Believers often
describe faith as a gift, something given, something people find themselves
having; maybe settled unbelief is also a gift, something people find themselves
holding to without too much anguish or thought about the matter.
It is true, of course, that some people come to faith in a moment of crisis,
a turning point; just as some people lose it in the same way; but even this does
not alter the gift of relationship. Gifts can be withdrawn as well as presented,
but the giving or the losing of the gift still suggests something that happens
to people rather than something they have carefully worked out for
There are people who find themselves with convictions on this question of
God, for or against, and when challenged they can offer perfectly respectable
justifications for the convictions, but there is still an underlying sense that
belief or unbelief is something that happened to them.
Even agnostics have a certain settled quality about them. They have settled
for knowing that they do not know whether there is a God; they say that, since
it is impossible to settle the question one way or another, they have
contentedly settled for not knowing. But even agnostics have the certainty of
knowing that there is no way of knowing whether there is a God, so they are more
like settled believers or settled unbelievers than God botherers.
God botherers experience little of this consoling confidence of conviction,
because both the possibility and impossibility of God nibble at their souls -
the phrase comes from Emily Dickinson's poem, This World is not Conclusion
which contains the lines
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul
God botherers cannot still the Tooth that nibbles at the soul. People who
suffer from this condition do not necessarily want to be polemical or negative
in their dealings with the other approaches. However, the fact that they tend to
place a heavy premium on personal honesty leads them to identify the many ways
in which God claims are misused.
The voice that people use in this discussion is very important, so I want to
find a tone that does not sound dismissive of the settled approaches I have
touched on. Good people believe that it is impossible to know whether God
exists. Some people seem unable to settle for any of these attitudes, so let me
cut directly to the question that nibbles at their souls.
We know that our planet is a tiny speck in a corner of a galaxy of billions
of stars in a universe of billions of galaxies. Given the size of the universe,
it is possible that the conditions that gave rise to life on our planet have
been replicated elsewhere, but it is also possible that in all that unimaginable
vastness, the mere thought of which so terrified Pascal, we are the only
It is possible that only in our planet, among a perfect infinity of
possibilities, life has evolved to consciousness; so that only here, on this
tiny dot, has the universe become conscious of itself and we have started
The thing which bends the mind is the question, Was there ever just nothing,
and from that nothing did all this just spontaneously come forth? It is the
existence of the universe, the being of Being, and our ability to think about
it, that is the tooth that nibbles at the soul.
In some people the questions have induced such anxiety, and such a need for
settled answers to still the vertigo in the mind, that we confront the strange
spectacle of thinking creatures in a universe that is intrinsically mysterious
(from which they can deduce no obviously incontrovertible answers to the
question of its meaning) roasting each other alive over the status of their
conjectures on the matter.
The claim to absolute knowledge, particularly in this area, has to be
highly suspicious. All absolute claims to final knowledge of the meaning of
things have to be cognitively dubious, though we would probably want to admit
that they may serve a useful purpose as survival mechanisms in a lonely
Today we recognise the importance of giving people the freedom to hold
absolute opinions, as long as they do not derive from them the right to torture
and persecute others into holding them as well. Ironically this tolerance
towards absolute systems that are themselves intrinsically intolerant is a gift
of the post-absolute or post-religious era.
Absolute systems, by definition, do not allow themselves the possibility of
negotiating compromises with other absolute systems. Historically, tolerance was
forced on the contending absolutes by external force, as much as by internal
exhaustion. But it is worth remembering in our tolerant and pluralist era that
many of the conjectures about the meaning of the universe that have been given
in the past have claimed absolute status for themselves, and asserted their
right to impose themselves on others.
The paradox of our era is that we extend toleration to systems of belief that
are themselves intrinsically intolerant and abhorrent to modern consciousness.
Let me remind you of an example from recent history.
One of the more diverting religious news stories of 1998 was about the Sunday
school teachers in an evangelical Church in the Midlands of the UK who told
their students that Princess Diana was in Hell. One child, upset by the
information, reported it to his mother, who told the press. The teachers were
interviewed on a radio programme and argued (logically from their point of view)
that the Bible teaches that unrepentant sinners go to hell. Since Diana had died
suddenly, and almost certainly unprepared and unrepentant, it followed that she
must be in Hell.
I was not sure whether to feel grudging admiration for their almost heroic
disregard for public opinion or horror at the primitivism of their belief
system. However, it is worth remembering that the belief system they held would
have been very familiar to most Christians throughout history.
It was indeed taught that dying in unrepented sin guaranteed eternal
punishment, and this grisly doctrine is an extension to one of the answers to
the question about the meaning of the universe that humans have constructed. The
system taught that this life was only a prelude to a more important life beyond,
and the way we lived, including the way we thought, would have eternal
From the point of view of our topic tonight, it mattered eternally how you
answered the question about life's meaning. Get it wrong, and you could find
yourself in an eternity of torment. It was this conviction about the fundamental
and eternal consequences of holding the right answer to the question posed by
life that led to the great missionary expansion of Christianity.
If you were persuaded that knowing the right answer to the question life asks
determined your eternal status, for weal or for woe, it would obviously have a
profound effect on your attitude to other people, including people you would
probably never meet, people in other lands for instance. If you were a kindly
person, you would want to share the saving secret with them, because it would
rescue them from a horrible fate beyond death.
You night even persuade yourself that the issues were so momentous for the
souls concerned that even torturing them to death in order to get them to accept
the saving formula would be justified, for what does a few hours of torment in
this life compare to an eternity of torment in the life to come? True believers
in an absolute system would see torture unto death as a therapeutic
intervention, like surgery, that was designed to save not destroy the soul.
The important thing to note about religions that make these absolute claims
is that, logically, they are mutually exclusive. Even within the Christian
religion, for instance, there is claim and counter claim about the absolute
status of different types of belief.