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be withdrawn as well as presented, but the giving or the losing of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 themselves.
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 conscious creatures.
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 thinking.
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
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 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 universe.
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 consequences.
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
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
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