Dear Mr O’Shea,
Your website was recommended to me by someone who likes to prowl around in such places. But don’t take it that I'm one of your supporters. I put all religious beliefs behind me many years ago. That doesn’t stop me from taking an interest in the religious scene. You don’t have to be a player to be interested in sport. I take it you’re a religious guy, since that's what your website is about. I now ask you the question I keep asking such people: how can you still believe in God after all the evidence of science and, shall l say, the evidence of common sense? I don’t know if you are familiar with the work of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. How can religious belief survive such onslaughts? Religious people are comfortable with soft arguments, but what do you do when you are faced with tough arguments and searching questions? I don’t think you will want to try to answer this question or to publish it but I think it’s good for you to hear it anyway. Carry on with whatever it is you do. DM
Thank you for your letter and for making things easy for me by having no expectation of a reply. I'm glad you raised this fundamental question. I'm not at all sure I can give you an answer you will find interesting or enlightening to any degree. But even if one or two related matters are clarified, that will have been useful.
Thanks, as I say, for asking a hard question. I don’t think there’s a great difference between an easy and a hard one: most questions are hard if you pursue them far enough. Ours isn’t the first age to ask hard questions of religion, nor is it even characterised by hard questioning; it is characterised much more by a lack of interest and a dismissive attitude. You have to be very precise and very passionate to ask a real question. Just think of Nietzsche in the 19th century: it is quite impossible to remain unmoved or unchallenged by him. He was my favourite antagonist when I was a student, and later when I taught philosophy. I came to prefer other philosophers, but I never lost the excitement of reading him. He was the Mike Tyson of philosophy. I have to tell you that religious people are not always cowering in fear of argument. Not at all - because they have as much to learn from such arguments as the one making them; perhaps more, if they are more passionately interested.
It is true that very many believers think of God as an explanation of the world and the problems in human life. But this is not sensible, because God is an even greater mystery than the world. Belief is not an easy option or a readymade answer to everything. The problem of suffering, for example, is as great a problem for believers as it is for atheists. Jürgen Moltmann wrote: “'If there is a God, why all this suffering?’ is the fundamental question of every theologian too, from Job down to Christ dying on the cross with the cry: 'My God, why have you forsaken me?'”
Arguments about God, when they clarify anything, usually do so negatively. I learn more every day about the God I don’t believe in. I don’t know of any argument that proves the existence of God. I would never rest the weight of my own faithon a philosophical argument. I can hear you say that this is just moving the goalposts. I don’t think it is; I never relied on such arguments, even when their validity was not being challenged. I think religion is still relying on philosophical modes of thought and neglecting its real subject, which is religious experience. You could read and argue all day about the taste of a lemon, but you would never come to know it by that means. You could be told it is not like the taste of an orange or an almond – and that is true – but no argument will ever deliver the taste of lemon to you.
Everything in religion is meant to bring you to religious experience. It is not about proving anything to you. God is not an object whose existence can be proved. More simply, God is not an object – not even when you write it with a capital O, or with the word ‘supernatural’ accompanying it. Religious experience doesn’t ‘grasp’ an ‘object’ in the way that philosophical reasoning tries to do. Most of the attacks on religion treat it as if it were a philosophy, or a system of morality or of social organisation. These are secondary aspects, not the heart of the matter. Many of the attackers are working from their own childhood or teenage understanding of religion, laying siege to positions that have been abandoned by religious people. I find many of the attacks on religion tedious, because they are saying things I already mostly agree with, but missing the real point.
Lest you think that this is just evasive action let me quote a couple of things written by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. If these were quoted without reference to Aquinas, many people would believe they were written by an agnostic or even an atheist. They are just a few of many such passages in his writings. (I quote them in translation; excuse the exclusive pronouns.)
- Neither Christian nor pagan knows the nature of God as he is in himself.
- This is the final human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.
- The truths of faith, which can only be known completely by those who see the essence of God, can be known by human reason only in similitudes, which are not sufficiently clear to give comprehensive knowledge of that truth as if by a proof - or as if understood in itself. Nevertheless, it is useful for the human mind to exercise itself in such enquiries, inadequate as they are, provided there is no presumptuous claim to complete understanding and proof.
- Our intellect speaks of divine things, not according to their own mode of existence - for it cannot know them so - but according to the mode of existence found in created things…. Whatever is comprehended by a finite being is itself finite.
- God is ultimately known as unknown, because the mind knows God most perfectly when it knows that his essence is above all that can be known in this life of wayfaring.
To anyone familiar with Christian literature these passages are in no way exceptional. Many others Christians through the centuries have written in the same vein. I can give you the references if you would like to check them. These passages illustrate, at the very least, that religion is a much harder target to hit directly than is often thought. Besides, it is impossible to be a neutral outsider to this question, because atheism (unlike agnosticism) is itself a theological position. Heinrich Böll once said, “I don't like these atheists. They are always talking about God.” Atheists have to attempt to say what they understand by ‘God’ when they deny God’s existence. The very attempt to do so makes them theologians and lands them in the company of Aquinas as quoted above.
You wrote: “How can you still believe in God after all the evidence of science and, shall l say, the evidence of common sense?” Scientists today are in fact much less dogmatic than they were, for example, in the 19th century. The few who go beyond scientific method and attempt to pull down religion deserve the same amount of attention as religious people who dogmatise about science. As for common sense: people say it is not very common. But I think the problem with arguing from it is that it is far too common: at different times it will support any position or its opposite. There’s really no substitute for tasting the lemon oneself.
Even though arguments bring us nowhere, “It is useful, [as Aquinas said above] for the human mind to exercise itself in such enquiries.” They purify religious belief, illustrating what it is not, cornering it, forcing it to discover its own identity. This purification is on-going because religious experience takes place in the human mess. The Word was not made “clear and distinct idea,” but flesh.
I don’t know, DM, if you have read this far. If you have, I wish you the best, and I assure you that your letter was welcome; and I would welcome more from you.