Sunday, February 12, 2012

Past imperfect 8 - the God question.

 My first book of philosophy. 

The first book of popular philosophy I read was Bertrand Russell's, Why I am not a Christian. It is still in print and remains one of the best summaries of why we should reject religious dogma. Russell's contemporary equivalents - Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling - are all writing in his shadow.

Not that they should be ignored. Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is an exemplar of applied logic and ought, in my view, to be a standard text of any critical reasoning syllabus. Christopher Hitchen's God Is Not Great would be a strong contender for additional reading; his litany of the inhumane consequences of religion is as breathtaking as it is horrifying. 

It, therefore, won't surprise you to learn I'm an atheist and have been since I read Russell's essay at the age of eighteen.  I've never flirted with agnosticism because I'm not a fence-sitter, and in any case, it's largely atheism in disguise. For all my adult life I've held to this view and not been so much as mildly persuaded there's any evidence to the contrary.  

Yet for all this, I've always been fascinated by some of the great themes of religion: what constitutes the good life, what gives it meaning, and how should we treat others? Much of the philosophy I studied was concerned with ethics and justice -  not a far cry from the central concerns of many creeds. I share with many religions a reverence to the natural world and can feel awed at the enormity, the inexplicably of it all. In a way, I'd 'like' to be religious; to discover answers to these ultimate questions; to have a  sense of purpose and a belief system that is simpler and more reassuring than the vagaries of humanism.

The problem is I can't bring myself to overlook what I see as religion's conflict with everyday reason. The literal beliefs of all the great monotheistic religions strike me as ludicrous and the modern interpretive versions as equally unconvincing and at times rather desperate attempts to maintain the faith. On the subject of which, I can't accept that 'faith' is in any way compatible with, or an acceptable alternative to, the logic we expect and exercise in almost every other aspect of our lives.  I am in short, a post-Darwin rationalist. 

I have other misgivings too, in particular the exalted status we give to religion in society. Last week's judgement that town councils should not begin their working sessions with prayers seems to me to be entirely right (imagine if we did this at the office). I have profound misgivings about the teaching of biblical stories in primary school and I cannot agree that religious education should be taught in a way that disavows criticism. Contemporary wisdom is that all beliefs should be respected - imagine taking that approach to physics!  I could go on, but none of these are matters of faith.

It would also risk the impression that I'm hoping to convert you to my stance, which is truly not my aim.  Rather I'm trying to explain why I feel as I do. To put into words why, when I see the Alpha Course advertised at our local church, I rail at its claim to be a genuine enquiry. To declare my incredulity at a friend who recently explained she'd not read The God Delusion because her faith made it irrelevant. To shed light on why, try as I might, I find it so difficult to understand those who are comfortable with faith.

And yet...

And yet...  a high percentage of the most interesting, caring, humanitarian people I know are religious. Many of my friends are either committed or deeply interested in matters of faith - our discussions are always challenging and engaging; I admire them for their enquiry if not their conclusions and certainly respect that they are seeking answers just as I always have. What's more I find their value set is almost invariably closer to mine than most secular others.  For all Hitchens and Dawkins bemoan the historical consequences of religions, when you bring it down to an individual level it is seldom threatening. In general - fundamentalists and strident evangelicals aside - I rather like people who have faith.

What's more, the vast majority of my religious friends are highly intelligent - people who in other aspects of life are an inspiration and influence on my views. What is it, I often wonder, they see that I don't? What is it I am missing? I may have held my views since reading Russell's essay, but if they could only help me here, I'd be delighted to change.  Perhaps surprisingly, it is their very faith which is my only chink of doubt on the entire God question.

Except, of course, the imperfections of personal logic, especially when applied by our self-interested and inadequate intellects - I'm well aware that the goal of objectivity is more of a dream than a realisable state. At its most slippery, rationality becomes rhetoric.

But for all this, I believe that reason is the best we have - to be applied by each of us, to the best of our ability, with humanity and generosity, but without compromise. Bertrand Russell was a long way from flawless, but the essence of his message remains true to me, and has shaped my thinking - albeit imperfectly - for all my adult life.


  1. For a while, Mr. Fly was taught by those muscular Christians, the Christian Brothers, one of whom told his class that even should there be no God, living his life on Christian principles would mean that he had led a useful and harmless life.

    I wonder if that combination of nature and nurture which forms us determines the nature of the answers we are seeking.

  2. To start, there is not a thing logical about faith.
    I also claim to be an atheist but the older I get the more I find that at times there is not such a difference in my atheism and the belief of some in their god(s). I say this because I find so much in Nature that I even capitalize it as if it were a proper name as in God. What it has eventually boiled down to for me is whether or not one believes in a god that intervenes in human affairs and here, things become much more nebulous with the faithful and I find their words become more acceptable to my ears.

  3. A huge subject... For me, I am not religious but am aware that man has a spiritual capacity and need. I am still not sure where logic should take me from there... certainly not towards any proof one way or the other.

  4. A lot of food for thought there Mark.

  5. I come from the other end: a firm faith in Christianity. More faith in God than Christians, though, which - as with any community or family - can cause tensions. And, as you wrote, when you get down to the individuals there is rarely uncomfortable extremism or fundamentalism.

    i don't think I have read any of the books you've mentioned, although a few extracts from Dawkins which I immediately dismissed as his arguments were so weak and without a full understanding of Christianity - well, without understanding my Christianity at least. (And before you ask, I read them on a neutral website, not with Christian propaganda.) But perhaps that further goes to show your argument that our beliefs are based upon our presuppositions, rather than detached logic. Dawkins' aetheism is as extreme as some Christians' Christianity.

  6. A fascinating and very honest post, Mark.

    I'm with Catherine in my reaction, as you might expect, given my calling. :-) I have read The God Delusion and must say that I'm surprised to find you describing it in the terms you use. I found it poorly argued, often illogical and dreadfully prone to a tendency shared by Hichens and others (I haven't read Russell): that of setting up a straw-man by ludicrously exaggerating some tenet of Christian belief and then knocking it down. If ever there was a fundamentalist atheist, it's Dawkins.

    A long time ago, as a complete agnostic, I read a novel which set me thinking deeply about faith. (I've even written a post about it on my blog.) After that I read very widely and found myself travelling in the opposite direction from you, largely reasoning myself into Christian faith before I even started to experience it.

  7. You are intelligent; read books and now believe something doesn't exist, your intelligent friends read something, felt something, and decided to 'have faith'.
    We are all the same, it is the saddest thing that nobody seems to focus on this .

  8. Hi Mark, interesting and thought-provoking as is often the case. A couple of points:

    It is important to distinguish between a belief in God and a belief in organised religion; they are not at all the same thing.

    Secondly, if you look around yourself and within and see evidence for the existence of God, you are constrained by uncompromising reason to believe that God exists, since not to do so would fly in the face of this evidence. Similarly if you see evidence that he does not exist you are constrained bto believe accordingly.

    If however you find no evidence or conclude that the evidence is equivocal, you are obliged by the same uncompromising reason, to conclude that the matter is not settled, regardless of whether you happen to find this emotionally or intellectually satisfying, or not.

    In the absence of evidence you can of course choose to believe that God does, none the less, exist. This would be an act of faith, as it also would be to conclude that he does not, on the basis of the same lack of evidence.

    If I interpret your post correctly, you do not see any convincing evedince either way but you are an atheist, a position that lacks rigour.

  9. I share that feeling, when I observe my 'faithful' friends, of 'what am I missing?' Even as a child, when expected to, I never believed in God - it just never made sense to me. What I have come to believe is that the spiritual feelings that we have, which cannot be truly understood, and include awe and amazement at the world and its people, can be described as God - beyond our understanding and something that as humans we share. But it's definitely not an old man with a white beard (that's Gandalf :))

  10. One can be spiritual without believing in any organised religious faith (as Mark Mayenne says). I don't think humans here on this planet are meant (or programmed?) to know or even barely understand the meaning of life and its origins, it is beyond our comprehension, we are like mere animals. It would be like trying to teach a dog history. I have my own views on what 'God' is and could not live in a world where I did not have these beliefs, (what would be the point?)but my spiritual feelings are nothing to do with man-made religions. Irish people cannot help being spiritual, it is bred in us.

    You would like a book that a member of our book group has written I will put a link on my blog. He is of the Dawkins school of thought.

  11. Another one to read, Mark, is Richard Holloway, former Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh and now Humanist. His writings are always thoughtful and I'd recommend Looking in the Distance. I'm impatiently awaiting his biographical, Leaving Alexandria, which is published in two weeks time. A C Grayling's The Good Book is also a useful addition to the library.

  12. In some ways you express precisely my views but where I part company with you is on the choice of atheism over agnosticism. I think the other Mark's analysis is spot on: there does not appear to be evidence which leads me to conclude that there is, or is not, a god. Like you, I find that many of the most interesting people I know have a deep religious faith. Sometimes I envy them but still I can't share it. My culture and history are imbued with Christian thought and I don't want my children to grow up without understanding the way the language of the Bible is woven into the fabric of our lives and literature. Can you understand without a religious upbringing? Probably not entirely but I didn't bring them up in a church going way. That would have felt dishonest. Yet religious music moves me. Religious buildings speak to me. Do I have faith? No I don't. But I don't want to discount the possibility of faith. I sometimes think I might pretend for a while to see what happens.

  13. Yup, I too am a confirmed atheist and again, like you, I don't sit on the fence so agnosticism was never for me. Where our experiences differ is around those with religious beliefs...I have to be honest and say that one of the things that made me question God etc at an early age was the attitudes of those that claimed to be good Christians. I grew up in a very small village and the people that attended chruch on a Sunday were nasty, gossipy, unpleasant people the rest of the week that looked down on my family cause we didn't attend! Then in my late teens I worked in a shop with a woman who was a born again Christian. She introduced me to a whole load of people from her Church and they were just as bad...I had never met such a judgemental group of people in my life! The next time I came across religious people was in Bangkok and they were offering Thai prostitutes a way out of poverty which I thought was a good thing till I found out that they would only help if they abandonned Buddism and became me that was just another form of exploitation. "I'll help you but only if...". No, it should be "I'll help you" no strings attached.

    I live my life (or try to) following the principals of social justice. I don't think you need religion to have a well defined sense of right and wrong.

    C x

  14. It takes a lot of faith to stay an atheist, and mine ran out after finally taking a long hard look at the bare facts of existence and becoming familiar with the best arguments supporting the existence of an intelligent supranatural creator. People can get hung up on the term "God" because of connotations so I use "creator" instead.

    One thing atheists certainly cannot do with any intellectual integrity is speak as moral absolutists. There are moral absolutes, but atheism does away their absolute foundation. Old-school atheists understood that, but modern atheists trade on moral absolutes all the time, indignantly and righteously accusing God of being a moral monster and religions for causing "evil" throughout their respective histories.

    You might also want to check out the Kalaam Cosmological argument, which defeats atheism.

    Also, think about free-will. On the materialist atheist view, the human being is a computer made of meat -- only molecules in motion, from top to bottom. This view cannot be reconciled with the reality of free will. Atheists have dealt with this problem by denying the reality of free will, a position which is an obvious absurdity.