Sunday, 29 October 2017


The God question: listen to your inner voice

Detail from The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, one of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Detail from The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, one of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
And what remains when disbelief is gone?
— Philip Larkin
It is more rational to believe in God than to believe there is no God. In fact, belief in God is much more rational than atheism. The resting place of the mind, its natural equilibrium, as it were, is belief.
This is, in truth, a statement of the obvious. But it seems radical, shocking. This is because in Australia, and in Europe, many of our leading figures, certainly the loudest of them, and a substantial and growing minority of the population believe, or at least pretend to believe, in the religious faith of atheism, the faith that holds there is no God.
In subscribing to atheism they are in radical opposition to the vast majority of people on the planet today, and the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived in history. There’s our first clue.
Last week the Institute of Public Affairs published important research that showed most Aus­tralian university courses make no coherent effort to teach the main elements of Western civilisation. This is partly because Western civilisation, like most civilisation and human nature itself, rests on the knowledge of God.
Knowing and believing in God has always been entirely rational. It is not only rational, of course. To know much more about God than merely that he exists requires faith.
But faith is not, as it is frequently represented, the enemy of reason. Rather, faith is the basis of reason. Almost all of rational life is based on faith. Most often faith is not a question of what you believe but who you believe.
I have faith that I am the son of my parents. I have no real empirical evidence for it. It makes the most sense as an explanation of my life, it is the proposition that best fits with everything I know. But the main reason I believe it is faith, my regular, normal faith in my parents. So this is a faith-based belief, entirely rational, confirmed by experience, but certainly not rationally proven.
Most of our lives are lived in this way. I have faith that my car will work when I turn the key in the ignition, but I have absolutely no idea why or how. Nonetheless I am convinced that my faith is consistent with rationality, that my faith itself is rational.
Part of the crisis of belief in our society is a crisis of knowledge. Because the high points in our elite and popular culture have been colonised by a militant and intolerant atheism, our young people have been denied the fruits of thousands of years of intellectual effort on matters of faith and belief by the best minds humanity has produced. This is wickedly unfair to children.
To have a rounded sense, even intellectually, of the idea of God it is necessary to use all the human faculties — reason, spirit, intuition, emotion, conscience, memory, imagination — to name a few.
Nonetheless, you can get to a knowledge of the reality of God through reason alone. It is important to understand that atheism is also consistent with rationality. Atheism does require its own radical leap of faith, but its biggest problem on rational grounds is that it is inconsistent with the world and life as we know it. It is a hypothesis with feeble powers of prediction. But it is not altogether irrational.
Modern science has not made atheism any more or less rational. Science tells us a great deal about how, but nothing about why. It is a misuse and a misrepresentation of science to pretend that it answers the why questions. There were atheists in the ancient world. The Psalms of the Old Testament refer to people who deny the existence of God. It was always open to a person to say: the world is complex, I don’t understand how it works, but I don’t believe that God created it.
And some people did think that. It is the most insufferable condescension and unjustified vanity on our part to think of all of the rest of humanity, in the past, and beyond our little slice of the West today, as trapped in superstition, while we alone are wise, enlightened and free.
For while more than just reason is involved in faith, reason always played its part. The philosophers of ancient Greece, long before the birth of Christ, reasoned their way to God. This is most often associated with Aristotle, but it was a movement among many philosophers and poets of ancient Greece.
Their insights were integrated into Christianity in the 13th century by the greatest of the Christian philosophers and theologians, Thomas Aquinas.
Famously, Thomas provided his five ways to God through reason. Some Christians mistakenly took to referring to them as the five proofs of God. In truth, by reason alone you cannot absolutely prove God or disprove him.
Thomas was trying to understand, not to prove, though understanding often leads to belief.
First, Thomas suggested that motion had to start somewhere, that there had to be an unmoved mover.
Second, the chain of cause and effect is so long, but it too had to start somewhere; there had to be an uncaused cause.
Third, contingent beings — that is, beings who rely on some antecedent for their existence — must inevitably proceed from a being who relies on nothing for their existence, a necessary being.
Fourth, there is so much goodness in the world, it must correspond to or proceed from a self-sufficient goodness.
And fifth, the non-conscious agents in the world behave so purposefully that they imply an intelligent universal principle.
That is a crude summary of what is called Thomas’s argument from design (which bears no relation to the modern fringe theory of evolution called Intelligent Design). And it all seems pretty dry. People don’t generally come to any serious belief in God purely through this or any other rational process.
But it is important to understand that there is nothing in reason that contradicts God. That our public culture so routinely suppresses this knowledge, mocks it and teaches the reverse, demonstrates just what a strange and dangerous cultural dead end we have wandered into. Yet even in our moment, in our society, there is already a nostalgia for God.
Reasoning from first principles, of course, is not even the primary rational way you can come to a rational knowledge of God.
For it is one of the central realities of humanity, one of the deep mysteries of the human condition, that all truth involves a balance of truths. Rationality needs a context in order to be rational. In isolation from all the other human faculties, it becomes a cult of hyper-rationality. And this is not more and better rationality but distorted rationality, and often leads to irrational conclusions. For example, you may describe in exquisite, painstaking rational detail a finger pulling the trigger of a gun, which fires a bullet, which kills a child. The description can become extraordinarily detailed and rational, following an unassailable logic. You can claim as a consequence that you have rationally and exhaustively explained the death of the child.
Yet you have not explained murder. You have said nothing about the morality, or even in a larger sense the cause, of the child’s death. Rationality alone is not sufficient — necessary, yes, but not sufficient.
Consider something entirely different. In one of the most important decisions we make in life, rationality is a part, but only a part, and not always the most important part. When you choose, say, your life’s partner, the decision is partly rational but not purely or wholly rational. There is a spark of romance, an intuition of commitment, an excitement, a sense beyond the rational of adventure and deep homecoming.
These types of considerations are not irrelevant to a rational belief in God.
Let’s look at that a bit more. The subject that humanity understands best, and has the most experience of, is humanity. The proper subject for the study of man is man.
What clues does humanity itself offer us about belief in God?
All of our strongest instincts, all of our strongest desires, correspond to a strong reality. Hunger indicates food. Tiredness suggests sleep. Sexual desire implies sex.
This is true not only of physical desires. Loneliness implies friendship. The desire to behave decently implies the existence of decency.
And as long as we have known human beings, they have yearned for and believed in God. It makes you ponder, this long, consistent, human intuition, or it should do. The long hunger for God implies God.
These are just clues, they are not proofs, but they are clues that are powerfully consistent with God.
In his magnificent book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery, Brendan Purcell, among countless scintillating insights, assesses our professional or scholarly knowledge of several of the earliest human burial sites that we have found.
These date back many tens of thousands of years. Almost every one involves some ritual, and some symbolism. Many involved artefacts, or tokens, or tools buried with the dead, which paleoanthropologists believe indicate a belief in the afterlife. The tools buried with the dead are symbols of what the person would take with them to the afterlife.
There are clues and questions beyond humanity, which belief in God answers rationally but to which the faith of atheism offers no answers at all.
Why is there something rather than nothing? How come our world is so incredibly receptive to the evolution of life? It’s highly improbable statistically. What caused the big bang? Why is nature so regular from one minute to the next?
Most of these questions are not necessary or sufficient proofs of God. They are open to atheist conjecture. But cumulatively they make more sense with God.
There is a variety of sneering, intolerant and remarkably poorly informed atheism popular on TV talk shows and the like. It is faux clever but strangely old-fashioned, trotting out a venerable retinue of cliches and platitudes but demonstrating an almost complete lack of familiarity with theology or metaphysical philosophy.
This kind of atheism is associ­ated with figures such as Richard Dawkins, who wrote The God Delusion, which sold three million copies. Dawkins is an eminent scientist in one field, with no particular expertise in any other field and an apparently wilful ignorance of the variety and subtlety and history of the claims and ideas of Christianity. He is a kind of atheist fundamentalist and he conjures an extreme, fundamentalist Christianity, a rhetorical straw man (unrelated to the main lines of Christianity) that he can beat down with science.
This kind of atheism is also associated with Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was in some ways a splendid journalist, brave and witty and engaged, but he was a poor philosopher, a tremendously tendentious historian and an astonishingly ill-informed theologian.
With a few other popular atheist celebrities, men such as these seek (or sought) to impose the new, and frighteningly narrow, religious orthodoxies of our day. They mount a million wild attacks on belief in God, most of them absurd. Let’s consider just two.
One is that evolutionary science has replaced God in explaining humanity.
This is nonsense. Evolutionary theory and science offer marvellous explanations of how, they offer no explanations of why. This is no challenge to belief in God. In fact, it is a fundamental point. If God brings the physical universe into being then of course he uses physical processes. Understanding the processes a bit better doesn’t bear on the questions of why, of purpose, of meaning, at all. Most scientists believe that evolutionary science is consistent with religious belief or atheism. I think they’re right.
Nonetheless, evolutionary theory poses a much bigger problem for atheism than it does for religious belief. Some atheists argue that human beings evolved a religious instinct because it enhanced their chances of survival.
There is some appeal in this proposition, and also a lot of logical problems with it. But let it pass.
Consider, however, its implication. If the rational power of the human mind is so feeble that for countless millennia it could believe in God, when this belief is a delusion for which allegedly there is no evidence at all, how can we now accept that this same mind has miraculously developed a new capability to get to the truth and to understand evolutionary theory? If the mind is shaped by evolutionary theory to irrational ends throughout history it might just as well be shaped to irrational ends when it embraces evolutionary theory. This is not what I believe but it is an inescapable implication of the Dawkins style of atheism.
If our minds and personalities and consciousness are no more than physical atoms and electric impulses, what basis do we have for believing that the mind can reliably apprehend reality at all?
The answer is that there is no basis for such belief within this atheist framework. You have to take it on faith. It is one of the many leaps of faith required in atheism.
The other frequent ground for a sneering assault on religious belief arises out of the science of the big bang itself.
That we now know so much more about the history of our planet, of our solar system, of our galaxy, leads some to the mistaken conclusion that God is superseded as an explanation.
I think rather that what all this knowledge really indicates is the majesty and generosity of God. That the physical universe we know is apparently 14 billion years old tells us nothing about who created it or why.
Dawkins and Hitchens and the others spend hundreds of pages claiming that God is impossible. Then when they admit that they cannot disprove God, they assert, with absolute dogmatic certainty, that God wouldn’t behave in a manner they deem inefficient or unsatisfactory or worse, profligate.
How would they know how God would behave?
It strikes me as absolutely characteristic of God that he would spend 14 billion years preparing a gift for human beings.
There are countless clues of God throughout our world and within humanity itself. There is the strange phenomenon of joy, the even stranger delight of humour, the inescapable intimation of meaning in beauty and music. There is the mystery of love, along with the equal mystery of our consciousness and our self-awareness. It’s a lot of clues to ignore.
There is one clue I like more than any other — the clue of the inner voice. Is there a single person alive who has not said, in some difficult moment: let it be this! don’t let it be that!
Who are we talking to at those moments?
Most of our life is spent with our inner voice, thinking things over, weighing things up, rehearsing our triumphs, dreading our failures, contemplating the people in our lives, anticipating the future, interpreting the past.
Isn’t there a sense in all this, that we are involved in a conversation?
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Avatar for Luke
There is a great novel called ' A Prayer For Owen Meany'. The way that Owen Meany describes his faith in God is simple yet logical. 
Avatar for Richard
@Luke There is another novel with the most disgusting character in all historical fiction. He is called Yahweh and the novel is the Old Testament; in particular the Pentateuch chapters.
Avatar for David
I am grateful to Greg Sheridan for this scholarly essay. Thank you.
Avatar for Graeme
@David Yes, he's pulled together a bunch of arguments that have been discredited thousands of times since before the "birth of Christ" and presented them anew for us to poke holes in.
Avatar for deric
Wow! God continues to be a superstar draw card! I like it. Close to 1000 comments at this point. I can never understand why atheists are so fascinated (OK obsessed) by God. Must be trying to convince themselves they are right? Why do they hate something that doesn't exist and rant about it so often and so vehemently? Doth protest too much.
Avatar for Greg
To believe in atheism requires your faith to be everything comes from nothing. This is clearly an absurd proposition. God is our friend and creator.
Avatar for Graeme
@Greg You have the wrong end of the stick. Atheism is simply not accepting a proposition that there is a god. No more.
There are an amazing number of things that could not be explained at some point in time and hence were held to be the works of god which have subsequently been explained by science to be purely natural - not supernatural.
Avatar for Mike
1.  Is there a God?  The answer is either "YES" or "No".  The response "I' don't know is not correct, mainly because it fails to answer the question.  
2. We live in a material world. In our experience, we cannot see spontaneous acts of creation - generation of matter and energy from a nil condition.  Therefore, we either believe in God, who is above the laws of physics, or we believe that the universe itself did something that we know is in contravention of the laws of thermodynamics.  Either option, as Greg mentions, requires faith.  It is more rational to have faith in God than in a self-creating universe.
3. Medjugorje.  Look it up.  It's happening now.
Avatar for Karl
If I'd tell you that there is this mysterious person who works in mysterious ways, let's call him Gary, who can read my mind, who knows all my thoughts, whose voice I can hear in my head, who makes me do things, who is this magical being and nobody else can see him but me - you'd call a mental hospital and had me admitted because I would be deemed insane, paranoid schizophrenic.     But, if I'd substitute the word Gary for god, if I wrote a book about it (let's call the book bible) -  suddenly all is good again, I am not insane anymore, I am just religious.
Just because you still need, in this day and age, this crutch, this fairy tale to believe in - doesn’t make it true. Just because this magical story, this belief makes you feel more secure, more special, more important, more relevant, nice & warm inside - does NOT make it true. Just because you still, in this day and age, believe in magic and magical beings (sky wizards, angels, vampires, witches, dragons, ghosts, demons etc.) does NOT make it true
Avatar for Karl
The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree…… You're right Greg, this makes perfect sense!!
Avatar for Greg
You’re such a funny man, Karl. The alternative is that everything came from nothing, now that’s real funny.
Avatar for Richard
@Karl Just imagine if the brain power of the West had been directed at real stuff instead of the Procession of the Holy Ghost or Transubstantiation and whether the bread and wine were substances or accidents and how to reconcile that, or whether or not 1=3 and just how that could be and why Pelagianism was wrong about Original Sin and why the Cathars were heretics and what form of burning should they suffer if they repent and can God create a stone heavier than he can lift and .....
We might have landed on the moon in the 12th century and produced better Zombie movies in the 11th.
Avatar for Richard
@Greg It is logically false that the alternative to silliness is that everything came from nothing. 
Please check false dichotomies and fallacies of composition; and then try to find an example in the Bible of anyone with a sense of humour.
That does not include making up stories about burning bushes or being swallowed by large fishes.
Avatar for Karl
@Greg I know Greg, the truth and common sense hurts. Keep believing in magic, nobody's stopping you. 
Avatar for Stephen
Belief in God does not require belief in an afterlife.
I have no problem with God but I baulk at heaven or hell. Can we reason our way to that?
Avatar for Rohan B
Rohan B
 "If our minds and personalities and consciousness are no more than physical atoms and electric impulses, what basis do we have for believing that the mind can reliably apprehend reality at all?"
I think this is certainly true when we look at the behavior of voters in democracies.  
Avatar for stella

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." Thomas Aquinas
Avatar for Graeme
@stella "No explanation is necessary" which is why people continued to die of virulent diseases for so long while Christendom held sway and repressed science.
And if "to one without faith, no explanation is possible", why is it that so many scientists, who have explained many of the great questions of the world, are atheists?
If you have "faith" you look no further. If you don't have "faith" but instead seek real true answers, explanations come with diligent inquiry.
Aquinas was a dope.
Avatar for Andrew
I generally enjoy reading Greg's writings and the knowledge and logic he applies to issues and events, but here I find very little substance and no compelling points at all. 
Avatar for Alan
As Pascal Wager arguement in the 17th century reasoned, like you, it is safer betting on there being a God, he referred to the Christian God but it applies to all. He indicated the downside of hell for those not believing if it turns out there really is a God is far greater than the down side to believing when there isn’t one.
Avatar for Graeme
@Alan But which one? Mostly it's stated that they don't like it if you believe in others as well so you've got to plump for one and with there being so many gods that people have made up over the years which one do you bet on? Ahura Mazda, the great Juju up the mountain, Zeus, Odin? Who?
Avatar for Richard
@Alan Seriously, do we have to go through Pascal's wager yet again AlanPlease scroll down a bit before raising that furphy for the umpteenth time.
The probability of Pascal’s wager is not 0.5 Alan. The more alternative gods and goddesses, and the list is very very long, the less likely you are to win your bet. And the greater the chance of picking the wrong God, the more chance you have of losing very badly and finding yourself severelypunished for gambling on the wrong horse/golden calf/burning bush/flayed Mexican god/the Crocoduck or whatever.

Avatar for John
To all the knee-jerk atheists in the comments section, I would simply say - Read it again and this time with an open mind. It won't change your mind, probably, and I suspect that was not the author's intent. But it should be something to thinkabout. Or are you frightened that there might just be, just maybe, a bit of truth in it. If not why the shrill bleats of attack. It's only an essay, isn't it. It is not mind control. 
Avatar for Mark
Or are you frighted your made up concept to help you cope with the world and humans fear of death is nothing but a fairy tale
Avatar for Graeme
@John The thing is that we have seen all these old arguments before, again and again and again. They still hold less water than a bowl made of the holy spirit. :)
Avatar for John
@Mark "frighted"??. No, nor am I frightened. There is, by the way, more to fear in death for those who believe than those who do not. What is frightening about oblivion - that is what you believe, is it not?
Avatar for Ian
True. Everytime atheists respond they use the same old straw man arguments loaded with ridicule. Gregs article looks at this aspect of atheism well. The problem for atheists is that they can only BELIEVE God doesn't exist because of their inability to prove a universal negative. The Kalam argument is a good one to look at along with Aquinas in understanding God's existence. Compelling.
Avatar for Des
Just how does Greg S conflate the faith of his parents with the prime-mover in:-
First, Thomas suggested that motion had to start somewhere, that there had to be an unmoved mover.
Second, the chain of cause and effect is so long, but it too had to start somewhere; there had to be an uncaused cause.  etc?
It is one thing use logic to argue there is a creator/prime-mover and quite another thing to argue that that creator is Jesus and his Trinitarians. Thus Aquinas and Sheridan jump to a conclusion that casts aside logic for scripture.
Avatar for Eric
The God Delusion has always been a useful tool for tyrants to control the masses . That is why they , and Monarchs , always make themselves head of what ever religion is currently in vogue .
Avatar for Simon
Atheism is hilarious as you are required to not believe in something that doesn't exist, far simplier to follow Gregs path.
Avatar for Michael
@Simon You're not "required" to believe in anything. If you do believe that there is no god or gods, some will call you an atheist. There is no forcing someone to do anything. That's up to the religious folks.
Avatar for Mark
For less heavily indoctrinated even the followers know it is not true. Otherwise they would try much harder to follow the made up rules and put much more faith in god.
Religion is a popular cult of ignorance, weakness and insanity that is forced on kids to young to understand and indoctrinated on poor innocent youth to control people.
Avatar for Paul
Call it God but I call it a power greater than I. A power that I cannot comprehend or understand. Humans need some focus in their lives to give it purpose.
In China God was banned but then Mao Zedong become the power for all. Was he not a God in the eyes and minds of the Chinese. He thought he was. 
The odd thing is that all religions seem to have only one God which/who I suspect is one and the same power greater than themselves.
Avatar for Graeme
@Paul A power greater than you, that you cannot comprehend or understand may as well not exist in any case. Particularly if it doesn't intervene in the world in any observable way as most people would hold. So why not just cut to the chase.
There's nothing there.
Avatar for Mark
It seems each time we understand something that the supreme power loses a trick. Heretics were people who questioned things. Religion fought against the fact that the world is round and the earth revolves around the sun.
We do not know why we are here and what purpose we have and never will. Deal with it and liberate youself. Don't just make up a story and ptetend it is true. Just accept it is not true. Ignorant people tend to be certain.
The God of the bible may exist. That is one is an infinate number of possibilities. 1/infinity is not good odds, so I will stick with the odds of infinity -1 / infinity.
Avatar for John
The evidence more clearly points to a divine creator, rather than everything we see somehow coming out of nothing  and on some evolutionary basis. That said however, it does not matter how much evidence you put in front of someone. They will find reasons to refuse to believe in God because believing in God means that you have to submit to Gods advice on how to live life. Sadly many people will turn from God because Its more important to them to do what THEY want rather than what God says. 
Avatar for James
@John when someone uses the terms "evidence" and "clearly" with that conclusion I wonder if they know what either terms means.
Avatar for Michael
@James @John Clearly, @James, religious folks do not understand the concept of "evidence" at all. There is NO evidence for the existence of an eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent and merciful being. None at all, as I am sure you are well aware.
Avatar for Richard IV
Richard IV
I am not sure you understand the concept of "evolution". Unlike creationism, evolution is a plausible, but not proven, hypothesis about the origins of life as we know it. Why people have difficulty embracing the idea of "evolution" is because most people struggle with the timescale in relation to planet earth. Given the wonder of the human body it seems counter-intuitive that it that could evolve from mere cells in just a billion years or so. As an atheist, I too struggle with this, but I am no biologist so my intuition could be faulty.
I prefer to think of evolution as being related to the time scale of the entire universe, and we have no idea what that is. It is plausible that Earth may have been visited by a more advanced civilisation a billion years ago who intentionally or accidentally jump- started our evolutionary process. And in turn that civilization might have been the product of a trillion years of evolution somewhere else. We cannot know.
But, evolution is plausible given a time-scale. Creationism is NOT plausible until you are prepared to pose, let alone answer, the question "who created the creator" and then " who created the creator of the creator". Etc
Avatar for Peter
@John When you make a claim like that you should probably provide some of your "evidence". I am yet to see/hear about any evidence for the existence of a god, whereas there is ample evidence supporting a big bang theory and evolution. That doesn't mean there isn't a god, but don't claim there is evidence of one when there isn't. Thats how anti-vaxxers work...
Avatar for Mark
The evidence clearly points to a divine creater? I think your definition of evidence has a much lower bar than our legal system.
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