Attempts to Prove God Exists are a Meaningless Account of Faith and Religion
22nd May 2013
In which I argue that attempts to prove God exists (or that He doesn’t) are a meaningless account of faith and Religion: to engage in them is to misunderstand the very nature of what religion is…
I have written about this, in another context, in the book Dispirited – I quote the relevant section below..
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From the Book Dispirited:
Since Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion33, it seems like the talk in the virtual and fleshy public spheres has been dominated by an interaction by two ever more shouty choruses. Gathered on one side, we have the serried ranks of atheists and their long-standing sub-corp of the collectively minded known as humanists. Across a chasm of mutual, wilful misapprehension from them are gathered the (largely Christian) hosts of Theism’s defenders. I want to suggest here that this debate has become ever more futile, distracting and shrill. Given the largely nihilistic tone of my existential world view, one might expect me to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dawkins, Dennett, et al – and I have felt that draw. However the polarising, simplifying nature of the arguments rehearsed leaves, I believe, a substantive middle ground untouched. Further, both sides are ever-more prone to treating religious faith merely as a matter of correspondence-theory metaphysics. Colleagues will know, and readers can surmise in safety, that I am not the world’s greatest fan of Theology – but it’s as if the discipline has never existed. You’d never know that reflective, intelligent, humane and critical people had actually given the nature and content of religion some sustained and rigorous inspection already.
In trying to articulate this with my students – who often feel draw to one or other of the positions above – I always find myself thrown back on a philosopher I used to consider passé and annoying: Søren Kierkegaard. I will paraphrase him roughly, hopefully driving readers into the arms of his beguiling prose. The key insight that I take from Kierkegaard is his rejection of, and hostility to, the view that religious faith is a rational undertaking – to be defended or assailed via a series of propositional manoeuvres.
In the aftermath of the European Enlightenment of the 18th Century, the idea of the primacy of logic and reason has begun to deeply permeate even the religious institutions it was so often used to criticise. The view exists that (blind) faith is the recourse of the ignorant and unthinking – while the man or woman of thought and reflection accepts or rejects all beliefs (including religious ones – all beliefs are seen as of the same order) on the basis of the evidence for or against them – that is, they are reasonable – requiring a fulfilment of an epistemic duty.
If one accepts this as the ground rules for debating the veracity of religious faith, we can see where it leads – to the need to prove/disprove religious claims – and also we can see how much it seems to look like the current discursive landscape. Kierkegaard has more sense; he’s called the father of Existentialism for a reason – and he starts with religion as an engagement with existential realities: doubt, fear, uncertainty and despair. He also wants to challenge the notion that being reasonable is the challenging intellectual position – whereas the person of faith has it easy – being too lazy to think, they just accept what they are told. His view is that it’s all very well going around only believing things you have evidence for – that requires no commitment from the thinker: try believing something without evidence. Really believing it – not in the lazy way I just mentioned – but actually basing your life on something which you are not only currently unable to prove – but which you know to be unprovable. The ‘leap of faith’34 that this demands, once we really appreciate how serious and life-changing it is, and the intellectual bravery it requires, should make us reconsider the new atheism debate altogether. It should teach us at the very least that the ‘creation-science’ brigade, the rational defenders of liberal Anglicanism, the ‘militant’ atheists, and the proponents of new-age crystal twonkery as underpinned by ‘quantum science’ all share one feature: they miss the central point of what religion even is, never mind where we might start a discussion of its benefits and dangers.