On (Not) Debating the Existence of God

Sunday October 18, 2009

Hand of God

A couple of weeks back, I received an unexpected request. Would I be willing, the email asked, to participate in a University debate about the existence of God? Now, I should say that the existence of God is not a subject upon which I am in any way an expert. In fact, it is not something I think about very much at all. Nor, for that matter, is the non-existence of God. There are a lot of things – whether it’s time for a coffee, what the cat is up to, where I have left my glasses, and so on – that I think about far more than I think about God’s existence. So it did not seem to me that I was the best candidate for this debate. When I read the email more closely, however, I realised that the other candidate lined up for the debate was somebody who was not only very firmly convinced of God’s existence, but also who seemed very eager to convince others of this fact. And whilst for myself I can make neither head nor tail of talk of God and God’s existence, this is also simply not a subject about which I am greatly exercised. My own response to questions of God’s existence is more or less along the lines of “well, it doesn’t really seem from where I am standing to be a very plausible proposition,” but this is hardly good debate fodder. And, when it comes down to it, I have little desire to convince others that they should agree with me on this matter.

Even if I could have risen to the occasion, I am also aware that debates such as this can frequently be painful to witness. The email invitation was couched in distinctly military metaphors: the two debating parties or “opponents” would have “positions” that they would seek to “defend”, and the best argument would “win” the debate. This kind of warfare always seems to me to be a rather uncongenial approach to discussion (I have written before on this blog about the fear I have of the unpleasant things that lurk under our chairs as we talk to each other). And so, after a bit of thought, and a very pleasant exchange of emails, I turned the offer down. But this all got me thinking a bit about the heat that is currently generated by arguing over the existence (or not) of God. What, I wonder, are such debates actually for? What purpose do they serve?

One of the problems that I have – and perhaps this is a problem that many of the ungodly have – is that when people talk about God, I find it genuinely very hard indeed to make any sense of what it is that they are talking about. They talk with a clear passion about something that is clearly very important to them; but I just don’t see what they are getting at. My mind is – to use the term proposed by the philosopher Michael McGhee – not particularly dei-form. “It seems to me,” McGhee writes, “that ‘believers’ do not so much ‘believe that there is a God’ as think God. Their minds are God-shaped or ‘dei-form’ in the sense that their thinking is determined by theistic categories” (in , p.123).

If we take the idea seriously that what is at issue is not belief so much as the God-shapedness of certain minds, then there may anyway be very limited value in debating propositions about god in an attempt to persuade others one way or the other. For each of us, I suspect, our own peculiar individual world-view is a messy, sprawling, socially and historically conditioned, contextually fashioned and refashioned, and – when it comes down to it – rather untidy (but shapely, in its way) thing. Ideas that are themselves as historically weighted and as slippery as the idea “god” are capable of doing all kinds of jobs within this big old sprawl that is our world-view. So it is really not a matter of us having a sheaf of axioms that we hold to and can debate (even if we are philosophers), but something much more complex. It is not surprising that few people are really persuaded by debates of this kind. There are probably relatively few who have listened with quiet attentiveness to Richard Dawkins (for example) and said, “Oh, good point, Richard, I’ll take off my dog-collar now”, or who have stumbled upon a sermon by Rowan Williams (once again, for example) and said “Hmmm… You’ve got something there, Rowan. My unbelieving days are behind me. I’m off to be baptised.” Of course these things might happen, very occasionally; but when looked at in the light of the heatedness of some of these debates, they happen with surprising infrequency.

Saint Anselm, an individual who (unlike me) was greatly exercised by the question of God’s existence, was also sensible enough to recognise that debates of this kind do not really serve to convert us one way or the other, at least in the main. “Credo ut intelligam”, he said: I believe that I may understand; the implicit suggestion here being that reason does not establish (or fail to establish) once and for all the question of God’s existence. Arguments about God are not a way of proving or disproving the question of his existence so much as a way of demonstrating that if one believes in God, then that belief is can be rationally defended, that it is in harmony with reason. And this is a whole other thing.

If certain forms of belief may be (who knows?) in harmony with reason, so may certain forms of unbelief. But what I think is more important than reason as an end in itself, is the question of what constitutes a life well-lived. This may involve an element of reasoning, of course (a life of committed unreason does not seem to be plausible as a candidate for a life well-lived); but reason alone is not a sufficient condition for such a life. And so, if this is the case as I believe it is, what I would like to see is less heat around the question of God’s existence. Those arguing against may, anyway, be always swimming against the tide: there seems to be increasing evidence that, given the kinds of minds that we have been bequeathed by our evolutionary heritage, we will always have a propensity towards belief in curious fictions like gods, imps, spirits, angels, ghosts, elves, trolls and the like. And so, whether or not the world is begodded, betrolled, beimped or bespirited, we may not be able to entirely outrun these curious beasts. So whilst I am not a believer in any of these entities, I would like to make what I think is the relatively modest (and empirical) suggestion that belief in any number of them is entirely consistent with the possibility of a life well-lived. But conversely, I also would also like to make the similarly modest (and similarly empirical) suggestion that non-belief in any or all of these entities is also entirely consistent with various other forms of life that one could legitimately claim to be well-lived.

This brings me, then, to the thing I most fear about these kinds of debates about god and godlessness: the implicit assertion that all too frequently emerges, on both sides, that there is only one form of life that is a life well-lived. This smacks, to me, not only of a lack of imaginative breadth, but also of a kind of dogmatism when it comes to thinking through what form of life might be best for us. The good life of which the philosophers and sages speak is not (I hope) a single thing.

# · ramon

hi Will..thanks for this blog.I like your take on the argument about gods and spirits and how belief is debated .Isn’t it true about every point of view?What we know as humans is always little. The unknown consequence of every action ,even a mindful one that has good intent, is large.People that believe in their stories live in a dream but don’t know it, the rest of us just live in a dream.Its ridiculous to get wound up about opinion.How can we be sure?We are ridiculous.All of us regularly. In my experience there are spirits and beings .They are present when i meditate and appeared after a few years meditating.To me trees feel like beings ,rocks ,ocean .So yeh maybe some beings even all beings have the propensity to interpret their experience to include another world ,existing just out side our senses, another possibility.But like you I’m not wanting to change how you experience it.Or what you believe.Its your story .Enjoy!!

# · bhiksuni Ratana

Dear Think Buddha,
May I draw your attention to the Sudatta sutta (SN 10.8)
in which Buddha teaches the young Anathapindada (or Anathapindika) on creation and creator.
Here he’s more than specific: no Creator, no Creation.
The Sudatta sutta is part of the Small Vehicle Pali, Agama, and Kanjur collections.
There’s no need to re-philosophize the subject; Buddha did it for us and wouldn’t have developed his teaching on Dependent Origination if he had accepted creation and creator.

# · Jayarava

Hi Will,

Nice one. “the question of what constitutes a life well-lived”. Yes. Whether God exists or not, live well. Pascal’s wager given a twist?

Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of the UK, made a similar point to John Humphrys, describing the Jewish attitude to life. They don’t (apparently) dwell on how they got into a mess, they focus on what they are going to do about it.

I’ve blogged on how a wide range beliefs can give rise to behaviour which fits with norms I value – many people I know believe (or indeed have experience of) such things as ghosts, spirits, visions, UFOs and aliens, etc. And most of them are kind and generous people.

Have you come across Lakoff and Johnson “Metaphors We Live By”? One of the metaphors they examine is “argument as war”. Quite illuminating.

Some kind of pragmatism about how to live well whatever you believe would seem to be a necessity in a pluralistic world – so often see it is the ones with strong beliefs that live (and die) atrociously. Some kind of critique or commentary on what constitutes a life well-lived does also seem to be necessary.

Contra bhiksuni Ratana btw one could cite the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13) in which the Buddha teaches Brahmins how to find companionship with Brahma (brahmasahavyata) without in any way trying to directly undermine their belief in Brahma. The suttas are quite thoroughly bespirited so quoting them as an argument against god is a bit quixotic. “No creator” is only a caveat – it is not an argument against gods per se, but against first causes using god as a metaphor.

Can we presume you turned down the invitation to war over god then? ;-)

# · Will

Thanks for your comments, all. I’ve always liked the strain of pragmatism in much Jewish thought, Jayarava (the question “OK, how do we get out of this mess?”). And thanks for the reference, Ratana, although it is also nice to see those two Pali texts that you and Jayarava provide side by side, to remind us that they do not necessarily speak with one voice, and so perhaps we do need to do a bit of re-philosophising.

I’ll dive back into Lakoff and Johnson, because it’s been a while (a long while), and I’d forgotten the argument as war thing going on over there.

Finally, Ramon (comment #1), your assertion that “We are ridiculous. All of us regularly,” is one that the Bodhicattva the thinkBuddha cat and I both wholeheartedly endorse as a fair description of ourselves.

# · Kate C

It’s funny, I really enjoyed reading this post, but the part that stands out to me is the “conversion” issue. I love your bit about “Oh, good point, Richard, I’ll take off my dog-collar now.”

This is something I see all of the time and it bugs me. My husband constantly wants to “teach him a lesson!” in traffic or wherever. It’s the side-effect of a certain amount of ego and belief that your way is right.

The funny thing is, whenever somebody is out there trying to “teach us” we almost certainly are never in a learning mood.

# · Jeff Alexander

Another lucid read. I think this is a discussion that goes best between friends of differing outlook who recognize and cherish their common humanity, a rare and pleasurable experience. I ran across this saying a long time ago – “Reason and logic are whores, they’ll serve any master” Belief in God and unbelief I think both can be defended or derided as reasonable or unreasonable. Very intelligent people have fallen on both sides of this issue. As a be-Godded and dei-formed fellow I naturally find belief in God quite reasonable.

# · Robert Ellis

Hello again Will,
I’m very much in agreement with the point that debates about the existence of God are often fruitless and unnecessarily polarised and/or aggressive. However, I’m not so convinced by your response to that point. This is due to the distinction I made earlier in the freewill section, between ambiguity and agnosticism. I don’t think it’s good enough just to offer a position of ambiguity together with distaste for the theist vs atheist brawl: instead a more definite defence of agnosticism is needed.

This would involve the use of reason with an eye to what it can actually achieve as well as its limitations. Though Dawkins’ arguments have never convinced any clergy to take off their dog collars, more subtle and less polarised arguments may nevertheless subtly lead people to start to think on new and alternative lines. The main arguments that it is worth putting forward to both theists and atheists, I think, is to point out that the arguments they frequently use against each other do successfully cast doubt on each other’s positions but do not offer a convincing positive case for their opposing positions. In effect the whole debate offers a rich fund of arguments in favour of agnosticism.

I also think it’s worth putting that case because of the moral drawbacks of both atheism and theism – so in effect I feel a moral responsibility to put such a case. I disagree when you write “I would like to make what I think is the relatively modest (and empirical) suggestion that belief in any number of [spiritual/metaphysical beings] is entirely consistent with the possibility of a life well-lived.” The evidence to me points much more in the direction that such beliefs have a tendency to undermine a life well lived in proportion to the strength with which they are dogmatically held. There are other factors that contribute to a life well-lived, which sometimes coincide with or override the effects of metaphysical beliefs, but the effect of metaphysical beliefs is basically negative. The arguments for this are too complex to go into here, but see my website www.moralobjectivity… for more details.

So, if I were to receive the invitation you received, I should accept it – on condition that I could speak in favour of hard agnosticism. Even if the experience proved to be an unpleasant one, I would hope that my participation would help to actively work against the negativity created by the polarisation of the debate.

# · Pegasus

It seems to me that believing that quoting the Buddha on the existence or non-existence of God as if it were final or ‘the truth’ is a pretty fatuous thing to do as its just another view, like Richard Dawkins’ or Rowan Williams’ or the man sitting next to me on the train. Obviously its a rather more profound view than most, Buddha being a not-inconsiderable figure, but I could equally well quote Krishna, Gandhi, Christ, Mohammed etc saying something completely different.

The real problem with all discussion of the existence or non-existence of God is how subjective the idea of ‘God’ is. Buddha did not speak of a Creator, but is this the only definition of God we have? Buddha DID speak of a Greater Consciousness of which everything was part, but so did the Vedantists, the Jains, the Sufis, the Kabbalists, the Neo-Platonists, the Greek Orthodox Christians, the Taoists and so on.

In the end, God is probably an experience or an intuition rather than a definite, fixed ‘fact’. We can’t even imagine the entire size of the Universe or even the Singularity it was supposed to have grown out of, so how can we possibly answer the question of whether ‘God’ exists or not?

Most people who are vociferous about this are usually actually people who are arguing – as you so rightly say – for the best way of living or thinking. ‘God’, ideas of ‘God’, experiences of ‘God’ too often have huge great religions attached with attendant moralities in tow which people think you have to follow. Quite often we confuse ‘God’ with these, so a lot of Atheists actually hate Religion rather than believe or disbelieve in God.

Oneness with a Greater Consciousness, whether we call that Nirvana, Satori, Moksha, Gnosis, Theosis, Beatification, Yichud or whatever – this is an EXPERIENCE, not a morality or a religion. Perhaps we should be talking, not about whether ‘God’ exists or not, or wether this experience is valid, available to us or real…

# · bumpo

wow, lots of food for thought here, and i was already stuffed to bursting

# · marc

it reminds me this sentence- almost a koan- by saint john:“tu ne me chercherais pas ,si tu ne m’avais déja trouvé”. o.k, he was not french, but i am not very sure of my translation:” you would not be looking for me, if you had not already found me”

# · dave

“With the arising of the taints there is the arising of ignorance; with the cessation of the taints there is the cessation of ignorance. …
“And what are the taints, what is the origin of the taints, what is the cessation of the taints, what is the way leading to the cessation of the taints? There are three taints: the taint of sensual desire, the taint of being and the taint of ignorance. With the arising of ignorance there is the arising of the taints. With the cessation of ignorance there is the cessation of the taints. ……”

this quote from a website on ignorance is confusing to me. which arises first taints or ignorance? the first paragraph suggests to me at least that with the arising of taints there is the arising of ignorance. but then states in the second paragraph that with the arising of ignorance is the arising of taints.

my question: what is the origin of ignorance?

which came first taints or ignorance?

are taints the root cause of ignorance or is ignorance the root cause of taints?

# · Roni

Dear Bhiksuni Ratana,

Are you referring to this sutta? www.accesstoinsight…. Or is that another one?

Thx for your answer in advance,

Roni :)

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