Sunday October 18, 2009
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 Transformations of Mind, 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.
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