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Does It Matter Whether God Exists?

March 22, 2012

Discussions of religion are typically about God. Atheists reject religion because they dont believe in God; Jews, Christians and Muslims take belief in God as fundamental to their religious commitment. The philosopher John Gray, however, has recently been arguing that belief in God should have little or nothing to do with religion. He points out that in many cases for instance, polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions belief is of little or no importance. Rather, practice ritual, meditation, a way of life is what counts. He goes on to say that its only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths and that what we believe doesnt in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.

Even if God is powerful enough to save the souls of the devout, and loving enough to want to, he still might not.
The obvious response to Gray is that it all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, a way of living without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need. But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death. If our hope is for salvation in this sense and for many that is the main point of religionthen this hope depends on certain religious beliefs being true. In particular, for the main theistic religions, it depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.

But here we come to a point that is generally overlooked in debates about theism, which center on whether there is reason to believe in God, understood as all-good and all-powerful. Suppose that the existence of such a God could be decisively established. Suppose, for example, we were to be entirely convinced that a version of the ontological argument, which claims to show that the very idea of an all-perfect being requires that such a being exist, is sound. We would then be entirely certain that there is a being of supreme power and goodness. But what would this imply about our chances for eternal salvation? On reflection, very little. Granted, we would know that our salvation was possible: an all-powerful being could bring it about. But would we have any reason to think that God would in fact do this? Well, how could an allgood being not desire our salvation? The problem is that an all-good being needs to take account of the entire universe, not just us. Here, discussions of the problem of evil become crucial. An all-good being, even with maximal power, may have to allow considerable local evils for the sake of the overall good of the universe; some evils may be necessary for the sake of avoiding even worse evils. We have no way of knowing whether we humans might be the victims of this necessity. Of course, an all-good God would do everything possible to minimize the evil we suffer, but for all we know that minimum might have to include our annihilation or eternal suffering. We might hope that any evil we endure will at least be offset by an equal or greater amount of good for us, but there can be no guarantee. As defenders of theism often point out, the freedom of moral agents may be an immense good, worth Gods tolerating horrendous wrongdoing. Perhaps God in his omniscience knows that the good of allowing some higher type of beings to destroy our eternal happiness outweighs the good of that happiness. Perhaps, for example, their destroying our happiness is an unavoidable step in the moral drama leading to their salvation and eternal happiness. My point here reflects the two-edged character of religious responses to the problem of evil. The only plausible answer to the question, How could an all-good and all-powerful God allow immense evils? is that such

a God may well have knowledge beyond our understanding. As David Hume suggested in his Dialogues on Natural Religion, the problem of evil is solved only by an appeal to our own ignorance. (There are powerful formulations of this approach by philosophers called skeptical theists.) Such an appeal may save us from the apparent contradiction of evil in a world created by an all-good God. But it also severely limits our judgments about what an all-good God would do. It may seem to us that if we live as we should, God will ensure our salvation. But it also seems, from our limited viewpoint, that God would not permit things like the Holocaust or the death of innocent children from painful diseases. Once we appeal to the gap between our limited knowledge and Gods omniscience, we cannot move from what we think God will do to what he will in fact do. So the fact that we think an all-good God would ensure our salvation does not support the conclusion that, all things considered, he will in fact do so. It follows, then, that even a decisive proof that there is an all-good, allpowerful God cannot assure us that we are ultimately safe. Even if we insist on a religion that goes beyond John Grays beliefless way of living, belief that there is a God leaves us far short of what we hope for from religion. Many believers will agree. Their confidence in salvation, they say, comes not from philosophical arguments but from their personal contact with God, either through individual experience or a religious tradition. But what can such contact provide concretely? At best, certainty that there is a very powerful being who promises to save us. But there may well be and many religions insist that there are very powerful beings (demons or devils) intent on leading us away from salvation. How could we possibly know that the power we are in contact with is not deceiving us? The inevitable response is that an all-good God would not permit such a thing. But that takes us back to the previous difficulty: there is no reason to think that we are good judges of what God is likely to permit. God may have to allow us to be deceived to prevent even greater evils.

We can, of course, simply will to believe that we are not being deceived. But that amounts to blind faith, not assured hope. If that doesnt satisfy us, we need to find a better response to the problem of evil than an appeal to our ignorance. Failing that, we may need to reconsider John Grays idea of religion with little or no belief.

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960, and writes regularly for The Stone.

Can religion tell us more than science?

Too many atheists miss the point of religion, it's about how we live and not what we believe, writes John Gray. When he recounts the story of his conversion to Catholicism in his autobiography A Sort of Life, Graham Greene writes that he went for instruction to Father

Trollope, a very tall and very fat man who had once been an actor in the West End. Trollope was a convert who became a priest and led a highly ascetic life, and Greene didn't warm to him very much, at least to begin with. Yet the writer came to feel that in dealing with his instructor he was faced with "the challenge of an inexplicable goodness". It was this impression - rather than any of the arguments the devout Father presented to the writer for the existence of God - that eventually led to Greene's conversion. The arguments that were patiently rehearsed by Father Trollope faded from his memory, and Greene had no interest in retrieving them. "I cannot be bothered to remember," he writes. "I accept." It's clear that what Greene accepted wasn't what he called "those unconvincing philosophical arguments". But what was it that he had accepted? We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe. It's an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism. In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempts to frame true beliefs about the world. That way of thinking tends to see science and religion as rivals, and it then becomes tempting to conclude that there's no longer any need for religion. This was the view presented by the Victorian anthropologist JG Frazer in his book The Golden Bough, a study of the myths of primitive peoples that is still in print. According to Frazer, human thought advances through a series of stages that culminate in science. Starting with magic and religion, which view the world simply as an extension of the human mind, we eventually reach the age of science in which we view the world as being ruled by universal laws. Frazer's account has been immensely influential. It lies behind the confident assertions of the new atheists, and for many people it's just commonsense. My own view is closer to that of the philosopher Wittgenstein, who commented that Frazer was much more savage than the savages he studied. I don't belong to any religion, but the idea that religion is a relic of primitive thinking strikes me as itself incredibly primitive.

Science helps us understand how the world works - but to what extent?

In most religions - polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions - belief has never been particularly important. Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all. The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of Western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe. This is where Frazer and the new atheists today come in. When they attack religion they are assuming that religion is what this Western tradition says it is - a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification. Obviously, there are areas of life where having good reasons for what we believe is very important. Courts of law and medicine are evidence-based practices, which need rigorous procedures to establish the facts. The decisions of governments rest on claims about how their policies will work, and it would be useful if these claims were regularly scrutinised - though you'd be well advised not to hold your breath. But many areas of life aren't like this. Art and poetry aren't about establishing facts. Even science isn't the attempt to frame true beliefs that it's commonly supposed to be. Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works, and we know a lot more today than we did in the past. That doesn't mean we have to believe the latest scientific consensus. If we know anything, it's that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Yet we go on using them until we can come up with something better. Science isn't actually about belief - any more than religion is about belief. If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth.
However rapidly our knowledge increases, we'll always be surrounded by the unknowable

Myths aren't relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They're stories that tell us something about ourselves that can't be captured in scientific theories. Just as you don't have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don't have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.

Myths can't be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I've no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself. The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories. There's nothing in science that says the world can be finally understood by the human mind. If Darwin's theory of evolution is even roughly right, humans aren't built to understand how the universe works. The human brain evolved under the pressures of the struggle for life. Through science humans can lift themselves beyond the view of things that's forced on them by day-to-day existence. They can't overcome the fact that they remain animals, with minds that aren't equipped to see into the nature of things. Darwin's theory is unlikely to be the final truth. It may be just a rough account of how life has developed in our part of the cosmos. Even so, the clear implication of the theory of evolution is that human knowledge is by its nature limited. It's been said that the universe is a queerer place than we can possibly imagine, and I'm sure that's right. However rapidly our knowledge increases, we'll always be surrounded by the unknowable.
Rational argument did not lead Graham Greene to Catholicism

Science hasn't enabled us to dispense with myths. Instead it has become a vehicle for myths - chief among them, the myth of salvation through science. Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world. But "humanity" isn't marching anywhere. Humanity doesn't exist, there are only human beings, each of them ruled by passions and illusions that conflict with one another and within themselves. Science has given us many vital benefits, so many that they would be hard to sum up. But it can't save the human species from itself. Because it's a human invention, science - just like religion - will always be used for all kinds of purposes, good and bad. Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that's far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that "humanity" can use science to remake the world.

No doubt there will be some who are deeply shocked by Graham Greene's nonchalance about the arguments that led him to convert to Catholicism. How could he go on practising a religion when he couldn't even remember his reasons for joining it? The answer is that he did remember - but his reasons had nothing to do with arguments. Human beings don't live by argumentation, and it's only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths. Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying religion at its dogmatic worst. They think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict. We'd all be better off if we stopped believing in belief. Not everyone needs a religion. But if you do, you shouldn't be bothered about finding arguments for joining or practising one. Just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there. What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.

The ruminations of John Gray

In a Point of View (accessed 23.09.11, available as a podcast) called Believing in belief (16.09.11), John Gray argues that the scientific and rationalist attack on religion is misguided. Apparently, atheist critics overrate the importance of belief to religious believers. (If hes right, shouldnt they then be called religious experiencers or religious practitioners?) He begins with Graham Greenes conversion, in which the author was more impressed by his priest talking about the challenge of an inexplicable goodness than by any arguments for the existence of God. Gray conveniently passes over the word inexplicable, which for the religious is almost as useful as the word mystery in their efforts to avoid stretching themselves intellectually. Is it reasonable, however, to claim that goodness is inexplicable? While no sensible person would attempt to give an all-purpose explanation relevant to all situations, surely, if we are so inclined, we can explain good behaviour in all sorts of ways, without reference to the

supernatural? For example, Dennett (1995, p. 403) cites John Dewey, who thought Darwinism should be the foundation of any naturalistic theory of meaning: I only insist that the whole story be told, that the character of the mechanism be noted namely, that it is such as to produce and sustain good in a multiplicity of forms. Priests, of course, arent known for their digressions into Darwinian thinking while preaching about the good. Greene admitted to not being that bothered about the arguments for religion: he simply accepted the truth of the propositions on offer (why those propositions, the Christian ones, and not some other set, such as those belonging to Islam?). Should we admire him for this? I certainly dont, although Gray seems to think that we should. For me Greene is like the shipowner in W. K. Cliffords essay The Ethics of Belief (Clifford 1999, pp. 7096). He too couldnt be bothered to check the facts, and simply accepted that his ship was seaworthy without taking reasonable measures to ensure that it was. The consequences for those on board when the ship sank were immediate and devastating. The consequences of Greenes epistemic complacency were not as obviously grievous (though how do we count the lives lost to superstition through the ages?), although, as Clifford argues, he is as morally culpable, for it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. (Its interesting that Cliffords spiritual journey was in the opposite direction to that of Greene. In the introduction (ibid., p. xii), Timothy Madigan writes that, deep in the study of Aquinas, Clifford at first revelled in supporting Catholic doctrines, but the impact of evolutionary theory altered his views. Greene, if he couldnt be bothered with arguments for God, could hardly be expected to read On the Origin of Species.) Gray moves on to the dull debate on atheism, in which religion is mistakenly reduced to a set of beliefs, or propositions about the world the truth or otherwise of which can be decided by appeal to the evidence. Ignoring his personal judgement on what counts as dull, two points can be made. First, I dont recognize the debate: the atheists I read all understand perfectly well that religious experience and practice are both important, in addition to belief. For example, the long historical perspective of Lewis-Williams (2010, p. 115) accepts that science developed in the cocoon of religion and that humans in a range of cultures were struggling with a rickety structure of interlocking religious experience, belief and practice. Gray must have listened to some very ill-informed atheists if he thinks that we regard science and religion as making equivalent bids to describe the world. He is rather conveniently overlooking the crucial difference between the two different ways of knowing about the world and life science and supposedly revealed knowledge. Even if religion were

just a set of beliefs, it would still be fundamentally opposed to the scientific project, which places revealed knowledge in the category of psychological experience. (This is not a dogmatic refusal to see the light, of course, since there are plenty of ways in which a rational person might be persuaded that such knowledge was indeed of divine origin.) Second, on the importance of beliefs within religion, Gray mistakenly generalizes a conclusion when in fact there is a fascinating variation: it may come as a surprise to him that not all religions are the same. Here is Bart Ehrman (2011, pp. 67): Most people today dont realize that ancient religions were almost never interested in true beliefs. Pagan religionsby which I mean the polytheistic religions of the vast majority of people in the ancient world, who were neither Jewish nor Christiandid not have creeds. . .Truth was of interest to philosophers, but not to practitioners of religion. . . Religion was all about the proper practices: sacrifices to the gods, for example, and set prayers. . . . He contrasts this aspect of pagan religion with the predominant view of many Christians, which is that if Free-will Baptists are right, Roman Catholics are wrong, to take two sects at random. Erhman continues: Christians insisted that it did matter what you believed, that believing the correct things could make you right and believing the incorrect things could make you wrong, and that if you were wrong, you would be punished eternally in the fires of hell. Christianity, unlike the other religions, was exclusivistic. It insisted that it held the Truth, and that every other religion was in Error. . . . The Christian religion came to be firmly rooted in truth claims, which were eventually embedded in highly ritualized formulations, such as the Nicene Creed. As a result, Christians from the very beginning needed to appeal to authorities for what they believed. Note the description of the Nicene Creed as a highly ritualized formulation: here, belief becomes part of ritual, and cannot be separated in the naive way Gray imagines. We are only two minutes into a ten-minute broadcast, and Gray has already notched up an impressive list of misrepresentations and misconstruals. He then refers to the confident assertions of the New Atheists (a dog whistle phrase no doubt interpreted by some as the arrogance of the New Atheists), which is a bit rich, since in any argument it is the religious who rely on unsupported statements of belief (the epistemic dimension of faith): the New Atheists have an annoying habit of actually backing up their claims with reasoned argument and evidence. As for confidence, this comes through beliefs being grounded in fact, rather than being plucked from fantasy. It is also a highly contingent confidence: again, all the New Atheists I have read know that they might be wrong, that they might be proved to be wrong. What is so provoking to the priestly caste and to their strange bedfellows such as Gray is that we are unlikely to be convinced by a couple of verses in a two-thousand-year-old book, or by any amount of ritualistic moaning and eye-rolling.

Two and a half minutes in and Gray aligns himself alongside Wittgenstein (the philosophers equivalent to Einstein). He reiterates the view certainly mistaken with respect to Christianity that religion is not really about beliefs. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all. The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesnt come from religion. Gray concedes that there are areas of life where having good reasons for what we believe is very important, but if rigorous procedures are useful for establishing the facts in laboratories and courts of law and hospitals, and so on, why is that epistemic discipline suddenly dispensable when investigating, for example, the existence and activities of deities? Surely, on such important matters (and dont the religious love to talk about the big questions?), we ought to take more care over establishing the facts of the matter? Indeed, if pressed, a Christian must discriminate between the voice of God heard as supposedly by Abraham and the voice of God as supposedly heard by Peter Sutcliffe, and how is this to be done except by appeal to some standard of reasoning that does not get bogged down in question-begging circles? Of course, as an atheist I dont believe it can be done, and presumably Gray agrees, so why this limiting of the scope of reason? Four and a half minutes in and we are told that art and poetry are not about establishing facts. Goodness, I was convinced that Twombly painting I saw last week was an actual representation of Bassano, the village in Teverina! Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works. Goodness, a second true belief emerges from the oracle! As if to make up for this sudden lapse into truth telling, Gray quickly soils the airwaves with a hackneyed claim: If we know one thing, its that we know our current scientific theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Error is always a possibility in many areas of science, but this is a crude characterization that ignores the certainty of much of our hard-won knowledge. For example, if we survive for a million years, it is unlikely that the number 92 will ever be discovered to be the wrong number of naturally occurring elements. This is, as Larry might say, pretty, pretty, pretty certain. We are never going to come up with a better estimate. Five and a half minutes in and we are told that religion is a collection of myths or stories that captures something science cant. Has he ever spoken to a Christian? Did he get the impression that the historical veracity of the gospels was an optional extra? Were heretics burned at the stake because they didnt like astory? That Gray is confused by the concept of truth is illustrated by the use of the word in his reference to the truth of scientific theories: theories, like arguments, are collections of linked propositions, and in themselves cannot be either true or false. Only propositions can describe facts about the world.

Myths cant be verified or falsified in the way that theories can be. Again, this is loose talk. There is a sense in which you can prove a theory right or wrong, but really you are finding weaknesses or strengths in chains of argument. Again, truth is a property that resides in premises and conclusions, not in arguments. Symptomatic of this muddled thinking is the following vague claim: Ive no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself. An example of one of these silly modern stories is that science enables us to live without myths. Well, I try to live myth-free, and theres nothing silly about that at all. The fact that I try to live without myth doesnt mean I live without stories. Moreover, I resent the implication that a respect for science and reason necessarily devalues storytelling. Quite the contrary, in fact, since once you ditch worn-out myths you can get on with some real creative business. Six minutes in: Theres nothing in science that says the world can be finally understood by the human mind. If Darwins theory of evolution is even roughly right, humans arent built to understand how the universe works. The human brain evolved under the pressures of the struggle for life. Again, from someone who has just accused the New Atheists of making confident assertions, this takes the biscuit. In summarizing chapter thirteen of Darwins Dangerous Idea, one of those New Atheists shows why Gray is probably wrong: When generate-and-test, the basic move in any Darwinian algorithm, moves into the brains of individual organisms, it builds a series of ever more powerful systems, culminating in the deliberate, foresightful generation and testing of hypotheses and theories by human beings. This process creates minds that show no signs of cognitive closure, thanks to their capacity to generate and comprehend language. (Dennett 1995, p. 400) Gray continues: Darwins theory is unlikely to be the final truth. . . well always be surrounded by the unknowable. . . science has become a vehicle for myths, chief among them the myth of salvation through science. . . Excuse me? Salvation? Apparently, some of us are deluded into thinking that science may help humanity march onwards to a better world. Now, Raymond Tallis may have gone off the rails in large parts of Aping Mankind (2011), but hes spot on with this remark, aimed at Gray and his ilk:

Contempt for the idea of progress has always been attractive to some because it justifies sparing yourself the effort of trying to leave the world a better place than you found it. (p. 4) Gray continues: Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying religion at its dogmatic worst. They think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict. Passing over the egregious slur (evangelical, conversion, dogmatic and the worst of it is to imply that at the heart of every atheist is the void of unbelief), take the example of scientists trying to get everyone to believe the same thing when that same thing is atomic theory. Far from unending conflict the scientific project brings together people of all nationalities and backgrounds, regardless of class or gender or sexual orientation, in ways unimaginable to any religion, and it generates harmony out of disagreement (as opposed to fatwas and hatred). What we believe doesnt in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live. And doesnt what we believe influence how we live? The beliefs of religious parents who prefer prayer to proven medical treatment, and whose child has appendicitis, may destroy that childs life with their false beliefs. It is not that we atheists want everyone to share the same beliefs. Far more important is that we examine how we arrive at those beliefs, what prejudices and assumptions were present at their formation, what biases were at work, and whether they are backed by reason and evidence or held in conflict with reason and evidence. Of course it matters how we live. But, strange as it may seem, it is non-believers who take belief more seriously than believers.