Is God Real?
Is God Real?
This continuing debate is from various issues of PARISH PUMP from March 2020 onwards.
Please do join in via our 'Contact' page.
MARCH 2020 Issue
The following letter, which had appeared in The Times on 8th August 2002, seemed a reasonable basis for an interesting debate, so we re-printed it... and welcomed contributions for publication.
SIR, Andrew de Berry (letter, 5th August 2002) asks Christians to embrace agnostics with talk of myth. But what does he call reality? A tin of baked beans is real, in that I can pick it up, open it, and eat the contents. Gravity is real in that I can measure its effects, a fable is real in that its moral can be discussed and applied.
Few Christians now believe that the entire Christian story is real like the tin of beans is real (the seven-day Creation, the Ark, angels), but most insist that God is at least as real as gravity: He has a direct and real effect on the Universe. Now that the Pope is apparently canonising people who did not exist, but whose life story is an inspiration to the faithful, surely it is time to accept that God and the Christian story are real only as a fable is real.
Agnostics like me would then willingly climb on board. Culturally I am a Christian: everything I know has been shaped by Christianity, and I am perfectly happy to accept it as a wonderful human construct, an extended parable, providing a set of values by which to live.
This would also allow for much better relationships between different but like-minded religions, since all could share an equal reality as useful fables.
JUNE 2020 Issue
March’s Parish Pump asked: ‘Is God Real, and if so, how real?’
There were a number of responses, and here are two which certainly extend the debate in interesting ways. The first is from our benefice friend, Martin Down who argues that the proof for God’s reality is all around us...
Yes, God is real. You do not need the Bible to tell you that: Nature tells you. There are only two ways of explaining Nature: Chance or Design. The more Science discovers about the world and how it works, the more preposterous is the idea that it is the result of Chance, and the more compelling the evidence for Design.
Start at the beginning: there are four fundamental forces that govern the universe, gravity and the electro-magnetic force are the two with which we are most familiar. Each of these four forces has a constant and precise magnitude, and if any them were even a tiny bit stronger or weaker the universe would not work at all. The well-known astrophysicist of a previous generation, Fred Hoyle, once remarked, ‘A commonsense interpretation of the facts is that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics.’ That will do for me: God is real.
Then look at yourself. Your muscles are made of a protein called titin, (and where would we be without muscles?) A protein is something like a necklace, a long string of 20 different sorts of beads (called amino acids). These beads have to be threaded together in a specific order if the protein is to do its job. In one titin molecule there are about 27,000 beads. Start to calculate the chances of threading these beads together in the right order by chance: for the first bead, 1 chance in 20; for the second, 1 in 400; for the third, 1 in 8,000... for the 27,000th? You must be joking.
In fact we know exactly how titin is made: the blueprint for it is in your DNA. But that only removes the problem one step further: who designed and made your DNA? DNA is an even more fabulously complex molecule, and even more absurd to believe that it evolved by chance. And DNA is only one part of that fabulously complex piece of nano-engineering: the living cell. It is all the result of Chance? Not a chance.
Yes, God is real: the Designer and Maker of the universe and everything in it, including you and me. (And yes, there was a Flood; geology proves it!)
If anyone wants to pursue these lines of scientific enquiry further, I have written a whole book about it **.
** 'Is Evolution Bunk?' Reheboth Media 2015
The ideas that Martin develops in his very readable book are not everyone’s cup of tea and, anyway, some people never drink anything but coffee... But discussion is good, and Martin has offered to debate with a Darwinian one evening in Filkins Church. Something for us all to look forward after this pesky virus is vanquished.
The other highlighted response came from an anonymous correspondent who says:
I like Clement Attlee’s reply when asked whether he was an agnostic: ‘I’m not sure!’ I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘God’, for how can the Finite comprehend the Infinite? We see the difficulty in explaining these things in the story of the Englishman explaining the game of cricket to an American:
'You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out. When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out. Now do you see?'
However, the real meat in this particular sandwich is that it is not just a question of always ‘being real’, for there is the possibility of ‘becoming real’. And in explanation our correspondent brilliantly suggests that magic passage in Margery William’s ‘Velveteen Rabbit’.
(a rabbit who, one suspects, would be deeply proud of being cited in a debate about the reality of God!)
There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen. On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the top of the Boy's stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming.
For a long time he lived in the toy cupboard or on the nursery floor, and being naturally shy, and only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon every one else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real.
The Rabbit could not claim to be real, for he didn’t know that real rabbits existed; he thought they were all stuffed with sawdust like himself, and he understood that sawdust was quite out-of-date and should never be mentioned in modern circles. Between them all the poor little Rabbit was made to feel himself very insignificant and commonplace, and the only person who was kind to him at all was the Skin Horse.
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’
‘Real isn't how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.'
'But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
‘I suppose you are real?’ said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
‘The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,’ he said. ‘That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.’
Wonderful! If anyone would like to pitch in to the debate: ‘Is God real?’, please send any thoughts or ideas you have to
JULY 2020 Issue
March’s Parish Pump asked: ‘Is God Real, and if so, how real?’
Last month, we read Martin Down’s eloquent argument that the evidence for God as the Great Designer is all around us in a Universe full of Life which is simply too complex to have evolved by chance.
This month, we start with a wide-ranging suggestion that perhaps the Velvet Rabbit had a point too, because even without a view of how Life began, one might conclude that God grows ever more real with the growing river of evidence of Him ‘moving in man’ through the ages culminating with the evidence of personal experience.
I was struck by the page in the June issue of Parish Pump, entitled ‘Is God real?’ It recalled Kant's formula for God,’ens realissimum’, the Being of absolute reality on Whom all other lesser beings depend for their reality. ‘The Christian story’ can helpfully be thought of as a vast movement, starting very small with Abraham round 1800 BC, moving through the patriarchs, the slavery in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, the Promised Land, the prophets, kings, the Temple, sins of cruel idolatry, the disaster of exile to Babylon, the return, the longing for the Son of Man/the Messiah.
Then came Jesus, Son of God, His life, His death, resurrection, foundation of His ‘qahal’/Assembly, Church, His last words to the apostles: ‘All authority in heaven and earth is given to Me. Going therefore, teach all nations.’
See the explosion of joy recorded in the Gospels and epistles: the assembly/movement unceasingly broadens out down the centuries, studded with great saints like St Paul and St Peter, then Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, St Francis, St Teresa, the visions of the Madonna at Lourdes and Fatima, all the martyrs of the 20th century and continuing, John Paul II and here we are, the Movement, now numbering hundreds of millions, headed by Pope Francis. To be a believer is to take your place within that movement by accepting the lordship of the one to whom all authority has been given by the Father, entering into this endless torrent of lived experience, all overwhelmingly real.
This gives perhaps a better image than ‘the Seven Day creation, Ark, angels’ as a summary of what Christianity is.
John ends his persuasive letter with ‘I obviously write as a Catholic’, which introduces a nuance into the discussion: there may be ‘one God, but He can be experienced, and that experience explained, in different ways.
Another correspondent takes up this point about different experience, though in this case it is about geographic, and perhaps cultural, difference:
I was interested and impressed by Martin Down’s article on the Creator God who designed ‘everything that is’ in June’s issue of Parish Pump magazine.
But does this God take an interest in what he has made?
A while ago I listened to a talk given by someone who had spent some time in India. He said that the difference between a child born in the East from that of a child born in the West is that if you ask a child born in the West ‘Where is God?’, he will point to the sky. Whereas a child born in the East ,when asked ‘Where is God?’, will point to himself.
Which brings us here. When I received the following article from Michael Marsh, I read it, blinked foolishly, and read it again. And again. And then I thought, thank goodness for the internet, and looked up three or four things just to get to grips with the first paragraph! And I thought, I can’t publish this, I must get Michael to do something simpler.
But then I got into the swim of it, stopped even pretending to know what some of the references were, looked up everything, read and re-read... And gradually really interesting shapes loomed out of the fog. Very satisfying!
So, I changed my mind, and here is the article more or less without alteration. My only suggestion? Look things up, and don’t give up!
Is God Real? Inviting such opinion is brave editing, but a quest presumptive of a universe originating through chance or divine action: furthermore, whether ‘God’ exists, itself, is a big undertaking. Despite earlier Parish Pump accounts, arguments for a Creator-Designer raise the difficulties occasioned by Paley’s watch. Martin's DNA-protein model from design can impress, but in its anomalies (eg the mis-construction of mucosal Na+ channels in cystic fibrosis), we begin encountering the wider inescapable problem of ‘evil’.
Conversely, the weakness of the ‘chance’ approach extends, I think, beyond Nagel’s ‘The View From Nowhere’ because of our inability, and hence ignorance, in properly being able to circumscribe cosmic boundaries. Since we cannot hold the universe in our hands and examine it dispassionately, as it were, from ‘outside’ this proposition likewise has intrinsic weaknesses. But that neither re-inforces the reality or even necessity of ‘God’ since that idea, regarded as propositional of creation, is similarly unfathomable.
Even Anselm's ontological ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ falls on its internal question-begging fallacy. Furthermore, we must avoid the philosophical abstraction ‘God’, as Anthony Kenny pointedly indicated (hence my use of quotes.) The sterility of proposals from ‘design’, ‘God’, or ‘chance’, resulting from their non-developmental properties, should be evident. Parenthetically neither science nor chance are able to account effectively for an occurrent moral order and the ensuing difficulties in accounting for the evil that abounds within creation. Moreover, a ‘chance’ universe exposes its dismissiveness towards the possibility of existence beyond death. Do we all regard ourselves as resulting solely from chance? Such a view hardly provides an acceptable account (if recompense) for the gross oppression throughout history which the majority have endured through their individual lives on earth.
The battleground thus might be expanded further from theological, rather than philosophical, groundings. Now a firm grasp of trinitarian perceptions is crucial, away from the vague abstraction ‘God’, but illustrative of the dynamic hypostatic Godhead comprising Father, Son and Spirit as pre-adumbrated in and declared from 3rd Isaiah (61:1-2) (... the Lord Jehovah is upon me), as Jesus initiated his ministry in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-18). His anointing as Messianic Pretender was predicated on that declaration and within the hypostatic union. The Godhead is now incarnate in human flesh, perhaps the greatest revelation of divine activity ever upon earth.
That possible proof aside, another problem is that cosmic origins are rarely, if ever, considered from human perspectives, especially their impingement on the actuality of being human, and also the meaning attached to every life (as we saw above). Such meaning intrinsic to any life (which all of us, presumably, believe to be the case) concerns not only our coming in, but as importantly our going out.
Notably the divine response to Nicodemus (John 3:7) was that we all must undergo second rebirth: not of blood, nor of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but from above, as exemplified in NT witness. There, we read of individually-made re-conformations (a new ‘hypostasis’) through baptism into the godhead. The force of the original tensed Greek perfects, lost in much English translation as Aorists, emphasises the eternal efficacy of that procedure and nascent within it (... ἀναγεγεννημένοι... διὰ λόγου θεοῦ: 1Peter 1:23) towards both a confirmation (...βέβαιούμενοι: Colossians. 2:7) and a completed assimilation (... ὰνακεΦαλαιώςαςθαι... ὲν τῷ χριςτῷ: Ephesians. 1:10). Those assertions, as originally scribed, were by no means prescriptive of mere earthly existence but exemplary of a prescient denotation of the metaphysical. That apocalyptic, for Paul Fiddes (’The Promised End’), is directly analogous to dying and rising with Christ in the baptismal gathering offering, for humanity, immense eschatological, as well as cosmic, reassurances. Indeed, being human isn’t just about retrospective monkeyings around, but rather the assumptive metaphysical whereabouts of existence into the future.
This is a brief, cursory addendum which sceptics would howl at as post hoc subterfuge. But that 3,000-year-dependent, evolving thematic of Judeo-Christian development cannot simply (or simplistically) be dismissively trounced as insignificant. Despite repeated onslaughts through time, its promissory message remains for many a bulwark for life both in the present and hereafter: representative of our transcendent urge to break out into new terrains. And with that transcendent urge a determined hope (not of the psychological kind for rain on our runner beans tomorrow) but a hope firmly ontological, providing immense tractive force in aiding our approaches to the unknowing threatening darkness of death and the beyond. While additionally Peter Berger, throughout the annals of history, glimpses evidence for divine hands gently nudging the tiller through the immensity of that long, evolutionary journeying: touchingly scored as ‘A Rumour of Angels’.
‘God’?, ‘design’?, ‘chance’?, and much else, may therefore not be the fertile groundings from which this and other riddles are to be interrogated, let alone solved - despite opinion to the contrary. Things may be just a little bit more complex than that. So, back to Leibniz...
Michael N Marsh
AUGUST 2020 Issue
And off we go again...
If you missed it, March’s Parish Pump asked: ‘Is God Real, and if so, how real?’
'Few Christians now believe that the entire Christian story is real like the tin of beans is real (the seven-day Creation, the Ark, angels), but most insist that God is at least as real as gravity: He has a direct and real effect on the Universe. Now that the Pope is apparently canonising people who did not exist, but whose life story is an inspiration to the faithful, surely it is time to accept that God and the Christian story are real only as a fable is real... a wonderful human construct, an extended parable, providing a set of values by which to live.'
Over the last few months, we’ve had several eloquent testimonies to personal belief, and stabs at ‘proofs’, on various grounds, that God is real
This month, it’s the turn of those who range from puzzled to doubting to ‘not on your nelly’. Several correspondents have reminded me of favourite quotations suggesting difficulty with the concept of a ‘Real God’.
One quoted Robert Frost’s blast at a God who, being absent, could not be real:
I turned to speak to God
About the world’s despair;
But to make bad matters worse
I found God wasn’t there.
Frost vacillated between seeing nothing but fury in creation, the work of the vengeful God of the Old Testament, and belief that man could not save himself, only God could do this. But he appeared to be talking of a ‘God effect’ rather than a real God.
Another correspondent suggested that discussions about supernatural beliefs, whether of God, or fairies, or unicorns are only manageable if framed humorously, or at any rate mock-seriously, and cited Holden Caulfield’s take in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’:
'I felt like praying or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn't do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don't care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down.'
Several people have said to me, why bother to think about it at all? Just enjoy the peace of the beautiful building, the rousing hymns, the fellowship... And simply ignore the priests and the sermonising as the price to pay.
However, I had two or three pieces from those who wished to engage with the actual question ‘Is God Real’, and found the answer to be ‘No!’. Here is one of them...
Two pieces have appeared in recent editions of Parish Pump under the rubric ‘Is god real?’ This piece seeks to identify the problems with the supposed proofs of god’s existence contained in them. I do not believe I am adding anything new to the long historical discourse on the subject.
The piece in the June 2020 edition rehearses what is generally referred to as the argument from design.
There are various versions of this supposed proof of god’s existence. The most well-known is William Paley’s exposition of it (in 1802) which goes something like this: if one were to find a watch lying on the ground, one would assume that its many complex parts fitted together for a purpose, and that it had not come into existence by chance: there must be a watchmaker.
Accordingly, all complex things require a creator/designer. By analogy, since we find ourselves in a universe/world which is (and in which things in it are) complex, it/they must have a designer/creator (god). The piece points to the complex balance of forces in the universe and to the complexity of DNA and cell biology.
The principal difficulty with the argument from (apparent) design is that in order to succeed it requires a creator/designer who is at least (if not more) complex than the complex things he creates/designs. And since the argument’s central proposition is that anything complex must have a designer, god being (necessarily) complex must himself have a designer. Who must have a designer, who must have a designer – in an infinite regression of increasingly clever gods. So the argument at best proves only this infinite regression and fails to prove the existence of a single god once removed. It defeats itself by its own premise.
Even taken at its highest, the argument from design is only capable of supporting the Deist position (god designed/created the universe/ world and then retired to a safe distance). It can provide no support for the Theist position (god did not retire to a safe distance, his work done, but has remained busy ever since answering prayers, arranging miracles, smiting people etc).
Further, it says nothing about which or whose god might have done the designing. Why not Lord Brahma?
Incidentally, the absence of any other explanation for complexity in nature would not of itself prove the argument from design. But ‘chance’ is not the only alternative to ‘design’ at least in relation to life-forms and the Evolutionist’s explanation is set out in, for example, Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Blind Watchmaker’.
I ought perhaps to anticipate one possible response to the core criticism of the argument from design (that it can prove only an infinite regression of ever more clever gods and thus defeats itself). It might be said that the god first removed which the argument purportedly proves the existence of is not a ‘watchmaker sort of god’: he doesn't sit at a workbench making things. He is something more akin to St Anselm’s superlative being: ‘a being than which no greater can be conceived’. The fallacy of this move is that it produces the following invalid argument : (1) all complex things must have a designer/creator (2) the universe and the world are (and contain) complex things (3) therefore a designer/creator exists (4) therefore the designer creator is a superlative being. The second conclusion (4) cannot be reached from the premises, nor from the first conclusion (3). All the move amounts to is an attempt to save the argument from design from its inevitable logical failure by grafting on to it another (supposed) proof of god’s existence. I do not have space here to deal with St Anselm's argument (generally known as the ‘ontological argument’) but it doesn't matter for present purposes.
Turning to the piece in the July edition, I have to confess that I found this very difficult to understand, in large part because it is replete with recondite erudition. Doubtless that is my failing. Doing my best, what I think the piece is trying to say is this:
1 The argument from design is problematic;
2 The argument from chance is problematic;
3 The solution is an argument from Trinitarianism;
4 Further, human life has meaning (therefore god is real);
5 Anyway, religion has been around for 3000 years so there must be something it.
If I have misunderstood then I must apologise to its author for misrepresenting his argument, and he is more than welcome to attempt a more lucid exposition to which I can respond.
About Trinitarianism I do not think I can improve upon Thomas Jefferson’s remark that ‘no man has ever had a distinct idea of what the Trinity is and that since any idea must be made distinct before reason can operate upon it, it is futile trying to engage in rational debate about it.’
Anyway, one does not need to descend into a debate about the nature of the Trinity to rebut the piece’s argument which appears to amount only to this: the Trinity proves god. Which is the equivalent of saying religion proves god. Which is not an argument, nor a form of proof known to mankind.
The piece’s next claim (that each human life has meaning therefore god is real) fails because no evidence is advanced that life has any meaning (whatever ‘meaning’ means). And if (for some) religion/god gives life meaning then that is just a circular argument which proves nothing.
Finally, the piece suggests that if the Abrahamic religions (I assume it is the Abrahamic religions which are referred to) have been around for 3000 years there ‘must be something in it’. How can that possibly prove anything? By all accounts, human beings for a long time believed that the earth is flat (bizarrely some still do). Does that prove that the earth is flat? What about ghosts, witches and fairies? Geocentrism? All long-held beliefs which by the piece's logic must be true simply by dint of long held human belief in them. And anyway, the evidence suggests that Homo Sapiens has been around for at least 200,000 years : 3000 years isn't very long in the grand scheme of things.
I am sorry but (for me) neither piece contains a single convincing argument that god is real.
Having set out on this trail of ‘Is God Real?’, one certainly can’t say certainly that he is. ‘God exists’ is a belief, as is ‘God doesn’t exist’. It would be good to have a proof one way or the other, but there does not seem to be one that is not based on axioms which are themselves subject to belief.
In other words, in order to talk at all about the external existence of God, one has to be accepting of the reasonableness of his existence. It is as if two people visited a theatre, one of them for the very first time. The one could watch a play, and talk at once about its deepest meaning. The other would still be wondering what on earth was going on with the people with the painted faces coming in and out through wobbly doors, and all three foot up in the air under glaring lights in front of an audience. And until one can suspend disbelief, and believe that theatre is real, then the play cannot be real either.
A last thought for this month: it is suggested by some that God is in each of our heads and hearts, put there by each of us to guide us through the long nights of life, and to help us make sense of the beauty and the bloodiness of things. Buildings and ritual provide connection and constancy, and priests help (as jesters help kings) to remind us of our mortality. God is not real because he does not need to be. Because we are.
To be continued and all contributions welcomed (see contact page in menu above)...
WHEN GODS WALKED THE EARTH
Heracles wearing the lion's skin (carved in the workshop at Cotswold Woollen Weavers in Filkins.
What does a dyslexic, agnostic, insomniac do at night?
He stays up late, wondering if there really is a dog.