Shadow-Boxing with Eternity by Robert Silver

Robert Silver

Shadow-Boxing with Eternity


God, according to the Judeo–Christian tradition, is the Supreme Being. God’s existence, according to the central traditions of western culture, is the supreme question. We want to know the answer, not because the answer will necessarily make any difference to our lives, but because we attach value to knowledge for its own sake. The problem, as posed, elicits a range of responses. The theist claims that God exists, that he created the universe and that he continues to intervene in its affairs. The deist believes that God created the universe and then washed his hands of it, leaving it to its own devices. The agnostic takes the view that inadequate evidence on the subject precludes a rational answer to the question. The logical positivist thinks that the question itself is incomprehensible. Finally, the atheist denies the existence of God. The issue matters to the atheist – he must be contrasted with the passive unbeliever who does not believe because he does not care. The atheists presuppose that the philosophers pose a genuine question, susceptible of an objective, though not a definitive answer. He is happy to adopt a probabilistic stance because he thinks that life is too short to wait for final truth. The answer is objective in the sense that, and to the extent that, the atheist is obliged to formulate a picture of what god would be like if he existed, though he doesn’t. The atheist denies neither a loose projection of human myths nor an infinitely protean force which exists subjectively for those who care to believe in it, but an explicit personality said to exist in his own right, whether the subject of belief or not. The committed atheist bases a world-outlook on a single statement of dissent, but this act of dissent is distinguishable from its philosophical consequences.

Godlessness is not an especially comforting, though it may be a truthful, picture of the world. Existential isolation now is at least as forbidding as the postponed terrors of hellfire. But then there is no particular reason to think that the truth is comforting. The truth is, prima facie, neutral between hope and despair. Christians sometimes suggest that the atheist is committed to determinism. They attribute to him a comprehensive explanation of things as they are, akin to their own. The paradox of his position in practice is that he is acutely aware of what Sartre called the ‘gratuitousness’ – or arbitrariness – of his situation as a man contingently placed in a contingent world. Inexplicable free will, not supervening determinist necessity, characterises his perception of his predicament. Contemporary atheism is not based on a belief in unbreakable laws of nature. The atheist is confronted by a wilderness of choice; he is unsure whether any oasis offers genuine liquid refreshment; he rejects mirages of faith in a superior being or another world. He is tentatively committed to a provisional theory of knowledge. Unlike God, who knows everything, and Socrates who knows nothing, the atheist knows enough to know that he has to make interim intellectual assumptions about his relationship with his environment.

The Christians have always been open to criticism based on the charge of incoherence. The notion of a God who comes to earth, dies at human hands to redeem the human race, to be resurrected to reappear to his followers, playing a part in a theologian’s three card trick which defies the laws of arithmetic, is somewhat recalcitrant to rational analysis. Its absurdity, argue the apologists for Christianity, is its asset. ‘It is certain’ writes Tertullian, ‘because it is impossible’. Tertullian’s God, and the God of the Christian apologists is an elusive customer, hard to nail on the cross of argument. He is logically ubiquitous, a metaphysical vacuum capable of permanent redefinition to meet the thrusts of the sceptic, in fact, rather like TS Eliot’s Macavity, the Mystery Cat, who ‘always has an alibi and one or two to spare’. The current vogue among theologians, confronted by the atheist at full tilt, is to appeal to God’s mystery; as Eliot says, ‘it’s useless to investigate – Macavity’s not there’. The Christian’s God has always been a troublesome sparring partner. He is dialectically difficult. The Jewish God, based on a pure, direct, unequivocal monotheism, is better suited to the debate down the centuries, though Judaism has failed to generate the range of argument in favour of God’s existence – the argument from design, the ontological argument, the first cause theory which Christians have deployed in their efforts to persuade the sceptics. It is hard to argue with an abstract conception which has the dexterity of a fakir and the disposition of an insatiable tease. But the situation has worsened. If traditional theologians performed the Indian rope trick in front of our eyes, their modern counterparts try to repeat the performance without producing a rope. Christians no longer affirm their faith in a series of propositions professing to constitute a true picture of what the world is actually like. They have abandoned their claims to objectivity; they have modified the clarity of their commitment. This leaves the atheist in a difficult position. He no longer has a definable postulate which he can accept or reject.

What do today’s Christians ask us to believe? No longer in a God up there, or out there, but a God in here – subsisting in human relationships, another name for love, the anthropomorphic embodiment of our ultimate concerns. If God subsists in human relationships, he vanishes on Cruse’s desert island and takes a back seat to Roy Plomley at 6.25 on Saturday evenings. If he is equivalent to the force of love at work in the universe, he loses the awesome attribute of omnipotence, except on the immensely unrealistic assumption that love is a universal conqueror, (Virgil omnia vincit Amor) and God turns into a synonym for the ‘inner chemistry’ of cheap romantic novelists. If he is another name for our ultimate concerns, whatever they may be, everyone automatically is a believer, including the atheist, because everyone by definition has ultimate concerns and the Christians, through verbal quibbles, have won the game without scoring a goal.

The atheist’s mood traditionally oscillates between the dismissive and the defiant. ‘God is dead’, proclaimed Nietzsche in 1882, because men no longer believed in him. Nietzsche, hoping to terminate the argument once and for all, probably misread the minds of his contemporaries. The well-established retort can be seen in the graffiti on the walls – Nietzsche is dead, says God. In any case, and in either case, if God exists, he exists permanently; if not, he never did. The notion of a God who comes and goes, at one moment brimming with health, at another the victim of homicide at the hands of mankind, is incoherent. It is a central feature of the Judo Christian tradition, classically stated, that God exists, whether or not anyone believes in him and whether or not anyone is present to believe in him. Nietzsche illustrates the dismissive tradition. So does Sir Alfred Ayer – if Ayer’s position, set out in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), apparently modified in later writings, is a version of atheism at all. According to Ayer, ‘to say that “God exists” is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false’ for ‘the notion of a person whose essential attributes are non-empirical is not an intelligible notion at all’ and ‘the atheist’s assertion that there is no god is equally nonsensical’. The atheist, however, is obliged to accept the language of metaphysical discourse in order to start to debate the point.

If dismissiveness is a sign of intellectual fatigue, defiance is a species of emotional self-indulgence. Defiance was at work in the attitude of Beethoven, said to have shaken his fists at heaven as he lay on his deathbed. Defiance suits the outlook of a persecuted minority, as atheists were when Mill wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century; ‘if such a Being [God] can sentence me to hell – for denying him the attribute “Good” – then to Hell I will go’. This posture is Promethean, exaggerated, melodramatic – and often lapses into anticlericalism. It is not the proper business of the sceptic to breathe life into Christianity’s own warped image of Antichrist.

Neither dismissiveness nor defiance is appropriate to the temper of the times. The existence of God deserves rigorous argument, meriting the atheist’s full participation. Confused Christians are fellow-beings whose dilemmas require attention. Uninterested unbelievers who take it for granted that religion has been exploded by the development of the scientific worldview also have to be jolted out of their complacency. The scientific mood changes and unthinking unbelievers may be prey to other kinds of superstitions from ESP to star-gazing. If the debate is not carried out in public, in the conversation of mankind, it will be carried out in private, in the cogitations of the individual. Cogitation without conversation is usually sterile. The form which the conversation ought to take is argument, not discussion.

It is a notorious fact that many Christians, asked to define their beliefs, lapse into incoherence. Their inarticulateness has several explanations. People aren’t used to having to justify their intellectual choices. They resent being forced to think. Upbringing, education and the pernicious effects of popular mass communications contribute to failing powers of individual self-expression. But organised atheism is partly responsible. Its dialectical duty is to keep atheists up to the mark. A generation of theologians has been allowed to relax. The consequence is massive mental muddle. In the United States, active debate occurs between creationists and Darwinians. In this country, no organisation exists which effectively represents the atheist’s viewpoint. Two societies purport to do so – theBritish Humanist Association and the National Secular Society. Notice that both societies shy away from the word ‘atheist’. Humanism is a pallid substitute for atheism; secularism is an anticlericalist diversion from it. The chief concerns of these organisations are attacking religious education and campaigning for abortion on demand. These at best are side-issues. The focus of their activities is socio-political, when it ought to be psycho-philosophical. Humanists typify the tradition of secular Anglicanism’ – a phrase used by the social historian Arthur Marwick to convey the appetite for compromise on fundamentals which distinguishes British public life. According to the latest issue of the British Humanists’ newsletter, a new member of the society’s executive gives regular talks on how to be a Quaker and a humanist at the same time. Some distinctions, surely, have to be maintained. Just as the Church of England gives up on the Thirty Nine Articles and debates nuclear weapon instead, so organised atheism abandons the exacting task of philosophical persuasion, in favour of political propaganda.

Atheists must minister to what believers mistakenly consider their spiritual needs, in reality the search for intelligible explanation. In the Judeo–Christian tradition, god acts at the intersection of three lines of human inquiry, backed up by a particular human emotional urge. Human beings want to know why they’re here: the tradition postulates God the Creator. They wonder about the sources of morality; the tradition replies God the Lawgiver, classically revealed on Mount Sinai. They search for an ultimate purpose and the west’s great religions answer God as Final and Sufficient Cause. Conscious of isolation, anxious for reassurance, they seek to enter satisfying relationships; the western religions evoke God the Father who cares for creation, responds to prayer and sustains relationships with mankind based on the reciprocal flow of emotion. God, according to the Judeo–Christian cultural legacy, combines all four characteristics – creative omnipotence, legislative authority, ultimate purpose and infinite love. The Supreme Being plays a variety of roles but retains underlying identity. Religion has an ace up its sleeve – its ability to deliver a simultaneous answer to fundamentally different questions.

The atheist’s task is to unmask the confusion. But it has to come to terms with urges in the human psyche which give rise to this four-headed hypothesis. This hypothesis has lingering authority. The argument, despite Nietzsche, is not yet dead. Atheists believe that the question deserves an answer. They make further assumptions. What takes place in other people’s heads matters, not just because it has repercussions for what they do, but because it concerns all of us in its own right. It is a philosophical, not a political concern – not a license to interfere with freedom of conscience, but a legitimate interest in the quality of other people’s mental processes. The intellect is not reducible to a sequence of conditioned reflexes: atheists must affirm its autonomy, hence its importance to others, and they must not allow humanity’s claim to be different – neither chimpanzee nor robot – to be monopolised by religion. The church poses a challenge. Atheists must take it up. They have to offer, not salvation, but understanding. Mankind longs for the fantasy of a transcendental cause. Russell’s response to this longing was to state ‘the universe is just there and that’s all’. This has to be presented intelligibly to mankind in the light of what we know about human psychology. The atheist case calls for a formidable work of revision. Cogency has to be added to its familiar contentions; that the search for an ultimate raison d’être is an illusion; that the only purposes we have are the purposes we set ourselves; that moral values arise from the imperatives of human interaction; that the desire for love can only be satisfied by and through other human beings. Exponents of the atheist case need to reaffirm their faith in rational analysis and. adopting the best maxims of strategy, seek out their opponents at their opponents strongest point. The debate will continue.

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