Why Believe in God?
Over the past few years, the Image staff contemplated assembling a symposium based on this simple problem. But we hesitated. Should we pose such a disarmingly straightforward question to artists and writers, who tend to shun the explicit and the rational? Or were we hesitating because the question itself made us uncomfortable?
Then, over the past year, a handful of manifestoes appeared criticizing religion as a corrupting social force, as vengeful, nonsensical wish-fulfillment, as closing people’s minds to science and leading to war and environmental destruction. Christopher Hitchens and the “New Atheists” have much to lay at the door of the faith traditions of the west. Hitchens calls religion “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
And so we were spurred into action in spite of ourselves. We put it to a group of writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians: At a time in human history when, at least in the worlds of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe? Our goal has been neither to publish rebuttals to Hitchens et al. nor to host a debate, but instead to seek out brief meditations from the artists and writers who make up our extended community. Their responses are collected here.
A Light Infused
AS A SENIOR IN COLLEGE, I took a course on “The Philosophy of God” in which we considered the “five proofs for the existence of God” as proposed by Thomas Aquinas in his magisterial Summa Theologica. The first way of proving God has to do with the notion that nothing can move itself, therefore the first object in motion needed a mover, and we call that unmoved mover God. Secondly, whatever exists is caused or created by something else, except for the uncaused first cause that we call God. Likewise, contingent beings are caused, which means one thing exists that is necessary to cause dependent or conditional things, and that necessary being we call God. The fourth way has to do with the recognition that goodness, beauty, knowledge, and such are appreciated according to a standard, rationale, or measure having to do with perceived gradations in the qualities of things. We notice any achievement as an aspiration for perfection that is never attained. That standard of perfection was initiated by and contained in what we call God. And finally, the fifth of Thomas Aquinas’s proofs, is that physics, science, and nature are governed by laws that are so orderly that we can only conclude that, rather than random accidents, an intelligence was behind their design, and we call that intelligent designer God.
The British philosopher A.J. Ayer wrote a book-length refutation of Aquinas’s five proofs, but Ayer is a logical positivist who rejects metaphysics as meaningless and exercises a thoroughgoing empiricism in his judgments: whatever is not experienced may not really exist, whether it’s India, hang-gliding, or God.
Atheists are generally logical positivists who are wary of what Francis Bacon warned about in Novum Organum, his seventeenth-century treatise on the scientific method:
The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affections…. For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and infect the understanding.
Atheists, of course, are as susceptible to impatience, arrogance, and the infection of understanding as any theists are. An attitude of skepticism can be distorted by the passions just as an attitude of faith can be. And the passions seem to run hottest when the errors of religion across time are considered, or when the problem of theodicy is introduced: the evil in the world would seem to indicate that God is either good but not omnipotent, or omnipotent but not good.
But we know God as the great mystery, beyond our categories, our justice, our sense of rightness, our ideas about world governance. As poet John Berryman noted in the ninth of his “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”:
Interminable: an old theologian
asserts that even to say You exist is misleading.
Uh-huh. I buy that second-century fellow.
I press his withered glorifying hand.
You certainly do not as I exist,
impersonating as well the meteorite
& flaring in your sun your waterfall
or blind in caves pallid fishes.
Bear in mind me, Who have forgotten nothing,
& Who continues. I may not foreknow
& fail much to remember. You sustain
imperial desuetudes, at the kerb a widow.
My faith is based in just that sense of being sustained. I have no proof that my faith in God is not a product of ignorance, superstition, wild hope, or wishful thinking, but I have felt loved by a concerned and caring holy being greater than my imagination. And I have had my experience confirmed by thousands who have gone before me, jotting a record of their encounters on rolls of papyrus, or locating the site of their theophanies by piling stones in the desert. And if my faith in God has more basis in emotion and intuition than in logic or science, I’m frankly untroubled by it, for as Blaise Pascal noted in his Pensées, “It is the heart that perceives God and not the reason.”
Ron Hansen’s most recent books are the novel Isn’t It Romantic? and a book of essays, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction (both from HarperCollins).
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.