Tuesday, 1 April 2008

In God We Doubt

As someone who spends longer than can ever be considered healthy obsessing about theological issues, I have come to remarkably few conclusions. So few, that I have been forced to subscribe to Olin Miller's assertion that "to be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it". I guess that's my cynical pragmatism at work.

However that doesn't stop me wishing I could believe in something - really believe in a way that gives my life a purpose I can dedicate myself to, rather than forcing myself to swallow a grain of truth surrounded by a load of claptrap for the sake of a little solace, which seems to be the failure of most religious texts I've explored. Many people say that historical context and exegisis brings more clarity. But, no matter how much I read, I'm simply not there yet.

I also consider it rather unfair that so many so called Holy Books have rocked up on the earth's shores. It's hard enough working out, after many years of painstaking research, whether one of them stacks up let alone comparing them to the beliefs of Incas, Hare Krishna's or even just the other major world religions.

So imagine how pleased I was to discover this excerpt from a new book by John Humphrys entitled In God We Doubt. I remember the marxist vicar Giles Fraser well from my time at Wadham when he was our college chaplain.

One particular sermon of his on The Matrix and the meaning of modern life was instrumental in changing my understanding of British society at the tender age of 19, an understanding only reinforced by works like Affluenza and I Fought the Law which, despite their slightly hysterical tone, have helped prevent me ever becoming a fully functional member of a society obsessed by consumption, pleasure, and distraction.

As Humphrys himself acknowledges "For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable".

I agree with him that while most attempts to justify belief in God seem hopelessly naive, the hopelessness of postmodernist thought, in which we are supposed to be satisfied with a life of pleasure with nothing at the end of it, doesn't make a great deal of sense either. In fact, if human beings, like other creatures, were supposed to exist happily without a sense of an external creator why did they all go to such great lengths to create one?

After all is said and done, "There remains what the atheist philosopher AC Grayling calls “the lingering splinter in the mind . . . a sense of yearning for the absolute”. There is a profound longing for something that will stimulate and satisfy emotionally and spiritually.

In the end our choice, as Humprhys points out, is to accept the conclusion reached by Jean-Paul Sartre that “There is no purpose to existence, only nothingness” or see the purpose in religion either as revealed truth, and therefore meaning, or as a social tool that is somehow in tune with the needs of human nature, and without which we function less well.

I suspect this will be top of my wish list for my birthday.


Wit and wisdom said...

Being a very poor Christian with more doubts than Nick Clegg in the boudoir, I'd say you'd do well to not worry about God and instead to focus on the messages of most of the major religions about how to improve your life through simply living a bit better.

After all, if God does exist she can surely look after herself...

Consider This said...

some sensible advice, wit and wisdom. Though living better, unfortunately, is not a science and unless you can equate better with both 'morally acceptably' and 'good for the individual'it can be hard to decide how to move forward. Ie, the church might teach divorce is bad, but it might be better for the individual to do that (and live 'worse' according to religious teachings) in order to feel better in themselves....

Joe Otten said...

Indeed living better is not science. Nor is it just following rules. The church's position may indeed be right 9 times out of 10. Or it may be only 1 time out of 10. So do your best to get it right. And that's about as far from postmodern as you can get.

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