22nd September 2012
It’s a simple question, isn’t it? Are you a theist or an atheist? It’s a simple question but a divisive one; to be avoided at dinner parties. It’s a question that, depending on the depth of conviction of the questioner, can either sort the rational from the superstitious or the saved from the damned.
On one side of the divide lies pure reason represented by science – emphasizing the rational. On the other side lies faith represented by religion – emphasizing commitment. On either side of the divide lie a whole host of preconceptions.
Ever since the age of enlightenment, there has been an uneasy relationship between science and Christianity as scientific discoveries challenged religious certainties. The work of Galileo challenged the orthodox view of a geocentric universe. The work of Darwin challenged the creationist view of life. Discoveries in geology challenged the accepted understanding of the age of the earth. In modern times, and at least partly as a result of the Church’s consistently conservative stance whenever there are scientific and social developments, church attendance in Western Europe has been in a state of perpetual decline. There are many educated people who express, sometimes with ridicule, sometimes with regret, their disbelief in God.
“Do you believe in God?”
Firstly, it depends what is meant by “believe”? Does it mean whether you give your rational assent to a proposition as in – “Do you believe the earth is round?” Or does it mean whether you ascribe to a particular set of values as in “Do you believe that people should have consideration for others?”
Secondly, it depends on the nature of the God that is understood by the questioner. I am not just splitting hairs. The questioner may have a conception of God that you don’t share. Indeed if either you or the questioner is a theological skeptic, the God that you or they do not believe in may simply not exist.
Maybe the question is not so simple after all.
God is commonly perceived as an otherworldly deity looking down from on high, while rewarding the good, punishing the bad and performing the occasional miracle. But the good are not always rewarded and the bad are not always punished while science baulks at giving any credence to a supernatural explanation for “miracles”.
Faith is sometimes seen as an unquestioning belief in the historical veracity of the scriptural narrative, in the case of Christianity, this being the gospel narrative. Indeed the gospels are often preached as being a literal truth.
It is easy to portray Christianity like this as a primitive superstition that has been superseded by modern science; its followers deluded. A good proportion of people in Western Europe, if asked if they believed in the Christian God, would respond with a resounding “No”.
And yet, what is often overlooked is that during the late middle ages in Western Europe there was a rediscovery of the classical works of the ancient Greeks and it was towards the end of a period of extraordinary scientific achievements, particularly in the fields of geometry and astronomy, from the teachings of Pythagoras (c. 500 BCE) to the production of Ptolemy’s Almagest (approx. 170 CE), that the gospels themselves were written.
A common misunderstanding of religious scripture is that it in some way purports to be history. It is not. Although the gospels in the New Testament may contain allusions to historical events they are designed to be interpreted and we should not be surprised if they reflect the ideas, the philosophies and the social and political realities of the time in which they were written. Christianity was born in an age of tremendous conflict. It was also an age where intellectual endeavor was highly valued and encouraged. The writer of the gospel according to Mark, the earliest gospel in the New Testament canon, was highly educated. It is inconceivable that he was unaware of the philosophical and scientific achievements of the society of which he was part. If we imagine his experiences and read his gospel as an allegorical tale rather than as a literal truth, we may be able to discern a different narrative and perceive a God that is not an other-worldly deity but one who is described in the first letter of John [John 4: 8]:
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
In John’s words love is not a characteristic of God. It is a definition.
“Do you believe in Love?”
Surely that is something that all of us can believe in.