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by Rick Lewis
As I type these words, the Festive Season is looming up fast in my wing mirrors like some fairy-light bedecked truck on a desert highway. Christmas is coming and this issue is about problems of theism. Theism is the belief in a benevolent, omnipresent figure who distributes blessings around the world. No, not Santa Claus – God. People often complain that the true meaning of Christmas has been forgotten, but even for Christians there is some controversy over what that meaning is: Oliver Cromwell, for instance, banned Christmas altogether. Stephen Anderson in his article takes a seasonal look at the idea of charity at Christmas.
My lack of religious belief was one of the reasons I became interested in philosophy in the first place, but that doesn’t stop me from being fascinated by the whole question of God’s existence and nature. If there is a God, then that is one of the most important things for us to know. And if God doesn’t exist, or if the whole matter is literally impossible for us to know one way or the other, well, that’s pretty important too. Either way, your view of this is bound to affect the way you look at so many other things too. I’m delighted to report that we have mustered a very distinguished crew of contributors to share their thoughts about this, including theists, agnostics and atheists. They include several of the leading philosophers writing on philosophy of religion today.
The current French nickname for the English (the printable one, anyway) is les rosbifs, after the national dish of the folks north of the Channel, but back in the Middle Ages, they used to refer to the English as les goddams. This reflected the notorious English fondness for blasphemy. Regrettably, “God Damn!” wasn’t the only way in which foulmouthed English knights used the Lord’s name to let off steam. They also sometimes shouted “God’s Teeth!” or “God’s Truth!”, or yelled “Zounds!” (= “God’s Hounds” or possibly “God’s Wounds”) or sometimes “Gadzooks!” (= “God’s Hooks”, which either meant “God’s hands” or else was a reference to the nails used to fix Jesus to the cross).
This issue of Philosophy Now is about God’s hooks, meaning not hands or nails but the ways in which arguments about God can snare the imagination, can sometimes even change the direction of a person’s whole life.
Professor William Lane Craig, the celebrated Christian apologist, gives us a whole selection of such hooks in his article. His eight arguments cover a whole range of approaches, including – bravely – taking various aspects of the natural world as evidence for God’s existence. Many things previously taken as such evidence (such as the existence of different species of animals, the design of the human thumb or the motion of the planets in their orbits) are rarely mentioned by theologians any more, it being widely accepted that science now explains them adequately enough. Therefore sceptics tend to assume that the remaining gaps in scientific knowledge will gradually be filled in too, leaving the ‘God of the Gaps’ with less and less to explain until He disappears altogether. Prof. Craig, though, chooses aspects of nature so fundamental that he believes them to be beyond the reach of any future science.
Prof. Timothy Chappell takes a completely different tack to defend religious belief, relying less on formal arguments and more on what he calls the religious experience of the individual believer. He says that it is rational for believers to discount even apparently persuasive arguments against God’s existence, because they are sure of His existence anyway from their daily experience of Him. A third approach to religious belief is discussed by the eminent theologian Prof. Daphne Hampson in her ‘brief life’ article about the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who advocated a ‘leap of faith’.
After these three approaches to belief, you are probably wondering where all the unbelievers are. Well, the infidels, atheists and agnostics are ably represented by Prof. Van Harvey who writes on two different kinds of agnosticism; by Jimmy Licon who writes on the Problem of Evil (If God really is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does he allow so much evil in the world?); in our Book Reviews section, Les Reid gives the Bible a right bashing, and Ian Robinson reviews two books by the philosopher, agnostic and ex-vicar Dr Mark Vernon. And then we interview one of the best-known and most eloquent of humanist philosophers, Prof. Simon Blackburn, about his life without belief in God.
In this issue we bid a fond goodbye to our Ethical Episodes columnist and friend Joel Marks after a remarkable 14 years. Joel first wrote for this magazine in 1999, and has never missed an issue since. For most of that time his column was called Moral (and Other) Moments and he wrote as an enthusiastic advocate of Immanuel Kant’s famous categorical imperative, exploring that moral stance in relation to all sorts of real-life problems and dilemmas. Then about three years back he performed a stunning turn, declaring that he was no longer convinced that a morality had an objective metaphysical basis or was even necessary for living. So instead he became an ‘amoralist’ – but one still very interested in human behaviour and our inescapable need to find ways of all getting along together. We’re sad to see the end of Joel’s column, but pleased to report that he’ll still be making occasional guest appearances in these pages, including an article in our 100th issue, which will be along in just a couple of months.