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Problems of Belief & Unbelief
Theism, History and Experience
Timothy Chappell argues that standard arguments against God miss the point.
“In the heart of the remotest mountains rises the little Kirk; the dead all slumbering around it, under their white memorial-stones, ‘in hope of a happy Resurrection’: – dull wert thou, O reader, if never in any hour (say of moaning midnight, when such Kirk hung spectral in the sky, and Being was as if swallowed up in darkness) it spoke to thee – things unspeakable, that went into thy soul’s soul. Strong was he that had a Church, what we can call a Church: he stood thereby, though ‘in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,’ yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew.”
Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, Book 1, Chap II
First we should distinguish theism from mere belief in the supernatural. The latter, illustrated by ghost-stories, tales of second sight, rituals and sacrifices to prevent the failure of a harvest or a navy, the consulting of the sacred geese, and the throwing of the salt always over one’s left shoulder, is a human universal, and was known even to our Pleistocene ancestors. A more hostile name for this is superstition.
And the former, theism? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says that theism is “belief in a deity or deities, as opp. to atheism.” The kind of theism I want to focus on is more specific than this. Theism in my sense, Theism with a capital T, is belief not in deities but in God with a capital G. This is a much less universal phenomenon than supernaturalism/superstition. It has a historical particularity; in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, we can more or less see where Theism begins. It begins with the writing of the first chapter of Genesis, where the author makes it as clear as he knows how that the God of whom he speaks, Yahweh, is not just another heavenly being like the sun or the moon, but the sun and moon’s creator.
The difference between Theism as belief in God and theism as belief in deities is that the latter can easily be just another variety of supernaturalism. Especially where the deities are small and local enough, there seems little difference in principle between believing in such deities and believing in fairies or ghosts: think of nature-gods like Iris the rainbow-goddess, or Freya/Persephone of the harvest, or Thor the thunder-god. The classical pagan gods were very frequently of this sort, as were the deities of pagan Norway and Britain and Mexico. In another common pattern, pagan deities arose by ‘euhemerising’ apotheosis – by the route from being a human hero to occupying yet another alcove in the cluttered and haphazard pantheon of (say) the Rome of late antiquity. This was a route, indeed, that mortal Roman emperors regularly trod. Even Greek generals sometimes took it too.
The contrast between any such view and what I am calling Theism, as it showed up in the Roman context, is well put by the French historian Paul Veyne. He notes first the ‘gigantism’ of the Christian Theists’ God:
“The originality of Christianity lies… in the gigantic nature of its god, the creator of both heaven and earth: it is a gigantism that is alien to the pagan gods and is inherited from the god of the Bible. This biblical god was so huge that, despite his anthropomorphism (humankind was created in his image), it was possible for him to become a metaphysical god: even while retaining his human, passionate and protective character, the gigantic scale of the Judaic god allowed him eventually to take on the role of the founder and creator of the cosmic order.” (Veyne, When Our World Became Christian Polity, 2010, p.20)
Besides this ‘gigantism’, it was the “human, passionate, and protective character” of the Christians’ god that, Veyne argues, set Christian Theism apart from the chaotic polytheism of the surrounding society. There one found only an ill-defined assortment of quirky, sinister, unpredictable, highly localised, and at best conditionally benign daemons. But here was a universal and omnipresent God of ‘infinite mercy’, caring unconditionally “about the fate of each and every human soul, including mine and yours”, with whom what was on offer was “a mutual and passionate relationship of love and authority” (Veyne p.23). As Veyne shows, there was a huge difference between the effects of the two religions on the working psychology of anyone actually practising either. And that contrast nearly always worked in Theism’s favour.
“For whoever accepted the Christian faith, life became more intense, more organised, and was placed under greater pressure. An individual had to conform to a rule that marked him or her out… in exchange, his or her life suddenly acquired an eternal significance within a cosmic plan, something that no philosophy or paganism could confer. Paganism left human life exactly as it was, an ephemeral amalgam of details. Thanks to the Christian god, that life received the unity of a magnetic field in which every action and every internal response took on a meaning, either good or bad. This meaning… steered the believer towards an absolute and eternal entity that was not a mere principle but a great living being.” (Veyne p.19)
Capital-T Theism is just this combination of belief in an absolute and all-powerful God, utterly external and out there (‘transcendent’), who is yet also intimately known within the believer (‘immanent’) as moral authority, direction for life, warning or encouraging adviser, saviour, answerer of prayers, friend – sometimes even as lover. It is this combination of immanence and transcendence that makes the Theist view so psychologically compelling. If I adopt Theism then even within little me there will lovingly dwell the God of everything – as in the manger at Bethlehem. It is easy to see how this combination serves to give the believer a sense of the importance of his life and actions: “the vague shoreless Universe” has “become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he” knows. Many scholars think that Christian moralists make more than the classical pagans did of the virtue of humility. If that is so, perhaps it is because those who dare to believe that their own small hearts can become the dwelling-place of the infinite God have the more need of humility. Throughout history the Theists’ version of this idea of the divine indwelling or enthousiasmos, with the importance of the everyday as its corollary, has seeded megalomania, self-deception, self-absorption, fantasism, fanaticism, spiritual fascism, and psychological manipulation and abuse. It has also been the mainspring of much of the permanent achievements of our civilisation.
At the heart of Theism, transcendence combines with immanence in the intoxicating thought that the infinite is also the intimate: God himself has a plan even for my life. Every believer who has ever taken himself to receive divine guidance, as millions constantly do, has had this belief. Once the belief becomes credible, its attraction is almost irresistible.
This brilliant and seductive psychological appeal both to our sense of smallness and to our sense of greatness is the reason, Veyne argues, why Christianity won out in its battle with the feeble, syncretistic, and disaggregated supernaturalism of paganism; the contrast revealed Christianity as quite simply a better-designed religion. Veyne, an atheist and sometime Communist, calls Christianity a masterpiece (p.18).
If our concern is not to denounce Theism but to understand it, we need to start from the particularity of its history, and from this notion of the Infinite Intimate that is central to that history.
Most philosophers routinely don’t start from any such perspective; nor even ever reach it. Instead they start from a dictionary definition and take the heart of Theism to be, not a history of vivid and direct experience of an infinite God who has a plan even for finite you, but the proposition that “There is some god or gods.” They marshal arguments for and against this proposition. And so we get the familiar does-God-exist debates of contemporary philosophy, in which God so incongruously shows up as a possibly-missing component in the mechanics of cosmology or evolution, part of a botched attempt at scientific explanation. Or philosophers take the nub of the Theistic doctrines of God’s omnipotence or omniscience, or the specifically Christian doctrine of the Trinity, to be essentially a matter not of experience but of propositions; and draw our attention to the logical difficulties attending those doctrines, considered as concatenations of propositions. The problem with this abstractly propositional approach is not that it is wrong. The problem is that, pursued in isolation, it tends to miss the foundational role of experience in Theism.
Consider two aspects of experience, one having to do with the epistemic position, the other with the diachronic nature, of the Theist’s beliefs.
First, the epistemic position. Consider someone who, like us all I assume, lives her life in the midstream of a constant deluge of the best evidence she could possibly have that scepticism about the existence of the external world is false: the evidence of everyday experience. An abstractly propositional approach to external-world scepticism is bound to look slightly strange to any such person. Certainly someone in this epistemic position (meaning, this position about how her beliefs are justified) can understand sceptical doubts, explore them with interest and engagement, note with surprise – or perturbation – the difficulty of conclusively rebutting any argument of, for example, this form:
1. If I do not know that no evil demon is deceiving me, then I do not know that I have hands.
2. I do not know that no evil demon is deceiving me.
3. So I do not know that I have hands.
But can she take such sceptical doubts seriously? Is it possible to her that external-world scepticism might be true? It is hard to see how it could be, for the reason identified by G.E. Moore: because her justification for denying the conclusion of the sceptical argument (3) is so much better than any justification she could possibly have for accepting its premisses (1, 2). She is certain she has hands. If her alternatives are either to deny that she is certain, or to deny one of the sceptical argument’s premisses, then she has every reason to pick the second alternative. She may not know which premiss is false, but her certainty about the falsehood of (3) means that she is completely rational, and completely justified, in asserting “Not (1 and 2)”. Sceptical arguments like this may set her intriguing intellectual puzzles; they may even provide her with a livelihood writing about them. What they will not do is threaten her basic confidence that she knows plenty of things, for instance that she has hands.
They might threaten her assurance of that if it was a whole lot weaker, or if her epistemic position were strictly neutral – if she was antecedently disposed simply to consider each proposition on its logical merits in the abstract, and not disposed to take any proposition whatever to be any more or less sure than any other. But her position is precisely not neutral in this way. And the case of the Theist is parallel. As I put it above, the person considering external-world scepticism “lives her life in the midstream of a constant deluge of experiential evidence” for the existence of an external world. That sets her so far from abstract epistemic neutrality that she has every justification for weighting external-world scepticism as no more than an intriguing intellectual puzzle. Similarly, the defining feature of Theism is the Theist’s experience of an infinite but intimate God; and this sets the Theist so far from abstract epistemic neutrality that she too has every justification for weighting most of the standard problems for Theism found in philosophy of religion basically as interesting puzzles. The epistemic reasoner is certain that the world is real, on the basis of her experience; so her question about the sceptical argument is not “I wonder whether it is sound?” but “I wonder where exactly it goes wrong?” The Theist is certain that God is real, on the basis of her experience; so her question about anti-Theistic arguments is not whether they prove that there is no God, but how exactly they fail to prove that.
Normal people have overwhelmingly good evidence in their own experience that there is an external world, and reasonably take this to outweigh even the best arguments going for external-world scepticism. Likewise, the best arguments against Theism may be formidable, yet completely unpersuasive to a Theist – even a rational and fair-minded Theist. The whole point about Theism is that it claims that individuals can have overwhelmingly good experiential evidence that there is a God. To allow this experience to outweigh even the best anti-Theist arguments is no less reasonable than the analogous move against external-world scepticism.
This position helps us to understand the spirit in which Theists from strongly Theist societies like Anselm and Aquinas offer arguments for God’s existence. They do so in something like the same spirit as contemporary epistemologists who do not really doubt the external world’s existence for a moment yet still offer anti-sceptical arguments for the existence of an external world. In both cases the arguments are not evoked by a live doubt, but rather by an interest in exploring alternative possible structures of argument. The most famous explorer of external world scepticism was René Descartes, and perhaps we might even say that arguments about God’s existence are to the pre-Cartesian philosophical world as arguments about the external world’s existence are to the post-Cartesian.
The notion of ‘epistemic position’ also illuminates some familiar impasses in present-day debates about the philosophy of religion. For instance, critics of Theism sometimes struggle even to see their Theist interlocutors as rational, as dealing in the currency of arguments. It is sometimes cynically said that the conclusion is “the point in the argument where you stop thinking.” Cynicism aside, different reasonable people can have different good reasons for being content to reach their rational resting-places at different points. So the atheist who finds some purely logical problem in the notion of God’s omnipotence, e.g. that a God who ‘could do anything’ neither could nor could not create a stone too heavy for Himself to lift, may conclude straight away that there cannot be a God. Whereas a Theist, confronted with the same problem, may respond “Oh, how interesting. So God’s omnipotence must be beyond our understanding”; or “Ah, OK, so there is one thing that God can’t do – but He is otherwise omnipotent”, or “Well, this thing has a logically inconsistent description, so of course God can’t do it”; or “Oh, so perhaps omnipotence is not what matters in thinking about God” – or in some other way may qualify her understanding of what God is like, without in any way weakening her confidence that God is. This tenacity about God’s existence may (to repeat) be perfectly rational; as if it is based upon overwhelmingly good experiential evidence of God’s existence.
I said that Theists can have “every justification for weighting most of the standard problems for Theism found in philosophy of religion basically as interesting puzzles.” Most, I said, because one standard problem in philosophy of religion is bound to be grievously more than a mere intellectual puzzle. This is the classic problem of evil.
“God, says Epicurus, either wishes to prevent evils, and is unable; or he is able, and is unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and is unable, he is weak, which does not fit the character of God. If he is able and unwilling, he is malevolent, which does not fit God’s character either. If he is neither willing nor able, he is both malevolent and weak, and therefore not God at all. If he is both willing and able, which alone is fitting for God, from what source then are evils? Why does he not prevent them?” (Lactantius, de Ira Dei (c.313 AD); the first extant formulation of Epicurus’ version of the problem of evil)
Evidently Epicurus’s puzzle was presented as a puzzle for believers in a God of good providence: the Stoics’ God, or Lactantius’ own Christian God. (Epicurus seems not to have presented it, as people often present it today, as a puzzle for believers in God. Epicurus himself apparently believed in God, just not a providential or caring one.)
Epicurus’s puzzle is an intellectual puzzle, but it is not merely an intellectual puzzle. To any feeling person, the existence of evil in our world must create an emotional struggle as well as an intellectual puzzle. Theists suppose that there is a God who is good enough to want the very best for his creatures, and powerful enough to do anything He chooses. So why in Heaven’s name doesn’t He choose to do the very best?
One striking thing about this question is how much time Theists themselves spend asking it, and find themselves altogether unable to answer it: for example, “Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? Why hidest thou thyself in time of trouble?” (Psalm 10.1); or “What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him, and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him, and that thou shouldest visit him every morning – and try him every moment?” (Job 6.17-18) and so on. Or, if I may be forgiven for quoting a poem of my own, ‘The Children’s Cemetery, Balgay’:
Parents’ sentences on marble;
mildewed dolls beneath grown trees:
O you who mark the sparrow’s fall,
did you not notice these?
In fact you could call the whole Judaeo-Christian Theistic tradition a tradition of complaining or moaning at God.
This Theistic moaning tells us something important about Theism and the problem of evil. The critic of Theism often notices how little impression she makes on Theists by simply announcing a list of worldly mishaps, be they never so dire. The critic may conclude that Theists just display a mulish imperviousness to empirical evidence. For the Theist, however, this sort of evidence is irrelevant. Theists do not arrive at their Theism by doing a ‘value-audit’ on creation: totting up the net balance of good and evil in creation, inferring that the net balance of good and evil in any Creator would have to be just the same, and concluding either that there is a universally good Creator and the discordant partial evil in the world is only ‘harmony not understood’, or that there is no such Creator, or that the Creator is either morally ambiguous or just plain evil. Their Theism was, so to speak, already there before they even considered how things stand with the world. And it rests upon quite a different ground from any calculus of good and bad fortune in the world that might be devised; the ground of experience.
Hence Theists see the problem of evil too from a quite different epistemic position from their critics. It is not that Theists – unless they are intolerably naïve, smug, and callous – do not see evil as a problem. But it is that Theists see evil as a problem in time: a diachronic problem (perhaps even a narrative problem).
Suppose you have a friend whom you trust deeply, on the solid evidential basis of your long and vivid experience of that friend’s care for you. One day you find very strong evidence that that friend has betrayed you in some fundamental way. Is there only one rational response to this new negative evidence: to weigh the new negative against your past positive evidence and decide which counts for more?
You might think so if you were considering the question as a straight inconsistency in the propositions that constitute your evidence. But suppose you look at your evidential problem about your friend as a diachronic problem, a problem in time. Then you will immediately see that you have two further salient options besides insisting on reaching a verdict, right now, on nothing but the present balance of evidence. One option is to wait and see how things turn out. If you just hold off a little, then maybe a good explanation of your friend’s apparent betrayal will soon become clear to you. The other option is to confront your friend. Track him down, explain how things look to you, see what he has to say for himself. In short, have a good moan at him, and see how he takes it.
Both these responses to a trusted friend’s apparent betrayal seem just as rational as insisting on reaching an immediate verdict about that apparent betrayal without waiting or looking for more evidence. Indeed in imaginable particular cases, they will often be far more rational. Their rationality depends, broadly speaking, on how good are your antecedent reasons for trusting the friend.
Just likewise with the Theist’s response to the problem of evil. She does not find herself atemporally confronted with the raw propositions “There is a morally perfect and omnipotent creator God” and “There is evil in the world”, and challenged to find a way to reconcile them or weigh them off against each other in the abstract. Rather, the problem of evil typically comes to the Theist within the time-series of her experience and her life. First there is her experience of God; then there is the fact that she is confronted by some particular evil, perhaps by horrifying evil. But her experiences do not stop there, and that gives the Theist her chance to wait and see what God might do about the evil that confronts her – and indeed to moan at God about it. This is precisely what Theists have always done, confronted with some evil.
I say “confronted with some evil”. There is a distinction between specific evils that confront Theists in specific cases, and evil in general – the sum total of evil in the whole world – that confronts the Theist all the time. Evil in general is a much bigger and less tractable problem than specific evils, but the Theist’s attitude to both general and specific evil is essentially the same. It is that you have to see it as something that happens at some point in time; and that you have to either wait patiently, or bother God impatiently, about it until God has provided a resolution.
Central to the Theist’s outlook is an attitude of hope. Such hope might be misplaced or over-optimistic, of course. But is a hopeful attitude to the world so very obviously less rational than thinking of the world as so botched, maimed, and incompetent that any ‘God’ who had made it would deserve only our hatred and contempt? Even if it were less rational, mightn’t it still suggest a better, because more humane, way to learn to live?
“[What a humane education is most deeply concerned with] is the possibility of coming into an inheritance. It has to do with no less a question than whether a man can be at home in the world – whether he can find it a good world despite the ill. Not that I am supposing that there is a kind of education that could guarantee the outcome, but rather this: by being brought into contact with forms of understanding… in which some good is to be encountered, some wonder to be seen, whether in nature or the work of human beings, a person might be helped to see the beauty of reality, helped to live more fully, helped to be glad that he is alive.”
(Roy Holland, Against Empiricism Blackwell 1980, p.59)
© Prof Timothy Chappell, 2013
Timothy Chappell is Professor of Philosophy at the Open University.
• Thanks for their comments to Grant Bartley, Chris Belshaw, Nick Everitt, Jeffrey John, Stephen Law, Rick Lewis, Eleonore Stump, and an audience at the University of Northampton.