What is the point of your book?
My experience has shown me that self-knowledge has a huge impact on what one thinks about God. If God is within you, you can gradually become aware of that and reflect on its implications. If you are certain that God means nothing in your life, then you interpret your life quite differently. Steven Pinker, for instance, says he is a materialist, and in his world God has no importance. One would expect that each of us must answer the question “Who am I, under these stars, with the wind upon my face?” Whether you can find God within you depends a lot on how you answer that question.
In these matters, no one has knockdown proof. We make the most reasonable judgment we can, but practically everyone can see how easy it would be to come to the opposite conclusion. In actual life, many believers become atheists, and many atheists become believers. Each does this on the basis of evidence that makes a new and powerful impression on her.
No one catches direct sight of God. Our knowledge about him comes from weighing our own experience of life—including our experience of the natural world, the experiences of conscience, such experiences as the inner drive within us to ask questions (even from the time we were children), the pleasure of acts of insight, and reflection upon what we really do when we make judgments that something is true or good or beautiful. What suppositions are we making about existence, even in the simple act of judging that something is true or good (or better) or real—not an illusion or a fantasy.
This book begins self-discovery but leads well beyond a narrow, constructed sense of self.
There are many books about belief and atheism flooding the marketplace today. Where does your book fit?
It will probably struggle to find the special audience it needs: committed to reason and liberty, and by the accident of certain human experiences able to sympathize both with those who know God and those who find nothing there. And to see the benefits of reasoned conversation between such seemingly opposite tendencies.
At times in my life I have been driven toward atheism, wanted to become an atheist. Was left in the dark about God, felt nothing, nada. But none of the various sorts of atheism I encountered (and these were many) seemed intellectually satisfying. All felt—to me, at least—like dodges. Any line of questioning that brought pressure on atheism was simply defined out of existence or at least treated as irrelevant. For example, the question “Why is there something, not nothing?” was ruled out as a question that cannot be answered by science, therefore meaningless. That is much too easy. And so with other questions.
Many of the books responding to the new atheists emerge from evangelical or other traditions that root their belief in feelings, sentiments, or experiences of conversion. I have never found this approach helpful in my own case. I want to go as far as reason will take me. This is the principal difference between my book and others. I seek a reasoned path, a way rooted in reason—a path through the very structure and constitution and methods of human understanding.
To my mind, our understanding of God emerges from our questions about our own understanding.
It certainly seems like our conscience comes from a light over which we are not master, a light greater than ourselves, which often faults our own behavior down to its roots far below the surface of our rationalizations. It certainly seems as if the questioning of our own long-held assumptions, and the relentless probing of our comfortable beliefs about ourselves, comes from somewhere within ourselves—but greater than ourselves and not subject to our own self-deceptions. Thinkers since Plato have discerned this, quite rightly—you can test it in your own experience.
So mine is a book about reason’s path to God. Whether at this task reason succeeds—or fails.
The thing that makes me most curious: Why do you find atheism unsatisfying? Take the typical atheism of a university professor or of the literary world. Why doesn’t it grab you?
To me it seems a contradiction to insist that all things flow from blind chance and then to go on calling oneself a rationalist. Irrationalist on the big questions, rationalist on the things amenable to science, and something like “emotivist” on matters of practical choice and ethics. In the perennial inquiries of the human race, this mix doesn’t add up.
I can understand why atheists invent a heroic image for themselves—Bertrand Russell’s Prometheus, or Dylan Thomas’ raging against the night, or Sisyphus, or even Milton’s Lucifer refusing to “serve.” But all this seems to be striking a literary prose to cover up the emptiness of meaning in human life.
Out of a kind of commonsensical rebellion against doubletalk, which confuses the sensible fellow, the rough-hewn Lincoln sees something more down to earth and matter of fact about nodding toward “the better angels of our nature.” In what some see as mindless bloodletting, he sees in the dead at Gettysburg a noble meaning, in keeping with the history and destiny of humankind. Sensing a touch of the divine in oneself is, in this way, and for most people down through history, the default position of the human race. For most folks, things seem to add up better that way. But it remains possible to think most people wrong.
Do you think atheism (secularism?) is on the upswing? I was surprised by the title of your last chapter: “The End of the Secularist Age.”
The idea was suggested to me by two writers, on opposite sides of most issues, who both have a knack for reading the times: Irving Kristol in America and Jürgen Habermas in Germany. Kristol observes that while secularism keeps marching through the institutions of daily life, the core of its living beliefs is spent, dead, unfruitful. Any movement that deprives most human beings of any meaning in their lives is eventually self-doomed.
Professor Habermas writes that the events of September 11, 2001, shocked him into recognizing that secularism represents a small island in the midst of a turbulent sea of religion all around the world. Even in the developed world, as in the United States, religion thrives. Certain sectors of European society seem to be an exception. And how long can they hold out?
However this may be, others have noted that secular couples almost everywhere tend to have few children (sometimes none), and thus bring a demographic crisis upon themselves. Further, secular societies seem to enervate the inner self-confidence of whole cultures and make them think that they are unworthy of survival in the face of dynamic, rapidly growing, even violent rivals. In a different vein, secular societies show a pronounced tendency toward moral relativism and have no common means of discriminating moral decadence from “liberation” or distinguishing moral progress from decline. If there is no God, there still remain rational standards. But the question “Why be rational?” gets harder and harder to explain to the wayward.
Judaism and Christianity down through millennia have proved to be adept at generating Great Awakenings in entire cultures. It is not clear that any secular society can do so.
An admirable secular humanism still thrives among us—but it does seem limited only to smallish enclaves. It is difficult to foresee it capturing multitudes. Besides, the examples of those atheist societies that have tried to fashion ceremonies, liturgies, and vast demonstrations (to make atheism discernible to the imagination and sensibility of peoples) are not encouraging. Secular humanism seems better suited to a few strong individuals and to fairly rarefied groups among the elite than to a culture as a whole. It founders on its own perception of the meaninglessness of human life. It offers only the meaning that individuals can put into it—and as easily pull out.
No One Sees God is available in bookstores August 5, 2008.
Published in First Things Online June 24, 2008