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Does It Matter Whether God Exists?

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Discussions of religion are typically about God. Atheists reject religion because they don t believe in God; Jews, Christians and Muslims take belief in God as
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 23, 2012
      Discussions of religion are typically about
      God. Atheists reject religion because they
      don't believe in God; Jews, Christians and
      Muslims take belief in God as fundamental to
      their religious commitment.

      The philosopher John Gray, however, has recently
      been arguing that belief in God should have
      little or nothing to do with religion. He
      points out that in many cases — for instance,
      "polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism
      and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some
      Christian and Muslim traditions" — belief is
      of little or no importance. Rather,
      "practice — ritual, meditation, a way of life
      — is what counts." He goes on to say that "it's only
      religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists
      who think the myths we live by are literal truths"
      and that "what we believe doesn't
      in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live."

      The obvious response to Gray is that it all depends
      on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope
      is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a
      life here on earth, a "way of living" without firm
      beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need.
      But many religions, including mainline versions of
      Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They
      promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to
      their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final
      annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in
      our life after death.

      If our hope is for salvation in this sense — and
      for many that is the main point of religion—then
      this hope depends on certain religious
      beliefs' being true. In particular, for the main
      theistic religions, it depends on there being a
      God who is good enough to desire our
      salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.

      But here we come to a point that is generally
      overlooked in debates about theism, which center
      on whether there is reason to believe in God,
      understood as all-good and all-powerful. Suppose
      that the existence of such a God could be decisively
      established. Suppose, for example, we were to be
      entirely convinced that a version of the ontological
      argument, which claims to show that the very idea
      of an all-perfect being requires that such a being
      exist, is sound. We would then be entirely certain
      that there is a being of supreme power and goodness.
      But what would this imply about our chances for
      eternal salvation?

      On reflection, very little. Granted, we would
      know that our salvation was possible: an all-powerful
      being could bring it about. But would we
      have any reason to think that God would in fact do
      this? Well, how could an all-good being not desire
      our salvation? The problem is that an all-good being
      needs to take account of the entire universe, not just us.

      Here, discussions of the problem of evil become
      crucial. An all-good being, even with maximal
      power, may have to allow considerable local
      evils for the sake of the overall good of the
      universe; some evils may be necessary for the
      sake of avoiding even worse evils. We have no way
      of knowing whether we humans might be the
      victims of this necessity.

      Of course, an all-good God would do everything
      possible to minimize the evil we suffer, but for
      all we know that minimum might have to include
      our annihilation or eternal suffering. We might
      hope that any evil we endure will at least be
      offset by an equal or greater amount of good for
      us, but there can be no guarantee. As defenders
      of theism often point out, the freedom of moral
      agents may be an immense good, worth God's
      tolerating horrendous wrongdoing. Perhaps God
      in his omniscience knows that the good of allowing
      some higher type of beings to destroy our
      eternal happiness outweighs the good of that
      happiness. Perhaps, for example, their destroying
      our happiness is an unavoidable step in the
      moral drama leading to their salvation and
      eternal happiness.

      My point here reflects the two-edged character
      of religious responses to the problem of evil.
      The only plausible answer to the question,
      "How could an all-good and all-powerful God
      allow immense evils?" is that such a God may
      well have knowledge beyond our understanding. As
      David Hume suggested in his "Dialogues on Natural
      Religion," the problem of evil is solved only by
      an appeal to our own ignorance. (There
      are powerful formulations of this approach by
      philosophers called "skeptical theists.")

      Such an appeal may save us from the apparent
      contradiction of evil in a world created by an a
      ll-good God. But it also severely limits our
      judgments about what an all-good God would do.
      It may seem to us that if we live as we should,
      God will ensure our salvation. But it also seems,
      from our limited viewpoint, that God would not
      permit things like the Holocaust or the death
      of innocent children from painful diseases. Once
      we appeal to the gap between our limited knowledge
      and God's omniscience, we cannot move from what
      we think God will do to what he will in fact do.
      So the fact that we think an all-good God would ensure
      our salvation does not support the conclusion that, all things
      considered, he will in fact do so.

      It follows, then, that even a decisive proof
      that there is an all-good, all-powerful God cannot
      assure us that we are ultimately safe. Even if
      we insist on a religion that goes beyond John Gray's
      beliefless way of living, belief that there is a God
      leaves us far short of what we hope
      for from religion.

      Many believers will agree. Their confidence in
      salvation, they say, comes not from philosophical
      arguments but from their personal contact
      with God, either through individual experience
      or a religious tradition. But what can such
      contact provide concretely? At best, certainty that
      there is a very powerful being who promises to
      save us. But there may well be — and many religions
      insist that there are — very powerful
      beings (demons or devils) intent on leading us
      away from salvation. How could we possibly know
      that the power we are in contact with is not
      deceiving us?

      The inevitable response is that an all-good God
      would not permit such a thing. But that takes us
      back to the previous difficulty: there is no
      reason to think that we are good judges of what
      God is likely to permit. God may have to allow us
      to be deceived to prevent even greater evils.

      We can, of course, simply will to believe that
      we are not being deceived. But that amounts to
      blind faith, not assured hope. If that
      doesn't satisfy us, we need to find a better
      response to the problem of evil than an appeal
      to our ignorance. Failing that, we may need to
      reconsider John Gray's idea of religion with little
      or no belief.

      Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University
      of NotreDame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical
      Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, "Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960," and writes
      regularly for The Stone.
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