Without God We are NothingCARDINAL GEORGE PELL
My claims this afternoon are simple. It is more reasonable to believe in God than to reject the hypothesis of God by appealing to chance; more reasonable also to believe than to escape into agnosticism.
Goodness, truth and beauty call for an explanation as do the principles of mathematics, physics, and the purpose-driven miracles of biology which run through our universe. The human capacities to recognize these qualities of truth, goodness and beauty, to invent and construct, also call for an explanation.
The Irish philosopher Brendan Purcell cites the frequently used quotation from Einstein that: "The one thing that is unintelligible about the universe is its intelligibility"1 ; and he might have added the fact that human intelligences are able to strive to understand the universe is also unintelligible of and by itself.
By way of introduction let me follow Purcell again to try to set the scene for the God hypothesis in a rather simple and then in a more developed way. Purcell quotes the grumpy response of the British physicist Fred Hoyle, a former atheist, to his own discovery of the very narrow temperature range that allows the emergence of carbon in nucleosynthesis: "The universe looks like a put-up job"2. I believe it is!
From the beginning it is also important to realise that in arguing for God we are not claiming the existence of a super-quality physical cause or phenomenon, accessible to science, within the universe. God is not some fantastic UFO.
Purcell quotes the philosopher and atheist Thomas Nagel who explains that the purpose of the God hypothesis is to claim that not all is physical and "that there is a mental, purposive or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them"3. By definition, God must be self-sufficient, the reason for His own existence, which is a statement that young children, initially at least, do not find a very satisfactory answer to their frequent question about who made God. However just as youngsters generally cannot understand the lessons hidden in Christ's parables, so very few of the young before adolescence think philosophically.
In this paper I am not arguing for a covert atheism, where we retain Godly language but reduce Him to our ultimate human concerns (like the "God is dead" theologians of the 1960s); nor am I a Catholic atheist, someone who passionately loves and defends Christian civilization, but cannot or does not believe in God like the Italians Umberto Eco and Oriana Fallaci. I believe the one true God is real, not simply because I was born into the Catholic tradition, but because over fifty years my childhood beliefs have been tested and I have probed their rational foundations.
Every Catholic priest is supposed to study philosophy for a couple of years to develop his capacity for clear thinking, to introduce him to the metaphysical tradition favoured by the Church, which stretches from Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas to the present, and to enable him to dialogue with those around him who do not share his Christian or even religious presuppositions. The God question has always been one of my intellectual interests and when I was a seminarian in Rome I took classes in the Institute for Atheism then run at my Catholic University by the Italian philosopher Cornelio Fabro.
Because of my vocation and because of my personality and education I have regularly encouraged my listeners and students over the years to ask and ponder the ultimate questions. Why are we here on earth? What is the point of it all, given suffering and death? What is the good life?
The existence of evil and suffering, to which I shall return later, is more of a problem for those who believe God is good rather than for those who see God only as the Supreme Intelligence, creator and sustainer of the universe.
If God was cruel and capricious, or even indifferent, it would be especially disappointing and hurtful to those who understand justice, value goodness and reject evil. Such human beings in a moral sense would be better than a cruel and capricious, or an indifferent and heartless God! Similarly an "impersonal" God would be less than a human person.
When a religion encourages and legitimizes a "holy" war or when a religion approves a "just" war, they have to justify their positions. But this is different from religious people ignoring the religious teaching of their tradition to wage war or impose evil.
My task today is to talk about God, but if God is rejected because of the evil deeds of religious people, we should follow this claim to see where it takes us.
While the fruits of religion might be mixed, I do not concede that religions are generally poisonous. Indeed when people follow Christian teachings human life is enriched immensely.
However even if we admitted that religions generally are poisonous, what difference would this make to the logical case either for or against God's existence? God cannot be reduced to the activities of His followers. God and religion are two different realities.
In daily life, personally and psychologically poisonous religion might induce victims to curse the god who inspired his followers to commit such evil or to reject the possibility that such a god could exist. Such evil can be an effective counter witness against the existence of God. The suffering of innocent children is always terrible.
But scientifically and philosophically does this abolish the God question? The discussion of God's goodness and concern for us would need to be reframed, but many of the ultimate questions would remain. Who or what triggered the Big Bang? Are the astonishingly beautiful principles of physics and mathematics the products of chance? Why is there something rather than nothing?
Whether we are interested or disinterested, happy or unhappy, good or evil, and despite recurrent natural disasters, the ultimate questions will always remain to be asked and to be pondered. These questions have meaning, logically and psychologically, as thousands of years of such enquiry attest.
If fact in the Western intellectual world, which is unique in the extent of its scepticism and agnosticism, God is still travelling more safely than He was one hundred years ago. Today, hardly anyone of any persuasion expects that religion will soon disappear.
Pierre Manent, a French social philosopher whose work I have come to admire, in his book entitled An Intellectual History of Liberalism, has advanced the thesis that the French Revolution of 1789, with its explicit hostility to religion, was the first example of the secular state. One consequence of this is that Western democracies now follow the doctrine of the separation of Church and State, which finds a generally benign expression in the English-speaking world following the example of the United States, and often an explicitly anti-religious form in Europe4.
More significantly for our purposes, Manent claims that secular states discourage the discussion of ultimate questions, where religious bodies enjoy an enormous advantage. In a certain sense, ultimate questions are a religion's core business!5
Here in Australia public discussion and debate often proceed as though most of the population is godless, atheist or agnostic. In fact only 17 per cent do not accept the existence of God6. However the absence of God in Australian public discussion is not due generally to any English-language political theory, but more to the secularist hostility to Christianity which remains the most formidable barrier to their programme for an ever broader personal autonomy. Often God gets caught up in the secular hostility to the Christian defence of human life, especially at the beginning and the end, the Christian defence of marriage, family and the linking of sexuality to love and life. Here in these culture wars lies the origin for most of the hatred of God and religion, while the violence of a minority of Islamist terrorists has given Western secularists new grounds to attack all religions. However it is much safer to attack the Christians!
There are many more monotheists today than there were 100 or 1000 years ago, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the world's populations. The proportion of people belonging to the world's four biggest religions rose from 67 per cent in 1900 to 73 per cent in 2005, and may reach 80 per cent in 20507. Even more startling is the fact that "where pain, hardship and distress are far more prevalent, we find the highest rates of faith", even in those places in Africa where atrocious barbarism has recently occurred8. It is the religious situation in Europe today which is unusual throughout the world and equally unusual when we glance back through history.
I willingly concede that general beliefs, even when they endure for centuries, need not be logically compelling and such beliefs are regularly even less persuasive when they are popular for a limited period of time, for years or decades.
Over the centuries many approved of slavery. Today many believe that before Galileo most believed the earth was flat, which is quite untrue. Plato recognized the earth was round. Today also public opinion can continue to be quite mistaken: for example, in the majority approval of the moral legitimacy of abortion or in its enthusiasm for expensive scientific mythology. Most Australians for the moment seem to believe in global warming primarily induced by humans or even in humanly-induced catastrophic global warming.
There is not sufficient scientific evidence for either of these claims; less evidence that we could influence or reverse such climate outcomes and less evidence again that we could afford to attempt this. Religion has no monopoly on truth or on human folly!
Let me then conclude this introductory section by highlighting the extent of God's popularity throughout the world and through much of history. Present trends indicate that this will continue and even intensify so that, for example, China by the end of the twenty-first century could have the largest Christian population of any country in the world!
It is useful to acknowledge this context to belief and unbelief, while recognizing explicitly that such popularity does not prove God's existence. Both popular and elite opinion can be wrong over long periods. More people come to know God through the kindness and witness of others than through logic. But reason and logic remain important, even if we accept A. E. Housman's two lines9:
I will now examine what we mean when we speak of God; moving on to a discussion of the relevance of today's scientific knowledge for the God question, a few words about the achievements of the pre-Christian Greek philosophers in recognizing the existence of God and concluding with a section on the contribution of Judaeo-Christian revelation to our knowledge of God.
Different thinkers approach God from different directions, often emphasising different Godly attributes, but all concede that we face enormous problems of language when we set out to explain something of what we mean by God. It was the fifth century North African St. Augustine of Hippo, one of Christianity's finest theologians, who spoke of our "learned ignorance of God".
Some claim that every notion of God is so incoherent that somehow this means that God does not exist, while others claim that we cannot say anything useful about God. One traditional response to these problems is to explain that our terminology for God is analogical, that it does not fit God as well as human language describes physical or human reality. Human beings are "good" in very different ways and to different degrees, but when we claim God is good, the term has a radically superior meaning which does not contradict the basic human meaning. God is not only good, but better than we can imagine.
Different categories of believers believe in different types of God. Deists do not accept that God is in any sense personal, but is a Supreme Being, a creator who does not intervene in the universe.
Pantheists identify God with the universe, regarding the universe as a manifestation of God. The mighty, often uncontrollable forces of nature often provoke awe in every type of person.
Monotheists believe only one God exists and traditional monotheists such as Jews, Christians and Muslims believe God to be transcendent and personal in some superior sense.
In other words, the transcendent God is not on our level of reality, not even as a thermo-nuclear trigger or giant rocket which set off the Big Bang at the start of the universe. God is beyond space and time, not part of the natural order, and therefore not open to observation by the natural sciences.
We often use apophatic or negative terminology to speak of this transcendent God. God is infinite i.e. cannot be measured, immutable and immaterial or spiritual.
God is spiritual, not material and therefore has no parts. The spirituality of God means that God is not human, is neither male nor female. Once when I gave this explanation in a radio interview, the host enquired whether this was only my personal view or Christian teaching. He seemed surprised when I explained that this was a basic monotheist doctrine.
I follow Christian convention in referring to God as "He" or "Him", accepting Jesus' teaching that we pray to God calling Him "Our Father", but this is an example of the use of analogical language.
When trying to explain to senior primary and junior-secondary students what we mean when we say God is spirit, I ask them to start from their parents' love for them; a real, powerful and invisible force in their lives, very important to them, before I move onto the Christian teaching that God is love. The children rarely object to this sort of argumentation. In Australia it is easy to be a de facto materialist, so we often have to argue for the importance of the spiritual.
While it would be somewhat confusing to argue that our spiritual God has many faces, this Sublime Mystery can be approached in different ways as we glimpse hints of different facets of the Immortal Diamond, which has a heart of love.
His publicists claim that Antony Flew, a professional philosopher, was the world's most notorious atheist. He certainly was an influential and widely read unbeliever and he has recently changed his mind and written an excellent, clear and accessible book called There is a God, explaining that his story is a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith.
Flew has collected a number of short-hand terms which prominent scientists and philosophers have used about God.
He quotes Albert Einstein's avowal that he is neither an atheist nor a pantheist, although he did not believe in a personal God. For Einstein, God is a "superior reasoning force", an "illimitable superior spirit", the "mysterious force that moves the constellations"10.
The philosopher Richard Swinburne is cited for his defence of God as "an omnipresent incorporeal spirit"11.
Even the well known atheist and scientist Stephen Hawking, author of the best selling A Brief History of Time (which I struggled unsuccessfully to read) wrote the following question: "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?"
In a later interview Hawking conceded "You still have the question why does the universe bother to exist? If you like, you can define God to be the answer to that question"12.
Two other quotations from different parts of the theistic spectrum will round off this section on naming God.
The first is from the Scottish Sydney-based philosopher Hayden Ramsay and the second is from St. Augustine's Confessions, the oldest surviving autobiography in Western literature, a quotation Ramsay himself cites.
Ramsay writes that believers in God are not committed to any particular explanation of how the universe came about. However, he also writes:
Ramsay introduces the extract from Augustine as expressing the "unique reconciliation of complexity and simplicity that is God"14.
St. Augustine wrote of God:
Although written about 1600 years ago, these thoughts are one beautiful result of the interplay of Greek philosophy, especially Plato, Judaeo-Christian revelation, and the lived experience of the monotheistic tradition, which was then already about 2000 years old. I willingly concede that Augustine's description of God represents more than the fruits of reason alone.
Science and God
As well as being an accomplished philosopher Antony Flew is also an excellent populariser, able to express controversial thoughts forcefully and pithily.
The most controversial claim in his recent book is "that of all the great discoveries of modern science, the greatest was God"15.
This is provocative for unbelievers, especially unbelieving scientists, and provocative for believers, who know that the roots of monotheism are found with Abraham about 3,700 or 3,900 years ago.
Although much of public opinion still regards science as an enemy of religious understanding and therefore of God, recent developments in physics and now in biology have strengthened the case for God the Creator as a first rate mathematician as well as being prodigal and unpredictable in His creation.
We cannot arrive to God within the framework of science, because God is outside space and time. Flew explains neatly that when we study the interaction of physical bodies, such as sub-atomic particles, we are doing science. When we ask how or why these particles exist, we go beyond physics to metaphysics. We are doing philosophy16.
I should repeat that the God for which we are arguing is not a God of the gaps, not a God who is brought in to paste over the gaps in our present scientific knowledge, which might be filled later as science progresses. It is the whole of the universe which is not self-explanatory, including the infrastructure and elements we understand scientifically.
Many people over the ages have found evidence for the Mind of God in the laws of nature, in their regularity and symmetry.
The law of the conservation of energy, Newton's first law of motion and Boyle's law, mathematically precise regularities, universal and tied together, are the examples Flew gives as he asks how nature is packaged in this way17.
Flew shows that as well as Einstein, the great scientists who developed quantum physics, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac were all theists18. Even Charles Darwin rejected blind chance or necessity as the cause of the universe and looked to a First Cause with an intelligent mind.19
A number of writers espouse a theory called the Weak Anthropic Principle, which is that "matter evolved in an elaborate, finely tuned conspiracy to produce air-breathing, carbon based life forms possessed of self consciousness"20. Others have claimed as much by saying that the universe knew we were coming!
The universe is finely tuned. If the value of even one of the fundamental constants -- the speed of light or the mass of an electron -- had been slightly different then no planet capable of producing life could have formed.21
Other examples abound. If the nuclear strong force had been slightly weaker, no element heavier than hydrogen would have been formed. If the Big Bang had been more vigorous, matter could not have formed into stars and planets.22 The one-force strength of electromagnetism enables carbon synthesis to occur in stars, allows stars to burn steadily for billions of years and atoms to exist, and ensures protons behave in such a way that chemistry is possible.23
All this is too much for blind chance. Neither do we have any satisfactory naturalistic explanation for the origin of life from non-living matter, for the fact (for example) that every animal for 600 million years has the same body plan, only the jelly fish is an exception!24
Living matter, or living beings, are purpose driven and directed. Aristotle was right since living beings are defined in such teleological terms, as is evident in the innate activity of a child feeding on its mother's breast, or a caterpillar developing into a butterfly.
On top of this, all forms of life are able to reproduce themselves and new and different species emerge in some mysterious way, which I suspect is more than random mutation and natural selection.
Another mystery of life is the origin of the coding and information processes in all life forms. The cell is a system which stores, processes and replicates information. Flew became a theist, changed his mind, after studying the directive capacity of DNA25, whose genetic message is replicated and transcribed to RNA. This message is conveyed to the amino acids, which are then assembled into proteins. How blind and purposeless forces could spontaneously produce such a process is unknown and I believe both unknowable and metaphysically impossible. Even atheist Nobel-prize winning biologists like Jacques Monod and DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick regard the emergence of life from chemical realities as almost miraculous.
Nor is this the end of the succession of miracles. I remember Sir Hans Kornberg, a distinguished biologist, asking me about the intelligence level of dinosaurs. I replied that it was low as we had no evidence they had produced anything worthwhile and they had a small brain. He said that they also had no voice box and that the development of the voice box which enabled human speech, personal communication, the exchange of thought and information was a development as spectacular as the development of life itself.
Some have alleged that life might have arisen by chance, but calculations and experiments have shown the odds to be impossibly high. In the 1980s Fred Hoyle and the astrophysicist Chandra Wickramasinghe decided to calculate the odds on whether random shuffling of amino acids could have produced life. They found the odds were one chance in 10(40,000), an unimaginable number as the number of sub-atomic particles in the entire universe is about 10(81).26
Flew also recounts Gerry Schroeder's refutation of the "monkey theorem". What were the odds against a group of monkeys thumping away on computer keyboards and so producing a Shakespearean sonnet? Six monkeys banging away in a cage for one month did not produce a single word, not even "a"! The odds against a sonnet were calculated by Schroeder as one in 10(690), not as high as moving from amino acids to life but still impossibly high27. Life has not come about by chance.
Greek Philosophy on God
We have inherited our love and respect for reason, via the Romans and Christian civilization, from the great pre-Christian Greek philosophers, especially Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Plato quotes Socrates insistence that "we must follow the argument wherever it leads". This still should be our aim and it will always be a noble ambition.
None of the major philosophers in the leading Greek schools were atheists, although they came to God by reason alone and were critical of the irrational myths of the traditional Greek religions of the time.
Xenophanes (565-470 BC) was the first philosopher to develop the concept of God as "the One", helping to purify the earlier mythological accounts of God from human projections and wishes. He criticised Homer and Hesiod for ascribing human weaknesses such as stealing, adultery and cheating to the gods. For him "One God is greatest among gods and men, not like mortals in body or thought". "The One", he said "is the God".28
Parmenides was the first to formulate a philosophy, as opposed to a religious expression, of Being, about the year 475 BC, but he spoke of God as IS, not being:
The two greatest Greek philosophers were Plato and Aristotle, but the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas in which I was educated via the later writings of the Scholastics drew heavily on Aristotle.
It is interesting to note that Aristotle's writings were largely unknown in Christian circles for the first 1000 years of our era, existing only in Arabic translation made by Syrian monks before the Islamic conquest. The philosophy of Plato was dominant.
It was only in the last quarter of the twelfth century that a number of Aristotle's texts were discovered in Toledo, Spain, hidden in old pottery jars. The local bishop, Nicodemus of Toledo, encouraged Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars to translate these works and distribute them around Europe.
Therefore it was in the thirteenth century that Aristotle's thought became influential with Aquinas, Dante, Bocaccio, and Petrarch. The Church leadership, despite fierce opposition from the Platonists, came gradually to accept the "this worldliness" of Aristotle rather than the un-worldliness of Plato.
The historian Richard Rubenstein has written "Farsighted popes and bishops... took the fateful step that Islamic leaders had rejected. By marrying Christian theology to Aristotelian science, they committed the West to an ethic of rational enquiry that would generate a succession of scientific revolutions, as well as unforeseen upheavals in social and religious thought".30
It was in the thirteenth century that we saw the beginnings of the great Western universities which continue today, Paris, Bologna, Salamanca, Oxford and Cambridge. The slow rise of Western civilization to world dominance had begun.
The famous five ways of St. Thomas Aquinas, the five proofs (or attempted proofs) for God's existence draw heavily from Aristotle.
For Aristotle God is pure Act, "The Understanding of understanding" and drawing on his philosophical conclusions, not on religious belief, he ascribes the following attributes to God: immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, one and indivisible, perfectly good, necessarily existent.31
All of this is eminently compatible with the Judaeo-Christian notion of the one true God and it has been incorporated into our theology.
The Christian God
For Jews and Christians the one true God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, while the Christians also see God as the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Moses was told that God's name was "I am".32
Accepting such claims does not require abandoning the reverence for reason that I have been advocating, but it does mean accepting a world which is wider than the physical, and criteria which are not scientific.
To accept that God has intervened directly in history by choosing one people as His own, His special agents to whom He has revealed more about his nature and plans than could be recognized philosophically, does require a leap of faith. But such a leap need not be irrational, although this leap can never be taken with mathematical certainty. Christians have a further challenge with their belief that Christ is divine as well as human. Christ should be accepted or rejected on the quality of his teachings, the integrity and plausibility of his actions during his lifetime, and the goodness and courage (or otherwise) of his followers as they strive to live out his teachings and defend their central doctrine that Christ rose after his ignominious public crucifixion.
As well as these intellectual challenges, the Christian concept of God immediately offers a formidable personal stumbling block.
Unlike many strands of Judaism, traditional Christianity has a clear doctrine on life after death, where the good are rewarded and the self-centred evil are punished, either for a time (according to the Catholics) or even permanently.
This is a two edged sword, attractive to the victims of violence and oppression, but off putting to the unreflective and threatening to the hard of heart, the obdurate who refuse to repent.
In a provocative inversion of Karl Marx's condemnation of religion as "the opium of the people" the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, himself a victim of communism, in his essay "The Discrete Charm of Nihilism" explains that the roots of twentieth century totalitarianism are found, not in religion, but in its nihilist antithesis. For Milosz "a true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death -- the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged"33. I think he is right.
A just God needs an afterlife of reward and punishment, including purificatory punishment to balance the scales of justice, because history shows too many innocent victims.
Suffering, whether it comes from natural disasters or from human evil, is the greatest problem for those who believe in a personal, loving and just God. We find no entirely satisfactory intellectual answer.
However for those who believe that existence is purposeless that the universe is the product of blind chance, the problem of evil and suffering is submerged in the larger intellectual problem of why anyone should be happy, of why there should be goodness, truth and beauty. If the universe is only a brute fact, why did it emerge as good as it is, why does it not revert to chaos? Evil is a problem for theists, but the good things of life are a larger problem for atheists. Often those who claim God is dead, silently assume the presupposition of the theist to criticise the sufferings in the world or the inadequacy of creation. One needs to assume, at least tacitly, that life should be good or just or peaceful before criticising reality on these scores.
The God of the monotheist religions is much richer and more powerful than the same God recognized by the philosophers which is certainly one, true and good, but pale and thin in comparison.
A martyr is someone who is prepared to accept death rather than reject God and the twentieth century had more martyrs than any other century. Billions of believers continue to pray, live decent lives, love their families, contribute quietly to society in every monotheist tradition. But the militant in every tradition have gone to war in God's name. On the other hand no previous century has witnessed the systematic hatred and oppression of religions like that perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
Even in tolerant societies God can and does provoke strong feelings, hatred and loathing. In some ways this is mysterious. Why be provoked by an absence?
God provokes the forces of evil and attacking the One, the True and the Good can bring out the darker side of the assailants, poisoning honest doubters and turning atheists into anti-theists. A person who is confident of his case does not need to be abusive, should try to answer objections, does not need to portray his opponents in the worst light always and in every circumstance.
It is an intriguing question why so many in the Western world today are unable to believe, especially those culturally attached to Christianity and Judaism. For me the issue is too important for polemics and self-indulgence.
I will continue to believe in the one true God of love, because like André Malraux I maintain that "no atheist can explain the smile of a child".
Against this the tsunami also reminds us brutally of the problem of innocent suffering. But such suffering is worse if there is no afterlife to balance the scales of misfortune and injustice and worse again if there is no innocence or guilt, no good or evil, if everything has the moral significance of froth on a wave.
Without God we are nothing.
Cardinal George Pell, "Without God We are Nothing." Festival of Dangerous Ideas (October 4, 2009).
Reprinted with permission of Cardinal George Pell.
He is the author of God and Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society and Issues of Faith and Morals, written by Cardinal Pell for senior secondary classes and parish groups. Since 2001, he has been a weekly columnist for Sydney's Sunday Telegraph.
Copyright © 2009 Cardinal George Pell
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.