A reason to believe

Author: Michael Novak


The “new atheists” have sold more than 1.5 million copies of books attacking Judaism and Christianity — books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, above all, but also by Sam Harris and others. These new atheists have given many interviews and taken part in many public debates. I’ve learned a lot by keeping a sharp eye on this discussion.

Perhaps surprisingly, the question of God is of vast and deep interest — even to those who claim there is no God. In fact, the God-deniers turn out to be quite passionate about God. Many who have not thought much about God for years are suddenly feeling the question grab at their insides, too, now that it has been raised. Most seem not sure what they think.

All of this talk makes another point clear. A lot of people despise much that they see and hear about religion. Ranking high on the list of items they have particular contempt for: Sexual sins with young boys by clergy; every sign of hypocrisy and ignorance; and the denial of evolution.
Less obvious things also earn disdain. For instance, some say believers blithely observe no falsifiability principle. If, for example, a good thing happens, the believer gives thanks to “providence.” If a bad thing happens, the believer says that is due to “providence,” too. Believers act a little like those Greens who say a hot summer is caused by “global warming” — and so is a cold summer.

Some discussions also bring up a host of questions about Catholic practices and beliefs, of the sort that Father John A. O’Brien (honored by an endowed professorship at Notre Dame) answered by the carload in his popular 1930s, ’40s and ’50s books and columns on apologetics. Such odd points as this one: Why do nuns in today’s Brazil give uneducated peasants pills with the tiny paper likeness of a local “saint” inside? And why do the nuns not instruct the sick about modern medicine and obtain it for them?

And isn’t it disgusting that Saint Peter’s in Rome was financed by the sale of indulgences? And why is Christianity anti-gay marriage, and why is the Catholic Church anti-woman?

More serious are vicious attacks upon the Hebrew and Christian Bible. Some atheists point out how ugly the image of God seems in some passages — how domineering, arrogant, cruel and unfeeling. They point to other passages that conflict with science, not to mention common sense. Many people today claim to obtain much more wisdom and reliable advice from contemporary psychology and other sciences. Why tie oneself down to so inadequate a text? A text that has so often been misused in history? E.g., the justification of slavery.

On and on these objections go. They are all interesting. They are all worth looking into; one learns interesting things that way. Probably, too, such objections have some shock value for those whose whole approach to God has been formed in sheltered environments, apart from philosophical skepticism.

Oddly, though, these objections evade the main subject. The project of atheism, after all, is not about a rejection of Judaism or Christianity or any other particular religion. It is about a refusal to believe in God, any God, even the God of Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca and other “pagans” undefiled by Christianity or Judaism. (In practice, however, serious polls report that half of all agnostics and one-fifth of all atheists believe in the God of reason.) The central project is denial of any God at all; it is a direct refusal.

Catholic faith

The thesis of my own book, No One Sees God, is that a civil and useful conversation can be conducted between atheists and theists, insofar as we stick to the methods and laws of reasoned inquiry. This thesis became clear to me after years of careful reading of philosophical writings and of world literature.

A considerable vein of knowledge about God runs through all human experience. Recent generations in which atheism seems normal are actually aberrations. The default position of the human race down through history appears to be a persistent sense of the presence of God. It takes no more than secular learning to see this much.

But (this being Notre Dame) look at this question from the point of view of Catholic faith, as well. The First Vatican Council (1870) insisted that humans can come to a certain degree of knowledge about God through the use of their own reason. They can at least come to know His presence, His “existence” around and inside them. Through reason, they also can come to rule out some things God is not — not a material thing, not a bit of matter at all, and not bound (as we are) within time and space.

Reason suffices to learn these minimal but immensely fruitful lessons about God. These are lessons learned through observation of, insight into and realistic judgment about the world around us and inside us. These lessons have been learned by many “pagan” cultures and recorded in many languages.

Like Saint Paul in his famous speech before the altar dedicated “to the unknown god” in Athens (Acts 17: 22-34), the Catholic Church insists upon the validity of the knowledge of God learned from “The Book of Nature” — His work as seen in the natural world around us. Humans discerned the presence of God in the world by the use of human reason, long before the arrival of Jewish or Christian faith. We who are Catholic think of the God of nature reached by reason as a quite valid finding, as far as it goes. We think of Christian faith as validating and complementing but not destroying the work of reason.

A friend of mine tells me that she was long worried about real and potential conflicts between science and faith. She was attending the University of Chicago at the time, and she concluded from an aphorism of Father Theodore Hesburgh’s that if she ever encountered a conflict between science and faith, she should go back to the drawing board.

As he said: "There is no conflict between science and theology, except where there is bad science or bad theology.” My friend has found this a reliable lifetime principle, and so have I, even though it requires living with some patience while further inquiry seeks who or what has gone wrong.

In any case, No One Sees God was not written as an apologetic for the Christian or Jewish faith. Its aim was much more humble. Its purpose was to show by open interchange with today’s public atheists (that is, through conversation) that we hold many things which are accessible to reason in common, even while we radically disagree about things of faith. For us to have a good, reasoned, civil conversation, it is not necessary for me to become an atheist nor for atheists to become practicing Jews or churchgoing Christians.

It seemed to me that the place to begin lay in reflecting on the different ways in which atheists and theists approach the choice that separates them. Granted, an inquiry about that point does not yet lead us to the Christian or Jewish God. What we do reach by that route is, rather, a God more like the God written about by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Plotinus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, in the ancient world. Nor is this God altogether different from the philosophical God about whom such early medieval Muslim scholars as Al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes taught us useful locutions and distinctions, as Notre Dame’s Father David Burrell, CSC, has carefully laid out in his books Knowing the Unknowable God and Faith and Freedom.

My main task, then, was to exhibit how it is that so many people, in all ages, have come to know the presence of God around them and within them. I offer here three ways in which many become aware of God’s presence.

The way of beauty

The first way is that of beauty. Photographs of the planets, moons, stars and whole galaxies that come from the Hubble telescope, NASA and university observatories fill most onlookers with awe. We feel lucky to live in a generation in which many of these wonders first became visible. Some of us are fascinated by these exceedingly beautiful images: their glorious color, the vastness of the dark spaces surrounding them, the myriad points of light beyond our solar system, the streaks of distant blended stars.

Quite striking here are the comments of various atheists of our generation, as compared with many atheists of past generations. Christopher Hitchens and Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic magazine) are quick to insist that being an atheist does not mean losing one’s sense of awe or one’s sense of the sacred and transcendent.

Hitchens says of himself and his co-thinkers: “We do not rely solely upon science and reason. . . . We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe; we have music and art and literature.” So no one can put Hitchens in the narrow box of affirming that science is the only way we know things. He values poetry too much for that.

Other new atheists, too, have moved well beyond the positivism of past generations of atheists, who held that the sole path to knowledge passes through the strictest empirical science, plus logic and mathematics. Such positivists regarded other forms of inquiry as merely “emotive.” The new atheists reason better than that.

But that is not all. The new atheists have become insistent that they, too, rejoice in the beauty of Chartres Cathedral. Standing silently within its soaring Gothic lines, they are moved by awe. One does not have to be a theist, they will tell you, to respond to beauty with admiration and silent contemplation. Atheists, too, can climb up in the Alps, their breath taken away by the artistry of nature, their minds momentarily stunned by that quiet, ancient majesty, tall and silent in the center of Europe.

What atheists refuse to do is to allow their sense of awe, majesty and beauty to tempt them to leap into endowing inanimate nature with the conceit that it is personal. They cannot allow themselves to raise their hearts in gratitude, as if to a person. No, their rational minds tell them that that is just cold stone in the cathedral; that is a barren expanse on and around the orange and violet planets; that is cold air blowing on those serene mountains.

After sensing the majesty of the mountains, their pragmatically formed minds go back to thinking of huge, shifting rock plates far underground, and the constant shaping of the hills by erosion from fierce sun, violent rain, slicing sleet and frozen snow. However stunningly beautiful, they find it best not to get “romantic” about it. Fidelity to reason, they think, rather than warm illusions.

But reason itself leads other people to recognize that so much beauty overflows the needs of mere science and cold reason. Such intense beauty evokes spontaneous praise and appreciation — a kind of “bravo” to its origin. The minds of those people cannot help leaping from the signs of human artistry to those of an artistry great enough to have wrought the immense beauty that is our cosmos and our world. The heart wants to leap with joy, to cry out in gratitude. (Joy and gratitude are movements of the heart expressed almost daily by theists, rarely among atheists, moved equally by beauty as they may be.)

For many of us, the lives and work of great human artists — Mozart, Shakespeare, Raphael — also offer an invitation to discover artistry on a scale so high above the human, of a sort so different from the human, that for such artistry our ancient ancestors coined the name “divine.” That intuition lingers on in our own language today. The very highest art seems to pass over from aesthetics to love and worship.

A recent story tells of the contemporary scientist who meets up with God and blurts out: “You filled a big role once, and we tip our hats. Now we no longer need you. We have learned how to do almost everything you ever did, and we will keep learning more and more. You are today an anachronism.”

“Tell me more,” says a bemused God.

“Well, look, anything you can create, we can create, too. We have learned to build artificial hearts. We have created babies in petri dishes. We have created all sorts of cures for diseases. We have developed ways of preventing epidemics that down through all the unnecessary suffering of the ages you did not prevent.”

“Impressive,” God says. “Can you show me how you do that?”

The scientist thinks for a moment, then says, “Watch this!” He gets down on one knee and starts scooping up a handful of earth.

“Hold on a minute,” God says. “Not fair. Get your own dirt.”

Darwin’s theory

It is not just the beauty of the earth and the cosmos that is so stunning. It is also that it came into being at the point when time began, some 13 billion years ago. There was nothing, chaos and apparent darkness. Then time began. Quite suddenly, science now suggests. Bang!

But that creation narrative seems as questionable as those of ancient philosophy, perhaps more so. At least ancient philosophers saw that the cosmos is wrought with exquisite intelligence. So much so that its inherent intelligibility gives us a warrant to trust rational inquiry, not mere chance or myth or pick-up sticks.

Even Darwin, after all, found threads of intelligibility tying together generation after generation in all the disparate generations of biological life. These unities he entitled “evolution.” He thus supplied a theoretical coherence to biological life that it did not have before. But that theoretical coherence does depend on the intelligibility, the artistry even, interlaced into all that he studied — all those fossils and bones and traces of evidence. No intelligent coherence, no science.

From early on, Darwin also came up with a theory to do away with any need for a Creator, even though he was for a long time unwilling to admit this finding publicly. That theory, in turn, was founded upon observable regularities that he could discern in nature and its historical records. While that particular theory of Darwin does not depend on a Creator, it does depend on a discernible intelligibility in the things of nature.

Then, too, when Darwin wrote about the survival of the fittest, he was leaning on other discernible patterns of biological life on Earth. He attributed the artistry behind these patterns to chance. Well, maybe. But hardly convincing. (There appears to be a “Will To Disbelieve,” as well as a “Will To Believe.”)

It is the beauty of things, the splendor of their forms, that first lifts up the heart of most humans to the sense of a power and beauty and glory far beyond their own. The greatest of human artists have drunk it in with wonder and gratitude. It is also this beauty, this artistry of intelligent coherence, that inspires legions of scientists to undertake the discipline, long hours, disappointments and fragile successes that mark the record of scientific advances.

The fact of science gives rise to the suspicion (of many, not all) that lying behind the beauty of this cosmos is an intelligence enflamed by an inward beauty of its own. The nature of our own drive to understand, a drive that is endless in its relentless stream of questions, a drive that probes everything finite, gives to us an instinct for (and even a concept of) infinity. The infinite would be, if it exists in reality, the ultimate repository of the answers to every endless inquiry of our restless minds. Infinite Light drawing onward the endless legions of light-seeking minds.

Skepticism is in order. But skepticism is not an ultimate blockage. For it is the role of skepticism to ask questions. And asking questions brings us round for another attempt at ascending the mountain. Questioning without end or limit aims toward the infinite.

The communion of souls

The second way is the path of the communion of souls. This is the communion that Anatoly Sharansky became aware of when he was held (often in solitary confinement) in the prisons of the Soviet Gulag. Out on the icy tundra, somehow a battered copy of the Psalms of King David arrived at his cell, perhaps because the censors could not read the ancient Hebrew test.

As Sharansky began reading he felt, to his surprise, an instant communion with the man who 4,000 years earlier had written these lamentations, confessions and exultations that spoke to him with immediacy. Sharansky also began dimly to feel a sense of continuity among the community of Hebrew-readers, the community that had preserved these psalms down the ages and had printed them up in the battered book that reached his lonely cell.

Yet it was still another experience that truly illumined to him the communion of souls. Sharansky was by profession a physicist, and a very good one, and precious to him was the history of science and the narratives of those heroes of scientific conscience who braved punishments to pursue the inquiries that burned in their breasts. Galileo was his special hero.

One day Sharansky’s interrogator tried to impress upon him that no one would ever know anything Sharansky told them. It would go into a file, and no one would ever see it. Then his interrogator insinuated that even Galileo had confessed his “errors,” and how had that hurt Galileo in history?

The mention of his hero jolted the prisoner. Here was Sharansky, some 340 years after the death of Galileo, being tempted to betray the truth. Holding him in solitary confinement for much of his term, the Soviets wanted Sharansky to confess to crimes he did not commit, and to implicate falsely others in his circle.

Galileo’s problem was more subtle. In the language of the Bible, the sun moves around the Earth, from daylight to sunset. Galileo’s researches showed that the Earth revolved on its own axis every 24 hours and circled the sun every year. His Church interrogators wanted him to swear allegiance to the biblical view. Galileo reluctantly confessed that (from the point of view of common experience) the biblical view has merit. Under his breath he is said to have murmured, speaking of the Earth spinning on its axis: “Nevertheless, it moves.”

Sharansky’s interrogator was playing on Galileo’s equivocation. Sharansky saw the point. Galileo, his hero, had remained faithful to the truth, and yet he had also equivocated. Well, if Sharansky also sinned against the truth by confessing to crimes he had not committed, and also falsely implicated others, Sharansky’s own name would be thrown at the next prisoner to induce him to “confess.”

“See,” the next interrogator would tell his next victim, “Sharansky was stubborn like you, too, but he finally told the truth.” That “truth” is in actuality the Soviet lie: that all men lie, that all men have their price and that the only reliable mortality is the success of the Communist Party. Thus is soul linked to soul. Thus does one soul depend on the steadfastness of another, in proof that even humble men and women can hold to the truth. Thus are all who seek truth and serve the truth bound in one communion, across the ages.

In such ways, too, many living souls went through hell in the seemingly endless chain of prisons of the 20th century and learned in hard ways that telling the truth matters and is a pearl of very great price. What their interrogators really wanted was their complicity in the Soviet (or Fascist or Islamofascist) Lie. Their interrogators wanted each one of them, one by one, in a long chain, to carry on the new tradition of the official Lie. Their aim was to make the Lie the universal form of speech.

And yet humble, ordinary fact matters, and truth is far more precious than the Lie. Truth is well worth dying for, even if one dies in total obscurity, even if no one except oneself and one’s torturer will ever know of one’s ultimate sacrifice. This fact about the power of simple truth-telling provoked in many troubled prisoners much inward scrutiny. What on earth could be the source of their high valuation on truth, even against the interests of their own body and their very life itself? “What on earth lives within me, that asks so much of me?”

That was the second path for coming around to another form of transcendence, woven into the texture of our lives: the dependence of each soul on a long tradition of others. A dependence in spirit and truth.

The problem of good

The third way by which some become aware of the presence of God arises from the problem of good. There is so much good around us, and not only the goods of beauty in mountains and sea, and the intelligibility that scientists discover everywhere they look — from the farthest stars to the tiniest insects, from galaxies to the innards of the atom. But also so much goodness in human beings.

In a sense, human evil is easy to understand. Evil is what you do if you have no virtues — if you merely do whatever your most animal instincts push you to do; if you chase ego-centered purposes in all you do; if you smash all who stand in your way or even merely irritate you; if you slip the bonds of self-control even by one tragic occasion. (There was the story in the paper a few weeks ago about a well-behaved young man on one singular night going violent and murderous and committing a horrific homicide.) Telling white lies for the sake of avoiding hurt to others or a painful conflict for oneself easily gets out of hand. Then suddenly our reliability for truth-telling is gone.

Evil flows so easily from our natures that, if you look at things in a certain way, it seems utterly amazing that there are among us so many good people, so many good deeds, so many signs of unbelievable generosity and uncomplaining self-sacrifice for the sake of others. In this context, some even say that one of the only proofs of the truth of Christianity is the marvelous impulsion to beautiful and good actions that it has imparted to so many of its serious adherents, beginning with legions of its saints known and unknown. By the same standard, however, one of the most powerful arguments against it are the scarlet sins of its less worthy members.

But this proof fails for another reason, too: Moral heroism and humble goodness are not limited to Christians. In fact, goodness is so common among humans that we are accustomed to characterize its workings as “humane.” When we say that something shows a man’s “humanity,” we mean acts of goodness. Professor Abraham Maslow noted in his studies of the Nazi concentration camps how many brave acts of kindness and goodness were done every day amid squalid suffering and unprecedented evil.

Although not one of us is unscarred by stumbles and falls, the world does have a tilt to it: There is more good among human beings than evil. That tilt is what we mean by the humanity of peoples (and in a few cases, at least for a time, the lack thereof). Have you not met friends whose lives are tied up for a long period of time as they care for a parent, spouse or child, over many years of grave and difficult illnesses? Some have done so for many years for total strangers, in hospitals in strange lands. One of the most underreported facts of our time is the great number of truly good people who are in action on Earth every day.

Such widespread self-sacrifice, goodness and love for others under dire conditions move us to marvel and to wonder. When Plato writes of the fire of the great Good that draws us toward itself in all the ethical actions of our lives; when Dante invokes “The Love that moves the sun and all the stars”; and Yeats insists that “Everything we look upon is blest,” our minds respond with echoing recognition.

More than that, we have questions about the nature and existence of this cosmos that go beyond scientific questions. By its very methods, science commits itself to detecting only material things accessible to empirical study. It declares that outside its bounds no realities are to be found of the sort designated since at least Plato as the Highest Good, the Light, “Spirit and Truth,” the Pure Act from which all existence springs, the Author of all the intelligibility which is written into the nature and action of all things, the energy of Good which through the hearts of humans drives.

Of all the items in the universe, the realities just named are beyond the reach of science. Nonetheless, wonder about them has gripped philosophers since philosophy began. For centuries, arguments of reason have been developed and submitted to scrutiny. Philosophers, of course, habitually break into warring sects.

Meanwhile, most of the people on Earth seem to have reached the intuition of the good on their own. Several times, learned atheists have confided that they would like to believe but can find no evidence for doing so. By scientific method, finding evidence in regard to such questions is impossible. But that does not stop the questions. Unrelenting, the unrelenting questions seek other paths.

In our day, such questions seem to be disturbing the peace of a great many people. The more secular the world gets, the more insistently fires burn across the prairie.

Michael Novak graduated from Holy Cross College (no longer extant) at Notre Dame and held the Welch Chair in American studies in the autumns of 1987 and ’88. The author of No One Sees God and The Joy of Sports, he holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in philosophy, religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute, and was awarded the million-dollar Templeton Prize at Buckingham Palace in 1994, for his pioneering work on a theology of economics.

Photo by Matt Cashore.