Great God, It’s the Great God Debate

Author: John O’Callaghan ’86, Ph.D.’96

On April 7, a sold-out audience in Notre Dame’s Leighton Concert Hall watched this year’s edition of “The God Debate.”Before a packed house, “New Atheist” Sam Harris and philosopher of religion William Lane Craig argued whether God is the source of morality.

Oddly, whenever I think of Harris in this debate, I think of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Specifically this passage comes to mind: "I was glad, if also ashamed, to discover that I had been barking for years not against the Catholic faith but against mental figments of physical images. My rashness and impiety lay in the fact that what I ought to have verified by investigation I had simply asserted as an accusation.”

St. Augustine wrote those words in midlife, reflecting on that time in his youth just before he entered fully into the Catholic faith of his mother, St. Monica. I won’t suggest that Harris is at a similar point in his life. But someone so obsessed with religion, even if negatively, is surely wrestling with the angel of God.

Still, my first and less-than-charitable thought involving Harris is ad hominem abusive. He is so uncomprehending of Catholicism that for a Christian to debate him at Notre Dame is like a physicist debating a Flat Earth theorist at Cal Tech. Yes there are such theorists, although perhaps not as many as those who “bark against mental figments . . . asserting as an accusation” their own ignorance of Christian belief. And while I am convinced that even Sam Harris has a mother, and for that reason ought to receive a kind thought here and there, I have no illusion that he is on the verge of an Augustine-style conversion.

Yet, earlier in the Confessions, Augustine tells us that his mother pleaded with a bishop that he intervene with her son to lead him away from his Manichean errors. The bishop basically told her: “Augustine is a smart boy; let him keep reading and he’ll make his way out of the nonsense; I did.”

So there’s hope for the likes of Sam Harris, struggling so hard like Augustine to find an explanation of what’s wrong with stealing pears. But here is where the terms of the debate, “Is Good from God?” come in to play, and one has to wonder just what is at issue. I am writing this piece just hours before the big event. And I wonder what this great debate is about. It’s sold out, and the advertising says that it is back “by popular demand,” a reference to last year’s great God debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza. But what is it that the people demand, and why?

Science vs. religion

Is Good from God or not from God? Harris, we are to understand, will argue the negative by proposing a natural science explanation of moral goodness for the supernatural explanation we are to suppose Craig will advocate. Thus at Notre Dame do we engage the modern dilemma of science versus religion — the two great enemies, so we seem to believe.

Our students pack the hall with great anticipation. Will God triumph over science? Or will science expose God for a “mental figment?” And if it does, what will our students do? Abandon Our Lady’s university in droves, having realized that she is the mother of all God delusions, and that they are paying $50,000 a year for a sham and a fraud? Is this really what Christians believe — It’s God or quarks? Priests or physicists?

In our youth many of us learn by heart Hopkins poem, “God’s Grandeur,” in which he writes “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” But do we take it seriously as a poetic expression of St. Paul’s “the invisible things of God are made manifest by the visible things of this world?” Or do we treat it like a beautiful sentiment with little bearing upon the impetus behind so much of the extraordinary scientific investigation carried on in the name of Christianity?

Yes, yes, yes, we all know about Galileo the Roman Catholic under house arrest in his villa overlooking Florence, without even a GPS ankle bracelet, looking out at the hills, sipping grappa and musing about how it all came to this for simply advocating the Polish monk Copernicus’ theory. But isn’t this really rather the exception than the rule?

There have been so many great Catholic scientists. What of Clavius? Boscovich? Mendel? Pasteur? Nieuwland? Zahm? Lejeune? They never drank the grappa. The very hand that is typing this line has rubbed the nose of the bust of LeMaitre in the Casina Pio IV inside the Vatican, much like Knute’s nose at the Rockne Memorial. LeMaitre is the Belgian priest and physicist who first proposed the Big Bang theory. With this heritage, how is it that we have come to this, thinking that we must choose either science or God?

The greatest among our Christian forebears certainly didn’t think we had to. Even if one remains unconvinced by the logic of Aquinas’ Five Ways, the attitude expressed in them is not one of natural explanations in competition with God. His natural science was almost unimaginably false with regard to what we now know or claim to know. But the reality of natural causes that allows for scientific understanding was for him the best and “most manifest” argument for the existence of a god, a god Who does not compete with His creatures but, rather, enables them.

For Aquinas, God was not an alternative hypothesis or theory to be superseded by subsequent science; on the contrary God was the best explanation for why there is an intelligible world at all to be understood by successive stages in science. Without God, there is no science and no scientific progress. The best reason for thinking there is a god, after the fact that your mother told you so, the same mother who told you who your father is (and I dare you to tell her you don’t believe her!), is the glory of science, not its failure. The glory of God displayed in scientific explanation “gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.” (Homework for Sam Harris: explain that line from Hopkins’ poem.)

Moral truths

But you will tell me that this God Debate isn’t simply about natural causes. This is about morality and THE GOOD. We are to believe that if Stephen Hawking can get “thou shalt not steal” out of a random quantum fluctuation in the collapsing wave packet of the void, then we ought not to believe in God. Well for various reasons involving a proper understanding of the nature of scientific explanation, natural science won’t ever give an adequate account of the moral truths concerning human life and its destiny. But suppose I’m wrong about that.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that natural science were to give an adequate explanation of moral truths, would that give us any reason to think that God is not responsible for the moral truths that govern our lives? Why? After all, natural science gives us explanations of what good wolves are and good tulips. Do those explanations give us any reason to think that God is not responsible for wolves and tulips? No — at least not in the thought of Augustine, Aquinas, Mendel, Zahm, and even, oh my, that Roman Catholic Galileo.

But if these exemplars of Christian thought have even the most meager insight into what it is that Christians actually believe about God, then just supposing per impossibile that natural science could give us an adequate account of what a good human being is, why would you think that account would pose a problem for Christian belief in the existence of God or His providential care of the world?

When I was young I thought I would be a physicist and a mathematician, even to the point of having published in physics and gone to graduate school in mathematics. But I wasn’t smart enough to go on, smart enough in the modes of explanation characteristic of those fields. Someone once called this recognition that “I do not know” the beginning of wisdom, while others might call it failure. It happens to the best of us. But at no time in my studies of physics and mathematics was I foolish enough to think that they were in some fundamental competition with the understanding of reality that comes from God.

My subsequent failure/wisdom did not consist in failing to see how random variations in reproduction lead to the truth that one ought to feed the hungry, or the evil of hating one’s enemies, or that there is no greater love than that a man should lay down his life for his friends. My failure had to do with topology and homologies of chain complexes.

My father, who was a philosopher, once asked his best friend on the faculty, one of my physics professors, “Jim can you hear the music of the spheres?” My professor responded, “Hear it, Bill? It’s so loud I can’t turn the damn stuff off!” This physicist knew his Augustine: “question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky . . . question all these realities. All respond: ‘See, we are beautiful.’ Their beauty is a profession. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change?” Sam Harris couldn’t do better than to read Augustine. After all even Sam has a Mother, as in Notre Dame do we all.

For Ernan McMullin, requiescat in pace.

Professor John P. O’Callaghan is the director of Notre Dame’s Jacques Maritain Center. The late Rev. Ernan McMullin was a world-renowned philosopher of science at Notre Dame who wrote widely on the relationship between science and religion.