Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The God Thing

with 3 comments


I’ve been walking around this post all morning, not sure how to get it started–and to tell the truth, I still don’t know.  I can’t really think of anything in the way of a lead in that makes sense, and what I can think of feels sort of abrupt.

Let me try this is the most direct possible way.

Over the last several weeks–and on and off over the time I’ve been on the Internet–I have had people say some variation of the following sentence to me:  you’ve already decided that God does not exist.

When this comes from one of those pe0ple on the Internet mostly to debate the existence of God, it often takes the form of:  I have faith that God exists, and you have faith that God does not exist.

Or:  I believe God exists, and you believe God does not exist.

The problem with all this, for me, is that it isn’t true.  I don’t believe that “God does not exist.” 

Unlike many people you’ll meet who are now atheists, I did not reject a religious upbringing, marshall a bunch of arguments and conclude that “all that God stuff” had to be untrue.

I needed to reject nothing and marshall no arguments–God was almost never mentioned in my house growing up, except by me, and then it was only in pursuing the interesting idea that I might have an excuse for one day walking around in a nun’s habit. 

Those were the days when nuns had really impressive habits, and I would have given anything to be allowed to swish around in a long skirt and a wimple and a veil.  It looked romantic as hell.  I was so convinced that all things having to do with wearing a habit had to be good things that, when my mother told me she’s seen a movie with Audrey Hepburn where nuns were required to shave all the hair off their heads, I refused to believe it.  I never did believe it until many years later, when I met actual nuns, who explained the whole thing to me.

I had nuns for teachers in high school, and loved them, and mostly like the nuns I know now.  For that matter, I like most of the priests I know now.  I never did have those lower-level, largely uneducated orders of nuns that resorted to corporal punishment or autocratic high handedness to compensate for their lack of intellectual rigor. 

Then I did a lot of studying in an area of literature that required a solid understanding of Catholic theology, so there was that.

But belief seems to me to be a largely emotional thing–well, okay, let me back up.

The Catholic Church, at least from the time of Aquinas, has defined belief as an act of the will.  You decide that X is true and you hold to it, even though it doesn’t “feel” right, or even if it doesn’t feel real.

The Catholic Church feels the same way about love, which it also defines as an act of will, and that would be an interesting subject for a later date. 

But I can’t get past the “feel” part.  I read the various dogmas of Christian belief, the Virgin Birth, the Star of Bethlehem, even the Crucifixion and Resurrection–and they just don’t ring true in my head.  They sound like stories–and I mean that literally.  The underlying structure seems to me to be narrative in the same sense that The Iliad is narrative.  I sometimes think that narrative corresponds to a particular kind of structure in the brain. 

For better or worse, the Christian stories seem to me like stories.  They always did, maybe because my earliest acquaintance with them were as stories.  I was taught the basics of the Gospel story by people who did not believe that those basics were factually true.

On the other hand, since I never had to reject a religious upbringing, I’m also not antagonistic to those stories, and I’m not antagonistic to all religious thought and tradition. 

There are certainly segments of the larger community of Christians who repel me–the ones who let their children die of meningitis because all secular medicine is really witchcraft, say (and no, I did not make that up)–and segments that leave me exasperated.  I mean, go ahead.  Show me where in the Bible it says that the earth is only 10,000 years old.  And if Augustine could think it was compatible with Christian doctrine for the human body to have been created through a process of evolution, who the Hell are these people to say it’s not?

But unlike a lot of people who have run from specific Christian traditions and therefore think they know all about what Christianity says, I didn’t, so I actually went and found out.  And what I found was that there was a lot in Christian moral theology that I admired, and a lot in the Christian intellectual tradition that I more than admired.  You take John Rawls.  I’ll take Augustine, Aquinas and Abelard any day of the week.

And Hildegarde, too, next to almost anything that’s been composed in the last fifty years, except maybe some stuff by John Williams.

And a lot of jazz.

But along with all this, I’m very aware of something else:  I may not “believe” in God, or in not-God either, but when it comes to choosing up sides, I almost invariably end up with high-intellectual-end Catholicism and not with the secular philosophies of the last century or so.

I most certainly do not end up with what passes for philosophy–especially moral and political philosophy–in organized Humanism and Secular Humanism these days.

I never got around to talking about Sam Harris’s new book in any detail, but in the end what it came down to was this:  he, like everybody else–including a fair number of Christian theologians–tends to want to “prove” the truth of his moral and political ideas, and he starts with the ideas, not the data.

But let’s look at the list now, for a minute:

a) the equality of moral worth of all human beings (and only human beings), whether the person is “conscious” in some abstract sense or not–high-end Catholicism will give it to me.  The present run of secular moral philosophers both deny the moral equality of some human beings (those  in “persistant vegetative states” or who are not “self aware”) and attempt to raise other animals to a position above such rejected human beings.  If you don’t believe me, see Peter Singer.

b) the primacy of the individual over the group as the locus of morality, rights, and justice–high-end Catholicism will give it to me.  The present run of secular moral and political philosophers are nearly manic in their rejection of the idea and their need to assert the primacy of the group in almost every aspect of politics and private life.  To those nuns, I was always just Orania.  To The Humanist I’m “a woman” and “an atheist” and a lot of other things that seem to me to be unuseful as descriptions of anything that hasn’t been mass produced.

c) the imperative of democracy–the right of ordinary, everyday people to make the decisions that structure their lives.  High end Catholicism will give it to me.  The present run of secular political philosophers is enamored of “experts” who just know better than the rest of us because they have professional knowledge we lack.

d) the imperative of liberty over security–that is, when a choice has to be made, we should err in the direction of liberty and not of security.  High-end Catholicism will give me that, too, although, like any other bureaucratic organization, liberty makes the actual Roman Catholic Church a little queasy.  But the present run of secular moral and political philosophers seems to abhor liberty in any meaningful sense.   On the one hand, it insists on absolute license–never mind liberty–on a few very narrow (and in the end, largely trivial) areas,  like sex.  On the other, it wants to expand further and further into private life to control what we eat, what we drink, how much we exercise, how we raise our children, what we do in our churches, even what we are allowed to express of our beliefs and convictions. 

Those are my four biggies, what Robert would probably call my “satisfying personal philosophy.”  What they really are, in all likelihood, is the expression of my temperament, which is what it is. 

But at the end of the day, I’m left with the realization that I may not know whether God exists or not, but I do know what side I’m on.  And I’m not cheering on the expansion of the New Atheism into public life.  Given the things that are most important to me, that would be a personal disaster.

I’m also left asking myself why this is so–why it is that the public face of atheist and Humanism is what it is and not something else.  I certainly know other people who do not believe in God who also believe in the things I do.  There does not seem to be anything inherent in the lack of belief that would inevitably push you in one direction.

Even so, it does seem to push most people in one direction, and I haven’t stopped asking why that is.  That may be the reason why I do, every once in a while, deliberately read books whose purpose is to challenge my lack of belief in God.  I’ve got one on the coffee table now, called The Handbook of Christian Apologetics, which is a book by Peter Kreeft and somebody else whose name I can’t remember meant to be the basis for Catholics who want to contend for the Church in debates.

I don’t really think I’m going to change my mind and suddenly start believing that God exists–or at least, not the God of the Christians, which is a considerably harder sell than the idea of “God” in the abstracting.  The feeling thing does matter to me.

But I really do go out there and delierately read and engage with things that I definitely to not believe in, and even that I actively oppose.

Because let’s face it.

You never know.

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Written by janeh

November 30th, 2010 at 10:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The God Thing'

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  1. I’ve always been attracted to Catholicism – Roman Catholicism, I suppose I should say – although at present I think I’m in the right religious place for me, and it’s not there. My attraction has and had absolutely nothing to do with emotion, unless you count childish fascination with those dramatic habits, which I too had. I don’t trust emotion, and I don’t choose what I want to guide my life on the basis of how it makes me feel. I suppose I returned to religion because it gives me answers – which I do not entirely understand or accept entirely and unquestioningly – which I find more useful and fulfilling in structuring my life and my relationship with the world than I have ever found an agnostic or atheist approach – whose answers I also did not not entirely understand or accept.

    I think I hit the ‘But I don’t really fit in that box so quit pushing!’ thing quite early, in my mid to late teens. That’s how I think of what you’re calling ‘choosing sides’. I found all these new and interesting and exciting ideas, but there was always a point at which someone somewhere started claiming that because I was a or believed I had to fit in all their little categories, their little boxes, and I knew I didn’t. Or I had to accept certain conclusions; certain new ‘received wisdoms’, and in the long term, I often couldn’t. I picked bits and pieces I wanted to keep – I’m still a ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ style feminist – and moved on, until I ended up more or less back where I started.

    Only to find, of course, that many of the ideas I examined and came to regard with suspicion (eg ‘social justice’) have sometimes come to replace older ideas of individual caring for others, but I still find where I am now far more accepting than all the other places I explored.

    I confess that I am less and less inclined to read things that I actively oppose. If some controversy engages my attention, I read about it until all the arguments start getting repetitive, at which point I think I’ve gotten enough viewpoints to make up my mind. After that, I don’t bother reading up on the issue any more. I don’t have enough time as it is to read things I want to read!


    30 Nov 10 at 11:16 am

  2. There’s a nice antidote to Peter Singer here:


    Tonti-Filipini is absolutely detested by the left.


    30 Nov 10 at 11:55 pm

  3. This doesn’t really fit here since there’s only a passing comment about religion at the end.

    I wanted to post it because I thought some people here would appreciate the analysis of some politicians.



    1 Dec 10 at 8:03 am

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