On no longer being sure whether I believe in ‘God’

Posted on December 28, 2007

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Christmas for me brought one clear message, and one potentially interesting thought. The message came from a series of gifts: by the time I had received a gym ‘stepper’ machine, a new tracksuit and a kit bag, to go with three free sessions at the gym, something was becoming obvious…

The thought began with the new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, who was asked in a radio interview just after his election if he believed in God. He replied ‘No.’ The answer was both clear and succinct, suggesting he is doomed to fail in politics; it was given close enough to the Christmas news drought to provoke a brief media flurry of comment about the place of belief in God, or at least of public declarations of belief in God, in British political life (rather too often accompanied by comparisons with the United States, as smug and self-congratulatory as they were asinine and ill-informed). In the course of reading one of these, I suddenly realised that I know longer knew what my answer to the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ would be.

Philip Pullman might be the proximate cause, although I suspect Richard Dawkins and (particularly) A.C. Grayling are the deeper roots. I confess to not having read Pullman’s novels (‘Had we but world enough and time…’), but the release of the film has brought an inevitable body of Christian reaction, ranging from the somewhat hysterical, to the rather thoughtful. A common feature at the more thoughtful end of the spectrum has been the suggestion that the God criticised in the films has nothing to do with the God Christians confess and proclaim. This put me in mind of Grayling’s defence of Dawkins against a common criticism earlier in the year: Dawkins’s critics suggested he needed to know more theology, to which Grayling (repeatedly) made the point that one does not need to be an expert ‘fairiologist’ to not believe in fairies. At the time I reflected that the point only half-held. One needs to know enough to know what a fairy is before one can rationally disbelieve in their existence, and so it remained open to any religious believer to suggest that the being Dawkins attempts to disprove is not the God she worships. (Alvin Plantinga deployed the argument entertainingly and convincingly here.)

So to the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ I suppose I had always thought the question ‘which God?’ a smart answer, but now I suspect it is important, because, in reading journalistic reflection on the question, I have come to suspect that the ‘God’ in the question defaults to the ‘God’ of the Deists—limited; philosophically-defined; basically inactive—rather than the triune God of the Church’s confession.

But my answer to the question is less interesting than reflection on this odd cultural quirk. The Deists were members of the intellectual elite, of course, but the movement was short-lived and numerically very limited; if I am right, why has their conception of ‘God’ become assumed in Western public discourse?

I have some thoughts on an answer, and indeed on whether ‘belief’ is the right verb but those are perhaps for another post.

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