The devil you say
These days what the Epistle of James says about believing in God—that the devils believe in him too, ergo beware of taking too much credit for your credos—is often on my mind. God may or may not be in his heaven, but on any given week he is likely to be enthroned at the top of that great chain of being known as the New York Times Best Sellers List. Like James and the devil, I am not impressed.
By that I do not mean that I consider myself beyond the God debate or beyond those of my fellow mortals who find it compelling. In fact, if there is any unifying notion in what you are about to read, it is my deep distrust of any human being who fancies himself “beyond” just about anything, be it money, jealousy (of best-selling authors, for instance), using a turn signal, or putting on a tie. I would never buy a book whose title began with Beyond, though I have known a few beyond-good-and-evil types who weren’t beyond stealing one.
If I am unimpressed with the God debate it is less for wanting to seem aloof than for needing to start with easier questions. Lacking the credentials, say, that entitle any expert on a nanolayer of slime covering a pebble called earth to give us the complete skinny on absolute being, a hubris beside which the nitwit ruling of a Kansas school board seems cautiously understated, I want questions better suited to my pay grade. Never mind does God exist—does the God debate exist?
I am not sure it does, or if it does, what it signifies besides a consumer culture’s endless obsession with buying the right accessories, the insignia most favored by one’s defined target group, the Jesus-fish trunk magnet or the Darwin fish with legs, or maybe a badge betokening higher evolution in the form of a chromium squirrel. The self-appointed champions of faith and reason doth protest too much, methinks.
The God Delusion author Richard Dawkins, for instance, argues that the practice of prayer is like talking to an imaginary friend, a textbook example of “begging the question”—in this case the question Dawkins’ book is dedicated to answering—a rhetorical fallacy most of the sixteen and seventeen year olds I used to teach grasped without much trouble, though getting them to spell non sequitur was a tougher slog. If this is the best “reason” can say for itself, God help us.
On the other hand, what leap of faith matches the breathtaking courage, to say nothing of the oxymoronic splendor, of the so-called atheistic humanist? To believe not only that millions of human beings have been deluded for thousands of years (and about a point of some consequence) but also that such specimens of humanity as Bach, Montaigne, Gandhi, John Coltrane, and Martin Luther King Jr. have been supremely deluded, and then to offer as a saving alternative to this delusional nonsense—drumroll, please, if only to drown out the irreverent guffaws—humanism! What is a virgin birth to that? Credibile est, quia ineptum est, “It is believable because it is ridiculous,” said fiery old Tertullian. No atheist and no humanist either, he had what it takes to be both.
Perhaps “the God debate” is an oxymoron, too. Simone Weil, working in the tradition of the theologia negativa, which holds that God is better defined by an is not than an is, suggested that atheists and theists were merely affirming different aspects of the same ineffable truth. Believers will balk at this; atheists are rarely pleased. Camus liked Weil, true, but then I’ve never been convinced Camus was an atheist. Camus was more of a wistful agnostic, a type I tend to trust: not beyond “losing their faith” but not beyond feeling sad about it either, the sort of people who don’t need to be water boarded to tell you which movie they really want to see.
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