|Why bother to take God
Most people haven't any interest in religion -
mainly because they haven't any interest in God. If asked as part of a
survey whether they "believed in God", many would say that they did, but
there would be few if any differences in their lives compared to those who
deny the existence of God. For most people, the subject of God is
completely irrelevant, and that is an enormous pity.
Does God exist? If so, what's he/she/it like? These are pressing
questions for all who bother to think about it, but because so many of the
claims made by Christians are so odd and so simplistic, many thinking
people shake their heads and walk away.
It's obviously not possible to believe everything, even if it were
desirable. The Internet is crammed with websites devoted to all sorts of
beliefs, ranging from the sensible to the ludicrous. We don't have the
time or the energy (or the inclination) to investigate most of these, and
so we tend to dismiss them out of hand.
The problem with religion is similar to the problem with fiction:
thousands of novels are published in English each year, and without
literary critics and judging panels for awards like the Booker Prize, we'd
be floundering around without any idea as to what might be worth reading
and what probably isn't. Just as we need guides to help us through all the
books, we need some way of sorting out the reasonable beliefs from the
Only a philistine would dismiss the very idea of religion out of hand.
So many people find it meaningful, that to see them all as
misguided would be hugely arrogant. Although truth isn't established on
the basis of a show of hands, there comes a point when the number of hands
raised is so great that at the very least it should give us pause for
The great world religions constitute an obvious short list of
potentially reasonable beliefs, but even this is too long, unless we are
prepared to give all our time to becoming familiar with each of them. The
only practical solution is to focus on the religion that is dominant in
our own culture. Although we live in what is often called a multi-faith
society, the dominant religion in the West is clearly Christianity.
So when faced with the phenomenon of Christianity, what is the
interested outsider to make of it?
It appears to involve believing in the existence of an invisible
super-person, who made everything and who keeps an eye on everything.
Stemming from this belief are all sorts of other ones, such as the belief
in an immortal soul, so that when we die we simply continue in another
form, and (if we're lucky) do so in a glorious place called heaven.
Not surprisingly, many intelligent, thoughtful people refuse to have
anything to do with any of this, mainly on the grounds that there is no
evidence worth speaking of to support it. Their reaction is perfectly
reasonable and raises the question whether this belief in a super-person
actually is what Christianity is all about.
God is traditionally thought of as a being (albeit a very special sort
of being), and if we think along those lines then he/she/it must
presumably "exist", in the same way that other beings or things, like
people or chairs, "exist". But there are all sorts of ways of
understanding the God symbol, with many thinking of God as a sort of
philosophical ideal, much as the ancient Greeks might have done.
If the only version of God some people know is the one heard in Sunday
School, it may come as a surprise for them to realise that viewing God as
a symbol is possible within the church context. But we should note that in
all other areas of human thought we allow, even expect, development. For
example, the understanding of physics by the primary school child is very
different from that by the university student.
And because adolescence usually marks the end of religious education,
people get stuck in a sort of time warp. The good news is that there is
religious life after Sunday School. The bad news is that we have to work
Perhaps the best starting point for a sceptic is not to think in terms
of trying to "believe in God". To put the work about God in terms of
believing is to shut off all sorts of imaginative ways of imagining God. A
better starting point is the recognition that all of us have depths in
ourselves, which is what is meant by the word "soul".
These depths are what yearn for the profound and the glorious and are
not fed by the banal or the superficial. They are what is reached when we
respond to music or art or poetry - or religion, which is a way of
organising our search for what is most real or significant. Although many
people are able to do without religion, they would be hugely impoverished
if they tried to do without any sense of the profound in their lives.
Churches need to become places where people gather, not to reinforce
their certainties about a being called "God", but to share in the
experience of exploring ways of trying to satisfy their mutual spiritual
hunger. The future for organised religion is bleak, unless we work at
re-imagining and re-creating the God symbol, so that it really does speak
to the spiritual needs of our time.