Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Religion on the Level: #1
Richard Holloway

What is the Use of God?
In 1970 we bought a cottage in Perthshire, above a river, a few yards from a farm. I learnt later that the farmer's wife had complained to her neighbours that a "God botherer" had moved into the empty cottage down the road.

Annoyed at the time, I came to cherish the description as containing a lot of truth. God does bother me or, to be more accurate, I am bothered about God. There are people of whom that cannot be said. They either have a settled belief in God or a settled unbelief. In either case the question of God does not bother them; they have resolved it, one way or another.

The use of the verb "resolved" suggests the result of a process of applied consideration, the end of an exploration or period of research into the matter that yields acceptable conclusions, either for or against the question, "Is there a God?"

I suspect, however, that it is never really like that. Believers often describe faith as a gift, something given, something people find themselves having; maybe settled unbelief is also a gift, something people find themselves holding to without too much anguish or thought about the matter.

It is true, of course, that some people come to faith in a moment of crisis, a turning point; just as some people lose it in the same way; but even this does not alter the gift of relationship. Gifts can be withdrawn as well as presented, but the giving or the losing of the gift still suggests something that happens to people rather than something they have carefully worked out for themselves.

There are people who find themselves with convictions on this question of God, for or against, and when challenged they can offer perfectly respectable justifications for the convictions, but there is still an underlying sense that belief or unbelief is something that happened to them.

Even agnostics have a certain settled quality about them. They have settled for knowing that they do not know whether there is a God; they say that, since it is impossible to settle the question one way or another, they have contentedly settled for not knowing. But even agnostics have the certainty of knowing that there is no way of knowing whether there is a God, so they are more like settled believers or settled unbelievers than God botherers.

God botherers experience little of this consoling confidence of conviction, because both the possibility and impossibility of God nibble at their souls - the phrase comes from Emily Dickinson's poem, This World is not Conclusion which contains the lines

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul

God botherers cannot still the Tooth that nibbles at the soul. People who suffer from this condition do not necessarily want to be polemical or negative in their dealings with the other approaches. However, the fact that they tend to place a heavy premium on personal honesty leads them to identify the many ways in which God claims are misused.

The voice that people use in this discussion is very important, so I want to find a tone that does not sound dismissive of the settled approaches I have touched on. Good people believe that it is impossible to know whether God exists. Some people seem unable to settle for any of these attitudes, so let me cut directly to the question that nibbles at their souls.

We know that our planet is a tiny speck in a corner of a galaxy of billions of stars in a universe of billions of galaxies. Given the size of the universe, it is possible that the conditions that gave rise to life on our planet have been replicated elsewhere, but it is also possible that in all that unimaginable vastness, the mere thought of which so terrified Pascal, we are the only conscious creatures.

It is possible that only in our planet, among a perfect infinity of possibilities, life has evolved to consciousness; so that only here, on this tiny dot, has the universe become conscious of itself and we have started thinking.

The thing which bends the mind is the question, Was there ever just nothing, and from that nothing did all this just spontaneously come forth? It is the existence of the universe, the being of Being, and our ability to think about it, that is the tooth that nibbles at the soul.

In some people the questions have induced such anxiety, and such a need for settled answers to still the vertigo in the mind, that we confront the strange spectacle of thinking creatures in a universe that is intrinsically mysterious (from which they can deduce no obviously  incontrovertible answers to the question of its meaning) roasting each other alive over the status of their conjectures on the matter.

The claim to absolute knowledge, particularly in this area, has to be  highly suspicious. All absolute claims to final knowledge of the meaning of things have to be cognitively dubious, though we would probably want to admit that they may serve a useful purpose as survival mechanisms in a lonely universe.

Today we recognise the importance of giving people the freedom to hold absolute opinions, as long as they do not derive from them the right to torture and persecute others into holding them as well. Ironically this tolerance towards absolute systems that are themselves intrinsically intolerant is a gift of the post-absolute or post-religious era.

Absolute systems, by definition, do not allow themselves the possibility of negotiating compromises with other absolute systems. Historically, tolerance was forced on the contending absolutes by external force, as much as by internal exhaustion. But it is worth remembering in our tolerant and pluralist era that many of the conjectures about the meaning of the universe that have been given in the past have claimed absolute status for themselves, and asserted their right to impose themselves on others.

The paradox of our era is that we extend toleration to systems of belief that are themselves intrinsically intolerant and abhorrent to modern consciousness. Let me remind you of an example from recent history.

One of the more diverting religious news stories of 1998 was about the Sunday school teachers in an evangelical Church in the Midlands of the UK who told their students that Princess Diana was in Hell. One child, upset by the information, reported it to his mother, who told the press. The teachers were interviewed on a radio programme and argued (logically from their point of view) that the Bible teaches that unrepentant sinners go to hell. Since Diana had died suddenly, and almost certainly unprepared and unrepentant, it followed that she must be in Hell.

I was not sure whether to feel grudging admiration for their almost heroic disregard for public opinion or horror at the primitivism of their belief system. However, it is worth remembering that the belief system they held would have been very familiar to most Christians throughout history.

It was indeed taught that dying in unrepented sin guaranteed eternal punishment, and this grisly doctrine is an extension to one of the answers to the question about the meaning of the universe that humans have constructed. The system taught that this life was only a prelude to a more important life beyond, and the way we lived, including the way we thought, would have eternal consequences.

From the point of view of our topic tonight, it mattered eternally how you answered the question about life's meaning. Get it wrong, and you could find yourself in an eternity of torment. It was this conviction about the fundamental and eternal consequences of holding the right answer to the question posed by life that led to the great missionary expansion of Christianity.

If you were persuaded that knowing the right answer to the question life asks determined your eternal status, for weal or for woe, it would obviously have a profound effect on your attitude to other people, including people you would probably never meet, people in other lands for instance. If you were a kindly person, you would want to share the saving secret with them, because it would rescue them from a horrible fate beyond death.

You night even persuade yourself that the issues were so momentous for the souls concerned that even torturing them to death in order to get them to accept the saving formula would be justified, for what does a few hours of torment in this life compare to an eternity of torment in the life to come? True believers in an absolute system would see torture unto death as a therapeutic intervention, like surgery, that was designed to save not destroy the soul.

The important thing to note about religions that make these absolute claims is that, logically, they are mutually exclusive. Even within the Christian religion, for instance, there is claim and counter claim about the absolute status of different types of belief.