Category: atheism

Nick Cave’s God: Reflections on 20,000 Days on Earth

‘I don’t believe in an interventionist god,’ begins Nick Cave’s most overplayed song.  A couple of years later, Q magazine asked him in an interview, ‘Why don’t you believe in an interventionist god?’. He gave a two word answer: ‘I do.’ I’ve always taken him seriously on that, and perhaps he was serious at that time. Anyone steeped in his music – and I have been, at times, obsessive about his music – would find God everywhere, saturating his world.

In the new quasi-documentary about him, 20,000 Days on Earth, nothing should be taken as the final word from Cave; everything is scripted and edging into the mythic or the surreal. But he surprised me, by telling a counsellor in an early scene that while God exists in the world Cave himself creates, God does not exist in the real world. The Cave of 20,000 Days is no theist, nor even a deist, but an atheist. His project as an artist is to create a world, and in that world, someone is watching, taking count, and that’s God. But maybe it’s really Cave. No-one’s ever accused him of humility.

He tells the story of how his deep interest in religion was a part of his drug habit, that he’d wake up desperate for a hit, and would go to church first, sit through it, before heading over to the dealers to buy drugs. That way he’d done one good thing before he did his bad thing. But his interest in religion has remained, even in this long period of him being clean. Perhaps he just likes the theatre or the symbolism of God and preachers and devils and hell. But it feels to me it goes deeper than that.

In one of my favourite songs of his, “Oh My Lord”, he walks the streets plagued by angst and the paparazzi, crying out:

Oh Lord Oh my Lord
Oh Lord
How have I offended thee?
Wrap your tender arms round me
Oh Lord Oh Lord
Oh My Lord

Does it matter to me whether Nick Cave believes in God or not? Well, yes – more than it should. If I’m honest, when so many of my literary and artistic heroes are atheists, I take comfort from those who aren’t. I know the existence of God is not decided by popular vote, or even by the vote of those I like. But I can’t help the ongoing torn-ness of living in a world which some experience as full of God, and others as absent of God.

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Roger Olson on atheism: begging to differ

I like the work of Roger Olson, a brave evangelical theologian standing up for classical Arminianism against the tide of Calvinism. Yet my experience of atheists is very different to his:

I have certainly not met every atheist, so I can’t universalize or absolutize the following opinion. However, my experience of atheists is that, those I have met and talked to, do not really deny the existence of God (or any god or gods) due to lack of evidence. Underlying and causing their atheism is (I detect) a resistance to moral accountability. They do not want to believe that they are or will be judged because they want to live as they want to live without judgment other than their own.

The atheists I know well do not seem to be resisting moral accountability at all. Instead, it is far more to do with lack of evidence and being very unconvinced by what they see of Christians and the church. I know some people who dearly want to believe in God, but their experience of the world is that God is absent. They say with Julian Barnes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” I think of a couple of the atheists I know who were brought up evangelical, and live lives in accord with much of the ethical framework of their evangelical upbringing (sex, drugs, forgiveness, love), and strive to be just, generous people.

Olson’s account of atheists is what I was brought up with. My church taught that those who were not believers actually knew the truth of Christianity but didn’t want to turn from sin. I don’t dismiss the idea that sin can blind people to God’s presence and God’s truth. That does follow quite logically from the Christian story. But it’s another thing again to claim that atheism is a willfully chosen rejection of a God who is actually apparent to the atheist. (To put this another way: I think almost anyone who was truly convinced of the extraordinary claims of Christianity, including eternal life, would choose to turn to God.)

Some possible factors leading to the difference between Olson’s and my experience of atheists. First, the strength of Olson’s Arminianism, with its emphasis on free will, could be part of it – to fully embrace Arminianism is probably to look for equality of opportunity for salvation and insist on the universality of God’s offer of grace. I suppose at this point I have some sympathy with a more Calvinist outlook (on this point only) which would place more weight of the hardness of the human heart, even the impossibility or difficulty of recognising God. (Really, I mean that my experience lines up better with the Calvinist account on this point – but also with the atheist claim that for many of them, they are completely unconvinced by theistic claims because of God’s absence.) Second, the Australian context is surely different to the US one. Belief in God is in the air in the US, it’s an assumption. Things are just as likely to be the other way round here in Australia. Maybe atheists really are different over there, or at least there’s less of the ones I meet for Olson to meet.

What do you think? Do atheists usually know God is there but choose to live in rebellion? Or are many of them genuinely unconvinced? Or something else different again?

Atheist churches – rebirth of 19th century secular societies?

The Sunday Assembly, ‘godless congregations’, have been in the news a lot recently. (CNN Belief Blog has just reported on a schism within the movement.) But I wonder if they’re actually a rebirth of the nineteenth century phenomenon of secular societies (which probably never really went away)? I was just reading Timothy Larsen’s Crisis of Doubt, about nineteenth century secularists and atheists who reconverted to Christianity, contrary to the accepted mythology around the ‘crisis of faith’ in the Victorian era. Many of the capsule biographies he provides feature men who became practically preachers for secular societies, giving regular addresses to their meetings, with ‘outreach’ type rallies at other points. It’s an interesting historical phenomenon; I’d like to see the parallels and divergences considered.

We are your lunatics, we surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible: the nun in White Noise

It is a mixed blessing, how little I remember of novels; the fact I can return to Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which meant a lot to me ten years ago, and be surprised by things within it I had completely forgotten.

Published in 1985, it is proof that today’s anxious consumer world of surfaces, freeways, supermarkets, advertisements has been with us three decades. It feels like a novel of the internet age, even though computers are barely mentioned and there was no web. But this is why DeLillo is one of America’s greatest novelists.

Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies, and his wife Babette are scared of death. The novel cuts between the domestic sphere and campus life, before a long middle chapter in which the whole town is evacuated due to a ‘toxic airborne event’. Without giving away the plot, in a climatic scene, Jack finds himself in hospital being tended by a nun-nurse. It is one of the few passages about religion in the novel; when he learns the nun is not a believer, he is curiously devastated, asking her if her dedication is a pretense. She responds:

“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, it is more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.” (319)

It is a deeply insightful speech. The New Atheists may wish religion away; yet for the uncommitted majority, ambivalent toward religion, holding a vague belief in God, perhaps the dedication of the ‘lunatics’ is a vicarious faith. For us who are the lunatics, perhaps in moments of doubt we feel the same exasperated anger of the nurse. As I read this scene, I felt the same terror Jack feels, imagining a world without believers. White Noise, as well as being a very funny book, is a bleak vision of the horror of a godless world.

Mark Bauerlin’s failed atheism

In the May 2012 issue of First Things, professor of English Mark Bauerlin writes of his ‘failed atheism’. It is a moving account of his teenage epiphany that there was no God, decades lived in what he now sees as a kind of impoverished skepticism, and his final tentative steps into faith.

He has truly known the terror of an empty, godless universe:

Every night in bed I foresaw my pending nonexistence and trembled. I shut my eyes and the walls closed in. That I was destined to join the nothingness that I spied in the bush was an intolerable prospect, an unthinkable thought. My mind was stuck on eternal death—”I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, this can’t be happening.” The discovery didn’t free me, it crushed me. The universe was open, but my life was closed. Others might take the disappearance of God as liberating, a chance to forge their own future, but not me. Whatever plan I might commence, whatever identity I might pursue, it shrank to pointlessness beside the yardstick of boundless nothingness.

The telling of his journey to Catholic faith is abbreviated, but he writes this:

The Catechism introduced to me “ways of coming to know God” that involve study and discipline, not a sudden revelation. The idea that faith might not be an instantaneous perception, that God’s presence or absence rests upon more than a blunt apprehension, struck me as a dilating prospect. God is out there,
and the Church is the way to him. If I haven’t apprehended him directly and overwhelmingly, as I did the Nothing of that not-burning bush when I was a bright and confused teenager, that’s the fault of my limited powers of perception, not because there is nothing there to perceive.

Reading it was, for me, a refreshing antidote to the stories I know so well of friends who have moved the other way.

Evidence and belief in the God debate

A passage in Paul Chamberlain’s  Why People Don’t Believe (Baker, 2011) struck me. Chamberlain is discussing atheist Richard Dawkins’ attack on Richard Swinburne’s suggestion that too much evidence for God might be a bad thing:

Swinburne’s offending statement was made during a discussion about the existence of God when he was asked how much evidence exists for theism. His answer, as we noted earlier in this book, was that “there is quite a lot of evidence anyway of God’s existence, and too much might not be good for us.”[114] Dawkins is dumbfounded by this statement. Too much evidence might not be good for us! How can too much evidence for anything be bad—especially for a claim as momentous as that God exists?

… In Dawkins’s words, “If God existed and wanted to convince us of it, he could ‘fill the world with super-miracles.’ ” No wonder then that he is astounded that anyone would claim that the very thing that could settle the matter, namely more evidence, might not be good for us. (118-119)

Chamberlain goes on to explain Swinburne’s point by putting forward the idea that God ‘is committed to ensuring we are genuinely free as we make the choice of whether to believe in him’ and overwhelming evidence would remove this freedom.

This passage struck me because I think it is not only one of the stronger objections to theism, but also gets to the heart of the debate between belief and unbelief.

Some observations:

1. Unbelief in the New Testament does not seem to have much to do with evidence. Is it really evidence which holds Thomas back from believing Jesus is risen from the dead? From his perspective it is, but from the writer of John, it seems to be Thomas’s own attitude. I find it easy to understand unbelief in terms of the rich young ruler who has kept the law, but will not give away his riches and follow Jesus. Of course, it’s not an issue of evidence or even belief at all; it’s an issue of commitment and sacrifice. If the reason most people were not Christians was because they were not willing to give up things and follow Jesus, then it would make sense to me. Jesus’ demands are huge; his path is narrow. As an idealistic twentysomething against the world, I used to understand unbelief in this way, as essentially an issue of people’s unwillingness to pay the cost of discipleship. Yet this is not the way many unbelievers would depict their unbelief; many of them genuinely find it hard to believe in God’s existence. (Not a problem encountered in first century Palestine.) And then there is the related issue that the church in general has made it very easy to follow Jesus, and not expected that much sacrifice of Christians. Could this, paradoxically, have made it harder to believe by making Christianity weaker and compromised?

2. The suggestion that God ‘is committed to ensuring we are genuinely free as we make the choice of whether to believe in him’ is a speculative but logical response to the fact that belief in God is no longer obvious to the Western mind. It is a good attempt to answer the problem, but it has an obvious hole for me: for people in previous centuries, there was not this same freedom to choose whether to believe in God. Before the Enlightenment, the existence of God was obvious; there was no sense of people having to make the choice whether or not to believe. It was assumed. Of course, throughout history, many different gods were believed in, and we see in the New Testament a ‘freedom’ of people hearing the gospel to believe in the particular God revealed in Jesus Christ or not. One thing in common between the New Testament and today is that belief in the Christian God usually seemed to take some leap of faith. (But what about Saul/Paul? He seemed to have been overwhelmed by God. He didn’t have any problem believing in God, of course. It was more the question of what God was up to.)

3. We read in the gospels that for those with hardened hearts, it didn’t matter what miracles they saw, what evidence they were given – they would not accept that Jesus was of God. To what extent is this analogous to people who will not believe in God today? For one thing, very few unbelievers today have seen miracles. For another, the point never was an abstract belief like ‘God exists’. Yet these are different times, and the existence of God is a first and necessary hurdle for so many people.

Jonathan Sacks on God, Science and the Search for Meaning

In this talk broadcast on Radio National on Good Friday, Norman Swan was interviewing the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks in front of an Australian Jewish audience. It was a wide-ranging conversation, returning often to questions of science and religion, but with Sacks pursuing numerous fascinating byways.

He talks about how the finely-tuned universe and the existence of life were so unlikely that they made God’s existence probable. Stephen Hawking tries to explain the finely-tuned universe by theorising that there must be an infinite number of universes, and we just happen to be in the one where random processes gave us advanced life. Ockam’s Razor requires we go with the simpler explanation, that the universe is divinely designed.

He talks of how Hebrew is a language without vowels, and thus words can only be discerned in their context as the reader supplies the vowels. It gives rise to a more creative, religious way of thinking, a meaning-giving way of thinking, as opposed to Greek, the first language to include vowels.

On the question of other religions, Sacks goes to the story of Pharaoh’s daughter who saved and adopted Moses. In his words, she is to the Hebrews like Hitler’s daughter; certainly no Hebrew, and yet she is saved. For him, the Jewish religion has always been inclusive and God has always been including people of other religions. He uses the analogy of a pair of trousers – singular at the top (God) and plural at the bottom where the legs go in (believers).

I found him stimulating yet comforting, a wise man.