Why Virtually Everybody Believes in God
…Whether they know it or not.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the modern age is that as modern people we imagine ourselves to be these neutral, rational observers of truth.
We think we understand everything because we have mastered nature to a hitherto unknown degree. We imagine ourselves to have stripped away the filters and falsities of mythology and superstition.
This is what we mean by the word ‘secular’. In a secular world, any religious or even metaphysical thought must always be seen as some kind of optional extra, a lifestyle choice, which certainly has no bearing on our common life together, like an irrational desire to collect stamps or coins.
But to imagine ourselves in such a world is simply naïve.
If I had my way, I’d get these words, spoken by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, plastered over every school and university in the modern world:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Think of sub-atomic particles. Think of the strange things that live in your soul, that make you choose the things you do. Think of the demons and angels in every person’s nature. Think of black holes. Of why anything exists at all. Think merely of good and evil.
And then try to explain it all.
In fact, I don’t even think we understand how we even see or notice the physical world around us. Everything you see is an amalgamation of sub-atomic and inter-galactic patterns. You do not simply see what is there – you have to have a kind of vision, or faith, to even to begin to notice anything.
This is why I think secretly, most of us, even the atheists among us, truly do believe in God – in the vast recesses of their soul.
To explain such a bold statement, I need to go back a few centuries first.
In the 19th century, Nietzsche, the great German philosopher, realised that the Enlightenment age signalled a massive change in human culture.
In a famous parable called ‘The Madman’, he wrote the following, chilling words:
“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.”
Nietzsche then explains the implications of this murder of God. Again, in words so poetical and profound, that it is worth quoting at length:
“‘Are we not plunging continually? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’
“‘How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?’
“Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men…’”
What Nietzsche meant was that the existence of God no longer made sense to those people living in the Enlightenment, and so religious belief was cast aside – without anybody realising what the implications were of basically getting rid of the animating principle of their own civilization.
And so he predicted that in the coming centuries, humanity would sway between nihilism – a belief in meaninglessness, and violent totalitarianisms, in a bid to find some solace in our cosmic loneliness.
That prediction certainly came true in the last century. The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason reached its pinnacle in the brilliant lights seen over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, in the Holocaust’s industrialisation of murder, and in Communism’s scientific, and ruthless approach to history and economics, in which enemies of the Revolution were killed by the millions. These ideologies became our new gods.
In the post-rational, consumer age, we still maintain the secularism of the Enlightenment, yet we couch it in individualist terms – perhaps less overtly violent, but covertly perhaps still not really good for our souls, as seen by the epidemics of suicide and addiction throughout the developed world.
And yet, and yet, for all that, the human spirit lives on – the idea that we can achieve something with our lives, that we can do good, lives on. Even more basically, the idea that we should survive and reproduce, lives on. The idea that we should and could be happy lives on. Nobody truly lives with the full implications of the ‘death of God’.
People still have goals and dreams. People still imagine a destination for their lives. We still live within stories, and slay dragons and look for the hidden treasure.
We still live in a material world by choosing to see things, by choosing to move from A to B – in other words by having faith.
Psychologist Jordan Peterson speaks of this essence of life as what the ancient Greeks meant by the term ‘logos’ – from which we derive our English word ‘logic’.
Logos was the idea of an ‘articulated truth’ – the sense that there was an order or structure, always fighting against the chaos of the universe, bringing light in the darkness.
The early Christians identified the logos with Christ himself – if you read the opening verses of John’s gospel, he writes, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God… through him all things were made… In him was life, and that life was the light of man. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
As far as I can tell, there are few people who actively reject ‘the light’, an order they can identify in varying degrees of complexity and accuracy, upon which they can base their lives.
Rather, the vast majority of us stumble toward the light, we try to understand ourselves, we try to get somewhere in this world – often not very well, often very selfishly, but the idea of an abstract good always remains.
Now, like the early Christians, there are some of us who explicitly name this logos as Jesus – and so participate in a visible religion, as a means of participating in this light of the world.
But that does not mean that those who do not associate the good, the true, and the beautiful with Christ are these rigid atheists, separated from the religious by a vast chasm.
Another 19th century author can perhaps shed some light on this paradox.
Right at the same time Nietzsche was writing in Germany, the great Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was grappling with the same ideas in Russia.
One of his great novels is ‘The Idiot’, about a simple, innocent man destroyed by a world weary Russian high society.
At one stage, ‘the idiot’, Prince Myshkin, is in conversation with another character about the meaning of the modern trend of atheism in Russia. He talks of how he believes that the atheists he has met since his return to Russia never truly seem to be speaking about God at all, but something else which seems similar on the surface.
He explains how he once met a peasant woman, holding a tiny baby, who was laughing for the first time at his mother, while the mother was continuously “crossing herself with great devotion” because, she said, God has just as much delight in the prayers of a sinner as a mother when her child smiles for the first time.
Somehow this leads ‘the idiot’, Prince Myshkin, to make the following conclusion:
“Listen, Parfyon, a few moments ago you asked me a question, and this is my answer: the essence of religious feeling has nothing to do with any reasoning, or any crimes and misdemeanours or atheism; it is something entirely different and it will always be so; it is something our atheists will always overlook, and they will never talk about THAT.”
What is the THAT? What is it always being overlooked when people debate about whether God exists?
I would think it is the logos – the sense that there is a kind of delight in the world, a strange beauty, a way, a structure, a wild goodness.
And again, who doesn’t believe in that?
But living according to this logos, paying a price for it – that is the real challenge. In fact, the whole premise of the Christian faith is that this logos always leads one to the Cross. When the Logos was made into flesh, he said:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”
Believing in God is not really the hard part.
When it comes to believing in God in the modern western world, GK Chesterton probably grasped the problem better than I could ever do:
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”