Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"There's probably no God ...well reasoned fact or wishful thinking?"

DOWNLOAD MP3 There's probably no god... Bristol University:

I’m sure you’ve seen the buses going up Park St, I’ve seen them passing my house in Exeter – bearing the advert: There’s probably no God, so don’t worry, enjoy your life.
-Christian Voice – objected, as they did to Jerry Springer the Opera, and to pretty much anything else that breathes.
-The Trinitarian Bible Society has retaliated with an antiquated “The Fool hath said in his heart there is no God”.
-Christian Think-tank Theos helped to fund the atheist led campaign.
-And a Christian bus-driver called Ron is boycotting his bus.

I’m in favour of the campaign - “all publicity is good publicity” – anything that gets us thinking is good. Richard Dawkins has defended it saying that “thinking is anathema to religion” – which confirms my thinking that Christianity isn’t a religion – free as it is from rule and ritual etc. The Bristol University Christian Union exists to get people thinking about the biggest question. So, you’re very welcome here. I’ve got 10-15 minutes to speak and then I’d love to engage your questions, and to hear your comment and perspective.

Is it a well reasoned fact to say there is probably no God?

I worked in sales. Frequently we would be shown training videos helping us to sell our product. In these the head-honcho, Sir Fred, was paraded as a hero and inspired us to sell hard, that this would be good for people and good for us. Our product was money, and we had a sale on money every day. We were told that things would go on climbing forever and that everyone would get rich through this. Last week Sir Fred Goodwin was hauled before a Parliament committee to apologise for getting carried away.

The problem is that everything in our age is embedded into a story that climbs forever onwards and upwards – into which the credit crunch is very inconvenient, because it’s costly and because it rips up the plausibility of the story we’ve loved to believe. It was never going to work, and if we’d stopped and thought about it we could have seen the crunch coming – but we simply didn’t want to.

We want to believe that all change is good, that the new product is better than the old one, that a new government improves on the previous, that our generation will not makes the mistakes of our forefathers. This story is one that resonates with the science of Richard Dawkins, and is often attributed with flowing from it – though it substantially predates it. It’s what the late Oxbridge Professor of English, C.S. Lewis called The Myth of Evolution. Which is neither an attack on the science, which he took no issue with, and neither am I.
Nor, for Lewis, was Myth a derogatory term but a deeply positive one for the overarching stories we live within.

We love the story of the underdog triumphing. The FA cup giant-killing. The weak one who overcomes. Of progress. And Lewis suggests that perhaps we get the science we want – we want to believe in the science of changes because it allows us to believe in the worldview of improvement… Three thousand years ago, asked if there was a prophet in his land the ancient Israelite King Ahab is recorded as saying “there is one, Micaiah, but I hate him because he only ever says bad about me and not good”. So often we accept what we want to believe. And that that is surely deeply problematic.

In October 2008, Richard Dawkins debated with his fellow Oxbridge scholar, a Christian and a Mathematician, John Lennox. Dawkins said “You can make a case for a deist god, just not one who is interested in our sin, thinking and genitals”. With all due respect, that’s different to what he’s previously written. Dawkins is of course a co-conspirator in the bus campaign with Ariane Sherine. The Oxford Professor of Public Knowledge of Science is the one responsible for that “probably” – not because of its resonance with beer marketing, but because previously he wrote in The God Delusion: “God is very improbable”.

Now he’s saying it’s not so much the existence of a God that is his problem, but that the existence of a God who might in someway impinge upon his lifestyle. How many of us like the student life because it’s freedom from parental oversight…. No God, no parents around… “Don’t worry, enjoy your life”.

I want people who drive over the speed limit past my house to be penalized for it. If my car was pulled over I’d be less keen on the idea. So too, it seems Richard Dawkins fears that if there was a God then Richard Dawkins might fall the wrong side of the line. We want justice and accountability – banking fatcats should be called to account – but we get nervous when we might be on the line. What if there was a God, and what if we aren’t as good as we’d like to think we are. Like Ahab we don’t want to hear from God, or of God. Like Sir Fred we want to believe that everyone can be richer, singing along with Tony Blair who was elected to the tune of: “things can only get better” – now he concedes much of the economic progress was just luck.

There may or may not be good reasons to adopt an atheist world view, but it would be honest to admit that it’s a something we want to be true too. Atheism suits us.

Is it wishful thinking to say that there is a God?

We should observe that the god whose existence is disputed in this campaign is not Allah, Molech, Belial or Mammon but the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, promoted in the Christian Foundations course to which this campaign responds. You may have seen publicity for The Alpha Course, most recently asking on buses “If there was a God what would you ask him?” In which case we ought to ask, how are we to know whether such a god might exist? Firstly, we’ll consider science. Secondly, history.

We know some things by science.
We make a scientific hypothesis and test it, adjusting our hypothesis as necessary. This works for us in many ways. It gives us sufficient knowledge to walk into a building, board a plane, sit on a chair, eat food etc.
But, contrary to widespread opinion, it’s not the only way to know. I imagine no-one used a chemistry set on Saturday to find out if their Valentine loved them… I’m a fan of science, I just don’t think we can say its methodology covers everything.

We know something’s by historical enquiry.
That is we gather eyewitness evidence and consider it to see whether its claims hold “beyond reasonable doubt”. This is secure enough to send people to prison for life. Richard Dawkins tries Christianity in the courts of science but we must give it its day in the courts of history. Christianity explicitly makes itself a hostage to history. Can we know for certain? Perhaps not but we can at least know “beyond reasonable doubt”

Mark’s gospel, one of those historic records is sourced from Simon Peter who was a leader of the early church. He explicitly says that he’s not teaching “cleverly devised myths”. He could have said that but he doesn’t. Another prominent leader Paul says the same – declaraing that without specific events occurring in history Christianity is null and void.

Buddhism stands as a way of thinking without the existence of Buddha. But without God having written himself into human history in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, you can bin Christianity. That’s the Achilles heel of Christianity, but also its biggest strength. Christianity is wide open to your scrutiny. Why not take and examine the testimony in this book, FREE. {on reflection I could have pushed harder here - illustrating that though its reasonable people hold back from doing it}

In closing, much like Dawkins and Sherine’s campaign Christianity curiously draws the same two implications as the current campaign– Don’t Worry and Enjoy Life – though for somewhat different reasons. Could it be that like Richard Dawkins we like the idea of freedom from accountability to God… what if however we could have our worry relieved, not by running from what we’ve done and who we are, but facing God head on – and receiving from him a free gift of forgiveness, a life changing security of identity, and the joy of knowing our maker. I submit to you that this is a desirable, reasonable though uncomfortable offer.

But, let me underscore that this is an empty offer and wishful thinking if Jesus is not who it is claimed he is, and has not done in history what he is claimed.  

Your comments and questions…


  1. Aaah, the bus campaign.

    I also did a talk on this up in Bangor last week. It is brilliant to see students actually engaging with the idea of God. When I started in student ministry (as a student 7years ago) people didn't really care. God just wasn't big news.

    Now He's being plastered on the side of buses!

    Anyway, heard Exeter went well. Bangor did too.

  2. Good to be able to talk about things, and I think the Bristol guys framed the question helpfully for it too.

  3. “all publicity is good publicity”.

    Trips off the tongue easily enough but not so sure about it really.

  4. Fair point - really not true. I guess it's a way of saying, something that gets us talking and thinking about this is good... perhaps I should have said that instead.