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existence of god

The summer I spent in Washington, D.C. was a huge learning experience for me, especially outside my internship. I went to Philly for a conference and met a guy who also happened to be in D.C. for the summer. When we got back, he invited me out to dinner with a couple of his friends. I remember God coming up in the conversation, for some really random reason. They went around the table: Agnostic, Atheist, Agnostic. Then came me: Roman Catholic! I mostly listened, making a few comments when appropriate, but felt out of my element. All three did not grow up with any type of formal religious education or upbringing (unlike my own), but, knowing that did help me understand their thought processes better.

At my internship, religion would weave its way into the discussion as well. I didn’t need to bring it up—people would ask me what I thought, which is among the highest compliments one can bestow on another. My cold little office had frequent visitors who liked to chat with me about politics, government, their day, music, growing-up and “the good old days” and yes—even religion. People knew I was Roman Catholic through general conversation, and thus confided in me: my editor was Jewish; the letters editor minored in Religion in college but aligned his beliefs closer to Christopher Hitchens’; the managing editor was a traditional Catholic; one of the editorial writers was Episcopalian but married to a Catholic; even the (now former) VP of editorial once felt the need to explain himself to me—how he grew up Catholic and fell away, how he wanted to get married, how he wanted to have kids, how, yes he was dating someone, but had never met the One.

For all my conversations, I’ll never, ever, ever, concede to the notion that there is no proof for the existence of God.

This essay was inspired by an article in Sunday’s WSJ, “A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I Am An Atheist” by British Comedian Ricky Gervais. It was shared via two friends of mine, both Atheists, and “liked” over 32,000 times, which I admit troubles me deeply.

He starts out the “open letter” by saying:

Why don’t you believe in God? I get that question all the time. I always try to give a sensitive, reasoned answer. This is usually awkward, time consuming and pointless. People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary. They are happy with their belief. They even say things like “it’s true to me” and “it’s faith.” I still give my logical answer because I feel that not being honest would be patronizing and impolite. It is ironic therefore that “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe,” comes across as both patronizing and impolite.

Arrogance is another accusation. Which seems particularly unfair. Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence—evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge. It doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray. Whatever you “believe,” this is not as effective as medicine. Again you can say, “It works for me,” but so do placebos. My point being, I’m saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.

I agree. You can’t have your own facts. I love how it takes an Atheist to call out Relativism, even if that wasn’t his intent. But I strongly disagree that science and religion are opposites of each other, that a person can only have belief in God or belief in science. They have two different purposes—one to say why the world goes round, and the other to say how. This makes them complementary, not contradictory.

I follow a blog of “a geeky atheist who picks fights with her Catholic boyfriend” and, under a section labeled “My Burden of Proof,” I found an interesting insight:

During one discussion, I pressed him to name something that could serve as a disproof of Catholicism. He named the historicity of Jesus as messiah. If convincing historical evidence emerged that Jesus had never lived or that the Resurrection was a scam, he would be forced to give up his faith.

Then he turned the question on me. What would I accept as proof of Christianity?

And I paused. And came up with bupkis.

I can imagine evidence that would convince me to believe in the supernatural or, that at the very least, human understanding of the laws of nature was deeply flawed, but that’s a long way from being able to believe in a personal God who loves me. I’ve given it some more thought since then, but, for the most part, I’m still at a loss.

So what would be enough for an Atheist to see God? Well first, they’ll have to freely choose and want to find him. Walker Percy was impressed by a fraternity brother who got up early every day for Mass. T.E. Hulme went to the plains of Canada, felt his own insignificance, and knew there was a God. Gervais, on the other hand, stopped believing in God because his mother could not answer his brother’s question of how she knew that God exists.

Well, I am sorry that happened, but Mrs. Gervais is not the only one who struggles to answer that question. Moreover, Mr. Gervais is interpreting theory as fact: the conditional ‘IF Mrs. Gervais does not know how to properly explain to her sons the existence of God THEN God does not exist’ is not sound enough evidence. More testing needs to be done. What happened next—did Mr. Gervais go to a priest? Did he ask anyone else?

The loss of inquisitiveness about God worries me more than anything else. People don’t seek more information that what is readily available to them. People, on a general level, are more interested in perception than truth.

And worse than being Atheistic, I think, is to see God and reject parts of him. To love him conditionally. How would you feel if people only loved the good parts of you? The most common roadblock I hear is that a person can only believe in God if God is good. Only believe in God if God’s followers are perfect replicas of Jesus. Only believe in God if he and his followers have all the answers. Only believe in God if God conforms to you, not you to him. I see this with people who struggle with the Church as well.

I am a big fan of St. Thomas Aquinas. I read the Summa Theologica for the first time my sophomore year of college and an entirely new world of religion and reason collided in my head. I’ve read a lot of the Summa since then, but not all of it by any means. (It is very, very big.) Why am I so absorbed in reading and promoting Aquinas? That is a good question. Aquinas is all about logic and reason. The Summa was intended as a manual for beginners. He formulates all his questions first with the objections (usually three), then answers the objections, then proffers rebuttals and more answers.

existence of god

I am attracted to Aquinas, in part, because I come from a very analytical family. Logic is very important to any argument. Nothing is taken for granted. If something doesn’t make sense, we ask a lot of questions, we make counter-arguments and reason our way through something. My parents nearly-always have an answer, and then point us towards more resources. Even when assigning chores, it was never “Because I said so.” It was always, “We had children to make you fold socks. Now fold.”

No one person can convert another; only God the Holy Spirit can convert people’s hearts to God. I’m blessed to have been born into a family where my parents made our Catholic faith a priority, which makes my heart more open, I think, to even the acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit moving in me. I’m lucky enough to see the way God can tangibly change people—friends who have converted to Catholicism, friends who are currently in the service of the Church, friends diving deeper into their faith. I might seem a dogmatic Roman Catholic, but I wasn’t so set when I went to college. I was held more from habit. (Better habit than nothing, said Aquinas!)

My parents raised us well enough in the faith, but it really wasn’t enough for me. I always felt unsettled, like I was missing the big picture. It didn’t help that I went to a liberal high school where I had to defend the Church, instead of cultivating more knowledge, and growing in a deeper understanding of its teachings and traditions.

I was swayed by my roommate, the witnessing of countless other Catholics and Protestants on campus, hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours of research and reading and being forced to seriously grapple with myself. It took being labeled as the “token Catholic” in my Intro to Western Religions class and the fear that I would misrepresent the Church in any way while being asked a deluge of questions to make me truly understand how off-base most people’s perceptions are of the Catholic Church. (“If a Catholic kidnaps an Atheist baby and baptizes it, does that make it Catholic?” will forever be my favorite question posed to me that semester.) If the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, as Tertullian said, then the chance to stand for truth, clarifying misunderstandings and fertilizing Christendom is the fruit.

St. Augustine wrote, “My heart is restless, Lord, until it rest in thee.” It took most of college, tripping and falling, laughing and reading, re-learning how to pray and really, really wanting God in my life, even when the world didn’t seem so pretty, to convert my heart. I didn’t ask for a sign. I didn’t ask for proof. Why not? Because it’s already there. God may give us the gift of faith, but it’s up to us to pray and ask, seek belief, and become well-versed in his Word. If a person is going to learn to play an instrument or study a subject or get to know someone, it requires the same kind of patience, time commitment and dedication to learn truth and have a relationship with God.

The common denominator in humanity, no matter one’s religion, is that everyone has insatiable appetite for the truth. The difference is where they choose to find it. Being nice is not a way of life. God is not an opinion. God is a fact. Even when there were pagan gods, civilization as a whole knew there was someone bigger than themselves to whom they owed homage.

The evidence is out there. If one chooses to accept something, then one can begin to believe bigger, believe in mystery. Praying doesn’t replace thinking: it seeks the wisdom of another. Faith isn’t a feeling, not is it spirituality. Having faith doesn’t mean blindness or brainwashing. My faith is completely dependent on proof–proof that God lived, died and was resurrected—whose existence is so burdensomely abundant that any doubt I experience is promptly squashed.

Happy Holidays, Mr. Gervais! And please know that when I, in turn, wonder how people cannot believe in God, it is not because I am questioning my own belief in God. I already have the proof, and he is found on the crucifix, the very one you drew when were you were a child. God is perfect, even when the rest of the world isn’t so grand. God forgives, even when it isn’t deserved. Life is forever changed with the understanding that we are not our own, that God bought us (yes, including you!) at a price. Heaven is for all who follow and believe in him–not just the ones who were nice and did unto others, but those who, like Jacob, wrestle with God until they can extract their blessing.

So wrestle away with God, Mr. Gervais, but never, ever, ever give up.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Gervais is the typically arrogant atheist who thinks they are the only ones who stand on logic, reason and evidence alone. Of course, that is patently absurd, but it makes them feel better and superior to we Neanderthal religionists, as some of them like to call us.

    I would differ from Julie in that I do not think there is "proof" for God's existence or Christianity, plenty of evidence, but proving it beyond the possibility of doubt doesn’t exist. When we talk of evidence or proof we sometimes forget that there is no such thing as some kind of objectively neutral place where we can start from scratch, and then dispassionately assess the evidence that will either prove or disprove God’s existence or Christianity.

    Atheists often plant their flag on the land of "I don't know," and therefore conclude that it isn't important to know. We can’t “know” God exists, therefore why bother.I don't want to call such people stupid, because most atheists/agnostics who care about what they "believe" are usually very intelligent. But it kind of amazes me that they don't understand that you have to begin with faith, that you must hold certain assumptions, and that all your conclusions logically follow.

    Take Gervais on science. It is science that has the ultimate say on all “facts”. If science cannot “know” or prove a thing, it does not exist. Where exactly did Gervais come up with these ideas? Was he lead to these conclusions based on the evidence of empirical scientific evidence? Of course not. They are philosophical presuppositions that he holds by faith.

    I believe that the God of the Bible is a possibility. None of us can "know" anything definitively about an ultimate, transcendent reality. If we claim that matter is all that exists and all that matters, and that anything beyond matter is unknowable and therefore irrelevant, that is simply a matter, no pun intended, of faith. It is simply an assertion which no evidence can "prove." Period. No debate. End of story.

    With those two assumptions honestly stated, to me, the all powerful, sovereign, eternal beneficent creator God of the Bible makes infinitely more sense and is infinitely more plausible. But because of Satan's temptation, that we can "be like God, knowing good and evil," the atheist refuses the obvious, that "since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so men are without excuse." Amen!

  2. Great article, Julie. I really enjoyed reading it. I especially liked this paragraph:

    "The common denominator in humanity, no matter one's religion, is that everyone has insatiable appetite for the truth. The difference is where they choose to find it. Being nice is not a way of life. God is not an opinion. God is a fact. Even when there were pagan gods, civilization as a whole knew there was someone bigger than themselves to whom they owed homage."

    I couldn't agree more, and that last sentence is especially powerful to me.

    Incidentally, I remember hearing from mutual friends about your experience in Western Religion. I think your experience there, and some of my own experiences, really highlight the fact that a lot of disagreement with the Church is based upon misunderstanding. I encounter so many people, including Catholics unfortunately, who really have no idea of Church teaching. Everything they think they know is based on vague, inaccurate notions or stereotypes. It's very unfortunate.

    Anyway, this is the first time I've posted here, but I've been reading all of your articles, Julie, and just wanted to let you know how much I liked this one. Have a Merry Christmas!

  3. Mike and Stephanie, thank you for your comments.

    Mike, I especially loved this paragraph–

    "Regardless of whether you believe in God's existence or not,it is very difficult to read Gervais's ludicrous attempt to justify his atheism and not reach three conclusions. First, it takes a truly epic fool to say, not only in his heart but in the Wall Street Journal as well, that there is no God. Second, this is less a case of atheistic evangelism than the agnostic variety as any intelligent atheist will be tempted to convert immediately to agnosticism out of sheer embarrassment. And third, if God does exist, it would be impossible to blame Him for deciding to throw such a smug and annoying little bastard into Hell when faced with the alternative of being inflicted with his company for eternity."

    Ha! But is it not charitable to correct and therefore make people pause, re-evaluate and hopefully not continue in their comfortable but illogical reasoning?

  4. Great post!

    Following up on Mike regarding science and religion– yes, such scientists accept their greatest conviction (that science is the only valid method of investigating and knowing; that the only right epistemology is the scientific method) on faith.

    But they don't only accept that theory on faith; they live on faith and by accepted tradition in all other areas of life, too. They trust their doctors, their lawyers, their barbers; they believe what their teachers told them; they accept by faith and prior experience that their personal senses and individual reason can be reliable guides; they believe that their parents and spouses and children love them…

    In other words, many scientists (materialists, atheists, agnostics, what have you) show by their actions that they believe to be true many things that they cannot prove by the very method that is theoretically their only guide.

    Lastly, everyone interested in this debate should read Newman's Grammar of Assent. Even the final section alone, which I read for a class, is a revelation.

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