Is There a God?

Is There a God?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 17 1996 3:30 AM

Is There a God?


Dear Steve,


       Okay, I'll strike a deal: Here's one argument we shouldn't have. You say, "Prove to me that God exists." I say, "If there were empirical proof, faith would be unnecessary." That's an argument that's going nowhere. Of course, something that is the ultimate explanation of everything--"God"--is not going to be proved in this way. By its very nature, such a thing cannot be proved empirically.
       But I don't want to stop there, partly because I enjoy argument, and partly because your immortal soul might be at stake. So let me try another tack. I'm sure that you, like many empiricists, have paused at the end of empirical inquiry and asked yourself: What is beyond such an inquiry? What happens when proof ends? Or what happened before proof began? Even in a world of simple empirical causation, what was the first cause? What lies behind such an inquiry in the first place?
       One response is simply: nothing. But this is a strange notion--that human thought and questioning can reveal a fascinating, diverse universe, but behind that, there is simply nothingness. This is one reason why, against the conventional wisdom at the beginning of this century, progress in science hasn't been accompanied by a collapse in religious faith, but by a rebirth of such faith. In fact, the more we know about the empirical universe, the more baffling it is that it is built on nothing, means nothing, is caused by nothing, and cedes to nothing. "God," in all its forms, is merely a way in which human beings resist this conclusion. And that resistance, I would argue, is entirely reasonable.
       It is also true that, unlike more ephemeral beliefs, such as astrology, this faith in the supernatural, in God, has been a feature of all human societies that we know of--even the Internet! One way--not definitive, I grant you--of judging the plausibility of certain notions is their longevity, their ability to endure through generations of questioning and disbelief. Faith in God, in this regard, is probably the most endurable and ancient of all human behaviors. Even an empiricist like you might pause and ponder the implications of that. Perhaps it is, after all, a profoundly persuasive--indeed the most profoundly persuasive--way of understanding the meaning of our lives and the universe.
       To recap: What I have argued so far is that your arguments for dismissing faith in God are unpersuasive. God is not some bizarre subjective belief, such as, "The sky is red." It is the profoundest act of human imagining, something that can be inferred from the existence of imagination itself. And it is not some crutch to make life more bearable. It is, in fact, an act of both supreme rationality and supreme irrationality. It is, in this regard, the most essentially human activity there is.
       Got to go now.
       Bob Dole and Bill Clinton are going to be discussing empowerment zones. I suppose it isn't exactly a good sign for my side of this debate that they also both believe in God.

Yours ever,

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and Andrew Sullivan is former editor of the New Republic.