A reader has asked for my answer to The Big Question. This isn’t it; but it’s a start.
In his Mind, Language, and Society, John Searle tells of a dinner he attended at which Bertrand Russell spoke.
Periodically, every two years or so, the Voltaire Society, a society of intellectually inclined undergraduates at Oxford held a banquet with Bertrand Russell—the official patron of the society. One the occasion in question, we all went up to London and had dinner with Russell at a restaurant. He was thing in his mideighties [sic], and had a reputation as a famous atheist. To many of us, the question seemed pressing as to what sort of prospects for immortality Russell entertained, and we put it to him: Suppose you have been wrong about the existence of God. Suppose that the whole story were true, and that you arrived at the Pearly Gates to be admitted by Saint Peter. Having denied God’s existence all your life, what you say to…Him? Russell answered with a moment’s hesitation. “Well, I would go up to Him, and I would say, ‘You didn’t give us enough evidence!’”
Searle is, of course, one of the most well known living philosophers, and a man whose views closely parallel my own. The book is Searle’s attempt at answering the other big questions, the ones that come right after the biggest: is there a real world, do we have direct access to that world, is language a reasonable description of the world, are our statements true or false just in case they do or not correspond to how things are, and is cause and effect the way things work?
He defends what he calls the “default” position on these items (yes to all). But he offers nothing on the biggie, except to say that when writing books of this sort,
Nowadays, nobody bothers, and it is considered in slightly bad taste to even raise the questions of God’s existence. Matters of religion are like matters of sexual preference: they are not to be discussed in public, and even the abstract questions are discussed only by bores.
He then offers the Russell anecdote to explain his take on the Big Question. It is mine, too. But my interpretation of Russell’s “You didn’t give us enough evidence!” is quite different. I think that the lack of evidence is either necessarily true or that it is no bar to belief because there are plenty of things we know without evidence.
Understand, it is not that we do not have enough evidence, it is that we have no (external) evidence. This lack is replaced by faith, and necessarily so. All mathematical axioms fit this description: these are statements which we accept as true based on no evidence except that offered by our intuitions. All a priori knowledge fits this description, whether theological or no.
Of course, it doesn’t immediately follow that belief in God must be one of these a priori beliefs. And that is as far as I will take the Big Question today.
Except to say that because our, usually university-based, intellectuals find the question embarrassing, our education on this topic is all-too-often self directed; which is another way to say that it is stunted, limited, often wrong, and usually ill informed.
Our situation is not novel: John Henry Newman was complaining of this lack of theological education over 150 years ago in The Idea Of A University. He commented on the, even then, prevailing mindset of intellectuals:
Religious faith is a sentiment, a feeling, not an intellectual act, with truth for its object and with knowledge for its result. Religion is based, not on argument, but on taste and sentiment: nothing is objective, everything subjective in divine doctrine. It is as unreasonable then to demand a professional chair for religion as a chair for maternal affection…
Knowledge as regards the creature is regarded as illimitable; but impossible and hopeless as regards the being, attribute and marks of a Creator.
Faith is “not an act of the intellect, but a feeling, an emotion, an appetency; and, as this view of Faith obtained, so was the connexion of Faith with Truth and Knowledge more and more either forgotten or denied.”
The view of religion as solely a matter for sentiment is now pervasive, shared by atheists, agnostics, and theists alike. It explains the embarrassment of intellectuals is discussing the matter. It is why theists are either uncomfortable talking about their belief—”It’s a personal decision”—or why they are not uncomfortable enough: “It’s obvious, you blockhead!” And it is why atheists condemn or dismiss theism: “They’re letting their emotions substitute for reason!”
There is more to a reasoned discussion of the Big Question than yet another dry-as-dust rehashing of the ontological argument. The subject, as Cardinal Newman suggested, is like any other, and is amendable to cool, dispassionate intellect.