The November 9 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books (a magazine I didn’t even know existed) has a review by Robert Bolger of a recent book by writer Nathan Schneider: God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet. I haven’t yet read Schneider’s book, but plan to. Bolger’s review, however, notes that it’s a history of attempts to prove God’s existence, but is more than that: an attempt by the author to somehow discern God or His nature from the combination of those proofs. In other words, in the deconstruction of those proofs lies something about God himself. And all this, says the reviewer, is interwoven with Schneider’s personal search for God.
Well, that all sounds pretty convoluted, and, by seeing the book only through the reviewer’s eyes, I may be doing it an injustice. But what Bolger says about the book reveals something about the reviewer himself—and about religion. First, Bolger raises the specter of scientism (remember, the quotes are from the review):
If proofs for God don’t work like “proofs” in general do, then they are either not proofs at all or function in a really unique, even queer way. It is the latter suggestion that God in Proof seeks to present and defend. In a sense, the book offers a “grammar” of proofs; that is, a way of showing their meaning without diminishing their importance. God in Proof aims at bringing proofs back home and covering their nakedness with the garb of human flesh. Schneider breathes life back into proofs, the life they once had in the heady days before “knowledge” became synonymous with “scientific knowledge.”
“Covering their nakedness with the garb of human flesh” can be translated to “the proofs aren’t convincing, but maybe we’ll find them more convincing if we see them as wish-fulfillment.” And what about those “heady days” when revelation passed for knowledge? Bolger may miss them, but I don’t. It’s those revelations that caused so much religiously-inspired mischief.
At any rate, late in the review Bolger gives his own view of what a religious “proof” is all about. And it becomes clear that such “proof” really means “an argument that won’t convince anybody but a believer.” In other words, those “proofs” are expressions of faith: belief supported by evidence that can’t win general assent:
Assenting to a proof for God is similar; it is couched in the language of rationality — it argues for the existence of something. Yet, as I hint at in my own book, Kneeling at the Altar of Science, the impetus behind accepting a religious proof as valid comes from a person’s gut (or soul) and not merely from her mind. [JAC: Thinking with the gut is always a bad thing to do.] The proofs are only meaningful for certain people; whether they mean anything has more to do with what we bring to the proofs rather than what the proofs brings to us. Isn’t this odd? It certainly is because it is odd to say that proofs “prove” only if we are in a position to see them as proofs. But the oddity disappears when we realize that this is actually what we mean by “proof” in a religious context. Schneider writes, “Assent, like this, is a convergence — a meeting of circumstances, choices, and the best of one’s knowledge.” This is why at the end of the book Schneider can say: “The proofs can be explained and taught and respected from a distance, yet still there remains the fact that you either grok it or you don’t, and that’s that.”
Translation: religious proofs of God don’t really demonstrate the existence of God to a skeptic, but only to those who already believe in a God. When Bolger says the meaningfulness of proofs depends on what we bring to them rather than what they bring to us, he’s admitting that we accept them only if they prove what we believed beforehand. That is, they’re just apologetics: a way to buttress a belief you already had. This, of course, is the difference between a scientific demonstration (“proof,” if you will) and a religious proof.
Bolger goes on, and the first sentence of the paragraph below is telling:
But this leads to another radical claim, namely, that the truth of a religious proof cannot be known except by those who accept it. This is an important point to make since it lets us see that searching for God is not simply searching for some thing among others, a being among other beings, or a creature that is strong and powerful but lives far away. If God could be found at the end of a logical proof [JAC: most proofs of God aren't based purely on logic, but on observation and deduction], then finding God would be like finding a solution to a math problem or surmising a previously unknown planet by the laws of physics. It is only in the failure of the religious proofs to function in the way other proofs do that we learn something about the meaning of the word “God.”
That’s not just a radical claim, it’s a foolish claim. It’s like saying, “The truth of proofs about abduction by aliens in UFOs cannot be known except by those who accept it.” This takes the word “truth” away from its general meaning and makes it personal. Bolger might as well admit what he hesitates to say outright: “proofs” of God are different from what we normally think of as “proofs” because we’ve already accepted God from the beginning. The proofs are simply special pleading; ways that intellectuals devise to justify post facto what they believed (for different reasons) in the first place.
It’s telling that Bolger begins his review with an anecdote:
And there are probably many who are simply born with a faith that flows, so to speak, as naturally from their DNA as their curly hair or their cholesterol count. In a story that may be apocryphal, but I suspect true, the late Yale philosopher Paul Holmer was once asked how he, a professional philosopher, could believe in Christianity. He replied, “Because my mother told me.”
Indeed. I don’t have the data, but I suspect that the great majority of theologians who confect “proofs” of God were born to a faith, imbibed it with their mother’s milk, and then never grew up, but simply used the intellectual skills they acquired to justify their childhood beliefs. Such people were perfectly able to give up their belief in Santa Claus, but can’t do that for God. But of course Santa doesn’t bring us an afterlife for Christmas.
What disturbs me about Bolger’s review, besides his circumlocution about wish-thinking, is the implication that we learn about what “God” really means from the proofs for God given throughout history: this is supposedly the main theme of Schneider’s book. (Schneider, by the way, is a religious Jew.) That makes little sense to me, but never underestimate the ingenuity of the academic mind.
Bolger has a new book himself, Kneeling at the Altar of Science, which, according to his website, is about this:
Does religion need to look more like a science? If much of the contemporary work published in science and religion is any indication, the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.” Yet it may be that the current tendency to dress religion up in the language and methods of science does more harm than good. In Kneeling at the Altar of Science, Robert Bolger argues that much of the recent writing in science and religion falls prey to the practice of what he calls “religious scientism,” or the attempt to use science to explain and clarify certain religious concepts. Bolger then shows, with clarity and humor, how religious scientism does more harm than good, arguing in the end that religious concepts do better when their meaning is found in the context of their religious use. This book promises to be a fresh approach to the ever-popular dialogue between science and religion.
What Bolger is saying, “with clarity and humor,” is that we don’t need any stinking evidence for God. We should just immerse ourselves in the feelings and emotions, and we’ll find Him that way.
I think this rejection of the notion of “God as a hypothesis”—a hallmark of New Atheist thinking—is a tacit admission that people have finally seen that there’s no convincing evidence for God. Theologians and religious thinkers, with a few exceptions, now realize this as well, but instead of joining us in our nonbelief, they revert, like Francis Spufford, to an emotional defense of God. “The proof doesn’t come from evidence, but from surrendering yourself to the emotions, immersing yourself in the Great Beyond.” “When you do that,” they say, “you’ll realize that God is real.”
To me that is nonsense. For God’s existence is surely a matter of the greatest import to believers, no matter what Sophisticated Theologians™ say, and if you commit your life (and your perceived afterlife) to the truth of a proposition, you’d better make damn sure you have good reasons to believe it. Surrendering to your emotions or thinking with your gut (the real meaning of saying “the truth of a religious proof cannot be known except by those who accept it”) is the worst reason to believe anything.