THE END OF UNBELIEF
"This is an unusual, deeply felt, utterly logical and persuasive book -- persuasive for its lucid arguments and its allowing the agnostic his or her helplessness in the absence of the material proof of God's existence. But The End of Unbelief is important for its combination of shrewd philosophical argument with heart, and that's why I intend to keep it near and go on pondering it. An excellent contribution to the great theological debate."
--PAUL THEROUX, the world's most famous travel writer, author of 16 nonfiction books including The Great Railway Bazaar and Dark Star Safari, and 29 novels including Mosquito Coast (Harrison Ford film) and The Lower River.
"This book makes the question of God come alive and real in a way that no purely academic work can equal. Its raw spiritual insight and autobiographical frankness will grab hold of you and keep your attention no matter what your beliefs may be. Highly recommended."
--JOHN F. HAUGHT, Senior Fellow in Science and Religion at
Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University
and author of eighteen books, including
God and the New Atheism
"If you’re looking for an intelligent response to the growing number of agnostics and atheists whose books are on the shelves of almost every bookstore, and whose arguments are broadcast on television and radio talk shows day in and day out, you will find one in Shane Hayes’ book. This somewhat autobiographical account of his journey from skepticism to faith will not only bolster the beliefs of Christians but also will offer bona fide challenges to those who struggle with reasons to believe in the God of the Bible."
--TONY CAMPOLO, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus,
“As a personal history of an intellectual and theological journey, Shane Hayes’s The Agnostic Path to God, is a highly readable narrative full of energy and “agony” (in the Greek sense of “agon” as in Samson Agonistes). His experience is often moving, and his arguments erudite, and carefully reasoned, even though, as an avowed atheist, I am not finally compelled to share the choice of belief with which his journey ends.”
--THOMAS H. BLACKBURN, Centenniel Professor Emeritus
of English Literature, Swarthmore College
“Given the spate of pro-atheist works that have appeared in recent times, this book should be most welcome and refreshing for many serious readers. Hayes advances his argument in a highly personal, novel, varied, and very often eloquent fashion. An intellectually stimulating and enjoyable read.”
--DANIEL J. ZIEGLER, Ph.D., Former Dean, Graduate
School of Arts and Sciences and Currently Professor
Emeritus, Psychology, Villanova University
“A fresh approach to an old issue. What Hayes calls agnosticism and skepticism lead him to a strong conclusion that you can have faith without accepting all the common explanations and assumptions that cling to words like God and Faith. Using personal experience and reasoned reflections in a way most readers will understand, he provides a clear, persuasive reminder of the true stakes in these questions.”
--ANTHONY BATTAGLIA, Professor Emeritus of Religious
Studies, California State University, Long Beach
A NEW APPROACH
TO THE QUESTION OF GOD
Arguments and Stories by
The Agnostic Christian
Copyright 2012 by Shane Hayes
All rights reserved.
In memory of John Federico
You were sui generis, my friend,
A bon vivant to end bon vivants,
A conversationalist nonpareil,
A swashbuckling romantic,
A spellbinding raconteur,
A canny investor,
A radical theorist
with a relentlessly curious mind,
A uniquely valued friend to many,
One of Capri's proudest scions,
A distinguished Philadelphian,
A Class of 56er with singular class,
A brave confronter of adversity.
There's no danger you'll be forgotten.
You were unforgettable.
Part One AN AGNOSTIC AND A BELIEVER:
YOU CAN BE BOTH
1 An Agnostic Argues for Faith
2 Believing Without Proof
3 How the Improbable God Probably Works
(A World View and a God Hypothesis)
4 Do Billions Who Never Heard of God Prove
There Is None?
5 Is God’s Existence Imrobable?
Does Probability Matter?
6 The Greatest Scientific Mind
7 Does Atheism Break Down Here?
8 Magic: Divine and Human
9 Evidence of a Creator God
10 Why People Become Atheists
11 The Only Way Out of Atheism (Pure Theism)
12 Empirical Theism: A Thought Experiment
13 Can an Atheist “Choose” to Believe in God?
Part Two A PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR AT 17
IN A FAITH CRISIS
“Boy in a Storm”: Autobiographical Fiction About
a Trappist Vocation and the Part Thomas Merton
Played in It. A Meeting with Merton.
Part Three MY EXPERIENCE WITH ATHEISM,
PANTHEISM, PURE THEISM, AND
Part 1…The Rocky Road to Faith
Part 2…The Value of Faith
Part 3…Defending God from Evil
Part 4…No Rational Barrier to Faith…
Part Four BELIEVERS FACE THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
Her Last and Finest Hour
Part Five HOW AN AGNOSTIC SEES CHRIST
AND HIS MISSION
A Profile: His Life in 900 Words
“If there is a God, his methods are very subtle.”
“How unsearchable are his judgments
and how inscrutable his ways.”
“Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”
This book has five discrete units, written at different periods of my life over half a century. All deal with the question of God’s existence and the profound impact of belief or unbelief on a human life.
Part One is pure argument. It takes on the New Atheism, shows it is a belief system, not a proven theory, and that it offers less to rational thinkers than faith in God does.
Part Two is a memoir in fictional form. It tells how a fiercely ardent Catholic faith caused a crisis in my life at seventeen and how it was resolved. The influence of Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and author, was central to the conflict. I include a sketch of the man and our meeting in the story.
Part Three is a blend of argument and memoir. It describes my passage through atheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, to Pure Theism -- which I describe in Part One -- and finally back to Christianity. I dramatize and debate the problem of evil in a courtroom scene with God as defendant (“A Trial for the Ages”).
Part Four narrates a believer’s last and finest hour.
Part Five shows how one who is philosophically agnostic yet passionately Christian sees the life and mission of Christ.
An Agnostic and a Believer:
You Can Be Both
DARKNESS AND LIGHT
We are nocturnal creatures. Darkness is our element. The future is shrouded in deep mist and shadow. We can’t see very clearly and we can’t see very far, so we feel our way, grope, and guess at what’s ahead. Faith is our candle, flickering, dim, uncertain, but necessary. Faith in science, faith in our intuitions and calculations, faith in luck, faith in God. There are many kinds of faith. We live by one or more of them. Without it we weaken, we fall, we perish.
Not only scripture but all of human experience tells us we need something strong, good, and wise to believe in. For some it’s a statue of Zeus or Sophia, for some kinetic theory and the empirical method, for some the writings of a brilliant atheist, for some Confucius, Buddha, Allah, the God of Abraham, or (for me) Christ. To believe is to hold as true what cannot yet be verified. It’s a conviction, a sense of direction, that helps us move bravely through our darkness. And face what lies beyond it – the blackness of utter extinction or endless light.
AN AGNOSTIC ARGUES FOR FAITH
The End of Faith by Sam Harris becomes an international bestseller. The New Atheism is trumpeted by other eloquent voices: Dawkins (The God Delusion), Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Dennett, and Stenger. Essays proclaiming there are no good arguments for God’s existence appear on Op-Ed pages of large metropolitan dailies. Three close friends surround me after dinner and declare that Christians give only inane reasons for believing in God in the face of human suffering and tragedy.
The tide of modern intellectual culture flows strongly toward atheism, a destination congenial to some but abhorrent to others. For me it was like Antarctica -- glacially cold and wind-lashed, an ice-bound waste devoid of tree, shrub, or flower, no hint of blossoming life visible to the horizon, and beyond the horizon… nothing. I endured it for most of a decade. Then, drawn homeward, I swam against the tide for years, made a grueling journey back to the island of faith – for me a lush Capri of the soul. Drifting with the tide is pleasant and easy, but is atheism where you want to go? Or stay?
What "Agnostic" Really Means
I am a Christian. And I am an agnostic. I hold as true what cannot yet be verified. An agnostic is one who says we can’t know whether there is a God or not. His existence can’t be proven, and it can’t be disproven. Thomas Aquinas gave reasons to believe in God. I see the best of them as strong arguments but not proofs. Bertrand Russell, a great exponent of atheism, admitted he couldn’t be absolutely sure God doesn’t exist. Chapter 4 of Dawkins’ book is entitled “Why There Is Almost Certainly No God.” Almost certainly. Dawkins isn’t sure either.
Since none of us can know, the great question isn’t “to be or not to be,” but to believe or not believe. I believe. Atheists choose not to believe. I can’t tell them they’re wrong, and they can’t tell me I’m wrong. We all grope in existential darkness. I use religious faith as a compass. They think it’s worthless.
I don’t say everyone should believe as I do. I’m a pragmatist, not an evangelist. I know how different people are. My solution may not be yours. But of this I’m sure: Believing in God can enrich the lives of many who have ignored or rejected that option.
The Way Out of Our Maze
We’re in this mess together -- all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accident, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging and we’re mortal. We don’t know whether there’s an all-powerful God who cares deeply about his creatures, or not. There is reason to think there is not. There is reason to think there is. Either hypothesis seems far-fetched in light of certain observable facts. From six-day creation, to creation over eons with evolution, to Cosmic Inflation, to the Big Bang theory, there is no explanation of the universe that is not from some point of view wildly improbable.
So we must have either no explanation or an unlikely one. To some rational minds the theistic view is less unlikely than the atheistic. Did the Big Bang ultimately produce Plato, or did a cause more like Plato produce him? Did cosmic dust evolve into a great mind, or did a Great Mind produce the cosmos? Since the keenest powers of human reasoning leave us without proof on this crucial issue, uncertainty is our fate. We can’t know. We can only believe.
But the atheist says, “I don’t believe.” Ahh, but you do, I reply. You don’t believe in God, but you believe in No God. You believe in the hypothesis that there is no God. I believe in the hypothesis that there is a God. Mine is a religious belief. Yours an unreligious belief. But we both believe. Some atheists would rather die than admit this.
Questions We Can't Escape
I can’t say with certainty that there is a God. But I can say with certainty that if there is a God that makes a huge difference in the character of the universe and of human life. Consider these three questions that we can’t escape, because they keep coming at us: (1) When faced with problems or troubles that seem overwhelming, is supernatural help available or not? (2) Are we ephemeral creatures who expire utterly with our last breath, or is there a spirit in us that survives physical death? (3) If death is not the end of human consciousness, if there is a whole realm of being beyond that, is it good or bad – or might it be either, depending on how we relate to each other and how we relate to God… while we’re here?
Atheists have decided that there is no supernatural help and death ends all. Fine, but that belief has consequences. The world feels different because they view it in that light. If supernatural help is available only to those who reach out for it in faith, they won’t get that help. The joy of feeling the presence of a loving God in their lives, and connecting with him in prayer, will never be theirs. Thoughts of our mortality are more daunting if we can’t link them to thoughts of our immortality. Grief is blacker if the lost child, parent, friend, or lover is gone forever, not just gone ahead. And if this life is harder because we have rejected belief in God, a future life might be harder still because we’ve done that.
Somber or Radiant?
These are a few ways in which faith can enrich people’s lives and its rejection can impoverish them. Since we can’t know whether the world is Godless or God-filled, why not embrace the radiant view and enjoy its benefits? Why not swim against the tide?
BELIEVING WITHOUT PROOF
“You can’t be both a believer in God and an agnostic,” I am told.
“Well then,” I reply, “which am I not? Because I think I’m both. I believe in a personal God who created the world and cares about his creatures, and I pray to him daily – often hourly. Am I not a believer?”
“If you say so, I guess you are. But then you’re not an agnostic.”
There, I think, is the nub of the dispute. Most people think an agnostic is one who does not believe in God. And most people who call themselves agnostics probably don’t. But agnosticism per se does not exclude belief. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “agnostic” as: “A person who holds the view that nothing can be known of the existence of God or of anything beyond material phenomena.”
“Agnostic” Does Not Mean “Unbeliever”
Here's my simple working definition: “An agnostic is one who says we can’t know whether there is a God or not. His existence can’t be proven, and it can’t be disproven.” I call this Philosophical Agnosticism, and it does not conflict with the more formal language, above. To state, as OED does, that nothing can be known of the existence of God is not to say God doesn’t exist. It speaks of the limits of our knowledge, not the limits of reality.
OED gives eleven definitions of “know.” The one most on point for us – and most revealing -- is the tenth: “Comprehend as fact or truth; understand with clearness and certainty. Freq[uently]. opp[osed to]. Believe. “ To know is to have certainty, and that’s often seen as the opposite of believing. To say we can’t know of the existence of God makes me an agnostic. But I believe in it – very strongly. There is no conflict between Philosophical Agnosticism and theistic belief.
A. Philosophical Position
We’re not just parsing words here; we’re touching on the complexity of human nature and a distinction (almost a dichotomy) that even philosophers often miss. We are many-faceted creatures. When my rational mind – after utmost exertion -- concludes that we can’t know whether there is a God or not, that his existence can’t be either proven or disproven, my mind has done all it can. In terms of philosophical position I’m an agnostic.
B. Personal Belief
But it doesn’t end there -- because I’m not a disembodied mind. I’m a human being with a physical, emotional, social, and – I submit – even a spiritual life. Here I am, on an obscure planet, adrift on the great sea of time, trying to figure out who and what I am and where I’m going, in the short term and the long term. And wondering if the long term ever ends. I have to move on. Get from here to there. Plot a course, form strategies, make assumptions, draw conclusions from limited evidence.
In evaluating my situation, mundane and cosmic, the question of whether God exists has profound relevance. Philosophy and science don’t answer it. In that department I’m an agnostic. But the imperatives of a reflective human life require that I form an opinion on what I can’t know, that I proceed as if there is a personal and loving God or as if there is not.
At age twenty I came to believe that there was no God. That was my chosen creed. So I was an agnostic philosophically, and an atheist in personal belief. Years later, without changing my philosophical position, I embraced theism and later still the Christian faith. So I’m now an agnostic, philosophically, and a Christian, in personal belief. A believing agnostic.
Why “Agnostic” Is Misunderstood
The term “agnostic” is widely misunderstood because so many miss the distinction I’ve just made, between personal agnosticism and Philosophical Agnosticism. “I’m an agnostic” often means “I don’t believe in God, but I don’t deny his existence either, so I’m an agnostic, not an atheist.” This is a loose, untidy use of the term agnostic, which makes it hard to speak and think clearly about its philosophical meaning. That kind of unbeliever would do better to call himself an uncommitted agnostic, as distinguished from a believing agnostic like me, or a disbelieving agnostic whose personal creed is atheism.
Skeptics, Come as You Are
I proclaim this good news to atheists: You don’t have to renounce a spirit of skepticism to believe in God. Agnostic philosophy lets you retain all your reasons for denying his existence. You needn’t repudiate any of them. As long as you can discern this truth: that even the strongest anti-God arguments are not conclusive, that the not-quite-disproven God may in fact be real, you can hang on to agnosticism with one hand and grasp faith with the other. I’ve done it and it works.
Do I contend that agnosticism is the only right philosophical view and that everyone, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims, should be philosophically agnostic? Here I’m a little inconsistent. I do hold that agnosticism is the most reasonable view. But if believers in God think they can prove his existence, I won’t argue against them. I would be glad if they’re right and I’m wrong. I will argue against atheist claims that they can prove God does not exist. As one who has chosen to believe, I have a strong bias in favor of the God hypothesis. I would not impose it on anyone, but I will defend its reasonableness against attacks.
Uncertainty and Faith
The last point I will make here is important though not novel. The essence of believing is to hold as true what you cannot prove. OED in its nine definitions of “believe” uses such phrases as “have confidence or faith in… hold an opinion, think… give credence to… hold as true the existence of….” All imply an element of uncertainty.
We don’t believe in the existence of the house we live in. We know it’s there; our senses confirm its reality. We don’t believe in the law of gravity. We experience and deal with it all the time. I contend that we can’t believe in God if God’s existence is an absolute certainty. If that were so, we would be knowers, not believers, and our religion would be a body of knowledge, not a faith. When in the gospels Jesus urged people to believe, he was asking them to hold as true something unproven – often something that seemed incredible. That challenging fusion of belief with uncertainty is what makes faith a virtue. And it should make believers tolerant of Philosophical Agnosticism, even if they think God’s existence as provable as gravity.
Karl Barth, the great theologian, said: “Note well: in the whole Bible of the Old and New testaments not the slightest attempt is ever made to prove God.” Barth saw God as “unprovable” and assured his Christian readers that “God has not the slightest need for our proofs.”
HOW THE IMPROBABLE GOD
A WORLD VIEW AND A GOD HYPOTHESIS
Here’s a world view in a thousand words – and it took me only fifty years to compose it. I offer it as a hypothesis – my effort to explain how God must think and act if we are to reconcile his existence with the world, and human life, as we find them. In part they are speculations about the mind, the values, and – to use a crude term for want of a better one – the personality of God. (If he is a person, must he not have a personality – “the complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual”?) Assume each part is true till you get to the end. Then, when you view it whole, decide if it might possibly account for what we see and what may be behind it. For me it does.
The Personality of God
There is a cosmic intelligence, an all-powerful personal God who created the universe. The Big Bang, evolution, and natural selection may have been his modus operandi. His mind is infinite, and his methods are very subtle. A sense of humor is one of the finest aspects of human intelligence, so we should not suppose our creator is without one. Irony, and a predilection for the incongruous, the unexpected, the mysterious, and the imponderable are manifest in all his works.
He has made some of the greatest truths about his world – from the roundness of the earth, and the stillness of the sun, to his own invisible existence -- appear improbable. He reveals himself, but always under a cloak of ambiguity that lets us explain him away, if we want to. He does this not maliciously, but with a benevolent purpose that has something to do with freedom and what might be called soul making. His “heart” is as vast and limitless as his mind.
Man is the creature in whom he takes the greatest interest, because man is the most Godlike creature – the most able to reflect on his condition, and alter it by using his mind and his power of choice. Man is the only creature capable of knowing God and forming a relationship with him. The only creature with a sense of humor.
The Values of God
God loves all of his creation, especially man, and he has made man more capable of love than any other creature. He can love not only himself, his mate, and their offspring (as other mammals do), but a wide circle of other human beings – potentially all of them. And God made it possible for man to love him. He has made love crucial to a healthy human psyche. We are happiest when we love God and other people, but we are free not to.
Such choices are the essence of morality, and God constructed the universe around them. Despite the vast sweep of its galaxies, it is essentially a moral universe – designed to provide moral challenge and opportunity, to require moral striving, and to produce in every life a measurable degree of moral success and failure, which are of keen interest to God.
Our happiness is important, but must often be deferred. God is eternal – he takes the long view, and requires that we learn to. The long view includes both life, which is brief, and its Sequel, which is endless. Though the Sequel is infinitely larger than life, it’s as invisible as God, therefore easy to forget or not believe in.
Deceptive Appearances, Hidden Truths
God has filled his universe with ironies. The principal irony is that often things are not what they seem. Learning to deal with that is a great moral challenge. We must learn to “see” the invisible, to “hear” the inaudible, to “grasp” what we can’t touch, and to believe what we can’t prove. The most important reality is God, but he’s hidden from us. Deliberately, maddeningly, and distressingly hidden. The shining Sequel to life -- its fulfillment, point, and purpose -- is so out of sight as to be generally out of mind, even for those who expect it.
God has made it possible for man to know a great many things with certainty. We know obvious things by simple observation. Much that is hidden can be learned by study, experiment, and the exercise of reason. At its best, reason is so amazing that we’re tempted to think it’s the only human faculty that can lead us to truth. In fact, it can lead us to only certain kinds of truth: practical, theoretic, scientific. But the ultimate truth – interpersonal and mystical -- is quite beyond its reach. We can reason to the possibility of God, but he has strewn other possibilities in our path, so that certainty about his existence and our origin cannot be had.
Unprovable, but not Unreachable
Dealing with this uncertainty is another moral challenge. God has made himself not only hidden but unprovable. The only way to connect with him is by believing what we can’t know. Those are his terms and we must accept them or reject him. When reason brings us to God’s threshold (he is one possibility among several), other faculties must carry us across, and if we disdain them we’ll never reach him. They may work in this sequence. Hope says, “I wish there were a God; I want there to be a God; I hope there is a God.” Love says, “I find the idea of God wonderfully appealing; I love the idea of God; I love the possibility of God.” Then faith says, “I extend my hand into the darkness; I believe in God” -- and the divine connection is made!
Humility and Truth
The ancient mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing said: “By love he may be gotten and holden, but by thought, never.” John said, “God is love.” The atheist Bertrand Russell said, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,” to justify his unbelief. Believing requires not only an act of faith but an act of humility. The prouder we are of our intellect, of its superiority to lesser minds, and of the dazzling science it produced, the harder it is to humble ourselves and believe. Yet the Designer of the Universe arranged it so that he, his ultimate truth, and life’s shining Sequel can be found only by the humble and believing.
We cannot accept his love unless we acknowledge his existence. We can brush aside the outstretched hand. He will neither compel faith, nor make it unnecessary. On those terms, we can take him or leave him. Receive his embrace or turn away. Our decision is our fate.
[Shown above are the first three of the thirteen chapters that make up Part One of The End of Unbelief.]