Do you believe in God? Do you doubt God’s existence? Numerous studies record the diminishment of religious affiliation in our culture and the rise of those who profess to be atheists and agnostics. The New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are representative of this trend. They aggressively promote atheism and ridicule religion with often facile understandings of God and faith. Last Thursday in The Observer, a member of the Notre Dame community, Grace Tourville, bore public testimony to her own lack of belief in God and her turning away from the Catholic Church. Her implicit understanding of the relationship between faith and reason and how one comes to know God reminded me of the New Atheists’ faulty understanding of faith and how one comes to know God.
Let me begin by paraphrasing Grace’s story. You have an Aunt Susan who is well-known by people in her town for her accomplishments and service. Your family visits her every week for Sunday dinner. You, however, have actually hated going to her home. You’ve resented reading biographies about her and the many newspaper clippings people proudly show you. In fact, you didn’t feel any love toward her. Once you graduated from high school and left home for college, you were no longer under the forced family outings to visit Aunt Susan. In the freedom of college, you could decide for yourself whether you, as an independent adult, would visit Aunt Susan during October or Christmas break before heading home, or whether you would even call her. With the demands of school, you usually opted not to call and not to visit. What does this biographic scenario reveal about Aunt Susan and what about the niece? The niece wants nothing to do with Aunt Susan. Seemingly, the only reason the niece had any contact with her aunt was because of parental pressure.
For Grace, her own three-year old niece’s belief in God and proudly making her newly learned Sign of the Cross comes from a blind faith that at that age believes anything family and teachers say. Certainly, as children and adolescents, almost everything we learn comes from believing what others tell us. Ashgabat is the capital of Turkmenistan, the tree in the front yard is a red maple, drinking and driving is foolish and dangerous, mommy and daddy love you, and Jesus rose from the dead. Are all of these statements of the same order? Why is it that the final truth claim is rejected as something you only believe because you have a childish acceptance of what others tell you? Is it that reason can verify the other claims?
Most people have never been to Turkmenistan, but you can search for it on the internet and learn that its capital is Ashgabat. You could travel there and people would tell you the same. Now, there could be a universal conspiracy to deceive people into thinking this is the case, but that would involve so many people as not to be likely. The same for identifying the tree in your yard. You could use a tree guide and verify that it is, indeed, a red maple, Acer rubrum. Reason can confirm what our parents said about geography and botany. Drinking and driving seems reasonable as well. Perhaps you have had a high school classmate killed by a drunk driver. So, this leaves us with the parental statement of love and of Jesus’ resurrection. Can reason confirm these?
First, a question about swimming. If you watch YouTube videos and read books about swimming—how to move your arms, kick your legs, and turn your head to breathe—would you know how to swim? Does someone who has never been in the water know how to swim? Swimming requires a way of knowing that is experiential and not just an intellectual exercise of reason. You have to dive into the water, water that can be cold and dangerous. Knowing how to swim makes a demand upon you. You have to get wet and exert your muscles to move. What about knowing another person? Does that involve anything more than reason?
Say Michael is dating Emily (just to take the most common names for boys and girls born in 1996), and Michael is thinking Emily may be the one. They’ve been dating for a year, but he has reservations about making a life-time commitment because he has doubts about her love of him. Now, he does have every reason to believe that she loves him. She tells him so. She even texts him heart emojis. She talks to him every day and shows him signs of affection. But his doubt, like all doubt, seeks certainty. He wants proof. So, before he buys the engagement ring, he insists that she take a polygraph test.
Emily should leave him immediately. If certainty is demanded, Michael will ever be waiting for her all the days of his life. No scientific experiment or exercise of reason will prove Emily’s love. Knowledge of Emily requires faith. She reveals something about herself, and faith is required to receive revelation. Michael has to believe her self-revelation that she loves him. Doubt seeks certainty, but faith seeks understanding. Michael needs to take a stand: does he believe Emily loves him or not? If he does, then he can receive everything she has to give him. If he doesn’t believe her, her self-offerings will fall to the ground unabsorbed. Faith in Emily makes a demand upon him. He has to change, to be vulnerable to knowing and being known. He can’t stand behind impersonal instrumentation to know her. He has to know her interpersonally, face to face and heart to heart.
If this is true of human relationships, can our knowledge of God, as the New Atheists demand, be subject to scientific verification? As with human relationships and knowledge of another person, to know God, to have faith in Him, requires that we dive into the ocean of mystery that God is. We must dive into the relationship that makes even more of a demand upon us. To believe is “to entrust oneself to” and “to give one’s heart to.” Faith is not unreasonable, but reason can only go so far.
What we hold to be most true about being human—love, relationships, life, truth, beauty, goodness, forgiveness, mercy, joy—makes sense if there is a God of love who freely created an intelligible world (that can be therefore be studied by science) through His Word, His Reason. If there were no God, what becomes of our humanity (and of the grounds for science)? Nietzsche followed a godless world to its logical nihilistic conclusion where there is no good or evil. Dennett thinks paradoxically that consciousness is an illusion. Which scenario is more reasonable, which more unbelievable? Faith on this account is reasonable, but faith requires a personal response.
Just as our parents and teachers told us about Ashgabat and we believed them, they told us about God and the Resurrection. Reason can verify the former kind of knowledge. The latter, however, transcends reason and requires an investment of ourselves into a relationship of faith. If you are in doubt about God, you will never believe if all you demand is certainty. If you have the smallest belief in God, then dive into the mystery and seek to understand. Most of what we know, even as adults, comes from faith—we believe what other people tell us is true. Or are you already googling “Ashgabat”? Christianity began, in one sense, from personal encounters with the Risen Jesus. And then those people told others about it. And they told others. Do you believe them? You can’t google anything here and be certain. You have to dive into the water.
Fr. Terry Ehrman, CSC, is the assistant director of the Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing, a concurrent instructor in the Theology Department, and a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover