I just began watching The Atheism Tapes (on Netflix), by Jonathan Miller, a series of interviews with prominent atheist intellectuals. In the first episode, Colin McGinn reviews some standard arguments for and against the existence of God.
He puts forward lack of positive evidence as his principal reason for not believing that God exists. Paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, he says, “there’s no more reason to believe in the Christian God than in the Greek gods.” I think this is a silly assertion. Nobody believes in the Greek gods today. However, many millions of people do believe in the Christian God today. He may not think that’s a good enough reason to believe in God, but it’s a big jump to say there’s “no evidence”. If he’s talking scientific evidence, then I grant him the argument. Scientific evidence is a very narrow sort of evidence, as science is a very narrow sort of inquiry. But the continuing faith of millions over thousands of years does constitute some sort of evidence.
Later in the interview, he admits that people do have a sort of “cosmic loneliness”, or angst. He sees this as an explanation for why people have such a need for believing in God. The belief appears to satisfy their deep need for connection. This is another sort of evidence. You can use it to either explain people’s need to believe despite God’s non-existence, or you can view it as another sort of evidence for God—a being which, when believed in, “satisfies a deep craving in the human soul”, as McGinn puts it.
McGinn is most persuasive, I think, when he brings up the problem of evil. This should be truly challenging to any Christian or anyone who believes in the existence of a good, all-powerful God. Why would a good, all-powerful God let evil things happen in the world? McGinn notes the standard, ultimately unsatisifying explanation offered by theologians: God gave us free will, and we’re the ones that mess it up. Then what about natural disasters? Ultimately, the problem of evil is a real problem for faith. One of my beliefs as a Christian is that whereas God is all-knowing, we are not. And we’re not particularly meant to be. There are things we don’t understand and won’t ever understand in this life. Atrocities such as holocausts happen. There is a profound potential for evil in the human heart. These are things we have to contend with, even if we can’t fully explain them. If you’re going to believe in a religion, make sure it’s one that acknowledges and contends with the reality of suffering in the world and evil in the human heart—even if you were born into a free, wealthy society such as America where we are protected from much of the world’s suffering.
I have friends, family members, and colleagues who are atheists, and I want to better understand their point of view. I also want to find ways to address my doubts and to bolster my own faith in the face of unbelief. Despite my natural affinity for philosophy and philosophical arguments, I don’t put my hope in them as a primary way to grow closer to God (which is a primary goal of mine). They do play a minor role though; they fit in somewhere. Otherwise, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about this topic. Just know that I haven’t even begun to expound on why I do believe, and I can’t necessarily explain all the reasons why I’m compelled to believe. (For one thing, I believe God had a large role in my choosing to believe and continue to believe, and that’s hopelessly circular from a philosophical perspective.)