Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Digging up the garden

A few more thoughts about Michael Novak's No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.

We all start in darkness, says Novak. How, then, does he end up in the light of belief? Revelation? But surely revelation assumes what it is meant to prove. We have no reason to takes the Judeo-Christian scriptures as God's word unless we already assume that God exists. Is it by reason then? By Novak's own argument (see yesterday), it must be reason devoid of evidence.

So why believe? "The trouble is that atheism is a leap in the dark, says Novak. "No person can possibly prove a negative or know enough to be certain that there is no God." But of course, there is no need to prove a negative. The burden of proof is on those who claim a positive, such as the existence of a personal God who acts in the creation and communicates his will. As for knowing enough to be certain that there is no God, well, it's Russell's teapot all over again. I don't know enough to be sure that there isn't a treasure buried in my back garden, but if I started digging without a shred of evidence my family and neighbors would think me insane.

Surely, then, agnosticism is a more modest stance? Not so, says Novak:
[E]very day women and men have to step into the arena of action...They cannot go on making decisions as if God does not exist without having effectively made a pivotal decision against God...They will act in a way cognizant of God's will and respectful of it, as one would act in the presence of a friend. Or else they will act in a way that violates God's will. In the latter case, they act as if there is no God, or at least as if there is no way of knowing what God wills. One can, in short, pretend to think as an agnostic, but the pressures of actually choosing how to act oblige one to declare one's relationship to God. In action, there are no agnostics."
What this means, I haven't a clue. I count myself an agnostic, and part of being an agnostic is not presuming to know God's will. I act all day long without giving a thought to whether or not I'm conforming to the will of the presumed creator of 100 billion galaxies. Which may be why I'm content to live a quiet life in loving repose with family and friends, listening to the whisper of conscience, and leave the grand (and sometimes violent) gestures to those who know what God wants them to do.

Novak's new book is a welcome plea for civil discourse in matters of faith, but once the believer has stepped out of the darkness into the certainty of knowing God's will, there's not much in common to talk about.