This note was written in response to an article which appeared in the New Zealand Herald shortly after some lunatics who happened to be Muslims drove aeroplanes into various buildings in the USA. ( Gordon McLauchlan : "If only we could put God on hold" ( Weekend Herald, 2001 September 15-16, A23 ) ). The message of the article was that, as religions had no perceptible useful function and their main effect was to cause fanatics to kill people, we would all be better off if we could forget about God altogether. This isn't so much a reply to the article as an attempt to explore how the author has so comprehensively missed the point, and to present an alternative view. It is ( of course ) my view.
First, I state my position. I believe in God, not casually or by upbringing or habit, but by conscious choice. I have made that choice because, after long and painful reflection, it seemed to me that only by believing in God could I make sense of life - just as it seems to me that, for example, only by believing in atoms can I make sense of physics. I am a Christian, partly by accident of birth ( I grew up in England, not Afghanistan ), but also because I want the way shown by Jesus to be the right way. This way is summarised in the two Biblical principles of love for God, and love for other people; other specific exhortations are to love one another within the church ( by no means always the easiest in practice ) and to love your enemies. I would have some difficulty in reconciling killing people with these principles. There is much more than that to say, but this is a short article.
Belief in God makes sense of one very specific part of life which is not adequately covered by anything else : it gives a credible basis for values. It is sometimes suggested that we don't need God to establish values, as the vast majority of people agree on the desirability of such attributes as honesty, kindness, fairness, respect, and so on, that qualities such as human life, freedom, health, dignity should be highly regarded and advanced, that all should have access to education, employment, and support in times of need. I hope it is true that most people do so agree, but it is not enough. If you all agree that honesty is a fine thing, but I observe that by being dishonest I can make myself better off at your expense, why shouldn't I ? Your agreement is your business, but has no bearing on me. One supposes that ( leaving out God for the moment ) these commonly accepted values have evolved as necessary support for living in more or less cooperative societies, but that has no moral force, and if I don't care whether my society continues to be healthy then there's no reason for me to take any notice.
What will make me take notice ? I'll be honest despite the possibility of dishonest gain if I believe that honesty itself is valuable. Values in principle are what make life worthwhile; values give me a reason not to be dishonest, provided that they have a credible base. For this purpose, values which are merely matters of convention are useless. In fact, any values depending solely on people are insufficient, because they give no reason for believing that people are of any value. Without God, the assumption that people are valuable is just one more arbitrary convention, and it is much more likely that we are simply accidents of evolution with no value to anyone but ourselves - and if we are of no value, why should our assessment of our own value be worth anything ?
I don't think that there's anything new about all this. I don't think it's an accident that as belief in God has dwindled in the "western" world, so denial of the value of people has become more common. Our society is becoming more murderous, more suicidal, more violent, more aggressive, more neglectful of children. More and more, we are regarded as no more than economic entities, sources of profit for the unscrupulous; we are no longer people, but "customers" or "consumers". This denial of value is a consistent proposition, and leads to the fully self-consistent philosophy summed up as "Life's a bitch, and then you die". I would prefer to phrase that, perhaps a little less pessimistically, as "Life's futile, then you die", because just this prospect of futility drove me to the self-examination which led eventually to my Christian conviction.
Christianity gives me a set of values which depend on God, the creator of the universe. If I accept that, on faith, then I have a basis for values which are literally universal; it is a basis beyond convention, beyond human decision, beyond some supposed vote of the human race. For me, at least, it is true that "Jesus saves" - not primarily from sin ( that's another question entirely; I am perhaps not a very sound Christian ), but from futility and meaninglessness. Accepting these values has enabled me to make sense of life in a way which I find satisfying, and given me a reason for living - and for agreeing, more or less, with that list of generally approved values which I gave earlier.
I do not know whether I am right in my beliefs - they are, after all, beliefs, not certainties, and Christianity is, and always has been, a matter of faith. If the principles of Christianity were certain, we would have no need for faith. I try to practise Christianity throughout my life; I do not claim to do it particularly well. So far it has worked, in the sense that it does indeed make sense of life. If it ever stops doing so, I shall have to find something else. Equally, I do not know whether anyone else is wrong. On the specific subject of God, I think I'm quite likely to be wrong somewhere, because I'm not clever enough to be right; there is too much to God for me, or any other human, to comprehend, so my knowledge will be at best an approximation to part of the truth. ( Again, just like physics. )
I don't know how all this fits in with Gordon McLauchlan's article. I am not going to kill anyone, or force anything upon anyone. I don't think it's because I'm an unsound Christian. I know a couple of Muslims; they are honourable, kind, and gentle people, and abhor violence as much as I do. I can say the same about Jews I have known; doubtless the same goes for other religions, with which I have had even less contact. It is true that religions are built of powerful ideas, which can easily be manipulated by demagogues, fanatics, and megalomaniacs, just as can other powerful ideas of politics, race, nationality, and so on. ( Physics is built of powerful ideas, which can be manipulated to fly aircraft into buildings. ) But if anything is to be put on hold, let it be the demagoguery, fanaticism, and megalomania, not the God who gives me a reason to love and care and live.