Monday, March 28, 2016

God Is a Question, Not an Answer

By William Irwin March 26, 2016 2:30 pm, New York Times

image from

Near end of Albert Camus’s existentialist novel “The Stranger,” Meursault,
the protagonist, is visited by a priest who offers him comfort in the face of his
impending execution. Meursault, who has not cared about anything up to this
point, wants none of it. He is an atheist in a foxhole. He certainly has not been
a strident atheist, but he claims to have no time for the priest and his talk of
God. For him, God is not the answer.

Some 70 years later, Kamel Daoud, in his 2013 novel “The Meursault
Investigation,” picks up the thread of Camus’s story. In one scene late in the
that novel, an imam hounds Harun, the brother of the unnamed Arab who was
killed in “The Stranger.” In response, Harun gives a litany of his own
impieties, culminating in the declaration that “God is a question, not an
answer.” Harun’s declaration resonates with me as a teacher and student of
philosophy. The question is permanent; answers are temporary. I live in the

Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he
thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all — if not the God
of the Judeo­-Christian tradition, then a God of some kind. Nathaniel
Hawthorne said of Herman Melville, “He can neither believe, nor be
comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to
do one or the other.” Dwelling in a state of doubt, uncertainty and openness
about the existence of God marks an honest approach to the question.

There is no easy answer. Indeed, the question may be fundamentally
unanswerable. Still, there are potentially unpleasant consequences that can
arise from decisions or conclusions, and one must take responsibility for them.

Anyone who does not occasionally worry that he may be a fraud almost
certainly is. Nor does the worry absolve one from the charge; one may still be a
fraud, just one who rightly worries about it on occasion. Likewise, anyone who
does not occasionally worry that she is wrong about the existence or
nonexistence of God most likely has a fraudulent belief. Worry can make the
belief or unbelief genuine, but it cannot make it correct.

People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe
and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of
conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is
impossible to be certain about God.

Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to God if it turned out
there was one and he met him at judgment. Russell’s reply: “You gave us
insufficient evidence.” Even believers can appreciate Russell’s response. God
does not make it easy. God, if he exists, is “deus absconditus,” the hidden God.
He does not show himself unambiguously to all people, and people disagree
about his existence. We should all feel and express humility in the face of the
question even if we think the odds are tilted heavily in favor of a particular
answer. Indeed, the open-­minded search for truth can unite believers and

In a previous essay in The Stone, Gary Gutting re­-conceived Pascal’s
wager. Rather than consider it as a bet on whether God exists, which has
tremendous consequences on one side and relatively trivial consequences on
the other, we should consider it as a bet on whether to embrace a “doubt of
indifference” or a “doubt of desire.” A doubt of indifference is simply a matter
of not caring, and it has no clear benefits. By contrast, a doubt of desire
approaches the question with the hope that a higher power could be found that
would provide greater meaning and value to human existence. As Gutting sees
it, the choice is obvious.

Of course, nonbelievers will object that there are various secular
alternatives for finding meaning and value in life. Additionally, there is an
assumption built into Pascal’s wager that we are talking about the God of the
Judeo­-Christian tradition. Nonbelievers may see no reason to favor that
particular deity. So Gutting’s “doubt of desire” needs to be more explicitly
conceived as an openness to the question in which the nonbeliever explores
what various religious traditions have to offer. The nonbeliever might embrace
the ethical teachings of Christianity, the yogic practices of Hinduism, the
meditative techniques of Zen Buddhism, or any of the vast array of teachings
and practices that the world’s religions have to offer. Such embrace may lead
the nonbeliever to belief in God, or it may not.

This proposal should be taken in the other direction as well: There should
be no dogmatic belief. The believer should concede that she does not know
with certainty that God exists. There is no faith without doubt. The Trappist
monk Thomas Merton wrote that faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully
and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven — it is not
merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else.”

Indeed, belief without doubt would not be required by an all­-loving God,
and it should not be worn as a badge of honor. As nonbelievers should have a
doubt of desire, so, too believers should have a faith inflected by doubt. Such
doubt can enliven belief by putting it at risk and compelling it to renew itself,
taking it from the mundane to the transcendent, as when a Christian takes the
leap of faith to believe in the resurrection.

We can all exist along a continuum of doubt. Some of us will approach
religious certainty at one extreme and others will approach atheistic certainty
at the other extreme. Many of us will slide back and forth over time.
What is important is the common ground of the question, not an answer.
Surely, we can respect anyone who approaches the question honestly and with
an open mind. Ecumenical and interfaith religious dialogue has increased
substantially in our age. We can and should expand that dialogue to include
atheists and agnostics, to recognize our common humanity and to stop seeing
one another as enemy combatants in a spiritual or intellectual war. Rather
than seeking the security of an answer, perhaps we should collectively
celebrate the uncertainty of the question.

This is not to say that we should cease attempts to convince others of our
views. Far from it. We should try to unsettle others as we remain open to being
unsettled ourselves. In a spirit of tolerance and intellectual humility, we
should see ourselves as partners in a continuing conversation, addressing an
enduring question.

William Irwin is a professor of philosophy at King’s College, the author
of “The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism Without Consumerism” and
the general editor of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series.

No comments: