Sunday, 6 September 2009

Do You Sense a Presence?

I thought I would document and comment upon one or two quotes from Antony Thomas' film for Channel 4, How Do You Know God Exists?, since I was struck by how anodyne the answers were.

In response to the question in the title, Rowan Williams says:
I think I'd prefer to talk about being confident that god exists, or trusting that god exists. It's not knowing as you know a state of affairs in the world, it's much more a sense that you're in the presence of something greater than you can conceive, and I suppose since my teens I've been aware of that something greater than I can put words to, in whose presence I live and think and act.
A rather bland expression of belief, as one has come to expect from the Archbishop. He first admits he doesn't know that god exists, but then goes on to claim some kind of different way of knowing - 'a sense'. Well, we all have evolved senses, which we have grown to trust. But we now know that we cannot trust them completely. For everyday matters they will suffice, but for important matters, we need to establish corroborating evidence. Without it, we can treat the Archbishop's 'sense' as seriously as Elwood P. Dowd's sense of a presence.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says:
You judge an idea by what it does to people who embrace that idea, or are embraced by it, and so I saw god in terms of the people in whom I sensed his presence.
More 'sensing'. One can see the solipsistic nature of this sort of belief come shining through in the heads of their churches. They need to let go of the idea that they are the centre of the universe, even though we all, naturally, think we are. 'You judge an idea by what it does to people who embrace that idea'? How would one judge an idea that drove a father to murder his son?

Vincent Nicholls then weighs in:
Beyond all the distress of this world, beyond all the break up of family life, beyond all the things that unbalance us, there is a father, there is a figure who has our fate in his hands, and we can approach god through the person of Jesus, through the crucified saviour.
He doesn't even bother with an answer to the question, but just asserts his 'knowledge'. Can I suggest that there isn't a figure who has our fate in his hands? How are we to judge who is right?

Professor Tariq Ramadam spoke for Islam:
I really deeply believe that god exists; the world, the creation, all these things are signs, so it's a relationship between what my heart is feeling and my eyes are seeing and my mind is understanding.
Well that last sentence is surely a description of how we all make sense of the world. But why does he take the world, the creation as signs? I think we have a tendency to interpret such things as signs, but it doesn't mean they are. Consider that they might not be signs, Professor. What then?

Swami Pramtattvadas for the Hindus tells us:
Quite simply god is the highest, the purest, most transcendental perfect being there is.
Cool, I think we've got that message; Anthony Thomas presses him to answer the question:
It's faith; it's faith. It really is as simple and as powerful as that. [You take god on trust?] Yes.
Simple, yes; powerful, as an idea, no. Although one has to admit that the effect on people who succumb clearly can be powerful, for good and ill.

So leading commentators for the major religions in the UK really do not know that god exists, but like to think he does. That is fair enough; they are entitled to their unsubstantiated belief. Being unsubstantiated, though, I would like to know what mandate they have for telling us how we should behave?

The above platitudes occupied the first section of the program, and the narrator went on to ask further questions, which I shall address in future blogs. Next up; is it possible that the creator of this vast universe can have a direct, personal relationship with you and with me?


  • Oystein says:
    6 September 2009 at 07:06

    I haven't seen the program, so thanks for this summary, Mark. Surely people like the archbish must see how vacuous their answers are. In essence they are saying that the usual notion of what it means to exist doesn't apply to God. And the same "detection kit" they use to "sense" God are also used by people who see ghosts, spirits and UFOs.

  • Mark Jones says:
    6 September 2009 at 11:06

    I think people like Rowan Williams are a bit embarrassed about these answers; he's not a fool, and knows he cannot justify his belief, or he would have done so.

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