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Mortality and Meaning: Why do we Believe?

Why Religion?

Here is a quick question: What do the people of the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Suri tribe of Ethiopia and the ancient Egyptians have in common? If one were to look at their respective lifestyles and cultural practices, one might be pushed for an answer. These groups have been separated from one another by time and geography. And yet they share a fundamental characteristic: religion.

The beliefs of each group are as divergent as their many customs. The Animism of the Suri people, with their veneration of the sky god Tumu, is irreconcilable with the polytheism of the ancient Egyptians. And neither is compatible with the monotheism of Christianity, which, until recently, has been the dominant belief-system in the UK and Ireland. But all three do share fundamental characteristics that have arisen independently of one another. These include: (1) belief in one or multiple deities; (2) the ability for human beings to connect with the spiritual realm; and (3) the hope for an afterlife. Religion, it would seem, is a universal phenomenon transcending geographical and temporal boundaries. There seems to be something built into us as human beings that reaches out to something beyond ourselves. Is this longing for the ‘transcendent’ evidence that we are more than a cosmic accident and that we have a Creator?

Sceptics have tried to explain away the significance of religion as a universal phenomenon by suggesting naturalistic explanations (i.e., explaining how it could arise in a world that is purely physical, with no spiritual reality). Some suggest that a misfiring of evolution has led to human minds that seek meaning in the futility of life or to identify intelligent agency wherever they look (like children seeing a ‘man in the moon’). Much ink has been spilled trying to account for the pervasiveness of religious belief.

I was intrigued to read another suggested explanation for religious faith recently in The God Desire, written by comedian and fervent atheist David Baddiel. In this deeply thoughtful, and yet humorous book, Baddiel considers the inevitability of death and argues that, when we get to the rock bottom of things, this is the real reason why people believe in God. Unlike the somewhat belligerent atheist authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Baddiel is not content with his conclusions. He does not like them. In fact, he tells us he likes God and wants him to exist. Yet, much like a child who has reluctantly come to accept that Father Christmas is a fiction, Baddiel concedes that simply desiring something to exist in no way points to a reality behind the idea. In fact, he is deeply suspicious of the burning desire for God, seeing it as merely a mask for the deeper desire to escape death through God.

Fear in the Face of Oblivion

Baddiel shares about his early realisation, at the age of 6, that he was going to die and the horror with which it filled him. He recalls his mother trying to console him, by saying that death was just, “like a long sleep from which you never wake up”.[i] Rather amusingly, Baddiel blames this for his battle with insomnia! Yet Baddiel makes a serious point when he confronts with honesty his inability to accept the meaninglessness of a life doomed to extinction. He writes:

If death portends only oblivion, and if, extrapolating from oblivion, there is therefore no meaning, no story, no protector and no point, then that is the reality that humankind cannot actually bear much of.[ii]

To my mind, Baddiel is spot on with this point. In a moment of spiritual crisis, the Old Testament writer of Ecclesiastes wrestles with this exact issue:

For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.[iii]

What meaning, value, purpose or hope could we find in such a universe? This is the unbearable prospect that humans cannot live with and so, the argument goes, in a fit of self-delusion, we create for ourselves a fictitious superbeing to fill the void. In the words of Baddiel, “humans cannot bear to look directly at the face of death, and so have invented the face of God as a shield”.[iv] Perhaps, therefore, the people of the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Suri tribe of Ethiopia and the ancient Egyptians have something more fundamental than religion in common: the burning desire to be and, through being, to avoid the horror of an existence without meaning, purpose or value?

Evidence Based Faith

Baddiel’s argument is not new – in fact, it is widely held and often stated – so it is worth consideration. What might one say in response? The first thing that struck me, as I read Baddiel’s book, was that he gives no justification for his position whatsoever. He writes:

The need to imagine that there is an exit door - somewhere through which to escape constantly oncoming Death - is one that I can confidently predict exists within the deep recesses of most humans, and the pressure of that desire has always, and will always, lead to divine projection.[v]

This is a strong assertion, but Baddiel does not provide any evidence to support it. Furthermore, he implies that belief in God lacks any supporting evidence and is no more than blind faith. If belief in God is, at root, fuelled by the desire to avoid reality, to close one’s eyes to the facts, then by its very nature, one might expect that believers would not be too concerned about the actual evidence. Their faith would be no more than wishful thinking, a projection into an empty void. And that is exactly how Baddiel continues to treat belief in God. He contrasts it with evidence, with scientific fact and with reason. At one point he claims, “Those who continue to believe in God should not use logical arguments to support that belief because God exists beyond logic and reason. That’s why He’s God and that’s what faith is”.[vi]

At this point I found myself scribbling a big “NO!” in the margin. Baddiel has got it wrong here, and this is one of the reasons why his claim that religious belief is all about fear of death is misguided. It is important to distinguish blind faith from faith supported by evidence. It is the latter, not the former, that the Bible advocates. In Romans 1 Paul points to creation and says there is evidence of a Creator behind it. Jesus’ disciples were not immune from doubt about his resurrection. At the beginning of the book of Acts, Luke tells us Jesus, “presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.”[vii] Likewise, John tells us why he recorded the signs and miracles of Christ: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ”.[viii]

Blind faith was not expected of Jesus’ disciples; nor does God expect it of us. Far from evidence and faith being in opposition to each other, as Baddiel assumes, we are to put our faith in the one the evidence points to. Christians believe there is much evidence for God and for the truth of the Christian faith. That includes both sophisticated philosophical arguments for God and strong historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Baddiel does not acknowledge this at all, let alone engage with it, but he should. For, as soon as one realises Christianity is an worldview supported by evidence, a huge question mark hangs over the claim that belief in God is a mere death-avoidance tactic.

The Genetic Fallacy

There is another problem with Baddiel’s dismissal of belief in God as a way to avoid the fear of death. It commits what logicians call the ‘genetic fallacy’. The genetic fallacy is the mistake of thinking one can disprove something by showing how it came to be. Every attempt to explain the phenomenon of religion naturalistically faces the same problem. I do not agree with Baddiel that belief in God arises from a fear of death but let us go along with it for the moment. If it were true, it would say nothing about the truth or falsity of God’s existence. If God has created us for eternal life, it is conceivable that he would allow us to feel the sting of death so that we reach out to him to find life. Similar responses can be made to evolutionary and psychological explanations for religion. They provide interesting theories on how people came to acquire belief in a deity, but they have nothing to say about whether such belief is true or false.

Impossible Atheism

Much more could be said about Baddiels’ position but, as I continued to read, one thing was particularly telling: he is unable to live consistently with his own conclusions. Baddiel is right that, if there is no God and no immortality, there be no objective meaning, value or purpose. Yet he cannot stop talking about people as though they embody each of these attributes. In other words, Baddiel engages with the world as though God exists. In fact, when it comes down to it, all of us do. We have no choice. When meaning, purpose and value have been taken away we immediately create our own. This led Professor of Philosophy, Loyal D. Rue, to suggest that our modern culture needs to develop a ‘Noble Lie’.[ix] He says he believes in nihilism – that there is no purpose to life – but that we need a form of self-deception that meaning, purpose and value do exist because, “without such lies we cannot live”.

This is a huge problem for atheism and, I suggest, a strong counter-objection to the idea that belief in God is no more than the desire for death-avoidance. If one commits intellectually to the non-existence of God and yet cannot make that same commitment existentially, something is wrong: either what one believes or how one lives. And if it is impossible to live as though there were no God, perhaps one’s lack of belief should be reconsidered.

Seeking to Fulfil the God Desire

Baddiel tries to find his own replacement for God in nature, in humanism and in quantum physics. Nothing can adequately fill the God Desire that he is so desperate to satisfy. The closest he can get is Love (deliberately capitalised, deity-like, in his book). Love, he argues, “is probably a better thing to worship and to use as a template for positivity than God”.[x] Why Baddiel comes to this conclusion is not immediately clear. A consistent atheist must see love as no more than a chemical reaction that occurs in our brains, presumably because it confers the evolutionary advantages of encouraging production and nurture of offspring and protection of those in our immediate group. Within an atheistic worldview, love, as an objective reality ‘out there’, does not exist. If Baddiel thinks it does, he opens himself to the charge of the same blind faith he accuses Christians of.

Having read Baddiel’s argument, I am more convinced than ever not only that his position does not get us very far but that it is indicative that we have been created for something more. There is a compulsion within us for life, a need for the transcendent, an inability to live without purpose, meaning or value. Atheism becomes a practical impossibility. Baddiel has reached the same conclusion as the atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who lamented, “That God does not exist I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God I cannot forget”.[xi] Sartre’s longing echoes a verse in the Bible that says God has, “set eternity in the human heart”.[xii] If we are created by God to know Him and to experience life with Him then we would surely expect God to place within us a desire for us to find fulfilment in Him.

Despair or Hope?

The tragic thing about Baddiel’s book is the despair with which it ends: “The more… it is clear to me how fervent and desperate the God Desire is… the more I know, in my reluctant atheist heart, that there is nothing there”.[xiii] Two thousand years ago, standing at the graveside of his good friend Lazarus, Jesus spoke to his grieving sister Martha. He said: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”[xiv] That question is a challenge not only for Martha but for all of us. Baddiel’s atheism is built upon shaky foundations, it lacks real explanatory power, and it ends in despair. The claims of Jesus, contrary to what Baddiel says, are supported by evidence, answer our deepest desire and, ultimately, bring hope. As we each consider how short a time we have on this earth, the question remains: what response will you make to Jesus?