From The Economist print edition
After a lengthy career, the Almighty recently passed into history. Or did he?
WHEN your friends start looking for proofs of your existence, you’re heading for trouble. That was God’s situation as the millennium got into its stride.
Few ordinary folk, though they had different names for him, doubted the reality of God. He was up there somewhere (up, not down; in his long career, no one ever located him on the seabed), always had been, always would be. Yet not quite so far up, in the churches and monasteries of Europe, many of its cleverest men would soon be racking their brains for ways of proving it.
Anselm, for instance, and others centuries later, such as Descartes, reckoned if you could think of God, then there must be a God to think of. Thomas Aquinas saw everything in motion, so there must be someone to give the first push. Others felt that a universe so elegantly designed as ours plainly must have a designer. And so on, and ingeniously on.
Yet why bother with proof, if everyone knew it anyway? One, because great brains are like that; two, because not everyone did. Out there were the gentiles, Saracens and such. But did not they too say, “There is no God but God”? Yes, but they didn’t mean what good Christians meant. They must be taught better. And there God’s troubles began.
He let Hindus paint him as what, to others, looked like a blue-faced flute-player with an interest in dairy-farming
They were largely his own fault. Like many great personalities, he had countless admirers who detested each other—and he let them do so. For one of infinite knowledge, he was strangely careless how he spread what bits of it to whom. To some he dictated the Bible; to Muhammad the Koran. He was much concerned with the diet of Jews. He let Hindus paint him as what, to others, looked like a blue-faced flute-player with an interest in dairy-farming. Each set of believers had its version of what he was like and what he had said. No wonder cynics began to hint that, if believers differed so widely, belief might be a mistake.
The believers then made things worse. For soon it was not sets but sub-sets. Christians nationalised God, as Jews had long since, like some coal mine. He’s on our side, the English told the French. No, ours, Joan of Arc hit back. Next, the Reformers privatised him: unser Gott, fine, yet not the king’s or the church’s, but each man’s own. From this umpteen versions of what “he” might amount to, or think, were apt to spring, and did. Close kin could disagree. As late as 1829, a bishop warned Britain’s House of Lords of divine retribution if it granted civic rights to Jews; happily, their lordships, aware that stupidity thrived in God’s house as in their own, took the risk. In the 1840s American Methodism split, north against south, arguing whether his word condemned slavery or justified it.
Nor did the rivals seem even to believe their own versions. The Christians turned not cheeks but swords against Muslims, Jews and each other. Muslims, while averring that “in religion there is no compulsion”, did the like to them and to Hindus, and put to death apostates from Islam. For centuries, such rivalries led to torrents of blood. Was this a good God at work? Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, the Roman poet Lucretius had written: that’s where superstition leads. It was no disproof of clerical logic, but it was a reasonable point.
And in time reason began to take a hand. God, OK, but less mumbo-jumbo, said a platoon of English “deists” in the early 18th century; we can reach him without revelation, let alone incense. This was a risky step, as French and German thinkers were soon to prove. If human reason was so powerful, did man need God? No, said Enlightened men like Diderot (to be silenced, but not convinced, when the mathematician Euler told him “a + bn over n = x, donc Dieu existe”). The French revolution buried God, albeit Napoleon soon dug him out.
Darwin did not help, blowing apart the first book of the Bible
Darwin did not help, blowing apart the first book of the Bible. Nor did critical 19th-century German micro-examination of what was left. Still less did men like Marx, who saw the close links between the ruling class and the ruling churches, and was eager to blow up both; come the 20th century, the Soviet Union did so, literally. Religion was the opium of the people, give them the adrenalin of communism instead. God was dead, as Nietzsche had announced; and even if the superman Nietzsche envisaged to replace him somehow never got born, communist man could do it.
Trouble was, communist man didn’t; the people did not agree; and the corpse just wouldn’t lie down. He popped up in the oddest places. “You don’t find many atheists in a landing-craft heading for Normandy,” recorded a padre aboard one such in June 1944; even though the Almighty was about to let many of their joint flock be turned into fish-food. A French journalist, no less, was ready in the 1960s with the best possible evidence, if it was true: a book entitled “God exists, I have met him”. (Or could it have been “her”, as even the current pope was heard to hint recently?)
And this was in the cynical, questioning, anti-authoritarian West. Ever fewer westerners share the church’s—or the synagogue’s—beliefs, and far fewer still attend their services. Yet outside the rarefied world of thinkers, remarkably few deny the possibility of a supreme being; less than 10% of Americans. In Muslim and Hindu societies, the thought is barely heard.
The test will come on Judgment Day, when man, we are told, will meet his maker. Or will it be God meeting his?