Believing and Not Believing

Believing and not believing (published in The Friend)

“Do you believe in God?” asked my 11-year daughter the other day. Assuming that she probably had in mind a very old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere above Basildon, my natural response was to put the question back to her: “It depends what you mean by God,” I said.

“Well, do you believe in any God?” she persisted, trying to get a definite yes or no out of me. “It depends what you mean by believe,” I said, knowing that this old philosopher’s trick was a bit unfair to play on an 11-year old. Fortunately she then moved on to another topic, giving me a chance to formulate my thoughts on the subject a bit more clearly for the next time.

The problem is, even with more preparation I doubt if I could explain to an 11-year old just what I do believe about God, since I have a difficult time explaining it even to myself. You see, I do very much believe in God, and yet at the same time I absolutely do not believe in God. Let me try to explain to a slightly older and wiser audience:

If you ask me whether I believe in ghosts, or in UFOs, you are presumably asking whether it is my opinion that these things exist or not. But if you ask me whether I believe in world government, or in a minimum wage, you are presumably asking quite a different question, since it will already be clear to both of us that these things do not exist (as yet). Instead what you are asking is whether I place a high value on these things, or even whether I have some kind of moral commitment to these things.

So if you ask me whether I believe in God, it could be in the first sense — do I believe in the existence of God? Or it could be in the second sense — do I believe in the moral value of God? It may well be possible to believe in God in the second sense without necessarily believing in God in the first sense. This is not as paradoxical as it sounds if you believe, as I do, that God does not yet exist, but will exist one day, when human beings have learnt to live in peace with each other and in harmony with the rest of the planet.

I take as my starting point for this view the basic principle of evolution that all complex things have come from simpler things, which have come from still simpler things, and so on right back to the very simplest thing in the universe (whatever that might be). Now you may want to call that simplest thing in the universe “God”, but to most people, including me, “God” stands for something much more complex. In fact I would call God the most complex thing we can conceive of rather than the simplest. In that case, I would expect God to evolve, just as every other complex entity has had to evolve. And according to evolutionary theory, God could evolve if, as Friends believe, there is already “that of God” within each of us.

I believe the words and deeds of saints and sages through the ages, and the personal religious experiences of many ordinary people (including myself) testify to a God-that-is-to-come rather than to a God-that-was-there-from-the-beginning. From a Christian point of view, this is pure heresy, of course. But from a scientific point of view it is a perfectly valid hypothesis based on sound evolutionary principles.

So you see my predicament? I no longer believe in (the existence of) God, yet I most certainly do believe in (the moral value of) God, in the sense that I see it — rather than us humans — as the culmination of the evolutionary process. God is what the whole of evolution has been working towards these last few billion years or so, and we human beings are the only ones on earth who can create the conditions for God to come about. I believe our singular task is to create those conditions, so I can truthfully say that God is my whole reason for being and the highest moral value in which I believe, even though I don’t believe that God, as yet, exists.

But do you think I will be able to explain this to my daughter?

Tim Wallis