God, for bad people

As The Knife gets older, I become more convinced than ever of the existence of God, and, as it happens, the truth of the Catholic faith in which I was brought up. This belief goes way past the effect of the usual allegations of indoctrination and brainwashing in childhood that get generally made if you discuss this sort of thing in polite society. Reinforcement of my belief is undoubtedly aided by health scares, and by the specific nature of my job – life and death and all that. Not to mention everything else that you might encounter in a hospital.

However, I’m absolutely not making a case that believers are good people. That’s the whole point, we’re just like any other flawed individual, and as time goes on, you tend to accrue more sins, without any obvious progress to goodness. Disappointing perhaps, but human. One thing that we do have though, is a method by which we can improve, and a codification of right and wrong that provides the essential missing ingredient in other religious models: absolute morality. The spectre of moral relativism is absent. One of the quotes in the right hand column on this blog, by the late Oxford philosophy professor, Sir Michael Dummett, gets it right, regarding moral relativism:

“it will bring down a curse upon us worse than that which God called down on the builders of Babel; rather than our speaking different languages, not to be speaking a genuine language at all.”

All that being so, if I wanted to make a case for my religious belief, I would call on a few sources. One would be Pascal’s Wager. For the uninitiated this is really a kind of insurance policy, it doesn’t do you any harm to believe and practice, but it might do you a lot of damage if you don’t. A bit superficial on the face of it, but compelling in its own way, even if ultimately you can’t make someone sincerely believe anything.

After that, I turn to other writers, who do this a lot better than I do. The first is Peggy Noonan, best known as Ronald Reagan’s most noted speechwriter. Noonan was and is an extremely able, highly regarded writer, who by her own admission lead a typically glitzy frenetic and successful professional and social life, though not without emotional crises of various kinds. She was not actively religious for much of this time. Her short book John Paul the Great, is a magnificently lucid primer of her own belief, and how she came to it, through the prism of JP II’s life and works. She really is a fantastic writer, and the book – which sold shedloads in the US – is a remarkably moving work, as well as being unputdownable. It’s not just a catholic thing either, although she perfectly captures the intensity of feeling that I experienced when visiting John Paul’s tomb under St Peter’s a couple of days after he was interred there. Literally thousands of people queueing for hours in near silence. A critic of catholicism would probably deride this as typical catholic idolatry, but it’s not, and Noonan explains why.

The other work that I would cite is a recent one: Paul Johnson in the Christmas issue of the Spectator, Reason to Believe. Johnson is now a grand old man of journalism and history writing in particular. His article kicks off in a pretty clear way:

My belief in God is not philosophical. It is not rooted in metaphysics or reason. It springs from the heart and the senses. It is practical.

In an oblique way it hints at the problem a lot of people have with the aggressive atheism of Dawkins and co, without engaging in a prolonged refutation of their tired tropes:

I have known some giants of certitude, rajahs of reason, leviathans of logic. Three in particular pop up to remind me of the fallibility of the human intellect — Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and A.J. Ayer. Wonderful entertainment value, brilliant, sparkling, diamantine, but one would not turn to any of them, let alone all three together, for practical advice on a serious problem. And the existence of God is a serious problem, in the end the only one that matters.

He tackles the recurrent problem of why do bad things happen to good people – often used to challenge the notion of the loving God – and emphasises prayer in all its forms. Not dry, repetitive prayer, but real communication. Whether you’re convinced or not, Johnson is a terrific and heartfelt advocate.

The twist in this, and a strangely comforting one, is that Johnson himself has been a seriously flawed individual – by his own admission – just like the rest of us. It doesn’t invalidate his argument, if anything it reinforces it. God for bad people, isn’t that what we all want?

Pascal may have had a point (click to enlarge)
Pascal may have had a point (click to enlarge)

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