Zain Ali: Space for all in religious debate

Resolving the existence of God is inherently problematic, a good reason in itself to allow other perspectives.

Suggesting that Nasa has found no trace of God ultimately proves little. Photo / AP
Suggesting that Nasa has found no trace of God ultimately proves little. Photo / AP

Religious faith undoubtedly has the power to inspire, although in many cases it seems to inspire irrational acts of hatred and violence. So it is no surprise that Sir Bob Jones has recently taken aim at God and religion. Sir Bob, if I may, labels God a "mythical entity" and, in the footsteps of Einstein, regards religion as "simply childish". After all, "space research has now covered billions of miles in every direction without spotting an old bearded bugger in a nightie". Now, Sir Bob is in good company. The Oxford don Richard Dawkins contends that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference".

Sir Bob and Dawkins have strongly held beliefs, but their views on God and religion are by no means definitive. For instance, we can treat the question of God's existence and the plausibility of religion as two separate issues. It may be true that some forms of religion are childish, however, it would be a leap to then conclude that because religion is childish God is therefore mythical.

It's entirely possible that religion has unwittingly misrepresented God.

People may be losing faith in organised religion, but it would be a mistake to think that religion is synonymous with God. We can think about God without reference to any one specific religion, for instance, God can be understood as "a being than which no greater can be conceived", or simply, as the greatest conceivable being.

How about science? To date Nasa has yet to find that "old bearded bugger in a nightie". This observation doesn't prove much, and this is because none of the major faith traditions conceive of God in this way. Nevertheless, science hasn't exactly confirmed the existence of God either, in fact, given evolutionary theory, one could argue, as has Dawkins, that modern science "has made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist". After all, there is no explicit need to refer to God, or any supernatural being, for that matter, to explain the origins of the universe or the origin of human beings.

Modern science seems to provide us with naturalistic explanations, what then of God? Well, atheists haven't had it all their way, and there have been high profile defections. One such example was the late Antony Flew, a philosophy professor and notorious atheist, who spent a lifetime arguing that there wasn't a sufficient basis for believing in God.

At the age of 81 he had a change of heart and mind; he declared that after reviewing the current scientific evidence and the philosophical arguments, he had come to believe in God - he claimed that "science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organised and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature".

The debate on the existence of God isn't one that is easily resolved. This is why I lean towards the view held by the late John Hick, a well respected theology professor, who suggested the universe was religiously ambiguous, in that it "evokes and sustains non-religious as well as religious responses".

Hick's suggestion has a ring of truth. I know many believers as well as non-believers who are virtuous, upright folk who sincerely reflect on the evidence but end up drawing different conclusions. If Hick is correct then we would need to be cautious about accusing believers or non-believers as being irrational, since the world we live in inspires a number of competing interpretations.

Importantly, if the universe evokes and sustains a variety of responses, we need to be careful with God, especially during the Christmas period, lest we throw the baby out with the bath water.

Dr Zain Ali is head of the Islamic studies research unit at the University of Auckland.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

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