Why do you believe in God?

In last week’s <em>New Statesman</em>, I asked 30 leading public figures why they believed in God. H

What better question can there be for the New Statesman to tackle in its God issue than that of God's very existence?

"I'm a believer", published in last week's New Statesman, deals with that very topic. The way that I prepared it was by asking 30 prominent people to tell me their main reason for believing in God. For most of them, this was the Christian God. To add some spice to the mix, half of them were scientists.

I was intrigued to know how their answers would differ from the others'. Many of the answers are set out in full or in part in my article. But what I'll try to do here is delve behind the quotes.

Although most people were able to supply objective reasons for their belief, some of them conceded that their decision to believe nevertheless required them to take a leap of faith. This seems to be what the Bishop of London meant when he echoed an Alfred Tennyson refrain, saying that there is everything suggestive which constantly draws him "to cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt".

Similarly, the Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens told me that he is "ceaselessly interested to know why anyone would – in the absence of definitive proof either way – actively prefer the idea that the universe is accidental and without purpose. Such a position seems to me to be far more intellectually difficult than mine." Perhaps he partly had in mind his brother, Christopher, one of the world's most prominent atheists, who also prides himself on being an "anti-theist": that is, someone who is firmly opposed to God.

A quarter of those I asked told me that they had experienced God. Usually this was in the form of what they believed were answered prayers, as well as feeling the presence of Jesus in their lives. Perhaps surprisingly, this answer was more common among the scientists. Even so, it was a former cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, whose experience was the starkest. As he told me, "Some years ago I went through an all-too-well-publicised drama of defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail. In the course of that saga I discovered a loving God who answers prayers, forgives and redeems."

"All that you imagine"

Believers and unbelievers differ in the probative value of their religious experience. Perhaps a sceptic is hardly entitled to dismiss a personal experience that he has not had. Then again, most Christians would surely agree that the experiences of followers of other religions cannot amount to proof of the existence of their gods. So, is it just Christian experience that is to have any evidential value?

Among the non-scientists, the most common argument for God's existence was the example set by Jesus. For the radio and TV presenter Jeremy Vine, "The story of the gospels has stood the test of time, and Christ comes across as a totally captivating figure." Similarly, the anti-abortionist Lord (David) Alton referred to God's genius and love, which he said are expressed most powerfully in the claims of Christ. And the Bishop of Liverpool added, "All that you imagine God would be, Jesus is."

Denis Alexander, director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, developed this point. He said he was "intellectually persuaded by the historical life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that He is indeed the one He claimed to be, the Son of God. Jesus is most readily explicable by understanding Him as the Son of God."

An advantage of believing in God for this reason is that a believer does not have to answer the usual follow-on question: but if there's a God, why would it necessarily be the Christian God? Even so, many sceptics would counter that the nearest to a contemporary record of Jesus's life is the Gospel of Mark, which was written at least 40 years after the crucifixion. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, scholars have had trouble with the historicity of several features of the gospel accounts.

Richard Swinburne, probably the world's best-known living theologian, told me that there are cogent arguments for the existence of God. One of his reasons was the most common one I heard, particularly because most of the scientists mentioned it. For instance, Dr Hugh Ross, who leads the American Christian apologetics ministry Reasons to Believe, told me that it was discoveries in astronomy that first alerted him to God's existence.

He referred me to what he called compelling evidence for God's existence emerging from research into the origin of the universe. In particular, the Big Bang appeared to him to offer the best explanation for the history of the universe and was consistent with biblical teaching.

The government's "poverty tsar", Frank Field MP, succinctly made the same point when he said that believing in God makes more sense than any other explanation of why we are here.

Predictive text

A similar argument that sometimes crops up when people discuss God's existence is that if the laws of physics were even slightly different from how they are, life as we know it would be impossible. It is claimed that as it is highly improbable that the fine-tuning of the laws of physics arose by chance, God must be responsible for it. A third of the scientists brought up this point.

On a related theme, the prominent American biologist Kenneth R Miller asked me: "Why should science, which requires order and predictability to work, even be possible? Where does that order come from?" His answer is God.

It is largely for these reasons that the bestselling science writer Professor Paul Davies considers that the universe is rationally ordered. However he told me, "I am sure I don't believe in any sort of God with which most readers of your article would identify."

Sceptics may be surprised that so many people, including well-known scientists, feel the need to posit a God to explain either the Big Bang or the laws of science. After all, last year Stephen Hawking made headlines when his latest book concluded that God was not needed to kick-start the Big Bang because the universe was able to create itself from nothing.

Hawking's opinion was based on M-Theory, which predicts that there is more than one universe; rather, the number of universes in existence is in the region of ten followed by 500 zeros. So it is hardly surprising that we find ourselves living in the universe whose laws of physics allow us to exist. However, not all physicists feel comfortable with M-Theory, especially because it is not yet complete.

About a quarter of those questioned saw the Bible as presenting a convincing case for God. Stephen Green, national director of Christian Voice, believes that there is an intellectual coherence to Scripture. And Hugh Ross told me that the Bible predicted what scientists would later discover: the beginning of space and time, the continual expansion of the universe, the constancy of physical laws and the concept of entropy.

Perhaps a queue of sceptics wishing to challenge this bold way of interpreting the Bible would stretch across that very expanding universe. And even the main events of the Old Testament, such as the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their subsequent wandering in the wilderness, have been doubted by archaeological studies.

A third of the scientists considered that humanity provided evidence of God's handiwork. Michael Behe is the biologist whose theory of irreducible complexity forms the purported scientific basis of Intelligent Design. He believes that the fact that humans can comprehend and reason indicates the existence of God. The molecular biologist Nick Brewin also commented that humanity appears to occupy a unique position among all life on earth due to its Godlike ability to store and manipulate information.

He argued that, rather than concluding that this was all mere chance, we should try to make sense of the signs and wonders that are embedded in a revealed religion.

Even so, there was a consensus that science cannot explain everything. Professor Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the Institute of Education, London, stated that his belief in God does not involve abandoning the scientific way. "Instead it's a larger way of understanding our relationship with the rest of the world, our position in nature and all those standard questions to do with why we are here, whether there is life after death and so on."

A fifth of everyone I questioned saw the existence of God as simply the best explanation going. As Stephen Clark, professor of philosophy at Liverpool University, put it concisely: "I believe in God because the alternatives are worse."

The same number of people referred to the existence of morality and our notions of beauty as pointing to God's existence. According to the physicist Peter Bussey, it is reasonable to suppose that our shared sense of beauty and morality should correspond to some kind of transcendent source. "Why else should it be there?" he asks.

Sceptics may reply that our sense of right and wrong is simply a product of human evolution; after all, societies founded on poor moral systems are likely to die out. Even so, the question of whether Darwinism alone can explain adequately why morality should pass through the generations is a hotly debated topic within the context of the God Debate.

Nowadays, Christians may feel that they are under siege by the so-called New Atheists and are having to justify their beliefs as never before. But whether they like it or not, this is a debate that will go on and on.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Humanist and Skeptic. To contact the author email: andrewbelief@gmail.com.

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The quiet civil war for control of the Labour grassroots machine

The party's newly empowered far left is trying to wrest control of local branches.

“Party time! PARTY TIME!” A young man wearing a Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt appears on screen and starts dancing, accompanied by flashing emojis of a red rose and a party popper.

“There’s only one game in town and it’s getting our boy J Corbz into Downing Street”, he announces, and to do that, he is planning to explain the “nitty gritty” of local Labour politics, and, promisingly, “give a little gossip on the way”. The man is Michael Walker of online left-wing outlet Novara Media, and the video has been watched more than 38,000 times on Facebook in just two weeks.

So why should Labour members suddenly be made to care about “structures, factions, conference, selections, rule changes”? “There were shedloads of people who got involved in the Labour Party for the first time by knocking on doors during the general election,” Walker explains, “but to make sure that the Labour Party represents their voices as it goes forward, they’re going to need to take getting involved in Labour’s bureaucratic structures seriously.

“There’s a risk that the party structures and bureaucracy will try and shut down participation in the Labour Party just like they did last summer, and we want to make sure that it can’t happen again.”

While the Parliamentary Labour Party is going into recess as a more united group since the election than it had been in the past two years, there is a quiet war still being fought at local level. Now that their man has proved that he could exceed expectations and turn Labour into a solid opposition, Corbynites want to make sure that the centrists cannot keep a hold on the internal party machine.

This involves projects like Walker’s catchy videos, and Momentum’s Your Labour Conference website, which encourages members to get interested in the election of the conference arrangements committee, in order to have more of a say on what gets discussed at the party’s annual conference.

“We recognise the fact that sometimes the Labour Party can be a bit of a labyrinth and something which can be pretty hard to work out, and we want to push people forward and help them get more involved,” a Momentum spokesperson says. “We’re trying to make it more open and more accessible to younger people and help people understand what’s going on.”

With tens of thousands of people joining Labour over the past few months – including around 20,000 since the election – their intentions seem noble: the Labour party internal structure is, after all, notoriously complex. However, it isn’t clear how the existing members who are involved in local organising – a lot of whom are or were until recently sceptical of Corbyn – will deal with this new influx of activists.

“Corbyn supporters are no longer the underdog in the party, and understandably people who joined recently are highly motivated to get their opinions across, so they’ve been turning up in droves at local meetings,” says Richard Angell, the director of Blairite organisation Progress.

“They’re not brilliantly organised but they’re there, and they turned up with this sense of 'we told you so', so they’re starting to win things that they wouldn’t have before the election.”

Centrist and centre-left Labour factions have often been the most organised campaigners in constituency Labour parties, and they’re now worried that if they were to get ousted, the party would suffer.

“Lots of our members are the people who hold the CLPs together – lots of people turned up in certain places to campaign, and the people who organised the clipboards, the data, did the work to make that happen are still a network of moderates,” Angell adds. “If Momentum tried to sweep them away in a vindictive wave of jubilation, it would backfire, and that’s what they have to think about now.”

Though the people at the helm of Momentum have never explicitly called for a takeover of the party at local level, some CLPs are struggling with bitter infighting. Lewisham is home to some of these battlegrounds. With three CLPs in the borough, the local Momentum branch is trying to gain more power in the local parties to implement the changes they want to see at that level.

“There’s an organised left-wing presence in all three CLPs in Lewisham,” a local Momentum organiser, who did not want to be named, says. “We want the CLPs to become outward-looking campaigning bodies, and we want them to be functionally democratic.”

What the branch also wants is to have a radical rethink of what Labour does at council level, and the activist was critical of what the councillors have been doing.

“Under the right-wing, Lewisham CLPs never really campaign on anything – they’ll occasionally have these set pieces, like the Labour day of action on education, which is good, but in reality there’s no one going campaigning on anything,” he says.

“The other thing is about the record of the council - no-one would deny that Labour councils are in a difficult situation, in terms of getting cut again and again and again, but equally at the moment, the attitude of a lot of Labour councils in Lewisham at least is 'it’s not just that there’s nothing else we could do, we’re actually going to go further than the Tories are demanding'."

“It’s not just that they’re saying 'oh, there’s not really anything we can do to fight back against cuts' but it’s also that they’ve actually absorbed all the neoliberal stuff.”

The response to these allegations from a long-term Labour member, who wants to remain anonymous but is close to the currently serving councillors, was unsurprising.

“It is utterly absurd to suggest that councillors want to cut services – Labour members stand for council because they want to stand up for their community and protect local services,” he says. 

“As for campaigning and taking on the Tories, it was the 'right-wing' Lewisham Council which took the government to the High Court over their plans to close Lewisham Hospital – and won. The 'right wing' CLPs worked tirelessly with the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, and we won.”

According to him, Labour is doomed to fail if it doesn’t unite soon, and he worries that left-wing activists may be getting carried away. “The vast majority of members in Lewisham are really pleased with the result and with the way the party pulled together – locally and nationally – for the election campaign,” he says.

“At the second members' meeting after the election, we had a discussion about how we all needed to carry on in the spirit of unity that we'd recently seen, and that if we did so, we have a good chance of seeing a Labour government soon.”

“It's a shame that some people want to label, attack and purge fellow members, rather than working together to beat the Tories. The more they focus on internal, factional in-fighting, the less chance we will have of seeing a Labour government and ending the cuts.”

Beyond the ideological differences which, as the election showed, can mostly be smoothed over when the party senses that it’s getting close to power, an explanation for the Labour left’s occasional bullishness could be its sense of insecurity.

After all, the wave of new members who joined after Corbyn became leader was hardly welcomed by the party’s mainstream, and the narrative quickly turned to Trotskyist entryism instead.

Momentum also spent many of its formative months being treated with suspicion, as a Trojan horse aiming to get MPs deselected, which is yet to happen two years on. Painted as the opposition to the opposition, activists from the Labour’s left had become used to being party pariahs, and need to figure out what to do now that they are in a position of power.

“They’re behaving like an insurgency still, but they’re in charge”, says Angell. “It’s quite a big change in mindset for them, and one I don’t think they’re really ready for.”

“We have shown that we will campaign for the Labour Party anywhere in the country, whoever the candidate is, to try and get the best result in a general election, and there is no acknowledgement of that from them at all.”

This was, amusingly, echoed by the Momentum activist – if there is one thing all factions agree on, it seems to be that the Labour left needs to figure out what it wants from the party machine it’s in the process of inheriting.

“Momentum nationally had a very good election, it mobilised a lot of people to go to marginals, and got a lot of people involved in campaigning, and that’s a step forward, to go from getting people to vote Corbyn to getting them on the doorstep,” he says, “but it’s another step from actually having a vision of how to transform the Labour Party.”

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.