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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

0800 7318496