The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
I had been wondering about writing a column on religion when I turned on the car radio one day and caught part of a debate on the subject between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair. Hitchens is the author of a book defending what someone called the New Atheism, and Blair, the former British prime minister, is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism.
The most interesting moment in the debate came when a clever young woman, one of the students invited to ask questions at the end, asked each what was the strongest point in his opponent’s position. Hitchens’ answer was of particular interest to me. He mentioned three things. The first was a little obscure but what he seemed to be referring to was the kind of short-hand, by which we say things like Thank God, God willing, God knows, without necessarily believing in any specific deity, the word God a shorthand for the vast powers beyond our control, what we fear or desire but know to be out of our reach.
Hitchens went on to make the related point that religion encourages humility. We ought to bear in mind, he suggested, that we are an aberrant species on a small planet in a huge universe. A look through the Hubble telescope, he suggested, will produce appropriate awe at the vision of what is beyond us. His third point was that many, if not most, human beings, have some sensitivity to the numinous, some sense of absolute mystery of the sort religion studies.
Hitchens’ presentation of these best arguments against his own position sums up the reasons I call myself an agnostic, not an atheist. More or less always have. Though my parents attended church and I attended Sunday school, I didn’t later lose my faith, only became more strongly aware that I had never had it and by and large never missed it.
However, because I love to sing and sing well, I have spent quite a bit of time in church choirs. A favourite joke is that I will believe anything if it has a good enough tune put to it. But of course that’s not entirely a joke. To stand in a choir singing the great contrapuntal Amen from Handel’s Messiah is an extraordinary experience. The word Amen, means, we are told, So Be It. That presents no doctrinal difficulties, and the music is … transcendent. Anyone who lets a philosophical assumption interfere with that transcendence is wasting his life.
So I have sung that chorus as if I believed something, but who knows what?
Perhaps that phrase leads us to the point where the aesthetic confounds the rational, where poetry makes disbelief irrelevant.
The rabbi and philosopher Emil Fackenheim once said in my hearing that agnosticism was intellectually incoherent. One must make a commitment, to live as if God existed or as if God did not. I admired Fackenheim, but I don’t agree. To keep things simple in this short column let’s say that the choice is to live as if the universe has meaning or as if it does not.
Why not both? Are absolutes more than another human invention?
Religion is frequently rigid and blind. So is atheism. Both advertise humility and display pride. Credulous child or rebellious adolescent: neither is quite grown up. Either extreme is likely to accuse agnosticism of a weak-kneed refusal to choose, but that is a rhetorical trick, not an ethical necessity.
Certainly a stone dropped from a tower will always fall to earth. The dead are dead. History is not providential. But those are narrow certainties. Cosmologists will continue to strive to explain the expanding universe, but aren’t there things that by the nature and limits of our observing cannot ever be measured? Some cosmologists have suggested this is so. I can’t do the mathematics, so I’m more than ever uncertain.
I don’t know.