Seeker after truth

God may be in the detail, says Gary Day, but asking religious leaders to prove it leads only to perplexity

August 20, 2009

Antony Thomas wants to know if God exists (How Do You Know God Exists?, Channel Four, Sunday 16 August, 8pm). The first person he asks is Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. "It's not a question of knowing," sighs the Primate of All England wearily, "it's a question of trusting that God really is there."

Not persuaded, Antony moves on to Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. He has more titles than the Archbishop and so should be able to settle the question. Alas, no. He tells us that God is our father. A comforting thought, but an unconvincing argument.

It's time for Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, to have his say. What can he contribute? Well, if God were interviewing for the post of His press officer, the rabbi would stand out from the other two applicants. He smiled and wore a brightly coloured tie. The other two were encased in black and looked gloomy.

But the rabbi's presentation is equally flaky. "You judge an idea by what it does to people." A remark that does not help us to see either Judaism or Christianity in their best light. If God existed, he would have shown the rabbi the door and invited the next candidate to step into the room.

Who just happens to be the Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan. Apparently there is no hierarchy of religious figures in Islam and so no one person to whom a seeker after truth can turn. But now that we have an academic we will get some proper reasoning. Well, maybe another time, for Dr Ramadan, too, tells Antony it is a matter of faith. He doesn't just believe that God exists, he "deeply" believes it, as if the depth of a belief secured its truth.

Antony has one more go. He approaches a Hindu holy man, Swami Pramtattvadas. But he also fails to answer the question, telling us instead that God is "the highest, purest, most transcendental being there is". He also declares that God is everywhere, even in the jungle, which unaccountably made me think of Rambo. For a moment, I imagined God as Sylvester Stallone squatting in a tree.

Not one of the religious leaders or thinkers interviewed on the programme could put forward a single proof of God's existence. The Christian ones either didn't know or chose to ignore the historical arguments on this matter. There was no reference to Anselm of Canterbury, Bishop Berkeley or William Paley. And you would have thought there would have been some reference to Pascal's famous wager. But no, just a lot of stuff about how nice God is and how much better it will be after death.

Perhaps these rather benign men - and yes, sadly, they were all men - imagined that the average viewer couldn't cope with these thinkers. Or perhaps that was the view of the producers. Or the sponsors. Or even God, who didn't want His existence subject to intelligent debate in case He found out He didn't exist after all. Honestly, if Channel Four is going to duck the issue of the deity, for whatever reason, we may as well give up and watch the God Channel.

Sensing that he was not doing a very good job in persuading Antony of God's existence, the Archbishop of Canterbury played his trump card. "Where do ethics come from if not from God?" It was a question echoed by the others. Aha! Get out of that one! Antony thought for a moment and then asked if the Church had taken the lead on any major moral issue. Er, not really, said the Archbishop of Westminster. It was the same in Islam. The impulse to reform had not come from the imams.

But the Archbishop of Westminster was not giving up. If an atheist performs a good action, he declared, it's because the Holy Spirit inspired him or her. But what is a good action? A selfless one? The religions featured in the programme, with the possible exception of Hinduism, operate a system of reward and punishment. Those who keep God's word go to heaven, and those who don't go to hell. So, not much selflessness there, then.

All the religious leaders were embarrassed by the idea of eternal punishment. But as Antony rightly noted, it's there in their holy texts. And how did they explain the problem of suffering? They couldn't. There was a moving moment where Antony described his own mother's decline into dementia. The Archbishop of Canterbury was at a loss. "God deals with people in ways we cannot begin to understand," he said. You almost felt sorry for him.

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