Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations. If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate
Is God Necessary? NO! and YES!
By Herbert F. Vetter
Just before I talked with him, a provocative young professor who considers himself to be an atheist had been reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. This assignment, an unpleasant discipline for this particular professor, was undertaken as a means of gaining insight into the life of a contemporary man who swung from a Communist orientation to a Roman Catholic orientation, in fact to life in a Trappist monastery.
Why was this autobiography so nauseous to this person, who has been out standing both for his active defense of American civil liberties and for sacrificial participation in the American labor movement? Primary causes of distaste were Merton’s naiveté and his ready surrender of independent judgment. To the professor, this autobiographer’s solutions to major problems were and are incredibly simple. In his earlier phase when a young Communist, he regarded capitalism as the cause of every ill; therefore, capitalism must be overthrown, replaced temporarily by the dictatorship of the proletariat, and then be followed by the ultimate bliss of the classless society where there will be no state, no greed, no unhappiness. Next Merton, as a Catholic, repeatedly stated that the super natural Church is the only true guide, and heaven the re ward. For Father Merton, in the Roman Catholic Church there is sol ace. How clear the doctrine is, and how magnificently it is supported by the force of Scripture and through centuries of a unified, continuous, and consistent tradition. Only through supernatural revelation and divine miracles can one rightly under stand. As the ego is surrendered, as one is obedient, superlative joy is known. At last there is relief from the troubles and worries of life in the world. Thus it is the autobiographer’s servility to the church which irritates this freedom- conscious social scientist. Particularly disgusting to him are the lines in which Thomas Merton indicated that there is something eminently satisfying in the thought that all Roman Catholics know exactly what they believe, and know what to teach, and all teach the same thing, and teach it with coordination and purpose and great effect.
If this is what religion is, the skeptic might well say, then Marx and Freud are right: religion is an opiate and promotes neuroses. In such a situation, religious liberals will very likely find themselves in substantial agreement with the skeptic. He is our ally in the struggle against theological magic and ecclesiastical absolutism. Moreover, the skeptic often makes excellent criticisms of our own religious ideas and practices.
The severest critics of organized religion can perform an indispensable service because persons within the church all too often fail to see the social and cultural consequences of their faith. Those who are on the “inside” automatically associate church activities with that which is holy, that which is uniquely precious. Thus corporate interest may mask such features as the class bias of certain religious concerns, the use of the church as a vehicle for upward social mobility and for the unconscious or conscious quest for noncommunal personal power. Such motivating factors protrude so that worthy skeptical observers may discern the pretensions of the faithful and, therefore, scorn “the holy” as a perversity to be avoided or opposed.
Let us not be unduly hasty in our condemnation of the self-styled atheist or agnostic, for in these ranks stand many authentic saints—not “abortive saints,” as Jacques Maritain would say, but authentic saints, skeptic saints—women and men who are truly committed to God even though they choose not to affirm God’s reality. God speaks not only through those who affirm the divine existence but also through those who theoretically deny God. To reverse an old distinction we may speak not only of theekklesiola in ekklesia,the little church within the church, but also of ekklesia extra ekklesiam ,the church outside the church. No small percentage of the persons who are actively and responsibly labor ing for social justice and international peace are still outside the ranks of organized religion, but they are none the less members of the invis ible church, the open fellowship of authentic religious search and com mitment. Ignazio Silone put the insight cryptically: They who have gone out of the temple none the less carry within themselves the truth of Christ.
In this church outside the church may be found the skeptics who launch attack after attack against the forces which would tame the world with monotonous and stifling uniformity, who courageously defend the right of the individual to think freely in every field of inquiry, who un seat the mighty who rule without consent or without allowing civil freedoms, who reject sad‑ faced, world- withdrawing piety and find humor and vitality consistent with the highest good. Those who are skeptical of the popular gods or prevalent religious practices are part of the vanguard of opposition to the evils of our time, refusing to bend the knee before the idols of rigid ecclesiasticism, militant nationalism, human pretentiousness, dogmatic finality, and illusory supernaturalism.
Moreover, the history of the modern mind is in large measure a history of skepticism. Philosophy has assumed the role of rebel in its reaction against domination by the medieval queen of the sciences, re vealed theology. Through gaining its autonomy philosophy has made vigorously critical and constructive strides through such doubters as Bacon and Descartes, Spinoza and Hume, Locke and Mill, James and Dewey, Whitehead and Hartshorne.
Modern insistence upon the autonomy of the natural and social sciences has likewise immeasurably promoted the advancement of knowledge, an advancement which has been won only through war fare against fortresses of faith. Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud: each fought intensely against strongholds of devout ignorance. Even in pol itics the struggle has been as much that of doubt as of faith, of unbelief as of belief. In the pageant of democracy the leaders have often been regarded as skeptics, if not infidels: Voltaire, Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Holmes. These are leaders who have warred against idolatries which stifle the democratic spirit.
Then let us praise God for skeptics, skeptics who have rejected the flight to a security that throttles creativity, who have refused to permit divine theology to be enthroned as radically superior to the disciplines of science and philosophy, who deny that any idea, or book, or per son, or state, or church is so holy, so perfect, as to be exempt from the challenge of criticism. The skeptic is a whip that stirs a complacent humanity to alert thought, consistent action, and fresh creation. No longer can bovine souls languish in an abyss of mediocrity, nor can the wielder of power pursue an unjust path without prophetic rebuke and organized opposition.
Skepticism is a citadel of free community, respecting human be ings as brothers and sisters, rejecting inner certitude when there is no outward certainty. Let us not fear the skeptic nearly so much as the naïve believer. The atheist is usually insistent upon leaving the door of free inquiry ajar, whereas the believer, in his or her divine certitude, too often readily slams it shut. Thus the atheist often is actually on our side, for free inquiry is indigenously liberal religious in its essence, and adherence to any particular theory or article of belief is secondary at most, even though that theory or belief pertains to God.
Therefore, we speak in praise of skepticism, despite the fact that skepticism is not enough. Life demands not only the defense, the citadel, which skepticism provides but, above all, high levels of creative affirmation. The citadel will serve to repel the attackers of free community, but positive motive power is requisite also. Doubt, like faith itself, is of but partial validity. Every doubt implies belief; every denial of God which is not a denial of the value of life itself is an affirmation of divinity. The issue is never between God or no God but rather between this God or that God; there is some ultimate object of faith and devotion, however unorthodox it may be.
Even science, which is preeminently tough-minded and tough‑souled, has its affirmations. The cornerstone of modern science is compounded of both cautious skepticism and cautious faith; skepticism regarding the intrusion of the divine from a world outside space‑time, but faith in the fundamental orderliness of the universe; skepticism regarding our easy lapse into the pit of dogmatic certainty, yet faith in the possibility of humanity’s achieving greater knowledge of actual and possible events; skepticism regarding authoritarian methods of inquiry, but faith in the free cooperative endeavors of people searching for truth and knowledge and testing their hypotheses and basic principles with reason and observation. Thus both affirmation and negation are ever present.
Viewed in this context, we might liken the function of the skeptic to the checks and balances of democratic government. The skeptic, by opposing every endeavor directed toward clutching the divine in a book, person, or institution, forces a partition of powers, not allowing any group to become so powerful that it can crush those persons who disagree. No claim of infallibility rides unchecked, and no monopolization of power by the God‑hoarders is likely where healthy doubt survives. The very negation of the skeptic is a defense against pretentious faith and religious intolerance. Nevertheless, just as democratic checks are not instruments of positive activity, so doubt is a citadel of free community which must be balanced by faith and commitment.
The church outside the church offers its important contribution, but that does not mean that it is without serious weaknesses and dangers. We must persistently ask the skeptics what they regard as supreme if not the God who is Reality. Is the object of devotion to be the self, the nation, the state, or humanity? Then there is no ultimate meaning of life and no enduring basis for moral action. Such gods must perish as all idols perish.
Furthermore, the church outside the church is ever in danger of being religiously irrelevant. Skeptics who condemn all religion because in the past religion has been primarily authoritarian and supernatural overlook promising contemporary developments in religious thought and practice. They fall backwards into the trap of pure traditional ism, thinking only in terms of what has been, not what may be. All too often skeptics actually neglect to consider religion rationally, examining the various possible types of religious experience and orienting themselves in the light of those types which are most meaningful. The point is that no living, sane person can avoid having some effective orientation to ultimate, integral divine reality and of a consequent sense of comparative values. The skeptic is inevitably a religious person of some sort. Thus comes the question, “Is the skeptic’s explicit faith worth having?” That question he or she too rarely dares to ask.
Still the church outside the church does have its virtues. As a relativist, the skeptic eternally opposes competing authoritarianisms which do not allow for democratic compromise. For example, liberal religious skeptics will criticize both fundamentalism and Catholicism insofar as they limit academic and civil liberties. Thus they plow fertile ground for free community. At the same time, insofar as they are humanitarian, they are both sympathetic to human inner anxiety and diligent in advocating political action to provide security for the anxious. These are qualities within the church outside the church which appeal to hosts of sophisticated modern men and women. Some of us within the church will deplore these qualities as being part of a trend toward degrading secularization of our culture. Others, aware of serious weak nesses in the ranks of both skeptics and believers, will sense that in many instances they who have gone out of the temple nonetheless carry within themselves the truth of Christ.