Well it’s taken me about 5 months, but I’ve finally got through reading ‘God Actually’ by Roy Williams. Yes, this is a book from the perspective of a Christian believer. I think the question of a God and the meaning of life isn’t something to be taken lightly and as much as I feel pretty safe in my atheistic beliefs, hearing the point of view of the ‘other side’ is something I find very worth while. I think it’s put me in a position to better understand the believers perspective, even if I don’t share it.
And if nothing else it was fun to read a book that made me rave and rant. I’ve probably annoyed my housemates to no end!
To be fair, Williams presents a solid argument, and if you were already inclined to belief (i.e. want to believe) I can see how you could very easily buy into his arguments. Generally I don’t buy his arguments for one of three reasons:
There are some arguments Williams pushes that seem to be based either on his own personal opinions (that he never backs up) or on information that I think is inaccurate or just simply made up. the entire second last chapter (Heaven and Hell) is little more than this. His entire view of Hell, although I freely admit it is a much better view than that depicted in the Bible, is a concoction of his own mind.
He simply cannot accept that the God he has come to love would invent such an atrocity as the Hell described by Jesus. And I agree with his assumption. If God truly is a just and caring individual then a Hell full of fire and brimstone doesn’t fit. But considering Jesus quite specifically describes this nasty place (and I don’t see any good reason to view it as a metaphor) I feel more inclined to call into question the existence of that god, rather than trying in vain to reinterpret the words of said god to suit my own desires.
2. He doesn’t push the argument far enough.
There are several arguments Williams presents that do actually come across quite well. The problem is that there is often one or two more steps he could take that I feel would invalided his initial assumptions.
3. He ignores certain information.
Several times throughout the book Williams brings up certain interesting ideas, then disregards them for absolutely no reason. He gives the impression he will return to them in future paragraphs (and sometimes he does) but quite often these ideas just get forgotten. If Williams were to return to them and think about them a little longer I think he would have to seriously reconsider his position.
In Chapter 8: Christianity and Politics (Pg 266) Williams writes:
“On the third of the ‘Big Four’ issues, human rights, there are also qualifying Christian principles to consider. Put to one side the Bible’s alleged ‘support’ for slavery and the subjugation of woman”.
Williams never returns to this point. He never bothers to explain why the Bible’s support of slavery is only ‘alleged’ or give his own take on what it actually says. To me this is an extremely fundamental part of why the Bible shouldn’t be taken seriously. No just god would ever say that one group should be slaves to another, and the idea that one sex is somehow inferior or should be entirely devoted to the other is absurd. I can’t help but feel that if Williams were to return to the point and follow it through to its inevitable conclusion he’d be forced to properly question the God he puts so much trust in.
But, as interesting as these points all are and as much as I’d like to spend several hundred pages tearing his arguments apart one by one, I actually want to skip to the end. The epilogue is entitled “What is your verdict” and asks non believers (it seems specifically directed at Atheists) to answer a large number of questions if they still fail to believe in a god. I thought I’d give it a shot.
- Why is there something rather than nothing?
We don’t know enough about the Universe to really answer this one properly. If there’s some truth to string theory it’s possible this universe may be one of an infinite number. Odds are one of them would hold something rather than nothing. Maybe we just lucked out?
Truthfully, we need more information on this question. I don’t think jumping to the conclusion of a god is the right way to go about answering it.
- How did that something come into being?
Again, really not too sure on this one. There’s far too many gaps in our knowledge. There are however theories in quantum mechanics that say that if you start from nothing, you must end with something. I honestly don’t know enough to argue the point, but the point is that there are answers out there that we’re beginning to understand.
It may take many years, but having my nose buried in enough books for enough time I hope to understand these theories.
- Why are the fundamental physical laws that govern the Universe just right for life?
I don’t quite understand why some people make this stand. The Universe as a whole is clearly not designed to hold life. To the best of our knowledge we have one very tiny spec of dust in our solar system that contains life. There may be many others, but considering how much empty space there is in the universe compared to the number of places that might contain life, it’s terribly obvious the Universe was not designed with us in mind.
- How and why did life on Earth begin?
A fundamental assumption I find the religious jump to is that everything needs a ‘why’. I don’t think there is a ‘why’ to life on earth. It’s an inevitable progression of the way the physical laws govern matter.
A little early for biogenesis, but still cool
As to the how, again this is a question that hasn’t been fully answered. A solid understanding of abiogenesis will begin to lead you down the right path however. So far all the evidence we have points to this being the case. Just because the theory isn’t complete yet doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on the good progress that has been made.
- Does Darwinian evolutionary theory fully explain the organised complexity of life on earth?
No, I don’t think it does, at least not yet. The more we learn about evolution the more we expand the theory. As well as mutations we have natural selection, genetic drift, genetic hitchhiking and a whole mass of others. The current theory needs to be expanded to truly explain life’s complexity. So right now, no. But I think in time, yes.
- Why is the incidence of genetic mutation just right to enable the process of Darwinian evolution to work?
Do you not understand how evolution works? The process is just right because it evolved to be just right. If it hadn’t life would probably have died out quite quickly. If the rate of mutation is too high we end up with unfeasible offspring. Too low and species can’t adapt fast enough. This is one reason why we see species dying out, so clearly in some cases it’s not just right.
- Why are human beings able to decode nature?
Because our brains have evolved to do so. What difference does it make either way?
- Why do human beings have a conscience?
An evolutionary trait that allows us to reproduce easier. We are also not the only species that has one.
- Why are there basic moral laws which all human beings recognise?
These laws are also solid laws for living long and prosperous lives. That makes them universal for survival and reproduction. Again, evolution is the key.
- Why can human beings make and respond to music?
Believe it or not but music can be broken down and explained mathematically. I’m not versed well enough in the subject to properly explain it, but it’s quite incredible. Regardless though, what difference does this make to belief?
- Is faith a mere incidental by-product of Nature?
- Is love a mere incidental by-product of Nature?
Yes. Many species develop something similar. It assists with child-rearing and is thus an evolutionary trait.
- Will science ever be able to explain everything?
Maybe. Hopefully. What difference does it make?
- Was Jesus of Nazareth merely an invention of human minds?
I don’t think so. There seems to be enough evidence to suggest he was likely a real person.
- If Jesus lived, then who or what was he, if he was not divine?
There’s really only two answers to this one. Either he was a very well disguised alien, or he was human. I put my money on the latter.
- How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s perfect life?
What reports exactly? We have exactly zero first hand reports of Jesus’ life, and those only focus on bits and pieces of a few years of his life. That’s hardly enough evidence to start claiming perfection. I also suspect these accounts may have been a fraction biased. Even then I don’t think these reports show Jesus as perfect. He got angry on a number of accounts and even violent (overturning the tables in the Temple).
- How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’ miracles?
Again, what reports? We have quite a few Gospels (including the ones not in the Bible), many of them with differing reports. None of these authors had the opportunity to meet Jesus or view these miracles personally. St. Paul doesn’t even mention miracles, aside from the resurrection which he didn’t have the privilege to see.
- How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s large following among the common people, and the conversion even of some Jews and romans in positions of authority?
You assume that people of different faiths and in positions of power won’t buy into nonsense? That just seems silly. As for his large following I’m rather skeptical. There were apparently 5,000 people who he feed on a mountain with a measly number of fishes and bread loaves. Yet none of these people wrote about him or defended him at his trial. I really have no idea just how many followers he had, and I don’t think anyone else can definitively say either.
As for actually explaining them, there are hundreds of reports of groups of people following their chosen ‘messiah’-like prophet. Anything from the horrible Jonestown Massacre to the larger religions such as Islam. Although Williams does give credibility to other religions, he doesn’t accept them as the truth. Why should we accept his?
- How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion?
Again, what accounts? There are the Gospels. Then there are some Roman reports that speak of Jesus’s crucifixion, but they all refer to what the Christians believed and don’t necessarily back up the actual event. Nevertheless, it’s quite possible this did happen. So what?
- How otherwise do you explain the reports of the Resurrection?
This is probably the most challenging question Williams poses and the portion of his book that deals with it is probably the most persuasive I’ve read. There are many explanations though and it would take several posts to cover them all even at a superficial level.
The most recent I’ve heard though is that the Resurrection is actually a metaphor for ancient Jewish tradition whereby the tribe would metaphorically load all their sins onto a lamb or goat and send it out into the desert to die, thus relieving them of their sins. This is where the phrase ‘Lamb of God’ originated.
There are many other explanations though and I encourage people to read up on them.
- If the Resurrection did not happen, how do you explain the Apostles’ conduct, St Paul’s conversion, and the establishment of the Christian Church in the face of overwhelming odds?
All religions have come into power in the face of overwhelming odds, so that’s not terribly surprising. St. Paul had a vision that led to his belief. Why should we take his visions any more seriously than those of the Islamic or Mormon prophets?
As for the Apostles, I refer once more to the Jonestown incident and will simple say, ‘Don’t drink the kool-aid’.
- How do you explain the reports of personal religious experiences by many millions of people down the ages?
The same way you explain away the ones you don’t believe, such as those had by other religions or worse, those had by people in cults. Again there are any number of explanations depending on the experience. Often it’s as simple as a feeling of euphoria interpreted as God, other times a form of peer pressure and social acceptance and at worse, an exploited mental illness.
- How do you account for the nature and incidence of suffering, and it’s many beneficial by-products?
How do you account for suffering that doesn’t have beneficial by-products? You don’t get to pick the incidents that back up your belief system and ignore the others.
- How do you account for the phenomenon of grace?
I’m not convinced that there is a phenomenon of grace. You’ll have to read the book to properly understand where Williams is coming from and make up your own mind.
- Why has Man not yet been destroyed by nuclear holocaust?
Because man is smarter than you give us credit for. And when and if nuclear holocaust does happen you’ll say it’s the predicted Apocalypse. Either scenario backs up your beliefs.
- Is there really a fundamental dichotomy between Christianity and left-wing politics, or does Christianity reflect some seminal left-wing principles?
I honestly don’t care as I don’t see how this has anything to do with the truth of Christianity or any religion.
- Why is it that Christianity as a whole does not conform to either left-wing or right-wing ideology?
- Is there further evidence of Design in the operation of the democratic system of government?
Absolutely. Our democratic system shows a fantastic example of humanities ability to design good and moral legal and governmental systems. Of course they’re not perfect, but given more time man will make them better.
The monotheistic religions however, promote a dictatorship with the chosen god at the top.
- How do you account for the fact that atheism is, and always has been, an unpopular minority creed?
Firstly I call bullshit on it being a minority. I’m not at all convinced of this. Atheists have been persecuted throughout history, often violently when they have spoken out against the religion of the time. Many people avoid the term atheism, preferring to stick to the majority religion or at the very least calling themselves agnostic to avoid the issue. Atheism has been on the incline for a while now and with modern sciences, knowledge, morals and philosophy I think it’s only going to continue to grow.
But giving the assumption that Williams may be right, I’m still not surprised. Atheism offers very little while taking a lot. The idea that we are alone and there is no meaning to our existence is hard to come to terms with. I can easily understand why people would shy away from it. That doesn’t stop it from being true.
- How do you account for the many commonalities between different religions, and in particular the commonalities between Judaism, Islam and Christianity? Is it more likely that all people of faith are completely wrong, or that they are all (to varying degrees) partly right?
Why do you stop at religions? Believers often have very similar morals to atheists, at least at the core values. Again, this is a by-product of evolution and most of humanity shares these commonalities.
I also think that most religions do have a great deal right. Care for each other. Don’t kill or mistreat. As an atheist I follow many of these philosophies. I just think they’ve got it wrong on the idea of a god. Heck, even some religions don’t believe in a god!
As for the three major monotheistic religions being so similar…fucking dah! They all stem from the same religion. I’d be dumbfounded if they didn’t share quite a few commonalities.
- If you now better understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, would you at least agree that it represents a comprehensive attempt to explain God, and many earthly phenomena besides?
After reading Williams section on the Trinity I don’t feel I understand it much if any better, so no.
- Is there any afterlife, or is does love die with our bodies? Will we never be reunited with our loved ones once we or they die?
No, yes, no.
- If there is no afterlife, why is Man capable of imagining it?
I invoke the flying spaghetti monster. He doesn’t exist, but I can imagine him.
We can imagine an afterlife because it’s not that dissimilar to actual life. It’s actually not that far a stretch. We can imagine things much more out there than an afterlife.
- If there is no afterlife, why did Jesus say there was?
Did he? All we have is third hand accounts of people saying that people said that Jesus said that. And if he did say it? Maybe because he was Jewish and the Jews had a belief in an afterlife. It was quite different from what Christianity speaks about, but maybe, like Williams, Jesus didn’t like the idea his religion taught him to believe in and just made up another one.
- How do you explain the consistency of the visions of the afterlife reported by people down the ages, including people revived after clinical death?
What bloody consistencies? Again, you don’t get to pick and choose which reports you want to include. There are just as many reports of nothing in the afterlife as there are those of a heaven or hell. They just don’t get reported as frequently because they’re not news worthy.
How do you explain the visions of people of other religions who talk about completely different gods and prophets, with completely different ideas of heaven and hell? This is what I mean by Williams conveniently ignores very important information as it suits his beliefs.
So that’s it. An answer for every question. And I was able to answer them as I read them.
That said I do still think Williams has one of the better theological books I’ve read. The arguments as they stand within his book are quite compelling, although with additional study they begin to fall apart.
I would recommend Williams book for anyone looking to expand your knowledge. As a believer it’s likely to be quite compelling. As an atheist it will be a solid challenge for your lack of beliefs and a good way of getting an insight into a believers mind. Although I don’t agree with his conclusions I can at least understand how he’s arrived at them and for that he’s earned my respect. Give the book a shot.
– Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.