On God: Existence and Nature

I spent a fair bit of money on the hardcover edition of Julian Barnes’ reflections on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, so I feel I am entitled to an extended quote.

There is this section that begins with Barnes’ memory of a Frenchman (De Goësbriand) who has just celebrated twenty-five years as a priest and confides to Barnes “You don’t think I’d go through all this unless there was Heaven at the end of it, do you?”

That sets Barnes off:

At that time, I was half impressed by such practical thinking, half appalled at a life wasted in vain hope. But Père de Goësbriand’s calculation had a distinguished history, and I might have recognized it as a workday version of Pascal’s famous wager. The Pascalian bet sounds simple enough. If you believe, and God turns out to exist, you win. If you believe, and God turns out not to exist, you lose, but not half as badly as you would if you chose not to believe, only to find out after death that God does exist. It is, perhaps, not so much an argument as a piece of self-interested position-taking worthy of the French diplomatic corps; though the primary wager, on God’s existence, does depend on a second and simultaneous wager, on God’s nature. What if God is not as imagined? What, for instance, if He disapproves of gamblers, especially those whose purported belief in Him is dependent on some acorn-beneath-the cup mentality? And who decides who wins? Not us: God might prefer the honest doubter to the sycophantic chancer.

All very sensible but Barnes isn’t done yet:

The Pascalian bet echoes down the centuries, always finding takers. Here is an extreme, action-man version. In June 2006, at the Kiev zoo, a man lowered himself by rope into the island compound where the lions and tigers are kept. As he descended, he shouted across to the gawping crowds. One witness quoted him as saying, “Who believes in God will be unharmed by lions”; another, the more challenging, “God will save me, if He exists.” The metaphysical provacateur reached the ground, took off his shoes, and walked towards the animals; whereupon an irritated lioness knocked him down, and bit through his carotid artery. Does this prove a) the man was mad; b) God does not exist; c) God does exist, but won’t be lured into the open by such cheap tricks; d) God does exist, and has just demonstrated that He is an ironist; e) none of the above?

Great questions. It would not hurt to develop these into a discussion.

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  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 07:53h, 26 January Reply

    All this proves that God is quite irrelevant and the debate bogus!

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 10:45h, 26 January Reply

    Anil, This can never be ‘proved’. The following is what a reader wrote via email from Mexico:

    “There is mystery to God, of course. It is a personal encounter. Faith is, like life, a mysterious gift. I believe and thus for me Agustine is utterly sensible, so is Pascal more on the reasons of the heart than the rhetoric of the bet.”

    Mark Lilla’s book (The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West) makes a useful point. We should not spend time trying to decide whether God exists or not – this has been an open question for thousands of years. Rather, we should think about the role that religion should play in politics.

    To start this thinking we can contrast China (where God has no role in politics) with Pakistan (where it is desired that politics ought to be run completely in accordance with the dictates of God).

    What difference does this choice make? Why did this question become important in Europe at one point in time? Where does India fall on this spectrum? What are the trends in India?

    These are critical questions for us to debate.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 14:10h, 26 January Reply

    That precisely is the point. If we live like an average human, even by general definition of God, He becomes inconsequential.

    Tell me what happens to a zero sum guy (roughly an average guy) i.e. a person whose sins are exactly balanced by his good acts?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:15h, 27 January Reply

    Anil, Bertrand Russell was asked if God existed. His response is reported to have been as follows: “I don’t know if God exists or not and I don’t care either.” The point being the same that you are making – that you don’t need God to behave in a decent and humane fashion. That is also the message of popular slogan: “Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

    However, behavior is not the only thing that matters; people can need God for all sorts of other reasons and this is a personal choice which ought not to be dictated one way or the other.

    Regarding the zero-sum guy, the answer to your question would no doubt depend, as Julian Barnes said, on the nature of God about which we can only speculate.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 16:32h, 27 January Reply

    Is it possible to define character of God without creating contradictions?

    If the story ends with “people can need God for all sorts of other reasons and this is a personal choice which ought not to be dictated one way or the other.”, then one can live with it but that’s not how the story ever ends….

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:02h, 28 January Reply

    Anil, We are dealing with the unknown and the unknowable so it would be impossible to avoid contradictions. Within Christianity, Catholics and Protestants have differing understandings about the character of God. But even within any one denomination it is problematic to reconcile an all-powerful and all-merciful God with the existence of so much suffering and misery (for more details see Theodicy).

    The point of “people can need God for all sorts of reasons…” is to leave the story open. If it has remained open for thousands of years what hope is there to end it now? Personally I think trying to end the story is the wrong focus.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 03:22h, 28 January Reply

    I like the approach of Aquinas (and Sankar/Maimonides/Ibn Arabi) which stresses unknowability and defines god through double negatives (he is not unkind and so on).
    I also recommend the first of Allama Iqbal’s Reconstruction lectures for a fabulous argument in favour of religion.

  • Jimmy
    Posted at 22:58h, 28 January Reply

    Assuming if God exists, the irony is that the subject of GOD and religion is discussed only in one sense and that is ,” let me tell you what is right”. Cause all believing groups have different God’s attributes: punishing , revengeful , kind & forgiving, etc. At the end of the debate I will either leave disappointed or feel sorry for the others cause they will burn in hell.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:20h, 29 January Reply

    Jimmy, Isn’t this an issue only with religions in which the Truth has been revealed in God’s own words? People presume there cannot be more than one Truth so different revealed religions try to prove that their Truth is the superior one.

    Even within one revealed religion there can be differences of interpretation of the revealed Truth leading to disputes. It is quite ironical that Muslims are talking in the abstract about uniting the Ummah but in reality Sunnis and Shiahs are bombing each other in their mosques.

    This kind of attitude doesn’t exist in other religions like Hinduism or Buddhism.

  • Benjamin
    Posted at 06:46h, 07 September Reply

    Yes, I would have to agree with you Jimmy I dislike how humanity can pass judgement on one another when we are just as sinful as each other.

    Also with Anil point on goodianity. Isn’t it said that we dont earn our way into heaven through good deeds but faith.

    Yes ok if God exist I have a feeling that it would be better to believe and serve and have a eternity of life free of sin than to live this life to the fullest and have a life of agony after death.

    I think the act with the lion is the Stupidity of man. God would have given him wisdom and knowledge (humans have a brain) to know that lions are dangerous and feel threatened by us in their own domain.

    Why is it we look, listen and observe man to see if a God exist. When I’m sure God only asks us to look within and ask.

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