I cannot count the times I’ve heard people say, “I don’t know how anyone can look at this world and not believe in God.” But I’ve also known people to say, “I don’t know how anyone can look at the world and still believe in God.” Why is it that two people, both intelligent and well-educated, can look at the same data and come away with different conclusions?
People in the first group look at the world and sees beauty, order and complexity. It is obvious to them that the universe is a work of art and that, therefore, there must be an artist.
People in the second group look at the world and see squalor, injustice and suffering. It is obvious to them that the universe is an accident, formed out of chaos and always on the verge of returning to it.
The first group sees in nature the incredibly delicate balance necessary for physical life, and concludes that the universe was planned by a designer. They see that an increase in the mass of neutrinos (which are 500,000 times smaller than an electron) from 5 x 10-34 to 5 x 10-35 would make the universe uninhabitable. They see that if gravity was the tiniest fraction weaker or electromagnetism the tiniest fraction stronger, stars like our sun would not exist – nor would we.
They see these and dozens of other exquisite balances in nature, without which life could not exist, and conclude with certainty that there is a creator. But equally intelligent people look at these remarkable balances and see mere coincidence.
One explanation for these contradictory conclusions may be that people are conditioned by temperament and upbringing to look at different aspects of a situation and so draw different conclusions. One person sees a glass that is half-full and hardly notices that it is also half-empty. A second sees a glass that is half-empty and is blind to the half that is full. A third couldn’t tell you whether the glass is empty or full, but sees every water spot the dishwasher left.
These people not only see different things, they cannot believe that others do not see them as well. The person who believes in God suspects that the unbeliever is willfully obtuse. Otherwise, how could he or she miss the evidence of an intelligent creator? Of course the unbeliever suspects the believer deliberately overlooks the chaotic randomness of disaster and pain. How could anyone believe in God after the 2004 tsunami? Or Hurricane Katrina? Or the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur? The list goes on and on.
Theologians offer a very different way to account for these differences. Rather than interpreting them in terms of temperament or upbringing, they explain them in terms of God’s work in a person’s life. Only if God grants a person the power (or “grace”) to believe, will he be able to do so. Whenever anyone believes, it is always because God has enabled him to do so.
According to this explanation, the difference between John Polkinghorne, the Oxford physicist turned Anglican priest, and Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist and outspoken atheist, is that one received grace from God and the other did not. In this view Polkinghorne believes because he has had supernatural help that Dawkins has lacked.
A subset of this view holds that, while a person can only believe if God helps him, God is ready to help everyone. In this version, if a person does not believe it is because he has not availed himself of God’s proffered help. God will leap to the aid of any person, Richard Dawkins included, who chooses to know the truth and pursue it.
Can a person who would like to believe, but whose doubts keeps getting in the way, do anything to get clarity? He can. Even though he isn’t sure whether God is listening, he can ask him for help. Then he can follow up by doing the thing he knows a good and loving God would want him to do. Jesus endorsed this procedure by laying down this principle: “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God…” (John 17:7)
First published in the Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/17/13