The lecture theater filling up
I was invited today by Manchester Students Debating Union to oppose the motion ‘This house would not believe in God‘. Speaking for the motion was the Philosopher Helen Beebee, and another atheist philosopher who I forget his name. Opposing it was myself, Writer and Columnist Peter Hitchens and a professor of Biblical Studies….. we lost (boo hoo!) … overwhelmingly, it seems that atheism is the new cool. Anyway for what it is worth I am posting up my speech. It is interesting to note that 250 students attended – sitting in the aisles – so the question holds great interest to them
Thank you for inviting me to speak today – I strongly commend the Debating Society for organising this debate. To believe in God or not to believe in God is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life. My speech has two parts – 1. God as a concept …… 2. How useful or dangerous is faith?
1. God as a concept
I studied philosophy at Edinburgh Uni, before I even considered the priesthood. We looked at a lot of analytical philosophy, discussions about what could be said and what could not be said. Famously a school of philosophy called the logical positivists had said that the statement ‘ God exists’ was cognitively meaningless – i.e. saying God exists didn’t tell us anything meaningful about what we can know of the world out there. Why was it meaningless? ‘God exists’ could not be empirically tested, nor did it contain its truth within itself, like an analytical statement would e.g. 2+2=4. It was therefore meaningless…..
How does religion talk about God? Often the starting point is through its sacred texts – e.g. The Bible / The Koran. Believers call this revelation – revealed truth. If we don’t accept the idea of revelation then in many ways the Logical Positivists are right – language reaches its meaningful limits when we start talking about God. This is called the problem of religious language. Faced with this problem we have two options –either the existence of God is meaningless – which is tantamount to saying God as a concept is irrelevant (first way) – or the second way is that we are humble in front of the mystery of our limitations – i.e. just because we don’t know – it doesn’t mean we have to dismiss it.
At this point in my studies I discovered the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein who would become a hero of mine. What I love about Wittgenstein is his philosophy is based on a deep engagement with the world. He wasn’t just living in an Ivory Tower – He was a stretcher bearer in the First World War – he taught young children in a rural school. He published 2 major works –…. The first one the Tractatus is a masterpiece in Analytical Philosophy – and he gets to that impass I just described, the limits of language and opts for the humble approach. The famous last statement says Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. He was humble in front of the mystery of what we don’t know.
The second major book was the Philosophical Investigations and he changed his views radically. He realised the analytical approach was limited. Because we think in words – We have no access to our own minds, non-linguistically. The meaning of words is formed by what we do, Language acquisition is how we learn to act as we are growing up ….. In the same way we have no access to God, independently of our life and language or ‘language games’ as he called them. So talking about God only makes sense within a religious language game. So to answer the question about the existence of God is not about analysing a word or an idea, the existence of God becomes a question of how credible that language game is.
So we can debate God as an idea – it may be intellectually stimulating – but we will never convince each other with way – but maybe very congenial over a couple of glasses of wine…… If we are serious about this question we need to look at how people of faith live and judge that – and I think that becomes much more fruitful.
2. Faith is it useful or dangerous?
My answer to that is both – there is good faith and bad faith. For me it’s quite simple good faith encourages you to love more – bad faith increases hate and sectarianism. It’s best if I stick to my faith. I am 39 years old. When I was 23 I left my girlfriend who I was deeply in love with and started training to become a priest – you know Catholic priests can’t marry. It was a big sacrifice – and one I made grudgingly. But we both knew that I wouldn’t be fulfilled unless I tried this out. I joined an order of Catholic priests called the Jesuits – we are known for our long and rigorous training. Pope Francis is a Jesuit. The first two years I was a Jesuit novice – it is a probationary period. I was sent to work in Brixton Prison, Teach in a comprehensive School in London & live with Gypsys in Ireland. The heart of these two years is a thirty day silent retreat called the Spiritual Exercises. Before then I nearly quit especially during the work in the prison. During the 30 days of silence I had the most profound experiences of my life – Ever since then I am convinced that God exists. Because of this after my two years as a novice I took perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
I have never yet regretted that decision – not once. In fact I think I have learnt the meaning of Joy since then, and I have studied 4 more degrees in theology, psychology and education. I have worked in incredible places. In Tanzania teaching Aids Orphans, in India with the untouchables – training teachers, in North London working with gangs, and in the shanty towns in Manila. At the heart of this has been my faith in God – God is real to me not just an idea. So it is up to you – to decide whether I am mad or delusional. But I have seen with my own eyes – on a planet of 7 billion people religion is increasingly important for the vast majority of them. Now of course there is good religion and bad religion.
So to conclude – if you want to keep this debate at the level of ideas then we won’t really get anywhere fast – its important to realise what a huge influence religion has for good and bad in the vast majority of peoples lives on this planet – and you can judge how important my faith is to me by the decision I’ve made in my life – the experiences I’ve had. I am a very committed religious person – its up to you to decide whether I am mad or wasting my life.