“It would be like believing in the postman”

“It would be like believing in the postman” July 7, 2010

For an explanation of what Weatherwax Wednesdays are all about, read the introduction post.

This week’s Weatherwax quote is from Witches Abroad (a book I heartily recommend to everyone, but especially to the literary theorists who unexpectedly took over last week’s post on evolutionary psychology).  This week’s quote occurs in Pratchett’s voice as narrator.

Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.

It always puzzles me that so much of the debate between theists and atheists centers on the question of God’s existence. It is difficult to imagine that the ancient Greeks spent a great deal of time affirming their belief in Athena and Ares. The gods were viewed as active (and sometimes destructive) forces in the lives of ordinary people. For them, the gods might be supernatural, but they were as real and observable as anyone else. (After all, as any fantasy series worth its salt will tell you, magic is only a matter of new rules and different models. Anything else is chaos).

Sometimes it feels like the frequent, passionate avowals of faith in God’s existence are themselves evidence of the distance, if not the nonexistence, of god in the modern era. Few things that actually exist (outside perhaps the realm of theoretical physics) prompt this much dispute.

I wonder, having just finished Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, how much of this shift to focusing on the existence of God, rather than the proper relationship to God is the logical result of the rise of monotheism. As far as I can tell, until the Jews began rejecting false idols, theological disputes were likely to be a matter of which set of deities were more powerful and dominant, not which ones existed at all.

The current rhetorical climate can be pretty hard on theists. Instead of having to argue simply that they have the best way to interface with the infinite, religious people now have to defend not only their own practice, but the entire edifice. Imagine the difficulty of proving that your headache cure was superior, when, instead of having to prove it worked better than the competition, you first had to debunk the view that headaches were impervious to physical cure.

Of course, in the headache example, the answer seems obvious. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I’m fine with theists backing away from ontological existence arguments and trying to show God’s truth by showing his effects on the world instead. I’m just still waiting for a tenable framework for belief. Or a god whose presence and demands are as self-evident as those of the postman.

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  • You got there first. I was going to ask why the bare question "Does God exist?" has the importance it does today. Speaking as a Catholic (and other believers wd have analogous examples), it's no part of my spiritual life to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and say, "My, how exist-y You are." By the time we're on kneel-before-the-Blessed-Sacrament terms, we're kind of — how can I put it — BEYOND the whole existence-yes-or-no thing.I really want to say that it's the atheists who keep "Does God exist" in play. Obviously that's my experience: nobody but atheists and bratty religious ed students ever asks me. That said, I acknowledge that Aquinas always treated the question early in his summas, both the Contra Gentiles and the S.Th. But those "quaestiones" are academic set-pieces: nobody rushes to conversion as a result of any of the Five Ways, and I don't think Aquinas expected they would.I'm not convinced (yet, anyway) that the rise of the theism-vel-non question comes with Jewish monotheism. There's just too much Jewish history — much of it Christian and Islamic history as well — in which the question still doesn't come up, tho' other questions about God do. No, it starts in the late 16th century….

  • A slight qualifier to my remark that I would never contemplate God's "exist-y-ness" in prayer. There are some readings of Anselm's Proslogion argument (which was not dubbed the "ontological argument" until the 18th century, btw) that have Anselm viewing existence as a "predicate," and one belonging of right only to God. This spills over into Aquinas's Third Way, in which God is the only non-contingent Being.Other specialists deny this is what Anselm meant. Be that as it may, I have always found the idea that God is the only being for whom "to be" is AN ACT, rather than a state, or a passive activity similar to a heartbeat, kind of cool. It certainly links up Exodus 3:14 with Scholastic metaphysics. "I AM WHO AM" (the most literal rendering) would signify "I am he who IS. I'm the full-time BE-er: you guys are, like, interns in the Being business, but you're comin' up!"Existentialism is wrong: essence precedes existence. But for God, and ONLY for God, existence IS essence.(Those are just some metaphysical doodads that appeal to me. I'd tell any atheist whom they don't help to chuck 'em.)

  • Anonymous

    I agree with David on the date of the rise of the question. I further argue, without the time to back it up, that the rise of Protestantism was directly linked to the rise of Atheism in Western society.-Zorak the Mantis

  • @David WagnerThanks for the comment, and thanks to you and Anonymous for the alternate timeline. I do really wonder what marked the change in rhetoric; I think we can all agree that, unfortunately, mere existence has taken primacy in our time.You may both be interested in this post from Somewhat Abnormal which argues that the early Jews practiced monolatry not monotheism.

  • Leah,Taken as representative of people in secular academia–which I think they are–the closing sentences of your post explain the rhetorical trope you muse about. In that subculture, the question why there is any world at all is no longer thought to call for a metaphysical as distinct from a scientific answer. Many philosophers hold that the question has no sense outside scientific cosmology–a discipline which does not and should not bring God in to explain anything. Understood any other way, the question why the world exists is idle, because the only forms of words that might count, semantically, as an answer would be "nonsense" in the Wittgensteinian sense of that term.Anybody who exhibits anything like such an attitude is going to have a very hard time recognizing a "tenable framework for belief. Or a god whose presence and demands are as self-evident as those of the postman."Best,Mike

  • I think this ties into the question you asked before, about the properties of God. When you move toward things like "proofs," you get vague and in many ways useless dieties (or non-dieties?). The fun stuff doesn't show up until you're well past something like proof or belief in existence, and into the mechanics of practicing. (Then again, I'm highly skeptical that there is a neutral framework from which we can judge "proofs" either way, so of course I wouldn't find much interest in that.)Though I did read recently that someone was talking about 'advanced' theologians–whatever that means–believing that God does not exist; rather, God does something more than exist, as it is God who invented the very category/concept/property of existence. This sort of thing–a different category from existence and non-existence–has come up before in other places, too, (many crazy-sounding) like the philosophy of mathematics (subsistance) or–correct me if I'm wrong–quantum physics.

  • Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities.