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God and My Granddaughter

Denis Solomon • 881 words

“God doesn’t care for robbers”, my granddaughter said to me, out of the blue.

She is five years old, and with the trusting inconsequence of childhood, she waited for a response. I do not remember what I replied, but I do know that my inner reaction was one of immediate fury against her teachers. Damn you, I thought, if you are going to teach Christianity, which no one has asked you to, then damn well teach it. Your God, as I understand it, cares for robbers as much as, if not more than, for honest people. Your scriptures say he died for, and among, robbers.

But instead of having the honesty to explore with the child the mystery of pardon and redemption you yourself profess to believe in, you distort it into a simplistic and vicious parable of acceptance and exclusion, of sin and damnation, the psychological weapon of establishments everywhere.

Had Vivien been my daughter instead of my daughter’s daughter, I would have reacted more usefully. I would have had the time, and prepared the ground, to deal with the awakening of cosmic enquiry. I would have been able to protect her, as far as possible without undermining her confidence in her teachers, against the assault on her budding intellect, and on her vulnerable conscience, of their unthinking use of words whose only meaning is the meaning privately ascribed to them by the user. Words like “God”.

You don’t have to have heard of Russell’s Theory of Descriptions to know that a proposition can be meaningful only when made of a description. You just have to be able to equate statements about religion with statements about other things. If I asked someone “Do you believe in phlogiston?” they would not consider it possible to answer unless I attached a description of what I considered phlogiston to be; and they would realise that answering “yes” or “no” would be no more than agreeing or disagreeing with the description. And yet most people would consider “Do you believe in God?” to be answerable, when in fact it is no more and no less meaningful than “Do you believe in phlogiston?”.

You don’t have to have read Kant to reach the conclusion, provided you think about it, that the word “make” can only apply meaningfully within the universe, not to it. As one of Bernard Shaw’s characters says in Back to Methuselah, “Ask who, what, where, when and how. Do not ask why. There is no why”. And yet educated people still talk about God “making” the world, and of “why” he did it. (A Guardian editorial once assured me that “God” made me, though I disbelieved it. I don’t disbelieve it; the statement just doesn’t mean anything – par for the course for a Guardian editorial).

These objections to conventional religion could be made by any village atheist; that is why, to be seriously religious, you have to go beyond them; to have the breadth of mind to fashion for yourself, without self-delusion or metaphysical terror, a conception of the cosmos. If that conception involves “belief” in nothing, it must include knowledge of why “belief” is impossible. And it must find other bases for the definitions of good and evil, or, like Nietzsche, reject these too.

Noam Chomsky, the American linguist and philosopher, recognises two fundamental problems in the study of the human mind. The first he calls “Plato’s problem”: how it is that human beings manage to make so much sense, in science, art and literature, of the fragmentary, obscure and confusing data by which they are surrounded. The second he calls “Orwell’s problem”: how it is that human beings, on the strength of evidence that should not fool a child, continue blindly to accept myth and superstition.

But some groups of human beings are worse than others. In this country there is not only no serious religion; there is no serious atheism either. What I have said in the preceding paragraphs is such old hat that in a serious country it wouldn’t be considered worth a newspaper article. Here, there will be scandalised or pitying letters from people who have read more widely, but not more deeply, than their fellows, all of them using words to prove the truth of other words, and some confusing religion with morality, or ethics, or justifying superstition on the irrelevant grounds of civic utility. Only a few will tell me, privately, that this is what they have been thinking themselves, but have not been able to articulate. And then those few, like the rest, will go off to church, just to be on the safe side. And will continue to allow their children to be taught that “God doesn’t care for robbers”.

None will put forward the only valid justification for religious faith: that mystical insight and reason form a unity. That mysticism, though in the search for truth it must be disciplined by reason, is initially prior to reason. But no one will answer me in these terms; for most “religious” people lay as little claim to mystical insight as they show evidence of reason. And in the meantime, my granddaughter must grow up as best she can.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top