The God Debate

Jan 28, 2012 by

This is our senior British correspondent Colin Hannaford’s seventeenth essay for the Facebook group which he created at the request last year of a number of his old pupils. It is called ‘Children for an honest, just, and fair world’ and it is now being followed by many more young people, some of whom write to him to thank him in Arabic.

Who is God?

Thanks to the magic of the internet I was recently able to watch the famous discussion between the four distinguished thinkers: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, concerning the existence of God.

The most read of their books is almost certainly Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, closely followed by Sam Harris’s ‘The End of Faith’; then Christopher Hitchens’ ‘God is Not Great’; and, finally, by the most professionally qualified as an eminent philosopher, Daniel Dennett’s ‘Breaking the Spell’.

They all arrived at the same conclusion: God does not exist.

Individually they offered further opinions: that those who still believe that God exists are weak-minded, deluded, hysterical, or mad; and, if they impress their beliefs onto children, are evil.

They also insisted that they must be dishonest.

It was the last that appeared to me most perverse.

What if these extremely confident and competent thinkers forced themselves to imagine believing in God? Would they then suppose that they had suddenly become credulous, deluded, hysterical, or mad – or would they try to understand the world more thoughtfully?

Their real problem, of course, is that they do not know what to imagine. They lack any experience of God. Without any experience of God, they cannot understand the concept.

The German philosopher Husserl described the sequence by which knowledge is formed as: experience; followed by concept; followed by name.

When I mentioned this to an even wiser friend, he pointed out that a concept may also be prior to experience. This observation later turned out to be even more important. A simple example that a table may be first experienced as the surface to which a mother calls her family to have dinner. This forms the concept and name. It is then only a step to relate the concept to any similar flat surface: from the microscope’s table, to a sheet of paper; even to a flat-topped mountain.

What if the experience of God is unique? What if it is literally incomparable? In King Solomon’s Song of Song it is made akin to sexual ecstasy. If even this is inadequate, then those who have no experience of God are not being dishonest in declaring that they do not understand what others mean: but they are still wrong to claim the concept has no content.

Let me introduce Dr Bucke. For twenty-five years Dr Richard Bucke was superintendent of an asylum for the insane. There he must have had a wide experience of the feeble-minded, hysterical, mad and evil. In 1872, aged 35, he had what he believed was an experience of God.

He seems to have been a solidly sensible man. Nowadays, we would call his experience transcendent. He set out to catalogue similar experiences, publishing them in a book called ‘Cosmic Consciousness’. His list contains the usual suspects, with thirty-six more.

What is most interesting to me is his attempt to describe the primary characteristics of the person most likely to experience God. They are men – patience, ladies! – ‘between 30 and 40, with good intellect, high morals, a superior physique, and an earnest religious feeling.’

When I read this first I found it as unsettling as young Kerr’s explanation, years ago, of why he, I, and Nightingale were different from the hundred other young officers on our Warminster staff course: ‘We are the killers: they are not. They would hesitate: we would not.”

This is a detail missing from Bucke’s formula. It makes me wish I might meet some intended suicide bombers, for we might be able to talk. On the other hand, I must reject: ‘earnest religious feeling’, unless this includes being earnestly atheist, for this I then was.

The rest fits exactly. I was 29; mentally and physical extremely fit; trained to be calm under stress: trained, above all, to observe and recall accurately. In addition, to excuse that other quality, a certain determination is undoubtedly required to pursue the truth: not for days, not for weeks, or for months, but for years.

To catch a glimpse of that young man follow: You will find his report unusual in involving both movement and a physical encounter. It also left a visual memory, of darkness, as opposed to light, and in the darkness an object and place. It is as if one is being told: “This is here.” Later I will explain later why this may be important scientifically.

Knowledge can be developed in the form of new experiences derived from a concept.

This is clearly how the first tools were made. A rock is used as a hammer. This experience creates the concept ‘tool’. But now the concept can inspire new experience: ‘blade’, ‘scraper’, ‘borer’, ‘point’, ‘hook’, ‘knife’, ‘spear’, and so on.

Science can develop in either direction. The experience ‘heat’, for example, creates the concept ‘action at a distance’. It was the advent of this concept, in explanations of gravity, magnetism, etc, that began the raising of science from the mechanical into the electric age.

Unique personal experiences may also be understood to have a universal significance. This is often how sciences develop. Can consciousness move still higher? Theoretical physicists are just beginning to invent their own metaphysics.

Distinguished scholars of unique transcendent experience have little difficulty in deciding which is authentic, and which not. The problem, however, is not to judge authenticity. It is to know what it means. For a discussion on this score, see .

The gentlemen doubting God in the first debate are all well-intentioned and highly intelligent. It is impossible not to share their anguish, their horror that the concepts of holiness, perfection, and faith have been attached to so many unrelated experiences: from speech to texts, gestures, dress, names, places, land, and, not least, to the people themselves who exalt themselves in this way above others. And this is all called sacred knowledge!

This was far more understandable when stars were holes in the roof of a tent. To believe now – with the knowledge that we have now of the immensity of the universe – that the God whose command directs and guides life throughout this immensity has any interest at all in mankind’s notions of the sacred is no longer possible. Such hubris is absurd: and dangerous.

It soon became apparent to me in my own case that conscious experience is not always as simple as we suppose. Minds have to present unfamiliar experiences in familiar forms which consciousness recognize. These are the forms the American philosopher Charles Peirce called ‘presentamen’.

This addition to our understanding of knowledge make it possible to interpret my flight across the universe – a journey which an eminent Oxford theologian, otherwise respectful, gravely informed me was ‘physically impossible’ – as a presentamen. Perhaps it was meant only to signify the shallowness of our awareness of existence: not that I discovered WarpDrive.

My real task was to understand the significance of the whole. That God appeared to me as a warrior, Kerr would have found delightful, and understandable. We humans have long created images of our gods as warriors. Even Pallas Athena was armed. Such presentamen fit the world ruled by Zeus from Mount Olympus. It no longer fits ours.

For years I struggled to understand the concept to be derived from my experience. It had to be respectful of all of those who have made this journey before – and I believe there are many more than Dr Bucke counted – but it had to state God’s demand in words that everyone would now understand. There was no longer any question of a chosen people. We are all chosen.

In addition, of course: Why me? Out all the millions so much cleverer, more important or more influential, why choose a young soldier on his first night in a modern lunatic asylum. Why not a pope, or a patriarch or president? Someone with some power!

The answer that finally restored my balance was to realise it was just an accident. Circumstances placed me in just the right place, in just the right frame of mind – with, as it turned out, the right support – perfectly tuned to receive a signal tirelessly sweeping through this universe. I was just a good receiver. More circumstance made me a teacher. Then I realised that all the sciences are a product of this signal too.

This is why I taught as I did. It will sound a little dramatic, but I could not allow myself teach dishonesty. I had to teach you to test truths for yourselves.

“Be honest!” is the message addressed to life throughout the universe. This is far more haphazard that intelligent design. Because few environments welcome life, the command becomes: ‘build’, ‘build’, ‘adapt’, ‘adapt’. Any form of life must adapt honestly to its environment. Any that cannot adapt are destroyed. This is how evolution works. It is a constant fight to stay alive guided by the simple universal message: “Be honest!”

The purpose of all religions is to provide comfort, security, identity. Secular societies are not necessarily wiser or happier without religions, but are less likely to be controlled by men.

As I was writing an Oxford scientist published his conclusion – presumably of many years of research – that most wars are caused by men.


That’s interesting.

There is another possibility, equally well-known.

If the personification of the constructive impulse is imagined by men to be a hugely more powerful version of themselves, much the same has happened to the destructive impulse.

Virtually every culture has imagined it personified as Satan.

In most traditions, Satan finds it much easier to take control of men.

And ironically the most vicious wars are usually caused by men who announce the fact by stating “I am certain.”

It’s just a trick of English. But this is interesting as well.

My next essay will explain how mothers can teach their children the sense of the goodness of all religions, and of science: how this may stop the shame and waste of wars.

Oxford, 25th January

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