Rupert Shortt’s God is No Thing provides a courteous response to atheists

Whenever the question “Does God exist?” come up on Catholic Herald blogs, I am always taken aback by the commentators whose sole response is the jeering, “I don’t believe in a sky fairy” or similar snubs. These are the atheists who simply refuse to engage in a reasonable discussion of the question; indeed, they have already decided the question is intrinsically unreasonable. Reading Rupert Shortt’s God is No Thing, published by Hurst & company, reminds one, in his words, that “an intellectually robust case for Christianity” can still be made.

Shortt, who is the religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement, is more courteous towards atheists and agnostics than they often are towards religious believers. He thinks they hold “reasonable worldviews” that require serious answers. In my last blog, I took up David Aaronovitch’s case for thinking that Communism was more a religion for its followers than a political theory. Shortt would agree with this, with his remark, which Herald readers can sympathise with, that “with its insistence on uniformity of thought, hardline scepticism now resembles a species of dogmatic religion in some respects.”

As he points out, the remit of science is not “all encompassing”; if you think “the only meaningful utterances are provable in a test tube, then you’re rejecting ethics, aesthetics and much culture, as well as spirituality.” This is a familiar point often made by Catholic bloggers in reply to atheists. But what interested me particularly in Shortt’s book was his contention that there “cannot be a naturalistic explanation for existence”, ie “something” cannot emerge spontaneously from “nothing”. Here he takes his line from tradition, most particularly St Thomas Aquinas.

I have never read a satisfactory atheistic response to this question of a “First Cause”, though scientists have proposed various hypotheses. And as Shortt reminds readers, not all scientists are atheists. He quotes the Cambridge physicist and priest, John Polkinghorne: “The rational transparency and beauty of the universe speaks of a world shot through with signs of the mind, and it is an attractive and coherent possibility to believe that this is so because the divine Mind of the Creator lies behind its marvellous order.”

Polkinghorne provides an answer to the scientific belief that evolution has made “God” redundant. It helps us to understand that the world is infinitely more complex and mysterious in its origins and development than those who interpret the Bible literally would recognise. But rather than end his book with the argument that scientific understanding actually proves rather than disproves God, Shortt rightly concludes his reflections with the words of a poet, Coleridge, whose extraordinary mind encompassed ethics, aesthetics and spirituality in a vision of incomparable richness.

Shortt writes that “like many in a tradition stretching from Paul to Augustine, Dante and Pascal, Coleridge judges that the heart of our humanity likes in a twin awareness of our disfiguration on the one hand, and our capacity to conceive and body forth transfiguration on the other….we have the means to recognise in Christianity ‘the substantiating principle of all true wisdom, the satisfactory solution of all the contradictions of human nature, of the whole riddle of the world.’”

Perhaps this is where the debate about God should start?