GOD: THE EVIDENCE
By Patrick Glynn
a Book Review by John Ed Robertson, December 16, 2001
For most of his life,
Patrick Glynn was an unlikely candidate to write a book on the evidence for the
existence of God. As an undergraduate
and later graduate student at Harvard, he became a philosophical atheist/agnostic. He spent most of his life thinking that
belief in God was not for intelligent people
He credits two things for motivating him to re-examine the evidence for
the existence of God:
- a) A decision to reject nihilism as a basis for moral
decision-making. He concluded that the nihilistic outlook that life has no
meaning and that there is no universal truth was existentially unsustainable.
If God is dead, everything is permitted, and there is no rational basis for
morals. In addition, there is little or nothing to justify great
self-sacrifice or deep personal commitment. He wanted to live nobly, but could
find no reason for doing so if there is no God.
- b) An 'encounter with love'. He fell in love with a
Christian woman, but it was not just to please her that Glynn came to faith.
Reading Martin Buber, he realized that he was incapable of an 'I-You'
relationship, but only an 'I-It' relationship. He expresses the nihilist’s
difficulty in sustaining meaningful personal relationships:
- 'Under such conditions (i.e. nihilism), one’s intentions may be generally
good. But if you come to imagine that there is no moral order to the
universe, the incentives to good conduct, particularly in private life, are
unfortunately much weakened. There is little to justify great
self-sacrifice or deep personal commitment. Indeed, it is hard, as I
later saw in retrospect, to feel or express love to the fullest extent.
Even if one cares for others and thinks one cares greatly, one is inclined to
be guided in the final analysis by one’s selfish wishes. What is there
in the nihilist’s universe to call forth sacrifice? And without a
willingness to sacrifice, one’s capacity to care for others is narrowly
circumscribed. Such was my state in the early 1990’s, when, rather than
work on a marriage much in need of repair - and badly strained by my
uncompromising commitment to my own intellectual and political projects - I
sought a divorce, amicably, as the saying goes, more or less decently, but
still with very painful consequences for my first wife and me.'
These two things led him to re-examine the evidence
for the existence of God. Glynn devotes
a chapter to each of the five reasons that he cites to 'make his case against
the purely secular view of life', but his most powerful argument is that the
assumption of modernity that man could discover Truth by the intelligent
application of human reason has collapsed, which has led to the moral
bankruptcy of nihilism, which in turn provided the philosophical underpinnings
Postmodern philosophers find themselves repelled by
the moral vision that originally accompanied the modern 'death of God'
movement, but offer no compelling intellectual alternative. Richard Rorty, for example, condemns
Auschwitz, but argues that there is no rational or other basis to do so. Although Rorty has written that, 'Belief is
caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstances', he attempts
to overcome Nietzsche’s insinuation that the end of religion and metaphysics
would mean the end of our attempts not to be cruel. Rorty mixes nihilism with
'human solidarity', which is not really a new idea. The first text to set forth a human code of solidarity was the
New Testament! Glynn concludes that
modern (and postmodern) philosophy has produced 'a diluted and less than
completely coherent version of the New Testament moral vision'. Unlike the New Testament, however, it tries
to separate private and public morality.
- 'We have landed a long way from our planned destination in the modern
quest for certainty via reason…Reason, freed from divine guidance, originally
promised humanity freedom, but its culmination in the moral realm is
postmodernism, and the spirit of postmodern thought is nothing if not the
spirit of ‘caprice’-private projects, ‘play’, efforts at ‘self-creation,
erotic and aesthetic obsessions.'
Since postmodernism unwittingly
draws on the New Testament in its attempts to soften the cruel and inhumane
implications of nihilism, Glynn believes that postmodernism will ultimately
lead to post-secularism, since the New Testament is the original source of the
human solidarity that postmodernism advocates.
He writes: 'The message of tolerance, or the irrelevance of cultural, ethnic
and even religious division pervades the New Testament texts.' Christianity was a moral revolution that
flew in the face of Greek and Roman thought as to the hierarchy of human worth
and dignity. 'Our most modern ideas
about humaneness, kindness and charity, about ethnic, cultural and religious
tolerance and about the essential dignity of the human being-regardless of
race, gender, abilities or station-originated in the New Testament.'
Unfortunately, however, although 'the early church
embodied New Testament values to a remarkable degree, by the Middle Ages, the
church was hardly distinguishable from any other political entity', which is
why modern philosophy thought that rationalism would be an improvement on
Christianity. Today, we can see where
rationalism has led us and the moral beauty, clarity, and wisdom of the New
Testament. 'The great error of the
Enlightenment…was the idolatry of reason, the belief that reason could replace
God.' This error led to the moral
bankruptcy of nihilism. Glynn
- 'Without an ability to distinguish right from wrong,
life degenerates rapidly into a tale told by an idiot…When others do this, it
is painfully obvious, even if we are slow to recognize such wrong-headedness in
ourselves…Only people who are capable of distinguishing between good and evil
with clarity are capable of making sound decisions, or for that matter,
constructing sound theories on subjects pertaining to politics, psychology,
sociology and other aspects of moral life…Right and wrong are no secret to us -
until we begin to deny that they exist.
If the history of this (20th) century offers any lessons, it is that
goodness-and a relationship to God, to the Absolute - by whatever name He is
called-is not only the beginning of wisdom but the only path by which it can
Although the universalistic implications of that
statement are troubling, there is no escaping the fact that this is a brilliant
critique of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of both modernity and
post-modernity. I believe that this is
Glynn’s most convincing argument for the existence of God, but he offers four
others as well.
- a) The anthropic principle, which says that the universe has been specifically
designed to make human existence possible.
'The values of the fundamental constants are exactly what they
would have to be to sustain life.' The
universe is not random after all, and there had to be preplanning for the
universe to produce life. He cites several examples of how a slight variation
in the values of the fundamental constants of gravity, electromagnetism and
nuclear binding forces would have made life impossible. Modern science was the triumph of mechanism (how) over teleology (why). But as a result
of the anthropic principle: 'Suddenly, for the first time since Galileo,
teleology has trumped mechanism – and on the biggest and most fundamental
question imaginable – the nature of the universe itself. For the first time in
350 years, science is at a loss to reduce the universe and the order we see
around us to mechanistic principle. Indeed, it is growing increasingly
doubtful whether the anthropic principle can be explained away even in
- b) A powerful correlation between religious commitment and overall mental
health. After Darwin and the random
universe, the second great challenge to Christian faith in the last two
centuries came from Freud. Freud’s
major achievement, as he understood it, was to provide a complete 'scientific'
account of mental life, or a substitute religion. Freud’s disciple, Karl Jung, found a strong correlation between
mental health and religious faith however, writing: 'It is safe to say that
every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions
of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really
healed who did not regain his religious outlook.' Glynn also cites M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled as a landmark study in this
area. He concludes: 'In effect, one could argue, the world is designed to
present the mind with a fundamental moral choice, as well as a dilemma whose
only solution lies in an acknowledgement of, and encounter with, God.'
- c) Not only is there a correlation between religious commitment and overall mental
health, but also between religious commitment and physical health.
Contemporary medicine is clearly moving in the direction of acknowledging
dimensions of healing beyond the purely material. Nearly all indicators of religious commitment, including
frequency of prayer, correlate with well being on various axes. There have even been studies that show that
people who did not know that they were being prayed for increased their
prospects of being healed.
- d) He also asserts that near-death research, such as was first suggested by the book Life
After Life, 'offered the first systematic evidence suggestive of the existence
of a soul'. He cites the work of Dr. Michael Saborn, who started out as a
skeptic and became convinced after extensive research. One thing that
convinced him was the fact that those who claimed to have had an 'out-of-body'
experience had detailed knowledge of resuscitation techniques that only a
medical person would know. In other words, they would have had to be
present during a resuscitation effort to be able to describe the procedures
that they claimed to have seen practiced during their near-death experience,
and none of them had ever been present on any such occasion other than their
own. He concludes: 'Near-death research has produced an enormous body of
data that no one honestly interested in investigating the existence of God can
afford to ignore. It is difficult to analyze this evidence in depth and
to come away with any other impression but that science has indeed stumbled on
data of the soul. Could it be accidental? I suppose. But it
would be a very strange accident indeed.'
Of Glynn’s five evidences of the existence of God, I
found the anthropic principle and the insufficiency of human reason as a means
of discovering universal moral truth to be the most compelling. Although I certainly agree that there is a
strong correlation between physical and mental health on one hand and faith on
the other, I don’t think that many skeptics will be convinced by his arguments
in these areas. In addition, I have
always been a little reluctant to jump on the 'life after life' bandwagon
myself. For one thing, the experiences
of which I have heard would suggest a doctrine of universalism. In other words, I had never heard of anyone
facing judgment. Glynn acknowledges
this, writing: 'Indeed there appears to be a certain uncomfortable fit and
simultaneous lack of fit between stories of those experiences and orthodox
religious teachings.' Nevertheless, he
cites several cases where people experienced a life review, and a small number
for whom this was a terrifying experience.
He also suggests that people who did experience a negative evaluation
would be less likely to talk about it.
His presentation is the most convincing I have seen to date.
For all these reasons, he concludes
that postmodernism is 'post-secularism waiting to be born'. In other words, he believes that the
collapse of modernity will be a first step toward a return to faith in God,
rather than a further distancing from it.
This seems somewhat optimistic in view of the commitment of both modern
and postmodern people to autonomy. Like
Aldous Huxley, what many people like about nihilism is that it leaves them free
to do what they want to do morally.
Intellectual inconsistency is unlikely to be a compelling reason for
many to give up that 'freedom'.
Nevertheless, this book does give many solid reasons for intellectually
honest people to believe in God. He
- 'I am not claiming reason can bring us to belief in God. What I am
saying is this: Reason no longer stands in the way, as it once clearly
did….Today, it seems to me there is no good reason for an intelligent person
to embrace the illusion of atheism or agnosticism, to make the same
intellectual mistakes I made. I wish - how often do we say this in life?
- that I had known then what I know now. This is my reason for writing
this book - to lay out what seems to me to the now overwhelming case against
the purely secular view of life, so that thinking skeptics can judge for