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 for Nazism.

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. Glynn writes:

'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 concludes:

'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 be attained.'

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 principle.'

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 praying for 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 concludes:

'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 themselves.'