As Though There Were No God

Nov 10, 2005 |J. Budziszewski

Some people consider themselves agnostics. Professor Theophilus makes it a simple matter to determine whether or not you're in fact an atheist.

Class had been over for only 10 minutes when Nathan turned up at my office door saying, "I brought your coffee mug back."

"What? Good morning. Thank you. I didn't even know you had it."

"I didn't," he declared. "You left it behind in class again." He put it in my hand.

"Oh, no. Did you come all the way up here just to return it?"

"It's okay. I was coming anyway."

"Then sit," I said, gesturing.

He did, but tentatively, like a bird on the end of a twig. "I wasn't sure if my question is office hours material," he said. "It's about something you said in class."

"Why shouldn't that be office hours material?"

"Because actually my question is personal."

I spread my hands. "Ask."

"This morning someone asked a question about all the 'Creator' language in the Declaration of Independence."

"I remember."

"You said something about a French guy who influenced the thinking of the American Founders. Burlap or Burlah."

"Burlamaqui."

"That's him. You said he made a big deal about God. I wasn't too interested. I hadn't had my coffee yet, you know? Then you got my attention."

"How?"

"Well, you didn't say flat out whether you think there is a God. But you said you thought this Burlamaqui guy was right to make a big deal about the question. Here's what I want to know."

"I'm listening."

"What does it matter?"

I was a bit puzzled. "Nathan, it sounds like you're asking 'Why is it important to know about the Most Important Thing?'"

"I think I'm asking why it is the Most Important Thing."

"Perhaps it would help you to think of the other questions you consider important."

"Like what?"

"Whether to live. How to live. Whether there is anything to live for. The God question makes a difference to all those questions."

"What do you mean when you say it 'makes a difference' to them?"

"If there is a God, the answers come out one way; if there isn't, they come out another."

"But we can't know whether God is real anyway."

I lifted a quizzical eyebrow. "How do you know that we can't know?"

He shrugged. "I take it back. I don't know that we can't know. But I know that I don't know."

"Have you tried to find out?"

"Uh huh. During my sophomore year."

"Tell me about that."

"I was sort of obsessed. I read so many books and talked with so many people about whether there's a God that I was losing sleep and making myself sick. So please don't tell me to read another book, and please don't ask me 'Have you considered this argument?'"

I laughed. "Whatever you say."

"So now I just say I'm agnostic."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean I don't say there is a God, and I don't say there isn't one," he answered. "I'm not committed either way."

I was still holding the mug Nathan had returned. "You said you hadn't had your coffee," I said, standing. "I'm going to make some; would you like a cup?" That would give me time to think.

"I'd love one," he answered, surprised. "But I didn't bring anything to drink from."

"Look on the bookshelf behind you." After Nathan had fetched one of the cups and seated himself again, he seemed more relaxed.

I measured out the water, counted out the scoops, and flipped the switch. Shortly the coffee maker was emitting little pops and chuckles. It always makes me think of a hen. When I had poured out two cups I turned back to Nathan."

"So you don't believe in God."

"I don't believe in Him and I don't disbelieve in Him. Like I said, I'm agnostic."

"What would you say if I told you that in a certain way, I don't believe in agnostics?"

Not sure whether I was joking, he made a little laugh. "But I exist," he said. "You see me. Here I am."

I smiled back and sipped my coffee. "I believe that you exist. And I believe that you don't know what to think. But you said an agnostic is 'not committed either way,' and I don't believe that there is such a thing as 'not committed either way.'"

He shook his head. "If I don't know the answer to the God question, then how could I be committed to an answer to the God question?"

"Commitments are reflected in movements of the will."

"What does that mean?"

"They're reflected in how we live."

"So which answer to the God question am I committed to by how I live?"

"Oh, I haven't any idea."

"But I thought you meant —"

"Why, no. Answering that question would require me to have personal knowledge about you that I don't possess."

"You mean you'd have to ask questions about my life?"

I laughed again. "I'm not proposing to ask you questions about your life, Nathan. I'm just your teacher."

"That's okay. I came here with a personal question, not a course question. This is related."

"That's true," I conceded.

"So are you saying that if you did ask me questions about my life, then you could tell me what answer to the God question I'm committed to?"

"Possibly."

"Then do it. I want to know."

I hesitated. "All right. You asked for it. Do you pray?"

"I used to sometimes, but I stopped. Seemed kind of pointless, since I didn't know whether anyone was listening."

"Do you have plans for the future?"

"I'll probably go to law school. There's always work for lawyers. They make pretty good money, and I think I'd like the work okay."

"What do you aim for in life?"

"Not getting bored. Having enough money to buy the things that I want. Not working all the time. Having some fun on the side."

"Will you get married? Have kids?"

"I'm okay with my sex life as it is. If it gets 'old' some day, then maybe I'll settle down. Kids, I don't know. That seems like a pretty big interruption in my life. But hey," Nathan added, "this isn't bad. How am I doing?"

I smiled. "No more questions."

He smiled back lopsidedly. "Sorry my answers were so uninformative."

"What makes you think they were uninformative?"

"They didn't reveal a 'commitment' like you were expecting."

"On the contrary."

"You mean they did?"

"Of course they did. Nathan, there is no such thing as neutrality. Every way of life is some way of life. Inevitably, you live either as though there were a God, or as though there weren't. You stake your life on an answer that you say you don't have."

"So which answer am I staking my life on?"

"Consider my question about whether you pray. You say you don't know whether anyone is at the other end listening. But if you're really not sure, then why not say 'I'll pray, because maybe there is'? Instead you say 'I won't, because maybe there isn't.' That makes sense only if it's really true that there isn't."

He paused. Light dawned. "Yeah, I see that."

"Or consider my questions about your future. You say you don't know whether God is real. But if you're really not sure, then in planning your future why not ask 'What use might a good God have for my gifts?' Instead you consult only your pleasure. That makes sense only if you can be sure that no such God does take an interest."

"I guess that's right too."

"Or take those questions about marriage. Marriage is either about the total gift of self, or about personal sexual convenience. The former way of viewing it makes sense if a self-giving God created it; the latter way makes sense if only He didn't. You didn't give the former way a single thought."

"That's true. I see where you're going."

"Where?"

"You're saying that I live — as though there were no God."

"Right. You say you're uncommitted, but in practice you're committed to atheism."

Nathan was unperturbed. "But Prof, since I don't know the answer to the God question, how else can I live?"

I answered, "Instead of living as though there were no God, you could try living as though there were."

That was when the other shoe dropped. His face turned ashen. "You mean — like pray?"

"That, and other things. Seek His will and follow it."

"How can I seek what might not be there?"

"If you did seek it, you might find out."

There was a long, long pause. I had spoken the Abominable Thought. A look of infinite dismay spread over Nathan's face. One could have read the signs from 10 feet away; as his mental censors crumbled, an awful question was welling slowly up from the base of his mind.

If only he did seek it, he might find out. He saw that now.

Did he really want to find out?

Copyright 2005 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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