A reader, C.W., has been in touch to ask the above question. Here we attempt to sketch a brief approach to a large subject.
Thank you for your question. Really the short answer to it is: we can't. We can't prove that God exists the way that we can prove 2 + 2 = 4. God isn't a scientific fact or a mathematical formula, and if we want to know anything about God, scientific and technical knowledge doesn't help us very much. The different branches of science and technology can prove certain facts about the material world, and explain why things happen the way they do, but they can't prove the existence of God. To know anything about God we have to think about the question in a different way.
In the past, believers in God talked more confidently about being able to give 'proofs' of His existence. For example, they looked at the world around them, or thought about the whole universe, and they came to the conclusion that there had to be a Creator - someone who had designed the world and the universe, and the creatures in it. While not dismissing this train of thought completely I think we can admit that people today are not so convinced by this type of argument. They put forward other explanations about how the universe came into existence. They do not automatically think that there must be a God who made it.
So it might be better not to talk about proving God's existence. It is probably wiser and more accurate to talk about the pointers to God, the evidence which suggests or points to the fact that God exists. Of course there will always be complete atheists who deny God's existence, regardless of all the evidence. But at the very least we can say that atheism can never disprove God's existence in the scientific sense. In many ways the atheists' lack of belief in God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief of Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.
Atheism: the cause of human freedom
There was a certain kind of old-fashioned atheism which saw itself as a great moral cause. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were various social and political movements which wanted to liberate human beings from poverty, disease, ignorance, and to remove the causes of war. Many of the individuals involved in the campaigns for peace, for better education, health, social conditions, etc., were Christians, but many other individuals saw religion as superstitious nonsense and an enemy of progress. At the same time, the Christian Churches opposed these new movements if they were hostile to religion, or critical of the Churches' status in society.
In any case, the motives of many atheists were complicated, and tied up with issues that had nothing to do with God's existence. It appeared to them that to advance the cause of human welfare it was necessary to destroy belief in God. They passionately wanted to create a better and fairer world and they concluded that a better and fairer world would be a purely secular world, i.e. a world without God. The Vatican II Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes recognised this phenomenon when it said in article 20: "Among the various kinds of present-day atheism, that one should not go unnoticed which looks for man's autonomy through his economic and social emancipation. It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man's hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth."
The threat of triviality
Today there is far less of this old-fashioned type of atheism. Most people today could accurately be described as 'practical atheists'. This means that they are indifferent to religion rather than actually hostile to it. It means that belief in God makes no significant impact on their daily lives For many people now it is their family life, their work, and their entertainment and leisure activities which take up all their time and energy. The 'tabloid culture' of television soap-operas, chat-shows, pop music and sport engage their thoughts and feelings and even influence their moral values, although no doubt it is possible to exaggerate and to be over-pessimistic about this.
It may be that there are many criticisms and judgements about modern culture where commited Christians and serious-minded atheists would agree with each other. Both would surely raise a protest against anything which degrades human life and trivialises the search for meaning, happiness and
Neither accepting nor denying God
Some people are neither committed believers nor strict atheists. They do not deny God's existence, but they do not accept it either. They do not think that there is enough evidence to convince them one way or another: they are agnostics.
Even here, different individuals have different attitudes and motives. Some men and women are agnostic because they are still searching for a truthful answer to their questions about God and religion. They are making an honest effort to reach a conclusion but find the obstacles to belief difficult to overcome. With some other people it is more a matter of laziness, and they use the term 'agnostic' to dignify their apathy and reluctance to make a commitment. They are making excuses to avoid facing the question of God and all that it involves.
Today there is a third group of people, who are interested in 'spirituality' but not in traditional organised religion. These men and women virtually make up their own personal faith, with aspects of eastern religion, ancient pagan and 'Celtic' beliefs about nature, star signs, and anything else which interests them.
In our market society it is inevitable that the idea of consumer choice should affect people's approach to religion and God. When it come to their basic values and philosophy of life they consider it normal to look for a product which suits their personal needs and wishes. At the same time, it is also true that these new forms of 'spirituality' have emerged as traditional Christian faith has declined. They are often vague and wooly, with an emotional and therapeutic emphasis. But in spite of the danger of shallowness, a growing minority of people now find some form of homemade spirituality more attractive than a coherent set of beliefs about God, as found in the great world religions.
Conclusion: "God is not yet dead"
This was the title of a famous book, written almost forty years ago by the Czech Marxist and atheist Vitezslav Gardavsky. He basically regretted the continued presence of religion in the modern world but as a philosopher sought to understand it and to dialogue with it. Perhaps he would have been pleased to find, in 2005, that in many places, traditional belief in God - and especially Christianity - is no longer a vital force or a significant influence in society. This would seem to be true, with some exceptions, in the affluent and so-called developed parts of the world like ours. But at the same time there are still many searchers after a deeper truth, and the Christian faith continues to provide them with convincing answers to the big questions of life.
Just as importantly, it continues to place an unsettling question mark against the idea of a world without God. Believers often have to face doubts about God and they go through periods when they feel somehow that their faith is no more than fantasy. In the same way, many atheists admit to feeling that their unbelief is often shaky, and that they are nagged by the suspicion that God does exist after all. Just as believers "lose their faith" some convinced atheists have undergone radical conversion - Dorothy Day and C.S. Lewis for example.
In conclusion we can at least say that faith in God is every bit as credible as atheism or agnosticism, and a vision of life worth defending. In future issues Agenda for Prophets will return to the issue of atheism in greater detail, examining the arguments used in some recent publications to attack religion and advance the cause of unbelief.
With prayers and best wishes, AfP