I was waiting to catch a bus home from Tottenham Hale Retail Park when a young man approached me in a way that suggested he was going to ask me something. I was quite relieved when all he wanted to know was if I wanted one of his magazines. I have no idea what the magazine was, but I suspected that it was some religious propaganda so I said “No.” He then asked, “Do you believe in God?” I thought it a bit rude to just ask that question without any build-up and I did not like being asked such personal questions while balancing five storage boxes a new coat and three new tops on a bus shelter seat. I suppose I could have given a detailed theological response to his query, or simple told him to mind his own business, but again I replied “No.” He was a persistent young man (or maybe working to a script) and followed up with “Do you want to believe in God?” I resisted the very strong temptation to respond with “Not if she is anything to do with you, darling,” and, as it was already a tried and tested response in this unwanted conversation, I said “No.”
Often in the last two and a half years I have been asked the “Do you believe in God” question and answered “No.” This is despite the fact that I still worship (if that is the appropriate term for a non-believer) at St James Piccadilly every Sunday. Normally, I explained my continued presence in church on the basis of answering “Yes” to the second question: “Do you want to believe in God?” I identified as agnostic (or sometimes atheist), but I was never content in that position as being a believer in God would make my life simpler as a priest, even as one without permission to officiate.
One morning in St James my mind was wandering and wondering again and the thought came to me that my non-belief in God was something that had been present since moving to Manchester in September 2008, with a few trial runs at atheism in my troubled last post as a priest in 2006-2008. So was I not believing in God because I simply had not re-examined the evidence? Even when I led a discussion at St James’ Awakening to God group on Christian atheism, I was still citing my rejection of a creator God during a physiology lecture about October 2008. As a theologian I should keep my research a bit more up to date than that, so I decided that I would spend Lent 2011 doing some reading to see if I could study my way back to believing in the sort of God that Church of England priests are generally believed to believe in.
So as Lent approached I took myself off to Waterstones one Sunday, which is just a few doors down from the church, and bought Andrew Pessin’s The God Question: What Famous Thinkers From Plato to Dawkins Have Said About the Divine . For once I did not procrastinate on my Lenten reading and actually finished the book well before Mothering Sunday, so I needed to return to Waterstones, and this time bought Alister McGrath’s Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology .
Andrew’s book left me wondering why all these thinkers were bothering to spend all this time debating the existence of God, when the idea of God was reduced to a formula of the creator God who must (or, for a few of the writers, could not) exist. I realised that these debates, which as a theology lecturer I found fascinating, were now meaningless to me. I had been much more interested in my reading for the previous Advent: Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution . My atheism or agnosticism derived from a lecture in human biology convincing me that the human body suggested that it was the result of evolution, not the first or last act of creation (depending on which creation story in Genesis you follow). Richard’s book convinced me of the truth of evolution, but unlike many of his other books, he did not use evolution to argue for atheism. The philosophical writers summarised by Andrew were not answering the scientific questions I was asking, while Richard was not addressing the theological issue in his book. So I began reading Alister’s book and, at the time of writing this blog entry, I am still reading it.
Despite the fact that neither Lent nor my Lenten reading are over yet, I can already say that I would now always answer the young man’s question as “No” not my previous “Yes.” I have lost the desire to try to find my way back to believing in a creator God, despite the fact that this makes what belief I have so different to most other people in a Christian church. Yet there is a qualification that I need to make. I answer unhesitatingly “No” to what I am sure was the question that the young man meant: “Do you want to believe in a God out there, who created the universe?”
I would have answered differently, if I thought that his question meant “Do you want to believe in someone or something at the heart of human spirituality that might be called God, even though it may in reality be a part of human psychology with no outside existence?” I would have said, “Well I want to change my answer to your second question, I do believe in that God.” Or, at least, I would have wanted to say that if I did not know that his immediate response would be, “So to return to my first question, do want one of my magazines?”
Of course, the sort of people who want to push magazines and God-believing at bus shelters generally are not the sort who are happy for others to believe in a God who might not exist outside human spiritual experience. So I will stick to my original answers to the young man, “No, No, and No.”