In this probing, challenging and personal account of his feelings about God and religion, Paul Johnson shares with others the strength and comfort of his own faith. Informed by his great knowledge of history, The Quest for God is written with force, lucidity and eloquence by the author of Intellectuals, Modern Times, A History of the Jews and other works.
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About the Author
Paul Johnson is a historian whose work ranges over the millennia and the whole gamut of human activities. He regularly writes book reviews for several UK magazines and newspapers, such as the Literary Review and The Spectator, and he lectures around the world. He lives in London, England.
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Why I am writing this book
Why am I writing this book? The answer is: partly to help myself, partly to help other people. The existence or non-existence of God is the most important question we humans are ever called to answer. If God does exist, and if in consequence we are called to another life when this one ends, a momentous set of consequences follows, which should affect every day, every moment almost, of our earthly existence. Our life then becomes a mere preparation for eternity and must be conducted throughout with our future in view. If, on the other hand, God does not exist, another momentous set of consequences follows. This life then becomes the only one we have, we have no duties or obligations except to ourselves, and we need weigh no other considerations except our own interests and pleasures. There are no commands to follow except what society imposes upon us, and even these we may evade if we can get away with it. In a Godless world, there is no obvious basis for altruism of any kind, moral anarchy takes over and the rule of the self prevails.
Yet all of us know that the logic of Godlessness would not prevail in our own case. Even if we have no belief whatever in a God, even if we are certain no afterlife will follow and that there is no eternal system of rewards and punishments to regulate our behaviour in the world, we know that we are incapable of pursuing a purely selfish existence. Try as we will, total self-regard, let alone total wickedness, is beyond us. Even the worst of us has redeeming qualities, often positive virtues. Selfishness may be our policy, the pursuit of pleasureour sole aim, but altruism keeps creeping in. It is as though we are morally incapable of conducting our lives without some element of morality.
That human beings have a certain propensity to evil, which Christians call Original Sin, is obvious to all, and explains much of the misery of the world. But that we also have a propensity to good is pretty clear too. It is the existence of these competing instincts or whatever they arestruggling for paramountcy in the same individual at any one time, which makes men and women so endlessly fascinating, so elusive of final judgments, so worthy of study. We are not so virtuous as the angels, or so beautiful or powerful, but we are much more interesting.
The fact that we have the altruistic urgeas well as the evil one is the great safeguard of the well-meaning atheists. The propensity to do good, they argue, makes God and his commandments, his rewards and punishments, unnecessary. Men and women pursue righteousness for its own sake. The human race is morally autonomous and, properly led and instructed, will strive for perfectibility or at least steady improvement, without any intervention of the supernatural. We want to be good, and the only problem, in a Godless world, is how to make that altruistic will prevail over the temptations of the self and the cravings of the flesh. And that problem can be solved by the right kind of moral education.
Yet it is a fact that those who hold such views have never been numerous. Atheism as a positive set of beliefs, including a code of moral behaviour, has failed to flourish. It may be that fewer and fewer people in Western countries practise their religion, but the number of those prepared to state their disbelief in God openly and specifically is minute. Except to a small minority probably no greater today than it was in the time of Percy Bysshe Shelley, expelled from Oxford University for atheism denial of God has no human appeal. We shrink from it. The vast majority are, and probably always will be, believers or agnostics and agnosticism has every degree of doubt and bewilderment, ranging from nearbelief to total confusion.
I suspect the reason why atheism has so little attraction is precisely our awareness of a desire in ourselves to do good. All of us have a conscience, whatever we may call it. We know we have this thing inside us, this nagging inner voice which tells us not to be so selfish or to help those in need or to prefer right to wrong. We may suppress it, but it is made of psychic indiarubber and springs back, however unwanted or unheeded, to wag a finger at us. The conscience can never quite be killed. And because it exists and we know it exists, we are periodically driven to ponder or half-ponder the question: how did it get there? Who put it there? Darwinism may be everywhere the received wisdom, and the process of Natural Selection may be unthinkingly accepted as scientific truth. But these scientific explanations cannot tell us why humanity became uniquely self-conscious. Nor can they explain why an ineradicable part of that self-consciousness is, precisely, our conscience, this moral mentor, instructor and castigator, whose sinewy limbs constantly seek to restrain our animal urges, just as the Old Man of the Sea wrapped his legs tightly round the neck of Sinbad the Sailor. The agnostic cannot shake off conscience as easily as he shakes off positive belief in God, and because conscience remains, there is always in the background of the agnostic's mind the suspicion that some agency put it there. What other explanation can there be? So the shadow of God is never quite dispelled.
There is another force , in addition to conscience, which militates against atheism in the human mind. That force is fear. The Bible says, 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.' One might add, 'The fear of the unknown is the beginning of belief.' For an intellectually self-confident man or woman, with a healthy body and reasonably contented mind, and a job and a sufficient income, atheism is a possible philosophy. But when misfortunes, pain and sorrows arrive, bringing with them fear, and fear not just of present ills but of future, unknown ones to come, then atheism is not enough.