Books in Review

God: The Evidence

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 85 (August/September 1998): 64-66.

Making the Wager

God: The Evidence. The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World. By Patrick Glynn. Prima. 224 pp. $22.

Reviewed by Edward T. Oakes

In 1987 a famous political leader gave this diagnosis of the ills of his society: "Interest in the common good has slackened, callousness and skepticism now dominate the political landscape, and the role of moral incentives has declined. The number of peopleósome of them quite youngóhas increased whose ultimate goal is material well-being acquired at no matter what cost to themselves or others. . . . Disregard for laws, bribe-taking, toadyism are ruining the moral atmosphere of society."

Was this the Pope speaking to the Vatican diplomatic corps on the evils of Western individualism and materialism? Or Margaret Thatcher to Parliament on the woes of the welfare state, or Ronald Reagan on the campaign stump bemoaning the crime rate and the loss of family values? In fact it was Mikhail Gorbachev speaking to the Plenum of the Communist Party; but the similarity between Gorbachevís diagnosis and that found on the lips of so many conservative moralists decrying their own societies brings us to the point of Patrick Glynnís short but instructive book on the long-term consequences of secularism and atheism.

Himself an atheist since his Harvard days (or at least an agnostic whose skepticism was so strong that he doubted the existence of God more than he suspended judgment), Glynn has recently felt forced to reconsider the issue. As the title of the book indicates, he surveys the evidence once more, and in doing so he shows the reader how he has left his past convictions behind and become a believer. Moreover, his arguments are trenchant enough that the reader begins to suspect that the burden of proof has indeed shifted in the last thirty years, so that it is now up to the atheist to defend his denial of God.

Glynn definitely means what he says when he calls his book God: The Evidence. A skilled forensicist, he gathers his evidence and sets it out clearly and effectivelyówhich makes for a fast-paced and relatively short book that can be read in one evening. But, as Glynn makes clear, he was moved to religious belief not through rational calculations, but rather because, as Pascal put it, "The heart has its own reasons that reason knows nothing of."

Though Glynn went to a Jesuit high school, his four years as an undergraduate at Harvard brought him, however regretfully, to the view that science had replaced God. As might be expected, a year in England at Cambridge studying British empiricism and Anglo-Saxon linguistic philosophy and a further four years at Harvard as a doctoral student in philosophy confirmed him in his newly discovered atheism.

Glynn later went to work in Washington for the Reagan Administration on arms control issues. He was able to square his atheism with his conservative political convictions under the influence of Leo Strauss, the influential political philosopher from the University of Chicago. Strauss claimed that most of the great philosophers of antiquity were atheists who hid their atheism for the good of society under an esoteric code accessible only to the enlightened few, namely, Strauss and his graduate students.

This hybrid of conservative morality in public and atheism in private seemed to serve Glynn until his first marriage collapsed. The divorce was "amicable," as the phrase has it, but it left a feeling of hollowness that began to lift only when the author decided, more or less arbitrarily, to "live honorably," despite the fact that he felt with Dostoevsky that if God does not exist then all things are permitted. But it was only when he fell in love with a woman who was completely at home in her own religious convictions that he began to suspect there was something more.

This suspicion led him to ransack all the literature he could find on Big Bang cosmology, the anthropic principle, near-death experiences, holistic medicine, etc. Not all of this "evidence" will be as convincing to the reader as it seems to be for the author, but then again, as Glynn openly admits, he is not claiming that "reason can bring one to belief in God. What I am saying is this: Reason no longer stands in the way."

In this regard, Glynnís argument is, as already noted, reminiscent of Pascal; indeed at one point Glynn invokes Pascalís famous "wager." But his use of the wager is somewhat disconcerting, since it is applied with a modern therapeutic twist that Pascal might not have found to his liking.

Pascalís Wager, of course, is the famous gamblerís calculation in favor of religious belief: If a man chooses belief and turns out to be right, he is rewarded with eternal bliss. If he chooses belief and is wrong, or chooses disbelief and is right, then he ceases to exist after deathóbut loses nothing. On the other hand, if he chooses disbelief and is wrong, he faces eternal damnation. Thus, the most reasonable course of action, the only one which avoids damnation and has at least a chance of salvation, is believing .

As has been pointed out often enough, Pascalís Wager is not exactly the win/win situation for the believer it would first seem to be, for belief carries a price of fidelity to the commands of God with their demand of self-abnegation, and why pay that price if God does not exist in the first place? Glynn is very much the modern believer here: in a chapter outlining the immense medical benefits to be had from beliefógreater longevity (even for believing smokers!), better heart-rate, lower stress levelsóhe tries to soothe the nonbeliever into faith with these appealing statistics. Not even the rigors of Christian morality, it seems, carry much of a price! This kind of argumentation is what one might call Pascalianism in a minor key, one geared to the shopper of self-help books: even if God does not exist, belief brings such great health benefits that it would be foolish not to take the risk, or so the author seems to imply.

Admittedly, this kind of wager is a bit of a comedown from the rigors of Pascalís Jansenism. But we must be content with the apologists our age deserves: just as Thomas Mertonís Seven Storey Mountain is but a pale and derivative autobiography of conversion in comparison to St. Augustineís Confessions, so too is Glynnís book to Pascalís Pensées. But of course the same could be said of twentieth-century Christianity in relation to the Great Tradition off of which it has been feeding, so one can hardly expect an isolated author to change an entire ethos. And to be fair, Glynn stresses so much the healthy aftereffects of churchgoing springing from a life of confident faith because he recognizes that the moral demands of biblical faith befit manís essence and are in conformity with the "angels of our better nature." And so in the deepest sense he is right: It would be plain folly, as the Psalmist recognized, to ignore evidence that keeps staring us in the face.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, and author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.