The God Hypothesis

An old friend from Cambridge days e-mailed me about my claim that God is not an explanatory hypothesis. We have argued about it on e-mail for a while (reliving GROGGS debates of yore), and he has convinced me that I need to clarify and qualify that claim. I’m going to do so in two stages, the first of which will be simpler to precisely the extent that it is less true, second more difficult and more accurate.

The first stage, then, is to claim that Christian faith is something like a ‘worldview’. That is, it is a pervasive way of looking at anything and everything: the lens through which a group or individual sees the world – or through which the world is constituted as a world for them; it is that without which one would not have anything that counted as meaningful experience, being instead an empty recipient of streams of uninterpreted data. Of course, Christianity is not actually a worldview – but bear with me.

If Christianity were a worldview, a way of making sense of the world, the whole world, there would be an extent to which one might appropriately describe this worldview as a ‘hypothesis’: as a proposal for a way of making sense, that should be judged by its ability to make good sense of things. What does ‘good’ mean, in this context? Well, one might appropriately ask whether this worldview was coherent (though one would need to be careful to adopt a definition of ‘coherent’ that made intrasystematic sense, of course); one might appropriately judge whether this worldview was capacious – that is, whether it was capable of making some kind of sense of wide swathes of the world, finding some kind of place for more-or-less anything one encounters; one might appropriately judge whether this worldview was resilient – that is, whether it was capable of generating (in its own terms) responses to those criticisms that can actually be made telling in this worldview’s own terms. In other words, one might appropriately judge the habitability of this worldview.

Now, were Christianity in fact a worldview like this, what might a Christian say to the sceptic who inhabited a different worldview? There may be arguments that the Christian can mount that are based on particular problems within the sceptic’s worldview, and which demonstrate that the Christian worldview contains resolutions to those problems. But those in themselves will not decide the issue between the two worldviews; the most they can do (if such arguments can be found at all) is to persuade the sceptic that it is worth entertaining the Christian worldview. But that further step – ‘entertaining’ – remains necessary: learning how things look from inside this worldview; learning to see the world through the lens that it provides; learning what the questions and the answers are that make sense in terms native to this worldview – and beginning to explore this worldview’s coherence, capaciousness, resilience, its habitability.

I am not saying that the sceptic is faced with the need to abandon rationality and to adopt the Christian worldview, in some blind step of faith. I am describing what it might take for the sceptic to go on being rational in the face of this kind of proposal. I have, however, deliberately chosen the word ‘habitability’ to indicate the strange kind of rational testing that might be proper to a worldview-sized claim. The form taken by really rigorous rational testing of this kind of hypothesis will be the discovery of whether lives can be lived, individually and corporately, that make sense in this worldview’s terms. Attention to the forms that believing life takes, and the exploration of what form such life could take for oneself, will lie at the heart of a rational testing of Christianity’s claims.

What, then, does the Christian say to the sceptic? Well, if the Christian cares about rationality, she will say, ‘Come on in, the water’s lovely!’ The ‘hypothesis’ involved in Christianity is, I am suggesting, not some particular fact-claim: it is the whole worldview – and the sort of ‘entertaining’ that I have just been describing is the only way of properly, rationally testing such a thing.

Let me give a weak analogy. Consider the idea that the workings of the universe can be described in mathematical terms. Some such claim is (quite appropriately) at the heart of a modern scientific worldview. And it is curious, because it is not in any simple way a matter of blind faith, because that claim is sustained by the ongoing discovery of just how habitable this worldview is. But nor is that claim the kind of straightforward hypothesis that could be disconfirmed in some punctiliar way. The failure of this worldview – the disconfirmation of the hypothesis – would involve, I think, something like the slow demonstration that on multiple fronts those who tried to live by this claim were finding it impossible to go on. That is a real form of testability, a real form of intellectual responsibility, but it is by no means a simply one. And the only way of pursuing such a testing (the only way of treating the mathematisability of the world as a hypothesis) will be by devoting one’s life to work on the assumption that it is true: to the attempt to make mathematical sense of the world. I am, I claim, talking about a kind of hypothesis that has some structural similarities to this mathematical example. (Someone might say, ‘Ah, but the mathematisability hypothesis has more to do with the general structure of things, than with the existence of some particular thing‘. At which point I would cheer, and say, ‘Yes – and so does the God hypothesis, in its classic monotheistic forms…’)

I think, by the way, that it is worth noting the form that ‘losing faith’ normally takes. I have yet to meet anyone, however rational they took themselves to be before or after such a transition, for whom the crucial driver in a loss of faith was one particular argument, or one punctiliar disconfirmation. Rather, such people more often experience broad-based, creeping failure of the plausibility, the habitability of their faith. And that is just what one would expect.

Now, the Christian way of making sense involves pervasive and unavoidable reference to God. Talk about God is not a dispensable or decorative feature of this worldview: it stands at its heart. Excise that reference to God, and the whole worldview collapses into fragments. But this is also, I think, true the other way around: any attempts to specify what ‘God’ means (and so any attempts to state what the ‘God hypothesis’ is) that are detached from this whole worlview will not make any kind of Christian sense. Such attempts are, in Christian eyes, bound to be mis-identifications of what ‘God’ means – even if they are in certain respects interesting approximations to Christian belief. (So, for example, Dawkins’ statement of the God hypothesis is in some ways an interesting approximation to Christian belief – even if it is equally clearly a misidentification.)

The only way of properly explaining what ‘God’ means is by seeing God as lynchpin of this whole worldview. So to test whether what is said about God is coherent, capacious, resilient, habitable is equivalent to testing whether this worldview is coherent, capacious, resilient, habitable. That does not mean that belief in God is a matter of blind faith, of rationality abandoned and disparaged. It is simply to state the form that rational testing must take, in this case. (And the force of that ‘must’ comes from the form of the hypothesis, and from that alone.)


Now, all this is well and good, and I think that there is some truth to it. It does, however, suffer from one small problem. I don’t actually think that Christianity is a worldview. It would be more adequate to call it a tradition, if by that we meant something like ‘an ongoing process of argumentative worldview formation and re-formation’. And to the extent that Christianity has a heart or an essence, that heart or essence does not take the form of the skeleton of a worldview, but of a set of resources that have the capacity to drive the formation of worldviews: passed-down stories, resilient worship practices, a recorded history of argument about multiple worldviews related to those stories and practices, narrated exemplars of Christian lives lived well… and so on. And whilst I think that much of what I have just said about habitability can survive the transition to this second stage, there is no doubt that the appropriate criteria become even harder to talk about if one is asking about the habitability of a whole tradition.

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