Demonstrations of God’s existence have long been a staple in philosophy courses taught at Catholic colleges and universities. The heritage is venerable, stretching back from the present day to the ancient Greeks. In his eminently readable God in Proof, Nathan Schneider presents this history of proving not as a merely academic exercise but as an existential quest of the highest importance in his own life.
Though the book is informed by considerable scholarship (as evidenced in his ample footnotes, which rely almost entirely on primary sources), Schneider’s audience includes anyone with an interest in intellectual history and faith. Tracing the philosophical dialectic in a manner both responsible to the issues and accessible to the ordinary reader, Schneider weaves together intellectual history with his own quest for faith. A motivational puzzle drives the project: “Why is it that for some of us, everything depends on these proofs, while for others they’re completely beside the point?” In other words, why care about proofs at all?
Schneider’s parents raised him on the premise “that I should choose what to believe about religious things, since they were still choosing for themselves.” By adolescence he felt a keen need for answers to the big questions, and “no answer seemed more satisfying than a proof.” His early enthusiasm for proving fits nicely with his exposition of ancient and medieval efforts in the early chapters, which cover not only Plato, Aristotle and Christian theologians, but also Muslim, Jewish and Indian thinkers.
Up to the early modern period in Europe, an optimism about the abilities of reason marked the practice of proving God’s existence. This was as true of rationalists like Descartes as of Aristotle, Anselm and Aquinas. As Schneider finishes his first year of college, his quest for answers has led him to the Rite of Christian Intiation of Adults and baptism into the Roman Catholic Church. Chapter 4 is particularly effective in linking the rationalists’ quest for certainty with Schneider’s struggles to maintain his precarious confidence in Catholic belief in the face of doubts and challenges. Baptism had proven to be no panacea against doubt, but rather the beginning of a process of purgation on the way to a “more interesting kind of faith.” At this point, he notices that the whole work of proving—a traditionally male-dominated, often solitary enterprise—leaves out crucial elements of his new-found Catholic faith: Christ, the poor and community. Schneider has learned that a “God worth believing in would have to pull me out of myself, beyond what delusions my head could conjure for its own comfort.”
Chapters 5 to 7 trace the ripening skepticism about reason and God, from Hume through Darwin to the atheist scientists and philosophers of the 20th century. Along the way, Schneider notices a striking shift in audience. In previous eras, both sides of the debate were believers, concerned primarily with testing arguments so as to find the best proofs. As atheists publicly declared themselves, however, the debates took on a deeper existential significance, a life-and-death matter of the very possibility of reasonable Christian belief. The problem of evil makes the God question all the more urgent and difficult: how can an all-good, all-powerful God permit the massive amounts of suffering and evil we observe? Schneider articulates this challenge to faith quite sharply, conveying the sense that atheists seem to have the easier answer. In their view, suffering is a mere byproduct of an indifferent, evolving universe. In his own life, these chapters coincide with his personal maturation into the life of faith, as he recognizes the atheism that still lurks in his heart. As he confesses to his atheist uncle, a scientist, “a part of me has never stopped being an atheist.”
Chapters 8 to 10 bring us through the second half of the 20th century to the present day. Supplementing primary literature with interviews, Schneider does a good job of clearly communicating the dialectic of argument and counterargument, moving from the academic revival of analytically rigorous Christian philosophy (sparked above all by Alvin Plantinga), through the attempts to support belief in God with contemporary scientific reasoning, to the popular debates that pit the New Atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett) against evangelical apologists—both sides aided and abetted by a hyperactive blogosphere.
So why care about God proofs? Schneider’s answer emerges over the course of the book, partly through his deft interweaving of his own quest for belief with the back-and-forth of intellectual history, and partly through his vivid description of those involved in current debates. Parties on both sides keenly desire that their belief or unbelief be demonstrably true. For some—again on both sides—that desire grows into a proselytizing zeal. Where does Schneider himself stand on the issue of God’s existence, after all his searching? Though he confesses that God still “remains a question” for him, his musings in the final chapter link such doubt to a more profound answer to the question, why care? The genre of proving, he ventures, “is a gift (or a burden) not given to everyone, one whose recipients share a common bond.” Thus those who participate in the practice of proving represent a “subcommunion of saints.” In the end, Schneider hints that the practice of proving, ever inconclusive, is itself an opening on the divine.