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John Updike, Massachusetts, 1984; photographs by Dominique Nabokov

“Religion enables us to ignore nothingness and get on with the jobs of life.

Perhaps there are two kinds of people: those for whom nothingness is no problem, and those for whom it is an insuperable problem, an outrageous cancellation rendering every other concern, from mismatching socks to nuclear holocaust, negligible. Tenacious of this terror, this adamant essence as crucial to us as our sexuality, we resist those kindly stoic consolers who assure us that we will outwear the fright, that we will grow numb and accepting and, as it were, religiously impotent. As Unamuno says, with the rhythms of a stubborn child, ‘I do not want to die – no; I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live forever and ever and ever. I want this ‘I’ to live – this poor ‘I’ that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now.’

The objections of material science and liberal ethics to this desperate wanting to belong to the outer, sunlit world, of sense and the senses; our wanting and its soothing belong to the elusive dark world within. Emerson, in Nature, points out ‘the total disparity between the evidence of our own being, and the evidence of the world’s being.’ Evidence of God’s being lies with that of our own; it is on our side of the total disparity that God lives. In the light, we disown Him, embarrassedly; in the dark, He is our only guarantor, our only shield against death. The impalpable self cries out to Him and wonders if it detects an answer. Like the inner of the two bonded strips of metal in a thermostat, the self curls against Him and presses. The need for our ‘I’ to have its ‘Thou,’ something other than ourselves yet sharing our subjectivity, something amplifying it indeed to the out rim of creation, survives all embarrassments, all silence, all refusals on either side. The sensation of silence cannot be helped: a loud and evident God would be a bully, an insecure tyrant, an all-crushing datum instead of, as He is, a bottomless encouragement to our faltering and frightened being. His answers come in the long run, as the large facts of our lives, strung on that thread running through all things. Religion includes, as its enemies say, fatalism, an acceptance and consecration of what is.

The thermostat image needs adjusting: God is a dark sphere enclosing the pinpoint of our selves, an adamant bubble enclosing us, protecting us, enabling us to let go, to ride the waves of what is.”


From John Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. No one writes with such self-assurance and style about the metaphysical headaches that plague anyone who honestly tries to find answers to The Big Questions. Updike brings to this task the same eye for detail and consummate precision that make his novels so distinct and so engrossing.

Still, there are some additional voices which may be worth bringing into this discussion about whether belief in the existence of God may be rightfully called ‘properly basic’ — that’s to say, whether it may be reflexively assumed by “the elusive dark world within”.

In Whit Stillman’s movie Metropolitan (1990), a scene at a posh Manhattan cocktail party kicks off with the following heady exchange between two of the film’s young protagonists:

Charlie Black: Of course there is a God. We all basically know there is.

Cynthia McLean: I know no such thing.

Charlie Black: Of course you do. When you think to yourself — and most of our waking life is taken up thinking to ourselves — you must have that feeling that your thoughts aren’t entirely wasted, that in some sense they are being heard. Rationally, they aren’t. You’re entirely alone. Even the people to whom we are closest can have no real idea of what is going on in our minds. We aren’t devastated by loneliness because, at a hardly conscious level, we don’t accept that we’re entirely alone. I think this sensation of being silently listened to with total comprehension — something you never find in real life — represents our innate belief in a supreme being, some all-comprehending intelligence.

When he was eighty-four, the renowned Oxford philosopher and lifelong atheist Anthony Flew wrote There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, a short treatise that justified his controversial late-life turn to theism. In it, he writes about a challenge made to one of his arguments for atheism:

By far, the headiest challenge to the argument [Flew’s ‘presumption of atheism’: the argument that the burden of proof is on the theist] came from America. The modal logician Alvin Plantinga introduced the idea that theism is a properly basic belief. He asserted that belief in God is similar to belief in other basic truths, such as belief in other minds or perception (seeing a tree) or memory (belief in the past). In al these instances, you trust your cognitive faculties, although you cannot prove the truth of the belief in question. Similarly, people take on certain propositions (e.g., the existence of the world) as basic and others as derivative from these basic propositions. Believers, it is argued, take the existence of God as a basic proposition.

Another great Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, provided a foundation for Plantinga’s theory in his 1945 lecture “Is Theology Poetry?”. This talk contains the following excerpt, which is widely acclaimed but often ignored or distorted by those who merely quote its final sentence:

This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams: I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner: I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience.

The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world: the dream world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific point of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.

While Lewis was making this speech at Oxford, Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself as resolute a skeptic as Flew and Lewis and Updike had once been, was at Cambridge compiling the text of his famed Philosophical Investigations, which contain the following affirmation of god as a properly basic belief:

A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists. But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their ‘belief’ an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs. Perhaps one could ‘convince someone that God exists’ by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such a way.

Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don’t mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the ‘existence of this being’, but, e.g., sufferings of various sorts. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts, — life can force this concept on us.

I have posted more from this work as well as some further reflections on in on it: Wittgenstein on God and Belief.

If you want to read more about Updike’s cosmology, check out his discussion of it in Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist?:

John Updike

 The Universe Was Once Bounded in a Point the Size of a Period.

If you want some heavier and headier stuff, wade through a challenging section from Plantinga’s essay “Game Scientists Play”:

Alvin Plantinga Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Evolutionary Psychology and Christian Belief