On things we cannot prove

Alister McGrath outlines the human predicament, whether you’re an atheist or a religious believer.



Alister McGrath outlines the human predicament, whether you’re an atheist or a religious believer.


I think many people, particularly from the New Atheism, would say, well, God is just an unevidenced entity that’s proposed for the world. In other words, it’s like some teapot orbiting the planet Jupiter, or something like that. There’s no evidence for that, so why believe in that. 

I think it’s very interesting to note how this whole idea seems to assume that God is an object within the world. And of course, if you’re a religious believer you’ll just say, well, that’s not what I believe at all. It’s much more about God being the ground of our being, the framework within which the universe is set. It’s something much greater than that – it’s not so much an object within the world, it is something that gives the world meaning. 

In my own case, actually, I believe in God primarily, I think, because God gives stability to meaning and value. In other words, it’s not just believing that there is a God, it’s that if there isn’t a God, then we can’t give any stability to ideas of what is good, what is meaningful. And these are extremely important things for human life.

Let’s take this a stage further. I mean I cannot prove that things called human rights exist. I don’t think anybody listening to me now would say, well, that’s a reason for giving up on human rights. I cannot prove what is good – but that doesn’t stop me trying to be good, even though I can’t prove what the good is. 

The reality, which I think many people have failed to grasp, is that the human predicament is such that we cannot prove the most ultimate beliefs on which life is based. Whether you’re an atheist or a religious person or a politician, you end up believing things you cannot prove. And that’s just the way things are. And I have to say I’m very, very sceptical about these simplistic arguments that we only believe what we can prove. It’s not right. We can prove shallow truths. But the deep truths which give life meaning and value, they lie beyond proof.