At the end of Pratchett’s non-discworld novel “Nation”, he suggests that several things included in the book, such as dodging bullets fired into water, gazing into the heavens through a telescope in broad daylight, and firing cannons made of ice, should not be “tried at home” or “attempted without the help of an adult who knows what they are doing”. But on “Thinking”, he has this to say: “This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.”
I picked up a copy of this book where you never, never find any Pratchett novels: on a remainder book sale table. I’ve just finished it, and, while not his greatest work, it is one that contains much that might be of interest to readers of this blog, because it is essentially about the relationship between science and religion. In that sense, it fits right in with the debate surrounding the new atheism (“Professor Dawkins” even gets a mention at the end). It is, of course, a work of fiction, but as one reviewer put it
This is a book that truly does encourage its readers, of any age, to question the role of religion and rationalism in their lives, rather than hammering them over the head with a prepackaged point of view, a la the His Dark Materials books or, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Narnia series. It rejects easy solutions to the conflict between the two, and embraces the messiness of human attitudes towards both. The present day coda, in which a character who is quite obviously a blatant authorial insertion speaks directly to the readers’ stand-ins, bemusedly notes the resilience of magical thinking even in our rational age, and leaves it to the readers to decide whether this is a good thing.
The “authorial insertion” at the end has this passage (a bit of a spoiler, but never mind):
‘Everything I know makes me believe Imo [the “God” of the novel] is in the order which is inherent, amazingly, in all things, and in the way the universe opens to our questioning. When I see the shining path over the lagoon, on an evening like this, at the end of a good day, I believe.’
‘In Imo?’, said the girl.
This got a smile. ‘Perhaps. I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.’
That fits with the words of the author himself cited in this review in the Telegraph: “I’m drawn to the stance of the old man in this book, who says that if one doesn’t actually believe, one ought at least to live one’s life believingly!”
There is something in that of Pope Benedict’s “veluti si Deus daretur”:
Does not today’s situation of the world make us think perhaps that he [Kant] might have been right? I would like to express it in a different way: The attempt, carried to the extreme, to manage human affairs disdaining God completely leads us increasingly to the edge of the abyss, to man’s ever greater isolation from reality. We must reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: Even one who does not succeed in finding the way of accepting God, should, nevertheless, seek to live and to direct his life “veluti si Deus daretur,” as if God existed. This is the advice Pascal gave to his friends who did not believe. In this way, no one is limited in his freedom, but all our affairs find the support and criterion of which they are in urgent need.
It also recalls for me the recent “Court of the Gentiles” address of Pope Benedict via video to young people in Paris:
Dear young people, what you can share is not only your experience of life, but also your approach to prayer. Believers and non-believers, as you stand in this court of the Unknown, you are also invited to approach the sacred space, to pass through the magnificent portal of Notre Dame and to enter the cathedral for a moment of prayer. For some of you this will be a prayer to a God you already know by faith, but for others it may be a prayer to the Unknown God. Dear young friends who are non-believers, as you join those who pray in Notre Dame on this day of the Annunciation of the Lord, open your hearts to the sacred texts, let yourselves be challenged by the beauty of the music and, if you truly desire it, let your deepest feelings rise towards the Unknown God.
I am happy to have been able to speak to you this evening for the inauguration of the Court of the Gentiles. I hope you will be able to join me for the other events to which I have invited you, especially the World Youth Day to be held in Madrid this coming summer. The God whom believers learn to know invites you to discover him and to find ever greater life in him. Do not be afraid! As you walk together towards a new world, seek the Absolute, seek God, even if for you he is the Unknown God.
I was going to do a separate post on the “Personal Absolute”, as a way of presenting God to secular young people, but I think you will get what I mean by this post. The first step in opening “non-religious” people to a knowledge of God is surely to encourage them to see that even “if one doesn’t actually believe” there is at least merit in deciding “at least to live one’s life believingly!”
In any case, this is a book about “thinking” and both the atheist and the believer will find its a worthwhile read.