Jesus Salva

Demonstrating the Lord works in mysterious ways, University of Oxford academics have received a research grant of pound stg. 1.9 million (which equals the Tasmanian budget on the present exchange rate) to investigate why people believe in God.

That the question has come up at all is a sign, not necessarily a divine one, of the times.

A century ago the answer would have been obvious: people believed in God because the supreme being's existence was manifest, what with him (never her) being omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient.

Two hundred years back, believing in God was also essential to stay out of the slammer, what with the way atheists tended to end up under arrest whenever the state was short ofscapegoats.

Before then, believing in God, particularly the version the king was keen on, was essential to avoid heresy charges: never a good career move.

But today there is no script to stick to. Everybody has to work out whether they believe in God and academics are to ask questions that once would have seemed silly, or suicidal.

According to The Times, the Oxford scholars will spend the money on working out whether believing in God is a matter of nature or nurture.

The nurture argument says we believe what we are told.

This will appeal to the sorts of clergy who are more interested in revolution than the resurrection. People who believe in God are reared in families where they are taught compassion for others, responsibility for their actions and to have faith that people of goodwill can work together for the greater good. As such, believers are obviously sinners, damned because they clearly do not need divine assistance as much as individuals who don't know or don't care if God exists.

These people do not get a go in the nature theory, which holds that humanity is genetically hard-wired to believe in gods. Apparently since the dawn of time, a belief in a supreme being, who keeps a note on what we are up to, has given individuals a reason to live and get along with each other.

Maybe this is so. After all, people have faith in things much lighter on for evidence: that Brendan Nelson will be PM, that Wayne Swan will work out what NAIRU means.

As for the evolution argument, that religion helped humanity survive, maybe hymn singing among our ancient ancestors kept the sabre-toothed tigers outside the cave and the threat of human sacrifice to appease the gods kept everybody in tune. Who knows? But the problem with this argument is that, rather than die out, there are more non-believers than there were when atheism was a capital crime.

When you take into account the cost of international travel to conferences to consider these weighty questions, it's obvious the boffins will battle to manage on a mere two million quid.

So it's a good thing they will not have enough money to get into the doctrinal detail. Because finding people to explain the Albigensian heresy and scholars who are across the finer points of Socinianism is not cheap. And this is before anybody gets interested in other religions, which have doctrinal differences of their own.

An even better reason to leave the detail alone is that people get worked up over it. It's not that long ago that Europeans went to war over whether there should be statues in church, and fanatics of many theological flavours are still keen to kill everybody who does not agree with them. So we should praise whoever that it's only the reason religion exists that is on the agenda.

This also means there is one idea that will definitely not get a guernsey. That's the possibility that people believe in a supreme being because a large voice told them to sit up spiritually straight or because they have a deep faith in a divine presence. This is an obviously absurd idea. After all, it makes as much sense as believing the sacred religious texts are divinely inspired. And what theological scholar could come at that?


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