To say that Nathan Schneider is particularly concerned with religion and activism belies his wide-ranging interests and accomplishments as an editor and writer. At the age of 28, Schneider defines the next generation of public intellectuals—fiercely articulate, indefatigably curious and Internet-savvy.
In 2008, shortly after earning an MA in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Schneider began his editing career at Killing the Buddha, an online religion magazine. As a writer, Schneider has brought a clear-eyed enthusiasm to his commentary on the Occupy movement for The Nation, Harper’s, and The New York Times. He has also written about the largesse of the Templeton Foundation and profiled the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Schneider’s “The Biblical Circus of William Stringfellow,” the first of many contributions to RD, appeared just four weeks after RD’s launch in early 2008.
His new book, God In Proof, is the story of “the search for proofs for God’s existence”—how dozens of world-historical thinkers have applied logic and reason to questions of faith. Schneider summarizes the arguments put forward by ancient Greeks, early Christians, medieval Muslims and Jews, and the grand figures of the Enlightenment, in addition to more recent arguments, like Intelligent Design and the surprising rise of philosophy as a witnessing tool for evangelicals.
A scrupulous historian, Schneider does not leave out the thinkers, from Darwin to Dawkins, whose work has been deployed to argue against the existence of God.
God in Proof is a fascinating intellectual history, but it’s also a spiritual memoir—“a history of my religious opinions,” writes Schneider, quoting Cardinal Newman. Raised by a secular Jewish father and a mother who turned to Eastern meditation, Schneider found Catholicism as a college student. As he recounts the proofs for the existence of God, Schneider tests his own less definitive faith against them, the result of which is an engaging book that never resorts to tendentiousness or narcissism.[Full disclosure: I have worked with Schneider and consider him a friend.]
God in Proof is a hybrid book, part history, part memoir. What inspired you to combine these genres?
I guess I came by the combination honestly. I’ve spent the past ten years coming to terms with the experience of converting to Catholicism at 18, and that process caused me to read a lot of dead writers. In the course of reading them through the lens of my own experience, it became clear that the ideas of these writers were products of experience—and anguish and struggle—as well as of abstract thought. Most histories of theistic proofs today, however, leave out the experience and focus only on the abstraction. I wanted to return these ideas to the flesh from which they came. Maybe it seemed only fair that I should put my own flesh on the table, too.
Also, I wrote much of the book while working as an editor for Killing the Buddha, a publication with a special knack for first-person narratives, so I learned a lot of tricks from the writers and fellow editors there.
One of the major themes of God in Proof is the tension that you experienced due to conflicting desires for solitude and community.
Story of my life—maybe of everyone’s life.
I noticed, however, that in the story of proofs this tension plays out in a way that’s especially revealing about the masculinity of those doing the proving. While many of them first learned their faith from the prayers of their mothers, and from the communities that raised them, they feel driven to confirm that faith in the solitude of their own head. Then they proceed to claim that their heads came up with the whole thing from scratch. This is, I think, one of the devilish little tricks of patriarchy—to write mothers and communities out of the story with the correcting fluid of pure reason.
You write that “faith is a process, not a possession.” You seem to be arguing that the proof of the existence of God is in the desire for faith.
Well, there is an “argument from desire” that was semi-articulated by Augustine and Aquinas, and that C.S. Lewis used to great effect: that the desire for God people feel is in some sense a demonstration that a God actually exists to fulfill it. Peter Kreeft is the major expositor of this nowadays, and he has told me that it’s especially popular among his students at the Berklee College of Music, who are otherwise less than enthralled with philosophy. I for one don’t find a whole lot of satisfaction in this argument, though I do think it’s a useful description of an experience lots of people have.
When I say faith is a process, I mean it’s not a static thing that one either has or doesn’t, like some kind of tumor or fluency in a language; it’s a way of being and thinking and loving that must be practiced and cultivated.
Why do you think so many people keep trying to reconcile faith and logic or faith and science? Isn’t faith inherently illogical?
Nah, I wouldn’t say faith is inherently illogical. Faith of any sort is always in a dance with reason. People have faith in airplanes because of past experience and the reasonable assurances of the FAA—though, as Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic” reminds us, there are no guarantees. Religious faith isn’t the same thing as logic, but religious people of all sorts try to make their faith be informed by logic to one extent or another. The people I describe in God in Proof—whether historical figures or contemporary hobbyists and philosophers—tend to do so more vigorously than the general population, on average.
Both sides of what you call the “proof industry”—how certain Christians and atheists promote and profit from their arguments—have a strong evangelical impulse. What do you think lies at the heart of this? Why is belief or unbelief not merely a personal matter?
It happens to be the case that our beliefs become stronger and more satisfying when we manage to convince others of them; doing so also strengthens our personal commitment to those beliefs because of the power dynamics we experience as a result of persuading others. (Consult an evolutionary psychologist for a plethora of possible reasons why.) A lot of people get into the business of proofs because they themselves have experienced radical doubt at some point in their lives. They feel compelled to look for reasons for things that others are content to accept on faith. It seems sensible that people inclined toward frustrating doubt would be likely to get really high off of the satisfaction of evangelizing.
A more charitable, and also true answer: If you happen to believe something is true, and valuable, and important, isn’t it incumbent upon you to tell others? Isn’t that the right thing to do?
One of the more striking figures in the book is William Lane Craig, the fierce debater and evangelical philosopher. You seem to be both attracted to and repelled by him. Why?
All sorts of reasons. He reminds me of my grandfather in some ways, for one. For another: in all my training in religious studies, I was repeatedly assured that rational arguments for the basic tenets of Christian doctrine had been done away with by the time of David Hume. In Craig I found a very articulate disproof of this—the battle continues! I’m not, however, very inspired by the aesthetics of his faith, or by the conclusions he draws from it. I’ve learned a lot from him about philosophy and, actually, a lot about human decency. I’m less enraptured by his dismay about homosexuality.
To a reporter, Craig is in many respects the perfect subject. He’s a hugely polarizing cult icon, literally a savior to thousands of teenage evangelical boys who’ve wrestled with doubt, and he’s the atheist crusaders’ most feared enemy. He’s also a gifted organizer [who is helping to hatch] an ingenious plan to transform the map of academic philosophy. Inside particular subcultures of evangelical atheists and evangelical Christians, he’s a huge celebrity; but outside them, he’s almost completely unknown. That may change soon.
How does religion inform (or not inform) your interest in activism?
It’s weird. For all my questing for intellectual certainty about religious things, none of it has ended up strengthening my faith in a crucified God of love and the workings of a Spirit than the witness of people in struggles for dignity and justice. Some of those people have been themselves religious, and others haven’t been. There may in fact be more robust religious faith on display in my book about Occupy Wall Street [Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse (UC Press, September 22, 2013)], than in my book about God. But hopefully there are good things to be learned from our less robust moments, too.
With the publication of God in Proof and Thank You, Anarchy, this has been a remarkably fruitful year for Nathan Schneider. What’s your next project?
I don’t know exactly, thank goodness. A have a couple of armchair projects in mind that I’ll undertake someday when I’m mired in responsibility and stuck in one place. But for now I feel a strong calling to help amplify stories out in the world that wouldn’t otherwise be heard. My New Year’s resolution is that I’m not allowed to write about myself anymore, and it’s awesome.