I remember once hearing a young father tell me that he would not influence his children to believe or to not believe that God exists. When the children reached adolescence or at least the age of rational choice based on rational argument they could make the decision for themselves. Since they had no experience of church or Sunday School it turned out they had no decision to make; they just refrained from doing anything different from what they had always done
The father was not a philosopher but no doubt he would have agreed with the nineteenth century liberal and utilitarian J.S. Mill:
The most important quality of an opinion on any momentous subject is its truth or falsity, which to us resolves itself into the sufficiency of the evidence on which it rests. It is indispensable that the subject of religion should from time to time be reviewed as a strictly scientific question and that its evidences should be tested by the same scientific methods, and on the same principles as those of any of the speculative conclusions drawn by physical science.J.S.Mill “Theism”
Science may be useful or helpful when considering religious beliefs. Consideration of the world and what it tells us of God has been part of natural theology at least since Aquinas. One-time atheist philosopher Antony Flew has written an interesting work There Is A God (HarperCollins 2007) in which he explains why he changed his mind on God on the basis of recent scientific research. But in what way can science focused on religion make a judgement challenging the truth of God one way or the other? Mill points to “scientific methods” presumably referring to the empirical idea of the detached observer considering evidence impartially. But what evidence? Can God be known by the detached observer?
As Ian Robinson explains:
“Existence” as Mill uses it at once transfers the discussion to the wrong science, and to the kind of evidence we would demand for the existence of the planets or the elements. If the existence of God is the same kind of question as the existence of uranium or Uranos it can be investigated by physics. Scientists do occasionally discover new celestial objects but God has never been spied through a telescope. Therefore, thinks Mill, with what I had to call startling naivety, the existence of God is at best not proven. No, all that follows is God is not a celestial object. The methods of physical science apply to physical things, but we are told that God is spirit.Ian Robinson The English Prophets Edgeways 2001
Religion does not start from the Mill’s rational viewpoint. As Robinson argues the Creed does not begin “I believe that God exists therefore….” ; it starts from an inside commitment. “I believe in God …”
So that the fact Mill in his essay thinks on balance the existence of God as first cause is more likely than not does not mean he commits to God as the “light of the world or saviour”. He questions whether Mill is speaking about religion at all. For what is religion?
Religion has to do with things like certain practices called sacramental, associated with the divine, with absolutes in morality, with credal belief in revelation, with prayer. It also gives us a picture of human life though not a picture to be contemplated in an art gallery. The central Christian image derived from the Old Testament, is walking in a way. That is how Christians prove the existence of God. “If ye love me keep my commandments”. I do not go as far as Wittgenstein that it makes no difference whether the crucifixion actually happened. What concerns religion is the attitude of the soul to the event, and the consequences for living.Ian Robinson ibid
Conversion, repentance, a changed life, may have physical effects but strictly the measurement of such is not something science can yield; only a sense, within and perhaps in community, of a changed life. Curiously Mill as he describes in his Autobiography goes through a kind of conversion from the kind of desiccated education he has been subject to as a child by reading Wordsworth’s poetry -but this does not leads him to prioritise the inner life in his philosophy. Nor does he ask in what way Science proves the existence of poetry-though clearly, for him, poetry creates a “momentous” change.
So the young father was as deluded in his idea as he would have been in denying his children the practice of reading poetry, until they were of an age when such a choice could be made rationally. And while natural theology may make interesting reading religion is closer to poetry than it is to science.