On a philosophical level, you could turn this question around and ask, say, would it matter if nobody believed in Italy any more? In a sense, no: because Italy would still exist. So from a point of view of existence, if God exists, and nobody believed in him, it wouldn’t make any difference to that existence.
Yet the real question is, what difference would it make to us – to society? In the West, all of our morality is based on the Judeo-Christian tradition. That’s not to say you can’t have morals without religion, because obviously you can: what makes us unique as a species is our ethical sense.
"You get fundamentalist believers who are absolutely convinced they can pin God down and they know exactly what he is like, and you have humanists who are equally convinced that there is nothing there."
However, as a matter of historical fact, our morality comes from that tradition, and if it is lost, we lose some sense of understanding of where our morals have come from. I think religion at its best gives us something to aim at: something that calls us beyond ourselves, and our limitations. And if we stop believing in God, there’s a risk that we will lose that.
It’s not a target to aim at – it’s more like a dream, an aspiration, something you know you’re never going to get to but it’s always going to call you on. [19th century German philosopher Ludwig] Feuerbach said that God is just a projection of our human self-consciousness. I think whether there is anything there is an open question.
You get fundamentalist believers who are absolutely convinced they can pin God down and they know exactly what he is like, and you have humanists who are equally convinced that there is nothing there. I think that faith is somewhere in the middle of that, even if that does sound like agnosticism. It’s questioning whether there is anything beyond, and acting as if there is.
"If it were announced tomorrow that there is no God, society would not immediately collapse. We have established things like the rule of law."
That’s faith. It’s not knowledge – it’s truth and belief. I think maybe if we stop believing then we have closed down that transcendence, and I think it is transcendence that makes us human. It’s how we overcome our limitations, so if we stopped believing in God, we’d be limiting our goals.
If it were announced tomorrow that there is no God, society would not immediately collapse. We have established things like the rule of law. But I suspect we’re beginning to see that that’s not as robust as we’d like it to be. Just look at the High Court ruling on Brexit, and the way the media turned on the judges and said they had to obey the will of the people. The rule of law can be very fragile.
"I think what religion can do, what God can do, is to hold up a mirror and say, ‘This is what you are’. It can give you a vision of something beyond the human; something to aspire to."
Let’s not forget that the rule of law, the myth of the Magna Carta, was originally a way of curtailing what was thought to be the divine right of kings to rule absolutely. All societies across the world have evolved but historically religion was their default condition. In the West it wasn’t feasible until the 16th or 17th Century to speak publicly about atheism or any alternative means of morality.
I think what religion can do, what God can do, is to hold up a mirror and say, ‘This is what you are’. It can give you a vision of something beyond the human; something to aspire to. I’m not suggesting that society absolutely needs that, but as we have it, why not use it? Why not take the best bits of religious belief and use them to our good?
I’m speaking there as a philosopher, not as an ordained Christian minister. I don’t think religion makes someone a better person, or that Christians or religious believers are better than atheists. I think religion, and God, gives them the tools and the vision to aim at something better – and I think if we lost that, we would be impoverished.