8 min read

Prince William's doubt is normal - it's impossible to be certain whether there is a God

Our limited human understanding means we will never fully understand God in this life, writes Graham Tomlin.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A young man wearing a dark suit talks to a minister wearing regalia.
Prince William talks with the Dean of Westminster Abbey, 2019.
LPhot Belinda Alker, OGL 3, via Wikimedia Commons.

A new book, serialised in the Daily Mail, suggests Prince William is wondering whether he really wants to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England. While he respects the Church, it claims, he doesn’t consider himself particularly religious and doubts if he should head up a church he doesn’t attend much. There has been a fair amount of comment on the contrast between his grandmother’s strong Christian faith, increasingly evident in her Christmas broadcasts as she came to the end of her life, and that of his father, who has also made a point since his accession to the throne of emphasising his own personal Christian commitment, both in statements around the time he became king, and in his Christmas broadcast this past year.  

William, however, is less forthcoming. He was dutifully confirmed at Eton at the age of 14, and goes to church at Christmas and Easter, so presumably is not a hardened Dawkins-esque atheist. Like many of his generation he probably has his doubts about God and religion, doesn't often speak publicly about faith and so it's hard to know from the outside whether this really is a motivating force in his life or not.  

Of course, there is a whole separate argument about why personal faith, while it helps, is not strictly necessary for such a role. Many British monarchs in the past have not had a very strong Christian faith. The significance of the role rests in the office not the person - it is a constitutional not a personal, arrangement. But that is a different story. What interests me is what this story tells us about faith and doubt and the experience of what it is to believe. 

Like in my atheist days, I have days when I wake up and wonder whether it's all true. Am I deceiving myself?

I was once an atheist. Yet, like most atheists, I had my doubts. I tried to get on with my life not believing in God, yet every now and again something would happen to make me doubt my atheism. I would meet a Christian with a profoundly impressive life motivated by their faith and it disturbed me. An argument from a Christian writer momentarily seemed strangely plausible. An encounter of the beauty and wonder of nature suddenly might lodge the thought in my mind that maybe there is a Creator after all? Like all good atheists, however, I managed to push these thoughts to the back of my mind. I learn to doubt and resist these impulses and return to my central take on the world which was that there definitely is no God. 

As it happened, in time, my doubts became too strong for me, and I began to think that Christian faith made more sense of the world than atheism did. And so, eventually and slowly, I became a Christian. Of course, the process happens the other way around as well. People with a notional Christian faith start to doubt it to the extent that it no longer makes sense to them.  

I have now been a Christian for many years and a Bishop for a few of those. Like in my atheist days, I have days when I wake up and wonder whether it's all true. Am I deceiving myself? Have I wasted most of my life on something that is not real? I might read a book that is sceptical about some aspect of the Christian story and a doubt niggles away in the back of my mind. God suddenly appears silent in answer to heartfelt prayers, and for a moment I wonder if he is there at all. I have doubts, just as I did in my atheist days.  

But just like I did when I was an atheist, I learned to doubt my doubts. Atheists often challenge Christians to come up with a piece of evidence that would suggest that God exists. And sometimes we try, with arguments from the design of the universe, apparent miracles, fulfilment of biblical prophecies and so on. But they never quite convince. The reason they don't convince is that the atheist can always come up with an alternative explanation. And that takes us to the heart of the issue.  

For Christians, and for other believers in God for that matter, God is not another object in the universe that can be proved or disproved. I might find indications that point in the direction of there being a God but, as the atheist points out, you can always explain them away in some form or other. 

Instead, atheism and belief in God are better seen, not as the result of a process of sifting evidence, looking for proof one way or another, but as different ways of looking at the world.  

A cartoon etching of a duck that looks like a rabbit.
Wittgenstein's cartoon.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once picked up a common cartoon that circulated in German comic newspapers in the late nineteenth century to make a similar point. Looked at one way, it looks like a rabbit. Look at it another way it looks like a duck. Whether you see a rabbit or a duck is dependent upon other factors. Children who have just been to the local duckpond might be inclined to see a duck. Someone with a pet rabbit might be inclined to see a rabbit. Wittgenstein’s point was about the way concepts in our mind shape our perceptions of reality. We may perceive the same thing, but we see it as something different. 

This idea of ‘seeing as’ – seeing something not just in itself, but ‘as’ something shaped by our mind’s perceptions, became well known in philosophy after Wittgenstein’s use of the image. It may help us in thinking about belief in God as well.   

On a Christmas Day edition of ‘The Rest is Politics’ with Alistair Campbell and Rory Stewart (soon after his appearance on Re-Enchanting’), two of the most popular podcasts of our times met when Tom Holland of ‘The Rest is History’ came on the podcast. As it was Christmas Day, Alistair Campbell asked Tom Holland whether he believed the Christmas story and all the rest of the Bible. His reply referred to this very picture of the duck / rabbit, and he said:  “There are times where I can believe it, and there are other times where I look at the stories and think this is absolutely ridiculous - how could it possibly be true? I think the Infinity of space, I think of vast geological time and I think it's absolutely nonsense. So I kind of veer between the two.” 

In a way he’s right. You can’t decide between the two ways of looking at the picture by some process of forensic scientific evidence. There is no ultimate way of deciding whether it is a duck or a rabbit.  

Now the analogy with faith is imperfect. The picture could be a rabbit, it could be a duck. Whereas, to put it bluntly - there either is or is not a God – both can’t be true. Where the image helps us, is that in our limited understanding of things it is impossible for any of us to say, whether believer or atheist, that we know 100 per cent definitively that there is or is not a God. Even Richard Dawkins agrees on that point! 

The other difference is that you can’t be neutral on this. Whether you see it as a duck or a rabbit probably makes no difference to your life. Yet faith is more than just an opinion. It is a way of life. To ‘believe’ in God, in the Christian sense of ‘believe’ is not just to hold the opinion in your head that God exists, but to decide to live as if it true that God exists, that he is revealed in Jesus Christ, that each person you meet each day is a precious soul, for whom Jesus died and so on. 

The American philosopher Michael Novak put it like this:  

“The centre of the argument concerns whether I should think of the universe as impersonal and indifferent to me, and ruled by randomness and chance. Or whether I should interpret it as personal through and through, in such a way that all things that are and have been and will be dwell in the presence of God a person who understands and chooses all that he brings out of nothingness into existence.” 

Whatever faith position you take up - to believe that there is a God or that there isn't, you will have doubts. But the nature of faith is not to have an absence of doubt, but it's how you treat those doubts. At the end of the day, each of us has to decide which approach makes most sense of the world that we experience every day. Does the problem of Evil – why bad things sometimes happen - mean you can’t believe in God? Or does the problem of Good – why good things sometimes happen – mean you can’t be an atheist? 

Prince William, and Tom Holland for that matter may have their doubts about faith, But that is no reason not to decide to believe.

When I became a Christian it was because the world no longer made sense to me as a place that emerged by chance, that has no ultimate purpose, that our intelligence emerged literally from non-sense. Our deep need for love seemed to fit better with the idea that this world emerged out of love, than that it emerged from a heartless, random void. Seeing the world in that way makes better sense to me than the alternative. It doesn't mean everything suddenly makes sense, but it does offer me a better way of thinking and living in the world. I can't prove it. I have my days of doubt. But that's the way I choose to believe, and choose to live.

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)