Michael Novak, “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers”

This book’s author, Michael Novak, was erudite and rightly acclaimed.  He was around for a long time; he cites in this 2008 book a few times his own book Belief and Unbelief — which he wrote in 1965, more than forty years earlier.  And I enjoyed the book I’ll be discussing here.


The book’s overarching theme is a call for more mutual respect and conversational civility between atheists and believers.  We all have much in common, after all, including the fact that — as the title says — none of us has seen God.  See 1 John 4:12 — “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”  The book also contains plenty of direct and indirect apologetics:  While the author believes that atheists and believers should be civil, he shows that the latter have the better arguments. I don’t know that couching arguments in terms of a plea for mutual respect ultimately helps most readers, though it won’t hurt them either — so long as punches aren’t pulled.  Sometimes I felt that Novak was too nice to atheists and atheism, but of course he had to be given the theme of the book.  I’ll end this overview paragraph by noting that the book has a reasonably graceful penultimate paragraph, but a clunky and Yoda-esque concluding sentence.

While the book does meander a bit (the author indirectly  and winsomely acknowledges this on page 203), the first half, in particular, is straightforward enough.  The author begins by addressing at some length various prominent modern atheists — Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, and Richard Dawkins; then Christopher Hitchens; and finally his fellow right-of-center intellectual, his friend (and mine) Heather Mac Donald.

In the second part of the book, Novak continues more generally with the direct and indirect apologetics and his call for civility.  His apologists hall of fame includes, among others, C.S. Lewis (86).  The need for this book to include some apologetics is logical, even if it’s not the book’s main purpose (134):

…. Those of us who believe that there is a God — on the grounds of philosophical reason alone — have strong reasons for so believing, even if those are rejected by atheists.

Many of us (two billion in total) hold also that God revealed Himself in history, in the Jewish prophets and in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, true God and true man.  Although Christian faith is not the subject of this book, our atheist colleagues so often bring it up that some preliminary discussion may be useful.  But a full-fledged argument for the truth of the Christian faith will have to be searched out not here, but in hundreds of other books.

None of the apologetics that Novak offers will offend a believer, though few will surprise one either; still, the historical sweep and philosophical depth of the book’s discussion are impressive.


And I found not only useful but novel the discussion of what the author calls “blicks.”  This is his tweaking of a similar concept, the “blik,” that was coined by R.M. Hare.  I think it is a useful description, and would apply it, in particular, in the context of a Christian seeking to cultivate his faith; I discuss the importance of that cultivation many times on this blogsite in my support of using Pascal’s Wager.  See, e.g., “Some Notes on Pascal’s Wager and the Search for Truth” and “Is Cultivating Faith Dishonest?”

Here is Novak’s definition of a blick (140-41):

…. A blick is part of an intellectual habit, the part that shapes one’s pattern of judgment concerning what is real or not real, true or false, credible or lacking in credibility.  It guides what leaps into the foreground and what recedes into the background of an individual’s judgment concerning what is to be credited as true and what is to be dismissed as false.  A blick is deeper and more sweeping than a single factual assertion.  A blick is a way of viewing reality that is not usually overturned by one or more pieces of countervailing evidence.  It constitutes a rival way of seeing the world, such that some facts seem more salient, and more probably true, in our way of judging daily reality, and some facts less so.  It springs from a personal horizon, that point in a person’s long voyage through life from which he currently discerns all realities with the range of his intelligence:  the sum total of everything knowable to him at that point of his ascent.

In this way, I propose, atheism is one blick, so is deism, and so (in the third place) is Christian or Jewish faith.  The whole world looks rather different to those habituated to one blick or the other. …

There’s a connection, I think, among the Christian blick, cultivating one’s faith, and Pascal’s Wager.  Pascal’s Wager rationally encourages individuals to adopt the Christian blick, and that blick in turn cultivates the Christian’s faith.  Novak’s discussion of the blick is descriptive (that is, he is explaining how blicks account for the way that the same factual datum will be interpreted by believers one way and nonbelievers another), but I am more intrigued by it in normative terms (that is, that having a blick should result in your viewing the world differently).  And I don’t think that it is bootstrapping to say that you need less evidence to adopt a blick than a belief; certainly one can “try out” a blick to see how it feels and works more readily than trying out a formal belief.

Anyway, the “blick” point made me like even more this good and valuable book.