The Question of God

Steve Martin
photo of Steve Martin
Steve Martin

Where do reverence and irreverence meet? In greener pastures, according to comedian Steve Martin. Perhaps best known for his work on Saturday Night Live and in feature films such as The Jerk, Roxanne, L.A. Story, and The Spanish Prisoner, Martin is also a prolific author, having written plays, several collections of essays and two works of fiction, Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company. He also plays banjo. This essay first appeared in The New Yorker in 1998.

Does God Exist?

Does God exist? This ancient question just won't go away. Since human history began, as soon as someone thought he had the answer, someone else came along to challenge it. The question endures, and now rests in the ether, waiting to spring on college students, retreating after the age of thirty, surfacing for the odd cocktail party, and reemerging with full force in the "philosophical years." But before we discuss this complicated question, let me introduce myself. I'm Toby, the talking horse.

Being a talking horse leaves me with plenty of time to ponder these big issues. No one rides me, because I just tell them to get off. So there's a lot of standing time. Sometimes I sing at night, to pass the hours; sometimes I court the little beauty in the next pasture, Lily. Sometimes I develop powers, which is fun. In fact, right now you are not reading this; you only think you are. You are actually calling your bank by Touch-Tone phone and transferring all your money to my account.

"Ask yourself this: Do I really need to know the answer to this question?"

Mostly, though, I do anagrams in my head, like many other horses. When you see a horse standing in a field staring at you, he's really rearranging letters in his head: "tide, diet, edit. ..." It's a horsy thing to do. So the first thing I do with a question as big as the one we're talking about is pass it through my head and rearrange the letters. "Does ... odes ... " Not much there. Then there's the obvious "god ... dog," and the fruitless "exist." Engaging in this little neurotic exercise enables me to move on to the next step.

Ask yourself this: Do I really need to know the answer to this question? I think if you are honest with yourself, you will realize that a yea-or-neigh answer wouldn't really change your life much. Although a neigh might free up a lot of time now spent worshipping. In fact, I don't imagine God is really keen on worshipping. You can take it from me, Toby the talking horse — he's as humble as the next God, and a simple thank-you is all that's required.

If you ask me what came first, the question or the belief, I'd say that the belief preceded the question. The question does not lead to belief; the question leads to disbelief. The belief, on the other hand, exists in almost every human culture, even though you sometimes get people praying to dolls made of dung. The belief does not so naturally arise in animals, which makes me, a horse, the perfect objective moderator.

I'm going to make a ground rule. No arguing. Arguing is what they do on MSNBC, and what good does that do anyone? A big horselaugh to the human idea that reason ever actually changed anyone's mind or proved anything beyond a person's ability to argue. I could argue that the sky is green if I wanted. And win. Why? Because I could study enough to corner you on every proposition; I could become quick-minded on the green-sky-issue. I could have your head spinning with the twists and curves I would throw at you. And I'm a horse. But I could still do it. So imagine what a well-oiled purveyor of religious wisdom could do.

Another ground rule. No definitions. We could sit here till the cows come home, which in my world is not a metaphor, and discuss the definitions of important words. But let me tell you, we wouldn't get anywhere. It would be easy to reduce the question of God's existence to a problem of semantics. But we're beyond that now. I'm glad my name is Toby, because it proves my point. I am my own definition. I am not "Lucky," or "Copper," or "Ginger," or any other noun. Let's let God be his own definition, just like me.

I have to tell you something about Lily — She has a yellow mane. I was just thinking about her.

Another thing: please do not mention the phrase "organized religion." I already know where you're going with it, and that argument is for college students who want to have something to talk about when they smoke pot. We're way beyond that discussion.

You may have no way to understand how wonderful a yellow mane is. Well, on Lily it's wonderful. Sometimes at night she will slide along the fence and come close to me, and she will sigh her warm breath on my nose, and I will rub my head against her yellow mane, and the smell will stay with me until morning. She also has a great asshole. Oh, I forgot. You're human and you think that's vulgar. Lily is about the closest thing to God that I've come across. She is physical and spiritual, and she will look at me, and lean into me, and flip her mane so it brushes me, and even though she can't talk, it's as though in those moments she's saying, "Toby."

Lily. Illy. Yill. Toby. Boty. Otby.

There are certain people who seem to know that the answer to the question is affirmative. And it makes them want to dress up in robes, and capes and cloaks and special hats, or to wear very thick makeup and comb their hair real high. Other people seem to believe the opposite. Some people are fine with this, but other people can be gloomy. For those people, there is a special word of one vowel and several nervous, unrelated consonants: angst.

Tangs, gnats, stang.

You're probably wondering, since we can't use logic, and we can't argue and we can't define, just how are we going to come up with an answer? Well, if you were me, you wouldn't worry. But you're just about two legs shy of being me. So I suggest you do what I do: One evening, munch down a nice bale of hay and a few oats. Take off your blinders and stand out in a big open field, and cock your head back and stare up at the stars. You will know that there is a God. Then, one day when things are not going your way, stop and consider the same question. You will know that there is no God. For a horse, two contradictory ideas can both be true at the same moment. This is what separates you from me. It is why the horse didn't invent the computer but did invent — and not a lot of people know this — the sofa. Once you allow impossible ideas to coexist in your brain, you are on your way to being a very fine beast of burden. Here's a little horse sense of my own: whatever answer you choose at any given moment is the correct one. And if some tight-lipped, close-cropped, neat little know-it-all challenges you, just tell them that you learned it from Toby the talking horse.