In this discussion we'll look at the philosophy of religion, along with some aspects of theology. The importance of this area of philosophy needs little introduction: people have struggled for very many years to understand what religious ideas and experiences mean or do not mean, and this is so today just as surely as it was in the past and likely for the foreseeable future. Later in this series we'll look at so-called Eastern philosophies. So there will be an inevitable focus here on Western religious ideas.
Philosophy of Religion
The philosophy of religion looks at God and the gods, philosophical arguments for and against them and analyses of them as concepts. It also considers the meaning of religious ideas and experiences as well as what we can say about them. Claims about God are traditionally split into two areas: natural theology, according to which we can use reason to argue for the existence of God; and revealed theology, which holds that statements about God are revealed to us in religious experiences or scriptures. Sometimes there is an overlap, but this is a useful distinction to bear in mind.
In this section we'll examine belief in God and its justification, looking at some of the main approaches to this issue.
The justification of belief
As we saw in our discussion of truth, there are many ways to approach the question of whether a particular religious belief is true or not. We can try to refer to evidence that suggests a positive answer, or other evidence that speaks to the contrary; we can set out arguments that do likewise; and we can seek to explain why a belief coheres with what we already think we know, or why it makes sense of our other beliefs and provides a framework for them. We can also make a distinction between showing something to be categorically so and arguing that it is reasonable to believe it, even though there may still be good objections. Another alternative is to ask how likely a belief is to be true, based on the probability of it.
Later in this discussion we'll consider some of the arguments for the existence of God, together with one of the most important that suggests otherwise. One thing it's important to understand, however, is that the philosophy of religion is far more subtle in its study of such arguments than some critics of religion appear to suppose: none of the potential justifications of belief in God are taken (or intended) to be proof; instead, religious beliefs are a complex interaction of ideas and to suppose that a single argument could ground them all is not only unreasonable but contrary to the way in which we decide questions in everyday life. Thus the modern justification of belief is cumulative and complaining that a particular argument fails to make the case for the entire network of beliefs is to miss the point. Indeed, although there is general agreement that the five main arguments fail to prove the existence of God, some philosophers of religion claim that this is not what should be aimed at; instead, their combination makes it more likely than not that God exists.
Should belief be justified by proofs at all? When it comes to religion, some argue that it need not be. There are three main suggestions as to why it might be better to think otherwise:
- The rationality of belief
- Belief and faith
- The meaning of "God"
In the first case it is asked what it means to say that an argument (or arguments) for the existence of God should convince a rational thinker. After all, what is a "rational person"? How do we determine what is rational and what isn't? Some philosophers, particularly Wittgenstein, have proposed that rationality depends on what we use as criteria for making decisions about ideas and arguments, noting that these can differ from person to person. Indeed, we saw in our sixth discussion that the theories we hold can affect how we interpret evidence, so the framework we approach a religious concept from can have an important influence.
The second view objects that if we were to believe because of arguments, or even if we could show that the existence of God were certain or rationally justified, there would be no room left for faith
. Religious belief is to be taken not as something that can be proven or disproven but instead as a boundary condition or principle through which we interpret life and our experiences. Critics of this perspective note that we do
pay attention to experiences or arguments that purport to count against
belief, so there must be some measure of considering the evidence and arguments for and against and deciding on the balance of probabilities. It is also suggested that God would not make it unreasonable for us to believe in Him, so there must be some value in the proofs of His existence, whether or not we find them convincing. Some take a probabilistic view in that belief in God is more likely than not (or vice versa) after considering the arguments and evidence for and against, with the result that discussion focuses on how best to evaluate and understand this probability.
The third idea is that coming to believe in God adds nothing to our store of facts about the world but instead involves a different way of seeing the same things. That is, the existence of God is not a fact to be proven like other entities we take to exist, but a new way of understanding the universe. In that case, trying to prove
existence is missing the point; when we say "God exists" we are not saying "x
exists" but rather changing our way of thinking about everything else.
A still-popular current in the discussion of religion is evidentialism
, the seemingly plausible epistemological idea that we are only justified in believing things we have evidence for. The most extreme form was set out by Clifford in 1879 when he famously asserted that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence", so that not only would religious belief be unjustified, but it would also be wrong
—a failing that (presumably) ought to be punished in some way. In fact, Clifford was not directing his arguments at religious belief, but plenty have since done so.
Not many philosophers of religion take Clifford or evidentialism seriously these days. One way to see why is to ask what evidence we would need to believe that we should do as Clifford said; that is, evidentialism seems to be self-refuting. Another is to look at trust
, which poses very difficult questions for evidentialism: do we need evidence that a trusted person is trustworthy before we can justifiably trust them? More importantly, perhaps, we believe things every day without evidence and if we extend the insistence that only propositions for which we have evidence may be believed from religion to our wider experience of the world then there will be few things left to believe.
None of these objections mean that no
evidence is required to believe something, but instead that we need to ask whether "where's your evidence?" is even the appropriate question all the time, or whether the absence of evidence is a decisive refutation of an theory. For religious ideas, the way in which people justify their beliefs may be very different from the manner in which we interpret the results of an experiment. As the philosopher Alvin Plantinga wrote:
[W]hy ... must there be a good argument for the existence of God if belief in God is to be rationally acceptable? After all, hardly anyone thinks you need a good argument for the existence of the past if you are to be rational in thinking you had breakfast this morning.
We'll look at where this question leads next.
Properly basic beliefs
A relatively new current in the philosophy of religion is reformed epistemology
, originating with the writings of Plantinga, Wolterstorff and Alston. It objects to the foundationalist view in epistemology (covered in our fifth discussion) and its application to the question of whether or not it is rational to believe in God. On that view, a properly basic belief is one that is held in an immediate, basic
way; not on the foundation of other beliefs but because it is certain
for us. An example would be the belief that "it feels to me as though I am in love". Note that this is so whether or not the unlucky victim actually exists, if I am confusing love with some other emotion or if—as targets of Hugo's affections invariably claim—there is no such thing as love. The belief is different from "I am
in love with her" or "there is a girl with whom I am in love", both of which rely on other beliefs or assert things that are not
In the past it was held that a belief—such as belief in God—was rationally justified only if it could be justified on the basis of evidentialism and other beliefs. For instance, if the arguments for the existence of God (covered below) were found to be stronger than the counter-arguments, or the arguments against His existence, then it would be rationally justified to be a theist; and vice versa.
Reformed epistemology challenges this perspective by saying that belief in God can
be properly basic. It does this in two ways: firstly, by disputing the claim of evidentialists like Clifford that we have a duty
to not believe without sufficient evidence; and secondly by asking how a person who believed in God—after considering the matter at length and perhaps taking into account significant religious experiences—could possibly not
be following their duty to only believe what they feel is justified? After all, if a person holds basic beliefs in God and finds evidence of him (such as religious experiences, moral order, or purpose) all around them, there could hardly be anything strange in their being rationally justified in believing. We might dispute the soundness of their experiences, of course, but it makes little sense to say that he or she is mistaken in their belief on that basis
The further condition that Plantinga found important in arriving at justified beliefs is warrant
. When is a belief warranted? He identified four conditions that a warranted belief had to satisfy; namely, it would have to be:
- Produced by cognitive faculties (like memory and perception) that are working properly;
- Produced by these same faculties working in the proper environment;
- Produced by aiming at true beliefs; and
- Successfully reaching their target, or at least with a high probability of having been successful.
The difficulty lies in evaluating these conditions. Suppose we assume that there is
a God; in that case, we would have to assume that He has created us (whether via evolution or special creation, say) such that our faculties work correctly, thus enabling us to learn that He exists. It would seem to follow, then, that belief in God is warranted. Conversely, suppose God does not
exist; then any perceptions, memories of religious experiences, and so on, would be mistaken, perhaps due to delusions or a failure of our faculties to work correctly. Belief in God would then not
be warranted. Reformed epistemology points to the influence of our prior decision on the existence of God in this assessment: belief in God seems to be warranted/unwarranted if and only if it is true/false. While this means that we cannot say it is straightforward that belief is or is not properly basic, it appears that it can be for individuals.
Forms of religious belief
People believe many different things about God, with some saying they do not believe at all. In this section we'll look at some of the attempts to say things about Him, including if we can say anything at all.
In the first place, how can we know
God? If He is ineffable or indescribable, then how is it that people have sought to give accounts of Him within religious texts throughout the years? One answer is to say that we can take a negative
approach and only say what God is not
. To some, God is even too holy to be named; and perhaps He is beyond human language and its limits? Others suggest that God could be known from His effects, hence talk of His being all-powerful, just, all knowing, as well as the converse of these. More recent answers include calling religious language symbolic
, such that it is not to be understood in the normal sense but as evocative of deeper meaning; as metaphor
, so that we talk of God through
metaphor; and myth
, perhaps giving timeless insights into the human condition but often through the interpretations and context of a particular age. As we saw in our discussion of truth, it could be that religious language is intended to correspond
to the world and hence tell us something about it; or instead that it coheres
with our experiences and hence makes sense of them.
The basic form of belief is theism
, the belief in God as traditionally understood in the monotheistic (that is, single-God) religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Pantheism
takes a different perspective in that God is identified with the universe, so that they are identical. Opinion is divided as to whether this makes pantheists true theists or atheists (see below): if God is no more and no less that the sum total of nature, then can we say that God exists or not as theism does? Polytheism
holds that there are many gods, whether as a pantheon as in Ancient Greece or otherwise. Deism
takes there to have been a God who created the universe and, as it were, "set it to running", but who otherwise plays no further part in it. Panentheism
is perhaps best understood as taking God to be to the universe as the soul is to the body—more than equal to the sum of its parts. We assume here that enough is known about particular forms of belief that they can be briefly introduced before passing to philosophical analysis.
There are several different theologies that provide unique perspectives on some of the problems within the philosophy of religion. One of the most significant in contemporary theology is process theology
, which comes from the work of A.N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. According to process theologians, God and the universe are interdependent
: anything that happens is a result of cooperation between God and His creation. Although process theology tends to look nothing like the traditional understanding of God and His relationship with the world, it avoids issues like the problem of evil (see below) because He is considered to already be intervening as best He can, such that evil cannot be prevented further.
Another possibility is postmodern theology
, which is obviously related to the issues we considered in our thirteenth discussion. It tries to take theology beyond the metaphysical and other assumptions we looked at there, which some so-called postmodernists find untenable.
is both an approach to theology and a social movement—primarily within Latin America but also elsewhere throughout the world—that attempts to understand and expand on the implications of Christianity for personal and public life. It seeks to ask how the Church can be relevant to everyday life and get involved in liberating people from poverty and oppression.
tries to seek out any biases in religious stories and texts, trying to understand if their relevance is to all people or in fact at the cost of women. In particular, issues such as the ordination of women within Christian churches or the role assigned to them in Islam are major concerns, with more emphasis—in general—being placed on liberation than being saved.
The phenomenology of religion
asks whether religious phenomena can be distinguished from others in a meaningful way. What is it—if anything—that makes them different
? Even if we perhaps cannot ultimately answer religious questions definitively, we need to be as clear as possible what it means
to be religious if we are to choose one of the many religious ways of life.
Not everyone believes in God. The etymological roots of the term show that atheism was originally understood as the denial of the existence of God; that is, a positive
assertion. It was also historically used to denote believers in a different God. Another perspective, however, has come to prominence in more recent times according to which it is taken as a negative
statement—merely an absence of belief in God. Often these two meanings are called strong
atheism respectively. The latter includes, say some atheists, those people who have never heard of or used the concept of God.
As it stands, weak atheism would be little more than autobiography; saying "I don't believe in God" seems much like declaring "I don't believe in true love" or—to take a more important example—"I don't believe Carlos Spencer has an equal". To make it mean more, then, weak atheists tend to understand it in terms of the burden of proof
. Much like the way in which a defendant in a court case is—or is supposed to be—innocent until proven guilty, the weak atheist suggests that a person would not believe in God until a convincing argument (or arguments) has been made. After all, we wouldn't convict someone on a lack of evidence or with reason to suppose them guilty (although this statement may unfortunately appear na´ve in the "modern" world), so why—asks the atheist—would we do otherwise when it comes to belief in God?
As we have seen, we may criticise this approach via the idea that belief in God is properly basic. If philosophers in the reformed epistemology tradition are correct then belief requires no justification before it can be rationally presumed. If faced with a potential argument that would defeat their belief, such as the problem of evil (covered below), the believer would have to meet this challenge in order for their belief to remain justified. This defensive approach would only be required when a defeater is offered, however. Whether the atheist can maintain that the burden of proof is on the theist in the face of the challenge of reformed epistemology is the subject of much discussion.
Strong or positive atheism makes the claim that God does not
exist and hence offers reasons as to why we should reject Him. These might be the problem of evil, criticisms of specific (or general) theological ideas, or claims that the concept of God is meaningless, unsupported by evidence, a psychological flaw or simply unnecessary. Notice that the failure—if we judge it that way—of arguments for the existence of God to prove it does not lead to strong atheism, just as failing to prove guilt means the defendant is presumed innocent—not that they actually are. Whether we should accept it or not depends on how convincing we find these positive arguments.
On the face of it, there is no reason why an atheist should be any more or less rational than a theist, or indeed anyone else. Nevertheless, in order to give some content to atheism other than the absence of belief discussed above, many atheists hope to view their perspective within a larger scheme of taking a skeptical and critical approach to claims about the world. Thus, they say, atheism should be characterised more by the way in which they attempt to find out about the world and not concerned solely with the issue of God. Theists, of course, can just as easily—and generally do—advocate much the same things, and some suggest that a joint effort in this regard can best marginalise those who consider it irresponsible to believe/disbelieve in God and would tell others what they should or should not believe.
The earliest known agnostic was Protagoras, who wrote that:
Concerning the gods, I am unable to know either that they exist or that they do not exist or what form they have.
The term itself literally means "without knowledge" and was coined in the 1880s by T.H. Huxley. Discussing his position on matter theological, he described his difficulty in summarising it for others:
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis,"—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.
As a result, he decided to call himself an agnostic to draw attention to the fact that he did not have knowledge of whether God existed or not.
Some people misunderstand agnosticism to be a "middle way" between theism and atheism: where one is supposed to say that God exists and the other that He does not, agnosticism is said to represent the thinker who has become tired of the struggle between two opponents battering each other when the bell shows no sign of ringing any time soon, deciding instead to offer a shrug of the shoulders and the honest response "I don't know". However, a theist and atheist alike may take the position that we cannot know
whether or not God exists but that, on the balance of probabilities and the various arguments for and against, we can make an educated guess. Even a strong atheist or the most certain religious believer may admit that they cannot be absolutely certain of anything but that the possibility of error strikes them as small. It is perhaps better, then, as well as more accurate, to understand agnosticism as an epistemological position rather than something distinct from belief or non-belief.
Arguments for the existence of God
Although, as we've seen above, some thinkers do not believe that the existence of God can or needs to be justified, there are five traditional arguments that seek to do just that, some or all of which can be called upon by the believer to explain why he or she decided that God does indeed exist. We'll look at each in turn.
The Ontological argument
This argument was first propounded by St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in his Proslogion
of 1077-78. It is considered by some that he intended it for those who were already theists, not necessarily for convincing atheists. This distinction is important because his goals for the argument tell us how it was supposed to function: if it was meant for theists, to provide a rational basis for already-existing faith and hence work as a cumulative argument (as discussed above), then we might judge it differently than if it was supposed to prove definitively the existence of God. Anselm himself wrote:
I have written the following treatise [as] ... one who seeks to understand what he believes...
Given this context, we can now look at the argument itself. In basic form, it states that the definition of God entails His existence. For example:
P1: God is the greatest possible being, one whom nothing greater than can be conceived of;
P2: If God is just a concept and does not exist in reality then a greater being can be conceived, one that exists both as a concept and in reality;
C1: This being would be greater than God, contradicting P1;
C2: Therefore, God is not just a concept and must exist in reality.
Thus the fact that we define God to be the greatest possible being means that He must exist, or else He would no longer be the greatest. Another way to understand the argument is to distinguish between a necessary
being (that is, one that necessarily must
exist) and a contingent
one (that is, one that may or may not exist, depending on the circumstances); according to the ontological argument, then, it would be greater for God to exist as a necessary being than as a contingent one. Notice that this argument depends only on the definition
, not any facts about the world. It is perhaps for this reason that many people find it unsatisfactory at first glance, since it doesn't seem right to be able to define God into existence. However, saying what is wrong with it has historically proved rather more difficult.
There are several criticisms that can be made of the ontological argument. In the first instance, does the notion of a "greatest possible being" make sense? Just as we wouldn't speak of the greatest possible morning or the greatest possible number, should we define a being in this way? Plantinga refined the argument in a way that hopes to avoid this issue by calling God "maximally excellent", meaning He has all the traditional attributes like being all knowing and all-powerful.
Another approach is to challenge P2 and say that existence is not a quality that should make up "greatness". This was the line taken by Kant when he claimed that existence is not a predicate; that is, it does not tell us anything about
an object or entity, but only that it is or is not. If we compare, say, two coins (as Kant did), one of which exists and one that does not, is anything added to the concept of the coin in the one case and not the other? In recent times, some thinkers have answered in the affirmative, saying that the existing
coin has the property of purchasing power, while those non-existing conceptual coins do not. Whether we buy this argument or not is another thing.
To return to the idea that we shouldn't be able to define something into existence, in Anselm's own time another version of his argument was offered by Gaunilo, a monk who used it to show that a greatest possible island must exist. The point of his criticism was to say that if the ontological argument could be used to prove the existence of God from His definition then we could do likewise for anything. Anselm responded that islands are contingent and hence do not have necessary existence as part of their definition, unlike God. In general, the objection is that while we might be able to go from a concept of what we imagine to exist to a concept
of what actually exists, we cannot go from the former to saying what really
does exist. Others challenge this by saying that we can
say something about the non
-existence of concepts like square circles or married bachelors, so why should we discount the possibility that we can also speak of the existence of a concept like God from the definition itself?
The Cosmological argument
According to Plato in his dialogue the Timaeus
... everything that comes to be or changes must do so owing to some cause; for nothing can come to be without a cause.
This is the idea behind the cosmological argument, which infers the existence of God from the apparent fact that the universe and the phenomena in it exist when it seems that they need not do so (hence the question that occurs to many people, philosophers or not: "why is there something rather than nothing?"). The argument was later formulated in different ways by Aristotle, Aquinas and Leibniz, the idea being to note that the universe cannot account for its own existence—so it is claimed—and thus a cause is sought outside
of it to explain the brute fact of existence.
St. Thomas Aquinas used varying forms of the cosmological argument in three of his famous "Five Ways", these being proofs of the existence of God in his work Summa Theologica
. The first runs as follows:
P1: Everything that moves is moved by something else;
P2: An infinite regress (that is, going back through a chain of movers forever) is impossible;
C: Therefore, there must exist a first mover (i.e. God).
The second proceeds in a similar fashion:
P1: Every effect must have a cause;
P2: An infinite regress (as before) is impossible;
C: Therefore, there must be a first cause (i.e. God).
These two seem much the same but the slight distinction is that the first focuses on the fact that things are moved by agents acting in the world while the second discusses the actors causing these things to happen.
Several criticisms have been made of Aquinas' assumptions, as we would expect given the length of time since he first proposed them. As we saw in our fifth, tenth and thirteenth discussions, philosophers have challenged the idea that events are linked in a "chain" from one to the next, each resting, as it were, on those below. Another telling objection is to ask why there could not be more than one first cause/mover? Why could the chain not lead back to several ultimate causes, each somehow outside
the universe? Not only that, but these two arguments could just as easily lead to two different Gods.
The other argument Aquinas offered runs thus:
P1: Contingent beings exist;
P2: If a contingent being exists then a necessary being must also exist;
C: Therefore, a necessary being exists (i.e. God).
We discussed necessary and contingent beings above, but the idea here is that if everything
in the universe was contingent then there must have been some time when there were no contingent beings at all. In that case, how could the universe have come into being, since contingent beings would require a cause? This means that there must be some necessary
being, which we take to be God.
The problem again is that this third argument might be taken to imply another
God, different from the other two. Others object that matter or energy are not contingent (although still others question this assumption), or that the contingency could run backwards in time as far as we like and "end" in the future.
Leibniz reformulated the cosmological argument in terms of the principle of sufficient reason. According to this principle, every fact or truth must have a sufficient reason to explain it. As we touched on above, the universe seems to fail to account for its own existence with no sufficient reason within
it, so Leibniz inferred that there must be a God to do so. In opposition to this it has been argued that the existence of the universe is just a brute fact, not in need of any explanation—it just is
. Both Hume and Russell complained at moving from every event having a cause to the claim that the collection of events having a single cause. On the other hand, if we ask "why?" of individual events then why not the universe, too?
Another form is called the Kalam cosmological argument after the school of Islamic philosophy of the same name. In its basic form it claims that since the universe came to exist at some time, it follows that it must have a cause for its existence. That cause, of course, is God. However, it could instead be that the universe has always existed, either eternally in some form or expanding and contracting as some scientists suggest. Moreover, even if God did "start" the universe, the argument doesn't say He needs to have continued to exist.
As with the ontological argument, the cosmological argument does not appear to be intended to convince non-theists that they should become theists but instead suggests the existence of God as a possibility, or an explanation of the brute fact of the existence of the universe. How convincing it is depends, apart from the opinions we might hold of the content of the argument, on whether we feel this fact is in need of explanation or not.
The Teleological argument
This argument points to the existence of purpose and order in the universe and supposes that if we see signs of design
then there must have been a designer. Indeed, the word "teleology" comes from the Greek telos
, meaning "purpose", "goal", or "end". Sometimes it is called the argument from design, or more properly the argument for
Perhaps the most famous version of the argument is due to William Paley, who argued by analogy. Imagine finding a watch abandoned on a deserted island, say. We examine the watch and its workings, and from the fact that it appears to be designed with a purpose in mind we infer that it must have had a designer. In particular, even if we were not familiar with watches at all the complicated structure and the way in which the parts worked together to achieve a specific function indicate that it could not have come about by chance. Although it is often supposed that he intended his argument to convert non-theists, in fact it seems from his own testimony that he wanted to clarify the issue for those who already believed.
The idea behind this argument by analogy is that effects
that are analogous have analogous causes
. That means that when we see evidence of design in the watch and in the universe and reason that the two circumstances are analogous, the fact that we infer a designer for the watch leads us to analogously infer a designer for the universe. Hume was critical of this approach, saying that we know
that man-made structures were designed because we have seen them being built or heard about it. How can we be sure that the analogy holds? Moreover, why should the similar effects (that is, the appearance of being designed) not follow from different
Another objection made forcefully by Hume was that certain events in the world, such as natural disasters, would—if we follow the analogy—suggest that God didn't do a very good job of designing the universe. Indeed, if a watchmaker offered us similar workmanship, he suggested, we would reject it. In more recent times further scientific studies have made this complaint still more powerful, with many areas of the human body and natural world alike seeming to be very badly
designed, if we want to maintain that they were designed at all. The success of evolutionary theory has also provided an alternative explanation as to where the order we see has come from, with the caveat that there is apparently no need to invoke purposive behaviour to account for it. This is not necessarily an objection against design, however, since many theists now suggest that evolution is the means
used by God to achieve His goals.
With developments in science continually suggesting new angles to view the argument from, as well as refinements that point to the amount of beauty
in the universe as opposed to just design
, the teleological argument rumbles on and it perhaps once again depends on the perspective from which it is viewed. Some feel that the purported design can be explained in other ways, while others consider it not a proof of God's existence but again suggestive of the likelihood, explaining a quality of the universe that they see around them.
The Religious Experience argument
Perhaps the most interesting argument for the existence of God comes from the fact that very many people have experiences they characterise as religious
. These tend to have different forms, but there is enough common ground to list a few of them that have been distilled as a result of work by people like William James and David Hay:
- The experience is hard (if not impossible) to describe.
- It is a feeling of oneness with God.
- It can also be a sense of being dependent on God.
- It may sometimes call attention to a painful separation from God.
- It can be experienced anywhere, in everyday situations.
- It can provide insight into otherwise inaccessible truths.
- The experience tends to be transient.
There are other descriptions, of course, and the experience itself seems to be largely personal
. The issue, then, is to explain these religious experiences in a satisfactory way. The religious experience argument, again, does not seek to prove
that God exists but instead that it is reasonable to believe that He does because of the direct experience of Him. Moreover, the argument gives a motive for non-believers to also believe unless they can explain the experiences (which they may have for themselves) in another way. Indeed, we could say the argument is an inference to the best explanation
P1: People have religious experiences;
P2: The existence of God explains these experiences;
C: Therefore, God exists.
There are several ways we could challenge this argument. Firstly, we could contest P1 and say that the experiences are not
religious; rather, they are interpreted
that way by religious people and differently by non-religious (or even those of another religion). However, can we find some way to determine what the true experience is supposed to be? It could just as easily be that the interpretations are different (even among believers in the same religion) because
they are interpretations.
Another potential criticism is to admit that many people do
have religious experiences but point out that many others do not. The implicit suggestion here is that God would want us all
to have such experiences, especially if He wanted us to become believers eventually. In reply, it could be that something like faith is required, particularly since it isn't obvious—either from religious texts or a little thought—that a non-believer should expect to undergo religious experiences with the same frequency as a believer.
We could also look at P2 and say that there are other explanations for religious experiences. For example, the experiences could be deceptive; but for all those testifying to them to be unreliable witnesses is perhaps less credible than assuming they all are not. Alternatively, we could try to posit a naturalistic or psychological explanation. Either would need to also account for the sheer number and depth of the religious experiences, however, as well as showing why they are better
In summary, the argument from religious experience does not prove existence definitively and depends in good measure on what our prior opinions of such experiences are. Nevertheless, it provides an explanation for a widespread phenomenon.
The Moral argument
The general idea behind moral arguments for God is given by Ivan and several other characters in Dostoevsky's masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov
as "without God, everything is permitted"; or something similar; that is, God provides the basis of moral order. Many people think or feel that such a moral order is—or should be—a fundamental
aspect of our universe, not an incidental one that has come about but need not have done so. The idea that without God there would be no moral sanction to stop us doing as we pleased is explored in that work, along with possible rejoinders.
Moral arguments have been overlooked by many thinkers, partly because of the misunderstanding discussed above according to which they fail to justify the existence of a God with specific attributes, as required by certain religious beliefs. The character of moral arguments is such that what is shown—if the argument is successful—is not "it is likely that God exists" but "it is likely that I ought to believe that God exists".
One form of the moral argument is to point to the experience we have of their being moral actions, right and wrong. Although not everyone agrees about what should be right or wrong, many do accept that these terms have meaning independently of us. Some understand this as implying that there is someone we are responsible to for our conduct, or that concepts like guilt only make sense if we have someone by whom our conduct is judged. Can there be moral laws without someone making them?
The main criticism of this approach is to target the idea of morals existing independently of us. As we saw in our eleventh discussion, many thinkers have questioned this view and we looked at some alternative explanations for the existence of morals and the feeling that some things are right or wrong. To say that no other account of moral responsibility can be given is controversial and fails to justify God's existence.
Another moral argument is due to Kant and suggested that being moral was a categorical imperative, according to which an action would be moral if we would wish it to be applied universally and immoral if the contrary. Noting that we experience moral obligation and that we desire to bring about the summum bonum
or "highest good", Kant argued that ought
must imply can
: if there is no way that something can be achieved then it makes no sense to say that it ought to be. Since it is beyond our power to ensure that this highest good can be reached, it must be that God exists to make it so.
This argument has been attacked from several directions, firstly criticising the move from ought implies can
to the actual existence of what can
be. Why should something necessarily have to be, just because we decide it both ought and can? Secondly, why should it have to be God in particular that brings about the higher good? We can also argue against deontological theories, as we saw in our earlier discussion of ethics. Note that Kant's argument was not that no moral order is possible without God, but only that He was required to achieve the summum bonum
In the early seventeenth century, the Friar Marin Mersenne was keen to advocate the new mechanistic philosophy that was taking hold at that time because he believed that a good account of natural law was necessary in order that miracles
—over-riding or influencing what we would ordinarily expect to happen—could occur. Many believers hold that miracles can, have, and do still happen, the most important and famous of which tend to be the resurrection or the parting of the Red Sea. Still others say that miracles are nonsense and do not—or cannot—occur.
As we have touched on previously in our discussions, not everyone agrees that there are such things as natural laws in the first place. However, even if we suppose that there are then it is still important to understand what a miracle is supposed to be. Often they are understood as violations
of natural law, but this formulation is problematic: natural laws, by definition, are intended to account for events with natural causes, so it makes no sense to call an event with a super
natural or non
-natural cause a violation of natural law. A better way to understand miracles, perhaps, is as events contrary
to natural law. This would mean that an event with a non-natural cause might be noted as an exception to natural law, rather than as an instance that is supposed to refute it.
The best-known argument against miracles comes from Hume but it has been subject to much recent philosophical critique, not least because he seems to use the understanding we rejected above of a miracle as a violation of natural law. Here we will try to understand the basics behind the argument. According to Hume:
no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....
The idea here is that we only have experience of natural events and causes. If we were told of a miracle happening and asked for justification for it, any evidence or argument analogous to what we experience everyday would lead us to suspect that there might have been a natural cause for the incident, and so it wouldn't be a miracle after all. Indeed, any attempt to justify it by reference to non
-natural causes would be to explain the miracle via other
Hume gives an example of what he means by saying that if it were told to him that the sky went dark across the earth for six whole days, with travellers and people from other countries testifying that the same event happened everywhere, he would have to believe it. Even though such an event would seem extraordinary, he thought it was sufficiently analogous to similar events (an eclipse, say) that it could reasonably believed on the basis of so much testimony. On the other hand, he notes that if Queen Elizabeth the First was agreed by all historians with an equal degree of testimony to have died and subsequently risen from the dead, he would not
believe it. He reasoned that this latter case could not be seen as analogous to anything else we experience.
Why accept the one and not the other? As the quote above explains, Hume thought we were never justified in supposing a miracle to have taken place because we experience natural events and hence have to look for natural causes. Even if something apparently supernatural were to occur, we would have to identify it via natural phenomena (for instance, water turning into wine) and hence are constrained by Hume's empiricism to look for natural causes. That is to say, as we only
have past experience of natural phenomena to go on, along with testimony from witnesses and evidence, thus we have to make a decision about the likelihood of a miracle occurring on this basis alone.
The problem with this, as some thinkers have identified, is that if Hume were to have stood watch over the water at the wedding in Cana in such a way that he could be sure no one had interfered with anything, and moreover that he had no reason to doubt his faculties, he would still
have to deny that he had seen a miracle. We can make the same reduction of his argument to absurdity with any other example of an alleged miracle. Just when
could it be said that a miracle had occurred?
What we see from this is that there apparently could be no such thing as a miracle, even when well-attested and where there is no reason to doubt what we are experiencing. In short, we cannot assume that everything occurs due to natural processes and then claim that any exceptions that cannot be dismissed are in fact still
natural events that will eventually be explained in natural terms. Indeed, it is almost as though the argument begs the question; that is, assumes what is to be proven in order to prove it. If we take it that all supernatural events are either examples of errors in testimony or our faculties, or—where these cannot be claimed—say that we cannot call these miracles because no supernatural event can be justified on the basis of natural phenomena, then we have defined the supernatural out of existence and miracles with it.
In summary, philosophers of religion have shown that it is not irrational to believe in miracles, and that it is not impossible that one should happen. To say that a particular event could not have happened because it is contrary to natural law is to assume that there are no such exceptions, but that is what was supposed to be proved. Convincing someone who was not there to see it, however, is another matter.
The Problem of Evil
The traditional form of the problem of evil is due to Epicurus:
God either wishes to take away evils and he cannot, or he can and does not wish to, or he neither wishes to nor is able, or he both wishes to and is able. If he wishes to and is not able, he is feeble... If he is able to and does not wish to, he is envious... If he neither wishes to nor is able, he is both envious and feeble and therefore not God. If he both wishes to and is able to, ... whence, therefore, are there evils, and why does he not remove them?
In short, why does evil seem to happen if God is both good and capable of stopping it? This is considered by many people the most formidable objection to the existence of God, with some suggesting that it provides an argument for why a benevolent God does not
exist. In one form, it amounts to considering the following two propositions logically inconsistent:
P1: God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient and good.
P2: Evil exists.
This is known as the logical problem.
It is important to point out that the problem of evil is by no means conceded to be prima facie
a problem at all. To begin with, there are axiological difficulties: firstly, we note that the claim that God would disallow the existence of the intrinsically evil can only be justified within
the context of a moral theory—such as consequentialism, as we discussed in our look at ethics—which may (with good reason) be rejected by a theist. The second complaint, indeed, is that any
axiological version of the problem of evil must necessarily be incomplete because it cannot make explicit the move from noting that an evil state of affairs is not prevented to concluding that God has acted morally wrongly. Once again, the standard way to formalise this step is by reference to other ethical ideas that are anything but uncontroversial. The problem, at base, is the assumption of problematic (axiological) concepts such as goodness
To return to the argument, it has been suggested that P2 is not at all obvious. If we perhaps understand evil as what ought not to exist, particularly from the perspective of humans, we could ask if it can be said to have meaning distinct from human valuations, or indeed if it makes any sense at all to consider a world without evil as being more perfect than the one God is supposed, by the problem of evil, to be bound to bring about. According to Aquinas, for instance:
... many good things would be taken away if God permitted no evil to exist; for fire would not be generated if air was not corrupted, nor would the life of a lion be preserved unless the ass were killed. Neither would avenging justice nor the patience of a sufferer be praised if there were no injustice.
Aquinas' point is that it isn't necessarily clear that the world would be more
perfect in the absence of evil; in fact, many of the concepts we might like to claim for a perfect world—such as justice, kindness or fairness—only have the prestige we attach to them because we imagine that other circumstances could have replaced them at each observed instance.
Another remark on evil that should be made concerns the so-called Unknown Purpose Defence
, which notes that although Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov could declare it absurd that the salvation of the world should cost the life of one young girl, human (epistemological) limitations might not permit us to guess the motivations of God, especially if, as some argue, He cannot be known directly, as we touched on above. Indeed, these thinkers suggest that the situation we find ourselves in—not knowing why evil should exist—is precisely that which we would expect to be in, given theism. Rowe proposed restricted standard theism
as a counter-argument, in which all we say is that God has the properties defined in P1 above. However, this does not seem to refer to God as most people understand Him.
As a result of these and other difficulties, it is generally conceded by philosophers of religion that the logical problem of evil has been laid to rest.
Another version of the problem of evil is called the empirical problem
, which comes from Hume and claims that:
...if people did not have a prior commitment to believe the contrary, their experience of the world and its evils would lead them to atheism.
In spite of the (empirical) fact that people do
see evil in the world and yet believe in God, sometimes even converting from atheism or another religion, we could set out this argument as follows:
P1: Evil exists;
P2: Person x holds no theological beliefs;
C: Therefore, x will be an atheist.
That is, the sight of the many evils of the world would lead a person to think, "Well, a God who is good and all-powerful cannot exist." We could object to this by saying that instead it might be that the apparent senselessness of some evil might force a person to seek an explanation for it, which might be God. Indeed, that would seem to be why a significant proportion of people believe, at least in part (as we saw in our discussion of the moral argument above). It seems that what we want to say is:
P3: Persons holding no theological beliefs will be inclined by the existence of evil to adopt atheism.
Unfortunately this assumes what is to be proven.
Another approach to the problem is called the probabilistic argument from evil
and is taken to be a positive argument for the non
-existence of God. According to this argument, going back to our original propositions again, P2 counts as evidence
against P1. In criticising this idea, Plantinga noted that the meaning of this claim depends on the probabilistic theory we hold to, the soundness of which is a question for the philosophy of mathematics. Each of the alternatives have difficulties associated with them, and so we cannot charitably assume them valid if we are going to also hold it against the moral argument that not everyone agrees that morality exists independently of us.
A different way to address the problem of evil is to present a defence
of God, called a theodicy
This is to accept that evil exists and
that God is both good and able to remove evil but seek to explain why
he does not. A well-known example is the free-will defence
, according to which it was not possible for God to create a world with good but no evil because good could not exist without freedom
, much like the quote from Aquinas suggested above. One form of the free-will defence might be thus:
P1: God's purposes for the universe require humans to have free will;
P2: Humans with free will may act in an evil manner;
P3: Evil exists;
C: Therefore, God is not responsible for evil.
In criticising P1, some argue either that the concept of free will is itself incoherent (which we considered in our twelfth discussion) or that God could just as easily have made the world such that we freely choose to be good all the time. Counter-arguments reply that we come back to Aquinas again: in such a world there could be no virtue, fairness or compassion, for these qualities exist only in contrast to their absence. Since these things are what we consider to be the very best human traits, it follows that this world would be no utopia at all.
Another criticism seeks to strengthen P3 by saying that although we may accept that some
evil is necessary to contrast with the good, there is still a disproportionate amount of it, especially if we point to the horrific wars and genocides of recent times. To many people, this seems a decisive point: why would God need millions of people to be killed at a time? Although it is hard to see why it should be any better that a single child should be murdered for the sake of everyone else, as Ivan Karamazov objected, other thinkers respond that we simply have no basis for comparison and hypothetical speculation can hardly be expected to settle the issue satisfactorily.
Still another argument in this area concerns animals: given that God is good and omnipotent, why does He allow the suffering of animals? Free will is not an issue here, since it is generally assumed that animals do not have it. Since this is a deeply problematic area for many people, responses have again suggested that the purpose of such suffering may be unknown or that most of it occurs when we remove animals from their natural surroundings. Alternatively, it could be that we have the free will to try to do something about it.
In summary, some formulations of the problem of evil are stronger than others and the difficulties it poses depend at least in part on the perspective we adopt towards evil and whether we view it as a decisive objection to the existence of God or something to weigh against the other arguments for and against.
Other issues in the Philosophy of Religion
An interesting current in the philosophy of religion concerns the philosopher Wittgenstein and how some of his remarks and ideas might apply to religion. Later in his life he suggested a conception of meaning via "language games", according to which the meaning of a term is decided by the use to which we put it within a given context. The word takes its meaning from this and so we have to be careful to appreciate which "game" we are playing when using a particular term. He wrote that:
...while we can ask questions about justification within a language game it is a mistake to ask about the justification of "playing" the game in question...
Suppose, then, that we ask the question "does God exist?" The answer we give depends which game we are playing and what the terms mean within them. Similarly, if we ask, "was Jesus God?" we would get a different answer from Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as others. Even non-theists sometimes mean different things by the term "God" and we need to understand how
it is being employed before we can make sense of the question. Likewise, if we say, "where is the evidence for God?" we have to remember that not everyone means the same thing by "evidence" or evaluates the same "facts" in an identical fashion.
Philosophers taking a Wittgensteinian perspective argue that asking for justification of a religious belief can only be done from within
the language game, since each game has its own standards for deciding what we can or cannot say, as well as what is meaningful or rational. It would be a mistake to apply the methods of the natural sciences to a religious proposition, then. In opposition, many people feel that religious claims do
say something about the universe, irrespective of what language game we are playing. That would suggest that the question "Is there a God?" should be answered "yes" or "no" (or possibly "don't know" or "I'll tell you next week"), as well as understood to be making a claim about the universe, much like "there is a limit to how much of Hugo I can take"; and hence not avoided by saying that it means different things to different people.
According to Jim Morrison, "you cannot petition the Lord with prayer." Nevertheless, many people do. Some pray for good health for themselves or others, or for world peace, or perhaps for the strength to cope with some particular adversity. However, the traditional understanding of prayer gives rise to several philosophical problems.
Some claim that prayer requires a miracle on each occasion that something is prayed for, but that is not obvious. We discussed above the idea that miracles are impossible; nevertheless, many of the things people pray for do not require a large-scale intervention in the laws of nature (if we suppose there are any). A second concern is that if God already knows what we might pray for, as well as whether He will or will not bring it about, then what is the point of prayer? One way responses to this difficulty have gone is to say that God is outside
of time. In that case, it makes no sense to say that He has determined a course of action before
the prayer. A counter to this is to ask how God can have an effect within
time if He is outside of it, to which a rejoinder could be to simply ask why not?
Perhaps the most serious objection to prayer, though, is to wonder why we should pray at all to a God who is supposed to be benevolent? If God is good, as well as all-powerful, why would he create a world that is deficient in goodness to such an extent that people have to pray that it be made better? We can see that this objection is related to the problem of evil: if the prayer could make the world worse
then He would not grant it; if it would make it better
then why was His creation deficient? A possibility that has been suggested is that prayer bridges the distance between us and God, achieving something that even an all-powerful God could not otherwise manage: the good that comes from personal relationships with His creations.
The Plurality of Religions
It appears to be an empirical fact that there are many different religions. Indeed, not just separate religions, like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but distinctions even within these such that two Christians, say, may disagree about many aspects of their faith. This plurality of belief leads to a problem: which of the forms of religious belief is the correct one?
This difficulty is an important one. If Catholicism in its current form is true, for example, then every other belief, past and present, would seem to be straightforwardly wrong, whether wholly or in part. Nevertheless, most religions make their own truth-claims and no more than one of them can be correct in so doing (or so we would usually say, with the alternatives and what truth means considered in our tenth discussion). In general, people have a whole host of religious experiences that differ and diverge widely; can these possibly be the basis for believing that any of them actually gets at reality?
One answer to this question is to say that it is rational to trust our experience of the world except for where we have reason not to, and that religious experience comes under this rubric like anything else. Thus, if we happen to have experiences that are explained by supposing Christianity to be true, then it is reasonable to suppose that it is and act accordingly. However, by exactly the same argument it would be reasonable for others to suppose that conflicting religious beliefs are also true if that is what their experience enjoins upon them. This is a severe
problem for the idea that a given religion can be considered properly basic, or that it is rational to hold particular religious beliefs.
To respond that it is reasonable to stick with the religious beliefs we have because they form a guide to the world and can be expected to continue to do so is undermined by the fact that it would follow that religious experience for almost everyone else (that is, anyone not sharing our religious perspective) gives rise to false
beliefs. We would start by insisting that it is reasonable to trust our experiences, and hence our religious experiences, too, and finish by saying that actually we should only trust those that fit our religious perspective and distrust those that do not. To take an example, it would be reasonable to be a Christian because our experience can be characterised that way, but we only know that such experiences are to be trusted because they can be called Christian and not something else—those other characterisations that are not to be trusted. That this strange situation arises is indicative of how troublesome this problem provided by plurality is.
Several thinkers have, over the years, provided a rejoinder to this difficulty in various forms, each having a similar structure. According to this, there is only one true religion after all but many circumstances combine to give the appearance of plurality. There is an esoteric
(or "hidden") core to religions that is ultimately the same, but the exoteric
(or "outer") forms differ because cultural concepts, practices and other factors mean that each of us interprets this reality in his or her own way, sometimes incompatibly so, even though the reality itself is actually the same. In this case, then, the conflict due to pluralism does not come about because each form of religious belief is just a different way of seeing the same thing.
To conclude this discussion, we can see that why
people believe is often as interesting as what
they believe. Although disagreements on religious issues continue to feature significantly in contemporary politics and society, perhaps a philosophical approach has some value after all?
Dialogue the Twelfth
The Scene: Trystyn, Steven and Anna are walking to the university campus to hear a talk entitled "Is rugby more important than God?" A vocal minority is protesting the event and our intrepid philosophical threesome is accosted by a serious-looking individual in a habit who seems to be observing the protest but playing no part in it
Here we go...
Hail, friends. Are you going to listen to the talk in yonder building?
We were considering it.
Do you think questions of religion are best tackled in this fashion? Look at the protest it's drawn.
It's an interesting proposition. I understand the same guy has already proved rugby to be more important than sex.
Sadly that's far too easy to believe. You men are too long on rhetoric and not...
(Cutting her off...
) If I may... You're rather missing the point. This talk mocks beliefs that people hold to be very important. You can see that lots of local folk have taken offence to it. Why should our Lord be subject to ridicule in this way?
Well, shouldn't we hear what he has to say first?
Perhaps. Do you believe in God, friend?
Do you mean that you just don't believe or that you've determined there is no God?
I don't believe, but I don't say it's impossible. In any case, how come you're here? Are you protesting, too?
No; I'm just watching. I thought it might lead to a chance to discuss religious ideas. You can see from my garb that I rather make a hobby of it.
How is it that you
came to believe?
That's an interesting question. For me, personally, it isn't because of any one specific thing I can point to. I've read all the arguments for and against God, of course, and disputed them with others until I'm blue in the face. Still, you must understand that belief is something you come to, gradually as it were but then all of a sudden, as though it makes sense of everything else.
What about all that's wrong in the world? Why does God let bad things happen—earthquakes that kill thousands, diseases, wars and famines that kill millions? Why does he let innocent children or animals be murdered? For what?
I appreciate what you're saying, friend, but that would be to misunderstand. I don't believe in denial
of these things, but in spite of and because
of them; because I seek to make sense of them and fathom whether the world can ultimately be a just and good one, even though we seem to make such a mess of it each day and even though it often seems so far away from how I feel it could be. Do you see how these things can lead to a person seeing the world in a different way?
Don't you take it all a bit too seriously if you worry about a talk like this, though? I mean, surely God exists of not irrespective of whether some harmless fun is taken seriously or not?
Of course I take your point, and it may seem a triviality. Even so, I feel as though I would be helping
others in showing them what I have found in the way I now see the world.
Aren't you presuming to tell others what to think? What business of yours is it whether people turn up here tonight or not?
No—that is to miss the point entirely. Do you see the dilemma someone like me is placed in? I feel as though I've caught a glimpse of a profound truth that seems as though it would make the lives of others incalculably richer. At the same time, I want to respect their decisions and I hope that they can come to a similar realisation on their own. That leaves me trapped between a respect for your privacy and right to do as you choose, within reason—rights I very much accept as a member of society—and a desire to see everyone get the most they can out of this life, which—for me—includes helping them to understand God.
we understand God? I seem to remember reading about uncertainty in this area.
) Probably heard it from him, I'll bet.
I was too quick there, friend, and you are quite right to pick me up for it. Insofar as I can know or be certain of anything, I feel that God exists. This belief is basic to me, and to my experience of the world. Even though I appreciate that there are problems with my understanding, and that any intellectual arguments I may call upon can fail to convince you, nevertheless my belief is somehow more than the sum of these parts that we might say make it up. (He pauses.) I guess it's hard to explain.
Isn't that the point? If you could explain it, I rather suspect it would fall short.
(He is smiling.
) I think you know exactly what I mean, friend.
Shall we go and see this guy talk or are you stopping here, Trystyn?
(To Brother Peter...
) Would you mind?
Of course not. Perhaps I'll speak to you about it afterwards and go and see it myself. I just hope you think about what we've discussed, as I shall think about you. I hope we can learn from one another.
By Paul Newall (2005)