As we have seen, “religion” has numerous interpretations, and it does not necessarily entail belief in a deity. The following terms for categorizing belief about the existence of God, or a deity, do not pertain to one’s identity as “religious”; they speak only to the attitude one holds toward the actuality of a deity:
Theism Is the view that God exists.
Atheism is the view that God does not exist.
Agnosticism is the view that whether or not God exists is unknown or unknowable, that sufficient or persuasive evidence has not been given either way.
It’s possible to have not given the issue of the existence of God any consideration. So not everyone may identify with one of these positions. Note also that these categorizations are rooted in monotheism — the view that there is only one deity.
7.2.1 Classical Arguments for the Existence of God
Historically, scholarly Christian believers have sought to justify and strengthen their positions, as theists, through arguments for the existence of God. Three such arguments are considered here, along with objections to each; in addition, a brief account is provided of historical justifications for God’s existence on the basis of moral considerations.
The Ontological Argument
This argument is attributed to the Christian theologian Saint Anselm (1033 – 1109). In simplified form, it proceeds as follows:
- Because we have a concept of God as a perfect being (something than which nothing greater can be conceived), God at least exists in our minds.
- Either God exists in the mind alone, or God exists both in the mind and as an external reality.
- If God existed in the mind alone we would be able to conceive of a being greater than that than which nothing greater can be conceived, namely, one that also existed in external reality.
- Since the concept of a being greater than that than which nothing greater can be conceived is incoherent, God cannot exist in the mind alone.
- Therefore, God exists both in the mind and in external reality.
These are some main objections to the ontological argument:
- As the monk Guanilo, a contemporary of Anselm, points out, the argument could be used to prove the existence of anything one imagined to be the best there can be – a perfect island is used as his example.
- The argument itself commits the informal fallacy of Begging the Question. Essentially, it argues in a circle; a premise presumes what is to be arrived at as the conclusion.
- As Kant points out (hundreds of years later), “existence” is not a proper logical predicate; it is not a property that adds meaning in a proposition.
Supplemental resources (bottom of page) provide further details of the ontological argument.
The Cosmological Argument
Medieval Christian theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), created the cosmological arguments. There are four related arguments based on the perceived order of the cosmos and the dependability of the natural laws and logic. We look at three here; the fourth will be considered later as a moral argument.
- The first argument refers to the law of motion and can be summarized in this way: Any movement is caused by prior movement which in turn is caused by movement prior to that, and so on. This series of moving movers cannot be infinite, for then their motion would have no origin. The origin of their motion cannot be moving, for then it would have to be moved by something else. The unmoving origin of motion is God.
- His second argument is similar, and refers simply to causality; every event is caused, and there must have been a first cause: God.
- A third argument uses the logical distinctions between “necessity” and “contingency:” everything and everyone we can observe is not in the universe by necessity and therefore could potentially not be here. But something must be here by necessity to prevent the possibility of nothingness. That something is God.
Objections to Aquinas’s cosmological arguments include these:
- This God who is the first mover or first cause is a very impersonal force that does not resemble the benevolent, caring God that conceived by religious believers.
- The arguments don’t require that there be a single God. They create the possibility for polytheism (multiple Gods.)
- It is arguable that infinitely regressing causes or motions are impossible. Why does there need to be a starting point?
- The arguments prove themselves wrong logically; given the premise, for example, that everything is caused by a prior cause, why is God not subject to the requirement of this strong categorical proposition?
Supplemental resources (bottom of the page) provide further details on the cosmological argument.
The Teleological Argument
The teleological argument, also known as the “argument from design” or the “intelligent design argument” is based on the apparent order and purpose manifest in the universe. (“Teleology” is from the Greek word telos which means “end” in the sense of a purpose.) Saint Thomas Aquinas, known for his cosmological arguments, proposed a teleological argument.
Hundreds of years later in the eighteenth century, support for the teleological argument was renewed by the Christian theologian William Paley (1743 – 1805). Using an argument from analogy, Paley compared the complexity and working parts of the universe to the complicated design of an ingeniously crafted watch, created to achieve a specific purpose. We can conclude that the creation of both the watch and the universe required an intelligent being: In the case of the watch, a watchmaker; in the case of the universe, God.
Objections to this argument include:
- Flaws with the analogy itself make the inductive argument weak:
- There are many dissimilarities between the universe as a whole and objects to which it is likened.
- Many aspects of the universe have no apparent purpose.
- Mistakes such as natural disasters were made in the design of the universe; it is not perfect.
- Evolution provides an alternative explanation for purposefulness of nature.
- Modern and fine-tuned versions of this argument are not inductively strong:
- Claims that have certainty do not follow from arguments based on probability.
- Probabilistic inductive arguments are not convincing without other observable universes as points of comparison.
Supplemental resources (bottom of page) provide further details of the teleological argument.
Moral Arguments for God’s Existence
While the three argument types above, ontological, cosmological, and teleological, are regarded as the main classical types of arguments for the existence of God, some philosophers have used moral grounds to argue that God must exist.
- Saint Thomas Aquinas fourth argument is based on the idea of comparative degrees of perfection and measuring/comparing degrees of goodness. Aquinas believes there are degrees of being in everything we encounter, including goodness. Further, he maintains that there must be such a standard, against which to measure. That standard is the greatest goodness, a most perfect being — God. In effect he argues from the fact that we understand degrees of goodness, or morality, to the existence of God as the ultimate standard of goodness.
- Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), believed that humans possess a deeply ingrained sense of morality and that this moral sense must be derived from the supremely moral mind of God. Our ability to reason leads us to believe that there must be a God who will help us meet the imperatives of morality and that righteous people should be rewarded and immoral people punished. Since this does not always happen on earth, Kant believes that reason allows us to conclude that this will be corrected in the afterlife.
Moral arguments for the existence of God suggest that religion and morality are necessarily interdependent; you cannot have one with the other. God’s existence is required for there to be moral order in the world, and moral order cannot occur without God. Such arguments remain popular today among some theologians.
Among the objections to moral arguments for God’s existence are those from atheists who believe themselves to be exemplars of moral behavior and sentiment, without divine guidance.
Note: In the prior section, we met Karen Armstrong, who believes that world religions have a moral characteristic or purpose. This is not the same as the view that there is a moral argument for the existence of an omni-benevolent God. Even a religion that is not theistic has an essential moral component, according to Armstrong.
Is any one of these classic arguments more compelling to you than the others? If so, explain why. If you find none of these arguments convincing, are you persuaded by the objections to them? Were your beliefs settled before reading this material? (100-150 words)
Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.
7.2.2 The Nature of God and the Problem of Evil
Within the Western monotheistic tradition we are exploring, God is the morally perfect loving being, the creator and sustainer of the universe, who has unlimited capacity for knowledge, and power. One of the most gripping arguments against the existence of this omni-benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God’s existence is the problem of evil. Why is there evil in a world made by an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God?
The problem of evil in very simple logical terms might look like this:
- God is good.
- God is all-knowing.
- God is all-powerful.
- Evil exists.
If 1 is true, then God would want no evil. If 2 is true, God would know how to prevent it. If 3 is true, then God would prevent it. So, if 1, 2 and 3 are true then 4 should be false, but it is not. Therefore, any or all of 1, 2, or 3 must be false. Arguments such as this one are intended to demonstrate that it is logically impossible for God to exist in a world that includes evil.
Some other arguments claim only that given evidence of evil in the world that it is unlikely that there is a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God. These inductive arguments are referred to as evidential, in contrast to “logical.”
It is not surprising that theologians are sincerely dedicated to responding to these arguments that challenge the existence of God on the basis of evil.
- A defense is a response (or rebuttal) that attempts to demonstrate that such an argument (for example, the one above) does not succeed logically; there is a flaw in the logic.
- A theodicy attempts to justify the possibility of the co-existence of God and evil, and it includes a plausible justification for God to permit evil.
Supplemental resources (bottom of the page) provide further insight on the problem of evil.
John Hick (1922 – 2012) was a Kantian-influenced British philosopher and theologian. Among his various significant contributions is his theory on religious pluralism; though an ardent Christian himself, he argued that Christianity and Jesus Christ did not offer an exclusive path to goodness, truth and salvation. In the context of their own histories and cultures, the world religions define their own experience of God and ultimate reality.
With regard to Christian theology, Hick is known for his version of the Ireanaean theodicy for explaining the presence of evil in God’s world. (The name Ireanaean refers to a theodicy proposed by a second-century Christian philosopher and theologian Irenaeus, who believed the purpose of evil is to allow humans to fully develop.) Hick’s theodicy is about “soul-making.” Humans are still in the process of spiritual development; with the pain, sadness, loss, — all of the suffering that enters our lives, — we have an opportunity to become more perfect beings. The moral effort has a value in the eyes of the Creator.
A supplemental resource (bottom of the page) provides further details on John Hick’s theodicy.
Do you find Hick’s theodicy a satisfying explanation for the existence of God, given the presence of evil? Explain why or why not. Do you think the existence of God is necessary for exerting the moral effort to become a more better person?
Note: Post your response in the appropriate Discussion topic.
Complete the Unit Test by the date on the Schedule of Work.
Anselm and the Argument for God: Crash Course Philosophy #9. This 9-minute video explains the ontological argument.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Anselm: Ontological Argument for God’s Existence. Read from the beginning through section 2. Besides covering the information provided in the video assignment, this article goes on to provide a second articulation by Saint Anselm of the argument and further logical analysis of its lack of soundness.
Aquinas and the Cosmological Arguments: Crash Course Philosophy #10. This 10-minute video explains Aquinas’s cosmological arguments. Aquinas’s fourth argument is included here as the “argument from degrees;” We cover this argument with moral arguments for God’s existence.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Aquinas: Philosophical Theology. Section 2b explains the second argument based on causality, in detail, as an example of how these arguments are structured.
Intelligent Design: Crash Course Philosophy #11. This 9-minute video explains the teleological argument, including modern versions of it.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Design Arguments for the Existence of God. The article provides comprehensive accounts of both classical and modern expressions of the argument from design. This article is worthwhile, especially if you are intrigued by modern versions of the argument and their potential compatibility (or lack thereof) with science.
Nature of God and Problem of Evil
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Philosophy of Religion. Read part 5, sections a, b, c.
The Problem of Evil: Crash Course Philosophy #13. This 10-minute video covers similar material to that in the IEP article, at a summary level.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). John Hick. Read section 3a on Hick’s theodicy.