There are a number of philosophical arguments that have been made on behalf of the existence of God, and many of these arguments are, at least, intellectually interesting. Some of them are even ostensibly persuasive. Now, as I’ve written before, I am “agnostic” in the sense that I am open to persuasion that some form or aspect of God might exist. While I’m open to persuasion, the burden of proof is still, in my view, on the person making the argument on behalf of the existence of God.
Where I am not open to persuasion is on the question whether Yahweh, the God of Abraham, of the Christian Bible and of the Quran exists. On this question I am distinctly atheistic or even antitheistic.1
This article sets forth common arguments that have been made both in support of the proposition that God exists, and arguments in opposition to that proposition.2 Of course, what people mean by “God” can vary widely, with some people seeing God as coterminous with the Universe. The “spiritual but not religious” crowd may not see God as a sentient being, but more as a kind of power or energy that exists in the Universe.
Arguments for the Existence of God
These first sets of arguments are philosophical arguments on behalf of the existence of God. As one considers the arguments for God below, there is a common theme: that while there may be good arguments to be made on behalf of the existence of some kind of “God,” none of these arguments suggest that the resulting deity as anything to do with the God of Abraham.
The Argument from First Cause
The argument from First Cause is essentially an argument that if the Universe exists, something must have created it, and that something is God. Of course, that argument begs the question of what created God. And if God “created himself,” it begs the question of how God created himself from nothing.
But the more salient point is this: even if God did create the Universe – a philosophical position that I would be prepared to accept – that doesn’t tell us anything about the character of that God. Given the size of the Universe, it’s incomprehensible scope and duration, what seems extremely, even laughably remote, is the notion that this “God” is anything like what most people mean when they say God: that is, the God of Abraham, the God of the Bible, the God who answers prayers, the God who is the source of moral precepts, the God who cares about us individually. And, it should be noted, there is nothing in the “First Cause” argument that suggests anything of that nature. The First Cause argument is just an argument that there was something – here ambiguously named “God” – that caused the Universe to come into existence.
A variation on the “first cause” argument is something known as the cosmological argument from contingency. This argument proceeds from the observation that there is something rather than nothing, and because it’s impossible for only contingent beings to exist, a necessary being must exist, a being that is called God. This argument may or may not be true, but it suffers from exactly the same limitation as the “first cause” argument: even if it is true, there is nothing in that argument to suggest that the God that could exist is anything like Yahweh, the mercurial God of the Bible.
The Argument from Design
This argument – also known as the teleological argument – is essentially the argument that the universe is too complex, too remarkable, and too beautiful to have been created without the work of a purposeful “designer” directing the process. For example, every physical body within the universe adheres to the laws of physics, and many things within it are correlated with one another in a way that appears purposeful.
That designer would be God.
Whether one buys into this argument depends, I suppose, on whether one thinks that it’s possible that the Universe could have evolved in as complex a fashion as it has, without a designer at the helm. Of all the arguments for God, this is the one that I find most persuasive. It is a little hard to imagine that the Universe could have such a grand and elegant design without some help along the way.
- But then, I also trust the scientists who insist that it is possible.
- The Universe is also incomprehensively large and infinite.
- And any God who designed this Universe would also have to have a cruel streak.
In any case, if there is a God as designer, for reasons already explained, it is highly unlikely to be Yahweh, the jealous and petty War God of the Israelites.
The Argument from Consciousness
The argument here is that consciousness is something separate from the physical world, leading to a kind of dualism – “Cartesian” dualism, in some circles – and the division of the physical body from the mind. Some people believe in the existence of the mind as being separate from, and not dependent on, a physical brain. In this way a person can have a “soul” which continues even when the body does not.
Once again, while this may or may not be true – and I personally believe that in order for there to be a “mind,” we do still need to have a functioning brain – it neither proves the existence of God nor proves that any God which might exist is Yahweh, the God of Abraham. The belief in a mind and soul as being separate from the physical realm animates all of the belief in an afterlife and reincarnation. Those are delicious beliefs, no doubt. Comforting, beautiful beliefs. But as of now – since no one has yet returned from the dead – all they are is unprovable comforting and delicious beliefs.
And have I mentioned that even if reincarnation or an afterlife were true, it wouldn’t prove either that “God” exists or that any God which might exist is Yahweh.
The Argument from Religious Experience
The argument here is basically an argument from sensory perception, that religious experience is so powerful for so many people that it must be true. In this regard, this is not a “philosophical” argument trying to prove the existence of God. It is really a sensory argument that having felt God’s presence in some way or another, God must be real in some way.
Sensory experience – having felt God’s “presence” – is the thing that prevents any logical argument from intruding on a person’s religious beliefs. Not in all cases, but in almost all cases. Here, part of the question is how much you trust your senses. I personally have come to believe that our senses are entirely unreliable. Although they are really all that we have with which to navigate our world.
Noted skeptic Michael Shermer has related his experience of having been “abducted by aliens.” It happened on August 8, 1983, while he was riding his bike across rural Nebraska, as part of a transcontinental “race across America.” The “experience” Shermer had was that a large spaceship landed, forcing him to the side of the road, where aliens descended and abducted him for ninety minutes, after which he had no memory of what had happened. But Shermer also knew that he had just ridden for 83 straight hours and that he was beyond exhausted. In other words, he knew that his senses were not to be trusted. He believes that he had a waking dream. But other people would believe, without the shadow of a doubt, that they actually had been abducted by aliens.
The Argument from Miracles
The argument here is essentially that some things are unexplainable or inexplicable – and we call these things miracles – and the only being that could produce miracles is God. The greatest miracle of all, in this line of argument, is of course the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Whether one buys into this argument really involves the question of whether one actually believes in miracles. Things happen all the time that are unexplainable. The question is, because they are unexplainable, are they also miraculous.
I come down on the side that unexplainable things are not miraculous; we just haven’t found the explanation yet. That doesn’t prove that miracles couldn’t exist; I’ve just found that if you wait long enough, an explanation eventually rears its ugly head, and the miracle evaporates. But even if you do believe in miracles, that does not prove (once again) that God exists. And it certainly does not prove that Yahweh exists.
For various reasons, the Biblical story of the resurrection of Christ is highly unlikely. The first area of unlikelihood involves someone coming back from the dead. Because it hasn’t happened in any other case that we know of. But there are other reasons to doubt the story.
For example, Biblical scholars like Reza Aslan have pointed out that it is highly unlikely that someone like Jesus Christ would have been afforded a tomb. Just as he wouldn’t have been afforded a “trial” by Pontius Pilate. Tombs were reserved for the wealthy. Jesus was a ragamuffin – a peasant apocalyptic preacher, of which there were many – who had directly challenged the authority of the Temple and of the Roman government. The practice of crucifixion was to leave the dead on the cross, to be picked apart by crows and other birds, so that passers-by could observe the gruesome sight for a long period of time.
The Argument from Morality
The argument here is essentially that morality must have a cause, and that cause is God. This argument presupposes a kind of “objective” morality, so that certain rules – like “thou shalt not kill” – are universal rules, and not subject to any particular culture or location.
The first problem with this argument is that morality does not come from religion. Scientists have discovered that primates and human babies, among others, have a moral consciousness coded into them.
The second problem is that the morality that is espoused by religion is of highly questionable merit. Take the commandment that “thou shalt not kill.” As I’ve explained in a previous post, there are lots and lots of exceptions to that rule. Including wartime. Or if you are God. If you are God – at least if you are the God of Abraham – you can kill lots of people. Various provocateurs have estimated that the God of the Bible kills something in the order of 2.5 million people. As reported by the Bible.
The Argument from Degrees of Perfection
This argument is one that, to be honest, I have a bit of a hard time following. In essence, the argument proceeds from the notion that while there are degrees of things – like the color white, for example – that means that you can also have something to a perfect degree. For example, a “perfect” white. And as long as you can have perfection, a perfect being would be God.
This argument is too esoteric for me. I don’t really get it. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time rebutting it. Just because perfection might be possible doesn’t mean that a perfect God is a necessary consequence. Probably the most trenchant thing that I can say is that the God of Abraham is far from a perfect being. He is so petty, so jealous, so nakedly murderous, and so indifferent to the suffering of his “chosen” people, that to conclude that this God, of all Gods, is some kind of “perfect” being is, well, it’s just plain lunacy
The Argument from Common Consent
The argument here is that so many people believe in a God – and many billions in the God of Abraham – that God must exist. That many people couldn’t be wrong.
Ah, this is where things get delicious. Because the billions of people who believe in some version of the Abrahamic God is proof positive that you can fool most of the people most of the time.
I won’t rehash here all of the arguments for why this ancient God – a God who, as the theologian Karen Armstrong put it, “emerged” from among competing Gods around 1200 BC – is extraordinarily, incalculably improbable as the God for the whole Universe (if there is such a God). What is probable, likely, and even demonstrable, is that Yahweh was one of many Gods worshipped by the ancient tribes of Israel and Judah, and that he was elevated to “the” God in the Hebrew cosmology, before also becoming the God of Jesus and Mohammed.
But we live in the 21st century, people! We’ve experienced the Enlightenment. And the Scientific Revolution. We live in a world – thank God! (pun intended) – that is nothing like the world of the Middle East three or four centuries ago. So why would we still cling to the same set of anachronistic, outdated beliefs?
The Argument from Pascal’s Wager
The issue here is less an argument than a bet. As identified by the French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, the idea is that the existence of God is neither provable nor unprovable, so you have to decide on which side of the equation you want to place your wager. If you place it with God, you lose nothing, even if it turns out that God does not exist. But if you place it against God, and you are wrong, you potentially lose eternity, heaven, everything.
Again, in the 21st century, Pascal’s wager is silly. It was made in 1654, or 361 years ago, as I write this. The notion that Yahweh really is the God of the incomprehensively infinite Universe; that there is a literal heaven and hell; that your soul will live on forever; these are silly notions in 2015. It’s like believing in the tooth fairy. What sane adult would believe in the tooth fairy in this day and age?
I mean, one can have beliefs about God that are not lunacy. One can believe in a kind and gentle omnipresent God; one can believe in some guiding light; one can believe in the Grand Designer; one can believe in the immortality of the soul, and that something of us survives “energetically” after we die; one can believe that God is somehow “inside” us, and we have to find our own connection to God. But Yahweh is not that God. The God of Abraham is not that God. And Pascal’s wager is not a good bet.
Arguments against the Existence of God
These second sets of arguments are philosophical arguments opposing the proposition that God exists. Some of these are arguments that there is no God of any kind, and some of them are arguments against the God of Abraham, the same God that Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in.
The Argument from Etymology
Some people, such as pantheists, essentially define God and the Universe to be the same thing. But if they are the same thing, there is really no need to define them separately. In the argument from etymology — which is the study of the history of words — there are no theological implications to be a unity between God and the Universe. It doesn’t tell us anything about morality, about good or evil, and it certainly doesn’t support an argument for the existence of the God of Abraham.
The Argument from Ignosticism
The argument from ignosticism is very similar to the argument from etymology: the argument is essentially that the question of the existence of God is meaningless, because the term “God” has no unambiguous definition. Without a proper definition, it is conceptually impossible to have a meaningful argument about whether God does or does not exist.
The Argument from Occam’s Razor
|Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected|
Applying Ockham’s razor to the question of whether God exists, the argument is that there are fewer assumptions to be made in arguing that God does not exist then in arguing that God does exist. 4
The Argument from Hitchen’s Razor
|What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence|
Applied to the existence of God, the notion is that if there is no evidence for God, there is no need to provide evidence that God does not exist. One of the other of the “four horsemen,” Richard Dawkins formulated a different version of the same law : “The onus is on you to say why; the onus is not on the rest of us to say why not.”
The Argument from Non-Recognition
This is essentially the argument that there is an inconsistency between the existence of God and a world in which people fail to recognize him. Or to put it another way, if God – but especially the Abrahamic God – really does exist, why does he make it so hard for people to find him? Why choose obscure locations in the Middle East to reveal himself, when in today’s world, he could reveal himself to the entire world with the full assistance of mass media? Why make himself invisible in such a way that no one (other than the mythical Moses) has actually ever seen him. I mean, not even Jesus or Mohammad ever claimed to have “seen” God while they were on this Earth. First elaborated in J. L. Schellenberg‘s 1993 book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, this argument says that if God existed (and was perfectly good and loving) every reasonable person would have been brought to believe in God. However, there are reasonable nonbelievers. Therefore, this God does not exist.
The Argument from Mythology
This is another argument specifically directed at the belief in the God of Abraham, and in particular the creation myths of Genesis. It turns out that there are a lot of parallels between Genesis and Babylonian and Egyptian creation myths, with the Babylonian and Egyptian myths predating the Biblical ones. Or, for another example, the flood of Noah parallels aspects of the great flood described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back from Mesopotamia around 2100 B.C.5
Even the stories of Jesus in the New Testament have obvious parallels to stories from the Old Testament. So, in particular, there are parallels between the depiction of Jesus’ life and those of the Old Testament Joseph – the son of Jacob and grandson of Abraham, not the father of Jesus – as well as between the life of Jesus and the life of Moses. These are symbolic parallels, not to be read as literal history.
When Fundamentalists and Evangelicals read Genesis as “literal” history, they misinterpret the whole point of the stories. But more importantly, the stories in Genesis are creation myths. They are no more or less credible than the old Greek and Roman creation myths, and we would certainly look a little bit silly, collectively, if we treated these creation myths as literal history, now that we’re all living in the 21st century. But that’s exactly the argument we’re having with Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in the current United States.
The Argument from Inconsistent Revelations
This is another argument specifically directed at the belief in the God of Abraham in his various manifestations, as set forth in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and all of their multifarious subgroups and splinter denominations. This is also known as the “avoiding the wrong Hell” problem. Since the Abrahamic traditions are especially insistent that only they have access to absolute truth, since they are all (with the possible exception of the Unitarians) essentially “exclusivist” religions, choosing the wrong denomination or subgrouping could theoretically get everyone who makes the wrong choice into “hell.”
The Argument from the Existence of Evil
The argument here is that in a world in which God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, evil should not exist.
This is an argument that is particularly directed at the God of Abraham, on whose behalf these qualities are asserted. Defenders of God argue either that God’s omnipotence, omniscience or omnibenevolence are not “absolute,” or they introduce the concept of the “free will” of man to resolve the contradiction.
However, if God is defined to be absolutely omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, then as a logical matter, evil really should not exist. If his characteristics in this regard are “qualified” as being less than absolute, then the next question that arises and must be answered is how, and to what degree, are God’s characteristics qualified?
The Argument from Incoherence
The argument here is that, as a matter of logic, a God cannot simultaneously be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent (as some Christian apologists would have you believe). Taking the example of omniscience and omnibenevolence:
- If God were omniscient, he would know that Adam (and other human beings) would sin.
- If he deliberately created human beings to sin, then God is now omnibenevolent.
- The argument of “free will” does not ameliorate the contradiction, because it was God who created human nature.
God can also not be “infinitely just” and “infinitely merciful” (as some Muslim apologists would have you believe).
- Justice means that punishment is administered with the exact amount of severity that is deserved for the crime that is committed.
- Mercy, on the other hand, means that punishment is administered with less severity than deserved.
- If God is infinitely merciful, he cannot be infinitely just. If God is infinitely just, he cannot be infinitely merciful.
See, Barker, Dan (2009-05-01). Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (pp. 79-80, 124-126) for a more thorough exposition of these arguments.
- I am reminded of the argument that even fervent believers in God reject belief in all the other Gods that are not theirs. In this way, even believers are, to a certain extent, atheistic (in the sense that there is a multitude of Gods that they do not believe in.
- I owe debt of gratitude here to Dan Barker and his book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, and his discussion of the philosophical arguments both for and against the proposition that God exists.
- In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to eliminate or “shave off” unlikely explanations for a phenomenon.
- Ockham was himself a Christian and a believer in God. However, unlike many theologians of his time, Ockham did not believe God could be logically proved with arguments. To Ockham, science was a matter of discovery, but theology was a matter of revelation and faith.
- Mesopotamia is the ancient area around the Tigris–Euphrates river system, which roughly corresponds to modern-day Iraq, Syria and Kuwait.