The Question of God
by Tom Adam
The question: “Does God Exist?”, is one of the most debated questions in philosophic history. For a theist, the answer is invariably, “yes.” For an atheist, “no.” Most people would hold that these are the only two responses. Classical agnosticism (or weak atheism) would hold that “I don’t know” is a perfectly rational answer, and it is. Our considered belief, to restate, is, “We cannot know.” Despite the coherent and lengthy arguments that can be made on that topic, that is not my purpose in this essay.
In this essay I wish to discuss the question: “Does belief in God have value?”
Before I get to arguments, I wish to explain the question a little more thoroughly.
By God, I refer to a primarily Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. The reason I address that God is that most other religions do not have a conception of God lending itself to such argument. The classical mythologies (Greek and Roman, Norse, Native American, Indian, etc.) that are inherently pantheistic, are simply incredulous in today’s world. It is an oft claimed belief that those primitive religions were attempts to explain the natural world without recourse to the plethora of scientific abilities available today. I happen to agree with such a belief, and such superstitious beliefs as those need not even be considered by any rational person; however, many of my arguments could be applied to these superstitious myth-systems. (I do wish to interject here that I believe the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions to be equally superstitious and absurd, but that is issue for another day.)
I am not directly addressing other religious beliefs such as Confucianism or Wicca or Taoism for two reasons. Firstly, I know much less about their beliefs than I do about Christianity. And, secondly, many of these religions are as much philosophy as religion. And my attempt is not to prove one philosophic system over another, but to discuss whether belief in a Christian God (read further instances of Christian as Judeo-Christian-Islamic - I simply don’t want to retype that every time, and any differences are unimportant in this context) can have value.
By value, I intend to discus two sub-issues. One, whether that belief can, in any way, be rational. Two, whether that belief, irrational or not, can be useful.
Many atheists and agnostics, including the UCTAA, hold that belief in God is irrational. The concept goes that belief is a matter of faith, not reason, and faith is irrational. This is true. However the arguments for and against God tend to not be accepted as sure-fire proofs (though some are viewed that way) as much as added probabilities. Accordingly, one would be rational to hold a likely belief. An example: your belief, given your health and your memories (extreme skepticism aside), that you will wake up tomorrow morning (or night, we don’t all keep the same schedule). There are many possibilities that this will not come to pass. You could die of a sudden aneurysm, heart attack, or you could be killed by a criminal who’s robbing you. The world could just end. These events are less likely to happen than not happen. So, all this being given, your belief in waking tomorrow would be rational. Is belief in God the same?
There are, of course, many arguments attempting to prove God’s existence. One, the argument to design, runs something like this: You are walking through a forest and encounter a watch laying on the ground. You would, fairly naturally assume that the watch was made and had a creator. Well, the argument goes, the pretty much sums it up then, thank you, you can all go home, the universe has a creator. Why? Because the universe functions on laws as intricate and arbitrary as any watch, so this delicate machinery of existence must have been created (this argument rapidly spins off into talk of necessary beings and problems of transcendence which have no bearing in the matter at hand, but it should be mentioned this argument runs much more complicated). Recent discoveries in science regarding the facts (yes, facts) of evolution and cosmology state that the boundary conditions in which intelligent life could have arisen are minute. Half a degree this way or that and Poof! No more humanity.
Several contentions do exist to this view. First, and perhaps most importantly, the watch could have formed by accretions of matter and the process of erosion. The likelihood is minute, but not logically impossible (logically impossible: round square). A similar view is that of some towards the big bang. The big bang resulting in the careful balance of nature we see is as likely to occur as a tornado blowing through a junkyard and forming a Boeing 747. Again, incredibly unlikely, but not logically impossible (logically impossible: married bachelor). The other issue with the argument to design is twofold: One, if the universe had evolved (metaphorically or literally) differently, WE would not be here to consider those differences. Two, the boundary conditions that are minute, only truly refer to life on this planet. Any number of other conceptualizations of life may still be possible. This was just one of the arguments trying to argue from the world to God. As such, it relies upon arguments based upon nature, which often can have naturalistic, instead of supernaturalistic, explanations, resulting in arguments and counter-arguments. The counter-arguments are usually as much supposition as the arguments and at least cast reasonable doubt upon the doctrine of God.
The second type of argument for God’s existence I will address is an argument from language. The ontological argument (as it is called) states that God is defined as “That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived.” Fairly boiled down and simplified, the theory continues to say that any conception of God that did not exist in reality left a greater conception, namely that which was the previous conception, but existent. Therefore, if God is not existent, it is not God, because something greater can be conceived. Hence, God, by definition, must exist.
The arguments against this belief are varied. One states that it says nothing. There is no new information reached. It somewhat goes: Lemon drops are things which exist. Things exist. Lemon drops exist. The syllogism reveals no information that is not inherent in the first premise. The first premise of the argument is its most dangerous. First, it limits human imagination. No matter what is conceived, someone is likely to be able to conceive of something greater. While this may serve to bedrock a believer’s faith, the first premise will do nothing to sway anyone who does not already agree. Second, there is no reason given that existence is better than non-existence. This assertion would have to be proven before the syllogism could even be a logical proof.
The third type of argument I shall consider is not even an argument trying to prove God exists, merely that belief in God is better than non-belief. Blaise Pascal, the mathematician-philosopher, postulated what is known as Pascal’s Wager. It goes, roughly, that you either believe in God or you don’t; and God either exists or not. If God exists he rewards believers and punishes unbelievers (Pascal was Catholic). Accordingly there are four outcomes:
- God does not exist and you do not believe.
- God does not exist and you do believe.
- God exists and you do not believe.
- God exists and you believe.
In outcome one, there is no wasted effort taking time to believe (in Pascal’s thinking- equivalent to worship) in God. A completely neutral outcome.
In outcome two, there is the effort of belief, which results in nothing. This may be considered a slight negative, since belief would have kept you, maybe, from leading a less “moral” life.
In outcome three, you suffer eternal torment. Big negative.
In outcome four, you are eternally rewarded. This one is somewhat vague, but is at least a small positive, more likely a big one.
Regardless of how positive belief in God ends up being, it can only amount to a small negative, whereas disbelief can result in a potentially huge negative. The principal of utility then unequivocally tells us “Believe!”
Pascal’s wager argues from the entirely pragmatic view. This is entirely its problem. It fails to consider all the options. There is belief, unbelief, disbelief, considered agnosticism, and likely others. There is not just God and no God, but God and no God and the other God (Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, etc.). Once all the possible views are categorized and the results are tabulated, the matter is so complex and the utility of Pascal’s Wager is reduced by complexion to the ridiculous. However, for the people who believe, rightly or not, that there is no choice but belief, or no belief, this is a pragmatic, reasoned reason for belief.
What have I shown? I believe I’ve shown that several of the major arguments for belief in God are based on reason. The rebuttals are as reasonable as the arguments, so that matter is not resolved. As no side has proven a case, or even has the preponderance of evidence, the third path-that of agnosticism-seems the most rational. It argues that until there is verifiable and conclusive evidence, we cannot know. All we have now is murky, recursive arguments. Despite the lack of proof, both sides can present rational arguments for belief. However, determining which rational arguments are truer requires a leap of faith, and an irrational decision (not based on reason). It is a decision often based on desire.
Given that none of the arguments thus far are conclusive, we turn to other reasons to believe in God. Reasons, such as Pascal’s Wager, that are pragmatic, as opposed to metaphysical. Here I will list and explain several.
First, most Americans do not understand the scientific method. Seventy percent of Americans do not have the education necessary to understand the cutting-edge scientific discoveries. In the absence of true knowledge most Americans turn to pseudoscience and superstition to help their understanding of the world. Most Americans, as the Greeks believed in Zeus, believe in God to help understand how the world came to be, how it works, and why it is how it is. For most Americans there is value to belief, as it frees them from needing to greatly increase their knowledge of science.
For the educated American, religious belief is more optional. There is no prevailing need to understand the world through God, as they for the most part understand the world. Rather they tend to understand God either through the world, following the argument to design, or through themselves, often through religious experience. Religious experience (suddenly feeling God’s presence, conversing with Jesus, etc.) is an inherently subjective rationale for belief. The reason cannot be shared. It is not the same as having a rude waiter, as there are objective circumstances resulting in a subjective statement. It is a subjective statement that results in a subjective belief; one that cannot be shared. It is almost entirely in a private language. Anyone not having that same religious experience cannot see the reason for belief, but it is a reason, true or not.
Second, there is a social element to most belief in God, through religion and church. Through church people may come into contact with people and cultures that they would not necessarily meet in the course of their lives. It could lead to open-mindedness and acceptance of difference. There lies potential value.
Third, and the last argument for value in belief that I will present, is the moral argument. Many people see morality as reliant upon God. God has lain down His will and we are but to follow. He provides the reason for good behavior (in the sense of socially acceptable) either through fear of punishment (for sinners), reward (for the virtuous), or through a numinous (spiritual) sense of love for fellow living beings. The positive behavior, regardless of the reasons behind it, is often a good result, so again, potential value.
Now that I have introduced several arguments regarding the positive value of belief in God and religion, the counter arguments:
First, belief in God has often resulted in a complete lack of belief in science. If science says one thing, and religion another, the religion (often based on ancient and poorly translated texts) is considered correct, regardless of evidence.
Second, not all social beliefs promulgated by religions are beneficial, or are unilaterally seen as beneficial. They are often mired in the past and outmoded traditions as opposed to growing with changing societal values. Historically consider both the inquisition and the crusades. Currently consider the Catholic Church’s views on abortion, homosexuality, birth control, etc. Consider the Taliban, with their pseudo-Islamic religion, and it’s view of women. How many of these beliefs can be truly shown to be good.
Third, as has been argued elsewhere, morality is not dependent upon God. There are many ethical traditions that function without Big Brother ready to punish you.
To conclude: Belief in God may, for some people, have value. Historically it has resulted in both great goods and great evils, but we must remember that those actions are results of human behavior. I do not pretend to have settled any great arguments here, but hope to have left a question or two better answered for the reader. Believing in God is not something likely to be altered by reading anything. Often we feel first, and reason second where this is concerned. So, if everyone should respect your reasoned leap of faith, please respect those who have reasoned a different path, or rejected those paths altogether. The race has yet to come in.