Does God Exist? Theism vs. Atheism
Is There A God? The Philosophical Arguments of Theism and Atheism
The question of whether or not God exists is one of the most fundamental questions there is, yet the intellectual arguments for or against the existence of God are not as cut-and-dry as either side of the debate would have you believe. Philosophical discourse concerning the existence of God has gone back and forth for thousands of years, and has been weighed in upon by some of history's most profound thinkers. Such brilliant minds as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, St. Anselm of Canterbury, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Kurt Gödel, and Gottfried Leibniz have all delivered compelling arguments on the reality of God and the meaning of existence, yet the debate continues to rage on.
Many arguments have been made, and you are perhaps already familiar with several of them in one or more of their varied forms. Below you will find a list of some of the most commonly cited arguments supporting either the belief or non-belief in God. These arguments have been simplified and described in brief to make them more accessible to the average reader who is perhaps interested in understanding the basic arguments of both atheists and theists.
Arguments for Theism
Cosmological Argument (First Cause)– This is the argument that every effect must have a cause (the Law of Causality); therefore, there must be an original cause which we commonly understand to be God. This is essentially an argument based upon the concept of Aristotle's Immovable Mover, or the Uncaused Cause. It is built upon the premise that in order for anything to exist there must have been something which always existed because it is absurd to assume that something can be caused by nothing (an uncaused effect). This position is typically challenged with the Cause of the First Cause or Chicken and the Egg Argument . Another less common counter to this argument is David Hume's Problem of Induction .
Teleological Argument (Intelligent Design) – The Teleological Argument states that the existence of order in the universe necessarily implies a purpose, and that such a purpose for the universe could only come from a Supreme Mind. Specifically, this argument postulates the existence of an Intelligent Designer who directs the processes of nature. This argument is most commonly understood as William Paley's Watchmaker Analogy , in which he essentially argues that one would come upon a watch lying on the beach and immediately assume it was intelligently designed rather than assuming that it was a product of natural forces working independent of an intelligent influence. A modern variation of the Teleological Argument, known as the Fine-tuned Universe , argues that fundamental physical constants of the universe that make life possible are such that they are best explained by intelligent intervention rather than the undirected process of natural selection. Counter arguments include the Argument for Adaptation , the Dysteleological Argument , and the Argument for a Chaotic Universe . The idea that multiple universes might exist is also cited in opposition to this argument.
Ontological Argument (Anything that can exist, must exist) – This line of reasoning essentially states that if God can exist, then God must exist, as is evident from a priori proof (deductive reasoning). This argument was first made by St. Anselm who said, "God, by definition, is that for which no greater can be conceived. God exists in the understanding. If God exists in the understanding, we could imagine Him to be greater by existing in reality. Therefore, God must exist." The famous mathematician Kurt Gödel revised this argument using modal logic when he developed his Ontological Proof (a mathematical proof of the Ontological Argument) which can be summarized as:
IF it is possible for a rational omniscient being to exist, THEN necessarily a rational omniscient being exists.
Another way to put it is, that if one can conceive of the attributes of God, then God must exist in order to have those attributes which belong to Him. Put yet another way, if one can conceive of iPod-ness (the essence or qualities of an iPod), then there must be such a thing as an iPod which exists. As you can imagine, there are several counter arguments against this line of reasoning, since although it has been shown to have grounding in logic and it has been mathematical proven, common sense would dictate "something is not quite right."
Axiological Argument (Moral Argument) – This argument puts forth the idea that there is a universal moral conscience which is best explained by the existence of God. The entire argument hinges on moral realism, or the idea that there is an objective morality which is true regardless of one's subjective viewpoint. For example, the argument from morality would state that "beating puppies for fun is wrong," which is a statement that is generally regarded as true. Since all well-functioning humans know that such an act is immoral, we must then ask where this knowledge came from. The Moral Argument puts forth the claim that God is the source of this universal moral conscience. Critics often suggest that the concept of morality is socially mediated by way of a social contract , and that there is no compelling reason to assume that a god is involved in moral judgment in any way. The Problem of Evil is most often cited in opposition to this claim.
Argument from Beauty – This argument postulates that there are compelling reasons for considering that beauty transcends physical manifestations, and since classical theism states that beauty is a attribute of God, there are also compelling reasons to believe that the existence of God is more plausible than God's nonexistence. Evidences used to support this line of thought are the objective beauty of great works of art and the mathematical beauty of the universe, as well as the seemingly universal concept of beauty in symmetry.
Books on Theistic Philosophy
Argument from Love – The Argument from Love states that there are compelling reasons to conclude that love transcends physical manifestations; and therefore, there are compelling reasons to believe that things do exist which transcend the physical reality. This argument goes on to imply that if the concept of God is commonly understood to be defined as a transcendent entity, then it is reasonable to assume that love is an attribute of God, and since love exists as an attribute of God, then God must exist. The Argument from Love further implies that God must be a personal God, since love is one of God's attributes and the attribute of love can be experienced by physical beings. Another variation of this sort of philosophical reasoning is to suggest that love and faith in God is no more irrational than falling in love. The most common counter arguments for this position are the Problem of Hell and the theories of love postulated by science.
Transcendental Argument (also known as the TAG) – This is the argument that because knowledge exists, God must exist; otherwise, there could be no such thing as knowledge. One form of this argument states that since there are logical absolutes which exist, and logical absolutes are conceptual rather than physical in nature, and they are not dependent on subjective thought (the human mind) to be true, but rather exist as logical absolutes, then logical absolutes are transcendent as well as conceptual by nature; and therefore, can only be the product of a transcendent mind – God. Another way of putting it is that we cannot know anything by means of rational thought unless some rational conclusions are always true (for example, 1 could never equal a value which is not 1), and the conceptual nature of these truths exist outside of the human mind (1 could never equal a value which is not 1 regardless of whether or not the physical mind agrees), but are still concepts; therefore, since a concept must come from a mind because it is not a physical thing, the transcendental mind of God must be the origin of logical absolutes. Put yet another way, an absolute concept means that God thinks; therefore, God exists.
Argument from Religious Experience (Experience is reality) – The Argument from Religious Experience states that since a substantial number of humans have claimed to have had a religious experience there is reason to believe that such experiences are real. This line of thinking goes on to say that although mass delusions are not impossible, a very convincing reason must be offered to compel a reasonable mind to conclude such religious experiences are in fact the product of mass delusions. Those who have had paranormal experiences, or who have claimed to have sighted UFOs use this same argument. Assigning mass delusion and invoking the Argument of Inconsistent Revelations are the more common criticisms of this argument.
Anthropological Argument (Nature of man) – This argument suggests that the very nature of man in relation to the universe implies the existence of God. In essence, the argument states that the nature of man is such that it is quite conceivable to conclude that he was created for the purpose of observing and contemplating the universe and his Creator; furthermore, the nature of the universe is such that it is equally conceivable that the universe was made for man, and not man in accordance with the universe. In other words, the universe appears to be perfect for the existence of man, and man's nature appears to be perfect for the observation, rationalization, and appreciation of the universe in which he lives. The Anthropological Argument maintains that such a set of circumstances are best explained through the theistic worldview. The Chaotic Universe Argument , Argument for Adaptation , Argument for Non-belief , and the Dysteleological Argument , and are all used as criticisms of this line of thinking.
Pascal's Wager – This is a purely existential wager—existentialism is the philosophy that we give our own life meaning, purpose, and happiness rather than there being an actual overall purpose and meaning to life—which basically states that it is better to believe in God and be wrong, than to disbelieve in God and be wrong, when considering the rewards and consequences of such a belief from the perspective of existentialist thought. This commonly cited 'wager' is more of an argument for belief in a specific deity, than it is evidence for the existence of God. It is commonly refuted with the Atheist's Wager .
Arguments for Atheism
Chaotic Universe Argument (Meaningless universe) – This well known argument for atheism states that the universe behaves in a meaningless, chaotic, and irrational way. It is rejected by most intellectual atheists because such a premise would negate the usefulness and meaning of science by removing predictable outcomes and rendering the derivation of scientific laws an impossibility. Nevertheless, this argument is still used by many existentialist atheists as an argument in support of an atheistic worldview. It is most often countered with the Cosmological Argument , the Teleological Argument , and the Transcendental Argument , as well as the same line of reasoning used by other atheists who dismiss the validity of the Chaotic Universe Argument.
Argument from Fear (God is a crutch) – Both Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell popularized this argument when they asserted that religion, and thus belief in God, is the product of fear: fear of the unknown, fear of the uncontrollable, fear of nature, etc. This argument postulates that man created God out of fear as a means of comfort, as well as out of superstition and ignorance. Logicians criticize this argument as a genetic fallacy , and point out that merely because religion can be traced to a source does not negate the truth of a religion. For example, the evidence that certain sciences grew out of alchemy and astrology does not negate those sciences.
Argument for Adaptation (Evolutionary Argument) – The basic premise of this argument is that natural selection is all that is necessary to explain life and the seeming design of the universe. It is argued that since life will always adapt to its circumstance and environment, and natural selection can adequately explain the attributes mistaken for design, then the existence of God is an unnecessary hypothesis. This argument is often supported with the Dysteleological Argument . Critics of the Argument for Adaptation suggest that Evolution is merely the process which describes God's handiwork and usually evoke the Teleological Argument as a counter claim.
Anthropomorphic Argument (Man created God) – The primary thesis put forward by this argument is that there is just as much, if not more, evidence to reasonably conclude that man created God rather than God being the Creator of man. In essence, the Anthropomorphic Argument ascribes human qualities to nonhuman beings, asserting that man makes God in his own image and God is nothing more than a product of man's own imagination.
Cause of the First Cause Argument (Who made God?) – This argument proposes that every cause (rather than effect) must have an initial cause; therefore, if God exists, then God must have been caused just as all other things in existence, which sets up an infinite regress that suggests the Law of Causality either does not prove God, or it disproves God's existence altogether. The most common form of this argument is the Chicken and the Egg Argument , which questions whether or not the chicken came before the egg, or the egg came before the chicken. It is commonly rebuked by pointing out that the Law of Causality does not state that every cause is caused, but rather that every effect must have a cause; if God is not an effect, then God requires no cause.
Naive Realism Argument (Only what can be sensed is real) – The argument of Naive Realism begins with the assumption that all truths must be provable through sense perception, and then goes on to state that since God cannot be physically sensed, God does not exist. This position is contrary to established scientific evidence and thus, is rejected by most atheists and theists. For example, the oar of a boat appears to bend in water, but it is only an illusion; therefore, ordinary sensory experience alone cannot be trusted to evaluate the truth of something.
Books Concerning Atheistic Philosophy
Argument from Inconsistent Revelations (Which God is the real God?) - Essentially, this argument states that there are so many conflicting and mutually exclusive theistic revelations that there is a probability of less than one percent that one would choose the correct interpretation of God; therefore, it is more prudent to either make no choice, or to reject theistic revelations altogether. Put another way, the argument is that there are so many interpretations of God to choose from, that if only one of them can be the correct interpretation, it would be more wise to choose none than to risk offended the correct God. In other words, the supposition is that you can reasonably assume you would get into more trouble doing something than doing nothing, so the logical choice is to reject God.
Problem of Evil– The argument which uses the Problem of Evil points out that there is an obvious conflict between the concept of an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent deity who allows evil to exist in the universe when that God would clearly have the power to end such unnecessary evils. A common statement in support of this argument would be, "If a loving God exists, then why do children suffer from cancer?" An argument using this line of logic essentially concludes that since evil exists, God is either not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent, or God does not exist. This argument is countered with Plantinga's Freewill Defense to the logical Problem of Evil, which essentially states that freewill is the greater good, you can't have freewill without the ability to choose evil; therefore, it is necessary for there to be evil in a world where free-choice exists.
Argument from Non-belief (God is not self-evident) – Also known as the Argument of Divine Hiddenness , this philosophical argument claims that if God existed, then God would have made Himself evident to any reasonable person. The argument goes off of many assumptions such as: reasonable non-belief does not occur with a loving Deity, and God wants all humans to believe He exists before they die. One of the more common refutations of this argument is the Unknown Purpose Defense , which basically states that just because "We can see no good reason for God to do X, does not mean that there is no good reason for God to do X." In other words, just because we think God ought to do it, doesn't mean that God should do it.
Dysteleological Argument (Flawed creation)– This argument makes the case that if an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Creator designed organisms they would have optimal design qualities, and some organisms have suboptimal features; therefore, the organisms were either not designed, or they were designed by a Creator who does not have omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent qualities. This is more of an argument against a personal God, an Intelligent Designer, or the qualities of God Himself, rather than an argument against the existence of God. Critics argue that it presupposes a specific definition for what is considered to be "optimal," which may or may not actually be the most optimal choice.
Argument from Parsimony (Occam's Razor) – Occam's Razor is applied to the question of the existence of God by atheists who suggest that if the existence of God does not explain the universe better, then atheism should be preferred. Most commonly, the use of Occam's Razor makes the assertion that belief in God requires more complex assumptions than non-belief; therefore, it is more reasonable to conclude that God does not exist. Russell's Teapot is a form of this argument which is often cited. A common criticism of this position is that the simplest answer is not always the correct answer; therefore, the Argument from Parsimony really only applies when comparing two arguments, and is not an argument in itself.