Arguments for God

Discussions about the arguments for the existence of god often lead to an appeal to conviction rather than evidence. “You can’t disprove his existence!” is a common response offered by a believer. The fact that we can neither prove nor disprove something doesn’t mean that existence and non-existence are on equal footing. The burden of proof is on the person making the assertion.

We cannot disprove the existence of leprechauns, but their existence is not probable. Likewise one can make probability judgments about God based off the evidence or lack of evidence where one might expect it. Richard Dawkins presented a useful representation of this judgment people make on a seven point scale in The God Delusion:

  1. Strong theist with 100% probability God exists
  2. Very high probability but short of 100%
  3. Higher than 50% but not very high
  4. Exactly 50% as an impartial agnostic
  5. Lower than 50% but not very low
  6. Very low probability but short of 0%
  7. Strong atheist with 100% probability God doesn’t exist

Further, there are disagreements about the very definition of God. There are polytheistic beliefs like Apollo and Thor, and there are deistic beliefs like Spinoza’s natural god that is the universe or one that set the universe in motion and moved on, and then there is the most common personal god of the monotheistic religions which answers prayers and intervenes in human affairs. This can get confusing and sometimes people will jump from one definition to another in conversation. There are, however, many general arguments put forward to justify the existence of god and they are worth examining.

Cosmological Argument

The basic argument is that everything that exists must have a cause and nothing can be the cause of itself. Therefore, something outside the universe must have caused it and that is God. There are a few flaws here. First, who caused God? Second, the notion that something had to create the universe is unproved. If God could simply exist then why not the universe? Even so, we do not necessarily arrive at God.

Teleological Argument

This “watchmaker” argument supposes that organs of living things (i.e. human eye) are complex enough that they must have been designed with their function in mind, like a watch. They must have been formed by a non-human designer and that is God. The problem is that when we see a rabbit we first think of parent rabbits not a rabbit maker. Evolution is the proven method for this illusion of design and irreducible complexity has been repeatedly resolved. Attributing God to the gaps of science has been a losing battle throughout history.

Ontological Argument

This argument is purely conceptual stating that if we can conceive of the greatest possible being, then it must exist. If we can conceive of God, then God exists. We can concede that the concept of God includes the concept of existence. However, we can conceive of unicorns, but that does not mean they exist. Logically, existence cannot be included as part of the definition of God. We could use this line of reasoning to prove that anything we invent exists.

Goldilocks Argument

This argument contents there are a vast number of physically possible universes and one that is hospitable to life must meet strict conditions. If the percentage of possible universes that would support life is infinitesimally small and is fine-tuned for life then it must have been fine-tuned by God. This anthropic principle holds that the universe must have been designed with us in mind. The problem is that physicists disagree with the premises about life and potential hospitable universes. Life could very well exist in very different forms in alternate universes.

Coincidences Argument

Coincidences like the diameter of the moon allowing for perfect eclipses or personal uncanny coincidences means that God must be the only thing able and intent on effecting these coincidences. The largest problem here is that with a large number of experiences and patterns, coincidences are actually probable, not improbable. Further, psychologists have shown that people are subject to an illusion called the confirmation bias, which allows people to notice instances that confirm precepts and forget ones that don’t.

Answered Prayers Argument

This contends that people sometimes pray for good fortune and despite slim odds the prayers are answered, therefore God exists. This is similar to the coincidences argument given a large enough sample of prayers. The improbable is bound to happen occasionally, but we disregard all the unanswered prayers as “God’s will.” This is also morally troubling when you consider what prayers go unanswered from good people. Most significantly, the prayers answered are improbable acts but not actual miracles like regrowing an arm or raising grandparents from the dead.

Moral Truth Argument

This argument says there exist objective moral truths grounded in the way the world ought to be. If the laws of science can’t explain why the world ought to be a certain way then it must come from God. One flaw of this argument relates to why did God choose the moral rules he did? If he had good reasons then God is redundant. Another flaw is that people read religious texts selectively, for example, overlooking that the God of the Old Testament commanded people to keep slaves, slay enemies, and commit other heinous acts. The assumption that morality must come from God is a leap that is unsubstantiated and subject to current scientific study.

Consensus Argument

If every culture in history has had theistic beliefs, often similar, then the best explanation is that those beliefs are true and God exists. Unfortunately for the argument, human nature is universal including universal illusions, biases, and shortcomings of perception. Similar belief can be similar false belief. The most referenced example here is the widely held belief that the world was flat.

Holy Books Argument

This circular argument holds that a holy book reveals the word of God and since that word is necessarily true then its truth reveals the existence of God. The first problem is: which mutually incompatible holy book do you choose? The second problem involves ignoring the known history of the human origins and compilation of various religious texts.

Reason as Faith Argument

This contends that our belief in reason cannot be justified by reason and must be accepted on faith. It holds that when exercising reason we are exercising faith and we cannot avoid faith in God if we are to live coherent moral and purposeful lives. This tries to generalize the inability of reason to justify itself as an abdication of reason. One already is committed to reason by the very process one is already engaged in. It needs no justification, because it is justification. We rely on it because it is an instrument that works so well to understand the world. Further, if we abandon reason then why not believe in Zeus or Santa or Unicorns? What leads us to God?

Pascal’s Wager

This unique construct argues that it is rational to believe that God exists, given that we don’t know whether he exists. Since the risks of non-belief (eternal damnation) are greater than belief (wasting time) and vice-versa with the benefits (eternal salvation vs. more fun), we should believe. The wager is rigged because no probabilities are assigned to the various outcomes. What if the chances of God’s existence are 50%? What about 1%? Lastly, if we chose to believe we still don’t know which religion to choose so as to avoid eternal damnation. Will god forgive us if we choose incorrectly or feign our belief to appease his demands?

Conclusion

I find that when discussing theistic arguments, eventually theists will claim that they “simply cannot imagine the possibility of God not existing.” In that case one can only respond with “try a little harder” and warn them that relying on conviction without evidence can be a dangerous practice. Think about someone that just knows their spouse is cheating on them (or that a celebrity is deeply in love with them) without any real evidence and the disasters that typically ensue. We all want good answers about the universe, but refusing to take things at face value when inconvenient is not a good approach.

Ultimately, the mere existence of conflicting religious beliefs held with such similar conviction proves that it isn’t a good basis for belief. Everyone must be open to the possibility that God exists, but that does not mean that weak arguments and irrational thought can prove that existence. And if there is a God, that says nothing about the specific truth claims of various religions. How do they know? Where’s the evidence?

What I find surprising is that in a world with so many reasons to ponder the lack of existence of God that it proves so difficult for some people. Some would say our world offers a compelling case that it is likely there is no God, including:

  • Human suffering (disease, accidents, genocide, etc.) appears indifferent to good people
  • Despite praying to different gods, people think their prayers work, hinting of confirmation bias
  • Science has explained much of the natural world previously thought divine (weather, biology, cosmology, etc.)
  • There is no evidence to be found – no intervening, no miracles, no proof

When I open the refrigerator looking for milk and I can’t find any I’m left with the judgment that (while I could be wrong) there probably isn’t any milk there.

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