Belief in God
(Some Aspects of a Philosophy of Religion)
As philosophy encourages deep thinking about the meaning of life, one can hardly escape the serious issue concerning God. Belief in God in some form or fashion is almost universal. There have never been any truly atheistic cultures. There have been many religious cultures of different kinds. This is not to say that all of them are good and without problems. Religionper se is not all good. Many evil things have been done in the name of God as well as science, custom, or whatever. Any argument for the value of religion or God is not an argument for vindicating the excesses done in the name of God or religion. But philosophy does not begin with the many beliefs as diverse as they are. Philosophy is more concerned with the reasonsfor the beliefs rather than a description of the beliefs. Philosophy raises the pertinent question: is there any justification for believing in God? Our primary concern in this chapter is just that question. In ancient times few people doubted the existence of God. In modern times many people do. We will seek to cover the reasons given for belief in God as well as the arguments used against that belief.
We must, first, define a few words. The first one is God. Theos, a Greek word has come to mean a Being who is personal, intelligent, able to achieve his purpose, who is also Creator and Redeemer. Belief in this kind of Being is called theism. Theism is opposed to atheism which is the belief that God does not exist at all. Agnosticism is another Greek word that assumes a position of not being able to know any way or the other. Theism must not be confused with pantheism either. Pantheism is the idea that God is all and all is God. A general tendency of pantheism is to draw some analogy of comparison between the soul and the body of man. The soul is in the body, and similarly, God is the soul of the body of the world. Pantheism doesn't really mean anything different from the world. Pantheism substitutes a spiritual determinism for a materialistic determinism. There is no real problem of knowledge of God in pantheism, in one sense, for in knowing the world and oneself, one has a knowledge of pantheism. Moreover, pantheism is not usually intelligent.
occurs solely within the living fragment of itself--man.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French genius in physics, mathematics, philosophy and theology, was born in Clermont. In philosophy and theology he is better known for the Pensees, which were fragments or scraps of paper on which he had written thoughts about religion. The Wager is one of these ideas or Pensees, published after he died.
Our questions about God then become this: what evidence or reason is there to believe that there exists an intelligent being who is not identified with the material world? Is there a Transcendent Being? Why has man come to believe in such a Being?
There are some answers given to this that relate to man's early belief in God. Some psychiatrists have argued that belief in God or gods is a projection of man's fears. Primitive man was driven by fears and the idea of worshipping some unknown being occurred to him to allay these fears.
Immediately, one can see some problems. First, unlike people of modern historical times, we have no documents to warrant such retrospective psychic examination. One may analyze a person like Luther through his writings, and make some sense, but not pre-historic man. Second, primitive people were generally considered ignorant, but the worship of any god is a fairly sophisticated idea and hidden or invisible beings are not easy to assume. Third, in this practice one is taking modern twentieth century reactions and evaluations and imposing them on a culture which is very little known.
Various other theories are available for consideration such as religion arising in despair of magic or belief in God arose as primitives attempted to explain the unexplainable. Welhelm Schmidt has proposed that belief in God arose because man once knew God and this knowledge was subsequently corrupted by adaptations to changing cultures, levels of commitment and degeneration. Schmidt has received a mixed reception among scholars in the area. His view has many commendable features, but as far as the pre-historical religion goes, we must admit that "we know, in fact, nothing certain about the origin of religion and its primitive stages."1
Regardless of how belief in God arose, the question facing us now is: what is the basis for belief in God to continue? Here one sits in the contemporary world. Here is the world one sees--people, things, ideas. But God cannot be seen. There are two options about God. Either God is hidden or he is not. If he is hidden, what is there today that compels a belief in his existence? The answers to this question may be placed under three headings: (l) natural theology, (2) experiential-pragmatic examples, and (3) revelation. The first two answers fit more closely into philosophy, and the third answer involves religion.
I. Natural Theology.
Is it possible to learn anything about a Transcendent Being from nature itself? Does nature itself, as I examine it, lead me to the conclusion that a God exists? Natural theology sums up the conclusions that one learns from nature. There is a long tradition of philosophers who have believed that natural theology is meaningful. The Catholic tradition from Aquinas in the 13th century A.D. to the present has been the most forceful. Those who argue negatively, that is, there is no knowledge of God possible from nature are of several varieties. Atheists certainly fit into this category. But there are people who believe in God but who do not accept the arguments from nature about God's existence. Immanuel Kant rejected a number of arguments based on nature, but presented a moral argument for God's existence. Some Protestant theologians, John Baillie and Karl Barth along with the American philosopher Gordon H. Clark, fit into this category of rejecting the use of the arguments. All of these affirm a strong belief in God on other than arguments drawn from the facts of nature.
The strongest arguments against belief in God have, of course, come from the atheistic camp, and those generally critical of religious belief as in the example of David Hume. We will now turn to sketch the arguments drawn from observations about nature.
A. Cosmological Arguments.
The arguments we will use are drawn from Thomas Aquinas who adapted them from Aristotle. They will need some adaptation for modern use. There are three variations on the argument.
(1) The argument from motion.
It is certain . . . that . . . some things are in motion. Now whatever is moved is moved by another, for nothing can be moved except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is moved . . . . If that by which it is moved be itself moved, then this also must needs be moved by another and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because there would be no first mover . . . . Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, moved by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.2
The argument needs careful reading. Things must be started in motion by a self-existing Mover. We can look quickly to the criticisms raised against it. First is the question of stopping the motion series with God. Second is, why cannot a series be infinite or eternal? Let's take the argument in reverse order. Why can't a series be eternal? It depends on the type of series one is talking about. Aquinas would admit that an infinite series in numbers or motions would be possible. This may be described as a horizontal series. But it is a vertical series that does not go on to infinity. The existence of man is caused by another, and that by another and so on. This would be a horizontal situation. But once I am grown and independent of my parents there is yet a dependency I cannot escape. I cannot live without air, water, and similar things. This kind of vertical series cannot go on to infinity. It comes to an unmoved Mover.3
Even though it is admitted that a horizontal series to infinity would be possible that may have its problems if one gets away from numbers which are infinite. A numerical series only exists in the mind whereas an infinite series of motion in reality does not. The argument, since it has been drawn from nature, should also take some consideration of nature as it is presently understood. If we can depend upon one leading view in cosmology, we can trace motion back to a cause beyond which we cannot go--the original mass of energy which exploded into space giving motion to gases that became matter and subsequently the planets and systems as we know them. If the Big Bang theory can be accepted there is no infinity of motion. If there was no moving matter once, then the series must stop and be dependent upon something else. Beyond that we cannot go in terms of the Big Bang theory. One could easily postulated God.
The second question, why stop the motion series with God? is more crucial. The atheist wants to stop with the motion seen in the world without seeking a first mover. He argues that the argument is contradicted by demanding a first mover. He seems willing to accept motion without an explanation that is eternal, and different from the things in motion. In doing so the atheist must conclude that the world is eternal itself. Matter does exist and needs no explanation beyond itself. But Aquinas accepted the argument that something is eternal. What is it? God or matter? Again, appealing to the Big Bang theory we can say that matter as we know it is not eternal.
(2) The second argument is called the argument from efficient causes. Aquinas wrote:
In the world of sensible things we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known . . . in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself . . . if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect . . . Therefore, it is necessary to admit a first sufficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.4
This argument is similar to the first way, but it uses a different mode. The same questions are raised about it as the first. Therefore, we will not repeat the points.
(3) The third argument is called the argument from contingency. Aquinas wrote:
We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to be corrupted and consequently, it is impossible for them to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which can not-be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything can not-be, then at one time there was nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now, there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist begins to exist only through something already existing . . . . Therefore, we cannot but admit the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.5
This argument may be rephrased and still retain the same intention by using the reconstruction of Buswell: "If anything does now exist, then either something must be eternal, or something not eternal must have come from nothing."6
The important argument in Aquinas' thinking was the third one, and the two others merely amplify it. Argument three as well as the other arguments lead to the idea of a necessary being. Bertrand Russell, Anthony Flew and other critics of the argument confess that they have no idea of a necessary being. But this is a confession held strictly about God as a necessary being. They indeed believe in a necessary something but that is the material world as it is experienced. Since something cannot arise from nothing, matter must be regarded as eternal, and that is a necessary being even for the atheist.
The argument cannot simply stop with a necessary being, either mind or matter, but must involve the aesthetic aspect of the question: did matter produce mind, or mind produce matter? Evolutionary theory is used often to support the priority of matter over mind. But this poses the cosmic question of the origin of life from non-life. Matter as we define it now and know it scientifically is not creative. Mind is creative, but we know it only experientially from the vantage point of a body. Even then there is yet the mystery of how a mind initiates and brings action through a body. Does our argument make more sense if we conclude for a Being who is Mind and who creates, or a Being that is matter and un-creative? Mind must be the more aesthetically satisfying conclusions.
B. Teleological Argument.
The teleological argument is the most popularly known of the arguments, but apparently not the most important one with Aquinas. The argument is known as the argument from design, or argument to a designer. About it Aquinas wrote:
we see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end . . . Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move toward an end, unless it is directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence . . . . Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end, and this being we call God.7
This argument is applied by its advocates to the microcosm, the cosmos, and the macrocosm. The snow flake and the blood cell are two examples of a microcosm that illustrate intricate design. In the cosmos of man's experience and being the eye has been singled out as an amazing illustration. The retina alone has 144 million separate entities in it. The eye appears as something designed, not as a result of chance, or slow development. If it developed over a long period of time there is no reason why each part stayed in existence until the other necessary parts were developed. It does not appear the result of a sudden mutation. The conclusion is reached that it has been designed by a designer.
The macrocosm is used also to illustrate the seeming designed aspect of man's existence. Spaceship earth appears more and more unique and precarious as we explore space. We have an atmosphere that precludes our being bombed by meteorites. Thinner air would not burn out meteors before they hit the earth. Our rotation on the earth is such that we have liveable temperatures. Slower rotations would alternately freeze us at night and burn us in the day. Our position in reference to the sun is such that we have enough heat but not overheat, and the same is true with cold. Other features could be used in illustration of this idea of design in macrocosm.
The basic conclusion is that a designer brought this into being, and in Aquinas' words, this being is God.
We must now look at the criticisms of the argument to a designer. The most perceptive critic of the argument in the history of philosophy is David Hume, in the eighteenth century. Anthony Flew follows much of Hume's thought in the twentieth century. Hume raised the following objections.
(1) An infinite designer cannot be concluded from a finite design. To put it another way, "Similar causes prove similar effects and similar effects similar causes."8 The intent of the criticism is well-taken, but there is a sense in which the precept could be modified in terms of modern physics. The principle concerning the loss of energy in nature would require a greater cause to achieve the lesser effect. Such a conclusion would require a greater being to create the world than the effects, but even this would not require an infinite God. In fairness, however, to Aquinas, the argument only speaks of God whose infinity is not learned from this argument as from the third argument, and then it would be possible to appeal to God's self-revelation for the idea of infinity. Even Hume admits that the argument may give basis for concluding for a being who has a certain measure of power and intelligence.
(2) The second objection--Hume argued that the world may be compared more truly to a vegetable or animal rather than a watch or a machine.9 Regardless of either of these models, they all indicate design. If the world is a vegetable, it is an unusual vegetable that has design manifested in its being. The same would hold true for an animal. There is nothing sacred and necessary about the analogy of a machine. The makeup of both animal and vegetable is both complex and genetically designed. Neither of these models serves to get to an infinite or eternal solution if our physics concerning the origin of the earth is at all meaningful. Hume's analogies in his objection are outdated.
(3) Hume rejected the idea of a necessary existent. "There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it."10 Speaking of the being of anything as a general term, there is the absolute necessity of conceiving something as necessary. Actually, there are two necessities. First, from Hume's vantage there is the necessity of a necessary material world. This is Hume's alternative to a necessary God. But even the world is not the only necessary if we rule out a Creator. There is, a more fundamental necessary that we cannot escape. We must conceive of the necessity of space. We can--granting our existence somehow--conceive of empty space without anything in it. We cannot conceive of absolute nothing--no-thing. Space is necessary. If space is necessary, why should it be unreasonable to think of God as necessary since matter as we think of it has a beginning. Actually Hume does not really base his entire case on this as he claimed. The real issues are that God cannot be seen, and the problem of evil. We will speak of these shortly. If my observations about space are correct, then Hume's comments about a necessary existence as having no meaning are nonsense.11
(4) The real heart of Hume's objection concerns the matter of chaos in a designed world. To put in another way, if this is a designed world, why do people suffer? Hume appealed to Epicurus' old question and regarded it as unsolved. Summing up Epicurus, Hume wrote about evil and God:
Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent? Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent? Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?12
Some options have been proposed to solve this issue before and after the time of Hume. Some, like Brightman, have argued that God is finite and good and is struggling to overcome evil and will do it. Others, as reflected in Christian Science and other pantheisms, regard evil as an illusion and there is only good in the world. Yet others, like Gordon H. Clark, argue that God is the cause of evil.13
A more sober view is to question the formulation of the question of Epicurus. In a similar fashion Edgar Brightman has asked: "Can one believe in a God who allows evil to exist?" The implication of the question is that God is good and powerful and must therefore put evil out of the way. But this turns God into a cosmic policeman who must--absolutely must--do something about the wrong that people do. It is seemingly alright if the wrong involves other people. But the question is also more important in this fashion: "Can one believe in a God who does not allow evil to exist? Neither Hume or anyone would survive if God did what they demanded of him--namely, not allow evil to exist.
This raises the question about the nature of the goodness of God. If God did judge as Hume requests, would God still be good? Presumably a God who judged would be bad. Either way God cannot win, and Hume cannot lose.
Is the goodness of God in his patience or in his swift judgement? Anthony Flew used this analogy of a father and insisted that a father would do things that God doesn't do. A father would heal his child who is sick and God as father does not. This story is touching and indicting, but there are other stories that suggest a hands-off situation more profound. A father loves his son, but for the son's growing up he gives him more and more freedom to make mistakes for the son must be on his own. The growing freedom may involve hurt and even the risk of death and self-destruction, but a true father gives the son the freedom to be himself. It may even be the choice of the son to involve himself in activities that mean certain death. The protest of the father is of no avail. One may lock up a drug addict son and seek to return him to normalcy, but as soon as the son is out he defies everyone who cares for him and returns to his destructive activities. The father loves and seeks to help, but the son will have nothing of it. God is like this also and there is a true expression of "tough-love" in the earthly as well as the heavenly father. The father is happy when the son follows the path of goodness, righteousness and fellowship with him. The human father also grieves when his son goes wrong. Can the father meaningfully force the son to his ways? Obviously he has the power to do it--certainly God does--but will he use it? Really?
The problem of evil will not be solved in a syllogistic fashion as created by Hume or Brightman. It is too complex and difficult. Their options as proposed are not the correct options. They are only traps. Any formulations of the problem will have to consider God's patience, man's freedom, and the wisdom of not using power or force.
A few miscellaneous comments are in order concerning other issues in Hume and Flew. One basic underlying issue is that God is not seen. Given the grudging admission of Hume "that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence"14 we still do not see this being, only the effects of such a one. This is not enough to erect anything on. It has no comparison to the matters of verification as in science.15
Flew's formulation of the issue of God abounds in some unusual and unnecessary formulations which call forth unnecessary demands, and then just simple abuse against his opponents. Some examples may help. Flew seeks to define God as creator in a way that man has no freedom of will.16 He defined God as omnipotent with the implication that man has no freedom and the logical necessity that the problem of evil must be whipped. It is true that he quoted several creeds for support, but the idea of omnipotence is not necessarily true for Christian theology. More appropriately, God is able to achieve his will and purpose which permits freedom, evil, as well as redemption.
Another problem in Flew is his use of the term "universe" in which he wants to see a God who is outside of the universe. What does the universe mean? Is not Flew asking for a view of another universe. Is this required in any theology? A transcendent God is not outside the universe, but only He is not identified with any material of it. God is not the earth or sun, or the stars, although theism believes that he created them. God must be within the confines of space and in that sense God is not outside of the universe, but within it. While I might argue for the existence of God I would not want to define Him as being outside the universe as I understand the term. Another example of the abuse--not logic--of Flew is seen in his comment that Roman Catholics have more juvenile delinquents than anyone else.17
We will return to Flew when we consider other types of arguments, but we need to make a general comment or two about the nature of arguments for God's existence. Arguments for the existence of God are probability arguments, that is, the probability is that a being or God of some kind exists. All arguments are probability arguments and that is as far as the argument can go.18 They are not sufficient for religious experience. The arguments without anything else would offer a very impoverished theology. Next, there are other people who reject the arguments because of the nature of their own philosophical systems. Kant is an example of this. Without going into his philosophy here, a comment of James Collins may be appropriate:
The special Kantian analysis of the proofs for God's existence was intended not only to refute these particular arguments but also to expose the impotence of natural theology as a whole.19
But Collins also indicated that unless one accepts Kant's theory of knowledge, his refutation of the proofs are fallacious.
Another observation about the proofs is that one may make certain demands that would rule out the arguments. If one requires that God be seen as in the science lab, then the arguments do not give us that possibility. Last, the arguments need closer relationships to what we know presently about the nature of the world. With that we will turn to the last of the rational arguments.
C. The Ontological Argument.
This is the only rational argument that exists--that is, it does not begin with the visible world, but with a rational idea. Formulated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) the argument can be summarized in a simple sentence: "There is that than which a greater cannot be conceived."20 Three simple statements indicate the scope of the argument:
Man has an idea of a perfect being.
Existence is an attribute of perfection
Therefore, a perfect being must exist.
It is in this form that the argument has been most widely attacked. Not only in Anselm's day but Aquinas and Kant rejected the argument because existence is not an attribute of perfection. An idea of a perfect 100 dollar bill in your wallet does not bring it into existence. Because of this fallacy, it is generally concluded that the ontological argument is of little value.
However, a defense of the argument has been made by Norman Malcolm. He argued that there are two arguments in Anselm. The first form of the argument is that rejected by Aquinas and others. The second form involved the phrase "necessary existence as a perfection." Thus, a necessary being is greater than if it does not necessarily exist. Within the definition of God as eternal, one logically sees the necessity of his being. Malcolm summarized the argument as follows:
If God, a being a greater than which cannot be conceived, does not exist then He cannot come into existence. For if He did He would either have been caused to come into existence or have happened to come into existence, and in either case He would be a limited being, which by our conception of Him He is not. Since He cannot come into existence, if He does not exist His existence is impossible. If He does exist He cannot have come into existence (for the reasons given), nor can He cease to exist, for nothing could cause Him to cease to exist nor could it just happen that He ceased to exist. So if God exists His existence is necessary. It can be the former only if the concept of such a being is self-contradictory or in some way logically absurd. Assuming that this is not so, it follows that He necessarily exists.21
The evaluation of the argument of Malcolm wind up being criticisms of logic. They focus on the process of reasoning and there are both supporters and opponents of the argument. What so few admit is the idea of a necessary being beyond the boundaries of the material. Again, the idea of a necessary being is rejected, but all philosophers must affirm necessary being of some kind. The debate is over what it is: God or Matter.22
We must now proceed to the second division of arguments for the existence of God.
The title of this sub-division is designed to cover several types that have little in common except they relate to man's personal experience, need, or practice. Beyond that the title serves no purpose other than as an organizing device. The first argument is the moral argument.
A. Moral Argument.
As noted above, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) rejected the arguments of both Aquinas and Anselm, but he believed in God and did not wish to give up the idea of a Supreme Being. In his Critique of Practical Reason, he formulated two arguments that are similar. The first argument concerns the immortality of the soul which cannot be proven at all, but is, for Kant, a necessary idea. The argument is summed as follows: Man lives under a moral law which requires perfection. Since man does not achieve it in this life, immortality is required that the duty of man may be fulfilled in meeting the demands of the moral law.23
Some practical questions may be raised about Kant's first argument. First, there is no visible moral law in nature and it may seem arbitrary to speak of one as Kant did. Second, why should man be given time to make up his failure? Without some Christian understanding of life after death, why postulate man's survival at all? Third, why not let the judgement about man's failure stand and simply say that he lost out in the race? Fourth, Kant ruled out forgiveness and grace and places life after death on performance which is contrary to Christian values.
The second argument may be summed as follows: Happiness should coincide with the degree of morality. Unfortunately it doesn't, yet man has a duty of pursuing the good. Then Kant said:
Now it was our duty to promote the highest good; and it is not merely our privilege but a necessity connected with duty as a requisite to presuppose the possibility of this highest good. This presupposition is made only under the condition of the existence of God, and this condition inseparably connects this supposition with duty. Therefore, it is morally necessary to assume the existence of God.24
One of the objectionable features of Kant's argument is that it is a use of God that is certainly contrary to the Biblical model of God. God is useful only for undergirding morality for Kant. Beyond that it is questionable whether God serves any use in Kant's view of things.
Another example of the moral argument is that of Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924) who drew on the idea of a standard of truth in all disciplines. Even though a discipline is floundering around in half-truths, there is an ideal to which it hopes to attain in truth. Rashdall argued that:
the Moral Law has a real existence, that there is such a thing as an absolute Morality, that there is something absolutely true or false in ethical judgement, whether we or any number of human beings at any given time actually think so or not. Such a
belief is distinctly implied in what we mean by Morality.25
Since a moral ideal cannot exist in material things, or in the mind of any one individual, Rashdall concluded that "an Absolute moral idea can exist only in a Mind from which all Reality is derived."26
Consequently, morality leads to the conclusion that God exists.
The success of Rashdall's argument does not depend upon whether people follow a moral standard or not. Obviously many do not.
B. The Argument from Personal Experience.
This argument builds on the fact that religious experience is well-nigh universal. Elton Trueblood wrote:
The fact that a great many people, representing a great many civilizations and a great many centuries, and including large numbers of those generally accounted the best and wisest of mankind, have reported religious experiences is one of the most significant facts about our world.27
This argument is designed to indicate that experience of people leads to the conclusion that God exists. But it is one of the weaker arguments and has some problems with it. It proves more than a theist would like to argue for. How can one distinguish between the religious experience of a Muslim, Buddhist, Jew and Christian? All have religious experience and all should be accorded some truthfulness or validity according to the implications of the argument. The argument can be used to argue that all religions are the same and are of equal value.
If the argument is to be defended it might be supplemented with a detailed anthropological study as seen in Schmidt's "High God" idea in which the different religions could be traced to a common source of the idea of God. Perhaps then the argument would have some value for the theist. Without some restrictions and further limitations it is not of great value.
Another type of the personal experience argument was set forth by A.E. Taylor who used an analogy of art and music which has objectivity. Think of a concert in which many people attend. There are levels of response. The man who comes because his wife coerced him responds negatively. The musician probably has the best appreciation and response to the music, at the same time both critically and aesthetically.
Taylor argued that life is somewhat like the concert or beauty in nature. There is something "out there" that calls forth a response. Men differ in their responses, and because some do not see Him one is not justified in concluding that He does not exist. Aberrations there may be in religion, but the overwhelming repetition of religious experience throughout the ages lends support to the argument.
Objections exist and the following may be noted. (1) This argument lends support for all kinds of religious experience and is not easily limited to the theist. (2) The object of religious experience is never known. Is it really God that one experiences or some lesser being? (3) Theism would admit the importance and usefulness of experience in religion, but it would not be just any old experience that would be regarded as legitimate. It has been shown that hallucinogenic drugs produce a sense of awareness of the world around, but the production of the experiences does not validate the use of drugs. The drugs can destroy and bad religious experience can do likewise.
In the spirit of P.T. Forsyth, we can say that there is an authority for experience, but not authority in the experience. Forsyth meant that religious experience has its place, in relation to other things, but by itself it does not give authority for any conclusions about the truthfulness of God, gods, or whatever.
C. The Argument from Practical Use.
The argument from practical use is one that appears impressive at first, but then assumes some severe problems. The practical use argument is that belief in God works. It has a certain practicality that results do follow from belief. William James noted examples of people who were sick in body and mind, but through commitment and conversion they became well. The conclusion to be reached from this profound experience is that "God is real since he produces real effects."28 This is impressive when someone says, "I used to be . . ." and now I am a changed person. It is difficult to argue with that.
In a similar manner James argued that atheism has little help against pessimism, cynicism, and futility, whereas theism has much to offer in offsetting them.
The argument proves too much and raises serious questions for the theist. First, a change of thinking will help most people. If you believe you are capable and confident you will probably work better in that direction. If you believe you are incompetent, you may help yourself in that direction. Second, it proves the truth of many kinds of gods. The polytheistic Hindu gets psychological help in his piety as well as the monotheistic Muslim. There is some value received, or neither would do what they do. Are they worshipping the true God? That can't be decided on the basis of the argument. In light of these points it may be considered the most ambiguous of the arguments although it does make a point indicating that belief can affect how one lives.
D. The Wager.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) set forth an argument that is unusual in its nature and compelling in many ways. It has also been a focal point of criticism based on oversight or ignorance.
Pascal is often classed as a fideist, that is, a person who says one cannot argue for God's existence, but one must accept it on faith. One statement of Pascal often quoted is the following:
If there is a God He is infinitely incomprehensible since having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is, or if He is.29
Pascal does not call forth the traditional arguments. But his statement above must not be taken to say that theists are unreasonable. Reason cannot decide the issue of whether God exists or not. This does not preclude some other way of knowing about God. The point for the moment is that man is confronted with two alternatives: God is or He is not. Pascal then noted:
Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.30
The wager is then set forth and may be outlined as follows:
If I bet that God is:
1. and he is . . . eternity is gained.
2. and he is not . . . nothing is lost (yet a good life may be gained in light of believing in God).
If I bet that God is not:
1. and he is . . . eternal life is lost.
2. and he is not . . . nothing lost, except if a wild life has been chosen, which by its nature is self- destroying.
Therefore, the betting man, the reasonable man will bet on God.
Initially, Pascal indicated that life has its choices and it makes a difference now how one lives--affirming or negating life. This is seen at a deeper level with God. The Biblical God set forth the alternatives: life or death, therefore, choose life. Choose the way of life that affirms life. It is not an argument that proves the existence of God. It shows profoundly the choices and their relevance.
Some criticisms have been raised against the wager and one of the most common is the matter of side-bets. If one bets on God--which God? What about a side bet with Vishnu, Allah, as well as the Christian option? Pascal covered the matter of side bets in his comments on the nature of a true religion.31Pascal placed before us three criteria for a true religion:
1. It must teach the hiddenness of God: "God being thus hidden every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden is not true and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive.32
2. The true religion must explain the misery of man. "That a religion may be true, it must have knowledge of our nature. It ought to know its greatness and littleness and the reason of both."33
3. The true religion must teach how man can know God who is hidden or give the remedy for his alienation and misery. "The true religion, then, must teach us to worship Him only, and to love him only. But we find ourselves unable to worship what we know not, and to love any other object but ourselves, the religion which instructs us in these duties must instruct us also in this inability; and teach us also the remedies for it.34
If we apply these views of Pascal to the major religions of the world, it becomes possible to see the matter of the side-bets in a new light; there is no reason for side-bets. First, pantheistic Hinduism is out for it is the nature of pantheism to identify nature and God. There is no difference between nature and God. It becomes meaningless to talk about God in any usual sense of the term, when one is really talking about nature. God is not hidden. He is the bug, tree, cloud, or man, and other beings. Second, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism are not viable options because classical Buddhism is not a religion about God at all, Confucianism did not begin as a religion, and neither did Taoism. They were humanistic philosophies and none of their classical or original expressions require worship. Their degeneration into religions were not commanded by the founders. This is also true for Buddhism. None of these have anything meaningful for the issue of theism.
This leaves three other major options: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Judaism and Christianity have a unique relationship. Judaism offers a knowledge of God based upon God's self-revelation. Only God can reveal God. This is the meaning of Pascal's despair of reason. Judaism affirms that God has revealed himself, but the problem with Judaism is an interpretation problem: it has not been true to its own internal witness. Judaism spoke hopefully of a coming Messiah but did not recognize Him when he came. Pascal's Pensee 555 may be applied to Judaism:
All who seek God without Jesus Christ, and who rest in nature, either find no light to satisfy them, or come to form for themselves a means of knowing God and serving Him without a mediator.35
He also concluded that:
We know God only by Jesus Christ. Without this mediator all communion with God is taken away . . . . Apart from Him, and without the Scripture, without original sin, without a necessary mediator promised and come, we cannot absolutely prove God, nor teach right doctrine and right morality . . . .36
In other words, knowledge of God came through God beginning in Judaism, and reached its climax in the Incarnation--God coming Himself to reveal Himself in human understanding. What began in Judaism reached its fulfillment in the Incarnation.
The issue of Islam assumes another dimension. Islam claims to build on Judaism and Christianity. It presumes to be the successor to two religions. As long as it claims a continuity with the two religions, it has to reckon with the contradictions involved in the claim. There is nothing in Judaism or Christianity to call forth another religion beyond the Messiah. Judaism promised a Messiah, Christianity claims to be built on the Messiah; but Mohammed is neither a Messiah nor a promise of Christian fulfillment. When it became obvious to Muslim scholars that the Bible did not prophesy the coming of Mohammed, they then claimed that Jews and Christians conspired to corrupt the Scriptures deliberately. The Christian Scriptures speak with finality about God's last word to man in terms of the Incarnation. After God has come, anything else is an anti-climax.
This covers the major religions of the world in brief. As a matter of side-bets, then on Pascal's grounds there are none to be placed. The only real bet is on God-Incarnate. Only Christianity offers a mediator--a means of helping man to know the hidden God and experience redemption from his misery.
The idea of revelation is not usually considered by philosophers as having merit. When one considers the objections of philosophers later, this will be more evident. For now, we must consider the argument. It is one that is specially related to the Judaeo-Christian tradition but culminating in the person of Jesus, the Christ.
The claim is made by and for Jesus Christ that He is of the same nature of God, equal with God and come from God. His life is a parable of love, filled with deeds of kindness, healing and compassion. He raised the dead, gave sight to the blind, and did what no other person has done. In consistency with his claim of equality with God is the intense monotheism that he taught as well as was believed by the Jews of his day. Neither He nor they believed that every man is a sub-unit of the divine nature. He was condemned for his claim to equality with God and his claim of being the Messiah of Israel. The crucifixion took place and brought disappointment to his followers. If the death had been the end of the story no purpose would be achieved in these details. But three days later, the resurrection took place as Jesus foretold and out of this event Christianity was born. Jesus was seen after the resurrection by Mary Magdalene, then by the "other Mary," by Cleopas and another person on the road to Emmaus, Simon alone, then the ten together, then eight days later with the disciples now including Thomas who doubted before, then the seven beside the Sea of Galilee and to "above five hundred brethren," then to James, the last appearance at the Ascension, and finally at the appearance to the Apostle Paul.
The resurrection becomes the capstone of the Christian belief and it becomes the cardinal element in the claim that Jesus is the Son of God, or God Incarnate.
All of this is not limited to the era of Jesus. It is a climax of many things before Him. First, it is related to the messianic promise extending back through centuries of Old Testament history. The prophets speak of a coming Messiah. Jesus said of that claim: I am He.
Second, it is related to the acts of God in the Old Testament. Belief in God in Israel made a difference. God said, "Let there be . . ." light, earth, a people of God, an exodus from Egypt's slavery, a promised land, victory over the Canaanites, a kingdom of David, prophets to call forth judgement on the people's sin, and fulfillment of these prophetic denunciations, and let there come forth from Bethelehem a Messiah.
Third, in terms of Jewish apocalyptic belief in Jesus' day, the resurrection is the key for identifying the Messiah with God and in the Messiah is revealed God and his word.
Fourth, it is related to the miracles of Jesus. Miracles are not ethical principles, but historical events related to real people in real life situations. A miracle is a direct act of God that transcends the normal functions of nature. The resurrection is the beginning point of miracles and other miracles have their reference point to it. If it is true, they make sense. Miracles are projected in the Old Testament as well as the New. The plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Sea, the parting of the Jordan, and other miracles took place at the right time by command of God. It would have been a falsifying situation if Moses had said: The Jordan will part, but it did not do so.
Fifth, the credibility of the resurrection and life of Jesus does not get lost in centuries after the fact when legendization can take place. In contrast to legendization processes, the documents about the life and resurrection of Jesus came into existence before 70 A.D. with many of these as early as ten years after the resurrection occurred. Compare this with the centuries after the life of Buddha and others. The enemies of Jesus were yet alive and could well contest the events.
These kinds of facts caused C.S. Lewis to conclude:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher, He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him, Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.38
This argument is based on the historical events of the past. The credibility of witnesses and their motives may be examined. The matter of deliberate falsification is out because there is nothing to gain: only loss of life. Probability is enhanced by one other element of the Christian view of things: the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The facts alone are not everything. One does not believe by facts alone. The witness of God's Spirit is expressed in the statement that "no one can confess `Jesus is Lord' unless he is guided by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3 TEV). The facts are important and necessary but the ultimate conviction of their truth is related to God's Spirit.
That is the argument in its summary. We now turn to the objections. The most critical objections to the idea of self-revelation come from Hume and Flew. Let's look at some of them.
First, the idea of a miracle. Hume has a celebrated essay on miracles in which he maintained "a miracle can never be proved so as to be the foundation of a system of religion."39 Flew himself avers:
The heart of the matter is that the criteria by which we must assess historical testimony, and the general presumptions which alone make it possible for us to construe the detritus of the past as historical evidence, must inevitably rule out any possibility of establishing, upon purely historical grounds, that some genuinely miraculous event has indeed occurred.40
Flew, in the spirit of Hume, indicated elsewhere in his book that the theist seeks to maintain a position in which nothing can count against his belief in God. But here we have a turnabout--Flew and Hume are maintaining that there is nothing that can be, or will be accepted as evidence for miracles, let alone God. If one is close-minded on the issues and rejects out of hand anything for the alternate position, there is not much that can be done to bring together a dialogue which Flew maintains he desires.
The second objection is one that has relevance to all of the arguments. That issue is verification. Verification is the norm for Flew and others. It has the ring of scientific authority and brings the question into his framework: can you see, feel, touch, hear or taste God? If you cannot, you are talking nonsense.
One has to admit straight out that verification of God in this manner cannot be done. If verification is restricted in this manner, many other things are also meaningless. The intangibles--truth, love, justice and the realm of values--are all meaningless on the standard of empirical verification.
Verification is important for science, but even there it has its problems. Which theory of verification do we accept? There are several variations. If verification means reproducibility of an experiment, there is a variation of this in religion. A scientific experiment implies that everyone who wants to can follow certain steps and when this is done certain results will happen. In theology, the same holds true. If you follow certain steps and make certain commitments, then this will happen. By this means you will come to know God. This has been the underlying a basis of all mission programs in which people are converted in any religion. That is one kind of verification but it is not seeing God with the naked eye. On the other hand, there are things in science that are never seen, but are called verified.
Speaking about God is somewhat like speaking about pain. We can describe it publicly and even invent words about it. But we never see the pain. Yet we know what other people mean as a general rule when they talk about a pain here or there in their body. We can talk about God, share common experiences, and all these are meaningful, but we don't see God with the human eye. It is not the intention of the arguments to bring this about. The arguments give a reasonable indication that God is. But even the arguments are not enough, granting that they are valid without question. They may point in the direction of God, but we cannot be happy with an "inferred" God. What is needed is an encounter, a meeting with God.
The search for God is one of the most important issues of life. If God is, then it is important to seek out the most important Person in the universe. It may be obvious that the author's sentiments fall into the direction of the Christian faith. One basic reason for this lies in the Christian idea of Person. Anything less than a Person is not worthy of the search. God defined as energy, or force is impersonal and could not involve worship. God defined as Mover or First Cause does not demand any more than an intellectual nod of the head. But God as Person would be significant. If God is Personal, then it does not seem phantasy that He who creates would also communicate. The Judaeo-Christian faith as a view offers an aesthetically satisfying view of God. Only God as Person can reveal God.
For Further Study
Anselm. Proslogium. Translated by Sidney N. Deane. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing Co., 1959.
Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas. Edited by A.C. Pegis. New York: The Modern Library, 1948.
Collins, James D. God in Modern Philosophy. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1959.
Flew, Anthony. God and Philosophy. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966.
James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Collier Books, 1961.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Lewis Beck. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1956.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1960.
The Many-faced Argument. Edited by John Hick and Arthur G. McGill. New York: the Macmillan Co., 1967.
The Ontological Argument. Edited by Alvin Plantinga. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1965.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensee. New York: The Modern Library, 1941.
Temple, William. Nature, Man and God. London: Macmillan Co., 1964.
1Hans-Joachim Schoeps, The Religions of Mankind, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1968, p. 8.
2Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas, edited by Anton G. Pegis, New York: The Modern Library, 1948, p. 25.
3cf. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. II, Part II, Garden City: Image books, 1962, p. 61.
4Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas, op. cit., pp. 25-26.
6J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962, Vol. I, p. 72.
7Ibid., p. 27.
8David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1957, p. 21.
9Ibid., p. 47.
10Ibid., p. 58.
11Ibid., p. 59.
12Ibid., p. 66.
13G.H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961, p. 221, "I wish very frankly and pointed to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do so."
14Hume, op. cit., p. 94.
15Anthony Flew, God and Philosophy, New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966, Cf. pp. 41, 43, 55.
17Ibid., p. 118.
18Buswell, op. cit., p. 72.
19James D. Collins, God in Modern Philosophy, Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1959, p. 179; see also pp. 167, 170, 189.
20St. Anselm, Proslogium, translated by Sidney N. Deane, LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing Co., 1959, p. 7.
21Norman Malcom, "Anselm's Ontological Argument," in The Ontological Argument, edited by Alvin Plantinga, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1965, p. 146.
22See also The Many-faced Argument, edited by John Hick and Arthur C. McGill, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967, for other diverse reactions to the ontological argument.
23Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by Lewis Beck, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1956, pp. 126-127.
24Ibid., p. 130.
25Hastings Rashdall, "The Morals Argument," in The Existence of God, edited by John Hick, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1964, pp. 148-149.
26Ibid., p. 150.
27Elton Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion, New York: Harpers, 1957, p. 145.
28William James, Varieties of Religion Experience, New York: Collier books, 1961, p. 400.
29Blaise Pascal, Pensees, New York: The Modern Library, 1941, p. 80.
30Ibid., p. 81.
31My first encounter with the side bet issue was in Richard Popkins class at the University of Iowa, but for documentary purposes it is implied in Flew, op. cit., pp. 185, 1987.
32Pascal, op. cit., p. 191.
33Ibid., p. 141.
34Ibid., p. 160.
35Ibid., Pensee 555.
36Ibid., Pensee 546.
37Cf. this point by Penneberg in Robert W. Jenson, The Knowledge of Things Hoped For, New York: Oxford University Press, 1969, p. 222.
38C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1960, p. 41.
39Flew, op. cit., p. 145, a quote of Hume.
40Flew, op. cit., p. 145.