Arguing for God: the Defining Chapter.

Following up my last two posts, I conclude my response to Ed’s Hildan piece by providing reasons why Christians should argue that God exists.

1. ‘Feed my sheep’

Firstly, Christians should argue that God exists as a means of providing pastoral support. Happily, Ed appears to agree with me here, at least to some extent, though I don’t think he wants to go all the way with me just yet. Thomas is worried. He’s heard people like Richard Dawkins say the religion is a delusion and that Christian’s faith is irrational. He’s learned that a large majority of professional philosophers are atheists. So he thinks to himself: am I deluded? Is this religion stuff all an irrational and pathetic waste of my time? Thomas, in short, doubts. He is anxious, finds it difficult to pray in private, and feels distant in public worship. What would help Christian?

Maybe many of strategies would help Thomas. But one obvious strategy is to provide him directly with reasons for thinking that he is not, in fact, deluded. This should alleviate anxiety and bring him greater confidence in prayer. I do not say that it definitely will do that; but as long as there’s a fair probability that it will, then it’s worthwhile to develop philosophical arguments for that purpose.

Ed worries that if arguments are used to bolster Thomas’s faith, then Christian will come to think that his faith stands or falls by those arguments, and, since theistic arguments, like so many philosophical arguments, are open to all kinds of objections, this will leave Christian’s faith permanently vulnerable.

Surely the answer to this worry, however, is simply to put the arguments in a appropriate perspective. ‘Look Thomas’, Sophia might say, ‘here are some reasons to think that you aren’t deluded after all. The reason won’t move everyone, but I’m afraid that’s how it is in the world of ideas. They’re sensible reasons, though, which many smart people are moved by. Your faith is not silly. But nor is it ultimately about these philosophical speculations, but rather about knowing God by worshiping Him. Return with confidence before the altar, therefore, and find that your faith has healed you’.

2. ‘Make disciples of all nations’.

What I want to say here is very much in line with what I have said above. Philosophical arguments often play some role in bringing people to faith. Now I don’t think they are ever sufficient, or always necessarily: just that they are often helpful. Dennis thinks ‘I am attracted by the figure of Jesus, I’m moved by the beauty of the liturgy. But I’ve heard from Richard Dawkins that…’ Enter Sophia, making an appropriately amended version of her speech above. Unless some compelling case can be made that Sophia’s speech is rarely of any use in either scenario, then we have good reasons for Christians to develop arguments for the existence of God. I’ve never seen any such compelling case.

3. ‘Let your light shine’

My first two points rest on basically empirical points of pastoral psychology. Are philosophical arguments useful for alleviating doubt and encouraging conversion? I think they probably are, but that’s open to question, and it’s a distinctively psychological question. This final point is more philosophical.

Coherence is a theoretical virtue. The more coherent one’s total theory is – the more inferential connections there are between your beliefs, and the stronger those connections are – the better. But theoretical virtue is a species of virtue, and Christians are called to attain by grace the perfection of all virtues (‘Because Christians have a moral obligation to love the truth, it follows that they cannot finally distinguish between intellectual virtues and religious or moral virtues’ – Bill). One appropriate response to this call is to demonstrate the coherence of a total theory which includes the central claims of the Christian faith, including by offering philosophical arguments for theism.


10 thoughts on “Arguing for God: the Defining Chapter.

  1. Am I hugely missing the point in thinking that arguments for the existence of God ought to precede and be a precondition for belief that God exists?

    (The ‘belief in’ vs. ‘belief that exists’ distinction being a bit spurious because the things specially alluded to by ‘belief in’ – e.g. trust in, personal relationship with – all depend on the assumption that there is something existent in which/whom can can trust or have a personal relationship with.)


  2. You might think, a la, Plantinga, that belief in God is properly basic, the way belief in other minds or the external world appear to be properly basic: ie, a legitimate end point to the chain of justification. Philosophically sophisticated people who say this usually have something to say about why it’s a legitimate end point: the belief is the product of a properly functioning cognitive faculty (Plantinga), or you couldn’t easily have been mistaken about whether God exists (a Williamsonian; maybe John Hawthorne if he’s feeling sufficiently confident that theism is true). Usually this will be a part of a wider externalist epistemological project.

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  3. (Not that this would necessarily commit you to Plantinga’s view of what it means to be ‘properly basic’.)

    But no, Edwin, that is (I think!) very much the idea we’re arguing about; from my side arguing that it is- for several reasons- either impossible and/or inadvisable to argue for God, such that belief in God is not something that can be logically arrived at through said arguments (though, ofc, it would be foolish and evidently false to say that such arguments could never psychologically ground belief in God); from Alec’s side arguing broadly against this, but with different reasons for each.

    (Will comment on the post itself in a bit! Haven’t had my coffee yet, but thought it worth leaving a brief comment here…)


  4. I don’t think that we (Ed and I) are arguing about whether theistic arguments ought to *precede* belief in God; certainly nothing I said above assumed that they should, which is presumably why Edwin picked up on the point. I’m defending the much weaker claim that providing arguments for the existence of God is a good thing for a Christian to do, assuming that they’re appropriately equipped for the task.


  5. You’re probably right [Alec]… I’m probably arguing that we shouldn’t *think* they should, of absolute necessity, precede belief in God’s existence (for the reasons given in the one linked to by Alec, and the piece written in response to Bill), which is actually almost consistent with Alec’s claim, if he were to say ‘can be a good thing for a Christin to do’, with the goodness in question dependent upon context as well as aptitude.


  6. It seems that the problem with properly basic beliefs is basically (haha) how many you’re allowed to have – obviously some are necessary to avoid an infinite chain of justification, but it seems that ideally one should aim for as few as possible, otherwise you can just assert everything you believe in and make it immune to criticism by claiming for it the status of properly basic. Is belief in God really as epistemologically indispensable as belief that the external world is real? And if so, it doesn’t seem like much more than a minimal kerygma of theism could be.

    If properly basic beliefs are unjustified assumptions you act upon in order to be able to do further epistemic work (e.g. assuming other minds are real allows you to speculate about why other people do things; assuming the universe follows orders patterns allow you to do science), I’m not sure what further epistemic work the assumption that God exists allows you to do. If it an assumption used to explain things already believed to be the case, that I think would be belief based on arguments (e.g. cosmological argument or argument from religious experience) rather than properly basic.

    Faith is more psychologically effective (in terms of being a motivating force, providing existential certainty etc) if it is not left ‘permanently vulnerable’, but it seems that if you do want to try and only believe things that are true, then that permanent vulnerability is indispensable.


  7. (I would then probably recognise far fewer such contexts, and deny the possibility of theological (though not philosophical) aptitude, but there we go! There’s the possibility of a minimal consensus there 😛 )


  8. Yes I think my position is basically ‘argue, then believe in God’ whereas Alec’s is ‘believe in God, then argue’


  9. I happily concede that point, Ed. If you’ve been falsely accused of a jewel heist, and I can provide an alibi, I shouldn’t take the stand and immediately plunge into a defence of the third way. Or, more soberly, trying to engage Dawkins on the finer points of the modal ontological is certainly a waste of time.

    Edwin, I agree that reducing the total number of unsupported beliefs is a worthy aim – indeed, the fewer unsupported beliefs your theory has, the more coherent it is, and I’ve already praised theoretical coherence. But there are a number of important issues here.

    1. First, ‘one should believe only a few propositions without further support’ does not entail ‘only a few propositions can legitimately be believed without further support’. If Maria’s made cookies for the theology Finalists, each Finalist should only take a few cookies, but unless the cookies are personalized (I wouldn’t put it past her, to be fair) any Finalist can legitimately take any cookie. It might be this way with basic beliefs, and theism, or indeed Christianity, might be one of the properly basic ones.

    2. The degree of theoretical virtue you seem to be after is epistemically heroic, supererogatory. It’s phenomenally difficult to pare a theory down to a sparse foundation from which the rest can be inferred. It’s absurd to think that anyone who hasn’t succeeded in doing so – ie, pretty much everyone – is in a state of total ignorance. It’s presumably legitimate, even if suboptimal, to hold many beliefs basically.

    3. Even if you are making a serious effort to cut out extraneous basic beliefs, there’s much to be said for leaving God in. Following Descartes, you might think that God’s goodness means that he would not radically deceive His creatures, and so that most of your beliefs (or at least, most of your cognitive faculties) are probably all right.

    4. Finally, as I’ve said above, most of the people who subscribe to a philosophically developed version of this view have a general epistemology according to which theism turns out to be a properly basic belief if theism, or theism plus some plausible additional assumptions, is true. If, like Plantinga, you think the proper functioning is what matters, and you believe that there’s a sensus divinitas, then you’re going to think that theism is properly basic. If you’re Hawthorne, and devoutly believe that knowledge should come first when doing epistemology, and are also somewhat inclined to think that you couldn’t easily be mistaken about whether God exists, then you’re going to think that theism is part of your evidence, etc.


  10. Alec, if I’m ever falsely implicated in a jewel heist, I will try and call you to the stand solely so you can launch into a defence of the third way.

    On a more serious note- one thing I think it’s important to remember here is that religion isn’t a theory, and God isn’t a theoretical posit. Obviously Christianity (to pick one example) can propound theories, but the Nicene Creed (to pick one example) is not analogous to the latest attempt at a grand unified theory. The point being that one doesn’t hold belief in God to be basic (which is a term I hate, btw- but my preferred option (grammatical) carries too much baggage for right now, especially when Alec and I seem to be agreeing on so much for once!) so as to do further epistemic work. It is not a belief which should be understood in terms of its theoretical value. This doesn’t, of course, render it immune to criticism- but it does mean that we shouldn’t prima facie suppose that belief in the existence of God falls under the same criteria for validity as belief in dark matter, or for that matter belief in other minds (though the two might serve similar roles within their relevant conceptual schemes- schemes which can be thought of as distinct without being thought of as absolutely separate).

    We still need to be careful that basic belief isn’t just taken as a cop-out, such that any belief could be taken to be properly basic. And I would actually make the case that belief in God can be argued for as being properly basic, in a way that belief in homeopath cannot, without employing arguments for the existence of God. All of which is significantly less important than actually loving God and neighbour as Christ wills.


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