Is your belief in God reasonable and rational? It probably isn’t. Here are the reasons why some of the most important arguments for believing in God are no good.
The question of what God is and whether She exists or not is one of the most elusive and pervasive topics that have plagued humanity throughout its history. Even now, with all the amazing progress science has made in explaining the world, a good portion of the population still thinks we need to believe in God if we’re to fully understand reality. But why? There are many reasons, most of them psychological. Yet there are surprisingly few rational reasons (in terms of evidence and arguments) for believing in a perfect deity.
If you have ever wondered about this, and you consider it important to think rationally about your beliefs regarding the existence (or nonexistence) of God, then you’ll want to read on. Here are the three most famous arguments (or groups of arguments) that aim to prove that God exists.
1) The universe and life itself seem to have been designed (Teleological Argument)
Also called “the argument from design,” there are several versions of the teleological argument. One of the most famous came from British clergyman William Paley. In the 19th century, he urged us to imagine ourselves walking through a forest where we suddenly found a watch on the ground. Would we then suppose the watch was a product of chance or would we think it was intelligently designed? As Paley says,
its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose… the watch must have had a maker... Every observation [about] the watch may be repeated with strict propriety concerning the eye, concerning animals, concerning plants, concerning, indeed, all the organized parts of the works of nature… The eye… would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion… of an intelligent Creator.
In short, if you find a watch, you can safely assume there’s a watchmaker. Likewise, when you see all the complex works in nature, you can suppose there’s an intelligent creator.
There are other versions of the argument. There’s the fine-tuning argument, for example, which claims that since the presence of life in this universe is so unlikely, there must be a good reason why it is here. The best candidate is the existence of an intelligent creator, who made it all work out.
Why they don’t work
Back in Paley’s time, Darwin still hadn't developed the theory of evolution, meaning that there wasn’t any explanation as to how nature could have possibly produced something as complex as the eye without some sort of intelligence behind it. By now, however, we understand evolution, so the argument no longer has much merit. In his book, The Blind Watchmaker, famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains how science has rendered Paley’s basic analogy obsolete.
As for the fine-tuning argument, we simply don’t know enough about the universe to reliably estimate how likely or unlikely our presence here actually is. Furthermore, there are many other explanations, none of which need to posit the existence of supernatural beings. For example, there’s the multiverse theory, an intriguing theory in physics that suggests ours is just one among many physical universes. If this is so, then it’s not surprising that life occurred in at least one of them.
If you think the multiverse theory is as far-fetched as the God theory, consider that the latter needs to add an eternal supernatural being and a whole dimension of immaterial objects, whereas the former merely adds more of what we already know there is (namely, physical objects).
2) The universe must have an immaterial cause (Cosmological Argument)
This argument comes all the way from Aristotle, but one of the most popular versions goes something like this. It seems that everything that begins to exist has some cause, and since the universe had a beginning, it must have a cause. Since nothing material existed before the universe, the most likely cause is some sort of immaterial thing, which we call God.
While this is a simplification of the argument, it is enough to see the general idea.
Why it doesn’t work
Like with the fine-tuning argument, we must accept that we simply don’t know enough about the universe. We don’t know, for example, if it actually came from nothing, or if it’s forever expanding and retracting in an endless series of Big Bangs. So, in our ignorance, we certainly cannot jump to the conclusion that there is a God. And again, the idea of a God implies the dimension of the supernatural. The other theories keep things within nature. It’s way too costly for a theory to introduce a whole new category of being when there are alternatives. Especially if you realize that talking about God doesn’t actually explain anything: how an immaterial being could have created the material universe from nothing is as mysterious as how the universe could have popped into being out of nothing.
3) The very definition of God implies She must exist (Ontological Argument)
In the 11th century, a Catholic theologian by the name of Anselm of Canterbury came up with an argument that has been repeated, rephrased, and reinterpreted ever since. It is known as “the ontological argument,” and it’s arguably the most famous of the three.
This clever Benedictine monk reasoned that if what we mean by ‘God’ is the most perfect being we can conceive of, then God must exist. Why? Anselm thought that if the most perfect conceivable being fails to exist, then we would be able to conceive of an even more perfect being: one which does exist.
But that’s absurd, how could we conceive of a more perfect entity than the most perfect conceivable being? So, because it leads us to a contradiction, we cannot reasonably accept the idea that God does not exist. That would be as absurd as saying that triangles do not have three angles!
Think of it this way: a being cannot be perfect if it doesn’t exist. Let’s go back to the triangle example. By definition, any triangle has three angles, and if you talk about a shape that does not, then you can't be talking about a triangle. Similarly, by definition God exists (because, by definition, She’s perfect). If you’re talking about something that doesn’t exist, then you’re not talking about God. And if we’re ever actually speaking of God, we are talking about a being that exists. Simple, right? So simple that it can be slightly confusing: it sounds too good to be true.
Why it doesn’t work
Bear in mind that many people, including some of the best thinkers in history (I’m looking at you, Descartes, Leibniz, Gödel, etc.) believe this argument –or some version of it– is true. Even people who think the argument is wrong disagree as to where exactly the problem is. As philosopher Bertrand Russell (himself an atheist) famously said, it’s easier to be convinced that the ontological argument is no good than it is to say precisely what’s wrong with it. But in general, there’s agreement –even among current theologians– that the argument has some serious flaws, so don’t bet anything on it just yet.
So what’s the problem? Simply put, you cannot define things into existence. Sure, God has existence as a matter of definition. But there’s a really, really long way from that to the claim that God exists as a matter of fact. Suppose we began talking about the perfect unicorn. By definition, the perfect unicorn must exist (because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be perfect). It would be a contradiction to say that the perfect unicorn doesn’t exist. By this method, you could argue that any fictional creature whatsoever exists. Yet it’s pretty safe to say there are no unicorns, perfect or otherwise.
If you were looking to make your belief in God reasonable through these arguments, you’re out of luck. As it turns out, none of them are ultimately good, even though they're some of the better theistic arguments out there. But don’t be discouraged, that doesn’t mean there is no God, it just means we have no good reason to believe She exists. There’s nothing wrong with accepting we don’t know what’s out there.
(There is still much more to be said for each side of the argument. If you're interested in expanding your knowledge on the topic, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy would be a good place to start).
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