The Philosophy of Religion

In case you've never been exposed to the philosophical concepts that surround religious belief I will attempt to give a simple primer of the field. Most of these terms come up in other arenas so this can be a sort of devil's dictionary of isms and istics.

Theism - literally "godism". A theist believes in the existence of some sort of super natural entity.

Atheism - literally "no god". Since I represent this viewpoint I can take some license with the definition. When someone is a theist and they say they believe in a god or gods they are claiming that there is an absolute reference point in creation. Using the absolute point of god they can then use it to define their own world in absolute terms like right and wrong, good and evil. Anyone who proclaims to be an atheist is claiming that there is no absolute. For this reason an atheist can never be as absolute in their convictions - even about their atheism.

Fideism - A religious viewpoint that states that all human beings are inherently religious. Everyone, therefore, either worships god or a false god. The unbeliever is the victim of perverted or twisted thinking. It is therefore not reasonable to discuss god in any kind of rational sense. It is impious to discuss the existence of god. Problem: if faith is not rational it becomes impossible to argue that one religious position has merit over another. Evangelism is reduced to brute force and rational argument is useless. Calvin, Kirkigard and Tulio were Fideists.

Agnosticism - Is a religious viewpoint that suspends judgment concerning the existence of god by saying that we have no knowledge. This is really atheism by another name because by denying god the atheist has denied absolutism and nothing after that point is certain.

St. Anselm and the Ontological Argument - In the 12th century CE a French monk named Anselm derived a proof of the existence of God using an a priori argument in an indirect proof. An indirect proof starts by assuming the opposite of what is to be proved and then finds that this assumption leads to a contradiction. By a priori I mean that the reasoning does not depend upon examples from nature. Anselm originally wrote his proof as a prayer but it goes like this:

He defines God as "That than which a greater is not possible".

Then he makes his first assumption, that this God does NOT exist.

Then he states what he considers a necessary truth. "It is greater to exist than to not exist."

Then he simply sits back and imagines something that does exists, like a chair. He is now imagining something that exists and is therefore greater than God who doesn't exist. But God was defined as "that than which a greater is not possible". So it should be impossible for the chair to be greater than God in any way. This is a contradiction.

Since Anselm's original assumption has lead to a contradiction it means his original assumption is incorrect and God MUST exist!

Problem: Anselm has actually made several assumptions, each of which may be negated by the contradiction. Can we prove that it is greater to exist than not? Is it necessary for all the greatest traits to be assembled together in one being, could not one be biggest, another smartest, another strongest?

Anselm's argument has been revived through the ages with additional defenders and attackers. Rene Descartes tried but didn't add any substance to the argument. Malcom added a second assumption to Anselm's 800 year old proof that no one had even seen before.

Malcom restated Anselm's definition of God to come up with two logical conclusions.

If God exists then God exists necessarily. (and therefore)

If God does not exists then it is impossible for God to exist.

This last would indicate that statements about the existence of God should lead to contradictions which Malcom did not see. However the Problem of Evil is exactly the kind of contradiction that Malcom predicted in this proof (as the Problem of Free Will). So ultimately, the Ontological argument can be used as an argument against the existence of God.

The Problem of Evil - This is actually an argument against the existence of God and it goes like this.

God exists. God is infinitely good, powerful and knowledgeable. There is Evil in the world.

There is an apparent contradiction in those three phrases indicating that one or more of them is false. Evil can be defined just about any way you want but usually it is simply defined as suffering. To reconcile the truth of those three statements a theist must come up with an explanation that allows all three statements to remain true as stated or to modify the statements. These explanations are called theodicies. I will list the common theodicies below along with their rebuttals.

1) Good is impossible without Evil. If Evil's purpose is to define Good then all that is needed is a small amount not the level we see in the world. A single black line divides an entire sheet of white paper.

2) Physical Evil is God's punishment for sin. It is obvious that Evil does not affect people in proportion to their sins. Why did God allow Pol Pot to live a long life and die in bed when babies in Bosnia are tortured to death?

3) Physical Evil is God's warning to men. Same as #2, this is a pretty scatter gun approach for an all merciful being. Does God really have to crush my neighbors to death in an earthquake to get me to go to church?

4) Evils are the results of the operations of nature. God allows nature to freely operate so man can exercise free will. This portrays God as less than all powerful. It indicates that God cannot manage to allow nature to operate without great suffering. If free will is the goal this approach still shows a God who is not powerful enough to manage things better. The Ontological argument eats a lesser God like this right up.

5) The universe is better with Evil in it. The struggle against Evil causes men to better themselves. This is the Ireanean Theodicy and was C.S. Lewis' favorite theme. The proportional argument can be made here too but there is something even stranger about the world this theodicy describes. This would indicate that there is no suffering in the world that does not lead to improvement. God would not permit this kind of unnecessary injustice. That would indicate that wherever human beings are not is radically different that wherever human beings are. This goes against our entire scientific background as well as common sense.

6) God wishes us to have Free Will. All Evil derives from bad choices made by men (St. Augustine). This does not explain the amount of evil in the world or the presence of physical Evil, floods, tornadoes, famine and earthquake. It also requires that Evil fortune should be in direct proportion to sin which doesn't happen. It also makes God culpable for unnecessary suffering caused by his flawed creations (us) for which he must take full responsibility.

7) The human mind cannot hope to understand the mind of God (The theodicy of Job) There is no rebuttal for this one, only an observation. Once one has invoked the Jobian Theodicy and claimed that the mind of God is unknown and unknowable it is impossible to go back and say that God wants us to do this or that. It is a contradiction to hold up some book and say that you know God wrote it or even to say that God has contacted you in your dreams and given you special instructions. If you maintain God is unknowable you better stick to your story.

The Problem of Free Will - Another problem raised by the sort of God envisioned by Anselm and it goes like this.

God is all knowing. God is all powerful. Man has free will.

These three statements appear to be contradictory. One or more seem to have to be false. The theist has to reconcile them using some form of theodicy. The contradiction can be pointed out in this way.

God is all knowing to the point where he knows everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen. He knows what choices you will make in the future. He knew what choices you would make even before you existed. He had the power to create you any way he wanted, so you would make any choices he wants. When you make choices he will hold you responsible for them because you have free will. Yet you cannot make a choice that he did not already know you would make before he created you.

There are no coherent theodicies that explain this one that I am aware of. The best I have heard all amount to saying that God suppresses his powers somehow in order to allow free will to work. This is something like the logic a one year old uses when he believes he cannot be seen because he has his own eyes closed.

Oddly enough , with the advent of quantum physics and the Hedinger Uncertainty Principle it appears that determinism may be a dead viewpoint after all and that it is impossible to know the future to any degree and the idea of an omnipotent being is truly impossible.

St. Thomas Aquinas and the 5 ways - Aquinas was a Dominican monk who taught philosophy in Paris during the 13th century CE. He borrowed an idea from Aristotle (aka The Philosopher) that he developed into 5 separate, although related, proofs of the existence of God. For the record, Aquinas disagreed with Anselm. He thought it was possible to say God does not exist without stating a contradiction.

1) The argument from motion - By motion Aquinas meant change in position or state. Aristotle wrote a lot about this kind of motion. He pointed out that things have an inner nature. A kitten can change into a cat but it can't turn into a desk. That kind of change isn't in its nature. The kitten is a potential cat until it becomes an actual cat. The kitten can't be a potential cat and an actual cat at the same time. Finally, some exterior force has to act on the kitten in order to produce the change. Nothing can move itself.

If you accept this line of reasoning you end up with a regression of motions.

...A->B->C->D... where each is a motion (change) caused by a previous motion. Each of these motions is a change from a potential state to an actual state.

Now Aquinas felt that there could be no such thing as an infinite series. He felt that there had to be a first motion that did not need to be started by anything outside itself, a Prime Mover, and that is what he called God.

Since the time of Aquinas, we have come to understand that there is nothing at all impossible about an infinite series that has no beginning and no end. Because of this there is nothing essential about a Prime Mover.

The 2nd Way of Aquinas involved Cause and Effect in exactly the same method that motion was used in the 1st. The 4th and 5th Ways are also copies of the 1st and I will not go into them. But there is something special about Aquinas' 3rd Way which requires special consideration.

The Cosmological Argument , or Aquinas' 3rd Way - This Argument is structured like the first but involves contingency. This is the idea that the existence of every item in the universe is contingent on some preceding item or event. Using this idea we build another series of items.

...A->B->C->D... each letter representing something coming into and then passing out of existence. Each thing being caused by (contingent upon) a preceding thing. Of course not every item leads to another, some things exist and cease without causing another, but every item that exists is contingent on some preceding thing. So far this is similar to the other 4 Ways, but Aquinas used a statement in Aristotle's DeCaelo to make this different.

Aristotle pointed out that anything that is not realized in an infinite amount of time is not a real possibility. This means if we look backward along this infinite line of things winking into and out of existence we must come to a time when nothing existed (or else it is impossible for nothing to exist). For something to come after this time violates our original idea that all things are contingent.

Since things exist now there must be some thing that is NOT contingent on anything. A necessary being which Aquinas said is God.

This necessary being is a pretty compelling thing but it could be that it is impossible for nothing to exist and therefore the series itself (i.e. the universe) is the necessary being in this story.

It must be pointed out that the God that Aquinas is proving in all these arguments is not much to write home about. The only claim for this God is that he's a self starter with enough power to get the ball rolling. This makes no claim for intelligence, or goodness, or even self knowledge. We could be talking about a 25 watt light bulb here.

The Teleological Argument - or Design Argument was first put forward in the late 1700s by William Paley, the Arch Deacon of Carlyle. The name comes from the Greek word Telos or purpose. It is an argument from analogy which works like this: compare two things and show that they are alike, then point out one feature in one which is not known not to exist in the other. The argument would then suggest that this feature must exist in both.

Paley put it this way... Suppose you found a watch lying on the ground. It is a complex mechanism which appears to have a purpose, telling time. Would you not assume that it had been created by a designer, on purpose to serve its obvious function? If it later turned out that the watch was actually capable of replicating itself would that not mean that the implied designer was even more wonderful than we had previously imagined? Rev. Paley saw this as an analogy of nature. To him nature was a wonderfully complex mechanism, like a big watch. And since the watch had a designer so must nature.

This argument held sway throughout the 18th and early 19th century and has even been improved upon in the 20th. Once Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 Paley's analogy started to fall apart. If nothing else Darwin had demonstrated that Paley didn't understand the natural world as thoroughly as he thought he did. When that happens an argument by analogy gets weak real fast. Modern versions of the teleological argument focus on some natural phenomenon for which the evolutionary process is not fully obvious or is incompletely understood, like eyeballs or gaps in the fossil record. Regardless of how these particular examples are resolved the damage has been done. Darwin demonstrated that simple natural processes can result in complex systems which is something that Paley never counted on.

Most modern improvements on the Teleological Argument are actually attacks on Darwin's biological theories intended to explain the observable phenomenon of evolution to a scientific audience. This isn't strictly fair because Darwin was operating in a scientific arena while the theists attack him from a theological one. Misunderstandings are bound to occur but the basic problem comes from Paley's assumption that he knew enough about the biological world to use it in an analogy. Anyone taking up Paley's cloak had better know more about the natural world than Darwin if they're going to do battle with him. Quoting scripture won't help.

Modern Intelligent Design arguments focus on areas that are still incompletely explained.  Obviously, it will take a long time to fully understand the course that evolution has taken over several billion years and some events may be so obscure as to never be fully understood.  However, this misses the point.  If there is a choice between choosing an evolutionary hypothesis for an unexplained biological structure and a supernatural one, Occam's rasor will force us to the natural explanation every time.

The Teleological Argument in Reverse - An unusual aspect of the teleological argument allows it to be used in reverse.  Let's start with Paley's watch.  The reason this watch needs a designer is that it is too improbable to have been accidentally assembled.  Like a hurricane blowing through a junk yard and accidentally assembling a 747, the laws of chance allow this to be possible but we simply couldn't accept this as an explanation for any particular 747 we see at the local airport.  It is just too improbable for us to assume it actually happened.

The explanation we are forced to for the watch (and the 747) is that a designer exists.  A designer that is more complex and therefore more improbable than the object it designed.  If simple things could produce complex things we'd be right back to using Natural Selection to explain the existence of the watch.  But since we've ruled that out, we must assume that a complex object can only descend from something more complex and more improbable than itself.

So this naturally leads us to the next question, where did the designer come from?  Which indicates that this line of reasoning doesn't lead us to an answer at all.  It is the beginning of a regression of designers.

If we follow this regression back to a god, as Paley would have us do, we are faced with a complex god, more complex than any of his creations.  And more improbable too.  We can't even resort to Natural Selection or some similar process to explain this being because there is no time for the tiny steps necessary to build up such complexity to occur.  God exists outside of time, or before time we are told.  He becomes the 747 assembled by the hurricane.

But this complex god and the watch differ in one important aspect.  The watch sits in front of us, we cannot refute its existence.  God does not.  As we have seen, god stubbornly refuses to allow his existence to be supported with any proof whatsoever.  Faced with such a highly improbable being and no objective proof of his existence.  There is only one logical choice.

The Anthropic Principle - A rather misunderstood concept.  It simply states that the world we live in seems designed for man (sound familiar?).  Since it is improbable that the world developed this way by chance, it must have been by design.  Or, on a grander scale, the universe and the laws of physics seem to have been designed to allow us to evolve.  This is also improbable, this also implies a designer.

What is not understood is that the Anthropic principle is an alternative explanation to a supernatural creator.  This works out because the universe is huge with a (possibly) large number of places that are candidates for the development of life.  The very fact that we are here must require that we are standing on one of those spots that is well suited for the development of our type of life.  No matter how many variables must be set just so to allow us to be here, the large size of the universe says that in some places those conditions probably exist.  And because those conditions exist here, then here is where we would logically develop.

In the case of the larger universe or the laws of physics, we simply don't know right now how much choice there is in how to set up a universe.  We only have the one example to study.  However, as we chip away on it we find that some things that appear arbitrary are not.  Newton discovered gravity works on a inverse square of the distance between objects.  If it worked any other way, we wouldn't have stars and planets in stable orbits.  Nothing to create or sustain the chemistry of life.  God must have set it up that way.  But it turns out this isn't arbitrary.  Einstein comes along and shows that if you have a three dimensional universe, then gravity will work on an inverse square law.  The two are related.

We have no idea how many other seemingly arbitrary constants are related.  It could be that god had no choices to make and no job to do when the universe was created.  It could also be true that there are an infinite number of universes each with different values for these physical constants.  The fact that we are in one of those universes that favors life is just another example of the Anthropic principle at work.

This is really just another case of the god of the gaps.  Wherever our knowledge is incomplete, there must be god.  So with each new thing we learn, the god of the gaps shrinks a little.  This sort of theology is very unhealthy because it puts itself directly in opposition to the pursuit of knowledge.

The Principle of Sufficient Reason - is the basis of most modern theistic proofs of the existence of God. Put forward by Richard Taylor it can be stated several ways.

In the case of any positive truth... there is an explanation known or unknown.

Or stated more simply, for everything that exists there must be a sufficient explanation for its existence. The PSR allows a theist to believe in an eternal universe where God is the explanation for that universe. This solves one of Aquinas' problems reconciling an infinite series.

The current argument centers around the idea that the universe can or cannot hold within itself sufficient reason for its existence without recourse to a super natural source. We can also turn the gun around and ask how God can contain a sufficient reason to exist if the universe cannot?

Freud and Me - Sigmund Freud offered an explanation of God that is neutral on the subject of existence. One of the problems for the atheist is to explain why, if God doesn't exist, do so many people believe in one (or many). Freud offered as an explanation the reasons why the existence of God is necessary to people. The implication is that if God is useful to people then they will absorb him into their world view regardless of his actual existence. The basic reasons are these...

God provides an explanation for the world.

God provides a continuation of life after death.

God provides the basis for a moral code.

The need for an explanation is really just another way to look at the PSR. Whether you're a caveman or an astrophysicist there are things you don't understand. It is not easy for people to simply accept that non understanding and let it end there. The concept of a God allows us to comfortably believe that even if we don't know, somebody does. More to the point, the existence of Gods imply that even though the world might not make sense to us, that everything is happening for a reason. God as an explanation (for good or ill) allows us to stop looking for an answer.

When Darwin put forward his Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection he did not make any mention of God or of any religious theory.  The reason why his theory has always been seen as an attack on religion is simply because it provided an alternate explanation to the most complex of problems.  Basically, if the existence of life could be explained by natural processes, it removed one of the main reasons for God's existence.  Darwin didn't intend his theory to have any religious overtones, however, he was the first to recognize that it would.  That's why he originally wanted to have it published after he was dead.

Life after death is the most common wish of mankind after avoiding death altogether. Every human comes to understand they will die some day by the very fact that they can see everyone they know and love dying all around them. The existence of God gives them a hope that their life will not actually be over upon death and that they will once again see their loved ones. Human beings tend to see what they want to see and believe what benefits them the most. Lack of an afterlife is the single conclusion that makes atheism so unpopular.

A society needs a moral code on which to base its laws and behavioral norms. Without an absolute being to base this code on, it becomes murky and difficult to standardize and enforce. Our only recourse to an absolute source is to impose the ethics of one person or group on the whole society with predictable consequences..  Relative ethics (those NOT based on a universal being or code) may indeed be the only kind that actually exist in our world but hardly anyone admits the possibility.

All of these reasons make God a practically irresistible concept. It also makes anyone who doubts the existence of God about as unwelcome as ants at a picnic. Just try bringing up any of the subjects on this page at a funeral. But it also means that the commonality of the human experience is the best explanation for the universality of God.

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This page was created by Paul Kahle 23-June-1998

This page was last updated on 11-June-2008