I will admit it, I saw God’s not Dead and it was alright. I mean how often do you actually get to see a film where the issue of God’s existence is debated in a philosophy classroom? But this is not about that movie, this is about where that movie fell so short, the proofs for God’s existence. Suffice to say that part of the film could have been so much more interesting, but it did get me thinking. The question that I finally arrived at was this: Who is winning the debate on God’s existence?
I am going to figure out who is winning by tallying the score for each of the four major arguments. I will look at the cosmological, ontological, moral, and teleological arguments to find out where society sits on the issue of God’s existence. Round 1: The Cosmological Argument!
Thanks to Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica, we have the basic formula for the cosmological argument. How can you explain this or that natural phenomenon unless God exists? You can’t! So God exists.
Needless to say, though I am saying it anyways, this was the most popular proof for God’s existence throughout most of history. It is simple, relies on making observations about the glorious world we live in, and Aquinas even liked it so much that he came up with 3 different versions of it.
Yet I should add that this was the most popular proof, but rarely do you hear this broken out in debate any more. Why?
The atheists took up the challenge and decided to give compelling rational answers for all the natural phenomena which were meant to be inexplicable without God. Basically once exact science really picks up the pace then we have compelling answers to questions like: How do you explain the rainbow? Your nervous system? Motion? Where do babies come from etc. All the atheists had to do was come up with answers to those questions and this argument lost its magic. The clever theist will still try to defend it, but the formula that makes it work just invites scrutiny rather than belief.
Score so far- Atheists 1, Theists, 0.
The Ontological Argument!
This argument comes to us direct from the writings of St. Anselm’s Proslogion. In fact Anselm is generally credited as the inventor of this argument, which is extremely rare in either philosophy or theology. In any case Anselm wanted to prove that God existed based purely on logic, rather than on any pesky and uncertain personal experiences.
First Anselm comes up with a definition for God as “Something than which nothing greater can be thought”, then he slyly asks the hypothetical atheists if they understand that definition. If they say that they don’t understand then Anselm wins since clearly they are too stupid to debate him, if they say that they do understand then he moves on to his finishing blow. He sums it up by writing, “surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot exist only in the understanding”, since if it exists only in the understanding then there does exist something greater, namely that which also exists in reality, “Therefore, there is no doubt that something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality”!
Despite its confusing nature even the famous atheist Bertrand Russell wrote in his Autobiography in 1967 the rather clever quote: “Great God in Boots!—the ontological argument is sound!”
This point has to go to the theists, because that long philosophical tradition of trying to beat this argument always seems to rest on the need to reformulate it. Let’s face it, what Anselm wrote was so confusing that in order to prove it wrong you need to reformulate it so that it makes enough sense to destroy. But then all you are destroying is a colorful straw man. You can almost hear Anselm chuckling at you and asking why you don’t understand his rather simple definition. Score so far- Atheists 1, Theists, 1.
The Moral Argument! This argument has been around as long as there has been any religion. Since this argument exists in so many different forms it won’t be possible to give credit to its inventor, but we can still come up with a basic formula. Humans make moral judgments based on moral rules, if there is no ultimate basis for those rules then human morality is arbitrary, God provides an ultimate basis for those rules, therefore human morality works!
We don’t have a whole lot of agreement on what the rules are, or even necessarily on how God is supposed to back those rules up, but this one still goes to the theists hands down. Here’s why: just about everybody everywhere is some kind of religious, and this is the point the atheists need to win so badly.
First, religion, in all of its various forms and therefore also theism, absolutely dominates the global population. If we just do this by the numbers we can thank the Pew Research Center’s 2010 survey of global religious affiliation. Approximately 17.2% of the global population is unaffiliated/other which means at most barely over 17% of the world subscribes to atheism, which leaves everyone else being religious and practicing some kind of moral system based on their religion.
Second, and perhaps more telling, is that this is the primary battleground for atheism. The most difficult task which atheism has set out for itself is defining a set of moral principles. Since there is no universal system of atheism, and no basic set of atheistic rules, then atheists have to work hard to establish their morality. This hard work tends to look like a bunch of relativistic nonsense wrapped around some observations about animal habits. So the moral argument goes to the theists.
Score so far- Atheists 1, Theists, 2.
The Teleological Argument! This the new most popular argument for God’s existence. It’s an old argument but it has found new life through the intelligent design movement. The argument can be summed up like so: I observe a natural system which is so incredibly complex that it is irrational to think that such a system evolved through the chaotic process of natural selection. In fact the only rational explanation for the existence of such a system is that it must have been purposely created by an intelligent designer, and this Intelligent Designer is called God.
If the teleological argument works, then it is really all that the theists need. If God designed the complex systems which exist in nature then God is good and moral since these systems work together so harmoniously. God is also supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and would have to be pretty much everywhere all the time in order to ensure that these things continue to work.
Yet I am going to have to give this one to the atheists, and here is why: Evolution already pretty much destroyed this argument and this is the point that theists are trying their hardest to win.
First, this argument lost in the mid 19th century just as soon as Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species became a hit. Prior to his little book the teleological argument reigned supreme since there was no way to account for the complexities of nature without invoking God as the designer. Yet by the 1880’s just about every major scientist accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and indeed many theologians were even swayed by it. As it stands in our society now, although about 42% of Americans believe in Creationism, supposedly 99.9% of scientists back evolution. Also the more education that a person has the more likely they are to back evolution over creation. This according to Dr. Brian Alters and a 2014 Gallup Poll.
Secondly, and more importantly, this is the major theistic battleground. Theists have to convince the world that theism is rational and scientific. To that end of course the intelligent design arguments are rather complex and people like Michael Behe and William Dembski certainly know their stuff. You also have the more dubious work of young earth Creationists like Ken Ham and his think tank Answers in Genesis. One of the recent debates on the subject of God was held in 2014 between Ken Ham, and Bill Nye, a scientist whose greatest claim to fame was hosting a children’s television program about science. There debate wasn’t even on God’s existence, it was on whether or not creationism could be a viable scientific theory.
The whole issue here is whether or not the theists are even going to be taken seriously. Incidentally Richard Dawkins wrote an interesting piece about why he refused to debate William Lane Craig, which you can read here. The scientific consensus seems to be that the teleological argument is no longer worth it, evolution reigns supreme in the sciences as well as in the educational institutions that run the world.
Final Score! – Atheists 2, Theists, 2. It’s a tie!
Of course it’s a tie, and that is not because I am biased or even because the logic supporting the positions is even. It’s a tie precisely because the whole debate is really about whether or not atheism can be systematically moral, and whether or not theism can be systematically scientific. The debate over God’s existence isn’t really a debate about God, it’s a debate about people. The moral argument is just as troubling between Christians and Muslims as it is between Christians and atheists. The suspicion is that if people do not share our beliefs then they are dangerous and untrustworthy. Even the teleological argument isn’t about whether or not God created the world, it’s about whether or not theology can still intellectually dominate. I don’t know if theists can ever make peace with atheists, and I suspect that neither side is ready to give up any time soon. However let me end with two simple points.
First, religion isn’t going anywhere. There is no magical point where humanity becomes so smart that they no longer need to have beliefs. Religion is complex and there are many different ways to be religious. So even if you don’t like some of them, the rest are probably here to stay. The point should not be to destroy all the religions with which you disagree, the point should be to try to make peace with the followers of those religions. If you want people to come over to your side then you are going to have to treat them like people. You need to allow them into the moral community and you need to validate that they really believe in their opinions, even if you think their opinions are wrong.
Second, science isn’t going to prove any religion right. That is just not what it does. Science works to create general rules and theories which help us to make accurate predictions about what usually happens in the everyday world. Religion is filled with prophecy, miracles, and unique historical events. Also, just because we haven’t got any scientific evidence for a religious claim does not mean that claim is false, it simply means we haven’t got any scientific reason to believe it.
Unless the science in question is a field in which you are an expert then you, like the rest of us, are putting your faith in other people. There is something life affirming about that connection, and it is good to accept that it is a connection.
You trust those scientists because they are people that you can know, even if you have never seen them, only heard stories about them, and really only know them by their works. You know, it’s just like believing in God.
James Taylor earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Texas A&M University, and is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on the link between race and technology. He currently teaches philosophy and specializes in critical philosophy of race, technology, and religion. In his free time he enjoys researching family genealogies and going graving, the hobby of documenting cemeteries.