WHY DO WE BELIEVE IN GOD
©2006 Matthew A. C. Newsome
Generally, when we think of apologetics, we think of debate or discussion between Catholics and Protestants on matters such as the Eucharist, the Papacy, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. We don’t usually anticipate having to defend our very belief in God. Though the number of professed atheists is actually quite small, you may very well encounter them and be asked to give a reason for your belief. And you should be prepared to do so. More likely is that you will encounter a practical atheist or an agonistic – someone who may not expressly deny God’s existence, but that simply doesn’t ever think about it. This complete apathy towards God is very prevalent – in fact it seems to be dominant position in Western society today.
Whereas an atheist is someone who believes that God does not exist, an agnostic is someone who at least admits the possibility that God exists, yet claims that we can simply know nothing about God. We are called to demonstrate that not only is it reasonable to believe in God, but that we can, in fact, know certain things about Him.
When asked, “Why do you believe in God?” you may very well answer, “Because my parents raised me that way.” Or, “I had a very profound religious experience once.” Or maybe, “I don’t know, I just do and I know in my heart that there is a God.” All of these are fine reasons for belief, and in the end it is your faith that matters – and faith is a gift of God. You don’t need to have a rational, well thought out reason for believing in God for that belief to be effective. Please don’t misunderstand me. But when someone outright asks you why you believe that there is a God, or more to the point, why anyone should believe that there is a God, it helps to be able to actually demonstrate the reasonableness of this belief.
Philosophers throughout human history have pondered the existence of the divine. Drawing from their labors, we will look at six so-called “proofs” of God’s existence (there are in fact many more). These are not “proofs” in the sense that they can empirically prove God’s existence in a scientific manner. They are rather demonstrations in the rationality of belief in God. Because of time constraints, we will only examine each one briefly.
1. Argument from Design
The first premise for this argument is that when there is design, there must be a designer. The second premise is that the universe shows signs of having been designed. Therefore there was a designer of the universe. That this argument is effective is demonstrated by the growing number of scientists today accepting the “Intelligent Design” theory.
Everything that the human mind has been able to deduce about our universe has revealed a very ordered, very precise universe that operates according to particular laws. If I drop ten apples from the roof of my house, they are going to fall and hit the ground all ten times. The law of gravity is universally true. This is a very simple example, but when one looks at both microcosms and macrocosms – at the properties and behavior of the tiniest atomic particles and the largest of the galaxies – one sees an every more complex array of order and purpose.
Biologists wonder at such things as the eye and how it works, at the process of photosynthesis, and the structure of DNA. Even evolution – the process of life growing and changing from simple forms to more complex – gives evidence for some grand design as creatures exist according to the laws and properties of creation.
All this order in the universe around us virtually screams out for an intelligence to account for it all. No one seriously thinks that a perfectly ordered universe could result from chaos. When you throw a deck of cards in the air, they land in a pile, not in a stacked house. Even more remote would be the chance of you detonating a bomb in a junk yard and having a fully operational Honda Civic emerge from the explosion. Yet even the simplest of life forms is far more complex than either of these examples. And the universe in its entirety demonstrates the same level of complexness.
Everyone accepts this, even if they do not admit to it. For if you did not believe that the universe behaved according to some rational and definite design, then you could not really know anything at all. In your world, there would be no guarantee that the next time you dropped an apple it would hurtle up towards the sky. Why study things like physics or chemistry or biology (or even mathematics) if there are no universal laws, principles or truth?
All this argument does is point out the utterly reasonable fact that design is evidence for a designer. No one looks at a poem and thinks that the ink just spilled out on the page that way – they see it as evidence of a poet. How much more complex and beautiful is the universe, and how much more reasonable is it to believe in a universal author?
2. The First Cause Argument
This is a very simple argument, and it begins with the basic and universal assumption that everything has an explanation. In philosophical terms, we would say that every effect has a cause. Let’s say the effect is the light in the room coming on. The cause would be my flipping a switch.
It is possible to observe the effect alone, and deduce that there is a cause. Let’s say the light came on in the room, but no one saw anyone flip any switch. Would people assume that the light just turned on by magic, or by sheer random chance? Or would they perhaps assume that there was another switch out in the hall that someone flipped unseen? In reality, even those who believed the light came on by magic still recognize a needed cause for the effect – their cause is simply fantastical.
It is universally recognized that an effect must have a cause. To deny this self-evident truth is insanity.
Our existence itself is an effect that must have a cause. I exist, therefore I must have had a mother and a father who bore me. My mother and father likewise must have each had parents, in order for them to exist. Even the planet that we live on must have had some cause, billions of years ago, that made it the way that it is today. Our solar system, our galaxy – everything that exists in the universe is what it is because something caused it to be that way.
If everything in the universe must have a cause, then it stands to reason that there was a fist cause. This first cause must itself be without need of cause (for then there would be a cause before it). It would have to be an eternal, independent, necessary, self-explanatory being to have no need of a cause.
But what if the universe just existed from all of eternity, with one thing causing another, and had no beginning. There would be no need for a first cause, because the chain of cause and effect goes back infinitely into the past.
There are many logical problems with this argument. First, it is impossible to think of time being infinite. If time were infinite, then that would mean there would be an infinite number of days before us as well as behind us. Remember the exercise where the arrow must pass an infinite number of points before it hits its target? Before it reaches its target, it must reach the half way point. But before it reaches that, it must get half way to the half way point But before it reaches that goal, it has to get half way there… etc. In the end, the arrow ends up not being able to move at all – it never hits its target.
The idea of infinite time is like that. We would never reach our target. If time had no beginning, then an infinite amount of days would have had to have passed to get to today. But an infinite amount of days could not have already passed. If time had no beginning, we never would have gotten to today. But time does have a beginning, everything has a beginning, therefore everything has a cause.
In philosophical terms, we say that no effect can be greater than its cause. In other words, a cause has to have a certain property in order to give it to the effect. Existence is a property. Everything that exists either exists of its own accord, or its existence was caused by something else. If it exists of its own accord, that means that existence is part of its very nature and essence. Such a being would be eternal and necessary. It could not “not be” if being was its very essence. Everything else that exists gets that existence from outside of itself. In other words, it is caused. Caused by what? Something must exist whose very nature it is to exist, in order to pass that existence on to everything else that is. That something, that first cause, is God.
3. Argument from Conscience
This argument comes from the fact that everyone in the entire world knows, deep down, that they must do good and not do evil. This is called conscience. Even if their conscience has been obscured and perverted by profane influences so that it no longer knows what is good and evil, or if it is willfully ignored to allow some wrong to be committed, the principle still stands. No one honestly believes that we are supposed to do evil and avoid good. This is universal.
Moreover, it is universally recognized that this conscience is authoritative. That is, we have an absolute obligation to goodness. The choice between good and evil is not an option we have, like voting Democratic or Republican. Even if we do not always make the right decisions, we are bound to seek after the good.
Once we recognize that this voice of conscience is authoritative, then we have to ask where the authority comes from. Saying that conscience is authoritative but there is no authority means that there can be a law without a lawgiver. In that case the law is not a law at all, and our “authority” would not be authoritative.
If conscience has absolute, binding, moral authority over us, then there must be an absolute, binding, and perfectly good moral source of that authority. This is why the conscience has been classically called the “voice of God” within us.
The Jewish people were the first ones to deduce that God, the source of nature and creation, was also the source of conscience. They did not just worship gods to appease their anger or to ensure a good harvest, like the pagans. Their God gave them a set of moral commandments, and told them to be holy, “like I am holy.” Christians and Muslims have inherited this insight about God.
4. Argument from History
This argument doesn’t really “prove” God’s existence logically, like the others, but it does point out “footprints” of God in human history, which can be very psychologically convincing.
Firstly, all of history seems to be written like a story. It seems to be “going somewhere” or leading up to something. It’s not just a series of random and meaningless events. Everything builds on top of something else, proceeding towards some conclusion. It is like a story, and every story has an author.
Secondly, history seems to have a moral design. When people live morally and behave according to God’s law (as we Christians understand it to be revealed to us) they prosper. When they don’t, they perish. Tyrannical reigns like that of Adolph Hitler burn out and are over in a flash, whereas the Jews have been in existence as a district people for over 5000 years.
A third argument from history is that of providential “coincidences.” According to the Old Testament, the Red Sea parted (by an east wind) at just the right time for the Jewish people to pass through and escape Pharaoh. Now modern science has suggested all manner of alternate, geological and scientific explanations for this occurrence. But even so, was it mere coincidence that it occurred at just the right time for the Jews to escape? Modern science has even come up with a convincing explanation for all seven of the plagues that God reigned down upon the Egyptians – but it cannot explain how or why all these fantastic conditions could have occurred together at just the moment Moses was trying to free his people. We see evidence for these so-called “coincidences” in our own lives all the time, on a much smaller scale.
A fourth argument from history is that miracles are historic facts. Over seventy thousand people saw the miracle of the sun at Fatima. People are miraculously healed all the time in places like Lourdes (and doubtless in hospital beds and at home). The blood of St. Januarius, though centuries old, liquefies each year on his feast day. Numerous saints’ bodied have been verified as being incorruptible, not subject to decay as most bodies are. Eucharistic hosts have been seen to bleed (human blood) when broken. I could go on. The point is that these miracles happen and are documented. Someone who denies the existence of miracles is doing to because he is beginning with the assumption that God does not exist, without looking at the evidence. He needs to look at the evidence first and then come to a conclusion.
5. Argument from Desire
This argument begins with the premise that creatures do not have desires unless the requirements to fill that desire actually exist. You would not ever get hungry if there was no such thing as food. You’d never be thirsty if there were no such thing as water. You would not have the desire to run and flee if at least the threat of danger were not real.
All of our desires can be fulfilled. Our desires for food, shelter, companionship, sexual intimacy – all of them point to some real need that has a real requirement. We share a lot of these desires with base creatures. But one thing that humans have that no other animals possess is a rational intellect. And that intellect creates within us the desire for knowledge. We desire to know the truth. And the more we learn, the more we want to learn. This great and overwhelming desire for truth points to the existence of universal truth – a truth that can finally satisfy our desire.
The same is true for happiness. We all desire to be happy. And there are many things on this earth that give us some degree of happiness, more or less. But there is nothing that makes us perfectly happy. (And here some may say, “Oh, I am perfectly happy in my garden,” or “I am perfectly happy playing with my cats.” To which we can only say, “really?” How long can you do those things before boredom sets in? Boredom is the natural instinct that tells us there is something more and greater.)
We all experience this longing for fulfillment that we know cannot be achieved by anything creature, any thing, in any time. There must be something, a perfect source of truth and happiness that will fulfill these desires – something for which we were created.
This, of course, is God, whom our Catechism teaches us we were made for communion with.
6. Argument from Pascal’s Wager
This is not really an argument that God exists, but an argument that it is rational to believe that God exists. Blaise Pascal was a Christian apologist who lived in the seventeenth century, when many scientific intellectuals were denying the existence of God. He sought to combat this trend, but sadly he died before his work was published. But he left behind his notebooks, from which we can put together much of his ideas. His most famous is called his “wager.”
His wager begins by granting the skeptic that reason cannot deduce whether or not God exists (as we have seen from the previous arguments, reason does indicate there is a God, but Pascal is ceding this point for the sake of argument). Reason cannot tell us either way, he says, but at the end of our life there is a coin spinning, ready to come down either heads (God) or tails (no God). Which way will you bet?
It is impossible to remain an agnostic, Pascal says, and not place a bet. The reason is that we are not outside observers, but participants in life. We are all moving towards the same final goal – death. There the coin will fall one way or the other. In the end, a refusal to bet on God is an effective bet against Him.
So you only have two ways to bet – atheism and theism. And atheism is, simply put, a very bad bet. As we said earlier, all men seek after truth and happiness. Even assuming that your reason could not help you in determining the truth of God’s existence, your desire for happiness would lead you to believe in God.
Simply put, God is the only thing that could grant you eternal happiness. If you believe in Him, and He does not exist, then in the end you loose nothing. It doesn’t matter. After death there is no judgment, there is no eternal reward, there is nothing; so it is irrelevant whether or not you believed. But if you do not believe in Him, and He does exist, you have lost everything. For you had the chance for eternal happiness and bliss, and the only thing required was faith, and you refused to give it.
People still refuse to believe, however, because belief in God ultimately demands things of you. It is not enough to say you believe in the Christian God, for instance, for you must then act as if you believe Him to exist, and try and live according to His will. But so what, Pascal says. Anything you might possibly have to give up in this life in order to believe will only be finite. What you stand to gain is infinite. And it is entirely reasonable to give up something finite to gain something infinite.
As I stated, this argument does not prove that God exists. But it does cause the atheist (and the agnostic) to think. And that is of utmost importance. “Are you sure there is no God?” it asks. Because you had better be very sure, for this is an amazingly risky wager to make, one that, even if you are right, stands to gain you absolutely nothing.