MENU MORE

Arguments For God’s Existence

And How They All Failed To Convince Me

Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2015.02.10


This is the original version of this page. To see the updated version, click here.



Having always assumed the existence of God, because of my upbringing, I did not have to prove it. But eventually I encountered those who asked me how I knew. I was forced to do research to see how great thinkers before me had handled this question.

Some notes on the arguments/proofs that follow:
  1. Almost all of them rely on underlying assumptions
  2. They are philosophical proofs, not “evidence” in the scientific sense. There is nothing measurable or directly observable that proves the existence of any higher power. This was quickly disappointing.
  3. Even if any of them could prove the existence of a deity, none of them could prove a particular deity or theology.
  4. All of them appeal to some flawed version of logic that falls back on the assumption of either a god or scripture, or appeal to emotion.
  5. All of them had been heard and dismissed by atheists before I was born.
  6. All of them have been treated more fully elsewhere online, and many have several related versions. Here I will describe as simply as I can and give my own thoughts about them.



Argument From Beauty



Sunset over Killeen, Texas
(Copyright © 2013 by Wil C. Fry.)
This is perhaps the first one I heard, from both the pulpit and from family members (several of whom were ministers). Basically, it’s expressed by Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”.

Things are beautiful; therefore God exists. By this argument, anything of natural beauty — to include flowers, waterfalls, sunsets, butterflies — proves the existence of a creator. In the words of Augustine of Hippo: “Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable?”

Related is the Argument from Aesthetic Experience: music, prose, paintings, sculpture, are beautiful. How could humans create things of such beauty if there wasn’t some ultimate supernatural beauty (God) to implant the ability in our heads? This makes even less sense to me than the original question; I felt it hollow even as a youngster. It was obvious that humans had created such works with their own ideas of beauty in mind. It was also obvious that beauty was a very subjective concept — the painting you find beautiful (the Mona Lisa?), I find mundane and pointless. The song I find beautiful (“Estranged”, by Guns N’ Roses), is just so much noise to you.


A Dobson fly. An ugly one.
(Copyright © 2008 by Wil C. Fry.)
The original is no stronger. Major failures: (1) Beauty is subjective. (2) There is a lot of ugliness in nature too — mudslides, the naked mole rat (and most moles), the warthog, the blobfish, the soft-shelled turtle, the probiscus monkey, the monkfish, poop, and at least half the people you meet. (3) The concept of beauty can change over time. A woman (or man) found beautiful in 1650 CE might not be called “beautiful” today. (4) It is just as easily a proof that we evolved to think certain things are beautiful.

I realized this “argument” is only effective with the underlying assumption that God exists. It’s more of a reassurance: I’m glad I believe in God, because so much that He made is so beautiful.

More: Argument From Beauty (Wikipedia)


Teleological Argument / Irreducible Complexity


There is evidence of design in nature. Therefore it was designed. That’s how the teleological argument works. Closely related is the “argument from irreducible complexity”, referring specifically to noted biological systems that allegedly are too complex to have evolved from simpler, less complete predecessors through natural selection.

This was convincing to me as a youth. All around me I saw very complex life forms with amazing methods of surviving. Also: atoms, planets, black holes. To me, it all cried out for a “designer”, someone who — in advance — conceived everything and how it would work together, and then carefully put it all in place.

A popular analogy is the “watchmaker analogy”. Simply put: if a watch exists, you can infer there was a person who made the watch — because a watch is too complex to have happened by chance. The idea is to carry the same principle into nature. Nature is complex; therefore someone must have made it.


A pocket watch
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry.)
The problem with these arguments, as with the watchmaker analogy, is the underlying assumption. If you don’t assume how the watch came to be and just observe, you’ll never see one occur in nature, but you can see one being made by a human. That’s how you know it has a maker. If all your life you had observed timepieces growing on trees or hatching from eggs, you would never infer from seeing one that someone made it. Someone making a watch is the only way a watch has ever come to exist; we actually have evidence of this. Life — even very complex life, has been around for a long time. Little is known about how life actually began, but we do have quite a bit of evidence that it evolved slowly, over eons, from less complex life. And, where we don’t have evidence, we don’t assume.

One obvious response to the teleological argument is: If the complexity of the Universe and life within it proves the existence of God, then doesn’t the necessarily complex being called God prove the existence of something even greater and more complex? In other words, if God created everything, who created God? If God can be complex without having been designed, then why not life and the world?

When confronted with that response, I expectedly fell back on the theist’s usual defense: that God has always existed — outside time, outside matter, and has no beginning or end — therefore no one created him. But this is circular reasoning — which, ironically, was explained to me in Bible College. It relies on assumptions about God’s characteristics.

The “always existing” argument can just as easily be used for biological life as it can for god.

More: Irreducible Complexity (Wikipedia)
More: Teleological Argument (Wikipedia)


Ontological Argument


When I came across this one, probably as a senior in high school, I wondered that any person had ever entertained it for very long. This is the idea that if you can conceive of a being "than which nothing greater can be conceived", then it must exist and it is defined as “God”. René Descartes espoused this idea, as did others of his time.

Even as a youth, I could not accept this argument or use it, because it’s ridiculous. I can conceive of a space station than which no greater space station can be conceived. And so on. I can conceive of all kinds of awesome things, yet they do not, as far as we can tell, exist.

More: Ontological Argument (Wikipedia)


Cosmological Argument


Like the teleological argument, the cosmological argument has several variations. The idea is this: The Universe exists, therefore it must have come into existence; God caused this. Or: 1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. 2. The Universe began to exist. 3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause. That “cause” is usually described as God.

I used this argument while I was in Bible college, writing in my journal (1992):
“Because the universe exists, God must exist, and must have existed first.”
This crumbles under the same question as the teleologicla argument: Then what caused God? Some argue that the First Cause is exempt from the argument, but that fails the logic test. And again, if we assert that “God is eternal, therefore he had no cause”, then this is only an argument for someone who already believes in a God, and who believes certain characteristics about God. Don’t claim you’re proving the existence of God if the proof assumes God must be eternal.

Some have criticized the argument thusly: Even if it proves a First Cause, that doesn’t mean it’s God.

Further, the currently accepted Big Bang Theory postulates that the Big Bang was not only the beginning of the universe, but of space and time. There was nothing prior to it, and therefore a First Cause could not have existed. Alternate theories of the universe propose that the Big Bang was just one in a series of Big Bangs that always follow a “Big Crunch” (collapse of the Universe). In this case the real Universe encompasses this infinite string of “Big Bounces”; there was no beginning, and therefore no requirement for a First Cause.

More: Cosmological Argument (Wikipedia)


Then How Do You Explain Miracles?


I’ve heard this question and am ashamed to admit I used a form of it once or twice. Here’s the problem with it: Like so many of the others on this page, it assumes prior belief.

Consider three scenarios:

1) Your friend has cancer. You pray for them. Their cancer goes away. Because you believe in God, you call it a miracle.

2) An atheist has a friend with cancer, but doesn’t pray for him — because he doesn’t believe in God. The cancer goes away. The atheist is relieved for his friend. He does not assume God did it, because there is no god.

3) Same as #2, except the atheist knows you prayed for his friend. You believe it’s a miracle because you believe in God. The atheist still does not call it a miracle, because the same factors apply from scenario #2 except that you said some words to an imaginary friend.

Without the base assumptions that God exists and that He answered your prayer, there is no reason to believe it was a miracle. It could have just as easily gone away on its own, as with a cold or flu or any other ailment. Our broken bones heal regardless of our religion. Some people are lame, or blind, or deaf, regardless of their faith or who prays for them.

An atheist could easily reply: “How do you explain the lack of miracles?”
An atheist could easily reply: “How do you explain the lack of miracles?” How many times has a miracle not happened? Almost every time you pray for one.

Interestingly, the John Templeton Foundation conducted a study (.pdf, 188kb) of 1,800 hospital patients in six states about to undergo coronary artery bypass graft surgery. About a third were told they were being prayed for. The other two-thirds were told they may or may not receive prayer; half were prayed for and half were not. Among the latter two-thirds, complications arose in 52% and 51%, respectively. And 59% of the first third saw complications. (There were more complications among those who received prayer and knew about it than among those who did not receive prayer at all.)

I’ve heard preachers explain it away with: “God always answers prayer; sometimes the answer is ‘no’.” God reportedly has his own higher plans that rarely coincide with our petty desires. That’s reasonable enough. But don’t say that and try to use “miracles” as proof that God exists.

Please note: I’ve witnessed some unexplainable phenomena in my time, none of which need to be ascribed to a god. For example, I witnessed a dangerous thunderstorm system split in two and bypass our house when a little girl prayed for exactly that to happen. If you do ascribe it to God, that brings up some disturbing assumptions: (1) God was going to allow the dangerous storm to wreck our house unless the little girl prayed, and (2) God was fine with letting it wreck other people’s houses (it did). Since then, I’ve witnessed a thousand thunderstorms. Some of them went straight through, some curved away, and some split into pieces.

There were other incidents, but all either have reasonable non-miracle explanations or raise scary questions about God’s nature, or both. None of these incidents prove the existence of a god. Most of the time, they simply prove that we don’t understand what is happening.


Lunatic, Liar, or Lord?


I first saw this argument in the C.S. Lewis book “Mere Christianity”. Lewis was arguing against the popular thought of the 19th and 20th Centuries that Jesus Christ might have been a “great moral teacher” but wasn’t God.

Lewis pointed out that Jesus made very odd claims for a “great moral teacher”: (1) he had the authority and ability to forgive sins, (2) he had always existed, and (3) he would return to judge the world at the end of time. Someone making these claims was either mentally ill, lying to his audience, or was actually God.

Some Christians are still using this argument today (scroll down to #6): Unlike other religious figures, Jesus claimed to be God. Therefore God exists. This doesn’t make any sense. (The author of that page claims to have been an atheist, persuaded to believe by this very argument, among others.)

Again, the problem is assumption. It depends on prior belief in the Bible.
Again, the problem is assumption. It depends on prior belief in the Bible — which was written by people who believed Jesus was the Messiah. There is a strong case for a historical Jesus actually having existed, but the four Gospels in the Bible aren’t part of that history, except to people who already insist the Bible is literally true.

Another criticism of the “trilemma” is the artificial forcing of only three options. Legend is a sensible fourth option often submitted. The Gospels were written later; the story built up over time.

(Also, why not consider the first two options?)

More: Lewis’ trilemma (Wikipedia)


Argument From Desire


Very simply put: Humans want something more than the physical world offers. Therefore God exists.

This is based on the somewhat plausible premise: “All innate human desires have objects that exist.” We desire food, and food exists. We desire sex, and sex exists. This is then combined with the minor premise: “There is a desire for ‘we know not what’ whose object cannot be identified.”

Clearly, there are multiple problems with this argument. For one, it assumes that all humans long for this “we know not what”, that none of us are ever truly satisfied. It also assumes that all “innate” desires must have objects that exist. There is no way to know whether either bit is true.

It’s perfectly conceivable to me that every human could long for something more, for something different and better, without that more/different/better thing actually existing. In fact, our tendency to have such a longing could explain so much about humanity’s rise as a dominant species on Earth, and therefore it could itself be explained by natural selection.

I expressed some of this unexplained longing in a poem at age 27.

More: Argument From Desire (Wikipedia)


Argument From Religious Experience


Again oversimplified: Many people claim to have had religious experiences; with no good reason to disbelieve them, we should assume God’s existence.

Sorry, as a logical proof this fails for me too, even though I experienced these experiences. However, even at the time I never expected such an experience to convince another person of God’s existence. They just convinced me, and only temporarily. If you have a “religious experience”, good for you. But don’t expect that telling someone about it will convince them of God’s existence. (Especially if that person, like me, has been there before.)

I offer as an example a personal anecdote, from my journal of March 1990 (when I was 17 years old). I was upset about a girl (as I often was in those days) to the point of distress and sleeplessness.
“... so I went outside and prayed. I even started doubting if God were really real. I told God that if He were real, He’d give me a sign, like any thing that would be undoubtably (sic) from Him, to let me believe for the rest of my life. I promised to be an atheist if He didn’t do it. He didn’t. I went to sleep that night, still distressed, and woke up sick. I didn’t go to church Sunday morning, but I prayed a lot... Sunday night [at church], I never heard the sermon, if there was one, because I was on my knees, on my face, calling out to God, if there was one, to show me that He existed. At first, I thought nothing was happening. Then slowly, God began an awesome display of love, peace, and wisdom, and simply overpowered my crying soul with His love. He crushed my heart with His wisdom, and filled my Whole being with His peace. I cryed (sic) so many tears, I think I made up for all those I haven’t been crying lately, and I came away feeling like a new man, ready to conquer, but now, only with God. It took all that to make me realize I wasn’t putting God first. I wrote a song called ‘If You seek, You’ll find’ to describe what happened.”
I am fully confident that such experiences can be easily explained without defaulting to the assumption of a higher power. In the case of my experiences, they always felt very real at the time. You could not have convinced me that my mind conjured up that emotion out of nothing. Now, in hindsight, it is quite obvious that that’s exactly what happened. I wanted to feel that way, and so I did the only thing I knew how — I prayed. You could probably call it a trance, or a high. It’s likely that I had flooded myself with endorphins. Without realizing it, I had carefully trained my body, over several years, to build up to an emotional high in this very way.

Without realizing it, I had carefully trained my body, over several years, to build up to an emotional high in this very way.
This isn’t the only instance in my journal, but it might be the most carefully described.

“I could feel the power of God,” we would say to one another after a particularly emotional service. It happened differently for different people.

I continued to believe these experiences were supernatural in nature even during the years when I was ceasing to believe in the Bible as God’s literal word. What began to erode my confidence was learning that almost every religion on Earth has similar experiences, and that it even occurred during pagan rituals long before the advent of Christianity. Native American peoples experienced something like it too. Some of these experiences in history were helped along by various drugs; others were seemingly completely natural. The fact that it just wasn’t my religion but rather a human trait made it less of a proof for God and more of an emotional/biological thing.

A theist might say that my experiences must not have been real, then, if I could dismiss them so lightly. This ignores that I did not dismiss them, either at the time or many years later.

What is certain, from my journal entry above, is that this emotional experience was definitely not what I had asked for in my prayer, “any thing that would be undoubtably (sic) from Him, to let me believe for the rest of my life.”

More: Argument From Religious Experience (Wikipedia)


Argument From Common Consent


This argument, very simply, is: Belief in deities is common to people all over the world in all time periods; either most people are wrong about this or most people are right about this; it’s more plausible to believe they are right. Therefore God exists.

I used a similar argument in a paper for my senior English class, before I even knew what this argument was called. My paper was called “Is There Really An Afterlife?” and I theorized that since most people on Earth believe it, then it’s likely. Even at the time, I felt like I had somehow cheated. Fortunately, the teacher wasn’t grading me on my use of reason.

Does it stand to reason that if enough people believe in something, it must be true?
Does it stand to reason that if enough people believe in something, it must be true? A CBS News poll showed that more Americans believe in ghosts than don’t. Does that mean ghosts must be real?

It’s known that the majority has often been fallible — take for example the belief that the sun revolved around the Earth. Peter Kreeft (noted professor of philosophy and author) tries to wiggle out with: they were still experiencing the sun and the Earth; they just misunderstood it. This is a cheat; the wrong belief wasn’t in the existence of the sun and the Earth, it was that one revolved around the other. That belief was incorrect, despite the vast numbers of people who believed it.

Further, most people in history have believed in a god other than the one you believe in. Does that mean they are right? If so, then your god doesn’t exist.

Kreeft theorizes:
“It is most reasonable to believe that God really is there, given such widespread belief in him — unless atheists can come up with a very persuasive explanation for religious belief, one that takes full account of the experience of believers and shows that their experience is best explained as delusion and not insight. But atheists have never done so.”
Two things are wrong with this. First, no burden of proof rests with the atheist. The burden of proof rests with the person asserting the existence of an invisible being for which there is no evidence. In fact, that’s what this argument was supposed to be doing: proving the existence of God. It is a logical fallacy often referred to as shifting the burden of proof — in other words: “You can’t prove me wrong, so I must be right”. Second, many people, not all of them atheists, have actually come up with plausible explanations for the origins of religion, and the natural outcome of the existence of religion is the “experience of believers” to which Kreeft refers.

Just because he doesn’t believe these plausible explanations exist doesn’t mean they don’t exist. (See what I did there?)

More: The Common Consent Argument (Peter Kreeft)


Argument From Morality


Also called “The Moral Argument”, this one starts with the assumption that moral obligation is a real thing (not a human construct), and that morals are absolute (not relative). From there, it’s easy enough to say that a god must have set these absolute morals and obligations.

I’ve devoted a separate page to dealing with this argument.

More: Argument from morality (Wikipedia)


Other, Lesser Arguments


The arguments or “proofs’ submitted above are a big chunk of those used by renowned apologists and historical Christian philosophers. There are more, but these are the ones I dealt with. Others, which I’ll call “lesser”, because most are illogical on their face, can’t be considered proofs by any reasonable person, yet they still make the rounds. I’ll hit these quickly and then conclude.

• Because Without God, There Is No Meaning Or Purpose In Life


I actually believed this for quite some time. “If I really didn’t believe in a God”, I said, “there would be nothing to live for, no point in the whole thing. Might as well kill yourself.” Of course, this is an argument to want to believe in a god, but has no bearing on its actual existence. There might actually be no meaning.

* Because People Try To Disprove Him


I’ve seen this on websites: “The very fact that some attempt so aggressively to disprove His existence is in fact an argument for His existence.” This is silly. By this tortured logic, anything that anyone aggressively tries to prove false must be true. Will someone please start trying to prove that I’m not rich? It means every defendant who ever tried to disprove the state’s case was guilty.

* You Can’t Prove God DOESN’T Exist


Like Kreeft’s mistake above, this is shifting the burden of proof. It brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s teapot analogy. If someone makes an unprovable claim, it’s not up to skeptics to try to prove her wrong.

Further, does this mean gods outside your religion are real too? Because you can’t prove they don’t exist.

* 1,093 Prophecies Of The Bible Have Come True


Every one of the aforementioned prophecies (I didn’t count them myself) is only known to have “come true” because the Bible later said they did. This is the worst kind of circular reasoning. I too can write a book full of prophecies and later in the book claim they came true.

* All The Good Things In Life


This is similar to the Argument From Beauty above, but more simple-minded. First, it ignores all the bad things in life (hiccups, rape, lukewarm coffee, disease, uncomfortable shoes, painful death, etc.) If all the good things in life prove God exists, then do all the bad things prove She doesn’t exist? Secondly, it’s insulting to those who don’t have all the “good things” that you have. This is more noticeable if you’re a missionary to a third-world country.

* You Should Visit [Name Of Other Country/Place]


Yes, this has actually been used. “You don’t see God working in your life? Maybe you should come with me to—” and then the blank is filled in by Haiti, Africa, Detroit, or Korea. Some place where God is really working. Because the people there really believe or need God’s help much more than you, in your comfortable First World life.

Because people with good jobs and nice homes don’t need God’s help? Or is it because God isn’t powerful enough to help them and us? The audience would nod its collective head in agreement, not realizing how ludicrous — and insulting — this claim was.

Also, the places most often named are generally characterized by extreme poverty, rampant disease, civil war, and/or corrupt governments. The kinds of things a good god isn’t in favor of.


Conclusion


Just as none of the arguments here prove the existence of any god, it should be clear that the failure of these arguments does not prove the lack of any god. It’s not as if I examined each argument in turn and then concluded “There is no god”. That would have been unwise.

Also, keep in mind that I was on the “yes there is” side of the debate when I became aware of almost all of the arguments/proofs listed here. So I was not setting out to prove or disprove God to myself, but to prove him to others. When I was challenged with the question “How do you know there’s a god?”, these arguments were each fallacious and my fallback position — every time — had to be “I just know.” To which the correct response is: “But how?”

It was disappointing to me that a being so powerful as to create the universe with a shrug and bring all life into existence with a few words would not leave some incontrovertible evidence in the modern world as proof of this.

In my mid-20s and into my early 30s, I occasionally argued these proofs to myself, especially the Argument from beauty and the Argument from complexity, trying to assuage my growing doubt in the reality of the supernatural. But, as before, the arguments did not hold water.

I became increasingly aware of the evidence for evolution of life via natural selection, for a very old Earth and even older universe. I gained a greater understanding of probability. I wondered why this all-powerful creator who was very interested in our lives, our praise, and our obedience, had designed the universe and the Earth in such a way as to indicate his absence.

So, while the arguments themselves did not cause me to cease believing, their failure had the effect of allowing my doubt to grow unhindered. If just one of them had been unassailable, not based on prior belief or assumption of the historicity of the Bible, and without logical fallacy, it’s probable that my journey would have ended elsewhere.





Next: The Argument From Morality

Or, use the More menu to navigate.







comments powered by Disqus