Michael S. Russo
Professor of Philosophy
As a young student of philosophy, I remember reading St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and being simply amazed by the majesty and elegance of his “proof” for the existence of God. “The being greater than which none can be conceived”—That’s Anselm’s idea of God, and the reality of this being is so self-evident that one would have to be an utter fool to think that God does not exist. Anselm’s argument is, in fact, so elegant that, as an 18 year old, I could only think, “That’s it, man. All questions about God’s existence now must be put to rest.”
But as the years passed, I changed—as young men always do—and my certainty about the existence of a Supreme Being like the one Anselm talks about became somewhat less certain.
I imagine that if I were living in Europe in the 11th century, I really would have had to be a fool not to believe that the universe was governed by an all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing God. Go to any town in just about any country in Europe today and the first thing you will see, rising above all the other buildings and smack in the center of town, is a massive church or cathedral of some sort. And when you walk inside one of these European churches, you can’t help but be impressed by their scale: these are simply monstrous buildings that aim at inspiring awe and devotion in anyone who enters them.
In the 11th century, when Anselm lived, just about every aspect of life was centered around the Church and on religious practices and devotions. In every country there were mystics and saints who claimed to have experienced the vision of God and, as a result, were given incredible spiritual gifts to reward their faith. Medieval Europe, in short, was a God-centered place where miracles abounded, and you truly would have to be a fool not to believe that there was a pretty powerful God behind everything.
But we’re not living in the Middle Ages any more. We’re living in the 21st century and are products of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution of the 20th century. We have alternative narratives now that do a pretty good job explaining the origin and nature of the universe. God, it would seem is no longer needed to account for why we are here (evolution does that) and where we are ultimately heading (the answer: biological decomposition).
Now there are those—evangelicals and religious conservatives, in particular—who seem to have made it their mission to reject any and all scientific evidence that contradicts the “sacred truths” they read in the Bible. For these men and women the existence of God is as self-evident today as it was in the 11th century. And , if scientific fact disputes any “truths” contained in Sacred Scripture, then the answer is to reject science rather than attempt to understand Scripture in a less literalistic light.
No, the existence of God can by no means be considered self-evidently true any longer, and we must acknowledge that modern science does provide us with a quite plausible way to explain reality without bringing the idea of God into the discussion. But that doesn’t mean that the belief in God’s existence is unreasonable. There is nothing logically contradictory about believing that the universe was created by an all-powerful being, who has existed for all eternity, and who, for one reason or another, is interested in the well-being of puny creatures like ourselves. A contemporary scientist might find this idea implausible, but, if he were truly objective, he would be forced to acknowledge that God’s existence, at the very least, is not completely and totally outside the realm of possibility.
I prefer to treat the question of God’s existence with a healthy balance of skepticism and openness. We ought to be skeptical about religious beliefs for the same reason that we ought to be skeptical about all truth claims—because there is a heck of a lot of nonsense in our world that is being passed off as “objective” or “eternal” truth and we ought to be suspicious of it all. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t at the same time be open to the possibility that such “truths” could actually turn out to be quite true.
“Skepticism + openness.” That should be the philosopher’s motto. And, when it comes to religious questions like the existence of God, that same motto should be our guide and our yardstick. “God exists;” “God doesn’t exist.” Show me the evidence for either proposition and then let’s argue about this point the way real philosophers should: passionately, objectively, and, preferably, over a nice cold pint of beer.