Sunday, September 8, 2013

On the Existence of God

Michael S. Russo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College
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. 


  1. For your edification, the reasonableness of a god existing depends on what you mean by "reasonable." There's a difference between a logical possibility and a plausible hypothesis. All that a logical possibility requires is that a concept not be contradictory. "Round square" is not possible. My winning the lottery five days in a row is logically possible. However it is not plausible.
    If the logical possibility of a god existing makes it reasonable (or as reasonable as a god not existing), then your criterion for belief is pretty slim. It's logically possible that elks dance the tango when we're not looking. It's logically possible that snow is flammable in an alternative world. Few atheists would claim that the existence of a god is not logically possible. Accordingly, most atheists are agnostics. However, atheists are not as open to the idea as self-professed agnostics because they don't believe that it is plausible that a god exists.
    Why not? Because death is what it looks like and suffering has no purpose. If suffering has a purpose, why do animals suffer and die? Why have whole species evolved over millions of years, tearing each other's flesh apart and devouring each other's young, only to freeze alive in an ice age or starve to death in massive droughts, going extinct millions of years past? Why do infants suffer and die? To make us strong? But they are the ones being tortured. To live joyously in some other world? Who tortures infants for ANY reason? No, there are no gods. It's not plausible that a god exists. And so, it is not as reasonable that a god exists as that a god does not exist.

  2. Dear Fred:

    The fact that something is not logically contradictory -- the existence of God -- puts it within the realm of possibility. If something is possible, it is not un-reasonable (irrational, illogical) for someone to believe in it.

    As I get older, I'm becoming much more of a skeptic than I ever was. I don't say that God must exist, because this is a dogmatic claim that I have no solid evidence to support. But your assertion that a Supreme Being like the one spoken about by all the great religious traditions can't possibly exist is just as dogmatic as the truth claims of the most fanatical theist.

    M -

  3. So believing that elks dance the tango is not unreasonable because it's possible? I never said that the existence of a god is logically impossible. My claim is that the existence of a god is not plausible. And I gave you evidence for that claim. So your charge that I am as dogmatic as the most fanatical theist is absurd. Pay attention!

  4. About those infants that die early. Do they survive death? They have the identity of immature persons, not fully self-aware or rational. In the so-called afterlife, do they continue in this undeveloped state? Are they eternally infantile? Where's the dignity in that? Or does a god provide them with a fully conscious rational, reflective self? But in that case, wouldn't they be entirely different persons? If that is true, can you say that they survive death?
    Of course, you will say this is a mystery that we mortals cannot know...just like everything else you say that is mystifying and fantastic.

  5. Suppose you say that the dead infants are not frozen in place for eternity. Rather in heaven they get the chance to develop their astral bodies in the normal way. However, they are not subject to genetic deformities, they don't suffer from Tay Sachs, Lesch Nyhan disease or Cri-du-chat syndrome. As astral teenagers, they would not be subject to the usual temptations and peer pressure earthly teens face. So their bliss continues. However, we are left to wonder why that wasn't all of our own fate?. Why wouldn't a loving god provide all of his creatures with a heaven on earth? (If you bring up Original Sin, I'll throw the good book at you, because that's ridiculous.)