In the first installment in this series of articles, I provided an overview of an ongoing debate between atheists and theists on the existence of God. The second installment “Does God Exist? No” provided atheistic arguments along with counterpoints by theists. This article will focus on the theists’ contributions to the debate along with some counterpoints raised by atheists.
As in the previous two articles in this series, I caution you to be aware of the philosophical biases and assumptions made in the arguments. Watch for and be very aware of these and of your own biases and assumptions as well. With that caution in mind, let’s begin.
Irenaeus of Lyon (circa 130-202 AD) was an early Christian bishop who studied under Polycarp, who in turn studied under the apostle John. Irenaeus believed that the existence of evil serves a purpose; that it is a means to an end. That end was soul-making. From his perspective, evil provides the necessary problems through which we achieve spiritual development. John Hick (1922-2012) brings this belief of Irenaeus forward in modern time. Hick is regularly cited as "one of the most – if not simply the most – significant philosopher of religion in the twentieth century". He was born and died in England, but for the larger part of his career, he taught in the United States. Hick contends that humans were not created as a complete being, but that we are in a constant state of creational evolving. In the Irenaean tradition, man is created in two steps: “Bios” and “Zoe”. “Bios" in the original Greek means existing or being; "Zoe" in the original Greek is used to describe a life with meaning. The Irenaen tradition holds that the first step, “bios”, is the creation of the physical universe and organic life. Consistent with the various theories of evolution, this phase continues with the creation of mankind. Irenaeus saw humans as organic beings with a personal life, and capable of having a relationship with God. Consistent with the bible, this first phase is the creation of mankind in the image of God. The second phase of this creation is mankind achieving personal worth and goodness or spiritual development. This is the quality of “zoe”. This equates to the development of humans into the likeness of God. This is what Hick refers to as the “soul-making” process.
Hick compares the relationship between God and humankind to that between parent and child. He argues that even the most loving parent does not indulge the child’s every desire, that there are times when a child must be denied immediate pleasure in order to gain greater values. Those values might include patience, generosity, self-denial and even love. Hick then concludes that the presence of evil is transcended by its necessity for “soul-making”. In conjunction with this, Hick also speaks in some detail about free will. The arguments on free will are addressed separately in the next article.
An atheistic objection to the Irenaean belief that evil serves a purpose in soul-making is raised in the question, “Can suffering ever be justified by the good that results from it?” For atheists that grant the possibility that some levels of suffering are required for the growth of fundamental virtues, there remains the question of suffering from which no apparent good is achieved.
Theists also make a moral argument for the existence of God. The primary premise of this argument is first of all that there is an absolute moral law. The first point in any and all of these arguments is called the categorical imperative. Acceptance of the key principle underlies acceptance of the remainder of the system. So the imperative here is that there is some moral foundational, seemingly innate law that all understand and upon which all agree regardless of era, culture, belief or non-belief. An example would be murder. Whether theists or atheists, every culture throughout time has held that murder is wrong. Both Dr. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) argue that the existence of this moral law demonstrates the existence of God. If there is an absolute moral law, there must also be an absolute moral lawgiver. Newman was a doctor of western philosophy and Anglican priest in England. In his forties, he converted to Roman Catholicism and in his late seventies was made Cardinal. Lewis, an Anglican from Ireland, was a prolific writer and broadcaster. His works were mostly Christian apologetics or science fiction.
Newman made his argument from the perspective of conscience. He believed God must be assumed as the reason for conscience. He demonstrated his claim by pointing out that we feel shame, responsibility and guilt as a result of decisions and actions that we understand as wrong. These feelings would not make sense if we were not aware of a higher power judging our behavior. After all, why would anyone feel guilt for things with which they had gotten away unless they felt there were some standard against which they could be judged and some higher power capable of judging? Newman argued that the only being that could justify these emotions is one who is aware of all our actions and able to judge them; namely God.
Lewis compares, but does not equate, moral law with natural law. He believed that like natural law, moral law was not contrived by humans. It is known intuitively and not learned through observation. The prophet Jeramiah, who was called to prophesy around the year 626 BC taught, “Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts. Then I will be their God and they shall be my people. There will be no further need for neighbor to try to teach neighbor, or brother to say to brother, ‘Learn to know God!” No, they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest. (Jeramiah 31:33-34a)
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher of the Enlightenment period. He does not argue for the existence of God; in fact, Kant does not believe that the existence of God can be proven. However, Kant believes the existence of God must be assumed if morality is to be possible at all.
Kant contends that we are all aware of an obligation to do what is good. He sets up his argument with five points as follows:
· Good acts should lead to happiness (summum bonum) also referred to as the “highest good”.· The “highest good” must be achievable.· We cannot know from experience that the “highest good” is achievable.· If morality is to be possible at all we must assume a moral lawgiver as a guarantor of the “highest good”.· That lawgiver is called God.
So Kant’s categorical imperative, which he argues repeatedly in a number of ways, says,’ Act so that you could imagine your action to be made into a universal law’. (See “Moral Decision Making” and “Pursuit of Happiness”) This means that whatever we do we should be willing to have everyone do it. In other words, if I would not wish to be robbed or cheated, then I must not (that’s the imperative part) rob or cheat others. It is very similar to what is also called the “Golden Rule”: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” The rest of the argument gives us a reason to do the right thing – to follow the categorical imperative.
Kant says the best reason to do good actions is that they will lead to happiness for us (as well as for others). If we are motivated by that, then we must also believe that “highest good” or that happiness is achievable. Kant then addresses experience. Sometimes when we do what is right, we experience that happiness immediately. But sometimes, the return of happiness is delayed. Then it makes sense to ask, “If I do not find immediate happiness from good deeds, how I can trust that I will eventually, in the long term, reap the reward of happiness? If good deeds don’t eventually bring a positive reward, what motivation do I have to perform them?” This is where Kant argues for the necessity of the moral lawgiver. This being must be fair, know all deeds, have the power to see through people to their selfish or altruistic desires, and to reward whatever is good. We cannot know this being exists, but he is necessary if we are to have a sound practical reason to do what is right and good. Kant calls this moral lawgiver God, a being who is supposed to have the required qualities. In addition to God as a postulate of practical reason Kant says we also have to assume we have free will to make the choice to do right or wrong (Watch for an article on free will in two weeks.) and the afterlife as a place to receive our rewards or punishments, as guarantors of the moral law, which is his initial categorical imperative.
So how do atheists respond to these arguments? They grant that Newman makes a convincing case for the idea of the conscience as the voice in our head. The main weakness of his argument seems to be that it is not at all clear that the conscience comes from God. It could as easily be psychological. For this, we look to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).
Freud provides no direct criticism of the moral argument, but instead provides an alternative explanation for the idea of God. Freud is anti-religious and believes religion to be a symptom of a disease or neurosis caused by childhood trauma. For Freud God is a projection of the father figure. The desire for God is therefore seen as a form of psychological immaturity, being stuck at an early stage of development, where we still need a father figure. Kant’s moral lawgiver is then an immature need in us for a father figure who will guarantee that life is fair and will protect us. This need, claims Freud, is a psychological problem we must outgrow. Real life contains no such guarantees. Freud’s point is a relevant one, but it lacks evidence as a psychological theory. Approximately 9/10ths of the world’s population are believers. Freud believes all religious believers are psychologically immature. In fact, however, the psychological evidence suggests that religious believers do not lack any more maturity than their secular counterparts.
Another Counterpoint to Kant’s argument is that it contains an absolute as part of its imperative and absolute imperatives require an absolute authority to support the absolute claims. Relativist views, on the other hand, contend that what is right or wrong depends on the place, culture and society in which one finds oneself. If there is no absolute morality there need not be an absolute lawgiver. Furthermore, it can be argued that absolute moral principles are simply part of nature, like the law of gravity. So it appears to be a moral and not a theological question as to whether Kant’s argument tells us anything about God.