Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

Why to Believe in God, Simplified

The most powerful arguments for God can be pretty complicated . . . but they don't have to be.

Pat Flynn

Here’s the problem with philosophical arguments for God (the good ones, anyway): they’re complicated.

This shouldn’t surprise us in the least. Philosophical arguments for God are supposed to reveal something about the nature of fundamental reality and can take years to puzzle through. What should cause us to think that would be easy?

So, although folks will often attempt to pass off comparatively simple arguments, they are, despite being accessible, just plain wrong, or at least poorly formulated—and neither the doubter nor the believer is served by simplistic takes for God.

All this to say that distilling philosophical arguments for God without diluting or distorting them is difficult. Fortunately, as complicated as philosophical arguments for God can be, their general thrust is, for the most part, intuitive. With that in mind, let’s present the general idea of some of the more sophisticated and convincing philosophical arguments for God and to make the presentation simple . . . but not simplistic.

Keep in mind that when we present arguments like these at an introductory level, various details will be truncated or omitted. So I must insist that this is a worthwhile tradeoff for means for initial exposition, and that the arguments below are, in fact, good arguments, though we will ultimately have to pursue their fullest development elsewhere.

With those disclaimers, let’s begin.

1. The Argument from Adequate Reason

Common experience reveals stuff that doesn’t explain its own existence—that is, stuff philosophers call contingent. Here’s a list of some such stuff: Graham crackers, Yngwie Malmsteen, photons, corn. These things exist but could have been otherwise or not been at all. Reality did not have to include them, yet here they are. Why?

Philosophers have long claimed that stuff like this—that is, all the contingent things, considered collectively—must have some cause or explanation, and this cause or explanation cannot itself be contingent. That means it must be necessary, a being that must exist no matter what, a being whose nature or essence somehow guarantees its own existence.

A being like that would obviously be very special, quite unlike the beings of common experience, no matter how talented (Yngwie Malmsteen) or tasty (Graham crackers). Indeed, philosophers have argued that a necessary being would have to lack all the features that imply contingency (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a necessary being), such as being arbitrarily limited (say, in power, shape, location, knowledge) or composite (made of parts, physical or metaphysical), or changing and thus acquiring new modes of existence.

When thought through, it turns out that a necessary being would inevitably bear the traditional divine attributes: omnipotence, immateriality, immutability, eternality, simplicity, etc. Philosophers call this the Argument from Adequate (or sometimes Sufficient) Reason.

There are two main obstacles the argument from adequate reason must overcome. First, we have to support the principle that all contingent things do in fact have some adequate cause and don’t just exist as a matter of “brute fact,” with no explanation to be found. The second is closing off the so-called infinite regress objection, or making it clear that even if there were an infinite regress of contingent things—meaning each contingent thing is caused by some prior contingent thing, forever and ever—this would not provide the adequate explanation we require.

There is much that can be said to overcome these obstacles, but here are two quick rejoinders. First, it is highly rational to expect an explanation for something unless there is principled reason not to. After all, how else would we pursue science and philosophy, or increase our understanding of the world? To arbitrarily abandon this “explain everything (or at least as much as we can)” principle, particularly in the face of some fact that crucially seems to require explanation (like contingency), simply because its application converges upon theism, smacks of evasion, not objection, and is quite irrational. So, unless we have some good reason to think the fact of contingency cannot possibly find explanation—and we don’t!—it is far more rational to go with even just a conceivable explanation than no explanation at all.

As for the infinite regress objection? Is it really just turtles all the way down? Here seventeenth-century philosopher Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, one of the original formulators of this line of argument, offers a satisfying response: suppose there were an infinite line of geometry books, with each one having been copied from the one previous. Does this infinite regress remove all relevant mystery?

Leibniz says obviously not, and I agree. After all, we would still want to know why there is that infinite line of geometry books instead of nothing, and why the subject is geometry and not, say, biochemistry instead. Thus, according to Leibniz, even if an infinite regress of contingent causes is possible, it is irrelevant. The fact of contingency cannot be adequately explained by further contingency, no matter how much contingency there is and no matter how that contingency is arranged (in a line, circle, etc.).

Finally, a bonus consideration: While it seems that a necessary being is useful for explaining all contingent being, we should still like to know how contingency can arise from necessity. If fundamental reality is necessary, then why isn’t everything necessary? Here again, classical theism has the advantage, since we can argue that God—the single, simple, necessary being—freely chose to create the physical world. God’s act of free choice preserves the fact of contingency (that the world need not have been) while anchoring everything in necessity. Great result.

2. The Argument from Morality

Many of us take morality to be objective, which is to say, we believe that our moral statements and beliefs (e.g., that murder is wrong) are not merely describing people’s attitudes or preferences, but relating to what it means to live an objectively good life and flourish as the kinds of things we are.

If morality is objective, then specific people can be wrong in their moral beliefs, because what makes a moral belief true or false is beyond what a person happens to desire. This ought to be common sense, since most of us think desiring to love our fellow man is really good, whereas desiring to oppress our fellow man is really bad, and we think people who believe or act otherwise are gravely mistaken.

The traditional atheist, who claims that fundamental reality is just indifferent mindless stuff, and that everything about human existence reduces to atomic and evolutionary theory, veers toward nihilism. In other words, our moral sentiments, according to the atheist, are evolutionarily acquired beliefs insofar as they are useful for getting us to “have sex and avoid bears,” not because they are in any sense “true.” For the nihilist, moral beliefs are just personal preferences, mere sentiments or attitudes or tastes, like what we express when evaluating tapioca pudding or Nickelback’s “Photograph.”

It is commonly understood that many atheists, new and old, are nihilists. “There are no objective moral facts,” Nietzsche once pronounced. In modern times, naturalist philosophers like Alex Rosenberg argue that Darwinian theory (conjoined with naturalism) is an acid that dissolves our traditional understanding of morality, and that nihilism is the only consistent atheistic story about morality. As atheist philosopher Michael Ruse tells us, morality is “flimflam” . . . “an illusion” . . . “just a matter of emotions.” All fairly common atheistic commitments—and, I would add, consistent, coming from their naturalistic starting point.

On the other hand, if some atheist is reluctant to abandon objective morality, as many (thankfully) are, he must complicate his worldview to accommodate morality. Doing so invites two serious problems.

First, such complications will be suspiciously ad hoc and render the atheist’s theory less likely to be true. Why? Because simpler theories are more likely to be true, and the simpler atheistic theory is obviously the one that explains away objective morality through “blind” evolutionary forces, as many naturalists convincingly argue.

Moreover, the moral dimension appears extremely rich, which means the complications made by the atheist will have to be extensive to cover everything. For example, the atheist needs not just to explain moral facts (e.g., that rape is always wrong), but moral knowledge (e.g., how we know that rape is always wrong?). Imagine how much we would have to add to a theory that otherwise veers strongly, if not inevitably, to nihilism to accommodate these many features of moral experience. It’s a lot, building in a ton of complications, making the naturalist’s theory not very believable.

Second, recall that the mode of intellectual operation for the naturalist is scientistic, meaning, in cliché form, that we ought not “go beyond the science” in our claims to knowledge. However, moral facts are clearly not something science can tell us about, since nobody can see moral facts through a microscope or telescope, to put it crudely. This “breach of conduct” from a naturalist is problematic, since naturalists are effectively admitting that science isn’t the be-all and end-all and does not exhaust the intelligible content of reality. But if that’s the case, then what’s stopping us from running philosophical arguments for God, including as the best explanation for moral facts and knowledge and human dignity?

Once again, classical theism has considerable advantages, as theism can explain all the relevant moral features of reality with a simple and highly unified theory. For the classical theist, fundamental reality—God, who just is supreme being and supreme goodness—is where being and value converge at their climax. He provides a stable, traditional, and definitely rationally decidable way of thinking about the moral landscape. God can also equip us with reliable ways of forming moral beliefs and would be interested in doing so. So moral knowledge is expected if God exists as well.

For these reasons, if we think morality is objective, that we can know at least some moral truths, and that human beings really do have a special place in the universe, we really should endorse classical theism over atheistic naturalism.

That’s two solid arguments for God, as simple as they can be without distorting them. We’ll have some more tomorrow.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!