Response to Global Atheism Conference - A short case for God

Part two of Greg Clarke's series on the 2010 Global Atheism Conference

In my last article, I suggested that a general presumption of theism, at least of theistic belief, is the fairest point from which to start a discussion about God, since it is the position of belief in which the vast majority of human beings find themselves. But that is hardly enough to convince anyone who needs convincing of the reasonableness of belief in God. Can we construct any arguments for God for those people who still wish to think this matter through?

Indeed we can. The case for God can be stated simply, or a length. I’m going for the ‘brief but deep’ approach, leaning on philosophical tradition to do so but sticking within my column length—wish me luck!
It goes something like this: there are good reasons to think, and few good reasons to doubt, that:

  1. An originating capital-M Mind is the best explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, of why the universe is here at all. A more complicated statement that might also hold true is that our observance of the natural world leads us to conclude that it looks like a capital-M Mind was involved in its structuring, and furthermore, rationally, a capital-M Mind explains very well why the conditions of the universe are so finely tuned for life.
2. It is very hard to convince a human being, whether religious or an atheist, that the universe is without meaning, without values and without purpose. We are all pretty much agreed that it is full of these things: meaning (our lives matter), values (we can recognise with some finesse the difference between good and bad), and purpose (history is going somewhere). The hypothesis that there is a God does a better job of explaining these things than its alternative, the naturalist hypothesis, simply because with God these things are then real rather than illusory, as they are in the naturalist worldview. Real meaning, genuine values, lasting purpose. God is the best explanation of these elements of existence.  

Of course, I have been stating in general terms some of the classic arguments, and some of the contemporary arguments, for God’s existence. You will have noticed them, if you’re into this sort of thing—versions of the cosmological argument, a teleological argument of types, a moral argument.

The arguments for God’s existence remain rather strong and have fascinated serious thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas, to major philosophers today such as Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga. The very fact that Richard Dawkins will spend only a handful of pages of The God Delusion on them, and treats them dismissively rather than with real scholarly interest, suggests the lack of seriousness with which Dawkins treats the question of God.

When my colleague at the Centre for Public Christianity, John Dickson, interviewed recently retired UK philosophy and theology professor, Keith Ward last year in Oxford, he asked him the innocent question: “Are there any of the arguments for God that you find compelling?” to which the Professor answered: “Actually, I think they’re all pretty good!”

That’s my view, too. Ward outlines it, specifically in response to Dawkins’ work, in Ward’s book, Why There Almost Certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins (Lion, 2008). If the strength of the arguments for God’s existence, and the weakness of any arguments against it, is your cup of tea, Ward is refreshing reading.

Another way to put the God proposal philosophically might be to say that the presumption of atheism is rationally and phenomenologically unsupportable. We shouldn’t say that the best thinking starts with the idea that there is no God, and works from there. In fact, the opposite is often true, whether established by probability (as Professor Richard Swinburne does using Bayes’ Theorem1) , by the phenomenon of belief (85% of people already have a mental belief in God that continues over time), or by argument (using one of the many elegant, fascinating and persuasive arguments for God’s existence that have been offered from Aristotle to Aquinas through to today’s philosophers like Plantinga)—the best starting point for much thinking is the presumption of God.

Of course, very few people are argued into belief—or into unbelief, for that matter.

Arguing about God is not an exercise in attempted conversion – it’s not proselytising. Rather, it’s an attempt to see the reasonableness of faith, to see that in many different ways, it does indeed make sense to believe.

Whether you then believe, having established that it makes sense to do so, is another, more personal, matter.

Dr Greg Clarke is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

1. See, for example, Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (2nd Edition), Oxford University Press, 2004.