Friday, March 13, 2015

A Brief Review of Arguments for the Existence of God (Part 2): Cosmological Arguments

Cosmological arguments

As with those based on the notion of design, cosmological arguments seek to argue for the existence of God based on what we experience of the world and universe we live in. The central aim of cosmological arguments is to establish what CAUSED everything to be here, or how the world and the universe began.

Cosmological arguments are attempting to address the problem of an infinite regress. This occurs when we have no starting-point for something. For example, in terms of the origin of the world we might ask where everything came from. If we are told that everything came from x, we would then ask where x came from. If x came from y, then we would logically ask where y came from, and so on and so on. Therefore, in order to stop this never-ending sequence we need an uncaused-cause of everything.

The Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-74 CE) is known for examining two versions of the cosmological argument. In one he argued that every event has a cause, and this leads us to posit a first cause of everything. In another version he argued that things only move because they are moved by something else; leading us to seek the first mover of everything. Aquinas' cosmological arguments were basically intended to show that in order for anything to be here, it requires the presence of something existing before anything else did, and being a Christian he believed the world is only be here because God created it.

Here are the two cosmological arguments Aquinas set out in more detail:

  • The argument from FIRST CAUSES: Whatever exists is here because something else has caused it to be here (for example, children are here because of their parents). Things cannot cause themselves to exist (for example, children cannot give birth to themselves). There cannot be a never-ending (infinite) chain of causes. God is the first cause of everything here.
  • The argument from MOTION: Things move (or become something else), because something causes it to do this. It is impossible for motion in the universe to have always been happening, so it must have begun somewhere (and somehow). There cannot be a never-ending (infinite) chain of events. God is the first mover (cause) of everything.

Naturalistic evolution works from the premise that the world and the universe had a first cause, this being known as a Singularity (aka ‘Big Bang’); We should also note that logically for naturalistic evolution to work, this present world and universe cannot always have existed.

Summary: Key features of cosmological arguments

  • Nothing happens in the world without a reason.
  • Events in the world have been caused by something else.
  • Things in the world and the universe did not cause themselves to come into existence.
  • To deal with the problem of an infinite regress the world and the universe must have a first cause.
  • The reason why the world and the universe are here is because of God.
  • Cosmological arguments are based on comparing the way things work in the world, to the way things must be in the universe (analogy).

Evidence in support of cosmological arguments

  • We can see from our own experience that things happen in the world because something else has caused them to happen.
  • That we are here because of our parents, and they are here because of theirs etc., is an example of something which cannot have an infinite regress. Life has not always been here. Something must have caused humans to be here.
  • Science tells us that the world had a starting point (The 'Big-bang').
  • Modern cosmology posits that stars are moving out and that the universe is expanding. This suggests it had a starting point.

Debates about cosmological arguments

One of the biggest problems with cosmological arguments is that they appear to be self-defeating. If we say that EVERYTHING must have a cause, and that nothing can exist without having been caused by something else, then what about God who is said to be an uncaused causer? This seems to leave the question begging: 'If God caused everything, then who caused God?' In order words, why construct an argument on the basis that everything needs a cause, and then argue that the answer to how the world and universe got here is an uncaused cause (i.e. God)? This is contrary to the logic of the argument. If we say that God is uncaused, then why not the world and universe too?

Another problem for cosmological argument is that scientific explanations for the origins of life do not require the existence of God to explain why anything is here. In fact, it seems the more 'science' works to explain the world around us, the less we need of God. For example, in the past God has often been used to bridge gaps in our scientific knowledge (aka God of the gaps) such as praying and offering gifts to God to ensure a good harvest, or to get pregnant. However now 'science' has shown us that it is good soil and the right fertilizer that will maximise our crop yield, and ovulation tests and IVF now help women to get pregnant.

Yet for all that science informs us about the world and universe we live in, it cannot tell us everything about it. For instance, modern cosmological theories of the origins of life argue that the Singularity which caused the 'Big-bang' was the product of events we can know nothing about. This is because we are unable to 'see' them because they happened prior to anything else coming into existence. So if in reality we are speculating (or making a best-guess) about events prior to the 'Big-bang', this means the possibility of God's existence must remain open, and as such this is why some theologians say science tells us how life began, but God’s existence explains why it did.

A Brief Review of Arguments for the Existence of God (Part 3): Morality and Religion

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Brief Review of Arguments for the Existence of God (Part 1): Introduction and Design


Arguments for the existence of God are an attempt to prove (or justify) God's existence by rational means. They are usually expressed in the form of 'If... then' statements. For example:

  • If there is evidence for design in the world... then this is evidence for a designer (who is God).

Arguments for the existence of God are based on what in Christian theology is known as general revelation. This is the belief that there is evidence for God's existence from the way things are in the world. Arguments for the existence of God based on general revelation are also called natural theology.

General revelation is contrasted with special revelation. Special revelation consists of knowledge that God has specifically revealed, such as who God is, what God has done (or will do), and how God wants us to live (E.g. The Ten Commandments). Special Revelation can be found in the various holy books of the World Faiths (E.g. The Bible, Qur'an, Guru Granth Sahib).

Although natural theology (based on reason) is said to be capable of demonstrating God's existence, many theologians believe it is incapable of telling us anything about who God is, or how God wants us to live. For example, Muslims would not have known from the way the world is that Allah wanted them to pray five times a day (Salah). This is something Allah specifically revealed to them through the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH*). Furthermore, some say that in relying on our own thoughts and reasoning skills that there is a danger people might confuse their own ideas about who God is, with who God truly is.

Well known arguments for the existence of God

Some of the most widely studied arguments for the existence of God are:

  • Design arguments (the way the world is structured and organised)
  • Cosmological arguments (considering the ultimate origin of life)
  • Moral arguments (the origin of Goodness and why people do good things)
  • Logical arguments (making a rational case for God’s existence - E.g. The Ontological Argument)

Some might say that a proof for God’s existence is the phenomena (or existence) of religion. In other words, why do people claim God exists and worship God, if there is no God to believe in or worship in the first place?

Arguments for the existence of God based on the appearance of design in the world

Design arguments suggest that the world has been set up and ordered in such a precise way that this could not have happened by chance, but must have been done by some higher reality. In theistic religions this 'higher reality' is known as God**. Design arguments are also known as teleological arguments. The word telos in Greek means 'purpose', and so teleological arguments suggest that there is evidence of purpose (or intentional design), in the way the world is. For example, eyes and ears are said to have been precisely 'designed' for seeing and hearing, the seasons ordered so as to cause plants to grow year after year, and the ozone layer set up at the correct distance from the earth so as to protect us from harmful U.V. rays.

Inherent in all design arguments is the notion that the world and the universe are complex yet everything seems to fit together in a precise and ordered way, and that this must have been planned in some way.

Those who believe God created the world are called Creationists. Sometimes the notion of Creationism is also linked to a specific idea of how God created the world. For example, because in the Bible it says God created things on the First Day, Second Day, Third Day etc. (Genesis 1), the assumption is made that the world was created within a week. Some Christians also believe that by using the various dates and ages of people we find in the Bible, we can prove that the world was created around 6,000 years ago. People who believe this are known as Young Earth Creationists***.

William Paley (1743-1805) set out what many people consider to be the classic form of the design argument.

The Watch Analogy

“If you came across a watch in an uninhabited place, you could not say it had been put there by chance. The complexity of its mechanism would make you say that it had a designer. Now the universe is far more complex than a watch, and so if a watch needs a watchmaker, the universe needs a universe-maker, and that could only be God.”

Paley's analogy suggests that complex and ordered things do not occur by chance. Instead, complex things (like watches) have been made by someone (watchmaker) and for a specific reason (to tell the time). In the passage above, Paley is suggesting that because the world is complex and ordered then this could not have come about by chance, but must be the product of intelligent design.

Summary: Key features of design arguments

  • The world and the universe are ordered.
  • The world and the universe have things in them which are 'designed' to do specific 'jobs' (they have a purpose).
  • Complex things do not come about by chance, but have been made by someone.
  • The world and the universe are complex and ordered places, so these must have been designed and made by some higher reality.
  • Theists believe the 'designer' and creator of the world and universe is God.
  • The design argument is based on an analogy with the way humans produce complex things (such as watches), to the way things must be in the universe.

Evidence of design in the world and the universe

  • The way the seasons are ordered into a 'cycle of life'
  • The way the ozone layer protects people from the harmful rays of the sun.
  • The way gravity on earth is strong enough so as to keep us flying off it into space, yet also weak enough to prevent other planets from crashing into us.
  • The complexity of eyes and ears, whose purpose is to see and hear.

Some issues

Objectors to design arguments say we do not need a God-hypothesis to explain why things are as they are in the world and the universe (i.e. complex and ordered). For these people, science tells them everything they need to know about the world and the universe they inhabit. For instance, they would say that life was 'created' from the 'Big-bang', and that everything has come about as a result of natural evolutionary processes. Of course, rather than arguing against God’s existence it might be said that science explains how God created everything. In other words, maybe God initiated the 'Big-bang' and the process of evolution as a means to forming and filling the world as we know it? The idea that God worked through the Big-bang and evolution to bring about life is known as theistic evolution.

One of the biggest objections to design arguments is the presence of evil and suffering. The argument goes that if the world has been designed and made by God, then why do bad things happen in it, or why did God create one where bad things happen? We should note that this argument does not necessarily disprove God’s existence, just the ability for God to create a good world. God can still exist but stand accused of not having done a very good job creating the world we live in today.


* PBUH is an abbreviation of the phrase “Peace Be Upon Him”, which is said after uttering the name of Muhammad (Prophet of Islam), as a sign of respect.
** A theist is someone who believes God exists, and theism is the term we use to describe this belief. Therefore, a theistic religion is one which has as a central idea the belief that God exists.

Monday, March 9, 2015

An Introduction to John Hick's Pluralist Hypothesis (Part 2)

Re-interpreting religion (and religions)

With the publication of An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (1989), Hick introduced the most developed version of his religious pluralism (and the one he is most known for). Whereas in his earlier work he had tended to see religions as culturally determined landing-pads for God, now he presents religions as particular responses to a transcendent Reality. In other words, he has shifted the emphasis from subject (God) to perceiver (humanity). The seeds for this were sown in his early work (as noted above). However, Hick's also acknowledges his indebtedness to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), both of whom examined knowledge as something conditioned by our own (limited) way of perceiving things (as).

In An Interpretation of Religion, Hick (following Kant) argues that there is the world in itself (noumenal), and the world as we understand and perceive it (phenomenal). Support for this view of things can be seen in the fact that people often see and perceive the same things differently. So we all cannot be seeing the world as it really is (otherwise, there would be no disagreement). Each person's experience of the way the world is is, therefore, an interpretation of experience specific to that individual's point-of-view.

Applying this insight to the matter of religious experience, Hick concludes that all religious experience is simply an expression of a particular experience of a transcendent reality by the devotee (what he also calls 'experiencing-as'). Thus we can see how someone born in India is not only going to naturally be a Hindu but also, consider the Hindu-worldview normative (or normal) and all others wrong. For they simply have no way of seeing things any differently!

The Real

In An Interpretation of Religion, Hick radically revised his earlier concept of God, replacing this notion with the idea of an ineffable Real. In theistic traditions (E.g. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) God is encountered as a personal deity, but what of the non-personal encounters such as Brahman in the Hindu tradition? How can a personal God also be experienced as non-personal at the same time? The concept of an ineffable Real alleviates this dilemma. Turning once again to Kant, Hick distinguishes between the Real as it is in itself ('Real an sich') and the Real as it is variously experienced and thought of by the different faith traditions:
“I want to explore the pluralistic hypothesis that the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real from within the major variant ways of being human; and that within each of them the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness is taking place.” (John Hick)
The idea that we experience the Real in different ways, and that this is the reason why there are different faith traditions in the world, releases an inherent tension in pluralist theologies. Religious diversity does not try to avoid contradictions. Diversity and difference are the natural results of the varieties of human experience of the Real. People are different. We have been born in different places, into different families, and have been raised in different ways to each other. We should not be surprised that just as we have developed different sorts of music and art, so we are naturally going to develop different expressions of faith, belief and practice.

Now the fact that people are 'experiencing the Real' in different ways also begins to challenge the idea that only one faith-tradition is true (exclusivism). Also, in saying that the Real is ineffable and unable to be experienced, or understood, or expressed by human understanding/language, means Hick can also argue for the various faith-traditions as contexts for moral and spiritual betterment. Overall, the 'truthfulness' of a faith-tradition is not so much to do with whether its beliefs are true, but what sort of believer they are producing.

Re-interpreting salvation

In An Interpretation of Religion (and subsequent writings), Hick grounds his pluralist hypothesis in the idea of salvation as that which is a transformative thing:
“I suggest that these different conceptions of salvation are specifications of what, in a generic formula, is the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to a new orientation centred in the divine reality.” (John Hick)
For example, the Golden Rule can be found in all religions, which in the Christian tradition is expressed as “Treat others as you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12). Hick believes the extent to which faith-traditions promote this attitude in its adherents, is the extent to which we can consider it to be a valid (and true) expression of faith. Now this might immediately imply a sense of moral exclusivity, for if one faith tradition is producing more ‘saints’ (or good people) than others then surely we should be seeking to win people over to that faith in order to make the world a better place. However, when we compare each of the great world faiths to each other they all seem to be equally as effective in promoting this attitude in their devotees:
“We have no good reason to believe that any one of the great religious traditions has shown itself to be more productive of love/compassion than another.” (John Hick)
Although members of a faith may want to suggest that they are morally superior to others (and as such they would be suggesting that they are members of the 'true faith'), any claim to moral superiority cannot be validated by religious history. In each of the great world faiths, there have been both good and evil actions performed by its devotees. As Hick himself notes: “I suggest today that the onus of proof or of argument is upon any who claim that their own tradition produces morally and spiritually better human beings than all the others.”


Initially Hick presented his pluralistic hypothesis as something which held in tension the idea of a God of love and was based on a universal plan of salvation. However, over the course of his research, this shifted to focus more on the idea that each of the religions of the world is a unique and culturally conditioned human response to what he calls the Real. Furthermore, because Hick argues for the Real’s ineffability, the various religions of the world are not there to pass on 'truths' concerning it but to simply act as contexts in which human salvation (the shift from egocentrism to non-egocentrism) can take place. Although each religious tradition would distinguish itself from the others by seeing itself as superior to them (exclusivism), this claim cannot be validated when we observe that religious history reveals no distinguishable difference between each of them, so as to suppose the moral superiority or salvific effectiveness of one of them above the others.

An Introduction to John Hick's Pluralist Hypothesis (Part 1)

John Hick (d.2012) was an English philosopher of religion, who in his early years embraced a more evangelical (and fundamentalist) form of Christian belief; one that was firmly committed to the idea that Christianity was the true faith, and the Bible was God's sole revealed Word. However, due to numerous positive encounters with members of other faith traditions, he began to find great difficulty holding onto the belief that one religion was true, and that friends of his who were not-Christians would be going to hell for not subscribing to a belief in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, on the basis of his extensive reading of the scriptures of other faith traditions, he began to conclude that there was just as much 'good' in them as there was in the Bible.

Reviewing his subsequent shift in thinking in God Has Many Names (1980) he writes: “I have from almost as early as I can remember had a rather strong sense of the reality of God as the personal and loving lord of the universe”. The idea of God being both 'personal' and 'loving' were major influences in his development of a more open understanding of the relationship between faith traditions.

Problems with religious exclusivity

In his book God and the Universe of Faiths (1974), Hick began to lay the foundations of what would become his pluralist hypothesis. His initial interest was to explore what he felt was an inherent tension between the idea of a God of love and the Evangelical Christian attitude towards non-Christians. Within Evangelicalism, the possibility of salvation has traditionally been centred on the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone (the incarnate Son of God) has secured salvation for humanity, and that only a personal commitment and belief in this 'fact' would guarantee salvation. This has led to Christian exclusivism, expressed as 'outside Christianity there is no salvation' (aka 'outside the Church there can be no salvation').

However, Hick became concerned that if the Christian God is a God of love, and Christian salvation is the only true salvation, “Can we then accept the conclusion that the God of love who seeks to save all mankind has nevertheless ordained that men must be saved in such a way that only a small minority can, in fact, receive this salvation?”

Taking such a limited approach to the means by which people can be saved (i.e. literally by hearing about Jesus or becoming members of the Christian Church), means that for Hick most of the world would have to be considered damned: 
“It is the weight of this moral contradiction that has driven Christian thinkers in modern times to explore other ways of understanding the human religious situation.” (John Hick)
Accidents of birth 

As far as Hick is concerned a person's religious beliefs are largely determined by where they are born, and as such people cannot be held accountable for 'accidentally' not being born into a Christian environment. Thus, it makes no sense to say that a person born in India into a Hindu family, subsequently leading a good life based on Hindu beliefs, should be condemned by God simply because they were not born in a Christian country, or a Christian family, or because a Christian missionary had failed to reach them in time to tell them about Jesus before they died. In fact, it is obviously going to be the case that a person born in India will most likely grow up with the belief that salvation is achieved through (and by) the many Hindu gods, just as much someone born in Saudi Arabia is most likely going to become a Muslim and follow the teachings of Islam, and therefore will see no reason to convert to another faith tradition.

All this means Hick believes one's view of salvation (and the subsequent means of attaining it), is dependent on (and influenced by) where one has been born, and with this insight he felt he had dealt Christian exclusivism a mortal blow:
“Can we be so entirely confident that to have been born in our particular part of the world carries with it the privilege of knowing the full religious truth?” (John Hick)
Orthopraxis, not orthodoxy

From very early on in his work Hick rejected the Evangelical belief that one needed to hear and respond to a specific message in order to be 'saved'. He also sought to move away from notions of orthodoxy (correct belief) to orthopraxis (correct living); the latter being required if we want to begin to say, “All salvation… is the work of God”. As such, Hick began to interpret the world's religions as culturally-conditioned contexts within which people could grow as moral and spiritual beings, and thus challenged the idea that mission should be about attempting to convert rather than learning from people. Instead, Hick believes contact between members of other religions should only and always be positive and fruitful (“Not to displace but to deepen and enlarge their relationship with God”).

With these early insights, Hick laid the foundation for a revolution to take place in his theology of religion:
“Our next question is this: do we regard the Christian way as the only way, so that salvation is not to be found outside it; or do we regard the other great religions of mankind as other ways of life and salvation?”

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Don Cupitt and the New Christian Ethics (or the Non-God Moral Argument): Part 2

The new Christian ethic

In removing the old (objective/realist) view of God, Cupitt has cleared a path towards religious and moral freedom:

  1. Morality can (and must) be creative: Defining what is moral (and what morality is), is our new task. We accept that we never had a morality given to us by God (despite what people might believe), nor will we ever have one given to us. Instead, it is up to us to discover what is right and wrong for ourselves, within the context of our different societies/communities. As we are not bound by any fixed or limited/limiting divine moral codes, we are essentially starting again; creating our values literally 'out-of-nothing' (ex nihilo).

  1. Morality can (and must) inject value into life: Morality cannot be self-seeking. We are all unique creatures, and as such we should respect and value everyone equally. The old moral order was life and person denying. Now it can (and must) seek to embrace the fullness of the human experience, which includes everyone (and everything) living in the world.

  1. Morality must be prophetic (not passive): Prophets speak out against the static, fixed and (wrongly) accepted norms of society. The new Christian ethic must speak out against the old prejudices (E.g. homophobia, patriarchy, lack of respect and care for the world). We must not accept moral codes simply because they are 'moral codes'. We must decide for ourselves what is right and wrong for us in each age. In doing so, we will make morality practical, rather than theoretical.

Re-grounding morality in religion

It is a mistake to accuse Cupitt of being anti-God, and anti-religion. Although he is clearly a revisionist when it comes to what has been traditionally believed about God (and morality), he still believes it is vital to retain religious symbolism when it comes to ethics, as this has been proven to be capable of developing good and moral people in the past:

“The human being acquires a dignity and status that is directly derived from the ancient holiness and worshipfulness of God. God indeed just was such a symbol of the goal towards which our moral development is heading and of the dignity to which we should ultimately attain.” (Don Cupitt)

Cupitt believes non-realist ethics should be religiously-based, because (at present) secular humanism has not got the proven and necessary symbols of value in it. For example, through Jesus Christ the Christian message is that God is fully human, and therefore knows and understands us intimately. For Cupitt, this is a powerful image and one which can give hope to those who are feeling hemmed in by an oppressive (realist) Christian morality. If God understands our humanity, then it follows that God will be more understanding (and less judgmental) of us.

Realist ethics was always about pursuing the Ideal; about learning who God is in order to understand what we should become like ('Be holy, because I am Holy' - 1 Peter 1:16). Such a morality was also largely built on contemplation and avoidance behaviour, as exemplified in the lives of monks and nuns. As a result of this the body became viewed as something which was easily swayed by sin. For example, people were encouraged to avoid relying on their feelings, as they could distract them from doing what God wants, or to avoid certain places and activities which were deemed sinful, potentially leading them into sin. All this is a rather negative view of things, and offered little incentive for considering oneself and others in a positive light.

The new world

“Our task, then, is to redeem people from the old masochistic 'orthodox' Christianity by curing them of the sense of sin, restoring their self-esteem and vindicating Christian action.” (Don Cupitt)

So what would a world built non-realist ethics (or new Christian ethics), look like? Firstly, life would be seen as an endless striving of activity, or endeavour. As there are no moral absolutes, so there is no expected outcome to life. We are not expected to become something, but simply to live our life. Secondly there is also no 'final success' or Ideal. This means there is no ultimate standard against which we can be judged or feel condemned by, because there is nothing to achieve or fall-short of. We simply 'fight until we drop'. Thirdly, no-one can claim perfection. We cannot look at others and judge their actions to be less-than perfect on the basis that we alone are living the moral life. No-one can make such a claim! Rather, we will simply acknowledge the choices some people have made and those others may not have made. Ultimately we should be aiming to remove the notions of 'sin' and guilt' from our thinking.

Finally, we are to be artists! Our life is to be one of moral creativity and imagination. We are to become absorbed into our work. We are no longer to have one eye on the 'clock' of life, against which we might feel the pressure to change things 'before it is too late'. We are simply to live our life to the full in each moment, and be content for it to end whenever that may be. We are to become like the sun, burning brightly, expending our energy ceaselessly until we are finally spent.

Some issues

In his book World Views and Perceiving God (1993), Joseph Runzo offers the following critiques of Don Cupitt's non-realist ethics:

Non-realist ethics encourages us to engage in self-deception

If you do not believe in the objective reality of God, why bother to continue with any form of religious belief, or revise the content of religious language to make it more palatable?

“Whilst acknowledging that God does not exist, we are to continue to use traditional language about God.” (Joseph Runzo)

Why be a Christian humanist? Why not simply be a secular humanist?

“Religion, [Cupitt] says, provides a supportive symbolic and institutional context for ethics… [however, this] appeal to a known fiction; [is] to encourage self-deception.' (Joseph Runzo [Brackets mine])

Non-realist ethics provide little check against moral anarchy and 'isolated idiosyncratic views’

If there are no moral absolutes, on what basis can others tell the Nazi or the Klansman that their moral take on things is wrong?

“If worldviews are incommensurate and there are no shared objective cross-schema moral standards, relying on 'one's own vocabulary' would count the Klansman right and allow for moral anarchy.” (Joseph Runzo)

God's existence does not imply 'blind obedience'

Runzo also argues that Cupitt is wrong to suggest that God's (objective) existence is morally oppressive. He argues that we often follow a person's advice because we trust them, and because we believe they are wise.

Non-realism fails to say why we should take the moral position

Cupitt claims it is rational to act morally. Runzo points out that it is also possible to be both rational and to act immorally! Cupitt's arguments appears to be unable to give any reason why someone should not be logically immoral, for if he did, he might be verging onto the territory of moral absolutes (which he resolutely denies the existence of).