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.

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