“No I’m not an expert in ‘theology.’ There’s nothing in ‘theology’ to be expert about.
Anyway I’m busy revising for my degree in fairyology.” —Richard Dawkins
Most r ationalists, I am sure, feel just as dismissive of theology as Richard Dawkins. We are told, for example, that whatever created the cosmos did so in order for his chosen species to eventually appear on Earth. But why wait thirteen billion years, the first eight billion of which were waiting for the earth to form? And why create a further ten billion trillion stars as well as our sun, the only star we need for our existence? Yet we are also told that this creator actually cares about what every one of us does in our bedrooms. Isn’t all of that just a tad improbable? Surely, for anyone who has given any serious thought to these mind-boggling propositions, it becomes utterly impossible to take seriously their study, the study we call “theology.”
The problem for rationalists is that millions of believers, not to mention governments and the media, do take theology seriously and are strongly influenced by theologians. Yet because so many rationalists dismiss them out of hand, the musings of these “experts” rarely seem to face a serious challenge.
Many believers see science as overreaching itself, as failing to recognize any source of knowledge other than reductionist reasoning; they see science as being blind to the transcendental. But just suppose for a minute that there were a supernatural world undetectable by science. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to try to discover its nature, how it worked, and how it influences life here on Earth?
Theology is an intellectual process aimed at understanding the mind and nature of God. Unlike other branches of philosophy, however, it starts from the premise it is seeking to prove. We can phrase the key question posed by theology as: “Given that we know that God exists, and given what else we know about the world and ourselves, what can we deduce about the nature of God?”
To the continuing dismay of rationalists, theology is thriving; eminent theologians are able to command a seat at the top table, and there is more than a million dollars sitting there awaiting the winner of the Templeton Prize each year.
Theology, like much of human thought and understanding, has evolved over the centuries. Probably the most influential theologian of all time was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), who attempted to reconcile the worldviews of the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Muslim thinker Averröes with Christian belief. His ideas came to dominate Catholic thinking for over 700 years. But as scientific knowledge has grown since the seventeenth century, so theology has had to draw back from areas where God was once thought to have direct influence in the world.
Modern theologians have therefore had to become far more sophisticated in their arguments in order to accommodate the major discoveries of science, such as the sheer scale of the cosmos and the now-certain knowledge that all life on Earth, including us, evolved from earlier life-forms. And they have done so.
William Lane Craig
One of the most popular current “proofs” of the existence of God is the KaIam Cosmological Argument.1 This is a variant on the “first cause” argument of Saint Augustine and others; its current leading spokesman is William Lane Craig.2 He presents the following syllogism:
- It is self-evident that everything that has a beginning has a cause;
- We know that the Universe had a beginning;
- It therefore follows that the Universe had a creator.
So far so good. But Craig then goes on to argue that:
- An entity capable of creating something as vast as the Universe must be all-powerful;
- That this creator was necessarily outside the Universe before it created it;
- That the Creator is now inside it, everywhere; and that
- The Creator didn’t need to be created; it is sufficient unto itself.
- It is in these final points, of course, that the weakness of his argument lies.
As to Point 1, it is not necessarily so; the creative force merely needs the potential to initiate a process.
Point 2 seems reasonable.
Point 3 is a non sequitur, a mere statement of what the creator would need to be like if it was also the personal god of the believer, but this is in no sense proof of its existence.
And the only reasonable reaction to Point 4 is to feel that we must be missing something. Craig seems to be arguing that in order for the Creator to be uncaused you just have to say it. Bingo! Problem solved.
Craig seems unfazed by the problem of an all-powerful, all-loving god permitting evil. In response to Dawkins’s criticism of God’s nastiness, Craig hopes for Dawkins’s sake that God doesn’t hate Dawkins as much as Dawkins hates God. Craig obviously believes that whatever evil God is responsible for must, by definition, be beyond criticism.
The claim that having created the universe, the creator is now everywhere inside it is worth exploring further, however, since this might indeed be the case. Physicists Lawrence Krauss and Victor Stenger3 have both argued that it might be possible to create a universe from nothing; that it could have arisen spontaneously from the quantum vacuum. The void “before” the universe was created could have been totally empty except for the laws of quantum physics. And yes, having enabled the universe to come into existence, these same laws of physics are present everywhere within it. This suggestion has been met by the objection that the laws of physics would have needed a creator. But if Craig can claim that his God didn’t need a creator, rationalists can claim with somewhat more justification that the laws of quantum physics are a logically necessary property of the void, needing no creator; that like the uncreated creator, they simply exist.
The killer argument, surely, is that whatever power it was that created the universe, there is absolutely no justification for going further along the path of wish-fulfilment to claim that it is also conscious, present everywhere, and watches what every one of us gets up to. Is it not rather the height of hubris and rather self-indulgent to think that the great creator would even know or care that we exist?
Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford University, has been a formidable advocate of the idea of a personal god that revealed himself to us through Jesus Christ. In his many works, Swinburne argues for the existence of the immaterial soul and that personal experience is sufficient evidence for the existence of God. For him, the awe we experience at a sunset, the cry of a newborn baby, or a myriad other “spiritual” experiences may be taken as evidence of the existence of the soul. Swinburne’s influence has contributed significantly to providing believers with arguments for belief. He sees such experiences as proof of the supernatural acting directly within the natural world.
Rationalists have no difficulty rejecting these arguments, since all of the evidence we have from neuroscience suggests that there is a one-to-one correlation between brain activity and conscious experience, including “spiritual” experiences. And the idea that any kind of consciousness can survive the death of the brain is simply irrational, as Epicurus pointed out 2,300 years ago.
The larger proposition of Swinburne and others that God acts directly within the natural world also lacks any credible evidence. The rationalist sees our chaotic world as fully explained by the competing forces—economic, financial, environmental, and personal—which fight it out here on Earth without supernatural intervention. The difficulty for the rationalist is in proving a negat
ive; it is virtually impossible to prove that this or that phenomenon arose without any such divine intervention. But caution is recommended here and a little judicious use of Occam’s Razor. If any natural explanation seems even remotely plausible, it is probably justified before invoking or inventing any supernatural explanation.
Alvin Plantinga, a leading American Protestant theologian, believes that if our belief in the divine is “properly basic”—that is, not dependent on any other belief—then that fact alone is sufficient warrant for the belief to be accepted. This argument—which takes up several volumes of his writings4—fails to demonstrate that such a belief would be true, merely that it is warranted, without any supporting evidence other than subjective feeling. But then, how could it have?
Plantinga’s masterstroke was to suggest that since science is the study of the physical world, it has nothing to say regarding what lies outside it.5 Unsurprisingly, that’s where Plantinga’s god is lurking! If a cow were suddenly to appear in the middle of Times Square, it would be a miracle—but it would not breach the laws of nature, because by definition it would be an unnatural event, a miracle, and not subject to the laws of nature anyway. We have a name for this kind of argument; it’s called “special pleading.” We should perhaps not be too critical of this distinguished philosopher for using this kind of argument; it is after all difficult to find anything better when you are defending the indefensible.
Yet Plantinga was not too shy to attack Richard Dawkins for poor philosophy when he took statements in Dawkins’s The God Delusion out of context to show—falsely—that Dawkins’s logic was flawed. He claimed that Dawkins had argued that since evolution cannot be proven not to have occurred, then, ergo, it must have happened. This completely ignores all of the detailed evidence that Dawkins has presented in his many books, drawn from microbiology, paleontology, and genetics—the list is nearly endless—of which Plantinga cannot possibly be unaware. The evidence shows quite clearly how evolution has happened through purely natural processes, without any need for divine intervention. What Plantinga did was drive a bus through Popper’s principle of falsifiability,6 which Dawkins was invoking in The God Delusion. This is not merely special pleading on Plantinga’s part, but smacks of intellectual dishonesty. Pandering to the hopes of the ignorant is reprehensible in anyone, but surely doubly so in a leading academic.
Plantinga’s principal argument—which I mentioned above and for which he primarily owes his claim to fame in theological circles—is that if a belief is “properly basic,” then that belief alone is sufficient warrant for it to be believed. This idea was rather more succinctly summarized on a bumper sticker I once saw in Texas: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
Plantinga was awarded the 2017 Templeton prize for this penetrating insight.
Another highly influential advocate of the compatibility of science and religion has been Sir John Polkinghorne. A British physicist with many major publications behind him, he later became a priest and wrote extensively on religion.7 He is the only member of the Royal Society who is also an ordained priest. A recipient of the Templeton Prize, he was knighted in 1997. His primary argument is that God acts in the world through human agency, through his influence on our hearts and minds.
Certainly, the idea of God has had a huge influence on human behavior, probably since Homo sapiens first came down from the trees, but to equate the idea of God with actual influence by a real god is simply unconvincing. There is no feature of the brain that has been identified as a receiver of divine messages, and no such physical transmission has ever been detected.
It is unfortunate, to say the least, that Polkinghorne’s theological musings are given greater credibility because he is also a scientist and a fellow of the Royal Society. Yet his scientific training contributes nothing to his theological arguments; they are not informed or validated by his science. How could they be? And as a fellow of the Royal Society, he can hardly be ignorant of the extent to which science has undermined Christian mythology. It does seem rather odd that a professor of physics should have abandoned science for a world of pure speculation. Perhaps, like many theologians, he was motivated by an overwhelming desire to validate what he desperately wanted to be true. A further clue may lie in his interest in ethical issues. Perhaps, like Jefferson, he was persuaded that the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth was the best guide we have to ethics and was keen to promote his ideas. Certainly his participation on numerous government committees on medical ethics would add weight to this belief.
Despite all of the objections one might make to these modern theological arguments, what William Lane Craig has called “a revolution in Anglo-American Philosophy”8 has indeed taken place. Craig’s revolution was the alleged overthrow of scientific naturalism, which began with the failure of A. J. Ayer’s Verification Principle9 that he first published in 1936 and which was shown to be internally inconsistent.10
Craig seems to take real pleasure in shooting dead horses. Having claimed that the verification principle was central to scientific naturalism, he claims that its failure scuttles all hope for scientific naturalism. The problem was solved in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959) by the philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902–1994) with his falsifiability criterion,11 but modern theology has either not noticed or deliberately chosen to ignore this important principle. No statement can be considered valid unless it can be shown that it would be possible in principle to falsify it by experiment or observation. Theology in general—and certainly the hand-waving form of theology practiced by Craig, Plantinga, and the others—fails that test at every hurdle.
But whatever rationalists might wish, believers believe what they want to believe, and many therefore find modern theological arguments persuasive. Worse, many of these ideas have become influential among the wider public.
The Question of Evidence
All of the arguments in favor of God rely on the idea of a supernatural world, beyond the physical world that we inhabit, indeed outside the known universe—a world that is undetectable by means of our senses or our scientific instruments. Science cannot help us here but neither can theology, since we have no means of knowing what happens outside the universe—or even whether such a place exists. Since such a supernatural world is by definition beyond nature, its existence must always be the object of unprovable conjecture.
Many of us, it seems, interpret our feelings of awe and wonder as other-worldly, as our being in touch with the divine. Wonderful, even life-changing, experiences they may be, but our conscious experiences nevertheless correlate one-to-one with the working of our extraordinary material brains.
For the rationalist there is no difference between the supernatural and the imaginary. If we wish to believe in God or the supernatural, it will always be a matter of faith. Mark Twain was close to the mark when he wrote: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” He would perhaps have been more accurate had he written: “Faith is believing what you wish were true.”
The lack of credible evidence is perhaps the strongest argument for doubt in the existence of the supernatural. The fact that some of us have what we regard as spiritual experiences is absolutely no proof of the existence of a supernatural world.
The four horsemen of apologetics really have been flogging dead horses.
- See: Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012) and Victor Stenger, “A Scenario for a Natural Origin for our Universe Using a Mathematical Model Based on Established Physics and Cosmology.” Philo, Fall–Winter 2006.
- See for example: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/an-interview-with-alvin-plantinga.
- See note 11 below.
- See: http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Polkinghorne.html.
- See: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-revolution-in-anglo-
- As Kurt Gödel had already shown in 1931, even arithmetic can contain statements that are true but unverifiable. Verifiability has since been replaced as the acid test of the validity of any statement by Popper’s falsifiability criterion.