MandM header image 2

Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith

October 1st, 2009 by Matt

Since the 17th century one of the most common sceptical objections to the Christian faith is the claim that belief in God is irrational because his existence has never been successfully proven. For centuries theologians and philosophers have proposed a range of arguments for the existence of God; sceptics not only contend every one of these arguments fail but also that in the absence of such proof it is irrational to believe in God. The sceptic places the burden of proof squarely on the Christian; Anthony Flew’s famous presumption of atheism is a paradigmatic example of this,

[T]he debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, … the onus of proof must lie upon the theist…What the protagonist of my presumption of atheism wants to show is that the debate about the existence of God ought to be conducted in a particular way, and that the issue should be seen in a certain perspective. His thesis about the onus of proof involves that it is up to the theist: first to introduce and to defend his proposed concept of God; and second, to provide sufficient reason for believing that this concept of his does in fact have an application.[1]

John Mackie makes the same point,

If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted that they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve arguments . . . it [whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or, if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue.[2]

Both writers contend that belief in God is rationally acceptable only if there is good evidence for it. In this context it is clear that the word evidence is being used synonymously with the idea of an argument or a proof. Flew talks of a “burden of proof;” if theism cannot be proven in the manner laid down he contends it is irrational. Mackie contends that the “rational consideration” of theism, which means belief in God, depends on the arguments that can be mustered in support of theism, if belief in God cannot be proven by the kind of arguments he suggests then it is irrational.

One way of responding to this charge is to try and meet Flew’s burden and provide cogent arguments for God’s existence. In this article I will not take that tack, instead I will call into question the assumption that underlies this objection; the objection assumes that it can only be rational to believe in God if there is a good argument for God’s existence. I am not convinced that we should assume this.

It is important to note that not everything one believes needs to be proven in order for it to be rational for us to reasonably rely on it. I have two reasons in mind; first the claim that everything must be proven in order to be rationally believed leads to a regress problem. Roy Clouser notes,

If everything needs to be proven then the premises of every proof would need to be proven. But if you need a proof for every proof, you need a proof for your proof, and a proof for your proof of a proof and so on-forever. Thus it makes no sense to demand that everything be proven because an infinite regress of proofs is impossible.[3]

A second problem is that there are many things that we believe quite rationally which cannot be proved such as memory. Consider my belief that I was in Newmarket yesterday. I reflect on what I did yesterday and automatically find myself strongly inclined to accept the belief ‘I was in Newmarket.’ I believe that ‘I was in New Market’ because I remember being there yet I am unable to provide any argument or proof for this claim but for my memory. To prove my memory is reliable is difficult as any argument I might try to use is circular; to prove memory is reliable one has to rely on one’s memory to remember if one’s memory is usually accurate.

Nevertheless, my belief that I was in Newmarket yesterday is rational. Similar problems arise with the belief that other people have thoughts and feelings, that objects we see actually exist independently of us, etc. We accept such concepts in spite of proof as we understand that not everything needs to be proven; given this, why then does belief in God need to be proven for it to be rational?

This is not an idle question. The sceptic criticises Christians for believing certain propositions without good arguments for their truth. This criticism rests on certain premises. It is perfectly valid then to ask what arguments the sceptic has for these premises. If the sceptic asserts them without proof then the sceptic’s position is prima facie incoherent. The sceptic claims, without argument, that other people should not believe without argument. If it is acceptable for the sceptic to believe without proof, why then does the Christian need to provide proof in order to be rational?

Kai Neilsen’s answer is typical;

All of us can agree, at least for a large range of cases, whether somebody is in pain, whether he’s thinking, feeling anxious or the like. We do in general agree about these things. Only a madman would claim that no one is ever in pain or that no one ever knows that another person is in pain. The same is true for thinking, feeling anxious or sad and the like… Now the situation is very different in religion.[4]

Neilsen’s point is essentially that religious beliefs are beliefs that not all people believe, whereas belief that other people have thoughts and feelings are beliefs that no sane person would doubt. Behind the seemingly innocuous claim that belief in God is irrational without proof lurks an implicit standard about what counts as a rational belief. A belief is rational only if it is accepted by all sane, intelligent people or it can be proven via some argument from premises that are acknowledged to be true by all sane people. When measured by this standard, all religious beliefs need to be proven by argument if they are to be rationally believed.

I think something like this picture is behind much religious scepticism. I also think the picture is deeply flawed as it is self-contradictory.

Take the standard for rational belief implicit in the above quotes and in much scepticism and turn it back on itself: not every one accepts this standard. Many sane, intelligent people reject it; they do not accept that all beliefs not accepted by everyone must be proven. So, if the standard is correct, no one should believe in it until someone offers a proof for its truth, to the best of my knowledge no one has done this, therefore no one can rationally believe in the standard itself.

If the sceptic tries to escape this quandary he or she can only appeal to premises that are accepted by all sane, intelligent people. If some sane, intelligent people do not accept the premises then we will be required to disbelieve the premises and hence the proof, by the sceptic’s own argument. The sceptic’s position eats its own tail.

There are, I think, two lessons to be learned here. The first is that some sceptics are inconsistent in their scepticism, they reject belief in God on the basis of certain claims or assumptions which, if true, are subject to the very objections and doubts they level against religion yet they do not question or doubt these assumptions. The second is that in any rational discussion one cannot avoid starting from presuppositions which are, in some sense, controversial; one starts with what one knows by faith and reasons from it to gain a comprehensive, coherent and accurate understanding of reality, to find answers to the fundamental and philosophical existential questions that we face. Sometimes our subsequent inquiry leads us to modify, abandon or revise the presuppositions we began with, other times our inquiry confirms it but the idea that every controversial, substantive claim one accepts needs to be proven in order to be rational is incoherent.

[1] Antony Flew The Presumption of Atheism (London: Pemberton Publishing, 1976) 14-15.
John Mackie The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) 4-6.
Roy Clouser  Knowing With the Heart (IVP: Downers Grove, 1999) 69.
Kai Neilsen “The Skeptics Reply” in Faith and the Philosophers Ed. John Hick (London: Macmillan, 1964) 274.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the October 09 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

Contra Mundum: Is God a 21st Century Western Liberal?
Contra Mundum: In Defence of Santa
Contra Mundum: The Number of the Beast
Contra Mundum: Pluralism and Being Right
Contra Mundum: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents
Contra Mundum: Selling Atheism
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?