There are two different types of argument that have traditionally been put forward in support of religion or belief in God.
The first type of argument goes to the issue of whether any God, or Gods, really exist.
This first type of arguments does not generally say anything about what the God or Gods that exist are like. Such a God or Gods could be good or bad. Such a God or Gods might care about human beings or be completed uninterested in us and what we do and think. And this type of argument says nothing about whether or not there is life for human beings after death, or whether God is a Christian God, Muslim God, a Hindu God or none of these.
This first type of argument includes the arguments that everything must have a first cause and that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by an intelligent being.
The second type of argument looks at the effect on human beings of believing in God and whether or not the lives of human beings are improved through religion and belief in God. This type of argument includes the views that only belief in God gives human life a purpose, that without belief in God there is no reason for people to treat each other well, that religion teaches good qualities such as faith and loyalty and that religion leads people to living happier lives. This type of argument may be more relevant to whether any God that exists is a “personal God”.
A personal God is a God who is deeply interested in the affairs of human beings. This God is often viewed as having created the Earth or the entire universe just out of interest in human beings- his or her “special creation”. The “personal God” is by far the most popular type of God in human history. Unsurprisingly most people are not very interested in the idea of a God or Gods who have no interest in us.
Arguments for and against God’s existence
Argument 1- Everything must have a first cause and the first cause of everything is God
Everything that exists must have a cause that created it. The first cause of everything that exists is God. Aristotle and Tomas Aquinas put forward this argument. It is perhaps the most common argument in favour of the existence of God.
It is not clear that everything that exists must have a first cause. We can never know for sure whether this is true. But even if it is true , then calling the first cause “God” does not solve the “first cause” problem. It only raises yet another issue- who or what caused God to exist. If the answer to this question is that God did not need to have a first cause then the assumption that everything must have a first cause must be wrong.
Argument 2- Intelligent Design
The universe and the things living in it are so complex in their design that they must have been designed by a supremely intelligent designer- This designer is God. (Paley).
Living things adapt to their environment and evolve through natural selection. No intelligent designer is required (Darwin). Lots of defects exist within the natural world. If a supremely intelligent designer had created everything these defects would not exist.
Argument 3- Our idea of a perfect God is itself proof of God’s existence.
Because we have an idea of God as a perfect or supreme being this means he must exist. This is because if we had an idea of anything greater than God that thing would be God, therefore God must exist. (St. Anselm)
Just because we can imagine something that is perfect, or supreme, does not prove that it must exist. For example, we can imagine a perfect island. But this does not mean such an island must exist.
Argument 4- Things only exist because God perceives them
Nothing can exist unless the thing is perceived by a being. It is only because God perceives things in the universe that they exist (Berkeley).
Things can exist without them having to be perceived by a being. For example, the bed n your bedroom does not cease to exist when you leave the room and there is nobody there to observe it. The “personal God” is by far the most popular type of God in human history.
Arguments about whether belief in God improves human lives
The main arguments in favour and against the view that the lives of human beings are improved through religion and belief in God are set out below.
Argument 1- Purpose
Everything in the universe works to a purpose and that purpose is God (Aquinas). This is a variation on the argument of intelligent design. It follows for Aquinas that only religion or God can give purpose to the lives of human beings.
The universe exists without a purpose. But people can still create their own purposes. In fact they may have no choice other than to create their own purposes. One way in which human beings create a purpose for themselves is creating belief in God. But this not the only way. Plenty of people who do not believe in God find purpose in their lives.
Argument 2- Belief in God is the only sound basis for morality or good behaviour
Belief in God is the root of morality (good behaviour towards others or altruism). Without a belief in God there is no obvious reason for people to behave well towards each other.
There are evolutionary (survival) advantages in good behaviour towards others. Animals also care for other animals in their group, defend, warn of danger, share resources or otherwise behave co-operatively, even though they have no belief in God.
Tests on ethical dilemmas do not show any statistical difference between moral choices made by atheists and religious people.
There are many stories in the holy texts that do not provide a sound basis for good behaviour to others. These include immoral acts supposedly carried out by God.
Argument 3- Faith and loyalty are virtues
Belief in God teaches people faith and loyalty. These are virtues and a basis for good behaviour.
It is true that religion often presents faith or loyalty as virtues. But if faith and loyalty are unquestioning then they are dangerous rather than virtuous qualities. Unquestioning faith and loyalty can for example lead to extreme ways of thinking or behaving.
Argument 4- Happiness
Belief in God makes people happier. It provides comfort to people in the face of death, illness and other hardships. Without belief in God it is too hard for people to come to terms with suffering and death.
Making people feel comforted or happy is perhaps religion’s greatest strength. Nevertheless it also seems that there are plenty of cases where religious beliefs make people’s lives unhappier than they might otherwise have been due to creation of feelings of guilt, or other negative feelings. And people who do not believe in God can be happy.
More on the Personal God
The arguments listed above for or against the existence of God could be either true or false whether or not any God that exists is a personal God. For example, if there had to be a first cause of everything, and this first cause is God, this could be true whether or not that God cares about human beings.
In fact the first cause argument is not obviously consistent with the idea of a personal God. If we accept that the universe began with the big bang 14 billion years ago, and that our earth is more than 4 billion years old, the obvious question to ask why a God who is especially interested in human beings would have waited so long before making human beings as his “special creation? only some 200,000 thousand years ago”. Non-believers ask this question. But so do some religious fundamentalists. They claim, against the weight of all scientific evidence, that the world is only about 10,000 years old.
Another question is: what is the point of believing in a God who does not have a special interest in human beings or who has not given human beings the potential for an afterlife?
It is hard to see how belief in a God of this type would be very different to not believing in God at all. It is hard to understand how believing in a God who has no interest in human beings should lead people to feel happier.
So it is not surprising that human beings ideas about God have nearly always involved a God, or Gods, who are deeply interested in us. The most popular God or Gods have always been those who are interested in human affairs, or who provide people with clear rules to guide their behaviour, or who judge our actions and issue rewards or punishments for them.
Some likely reasons for religious belief
This gives us a clue as to the real reasons why many people believe in God. It leads us to suspect that religious beliefs actually have very little to do with whether or not God actually exists and are much more about the way people prefer to live their lives. Here are some of the likely reasons why people are religious or believe in God:
- To explain the unknown, including the existence of the universe;
- To provide a reason for living;
- Due to fear of death or hope for an afterlife including being reunited with loved ones;
- To provide God as an authority for grown ups in the place of parents who are authorities for children;
- To provide a moral code to live by;
- To feel united within a community of other believers;
- To provide hope or feelings of relief from poverty, misery or illness;
- To avoid taking responsibility for their own choices;
- Because of a feeling that they have communicated with God or because of feelings of spirituality.
Of the reasons outlined above Karl Marx thought that the most important reason for belief in God was to provide hope or feelings of relief from poverty, misery or illness. He described religion as an “opiate”. By this he meant that it acted like a medicine, reliving pain or misery caused by how hard life was for most people.
But even if religion operates to relive pain, this does not explain why some religions have been more successful than others- why some have flourished with lots of believers and why others have died out. For possible answers to this question, we must turn to history. History demonstrates that many religions have spread through the help of strong and powerful helpers and violent military conquest. This is the topic of the final article in this series.