The Problem With a Terrifying and Loving God

One of the first things that caused my religious faith to waver was the paradoxical way in which the Christian God was conveyed (at least by my particular Catholic church): infinitely loving yet presiding over a cosmic system whereby sinners and nonbelievers suffer for eternity without pardon (a punishment that is literally unsurpassable in its harshness).

Now of course, there were always caveats, namely that God does not want anyone to end up in hell (despite first creating and still maintaining such a system), hence Jesus, the work of the church and its missionaries, etc.

Setting aside the ethical and theological scruples, I also took issue (and still do) with the way that Christians themselves use this contradictory nature as some sort of stick and carrot to cajole their opponents (be they nonbelievers, adherents of other religions, or even more liberal Christians).

Captain Cassidy over a Patheos captures this approach perfectly:

When a Christian says something like “You should convert because Jesus loved you so much he died for you, but if you don’t then you’ll suffer unspeakable torment forever and ever and ever”, I’m left wondering just what is being said here. Am I supposed to convert out of awe for this supposed act of love? Or am I supposed to convert out of sheer terror and a desire to avoid torment? Because I honestly can’t tell which tactic the Christian is going for. It doesn’t seem loving to torment people.

And the really bad news for Christian zealots is, you can’t really mix and match when it comes to love and terror. I’m not sure it’s even possible to love that which terrorizes us, or (to be more accurate) that which is used to terrorize us. If you want to go with the lovey-dovey stuff, then terror destroys it; if you go with terror, then it’s hard to squeak about lovey-dovey stuff after threatening someone with lurid torture and pain. That so many Christians seem perfectly content to do exactly this mincing dance seems downright grotesque to me. If they described a real person that way, as a man who would physically hurt me if I refused to do what he wanted but who loved me and wanted my love in return, then I’d tell them to stuff it and keep their abusive asshole of a buddy far away from me. The split-second that violence enters the equation, love leaves it–unless of course someone has internalized violence so effectively that it no longer disqualifies a being from slavish devotion.

When Ken Ham ominously threatens people with “God’s judgment” and says, regarding the possible destruction of Earth by a meteor strike, that “unbelievers should be afraid of Jesus Christ’s judgment instead”, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s saying that people should convert because of their terror of this “judgment”–in other words, out of fear of going to Hell. But which is it? Is his god loving, or is he a sociopathic monster? Which gear is he picking here?

Now obviously, many Christians reject both this tactic and its theological underpinnings. Many religious people are genuinely loving and either downplay or outright repudiate the terrifying nature of God.

But in the United States especially, many people prescribe to this notion and utilize it in their preaching, proselytizing, or apologetics. It represents a cynical and totalitarian mentality that seems less concerned about others’ salvation and more focused on manipulating people: to use my earlier analogy, if the carrot of God’s love does not work, than the stick of His fear just might.

Now that I’m out of Christianity and have been for a while, I can see these fearmongering, terroristic tactics for what they are: attempts to strong-arm compliance and force obedience. If you want to see what a Christian really thinks is persuasive, wait to see what that person’s big guns look like. Look for what follows the “but” in their proselytizing. If you let people do it, they’ll tell you exactly what’s really important to them. “He loves you, but if you don’t obey him then you’ll suffer mightily” is the message of way too many Christians.

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, as Isaac Asimov put it long ago. Threats are what bullies use when they can’t get their way any other way. When someone can’t win by reason or logic or facts, and that person lacks a moral compass and has no empathy or compassion for others, then such a person will use force to try to win by any means possible. If Christians actually had a good reason to fear the threats they make, they’d already have given us the goods.

Once you’ve identified the threat being made, then you can ask for evidence that it’s a threat you really need to fear. If Ken Ham really thinks that his god’s judgment would be scarier and worse for humanity than a meteor hitting the Earth, but can’t come up with anything solid and credible to explain why his threat is something anybody needs to fear, then I’m safe in dismissing what he blusters as the bombast of a bully angry that he can’t get his way any other way. And I call shenanigans on him claiming that Christians aren’t scared at all of catastrophes; I was a Christian myself for many years and can absolutely tell him that why yes, a great many Christians are downright terrified of the end of the world. He’s talking out of his ass, but what else is new? His followers will eat it up with a spoon and parrot it, many hoping that their own fears will be allayed if they do.

For me, this strain of Christianity says more about the psychology and personality of its adherents than about the religion as a whole (though insofar as Christian doctrine gives fuel to such a common approach, it definitely has its problems).

Just as I have met many friendly and compassionate people who prescribe to a more friendly and compassionate form of Christianity (which in some forms seems more Deistic or New Agey than anything), so too do less than kind people, often with an aggressive and domineering streak, just happen to apply their Christian faith in that way.

Quite a few non-believers and even many Christians have already abandoned threats and the very idea of Hell as incompatible with the idea of a loving god. But to those Christians who use their religion as a way of expressing aggression and dominance, those threats are their primary tools, and they’ve got all kinds of rationalizations already made up in their minds about why they can’t possibly stop threatening people. Phrases like “for their own good” figure prominently here.

The funny thing is that all we’d need is one single credible piece of evidence supporting their threats. Just one. That’s all. But they can’t do that. Instead, they are content to keep issuing threats. And if someone vulnerable happens to fall for the threats and converts on the basis of them, then these Christian bullies will feel 100% justified in continuing to use threats and bullying to get their way. But even if the threats don’t work, they’ll keep using them because threats are what they, personally, think are compelling–as I’ve mentioned before, these threats overshadow even the very best intentions for many Christians.

If the fear of God’s wrath and punishment is the strongest incentive you have, or think others should have, for believing in your religion, you need to reevaluate the basis and sincerity of your faith. Most of these individuals would never accept fear as a legitimate reason to trust or follow political leaders, or any human being. Does God’s divine nature and / or status as our alleged Creator make him immune to such reasonable considerations? Are we supposed to cower in fear of a loving, fatherly creator and use that terror — in some bizarre combination with love and awe — as a basis to believe in Him? It sounds like an abusive relationship more than anything. How can genuine love be compelled by threat of violence of the worst kind imaginable?

What are your thoughts?

Growth of the Nonreligious: Many Say Trend is Bad for American Society

That’s the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and it’s not terribly surprising given the widespread antipathy towards non believers (especially self-declared atheists). Also unsurprising is the fact that White Evangelical Protestants had the least favorable views (78%), followed by Black Protestants (64%). Continue reading

America’s Most Secular and Religious Cities

The Barna Group is an Evangelical Christian polling organization that focuses on the state of Christianity in the United States. Most of its research consists of determining the demographic and ideological makeup of American Christians. According to its official mission statement:

The ultimate aim of the firm is to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States. It accomplishes these outcomes by providing vision, information, evaluation and resources through a network of intimate partnerships.

Given this goal, the Barna Group is considered a reliable and trustworthy source regarding Christianity — after all, since it wants assist fellow Christians in engaging with one another or reaching out to secularists, its imperative to provide only the most accurate information available.

So, I thus far trust its conclusions, including the following study concerning America’s most secular cities. See where yours ranks (my hometown and current residence, Miami, Florida, is pretty high at 20th place).

The group’s criteria for determining irreligion were as follows:

Barna Group tracks the following 15 metrics related to faith, which speak to the lack of Christian identity, belief and practice. Read more of Barna Group’s research on the “Nones,” secularization and post-Christian America.

Post-Christian = meet at least 60% of the following 15 factors (9 or more factors)
Highly Post-Christian = meet at least 80% of the following 15 factors (12 or more factors)

1. do not believe in God
2. identify as atheist or agnostic
3. disagree that faith is important in their lives
4. have not prayed to God (in the last year)
5. have never made a commitment to Jesus
6. disagree the Bible is accurate
7. have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
8. have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
9. agree that Jesus committed sins
10. do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
11. have not read the Bible (in the last week)
12. have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
13. have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
14. have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
15. do not participate in a house church (in the last year)

Interesting stuff, although perhaps not terribly surprising, as most of the cities are in regions well-known for their secularism (the Northeast and the West Coast). A number of large Southern and Midwestern cities weren’t far behind though.

Meanwhile, the organization provides a list of the country’s most “Bible-minded” cities, based on an interesting metric: not only individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches. After all, many avowed atheists have read the Bible, while many pious Christians haven’t. By measuring both the knowledge and attitude toward the Bible, one can get a rough approximation of religiosity.

Unlike the previous study, this one offers a pretty detailed breakdown:

On trend with much of the New England area, cities within the state of New York were on the lower end of the Bible-minded rankings. As for patterns in the three other most populous states, the research reveals the following.

  • Florida: Though in the South, most of the major cities on the peninsula rank near the bottom middle of Bible-minded cities, including West Palm Beach (28%, ranked 53rd out of 96 markets), Tampa-St. Petersburg (27%, rank: 57), Orlando (25%, rank: 64), and Miami (24%, rank: 70). The exceptions to these patterns are in the northern part of the state, including Pensacola / Mobile (45%, rank: 13) and Jacksonville (41%, rank: 20). These two cities are more on trend with other Southern states and likely reflect more of a native Floridian or Southern population and fewer transplants than the Southern Florida cities.
  • California: In addition to San Francisco being among the lowest rated, most of the major California cities are in the bottom third of the rankings. The Los Angeles media market represents a pretty normal range for California cities with 24% of the residents being Bible-minded (ranking 68th out of 96 cities,). San Diego (24%, rank: 74), Sacramento (24%, rank: 72), and Fresno / Visalia (25%, rank: 66) were also bunched in the same range. Bakersfield, CA stood out as being among the most Bible-minded cities in the Pacific states (39%, rank: 26).
  • Texas: As part of the traditional “Bible belt,” Texas stayed fairly true to trend, with most of it’s major cities ranking in the top half of Bible-minded cities. Dallas / Fort Worth ranked as the top Bible-minded city in Texas (38% Bible-minded, ranking at 27th) over San Antonio (36%, rank: 33), Houston (32%, rank: 39) and Austin (29%, rank: 48). Notable exceptions to the Bible-mindedness of Texas cities were Harlingen / Weslaco / McAllen / Brownsville (28%, rank: 56), Waco (27%, 59), and most significantly El Paso (23%, rank: 80). These exceptions are likely a result of these markets having a higher percentage of Hispanic Catholics, who are less likely to engage the Bible.

This didn’t surprise me. California is a large and diverse state with around 35 million people, and it’s long been split between it’s secular and liberal coastal and southern regions, and its more religious and conservative north and central ones. The influence of its large and typically pious Hispanic community can certainly be felt.

Meanwhile, Florida and Texas are fast-growing traditionally conservative states that are receiving an influx of immigrants and northerners, many of whom are irreligious or non-Christian. Demographically, they’re also fairly young and urban, two features that characterize secularism in the United States. Even among the fast-growing Hispanic communities in these states, there’s been a growth in both irreligion and Evangelical Christianity. This state of transition is reflected in the fact that both of these traditionally conservative states have become “purple” politically, although established Republicans continue to maintain most of the political power.

Here’s more analysis:

Among the nation’s largest 30 cities, 10 of them are in the top half of the Bible-minded market rankings, while 20 of them are in the bottom half. Generally speaking, the more densely populated areas tend to be less Bible oriented. Only three of the most Bible-minded cities are among the largest 30 cities—Charlotte (7th), Nashville, TN (14th) and Raleigh / Durham, NC (22nd). The other 22 top Bible-minded markets have fewer than 1 million households.

Still, among the largest markets there are many more relatively Bible-minded cities, including Dallas / Fort Worth (27th), Atlanta (28th), Indianapolis (32nd), Houston (39th), St. Louis (41st), Cleveland (43rd) and Detroit (46th).

Philadelphia (28%, rank: 52) is among the most Bible-minded cities along the eastern seaboard, ranking slightly higher than the aforementioned Northeastern cities as well as Washington, DC (25%, rank: 63) and Baltimore (26%, rank: 60).

Chicago is the nation’s third largest city, and while it tends to be a bastion of many evangelical organizations, ranks between New York and Los Angeles in terms of Bible-mindedness (23%, rank: 76th). Colorado Springs, CO, which is also home to many Christian organizations, is right in the middle of the pack (29%, rank: 51st). By comparison, Denver is ranked lower (71st) with about one in four individual’s qualifying as Bible-minded (24%).

In the Northwest portion of the country, the cities are all fairly similar, with about a quarter of the population being Bible-minded, including most notably Portland OR (25%, rank: 65th and Seattle, WA (24%, rank: 69th).

I also find the commentary at the very end interesting, as it sounds like something out of a marketing agency (indeed, George Barna, the group’s founder, expressly stated that his aim was to provide “research and marketing expertise as a service to Christian ministry”).

First, the large range of Bible-minded scores—from 52% in the highest markets to 9% in the lowest—shows just how diverse the nation’s population can be, from city to city. The rankings reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible, and in some markets half or more of the population claim to be open, while in other areas the proportion that is open to the Bible is more like one in ten adults. These gaps make a significant difference in the tone and tenor of conversations about Christianity, morals, public education, and spirituality, among many other topics.

Second, although there are outliers—cities in which the Bible-minded rankings are significantly above- or below-average—the overall picture that is painted depends on one’s vantage point. The least sanguine way to analyze the results would be to emphasize the lack of Bible-mindedness in America; in 91 out of 96 markets a majority of the residents are not Bible minded.

However, a more optimistic way to view those markets would be to look at those cities with at least one-fifth Bible-mindedness—meaning those areas where at least one out of five adults are open to engaging and esteeming the Bible. Among some researchers, this proportion—20%—is often thought to be something of a social or technological “tipping point” (for example, once one in five people had mobile phones, the momentum toward more people owning mobile phones began to grow exponentially). In this analysis, 83 out of 96 cities in the U.S. have at least 20% of their residents qualifying as Bible-minded. Christian leaders should recognize that most of the major cities in the nation continue to have basis for biblical engagement among a significant share of the population.

As ministry leaders in particular, it’s important to keep both vantage points in tension. Whether you live in a city ranked in the top half of Bible-minded cities or in the bottom half of Bible-minded cities, there are still tens of thousands of people to reach regarding both the message of the Scriptures and their importance. However, no matter what type of city you live in, there is also a significant remnant of Bible-minded individuals. The key is to not merely “preach to those insiders” but instead to equip and empower those who do believe with a strong and relevant message to take out into their communities, vocations and spheres of influence. They are the tipping point and can have great influence on the greater city.

Take all that as you will. Personally, I find it disquieting to speak of Christianity as if it were some product to sell, but of course, that’s not surprising given my own secularism.

How We Discuss Religion

Dawkins is perhaps the most recognizable face of atheism, and one of the most vocal critics of religion. I’m sure most readers are familiar enough with him to know that he’s a controversial figure that’s derided even by many secularists for his harsh and uncompromising approach towards religious belief (which he explicitly considers to be a form of delusion).

Some time ago, he got in a spat with Will Hutton of the Observer, who, among other criticisms, takes issues with Dawkins’ style. The pugnacious nonbeliever responds to these arguments in a piece in the Guardian, “What is the proper place for religion in Britain’s public life?Continue reading

Reflection on Atheist Identity

The label “atheist” is so odious and stigmatized that even many atheists themselves shun it (admittedly, myself included sometimes). Interestingly, most national polls report a higher number of people who “don’t believe in God” than people who explicitly identify as “atheists” (usually by a margin of 2 to 1). The position of non-belief is less disquieting to the irreligious than the term used to describe it – the quaint result of generations of demonization, condemnation, and prejudice. The negative connotation of atheism is so pervasive across the public consciousness that not even the godless themselves can shake it off and be at ease with it. Continue reading

New NPR Special: Losing Our Religion

I’m a big fan of NPR, as it has helped me through many a long and stressful commute with its solid reporting and interesting talk shows. The public broadcaster (which, contrary to popular belief, is overwhelmingly self-sufficient),  never seems to run out of quality programming. Just this past Sunday, it began a new daily special Losing Our Religion, which explores the various issues concerning the secular community here in the United States. Continue reading

Organized religions seem to be giving way to more personalized, individualistic, and informal belief systems. Very interesting development.

Why Evolution Is True

The results of a new study on the prevalence of world religion were summarized in the New York Times last week, and I’ve now read the full report. The survey, “The global religious landscape” (download full report here) was conducted by the Pew Research Center (now in collaboration with the Templeton Foundation!).   It’s a long report (80) pages, but unless you’re interested in the variation among nations, there are only a few salient results for us.

  • The first is that although 84% of the world’s population (5.8 billion people0 identifies with a religious group, 16%—one in six—is “religiously” unaffiliated. This figure from the survey tells the tale:

Picture 1

These data are for 2010.  (Oy vey: only 0.2% Jews!)

The 1.1 billion people who aren’t affiliated with a religion aren’t, of course, all atheists.  As the report notes,

Surveys indicate that many of the unaffiliated hold some religious beliefs (such…

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The Problem of Hell

One of the most disturbing aspects of Christianity (as well as Islam) is the existence of Hell. The idea that God would send – or otherwise allow – people to suffer eternal torture for things like masturbation, adultery, or not knowing he exists is both absurd and despicable.

Think of what it’s like to burn your hand on a stove, and imagine that pain consuming your entire body forever without any chance to appeal or escape. How could any omni-benevolent, unimaginably intelligent being abide by such a system, let alone create it in the first place? Would you let your children or loved ones suffer that sort of fate over ultimately trivial infractions?

Alarmingly, even otherwise intelligent and well-adjusted people buy into this unethical and illogical belief. Prominent theologian and apologist William Lane Craig is perhaps one of the better known examples of someone trying to rationalize the compatibility of a loving God with the ultimate form of suffering imaginable.

In chapter 10 of his 2010 book, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, he shares his frightening view of Hell, in which he defends it as a literal place of torment that is acceptably and logically a part of God’s design. As much as I’d like to take him to task on this nonsense, someone else has already had the pleasure of doing so, and since his arguments are both good and reflective of my own, I’ll share them.

The nameless writer of the website Evangelical Realism has been countering every part of Craig’s odious book, and the one devoted to chapter 10 is humorously titled “The Hell with Christianity.” Though his style can be abrasive and at times profane, he makes good points once you look past that (I don’t personally don’t mind but I’m giving fair warning to those that do).

He starts by addressing the underlying inconsistency of the existence of hell that I discussed earlier, noting that even Craig himself seems to try to weasel out of it (note that his statements are italicized and quoted).

Craig has a real problem here and that is that he himself cannot stomach what the Bible really says about Hell. Read Matthew 25. Read Jesus’ description of God’s attitude towards the unsaved. It’s not, “Oh dear, you’re going to Hell, if only there were something I could do to save you.” God’s attitude can be summed up by two words: “Fuck you.” You pissed Me off, and I am throwing your ass in Hell, and you can stay there. No apologies, no regrets. The God of the Bible absolutely does throw people in Hell, and doesn’t ask for Craig’s approval or consent. Call that Inconsistency #3: Craig has to reinvent damnation before he can defend it.

“Our eternal destiny thus lies in our own hands. It’s a matter of our free choice where we shall spend eternity. Those who are lost, therefore, are self-condemned; they separate themselves from God despite God’s will and every effort to save them, and God grieves over their loss.”

Let’s count the inconsistencies in these three brief sentences. Inconsistency [#1]: a misinformed choice is not really free. God does not show up in real life, which limits us to the kind of choices where you either gullibly embrace whatever men tell you about God (and let’s face it, that could be almost anything) or else you stick to the facts, which ends up making you an atheist. If God is real and is hiding from us, His absence is denying us the opportunity to know what our real choices are, and thereby denying us the opportunity to make a truly free choice.

Exactly, how do we know what the real God is like? Jews, Muslims, and many others are just as convinced that they know the true God as any Christian. How are we to know who’s right, given that none of them can offer any more evidence than the other?

Furthermore, many Christians themselves can’t even agree on what God is like or what he wants from us: the religion is split into hundreds, even thousands, of different sects depending on how you count. There are wildly different interpretations of the Bible, the nature of Christ, the nature of God, and so on. Should I follow the Catholics? The Lutherans? The growing number of unaffiliated people who reject organized Christianity completely?

Inconsistency [#2]: separation. We have not separated ourselves from God. We’re here; God isn’t. It wasn’t skeptics who ascended into Heaven and left Jesus all alone here on the earth. We have no control over God’s willingness and ability to show up in real life. The gap created by His absence is not one we can bridge (not even by credulity and superstition). If God wants to eliminate the separation, it’s up to Him to show up.

Same problem as before: people will claim to have seen God or felt his presence, and they’ll cite that as proof. But again, every religion has people who’ve claimed to seen or experience their version of the divine. Which do we believe? Plus, there are plenty of people who hear voices or think they’re prophets, and they’re usually written off as crazy (including by religious people): how do we separate mental illness from the real deal? We can’t just take anyone’s word on it.

Inconsistency [#3]: every effort to save us? Get real. The most fundamental, trivial, and obvious “effort” would be to show up in real life, tell us that He loves us, and offer us a relationship with Himself. Notice I say “in real life” and “tell us,” not “show up in an ancient legend” and “tell a few guys who died 2,000 years ago.” Does He want to save us, or did He stop caring once the apostles were gone? Show me a tangible effort happening in the real world (as opposed to happening in the superstitious worldview of a self-convincing Christian), and then we’ll talk.

I always think of the story of the Apostle Thomas, who was the only one to doubt that Christ had resurrected. God subsequently showed him proof, and Jesus appeared before him in the flesh, bearing the wounds of his crucifixion. He convinced and (subsequently saved) Thomas yet hasn’t done so for the billions of nonbelievers that have come and gone since. I’d be more than happy to believe in God if I had proof, as would most people. So why did Thomas alone get that benefit?

Inconsistency [#4] God grieves? Not in the Bible. It makes believers sad because it’s so obviously inconsistent with the idea of God as a genuinely loving Father who really cares whether or not the vast majority of His children suffer for all eternity. But time and again, in the parables of Jesus, the “guilty” are dispatched to their eternal judgment with nary a particle of remorse or regret on the Lord’s part.

Indeed, as soft and moralistic an image as Jesus has, we should remember that it is with his arrival that the concept of Hell is introduced (the proceeding Jewish part of the Bible barely touches on the afterlife, let alone hell). He may have preached many nice things, but he also made it a point that transgression would be punished swiftly.

Sure, some lines in the Bible suggest that this saddens both the son and the father. But many others don’t hint at any pity. If you’re a loving parent, would you not feel some remorse at seeing your child get burned alive for eternity because they didn’t follow some doctrine or another?

The writer in Evangelical Realism also addresses another major problem with hell: the obvious unfairness and cruelty of making people suffer infinite punishment for passing transgressions. No legitimate justice system on this Earth will lock you up for the rest of your life (much less torture you) if you break minor laws without remorse. The only regimes that do that are totalitarian ones (think of how Stalin or Hitler executed people for not adhering to their respective state ideologies – even that was more merciful than what God would have in mind if you don’t believe in him).

“We could agree that every individual sin that a person commits deserves only a finite punishment. But it doesn’t follow from this that all of a person’s sins taken together as a whole deserve only a finite punishment. If a person commits an infinite number of sins, then the sum total of all such sins deserves infinite punishment.

Now, of course, nobody commits an infinite number of sins in the earthly life. But what about in the afterlife? Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.”

Assuming God is merciless, of course. Otherwise, since He’s the ultimate arbiter of how much punishment each sin deserves, He could, for example, arrange for the punishment earned to be slightly less than the punishment received, and thus allow His beloved children to eventually escape from the torments of Hell. Or He could simply pardon them—it’s not like He’s going to be impeached for showing too much mercy as Judge. Or, to take it in a different direction, He could simply make them unconscious, or even non-existent. They might not be saved, but at least they’re not being tortured for all eternity, or racking up more punishment. Or again, He could not send them to Hell in the first place. The Bible does say that the wages of sin is death, and the people at the Last Judgment are pretty much all dead, so they’ve paid the penalty already.

Indeed, hell is not only unethical but illogical. God could have made the world however he wanted. Why, despite all his boundless love, would he create something like Hell? Of all the different and proportionate forms of justice out there, which even we petty and imperfect beings could devise, why did God go for something so horrific and unjust? What “mysterious plan” could justify something like this?

The Ontological Argument

The following was a homework assignment for my Intro to Philosophy class. I was to explain the Ontological Argument, a classic argument for the existence of God. Hope you find it informative. 

The concept of a theistic God has been around for centuries, as have efforts to rationally justify the belief in his (or its) existence. The ontological argument (literally, “concerned with being”) is one of the oldest such arguments for the existence of God, having first been devised nearly a millennium ago within medieval Christian theology, and expanded upon during subsequent centuries.

Before explaining the origin and content of the Ontological Argument (and all its variations) it is important to know that its conclusion is based a priori reasoning, in contrast to other some other arguments for God’s existence that my have a posteriori premises. Understanding this distinction is vital to grasping the nature – and weaknesses – of the Ontological Argument.

An a priori proposition is one that can be arrived at on the basis of reason alone, whereas an a posteriori premise is one that requires some level of experience or empirical evidence. To know that dragons are mythical creatures is a priori because such a conclusion can be derived from the definition the concept; to determine whether or not dragons exists would require a posteriori knowledge – simply knowing the concept would normally say nothing about whether or not the said concept is true.

Thus, the Ontological Argument is interesting because it seeks to establish the existence of God by merely examining the characterization of God, rather than by offering any sort of proof. Proponents of this argument would have us believe that just through an understanding of the concept of God, we could arrive at the conclusion that he exists. With that said, let us examine this claim.

The Ontological Argument first appeared in Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s seminal work, the Proslogion, or “Discourses on the Existence of God,” written in the 11th century. Interestingly, Anselm presented the argument not so much to prove God’s existence (which was essentially a given at the time) but to explain how he came to accept the truth of the matter, which he holds to be self-evident. It goes as follows:

  • P1. God is, by definition, the greatest being that can be conceptualized.
  • P2. If God does not exist, then that means an even greater being can be conceived, namely one that is greater in every way and actually exists.
  • P3. But this greater being would just be God
  • C. Therefore, God necessarily exists.

Recall the a priori basis for this argument that was discussed earlier. Anselm has offered no real-world observations to prove that God exists. Rather, he holds that God’s existence is obvious and necessary given the very nature of God: a being that is the greatest and most powerful imaginable would have to exist given such qualities. This conclusion is arrived at simply by reflecting on what God is and would have to be, and the implications those characteristics would have on His existence.

French thinker Rene Descartes presented his own slightly tweaked version of Anselm’s argument in the 17th century. Like all variations of the Ontological Argument, it’s based on the idea that God’s existence is necessary given His nature. Indeed, Descartes believed God’s existence can be deduced from his nature the same way that, say, geometric ideas can be derived from studying the nature of shapes and angles. Descartes’s Ontological Argument was the following:

  • P1. God is the perfect being – that is, he has all the perfections imaginable.
  • P2. Necessary existence is a quality of perfection
  • P3. Thus God necessarily exists
  • P4. If God necessarily exists, then He exists.
  • C: Therefore, God exists

As Descartes wrote in his Fifth Meditations, “…if the mere fact that I can produce from my thought the idea of something that entails everything that I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God?” In other words, like Anselm, Descartes believes that the notion of a perfect God is in itself proof such a God exists: a perfect God necessarily requires existence.

Criticisms of the Ontological Argument
The Ontological Argument faced criticism from its very inception. Indeed, it was a contemporary of Anselm, Guanilo of Marmoutiers, that first demonstrated its flaws (albeit incompletely) by presenting what’s known as the “Perfect Island Objection,” which took the argument to its logical conclusion. Guanilo simply replaced the most perfect being imaginable with the most perfect island conceivable, and suggested that, according to Anselm’s logic, such an island must necessarily exist.

While this didn’t exactly refute Ontological Argument, it demonstrated its potential absurdity – through reductio ad absurdum – by showing that plenty of other supremely perfect things could be argued to exist by the same logical form, even though they’d be questionable (try also replacing “God” with car, house, romantic partner, etc). Additionally, Guanilo argued that many theists conceived of God as being incomprehensible by His very nature, which undermines the premise of the Ontological Argument (and raises issues about its a priori basis of reasoning – more on that later).

However, it wasn’t until the 18th century the Ontological Argument’s flaws would be clearly exposed by Immanuel Kant. His main objection, encapsulated in the statement “existence is not a predicate,” was that the argument wrongly assumes that existence is a property. But whenever one describes or defines something, there is always the separate question as to whether there is anything in the actual world that fits that description of that definition. The concept of God as the greatest or most perfect being is a separate matter from whether such a concept exists. This goes back to the a priori nature of the Ontological claim: defining a concept is one thing, but establishing the existence of said concept is another. The notion of God in and of itself, even if described as necessarily existent, offers as much proof as the notion of a unicorn being similarly defined.