Arguments for God: value for faith & status as proof


You need this section to help you bulk out your answers to questions about the arguments for God (design, cosmological & ontological), especially questions about their status as a proof and their value for religious faith. It is also needed for some philosophy dialogues questions about the relevance of reason and philosophical argument for religious faith.

The status as ‘proofs’ of the arguments for God’s existence

A posteriori. The design argument and cosmological arguments are a posteriori arguments, which means they are based on experience. The design argument is based on the observation of particular aspects of the universe which, it claims, have the appearance of design. The cosmological argument is based on observation of everything in the universe being contingent and therefore requiring a creator which is necessary. These observations form the premises of the design and cosmological arguments. On the basis of those observations, an inference is then made to the nature of the origin of the universe.

Inductive. These arguments are called inductive arguments, which means they have premises which give evidence for, and support to, a conclusion. The truth of the premises does not logically entail the conclusion. So inductive arguments are those for which their premises could be true and yet their conclusion false. They give us reasons for accepting a conclusion, though cannot prove that the conclusion is certain. The best an inductive argument can achieve is to show that a conclusion is what we currently have most reason to believe based on our best attempt to understand the available evidence.

Inductive arguments as proofs. Evidence is not proof. The reason for this is that arguing on the basis of evidence cannot guarantee truth, because for all we can currently know there is additional evidence we could discover that would disprove the conclusion our current evidence suggests. The technical term for this is that knowledge based on experience is ‘defeasible’, meaning it could be wrong because we don’t know everything.

Empiricism. Empiricists are philosophers who think knowledge should be based on experience and so they rely on inductive reasoning. They don’t view the inability of their approach to logically guarantee certainty as a limitation because they think it is the best we can possibly do.

A priori. The ontological argument is an a priori argument which means it is not based on experience but logic or pure reason. It claims that if we simply try to understand what the concept of God means, we will see that it must exist.

Deductive. This argument is called a deductive argument which means that the truth of its premises logically entails the truth of its conclusion. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. It cannot be the case both that the premises are true and yet the conclusion false.

Deductive arguments as proofs. Conclusions reached by deduction are only as certain as the truth of the premises. Deductive arguments show that if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true. However, the question of whether the premises are true is another matter.

Rationalism. Rationalists are philosophers who think knowledge should be based on pure reason and so they rely on deductive reasoning. They typically view experience as unreliable because it can give us false information and they think it is possible to gain knowledge through a priori pure reason.

The value for faith of arguments for God

Most theologians agree that faith should be the foundation of belief in God, but there is debate over the appropriate role and place of reason and philosophical argument when it comes to Christian beliefs. Karl Barth argues that reason is corrupted by original sin such that philosophical argument is irrelevant to Christian beliefs about God which should only be based on faith. Aquinas and Anselm argue that reason can have the role of supporting faith, however.

Natural theology is the theory that knowledge of God can be gained by the power of the human mind, e.g. reasoning about the natural world. Since God created the world, knowledge about God can be gained from studying it. This results in knowledge based on reason. Natural theology therefore requires both that God’s revelation is present in his creation and that human reason has the ability to discover it. This is typically a catholic view.

Revealed theology is the idea that knowledge of God can be gained from God’s revelation to us e.g in Jesus and the Bible. This results in revealed knowledge which is based on faith that what is received is from God. Typically, both catholics and protestants believe in revealed theology.

Aquinas’ Natural Theology

Aquinas believed that human reason could never know or understand God. However, Aquinas is a proponent of natural theology through reason which he claimed could support faith in God. Human reason can gain knowledge of:

  • God’s existence: through the teleological (design) and cosmological arguments.
  • God’s natural moral law through the ability of human reason to know the synderesis rule and primary precepts.
  • God’s nature by analogy, through the analogies of attribution and proportion.

Aquinas thought that reason could not provide an absolute proof that God existed, since that would make faith and revelation useless. This is why he rejected the deductive ontological argument but accepted and formulated teleological and cosmological arguments which are only inductive evidence for the Christian God, not conclusive proofs, which therefore support faith in God.

Karl Barth argued that Aquinas’ natural law theory was a false natural theology which placed a dangerous overreliance on human reason. Barth argued that if humans were able to know God or God’s morality through their own efforts, then revelation would be unnecessary. Yet, God clearly thought revelation necessary as he sent Jesus.

Barth also argued that “the finite has no capacity for the infinite”; our finite minds cannot grasp God’s infinite being. Whatever humans discover through reason is therefore not divine so to think it is must then amount to idolatry – the worship of earthly things. Barth argued idolatry can lead to worship of nations and then even to movements like the Nazis. It follows for Barth that after the corruption of the fall, human reason cannot reach God or figure out right and wrong by itself. Only faith in God’s revelation in the bible is valid.

In defence of Aquinas, he is not suggesting that our finite minds can understand God’s nature or goodness (eternal law). Aquinas is only suggesting that reason can understand the natural law God created within our nature and that some necessary being or uncaused cause exists. If reason only has this goal of supporting faith in such ways, then it cannot make revealed theology unnecessary.

The issue of original sin

A classic protestant argument is that we should not rely on reason to understand anything about God or God’s morality because original sin has corrupted our reason. We should just have faith in the Bible and that should be our only source of knowledge about God’s existence or morality. This argument relies on a traditional view of original sin that goes back to Augustine, that human nature is corrupted, including our ability to reason. Even many theologians who don’t agree with Augustine about a literal fall or original sin being inherited still hold to the doctrine of original sin.

Aquinas’ approach to defending Natural theology was to reconcile original sin and at least some ability for reason to support faith in God’s existence & morality. However, there is another way to defend natural theology from this argument, which is to simply deny the existence of original sin. This is not a popular view in traditional Christianity but there are some serious theologians who attempt to do so such as Pelagius and some liberal Christians.

Augustine could be defended that his views on human nature being corrupted by original sin can be derived from the evidence of his observations of himself and his society. For example, Augustine told a story about how, as a child, he stole a pear from a garden, not because he was hungry but just for the pleasure of sinning. He concluded even children desire to sin and so must be born that way. Concupiscence can also be observed: people have their own will overwhelmed by bodily desires, which Augustine takes to be evidence for original sin.

Pelagius: Augustine’s observations reflect his society, not human nature. “The long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over may years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature”. – Pelagius

Although it might appear that we have strong forces within us that incline us toward evil, Pelagius argues that could simply be because of the way we are raised and it only appears to be our nature because of how thoroughly corrupted we are by our upbringing, which Pelagius refers to as being “educated in evil”.

We could add contemporary historical and sociological evidence to Pelagius’ point. Humans have progressed since Augustine’s time. Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Steven Pinker attributes to the power of human reason that violence has decreased, even considering the 20th century. The average human life seems more secure than at any prior point in history. If Augustine were correct that original sin caused an irresistible temptation to sin, then human behaviour could not have improved, yet it has.

H.H. Price: ‘belief-that’ vs ‘belief-in’

Price thinks that atheistic philosophers mistakenly think that ‘belief-in’ God is nothing more than ‘belief-that’ God exists.

Dawkins is a good illustration of Price’s point here. Dawkins seems to regard religious belief as simply whether someone ticks the box saying they believe that God exists or not. However, ‘belief in’ indicates that religious belief involves a psychological relationship with a person – Jesus/God. This relationship brings with it moral behaviour and mentalities such as compassion and love.

“’Belief in’ is an attitude to a person, whether human or divine, while belief ‘that’ is just an attitude to a proposition” – Price.

There are some cases where belief-in can be reduced to belief-that, like fairies or the Loch Ness monster. Belief-in such things is merely belief-that they exist – because there isn’t a personal relationship involved in such cases. However, there are cases of belief-in that do not seem reducible to belief-that because they are ‘evaluative’. Faith in God is an example of ‘belief-in’ God in this evaluative sense, which expresses placing something like trust, faith, esteem or loyalty in God.

Religious belief involves a personal relationship with God such that faith in God is not only a matter of “belief-that” God exists, it also involves evaluative “belief-in”. So, belief-in God involves trust and faith in a person (God) which cannot be reduced to simple intellectual acceptance of what exists in reality.

However, the ‘trusting’ part of ‘belief-in’ “is not a merely cognitive attitude … the proposed reduction leaves out the ‘warmth’ which is a characteristic feature of evaluative belief-in … There is something more here than assenting or being disposed to assent to a proposition … ‘the heart’ enters into evaluative belief-in. Trusting is an affective attitude.”

Although the ‘belief-that’ which can be reduced from ‘belief-in’ are essential parts of ‘belief-in’, it cannot all be reduced. [after reduction] we still have not explained what trusting is, or what it is like to trust or ‘our one’s faith in’ someone or something. Perhaps we can only know what it is like by actually being in the mental attitude which the word ‘trusting’ denotes’.

Price claims that Belief in God in the evaluative sense does involve esteeming and trusting.

This is why Price is a middle-ground. He accepts that there is some factual basis for religious faith, to which reason and philosophical argument would be relevant. However, there is also an element to religious faith which is not about reasoned acceptance of the claim that God exists, and philosophical argument and reason would be irrelevant to this aspect of religious faith.

There’s a part of religious faith which involves “belief-that” God exists. Reason and philosophical argument are relevant to that.

But there’s also a part of religious faith which involves “belief-in” God. Reason and philosophical argument are irrelevant to that.

So religious faith, as a whole, cannot be decided by philosophical argument.

“Belief in God … cannot be reduced to the mere acceptance of an existential proposition”

Nonetheless, Price’s argument could be taken to support Anselm or Aquinas’ view. Anselm and Aquinas never claim that religious faith could be entirely based on reason, only that reason can support religious faith or provide a rational satisfaction to faith. Price would want to specify that reason can only support the element of faith that involves belief-that God exists, but not the element of faith that involves belief-in God in the evaluative sense.


Anselm explained that his purpose in creating the ontological argument for God was “faith seeking understanding”. The idea is that only faith is the foundation for belief in God, yet we also have reason which seeks a rationally satisfying account of our faith.

Aquinas: deductive arguments attempt to provide an absolute proof of God since if the premises are true the conclusion must be true. If reason could prove God, then surely faith would become unnecessary and be replaced by reason. This is one reason Aquinas rejected the ontological argument.

Anselm: so long as an argument is used to understand faith, reason won’t replace faith. If our reason can be used to understand our faith, then surely the faith still exists and so would not be replaced merely by being understood.