From Great Issues in Philosophy, by James Fieser


Copyright 2008, updated 5/1/2016



A. The Nature of God

Personalness, Goodness and Gender

Power and Separateness

B. Arguments for God’s Existence

The Cosmological Argument

The Design Argument from Analogy

The Design Argument from Probability

The Ontological Argument

C. Criticisms of Religious Belief

Belief in Miracles

Psychological Theories of Religion

D. The Problem of Evil

The Argument

Possible Solutions

The Free Will Defense

E. Faith and Reason

Pascal: Wager on Belief in God

James: The Right to Believe

Plantinga: Rationally-Foundational Belief in God

F. Religious Pluralism

Four Options

The Problem of Conflicting Doctrines

The Problem of Anything Goes

Study Questions


There is a religious organization called “Elvis Underground: The Church” whose mission is “to continue and further the Work of Elvis Presley, The King, toward uniting all species in universal rhythm and harmony.”  It holds that Elvis is the most fundamental material in the Universe, and among its Commandments are “Don’t be Cruel,” “Love me Tender,” and “Viva Las Vegas.” That is, we should eradicate cruelty from oneself and the universe, love with tenderness, and take risks in life. Although Elvis Underground is more of a tribute to Elvis than a real religion, it nevertheless raises the same kind of philosophical questions that all religions do. What kind of thing is this Elvis principle and how do we know that it exists? Are we irrational if we accept Elvis on the basis of faith without proof? Is Elvis Underground a better religion than others? Philosophy of religion attempts to answer these and similar questions about the rational basis of religion. However, at the same time philosophy of religion avoids giving preference to any specific faith such as Christianity, Hinduism, or even the Elvis principle. What is important for the philosopher is the abstract concept of God and religious belief, not any particular faith tradition. While particular traditions may sometimes serve as illustrations, the focus is typically on larger problems surrounding God and religion.




Philosophers of religion throughout history have been especially interested in clarifying the nature of God – what sort of being he is and what his chief characteristics are. The notion of “God” means different things to different people, and the sky is the limit for our speculations on the subject. The Elvis Underground church lists the attributes of its deity in the following creed:


We feel that Elvis is King. We feel that Elvis is the most fundamental material in this Universe and all others -- the foundation upon which all else is built, the fiber that binds all matter and energy, and the catalyst for all action, reaction, and interaction. We feel that Elvis is all good, and all loving, and that by extension, so is this Universe and all others. We feel that limitless goodness and love make Elvis all powerful. We feel that Elvis infuses and embraces this Universe and all others with rhythm and harmony....


In a nutshell, Elvis all good, all loving, all powerful and is the fundamental material of the universe. Philosophical discussions about God’s nature take place within the context of conventional religious traditions, but it too comes up with similar lists of divine attributes. Western religions – specifically Judaism, Christianity and Islam – share a core set of views about God, and scholars sometimes refer to this being as the theistic God. The concept of the theistic God has been the focus of much discussion about divine attributes, which we will explore here.


Personalness, Goodness and Gender

There is no master list of attributes of the theistic God that everyone agrees on. Some philosophers argue that God has one single attribute, others maintain that he has dozens. But perhaps the most basic attribute is that God is personal: he is conscious and rational, and has the capacity to communicate with other conscious creatures. When and how he chooses to communicate with anyone is another matter, but what is important, according to theists, is that God at least has that ability. By stating that God is personal, the believer is ruling out the possibility that God consists merely of unconscious energy, blind forces of nature, abstract laws of nature, or some other powerful yet insensible component of the natural world. While God may be radically different from humans in other ways, according to theists it is the attribute of personalness that makes him most like us. The appeal of a personal God is evident: it presents us with a powerful being who resembles us in important ways and with whom we can communicate in times of distress. Who would be interested in worshiping the unconscious laws of physics, as powerful as physical forces might be? Personalness may be the one feature that compels people the most to maintain believe in God.

             The key problem with the attribute of personalness is that it exposes the concept of God to the charge of anthropomorphism, that is, that the notion of a personal God is too human-like. Suppose that I insisted that God literally had white hair and a beard, just as Michelangelo depicted God in the famous Sistine Chapel painting. You would say that my concept of God was misguided by my desire for an emotionally soothing image of a divine being who resembles a powerful yet gentle human king.  But when we survey the attributes that we commonly give God, such as personalness, many look suspiciously human, which suggests that we made them up ourselves. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570–c.478 BCE) was one of the first to make this point:


If oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could draw with their hands, and execute works of art as people do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make the gods’ bodies in the image of their various kinds.


The general problem of anthropomorphism is also expressed in the popular statement that “man created God in his own image”, which is a reversal of the Biblical notion that God created man in his image. Thus, according to critics, as comforting as the notion of a personal God is, it may be more an expression of human wishes than the reality behind God himself. This is particularly so when we depict God as having human-like emotions. Feelings like love, hate, joy, unhappiness all are the result of physiological activities within our bodies. Since God has no physical body, he cannot have emotions as we do. Similarly, since God does not have physical eyes or ears, he does not perceive the physical world as we do. Theists thus face the difficult task of maintaining the personalness of God without simultaneously turning him into a giant human being.

             Another crucial personality feature of the theistic God is the attribute of perfect goodness, or omnibenevolence. The idea of a purely evil God has little appeal for anyone, except maybe for people who are themselves consumed with evil. The concepts of God and perfect goodness seem to go hand in hand, as we see in the common expression that “God is good”, and it is another feature that gives believers comfort, especially in times of distress. But the notion of divine goodness includes two distinct concepts: compassion and justness. God is compassionately interested in relieving the world of suffering and enabling people to obtain happiness in this life or in the next. At the same time, though, God has a clear vision of morality which he commands people to obey, and his justness demands punishment for those who disobey. While the notions of compassion and justness may be compatible with each other, there is tension between the two. When people do not obey God’s moral commands, he may want to be compassionate towards them, but justice may require him to judge and punish them. It is like trying to get a soft-hearted social worker and a hanging judge to agree with each other on a touchy issue like drug addiction: the social worker would say “treat the addiction like it is a disease,” while the judge would say “lock the addict up.” Theists thus face the difficult task of maintaining divine compassion without also opening the door to a moral free-for-all.

             A third central divine attribute concerns God’s gender. When many believers think of God they invariably visualize the divine being as either male or female. The common choice among theists is male since this is how God is depicted in the scriptures that have shaped the great religions of Western civilization. But there are a few opposing positions on this sensitive issue.  There is first the staunch pro-male position which holds that scriptural depictions of God’s gender should be taken literally. This, proponents argue, fits with the fact that, throughout human history, men are the ones who have held positions of political, military and economic power. Men have also been the principal architects and builders of machines and structures.  So it makes sense to think of God as male insofar as he is the ultimate creator and ruler of all that we see. On the pro-female side, some argue that the creative process of the world involves the growth and nurturing of living things, and fertility is traditionally a female attribute. Theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether writes,


God is not a “being” removed from creation, ruling it from outside in the manner of a patriarchal ruler; God is the source of being that underlies creation and grounds its nature and future potential for continual transformative renewal in biophilic [i.e., life-loving] mutuality. [Women and Redemption]


Many non-Western religions have recognized this and thought of the creator as a nurturing Goddess, rather than as a male God who likes to build intricate things and then blow them up. According to defenders of this position, even if Western scriptures routinely refer to God as “he”, we can still modify our conception of the divine being’s gender and bring it in line with this idea of a nurturing Goddess. The middle position on this subject is that God is gender-neutral, and it is our gender-laden language that forces us to inaccurately identify God as a “he”. By imposing gender on God, whether male or female, we make God overly human, and thus devalue the very concept of the divine being. The idea of the theistic God is flexible enough to be cast in either a male, female or gender-neutral way. In the end, though, questions about God’s gender will largely be determined by one’s religious tradition, regardless of philosophical debates on the subject.


Power and Separateness

The attributes of personalness, goodness, and even gender are important for how believers relate to God in their private devotional lives. Other divine attributes, though, are more abstract in nature and are explored by philosophers because of the conceptual puzzles that they generate. Among these are that God is all-powerful (or omnipotent); that God is all-knowing (or omniscient); that God is all-present (or omnipresent); that God is timeless (or omnitemporal); that God is separate from the world (or separateness). We will look at two of these: all-powerfulness and separateness.

             Perhaps the most insisted upon attribute of God is that he is all-powerful. Polytheistic religions of the past and present have ascribed varying degrees of power to their gods, such as the god of rain who has no power over fire or wind. In their cultures, the concept of gods with limited powers is perfectly acceptable. In monotheistic religions, though, there is little appeal to the idea of a God that’s anything less than all-powerful. The grandeur of the universe itself requires that its sole creator has power well beyond that of a mere god of rain or god of fire. But there are two ways that the concept of all-powerfulness can be understood. The first is that an omnipotent God can do anything at all, regardless of how counterintuitive the task may seem. Not only can God do colossal physical things, like create the universe, he can even perform seemingly impossible tasks, like making 2+2=5. While this notion of omnipotence aims to amplify God’s greatness, it also creates problems. Can God destroy himself? Can he create a being more powerful than he is? Can he exist and not exist at the same time? If God can do anything, then he should be able to perform each of these, regardless of how bizarre they seem. The basic problem is encapsulated in this popular riddle: Can God create a rock so large that he can’t move it? Suppose that we answer “yes, an all powerful God can indeed create a rock so large that he can’t move it.” We now have conceded that there is a task that God cannot perform, namely, moving the rock that he just created. Suppose instead that we answer “no”; we’ve now just conceded that God cannot do something, namely, create the rock. So, no matter how we answer this question, it looks like there’s something that God cannot do. Thus, this first notion of divine omnipotence carries an apparent contradiction.

             The second view of omnipotence tries to avoid this problem: an omnipotent God can do anything that is logically possible, but he cannot perform logically contradictory tasks. God can, for example, create the world, since this is logically possible; he could not, however, create the earth and not create the earth at the same time. God also could not perform the logically contradictory task of making 2+2=5. According to defenders of this position, no possible being could do these things, and so it is not really a restriction of God’s power. This view of omnipotence solves the problem of the rock: it is logically impossible for an all-powerful being to create a rock so large that he can’t move it. Other problems are resolved in the same way: it is logically impossible for God to do things that are incompatible with his very nature, such as God as an eternal being destroying himself.

             So, which of these two notions of omnipotence should theists adopt? If you think that logic is a permanent and unchanging law of the universe, then go with the second conception of omnipotence. It respects the inviolable nature of logic and has God work within its constraints. On the other hand, if you are not too impressed with logic and think it’s just like any other changeable thing in the universe, then go with the first conception of omnipotence. It puts God in a position of authority over literally everything, including logic.

             A final abstract attribute of the theistic God to consider is that he is separate from the world – that is, the world that we see around us is technically not part of God himself. It is the creative work of God, but not part of his identity. The critical point is that God is a distinct person – just as I am and you are – and his identity does not mix with other stuff in the universe. The attribute of separateness is an integral part of Western notions of God. But Eastern views of God largely reject the attribute of separateness. Instead, they hold a rival theory known as pantheism, the view that God is identical to nature as a whole. According to pantheism, if we drew a circle around everything in the entire universe – physical and spiritual – the contents of that circle would be God. There are many versions of pantheism, but the critical point here is that God literally dwells within everything: rocks, plants, animals, and, most importantly, each human being. God has no distinct identity and, stated boldly, everything is God.  Since traditional Western theists are committed to the attribute of separateness, and Eastern religions to the rival pantheism, there is a major conceptual rift between the two groups. Thus, questions about God’s separateness will be determined by one’s personal religious tradition, and not so much by abstract philosophical discussions.




It is one thing to clarify the notion of the theistic God with a list of attributes. It is another to demonstrate that such a being exists. Since the middle ages many philosophers have believed that they could do just that. One website boasts over three hundred proofs for God’s existence, and includes this “argument from guitar mastery”:


1. Jimi Hendrix is God;

2. Therefore, God exists.


More traditional proofs for God’s existence follow several strategies, four of which we will examine here: the cosmological argument, the design argument from analogy, the design argument from probability, and the ontological argument.


The Cosmological Argument

One of the more common proofs for God’s existence is the cosmological argument, which attempts to answer a simple question that even children ask: where did everything come from? The world, it seems, consists of a chain of things that come into existence and then go out of existence. An oak tree dies, but a new one emerges from an acorn dropped by the first, and the cycle continues creating long chain of causes and effects. What started it all to begin with? The earliest versions of the cosmological argument maintained that it is impossible for the causal chain of events to trace back through time forever. It is kind of like imagining an infinitely long stack of plates, each one supporting the one above it; the concept does not make sense. There must, then, be a first cause to the series, and this cause is God. Philosophers in later times rejected this argument since it relies too heavily on the limits of the human imagination. Just because we cannot imagine an infinitely long stack of plates does not mean that it’s impossible. The real question is whether the concept is inherently contradictory. While it may be difficult for us to picture an infinitely long causal chain of events, the idea itself isn’t logically contradictory, and so we cannot rule it out as a possibility.

             A more sophisticated version of the cosmological argument was offered by German philosopher Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). Leibniz begins by granting that the causal chain of events in the world around us traces back through time to infinity past. Specifically, the origin of each object within that chain is explained by the object that caused it: the origin of an oak tree is explained by its parent, that oak tree by its parent, and so on back through infinity past. However, Leibniz argued, God is still needed as an explanation for the fact that the entire infinite series of causes exists at all. In other words, why does something exist rather than nothing? The explanation must then reside outside of the series; that is, it must be a necessary being that is not part of the total chain of dependent things. More formally, the argument is this:


1. The world contains an infinite series of dependent objects.

2. The explanation of the series is either within the series itself or a necessary being outside that series.

3. The explanation of the series cannot reside in the series itself, since the very fact of the series’ existence would still need an explanation.

4. Therefore, the explanation of the series consists of a necessary being outside the series.


             Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was a staunch critic of various proofs for God’s existence, including the cosmological argument. The central flaw in the above argument, he argues, is that the idea of the “whole series” is only a mental abstraction that does not have any real existence. Once we’ve adequately explained each particular thing in the infinitely long chain, such as the origin of each oak tree from its parent, our job is done and there is no “whole series” that’s left to explain. Imagine, for example, that I have a bundle of pencils in my hand. I place one pencil on the table, and still have the bundle in my hand. I then place the next pencil on the table and still have the bundle in my hand. However, when I place the last pencil on the table, I clearly have no bundle left in my hand. The notion of a “bundle” was fully accounted for by each particular pencil. In a similar way, Hume says that the existence of the entire series of dependent beings is fully explained by the existence of each thing in the series, and there is no mysterious “series” left to be explained. The flaw with the cosmological argument rests with premise 3: the explanation of the series in fact does reside within the series itself insofar as each effect is accounted for by its prior cause. On Hume’s reasoning, then, the cosmological argument fails.


The Design Argument from Analogy

Perhaps the most intuitive argument for God’s existence is the one from design: the appearance of design in the natural world compels us to believe that there is a divine designer. There are several versions of this argument, the most famous of which is that from analogy. We start by looking at marvels of human ingenuity, a favorite example of which is a mechanical watch. The parts of a watch are crafted with masterly precision, and all the elements work together to fulfill a purpose. It is quite evident that the watch is the product of intelligent design, and could not have emerged through mere chance. Now, when we look to the natural world, we see a similar purposeful design in things – complex elements working together for specific purposes. While parts of outer space seem chaotic, in other parts of the universe design is undeniable. Look at the regular orbits of the planets around the sun. Look at the precise biological design of the human hand, and how all the bones and muscles work together with great dexterity. These surpass the craftsmanship that we see in any watch. By parallel reasoning, then, we must conclude that key parts of the natural world are also the product of intelligent design. The specific analogy employed here is this:


watch                           designed parts and universe

watchmaker                 universe designer


Laid out more precisely, the argument is this:


1. Machines such as watches are the products of intelligent design.

2. Parts of the natural world resemble a machine.

3. Therefore, it is highly probable that parts of the natural world are the product of intelligent design.


             The success of this argument depends on two issues. First, relating to premise 1 above, we must show how watches are inextricably linked with watchmakers. Every time we see a watch, we must be justified in concluding that it is the product of a watchmaker. William Paley (1743-1805), a bold defender of the design argument, persuasively shows that we would be justified in concluding in almost any conceivable situation that a watch was produced by an intelligent being. For example, we could infer the existence of a watchmaker even if we never saw how the watch was created, or if some parts of the watch did not work properly, or if we didn’t know what all of the parts were for. The intricacy and organization of the watch itself compels us conclude that the watch is the product of intelligent design. For the sake of argument, let’s grant Paley’s point and accept the truth of premise 1.

             The second issue, which relates to premise 2, is that the theist must show that the natural world sufficiently resembles the craftsmanship of watches. This is a more difficult point to prove. While there are some design similarities between watches and the biological intricacies of human hands, critics of the design argument have contended that the parallels are exaggerated. This is particularly evident when we consider how the theory of evolution provides an alternative and naturalistic explanation of the origin of apparent design in the natural world. What at first appears to be intentional design in the natural world may instead be better explained through blind natural forces. Astronomers have plausible naturalistic accounts of how our solar system formed, complete with its intricate orbits. Biologists have equally plausible accounts of how the human hand developed through biological evolution. The existence of a watchmaker is indeed the only available explanation for the origins of watches. But, the more plausible that evolutionary explanations of the natural world become, the less similar that watches and human hands seem to be. Thus, the argument from analogy fails because of an important dissimilarity between watches and things like hands, namely, hands can be explained by natural evolutionary processes, and watches can’t. The flaw with the design argument from analogy, then, rests with premise 2: parts of the natural world, such as human hands, do not sufficiently resemble machines.

             A final problem relating to the argument from analogy is that even if we concede that the universe is the product of intelligent design, we are not justified in concluding very much about the nature of the creator himself. He may not be a single, all powerful, or all good being. For all we know, Hume says, the world “is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance.” In other words, at its very best, the design argument might show the existence of some divine being or beings, but not necessarily the existence of a single being as grand or benevolent as the theistic God.


The Design Argument from Probability

Even in Darwin’s day, many religiously-minded philosophers accepted the theory of evolution, but still felt that the grand design of things was evidence of a divine designer. While the argument from analogy may not be the most effective way to demonstrate this, other strategies are available. One approach, which is particularly popular now, is the design argument from probability. The central idea is that the physical conditions that make life possible on earth are extraordinarily delicate, and their occurrence is more probable under a theistic hypothesis than a purely naturalistic and non-religious one. Defenders of this position mention several physical conditions that are fine-tuned for supporting life on earth. If the initial big bang as physicists describe it had differed in strength by only the tiniest amount, life on earth would have been impossible. So too if gravity had been a little stronger or weaker. More formally, the argument is this:


1. The existence of life-sustaining conditions is probable under theism, but very improbable under naturalism.

2. When considering two competing hypotheses, we should accept the one that offers the most highly-probable outcome.

3. Therefore, we should accept the theistic hypothesis as an explanation of the world’s life-sustaining conditions.


             The critic has two responses to this argument, the first concerns premise one. Are life-sustaining conditions “very improbable” under the naturalistic hypothesis as the believer charges? It’s true that if we randomly picked out a planet in the universe, the odds are slim that it would exhibit life-sustaining fine-tuning. However, the more planets that exist, the greater the chances are that some planet will be suited for organic life. There are perhaps 1 trillion stars in this galaxy, and perhaps 2 trillion distinct galaxies in our universe. Astronomers now estimate that most stars in the Milky Way have planetary systems, and perhaps 20% have Earth-size planets. Astronomers also regularly tell us about newly-found distant planets that are plausible candidates for life. In addition to the large number of such planets, there is no telling how many distinct universes there are or have been; for all we know, we may be in a long line of universes that have come into and gone out of existence. Astrophysicists now tell us about the possibility of a multiverse containing an infinite number of universes. If true, this exponentially increases the probability of planets containing life. But even without a multiverse, many scientists believe that the odds of naturally-occurring conditions are high enough for there to be organic life on many other planets throughout the universe, and not just on ours.

             A second problem with the design argument from probability is with premise two. Yes, when considering two competing hypotheses, it makes sense to accept the one that offers the most highly-probable outcome. But this is not the only rule of thumb for choosing between two hypotheses. Here is another rule that is at least as important if not more so:


• When considering two competing hypotheses about the tangible world, we should accept the one that is backed by the most tangible evidence, and, at minimum, not one based on speculation alone.


This is an important assumption in all scientific reasoning, and is what separates real sciences like astronomy from pseudo sciences like astrology. Mere speculations about the hidden causes of the tangible world are easy to invent; the hard work is finding tangible evidence to support one’s hypothesis. With the case at hand, the naturalistic hypothesis about the world’s life-sustaining conditions is backed by a large body of tangible evidence gathered from a broad range of disciplines, including astrophysics, microbiology, geology, and paleontology. This is not so with the theistic hypothesis, which is more speculative in nature, and whatever “evidence” it has is not tangible but grounded in philosophical argument and personal religious experience. The naturalistic and theistic hypotheses are not even of the same type to warrant meaningful comparison. This fact is obscured in the probability argument by improperly portraying the issue as though it is only about probabilities, rather than about the tangible nature of the evidence behind those probabilities.

             Ultimately, the appeal of the probability argument may be more emotional than it is a matter of the cool weighing of probabilities. It is indeed scary to think that life on earth might not have existed if the fine-tuning of things had been off just a little. But our lives are filled with troubling “what if” scenarios. What if I had turned left at that stoplight; I would have been killed in an accident. What if I had not looked in the help wanted section of the newspaper; I wouldn’t have gotten the job of my dreams. All of these scary “what ifs” involve subtle fine-tuning, but we should not let our emotions push us to speculate that a divine designer had his hand in these matters. Fortunate events naturally happen just as do unfortunate ones. The probability argument presents a big and genuinely troubling “what if” scenario, but perhaps we should just be happy that life-sustaining conditions on earth naturally unfolded as they did, and leave it at that.


The Ontological Argument

. One of the most remarkable arguments of any kind in the history of philosophy is the ontological argument for God’s existence. All of the above arguments for God begin with an observation about the physical world, namely, causal chains of events and the presence of design. It’s sort of like seeing evidence of a divine footprint and tracing it back to God himself. The ontological argument, though, does not begin with any such observation about the physical world. Rather, it is based purely on the concept of God, which, according to the argument, contains within itself the notion of God’s existence. The originator of the ontological argument was a monk named Anselm (1033–1109), who devised it specifically so that he could have a single, stand-alone proof for God that did not hinge on extraneous assumptions about the physical world.

             By any standard of difficulty, the ontological argument is a challenge to grasp, but the heart of it is this:


1. God is defined as “The Greatest Possible Being.”

2. The Greatest Possible Being must have every quality that would make it greater than it would be otherwise.

3. Having the quality of real existence is greater than having the quality of imaginary existence.

4. Therefore, the Greatest Possible Being must have the quality of real existence.


The key to this argument is the definition of God in premise 1: God is “The Greatest Possible Being” – or in Anselm’s more unwieldy wording, God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Think of all the great beings that have graced this planet: elephants have great power, Einstein had great intelligence, Gandhi had great moral character. We can conceive of possible creatures, too, that have even more greatness: Superman’s power surpasses that of an elephant. Cerebral Man’s intelligence surpasses that of Einstein. Charity Man’s moral character surpasses that of Gandhi. Within the spectrum of beings with great qualities, both real and fictitious, the concept of God is that of the Greatest Possible Being. Whatever possible being has the maximum of greatness, that is what we mean by God. For simplicity, let’s abbreviate “Greatest Possible Being” with GPB.

             Power, intelligence, and moral character are all great-making qualities; that is, if you have them, you will be greater than if you lacked them. Premise 2 tells us that the concept of the GPB includes every great-making quality to its fullest.  For example, the GPB’s power is at the highest possible level, more so than Superman’s. Why so? Because if the GPB lacked ultimate power then, by definition, it would not be the greatest possible being: it could have been greater by possessing ultimate power. So to with qualities like ultimate intelligence and ultimate moral character. Again, if the GPB lacked either of these qualities, it would not be the greatest possible being. The GPB is sort of like the ultimate superhero insofar as it possesses every great-making quality to its fullest. And, for all we know at this stage of the argument, the GPB is just as fictitious as any superhero. The point is that the very concept of the GPB includes the maximum of every great-making quality.

             Premise 3 states that the quality of existence is yet another great-making quality: if you have it, you will be greater than if you lacked it. A real superhero, for example, is greater than it would be if it was just a fictitious one. This pulls the GPB out of the realm of mere superhero fiction and into real existence, and thus leads to the arguments conclusion. That is, the GPB must exist, since if the GPB lacked the great-making quality of existence, then by definition it would not be the greatest possible being. Reduced to a single sentence, the ontological argument is this: the Greatest Possible Being must exist, since it is contradictory to suppose that it doesn’t—we would in essence be saying that the Greatest Possible Being could have been greater.

             Philosophers have made careers out of analyzing and attacking Anselm’s argument. We will consider the most famous criticism, offered by a monk named Gaunilo, who was a contemporary of Anselm. Gaunilo argues that if we replace the phrase “Greatest Possible Being” with “Greatest Possible Island,” then we will get the absurd conclusion that the Greatest Possible Island exists. Consider, Gaunilo says, the mythical “Lost Island” where everything is perfect. Paralleling Anslem’s argument, here is how we can prove that the Lost Island exists:


1. The Lost Island is defined as “The Greatest Possible Island.”

2. The Greatest Possible Island must have every quality that would make it greater than it would be otherwise.

3. Having the quality of real existence is greater than having the quality of imaginary existence.

4. Therefore, the Greatest Possible Island must have the quality of real existence.


Gaunilo concludes “You can no longer doubt that this island which is more excellent than all lands exists somewhere.” His point is that Anselm’s type of argument would show the existence of the greatest possible anything, no matter how bizarre; this means that there is something fundamentally flawed with the logic of Anselm’s argument.

             In recent times, philosophers have taken a generally negative view of the cosmological, design and ontological arguments. Part of the reason is because of compelling critiques by Gaunilo, Hume and others. Another reason has to do with the nature of religious belief itself. Believers themselves often recognize that we cannot approach religion as though it was scientific theory that can be proven by tangible evidence, as the cosmological and design arguments attempt to do. We also can’t approach it with a mathematical-like proof along the lines of the ontological argument. Belief in God is a more unique kind of conviction that has few parallels in our human efforts to acquire knowledge, and logical proofs like the above seem misdirected.




While believers have defended the idea of God, sometimes offering proofs, nonbelievers have tried to expose problems with the concepts of both God and religion. Occasionally this takes the form of full-fledged arguments for atheism. More often, though, religious critics pick away at weak links in the theist’s chain of beliefs hoping that it will eventually fall apart. Two prominent areas of vulnerability are belief in miracles and the psychological factors influencing religious belief.


Belief in Miracles

A Christian minister recently claimed to miraculously make infertile women pregnant; some were past menopause, and others had no sexual relations for years. He invited the women to Kenya where he exorcised demons from them; they then supposedly gave birth and return to their home countries with babies. Reports of miracles are as old as human civilization, and even in modern times are as abundant as ever. Many are evidently frauds. Kenyan investigators, for example, suspected that the minister was part of a child smuggling ring; one Kenyan official stated “We believe in God, but we do not think God works that way.” This particular alleged miracle had fraud written all over it and was not worthy of belief. But are any alleged miracles worthy of belief? David Hume thought not. Hume’s position involves three critical assumptions. First, he defines “miracle” very narrowly as a violation of a law of nature. There are rival definitions of “miracle”, such as unusual events that occur at just the right moment – the wind blowing a vine towards me just as I am about to slip off the edge of a cliff. Hume does not discus these. Second, Hume focuses specifically on the credibility of reports and testimonies of miracles. That is, Hume would have me question the credibility of the miraculous pregnancies in Kenya that I read about in the newspaper; he does not say anything about miracles that I presumably witness with my own eyes. Finally, he is challenging whether it is reasonable for me to believe reports of miracles, not whether the miraculous event actually took place. We can never go back in time and scientifically examine alleged miracles to see if they took place; the truth of the matter is lost forever in history. The only thing we can do is assess how reasonable it would be for anyone to believe in such reports.

             Stated most succinctly, his argument is this: it is never reasonable to believe in reports of miracles since those reports will always be outweighed by stronger evidence for consistent laws of nature. Imagine a balancing scale with two pans. In one pan we place the strongest evidence in support of a miracle. Suppose, for example, that a team of respected physicians examined the women who became pregnant in Kenya, and determined that their pregnancies indeed violated biological laws of nature. The physician’s testimonies would go into the first pan. In the other pan we place the strongest evidence against the alleged miracle. According to Hume, we need to consider only one factor here: the consistent experience we have of laws of nature. Doors don’t fly off their hinges when we open them. Rocks on the ground don’t mysteriously levitate. When I step on the sidewalk, it doesn’t crumble beneath my weight. The evidence in support of consistent laws of nature is in fact so overwhelming, Hume argues, that it will always overpower any evidence in the other pan, regardless of how credible a testimony in favor of a miracle may be. Hume writes,


It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony [of miracles]; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder.” [Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10]


The wise person, he maintains, will proportion his belief to the weight of the evidence, and the evidence will always be on the side of consistent and inviolable laws of nature, not on the side of miracle testimonies. Put more precisely, Hume’s argument is this:


1. The evidence from experience in support of consistent laws of nature is extremely strong.

2. The evidence from experience in support of reported miracles (as violations of laws of nature) is extremely weak.

3. We should proportion our belief to the evidence.

4. Therefore, we should not believe in reports of miracles.


             Does Hume’s argument succeed? One criticism focuses on Hume’s particularly narrow notion of what counts as a “reasonable belief.” Suppose that miracles never occurred in the past and thus the concept of a miracle was indeed completely contrary to experience, just as Hume claims. Next, suppose that God exists and, for the first time, decides to perform a dramatic miracle in the presence of credible witnesses who then report the event. On the supposition that a genuine miracle did occur, is there any kind of report that would make belief in this miracle “reasonable”? The answer to this question rests on the kind of world view that a person holds, namely, a supernatural world view or a natural one. The supernatural one maintains not only that God exists, but that he directs and possibly interferes with the course of nature. He communicates with people, impacts their lives, and helps them in times of need. The natural world view, on the other hand, resists all of these claims, placing confidence instead in consistent laws of nature and scientific methods of discovering facts. If I hold a natural world view, then Hume is right: it would never be reasonable for me to believe a reported miracle even if a genuine miracle did occur. If, though, I hold a supernatural world view, then everything is different. As I try to make sense of life’s strange experiences, I have the option of attributing some of these to supernatural causes. Thus, it might be reasonable to believe a credibly-reported miracle in the context of a supernatural world view.

             Hume personally felt that the supernatural world-view is rooted in ignorance and superstition, and so he maintained that any belief resting on that world view would be unreasonable. This, though, raises a separate issue about the psychology behind the supernatural world view, which we turn to next.


Psychological Theories of Religion

Religious believers think that the supernatural world view is grounded in divine reality; that is, there is a real God who resides in a real spiritual realm. Non-believers, though, have a different explanation: belief in the supernatural is grounded in human psychology, not in external reality. We will look at four such psychological explanations of religious belief and consider what they have in common.

             One of the oldest and most common psychological explanations of religious belief was offered two thousand years ago by the Roman philosopher Lucretius (94-55 BCE). Religious belief, he argued, is the product of human fear: we encounter frightening natural calamities, cannot find natural explanations of these things, and then “seek refuge by handing everything over to the gods.” He writes,


When the whole earth totters under our feet, and cities, shaken to their base, fall or threaten to fall, what wonder is it, that the nations of the world despise and humble themselves, and admit the vast influence of the gods over the world, and their stupendous power to govern all things?


According to Lucretius, human existence has always been at the mercy of natural catastrophes which strike fear in the hearts of those affected, such as famines, earthquakes, floods, tornados, pandemics. Humans, both past and present, regularly seek relief from these tragedies by calling on God. Perhaps God himself caused these disasters to punish offenders; perhaps the disasters merely result from the blind forces of nature, but only an all-powerful God can rescue us from them. In either case, fear from uncontrollable natural calamity drives us to postulate and believe in a mighty divine being who will rescue us.

             A second psychological explanation of religious belief was offered by German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883). For Marx, economic class conflict shapes many of our beliefs, including religion. When Marx wrote, grotesquely rich industrialists dominated society, and made their wealth by exploiting lower-class laborers. If workers wanted food on their tables, they had no choice but to perform tedious tasks for low wages in unbearable conditions. Stripped of their human dignity, workers were offered one avenue of comfort: religion. In church they learned that, while God put them through trials in this life, they should place their hopes in the rewards they would receive in heaven. In Marx’s words, religion is the opium of the people, a drug which lulls workers into accepting their situations. Marx writes,


Religious suffering is the expression of real suffering and at the same time the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.


Once workers are liberated from the oppressive industrialists, Marx predicts, there will be no further need for religion and religious belief will disappear on its own. Until that day, though, whatever religious beliefs we hold will be due to psychological manipulation and the intoxicating allure of an afterlife.

             A third influential psychological account of religious belief was offered by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). According to Nietzsche, for millennia the only world-view available to civilization was the supernatural one – or the “ascetic ideal” as he calls it. This holds that, not only does God exist, but earthly life is worthless, and the only things of value are in the spiritual realm. In recent times, Nietzsche continues, a natural world view has emerged in which philosophers and scientists provide an alternative naturalistic account of things around us. The influence of this rival has expanded to the point that, metaphorically speaking, God is now dead. That is, the natural world-view has eclipsed the supernatural one and everything it stands for. Nietzsche poetically writes,


Do we not hear the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? For even Gods putrefy. God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him. How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers?


Ultimately, then, our religious convictions are the residue from an earlier pre-scientific era when religion offered the only psychologically-satisfying explanation of the world around us. For Nietzsche, the death of God is liberating since if frees us from restricting demands of religious traditions. At the same time, he warns, it is also frightening because it forces us to quickly find an alternative conception of morality.

             A fourth and perhaps the most famous modern psychological account of religion is that offered by Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). When we were children, Freud argues, we were comforted with the protection that our human fathers gave us, and, from our perspectives, our fathers seemed all powerful. When older we of course learn the truth that our fathers are in fact not as strong or perfect as we originally believed. But we still carry inside of us the concept of a mighty father. Whenever we experience suffering as adults, then, we return to our childhood stage of human development and project the concept of this powerful father figure onto the heavens and look to an all powerful God for protection. Freud writes,


When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father; he creates for himself the gods whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and whom he nevertheless entrusts with his own protection. Thus his longing for a father is a motive identical with his need for protection against the consequences of his human weakness. [Future of an Illusion, 4]


For Freud, there is no real God, but our human psychology makes us think that there is one. This again gives us comfort, but it is at the expense of our adulthood. Freud recommends that we abandon the illusory belief in God and reclaim our maturity.

             While the positions of Lucretius, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud differ in their particulars, there is a common thread: belief in God is caused entirely by psychological and social forces, and a non-religious view of the world is ultimately preferable. Technically, this is not a disproof of God’s existence or the supernatural realm. But, by tainting the cause of religious belief, it implicitly questions the truth of those religious beliefs themselves. From the nonbeliever’s perspective, it may be enough of a victory for atheism if believers are kept wondering whether they have been psychologically tricked. More precisely, the underlying argument is this:


1. If belief in God is caused entirely by psychological and social forces, then we should doubt the existence of God.

2. Belief in God is caused entirely by psychological and social forces.

3. Therefore, we should doubt the existence of God.


             How might the believer respond to this argument? Lucretius, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud were all atheists, and the believer's natural first reaction would be to reject premise two as a reflection of atheistic bias. The believer might then try to show instead that belief in God is caused by a genuine experience with a supernatural God. But this may be tough to show, since it would depend upon having clear evidence of the existence of a supernatural God, which brings us back to proofs for God’s existence and the problems with them. A better response to the above argument, though, is to challenge premise 1: from the religious perspective, there may be nothing wrong with God using psychological and social factors to direct belief. After all, humans are psychological creatures, and it is plausible that God might use psychological factors to motivate us. In this case, the motivations would be fear of the unknown, the desire for a happy afterlife, comfort in a pre-scientific explanation of the world, and the need for a father-figure. The question is whether these psychological factors are inherently misleading. Lucretius, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud thought they are, and perhaps some of the time we really are tricked into erroneous religious beliefs through these mechanisms. But, according to the believer, it is less clear whether all religious belief is caused by misleading psychological forces. Maybe God really is a father figure, and our psychological projections are right on target. We cannot rule that out as a possibility, the believer may argue.




A hurricane recently hit a costal city and demolished everything in its path. One victim, a young woman, stated “Everything I’ve ever worked for is now destroyed, and I can’t think of anything worse happening to me right now. I’ve been a good Christian and I pray all the time; I don’t see how God could have let this happen to me.” At some point in our lives most of us raise similar religious questions in the face of our own tragedies. A family member contracts a terminal illness and dies; a friend is killed in a car accident; we lose our jobs; our spouses leave us. In the midst of our despair we may wonder why God would allow these things to happen. He presumably loves us and is in control of things, so what went wrong? Sometimes the despair reaches a point where believers abandon their faith.

             Philosophers call this the problem of evil. The notion of “evil” used here simply means suffering, and there are two varieties of suffering that are central to the problem. The first, often called natural evil, is the suffering that takes place through the blind forces of nature. The story of the hurricane is an example of this. The second, often called moral evil, is the suffering that takes place because of the acts of human beings. A robber breaks into my house and shoots me; a drunk driver crashes his car into mine. Nature is not at fault here, people are.


The Argument

While the problem of evil may begin as an emotional crisis in the lives of believers, religious critics have crafted this problem into an outright argument for atheism. The basic argument is this:


1. The theistic God, who is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, would prevent evil.

2. Evil exists.

3. Therefore, the theistic God does not exist.


Premise 1 lists the central attributes of the theistic God, and stipulates that such a being would prevent evil, or suffering. Why so? If God is all good, then he would certainly be motivated to eliminate suffering. When discussing the attribute of omnibenevolence, or perfect goodness, at the outset of this chapter, we saw that compassion was part of this notion. That is, God is sympathetic to our suffering and wants the best for us. Next, if God is all-knowing, then he knows where all the suffering is in the world and knows how to root it out. Finally, if God is all-powerful, he has the ability to eliminate the suffering that we experience. Thus, the very nature of God seems to commit him to the elimination of evil. Moving on to premise 2, this states the obvious: suffering, both natural and moral, abounds in the world. Since the existence of evil is incontestable, then we must conclude that the problem rests with the existence of the theistic God.

             Some religious critics argue that the conflict between the concept of God and the existence of evil is nothing short of a logical inconsistency, and logic demands rejecting the notion of the theistic God. However, it may be better to instead see the problem of evil as a tension between the two premises, which makes the existence of God unlikely—but not logically inconsistent strictly speaking. There are a couple clear paths to resolving this tension. First, rather than rejecting the existence of the theistic God entirely, we might tweak some of his attributes. For example, we might question whether God is really “all-good”. Perhaps he is good most of the time, but occasionally lashes out on the world when things become too intense. We might also question whether God is really all-knowing: perhaps he is not aware of all the evil that goes on here, or does not know of a way to address it. We might similarly question whether God is all-powerful: maybe he aware of the evil and has a plan to address it, but is not quite strong enough to carry it out. Theists, though, are usually not willing to make these concessions. Built into the notion of God is that he is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful. Anything less than that, he would not be God. A second path two resolving the problem would be to deny that evil really exists. Perhaps we’re trapped in a world of illusion in which we erroneously think that we experience suffering. However, whether real or imagined, suffering is suffering. We pity the delusional man who thinks he’s being eaten alive by snakes almost as much as we do the man who really is being eaten alive by snakes. So, the argument as it stands looks like a compelling argument for atheism.


Possible Solutions

Many possible solutions to the problem of evil have been offered over the centuries. The term theodicy refers to such attempts, which literally means “justification of God,” and suggests that an effort is needed to reconcile the notion of God with the presence of evil. Some solutions to the problem of evil are more plausible than others, and we will look at four of the most influential ones.

             The first is that the presence of evil is justified because good often comes out of evil. According to this solution, some types of moral goods require the occurrence of evil. For example, major hurricanes cause billions of dollars of property damage and the loss of many lives. Each time this happens, like clockwork, an army of volunteers travels to the region to help shelter the victims and rebuild their homes. By doing this the volunteers display charity, compassion, humanity, mercy, generosity, kindness, and a host of other good qualities. All of these behaviors are linked to the presence of some human tragedy: you cannot meaningfully be charitable if no one needs your charity. The point, then, is that the world is better off with some evil-dependent goods. Thus, while God is predisposed against all suffering, he allows some of it to make the world better through evil-dependent goods. But the key problem with this argument is that we could have an ample supply of evil-dependent goods with far less suffering. We don’t need enormous disasters like hurricanes to spark charity in people; I would be sufficiently motivated to be charitable to my neighbor if the occasional tree limb fell on his garage and he needed help removing it. When we add up the suffering caused by all crimes, wars, natural disasters, accidents and diseases, it is hard to see how these are counterbalanced by the charity and other evil-dependent goods that they generate.

             A second solution is to re-examine the idea of divine goodness. At the outset of this chapter we noted that God’s attribute of perfect goodness has two components: compassion and justness. It is because of God’s compassion that we presume he would want to rid the world of suffering. Perhaps, though, the believer is over-emphasizing compassion at the expense of justness. That is, maybe God is good in the sense that he demands moral obedience from us, but has limited compassion for our personal suffering. The Greek philosopher Epicurus felt that humans achieve happiness through reducing suffering and enhancing pleasure; perhaps God is not an Epicurean. The solution, then, is this: human suffering is compatible with divine goodness when goodness is understood mainly as moral uprightness. While this technically may solve the problem of evil, it would be a tough sell for the believer who takes comfort in the idea of a compassionate God who takes a personal interest in making our lives happy.

             A third solution was presented by contemporary philosopher John Hick (b. 1922). Hick argues that human creation is a developmental process during which we evolve to eventually become a more perfect likeness of God. As individuals, we must strive against hardship to learn, grow, and develop moral character.  Everyone knows someone who has never had to face anything difficult and had everything handed to them. But it is through challenges that we mature individually, such as when we overcome social or economic obstacles to get through college and land a good job. These are also the challenges that enable us to evolutionarily mature as a species over time, and this is the uniqueness of Hick’s theory. Like other life forms on earth, humans emerged first as simple organisms and overtime evolved into the sophisticated biological and social creatures that we are today. Throughout this time our predecessors had experienced much suffering, and we will continue to suffer until our evolutionary process is complete. Suffering, then, is simply part of the evolutionary process that drives the moral development of our species. As innovative as Hick’s solution is, it faces an obstacle: the people who actually suffer the most do not themselves reap the reward of becoming perfect. Instead, their sufferings and struggles are only small steps on a long path that leads to the perfection of human nature thousands of years down the road. But, how much suffering is it reasonable for us to endure right now for the sake of people in the distant future that we cannot even currently envision? And, once humanity has achieved that perfection, how fair is it for those future people to get a free ride at our expense now? If we adopt Hick’s solution, we must recognize that divine justice has little connection with human notions of justice. This does not rule out Hick’s solution as a possibility, but it does require revamping the notion of divine justice in a way that makes it almost unrecognizable from our human perspective.


The Free Will Defense

The most popular solution to the problem of evil is the free will defense. According to this view, evil is our fault, not God’s, since God could not create a world containing free creatures who would be guaranteed to always be good. Imagine that we looked at the blueprints of all the possible worlds that God could have created. World 1, for example, consists of a single brick floating in empty space and nothing more. World 2 has stars and planets like the present world, except the earth is inhabited by only worms. World 3 is the same, but the earth is inhabited by robotic humanoid creatures with no free wills. They are conscious, but can behave only as programmed. World 4 is the same, but is instead inhabited by truly free human creatures. Which of these is the best? “World 4” we might say, since a world with free humans is qualitatively superior to one with merely humanoid creatures. But the problem now is that God has no control over the choices of free creatures in World 4. If I have a free will, then it is entirely up to me to decide how I want to behave; even God cannot determine the choices of a truly free creature. If I freely decide to be evil, that is my choice and, short of striking me dead, God can do nothing about it regardless of how much he’d like to. God, then, is faced with a dilemma: he could create World 3 and program the robotic humanoids to always be good; or, he could create World 4 and gamble on whether free humans will choose to be good. According to the free will defense, God gambled on World 4: a world of free creatures is better than a world of robotic humanoids, even at the risk of evil.  In a sense, the free will defense solves the problem of evil by tweaking the notion of “all-powerful” in premise 1. That is, by creating free creatures, God places a voluntary constraint on his power, thereby handing some power to us to make choices as we see fit. Humans, then, are co-creators of the world alongside God, and with that power of co-creation comes the power to act immorally.

             In many ways the free will defense seems to be the ideal solution to the problem of evil. It retains the key attributes of the theistic God, it acknowledges the existence of evil, and it puts the blame on us. There are three limitations to it, though. First, the free will defense is only an option for those who believe in free will. In centuries past, belief in free will was popular among philosophers; but in more recent times advances of genetics and the social sciences has given strength to the view that human actions are all determined by causal forces. If I reject the theory of free will in favor of determinism, then the free will defense goes out the window with it. Second, some theists are not happy with any compromise of God’s power, even if God does this voluntarily. If God could hand over some of his creative power to us, perhaps he could hand over the whole lot to a committee of angels and then go on a long vacation. God’s total control, the theist might argue, is not negotiable. Third, the free will defense is primarily an attempt to explain the existence of moral evil, that is, the evil caused by human choice. It’s less clear how this is an adequate explanation of natural evil, such as floods and hurricanes, which have nothing to do with the free choices of bad people.

             In the end, though, there is enough substance to the free will defense to explain the existence of some evil to the satisfaction of some theists. And, if the free will defense is taken in conjunction with some of the other defenses above, the problem of evil may be less of a stumbling block than it first appears. We should recognize, though, that defeating the problem of evil does not prove the existence of God. It only means that one famous argument for atheism fails.




So far, the arguments both for and against the existence of God look suspicious: the traditional proofs for God’s existence have serious challenges, and the traditional attacks on God and religious belief are inconclusive. It appears that strictly rational argumentation cannot settle the dispute one way or the other; that is, it seems that reason is neutral on the subject of whether God exists. What are my options now? On the one hand, I could adopt the position of agnosticism, which is neither belief nor disbelief in the existence of God. On the other hand, I could adopt the faith alone position by believing in God’s existence in the absence of any proof: I could believe simply through faith. Many religious believers throughout history have gone this second route, arguing that reason has a poisoning effect on a person’s reception towards religious belief. Faith alone, they argue, should guide our paths in religious matters, and not reason. Tertullian, an early Christian advocate of faith-based belief, made the famous statement that “I believe because it is absurd.” His point is that faith is so distinct from reason that faith is essentially irrational. Tertullian’s position is rather extreme. Two more moderate defenders of faith-based belief have maintained that while faith is non-rational, it is certainly not ir-rational, and there is in fact some reasonable defense for holding a faith conviction.


Pascal: Wager on Belief in God

The first of these defenders is French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). He was familiar with the arguments both for and against the existence of God, and felt that reason was neutral on the matter. But while reason is neutral, Pascal says, we as human beings cannot remain neutral; the question is so important that we must decide one way or another. It is a kind of wager, he argues, and what is at stake for me specifically is my own happiness—both in this life and the next. Pascal proposes that I weigh the possible consequences on my happiness:


Let us weigh the gain and the loss in taking heads that God exists. Let us weigh these two cases. If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing. Wager without hesitation, then, that he is. [Pascal, Thoughts]


Charted out, here are the stakes of my wager:


                                      Wager that God exists            Wager that God doesn’t exist

God exists                    | gain: infinite happiness         gain: nothing

                                     | loss: little or nothing             loss: infinite happiness


God doesn’t exist        | gain: nothing                          gain: little or nothing

                                     | loss: little or nothing             loss: nothing


According to Pascal, by wagering in favor of God’s existence, I stand a chance of gaining infinite happiness in the afterlife, and losing little or nothing in any event. By wagering against God’s existence, though, I will gain or lose little or nothing. For Pascal, the gamble seems obvious: I should wager that God exists. This is by no means a proof of God’s existence, but rather an indication of the most reasonable choice for me in view of my desire to be happy.

             Pascal understood that it is one thing for me to see the reasonableness of wagering on God’s existence, and another entirely for me to actually believe that God exists. The wager, he explains, is just the start of the belief process. The next step is for me to put myself in a psychological position that is receptive to belief in God through faith. I need to assume the right moral outlook by reducing my private desires and adopting virtues like humility, charity, gratitude, and truthfulness. I then need to follow the example of other believers by going to church and participating in religious traditions. These things will not make me believe, but, according to Pascal, they will make me receptive to a faith experience which will trigger genuine belief.

             What should I think about Pascal’s wager? That is, is it really more reasonable for me to gamble on belief in God? American philosopher William James (1842–1910) felt that the reasoning process of the wager is fundamentally flawed. Rival religions could come along and propose a similar wager for their favorite deity. A prophet from a foreign religion, according to James, could say “I am the Expected One whom God has created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the light of the sun. Weigh, then, your infinite gain if I am genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not!” The Elvis Underground church could make a parallel argument for wagering on the divinity of Elvis. We have here a problem of competing religious claims: there are many world religions that offer infinite rewards for believers, but they cannot all be true. And, as long as reason is neutral on the question of the existence of God, we are not in a position to prefer one religion’s wager over another. We may feel more comfortable wagering on the God of the religious tradition that we are most familiar with, such as the God of Christianity, but that does not it make a better bet than the God of rival religious traditions.


James: The Right to Believe in God

While James rejected Pascal’s wager, he nevertheless defended our right to believe in God on the basis of faith alone when reason is neutral. Key to James’s view is a distinction between different kinds of options that the believer faces. First, according to James, the religious options that the believer considers must be live as opposed to dead. A live option is one that the believer might realistically adopt; a dead option carries no psychological appeal. For example, it might be a live option for me to believe in the theistic God, but a dead option for me to believe in the ancient Egyptian God Ra or the divinity of Elvis. Second, the believer’s religious options must be forced, as opposed to avoidable.  An option is forced when we face a choice with no middle ground, such as whether I should vote or not vote. Avoidable options have some middle ground; for example if you say “Either love me or hate me,” a third alternative is open to me, namely, to remain indifferent towards you. Religious beliefs, James argues, are at least sometimes forced. If I am faced with the option of either believing in the theistic God or not believing, there is no middle ground since by abstaining from belief I would lose a possible spiritual benefit, just as though I chose not to believe at all. Third, the believer’s religious options must be momentous – that is, of critical importance – as opposed to trivial. For example, usually a trip to Walmart would be trivial, but a trip to Paris momentous. While some people do not take religious belief seriously, many do and in fact find it of critical importance.

             James then defines a genuine option as one which is live, forced and momentous. He expresses the central point of this distinction here:


Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds. [“The Will to Believe”]


In at least some cases, religious belief qualifies as a genuine option: it is live, forced and momentous. That is, when reason is neutral concerning belief in God, and belief in God is a genuine option, then we may rightfully believe on the basis of our emotions. In these situations we can set reason aside and believe on the basis of our hopes, fears, feelings of devotion, and fondness for our traditions. Here is an example of James’s reasoning process. Imagine that John is considering asking Mary out on a date. He looks for subtle signs from her about how receptive she will be, but he comes up with nothing: from his perspective, reason is completely neutral about her romantic interest towards him. For John, asking Mary out is a genuine option: it is something that he would really like to do (live option); he either asks her out or he doesn’t (forced option); and the potential rewards are tremendous (momentous option). In this situation, John is fully justified in stepping out on faith and asking her out. If he does not, then he forfeits all the promise of an important love relationship. According to James, the situation is the same with religious belief, where the potential rewards are religious truth and enlightenment, which could not be gained without stepping out on faith. James’s argument is this:


1. A genuine option is one which is live, forced, and momentous, and where reason is neutral.

2. If a belief is a genuine option, then one may rightfully hold it through faith alone.

3. Belief in God is a genuine option.

4. Therefore one may rightfully believe in God through faith alone.


             How might the religious critic respond to James’s position? A scientifically-minded person could argue that, when reason is truly neutral on a subject, our duty is to abstain from belief. Suppose that I am investigating whether a specific drug will reduce the risk of heart attack. If the evidence is inconclusive, I should not go ahead and believe that the drug works, even if holding that belief makes me feel better. For the scientist, it should be no different with questions concerning God’s existence: if the evidence is inconclusive, I should be a religious agnostic. James considers this line of attack and has a response. There are two goals that all inquirers have: (1) pursue truth, and (2) avoid error. The scientist, according to James, places greater weight on the second goal of avoiding error: whatever truths we ultimately arrive at, says the scientist, they should not be at the expense of accepting erroneous views. James agrees that, with scientific questions, the goal of avoiding error is more crucial than pursuing truth. But James thinks that the situation is entirely different with matters of religion, love, and other non-scientific interests; our principal goal should be to pursue truth, even if that means risking some error. James’s response is all the more appropriate when we feel that questions about God’s existence cannot be settled with rational proof. It thus seems unfair for the critic to hold religious truths to the same standard as scientific ones.


Plantinga: Rationally-Foundational Belief in God

James gives a compelling defense of our right to believe in God through faith when reason is neutral. But while this grants me the freedom to believe in God, it does not allow me to say “I know that God exists” or that “belief in God is rationally justifiable.” This limitation is a problem for many theists who would like to make those stronger claims. Proofs for God such as the design argument have been the usual mechanisms for rationally justifying our knowledge of God’s existence. If those fail, do we then need to abandon all claims to “know” that God exists? Contemporary American philosopher Alvin Plantinga believes that there is another way to establish knowledge of God’s existence: the concept of God’s existence is a rational instinct, and not a product of rational proof.

             Plantinga’s position rests on a particular theory of how we acquire knowledge called foundationalism. Geometry is a good example of this approach. We begin with foundational notions of points or lines, and from these we deduce complex theorems about the shapes of triangles and rectangles. We take this foundationalist approach in other areas of knowledge as well. Take for example my belief that George Washington was the first U.S. President. This is based on more foundational beliefs that I have about the trustworthiness of history books and the original eyewitnesses who actually knew Washington. According to Plantinga, some of our most foundational beliefs are rational – beliefs that flow instinctively from human reason (foundationalists like Plantinga describe such rationally-foundational beliefs as “properly basic”.) Other rationally-foundational beliefs are “the objects that we perceive really do exist,” and “the people I see really do have conscious minds.” Plantinga contends that “God exists” is yet one more rationally-foundational belief. Following this approach, the believer can say “I know that God exists” based purely on a rational intuition, and without any rational argumentation.


1. If a belief is rationally foundational (i.e. properly basic), then one can have knowledge of that belief without rational proof.

2. Belief in God is rationally foundational.

3. Therefore, one can have knowledge of God without rational proof.


             The central problem with Plantinga’s approach is whether there really are any rationally-foundational beliefs at all. While human behavior is undoubtedly driven by instincts, it is an extraordinarily difficult task to list any instinct-like beliefs that we have, and, on top of that, show that these beliefs are products of human reason rather than human emotion. Further, knowledge seems to rest on an interconnected web of beliefs, and not on a rock solid set of foundational beliefs. For example, my belief that George Washington is the first president is based on views about the trustworthiness of history books. But this in turn is connected with my beliefs about academia, historical method, free speech, and testimony in general. These in turn are based on a thousand other beliefs and experiences, which are interconnected and continually evolving. Geometry, it seems, is a poor model for how we gain knowledge. The whole concept of rationally-foundational beliefs looks suspect.

             Plantinga’s theory is driven by a desire to say “I know that God exists” even if proofs for God’s existence fail. But why not just be content with saying “I believe that God exists” without any claim to knowledge? The psychological motivations here are complex. Perhaps part of what is at stake may be the believer’s level of assurance that there really is an afterlife: our assurance is higher if we know this as a fact and not merely believe it. Part also might be the need to proselytize with conviction: it’s easier to persuade others to join your religious tradition if you say that you know that God exists, and not merely that you believe that God exists. But belief even without knowledge is a very powerful tool and, as James suggests, belief without proof is sufficient for directing important decisions in our lives, such as relationships with loved ones, choice of careers, or political ideologies. On James’s view, religious belief based solely on faith, without any declaration of knowledge, is still very respectable.

             To push the matter further, perhaps it is even asking too much to require that all people of faith actually believe that God exists. Many people indeed “believe” that God exists with the same level of conviction that they believe that the president of the United States exists. But might this standard be a little too high for everyone? Perhaps religious faith for the average person is more like the psychological state of wishing – wishing that God exists, wishing that there is a heaven, wishing that the wicked will be judged. While the mental state of “wishing” is weaker than either “believing” or “knowing”,  it may be a more accurate description of what is actually going on in many religious people’s minds. It may also reflect what’s most important about their conviction – namely, a consistent hope for a higher spiritual reality.




The Elvis Underground church describes itself as super-denominational: “all are free to participate and/or join without relinquishing ties to other denominations or beliefs.” This contains an element of tolerance that is missing from most world religions. If I sign up for membership in a Christian church, I might be shunned if they found out that I was an active member at a Buddhist temple. While I can join as many social organizations as I’d like, such as an art appreciation club or the YMCA, I’m expected to pick a single religion – presumably the one I was raised in – and stick with it for life. Religions are by their very nature exclusive; they each have their own special doctrines and rituals, which they believe are grounded in a privileged revelation from God. Philosophers of religion find this phenomenon fascinating and speculate about whether a more “super-denominational” approach to religious belief is possible.

             There are two issues concerning the diversity of religious beliefs around the world: which has the most correct set of doctrines, and which provides the most effective path to salvation. Regarding the first issue, religions make a variety of doctrinal claims, such as those regarding religious rituals, God’s specific attributes, God’s direct involvement in human affairs, and divinely inspired texts. While there may be some doctrinal overlap from one religion to another – such as the use of prayers and music in worship practices – the differences can also be enormous. Regarding the second issue, religions make differing claims about the best way to achieve salvation. Some involve religious experiences, rites of passage, commitment to moral codes, or belief in specific religious precepts. Here again there are similarities as well as major differences between religions.


Four Options

The question on the table is which religion has either the correct doctrines or the most effective plan of salvation. There are four options: naturalism, exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. First, naturalism maintains that belief in God is groundless and religious belief arises only through social and psychological factors. In essence, all religions are fundamentally misguided, and inquiries about the correct doctrine or plan of salvation do not make much sense. Lucretius, Hume, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud fall into this group, and each offered an account of how religious belief develops in the human psyche. While naturalists reject religion as a whole, they still may be keenly interested in the issue of religious diversity. Like it or not, religious belief is a fact of human civilization, and how religions get along with each other impacts us all.

             Second, exclusivism is the view that there is one true religion either doctrinally or as an effective path to salvation. This is the starting point of most world religions, which typically grew out of religious crises of their times. A religious prophet would feel that the prevailing religion of his culture was seriously flawed, and then form a new one. In this way, Buddhism emerged from Hinduism, Christianity from Judaism, and Islam from Arabian polytheism. Tensions between the old and new religions often resulted in mutual condemnation of each other and thus gave birth to rival claims of exclusivity. While exclusivism has led to the ugliest forms of retaliation – such as slaughtering believers of rival faiths – defenders of exclusivism maintain that it does not have to be that way. A believer can be tolerant of a rival’s views, while still holding that the rival is wrong. An exclusivist might defend the unique truth of his religion by citing specific scriptural passages or appealing to miracles within his tradition. However, believers from a rival religion can offer a parallel defense for the exclusivity of their own faith by citing their own scriptures and appealing to their own miracles. Exclusivism, then, leads to competing claims of superiority, and an impartial outsider will have no clear grounds for declaring one a victor over the other.

             Third, inclusivism is the view that one religion contains the final truth, both doctrinally and as a path to salvation, but others come close to it. An inclusivist could thus claim that his religion is the correct one, but other religions have some of the story right and rival believers might ultimately attain salvation. For example, some Christians hold that Jesus is the true path to salvation, but, through God’s compassion, all human beings are on that path whether they know it or not – including Hindus, Buddhists and even atheists. It is usually the more liberal tradition within a religious faith that holds this view, since it often involves glossing over exclusivist claims in its scriptures. While this relieves some tension between rival religions, it still suggests that the inclusivist’s religion is a little better than others, and this again will lead to competing claims of superiority.

             The fourth and final option is pluralism, which is the view that religious traditions experience God differently, but all are equally effective paths to salvation. Ramakrishna (1836–1886), one of India’s great religious thinkers, takes this approach when he writes,


God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with wholehearted devotion. … As one can ascend to the top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo [pole] or a staircase or a rope, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God, and every religion in the world shows one of these ways.


Pluralism is the most open minded of the four positions and it eliminates the problem of competing claims of superiority by acknowledging an equal validity to all religious traditions. One religion, the Baha’i Faith, has a built-in pluralistic component: God sends new prophets at critical junctures in human history who speak to the needs of those people. These prophets include Buddha, Krishna, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and other religious founders.  


The Problem of Conflicting Doctrines

As attractive as religious pluralism is, it faces conceptual problems. An initial challenge is that doctrines of different religions are logically incompatible with each other. Even if we dismiss some exclusivist claims for being overzealous, such as the precise manner in which a believer must be baptized, some central elements of world religions come into serious conflict. At the outset of this chapter we saw that an important attribute of the theistic God is separateness – that is, God is not identical with the created world. Pantheistic notions of God, though, take the exact opposite position: God is identical to nature as a whole. Theistic Christianity, then, is inherently incompatible with pantheistic Hinduism. If all religions are equally valid, how are we to understand these conflicting doctrines?

             The pluralist has two responses. First, perhaps we can restrict pluralism to the view that religious traditions are equally effective paths to salvation, not that the doctrines of all religions are equally true. Maybe we do not have the capacity to determine the truth of any religious doctrine and need to remain neutral on all doctrinal questions. That is, we can believe our own tradition’s doctrines through faith, but not claim to know any as fact. Alternatively, maybe all doctrines are really myths, which should not be interpreted literally by any religious tradition. Or, maybe the doctrinal issue is all just one big divine noble lie. For example, some Buddhist denominations hold that, in an emergency effort to save the world, God baits people with different religious traditions; they all, though, lead to salvation. Thus, God himself may be the source of these conflicting doctrines, none of which, perhaps, is literally true. What really matters, says the Buddhist, is that people are saved. Thus, what really matters with pluralism is that the paths are equally effective, and we should be less fussy about various religion’s doctrinal details when they conflict with each other.

             A second response is that all of these so-called conflicting doctrines may really only be different and limited perspectives of the true God. John Hick recalls the classic story of a group of blind men who touch an elephant and try to identify it from their limited experiences. One blind man touches the elephant’s leg and says it’s a great pillar. Another touches its tusk and says that it’s a plough blade. “Of course they were all true,” Hick says, “but each referring only to one aspect of the total reality and all expressed in very imperfect analogies.” Reports of religious “truth”, then, will always be shaped by our personal and cultural experiences. Thus, for the pluralist, while various religions’ perspectives may clash, the underlying divine reality is consistent.


The Problem of Anything Goes

There is a second problem with pluralism, namely, that when recognizing the validity of all religions, the door for acceptance is so wide open that anything goes, including even odd ball religions. For example, a tennis fanatic could say that God is “the great tennis player in the sky.” A fan of Elvis could say that God is “the universal rhythm and harmony of Elvis.” Once we have opened up the idea of the divine to the point that almost anything goes, the notion of God is then meaningless. The heart of this problem is that pluralism is committed to the position that God is completely hidden from view. This is precisely why, according to pluralists, religious traditions differ so radically: when attempting to explain an inaccessible God, different traditions arrive at wildly different interpretations. If God is completely inaccessible, then any interpretation of him could be legitimate. It would help if we even had some faint glimpse of God to help weed out hobbies and other human obsessions. But the pluralist seems resistant to provide any positive description of God at all for fear of invalidating some faith traditions. So, the pluralist’s commitment to open-mindedness leads to a completely hollow concept of God.

             Pluralists have a response to this criticism. There are two ways that we might investigate the reality of God. First, we might try to set up something like a religious telescope, point it at the spirit-realm, and see if we can detect God. Believers around the world have attempted this for thousands of years, but they have unfortunately failed. In this respect, God is indeed completely inaccessible. A second approach may prove more fruitful, though. We might turn the telescope on ourselves and see if any hints of divine reality have seeped into our religious traditions. This is no guarantee that we will find anything of God in our religions, but it is at least a task that we can perform.

             When turning his telescope on religious traditions around the world, William James concluded that they all have two key ingredients: (1) an uneasiness that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand, and (2) a solution that saves us from this wrongness. Anything beyond that, according to James, is an over-belief, that is, a belief about the furthest regions of religion that we can never confirm through our experience. For James, traditional over-beliefs include concepts of the theistic God, born again experiences, immortality of the soul, God becoming human, pantheism, karma, and reincarnation. Less traditional over-beliefs might be that tennis is the path to salvation, or that space aliens will bring us religious knowledge, or that Elvis is the rhythm and harmony of the universe. James confesses that he himself holds an over-belief, although it’s a rather modest one: “I have no hypothesis to offer” he writes, “beyond what the phenomenon of prayerful communion... immediately suggests.” The point is that pluralism does not necessarily take an “anything goes” attitude towards the validity of religion. While there may be radical differences with various religion’s overbeliefs, but to first qualify as a religion a particular faith tradition must have some core element such as the two that James suggests.

             Perhaps the most challenging question that a believer can ask is whether other religious traditions are as valid as one’s own. Religious pluralism very generously answers “yes”. The path to wide acceptance of pluralism is rocky since it would require believers to demote many of their cherished doctrines to the status of over-beliefs. But, pluralists argue, it is well worth the effort in view of the harmony that this may produce among faiths. Even the super-denominational Elvis Underground church asks for nothing more than this.




Please answer all 21 of the following questions.


1. Define the notion of the theistic God and the attributes of personalness, goodness and gender.

2. Define the two views of the attribute of all-powerfulness, the attribute of separateness, and pantheism.

3. Give Leibniz’ version of the cosmological argument and Hume’s criticism of it.

4. Give the design argument from analogy and the main objections to it.

5. Give the design argument from probability and the main objections to it.

6. Give Anselm’s ontological argument and Gaunilo’s objection to it.

7. What is Hume’s argument against miracles?

8. What are the two criticisms of Hume’s argument against miracles?

9. What are the psychological theories of religious belief proposed by Lucretius, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud?

10. What is the believer’s criticism of the psychological theories of religion?

11. Give the problem of evil.

12. What are the solutions to it as discussed in the section “possible solutions”?

13. What is the freewill defense to the problem of evil, and what are some of the criticisms of it?

14. Define agnosticism and the “faith alone” position”.

15. What is Pascal’s argument for wagering on belief in God and James’s criticism of it?

16. What is James’s argument for the right to believe in God when reason is neutral?

17. What is Plantinga’s view of rationally-foundational belief in God?

18. What is the criticism of Plantinga’s view?

19. Define naturalism, exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.

20. What are the two problems with religious pluralism?

[Short Essay]

21. Short essay: pick any one of the following views in this chapter and criticize it in a minimum of 150 words.  One of the proofs for God’s existence, one of the criticisms of the proofs for God’s existence, Hume’s argument against miracles, one of the psychological theories of religion, the problem of evil, the free will defense, Pascal’s wager, James’s view of the right to believe, Plantinga’s view of rationally-foundational belief in God, naturalism, exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism.




Elvis Underground: the Church!,

Xenophanes, quotation fragment. A standard edition of Presocratic fragments is Kirk, G. S. and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Radford Ruether, Rosemary, Women and Redemption (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 223.

Over Three Hundred Proofs for God’s Existence,

Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Section 10. The standard is edition edited by Tom L. Beauchamp (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (first century BCE). A prose translation is by Hugh Munro (Cambridge: Deighton Bell, 1886).

Marx, Karl, Toward a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843). A recent translation is in Karl Marx, Early Writings, L. Colletti, ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975).

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Joyful Wisdom (1882). A recent Translation is by Walter Kaufmann, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage, 1974).

Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, tr. James Strachry (New York: Norton, 1961). Section 4.

Mackie, John L., “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind (1955), Vol. 64, pp. 200–212. This contains the standard modern defense of the problem of evil.

Plantinga, Alvin, God Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974). This contains a contemporary version of the free will defense.

Hick, John, "An Irenaean Theodicy," in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, ed. Stephen Davis (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1981), pp. 39-52.

Leibniz, Gottfried Willhelm, Monadology (1721). A recent translation is by R. Ariew and D. Garber in Leibniz: Philosophical Essays (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989).

Hume, David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Part 9. A good edition is by Norman Kemp Smith, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935).

Hume, David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Part 5, as above.

Paley, William, Natural Theology (1802). A recent abridged edition of this is Natural Theology; Selections (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963).

Collins, Robin, "The Fine-tuning Design Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God," In Reason for the Hope Within. Michael Murray, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

Pascal, Blaise, Thoughts (1670). A recent edition of this is Pascal's Pensées, translated by A.J. Krailsheimer (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966).

James, William, The Will to Believe (1897). A critical edition of this work is edited by Frederick Burkhardt (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979).

Plantinga, Alvin, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic,” Nous (1981), Vol. 15, pp. 41-51.

Hick, John, God and the Universe of Faiths (London: MacMillan, 1977).

Ramakrishna, The Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (New York: The Vedana Society, 1903).

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Part 13. A critical edition of this is edited by John E. Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).