A few days before Christmas, in anticipation of Christian’s celebration of God’s incarnation, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Ricky Gervais, a British writer, actor and comedian, entitled “Why I Do Not Believe in God”, which can be found here. Though not academic, Gervais’ article offers his sincere reflection on the question of God’s existence. While I disagree with his answer, I found it refreshing that such an important and age-old question made its way into popular media. Given the importance of the question and Gervais’ provocative answer, I though it appropriate at the close of the Christmas season to offer a response.
Gervais makes a number of interesting and provocative claims in his article, some others of which I hope to address eventually. For now, I’m limiting myself to his claim that God doesn’t exist. The reasons Gervais gives for his claim are that “there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence… and “science seeks the truth,” basing “its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence.” In order for his conclusion that God doesn’t exist to be true based on the reasons he provides, Gervais must assume that scientific knowledge is the only true knowledge we can have and we should only believe what we can know through such knowledge. Had Gervais given us a formal, philosophical argument it would have looked something like the following:
1. The only true knowledge humans can have is scientific knowledge.
2. Humans should only believe what is scientifically verifiable.
3. God’s existence cannot be scientifically proven.
4. Therefore, we cannot know, nor should we believe, that God exists.
While Gervais’ argument is logical, it isn’t sound, and not because the existence of God can’t be verified through science. In fact, I am not only willing to grant, but would even agree with Gervais’ assumption that we cannot scientifically prove God’s existence. Rather, it’s the first two premises that are false and that undermine Gervais‘ argument that we shouldn’t believe in God.
Critique of Gervais’ Argument
One may object that I wrongly attribute to Gervais the second premise — that humans should only believe what is scientifically verifiable. Granted, his argument that God doesn’t exist does not depend on the truth of this premise. But the premise is required if he is claiming that we should not believe in God’s existence even in the absence of scientific proof. Gervais tells us that what matters is “living an honest life” for which “we need the truth,” and also that belief in God’s existence is not subjective, that “he either exists or he doesn’t” and “it’s not a matter of opinion.” I agree with these statements, but if we should live an honest life, according to the truth, and only what can be scientifically verified is true, then if we believe in God without scientific knowledge of God (which Gervais says we can’t have), we cannot live an honest life. I take Gervais to be saying that if it’s good to live an honest life we should do our best to do that — and because this requires truth of strictly the scientific sort, Gervais’ remarks at least imply that we should only believe what can be scientifically verified.
The second premise really only matters, however, if the first premise is true, because if there are truths that aren’t strictly scientific, then it’s fair to say that it’s at least permissible to believe in non-scientific truths. Because his argument stands or falls on the first premise, I’ll focus principally on it.
With respect to the first premise, one needs to distinguish between knowledge that humans can obtain through reason alone and knowledge one obtains through the scientific method. There are plenty of things humans know through the application of reason that are not scientifically verifiable. For instance, the very logical principles Gervais relies on to make his argument can’t be scientifically proven. The principle of non-contradiction, for example, which states that “something cannot be and not be at one and the same respect and time” is not only something that science cannot verify, but that science must itself first assume and rely on in its acquisition of knowledge. But we only have to look at Gervais’ argument itself for an example of an alleged truth that cannot be scientifically proven. Because science cannot verify the premise in question – that only scientific knowledge is true knowledge – Gervais himself would have to admit that there are things we can truly know that science can’t verify.
Further, Gervais himself provides examples of non-scientific rational truths other than logical principles. In his article, he affirms a belief in certain moral principles according to which we should live. In fact, one might understand that the key purpose of his article is not to explain why he is an atheist, but that the atheist can be just as virtuous as the religious believer. In making this point, he cites honesty, liberty, dignity, forgiveness, doing to others as you would have them do to you as the types of moral standards according to which the atheist as well as the believer can and should live. These moral standards are not anymore scientifically verifiable, however, than the logical principles on which the reasoning in his article relies (see C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man for a more complete argument to this effect). Presumably, Gervais would admit that these principles are, however, rational and don’t merely derive from the blind faith of religion. For if they were purely subjective, or the product of religious faith, Gervais could not, by his own standards, believe in them as true standards according to which one should live.
Thus, the first premise on which Gervais relies to support his conclusion that God doesn’t exist is simply not true, because there are, in fact, non-scientific truths that humans can know by reason. Gervais himself must admit as much in order to (1) employ the logical principles he uses to make the argument, (2) assert the truth of the premise that the only true knowledge is scientific knowledge and (3) believe in the truth of certain moral standards. For if there are no rational, non-scientific truths, then he would have to give up these truths as well as his conclusion that God doesn’t exist on which they depend. But if he believes them on the basis of faith or as a matter of mere opinion, he can’t at the same time say that we shouldn’t believe in God.
Gervais appears to assume that belief in the existence of God is either purely subjective or, what appears to amounts to the same thing in his mind, based solely on faith. Despite his reference to traditional medieval practices to which believers clutch amid the deluge of scientific truths, Gervais doesn’t appear to be aware the philosophical tradition going back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle and exemplified at the height of the medieval period by St. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God. This long tradition, present and flourishing in the Middle Ages, consists of many efforts to arrive at at rational knowledge of the existence of God. Although these efforts are not limited by the methodology of modern science, they are nonetheless rational in that they infer the existence of God from other truths discovered through the natural light of reason, truths that even if they do not rely on scientific knowledge are nevertheless consistent with it. One source has cataloged approximately twenty such arguments for God’s existence (the source can be found here). These arguments rely solely on reason and do not in any way depend on the unique claims of any religion. By referencing these arguments, I’m not saying that they don’t have their challengers, but merely pointing out that Gervais assumes, without so much as mentioning these arguments, that the belief in God must be either subjective or a matter of blind faith.
Although Gervais does not mention this long tradition of philosophical proofs for the existence of God, he nevertheless claims that the burden of proof that God exists is on the believer. If, as Gervais seems to admit, there are rational, non-scientific truths, and there have been serious attempts by the greatest minds of Western Civilization to show that the existence of God is such a truth, isn’t there such a preponderance of evidence in favor of God’s existence that the burden of proof is actually on him? And even though the fact that the majority of people believe in something doesn’t guarantee its truth, the fact that the vast majority of the human race from the beginning of recorded history has believed in some transcendent being in some form or other would seem to add some weight to this evidence. In any case, it is not as obvious as Gervais makes it out to be that the burden of proof is on the believer.
The God of Faith v. The God of Philosophy
With that said, and in fairness to Gervais, his argument focuses on only one of two conceptions of God. For instance, philosopher, Etienne Gilson, distinguishes between the God of philosophy and the God of faith in order to address the question to what extent are they the same. The question arises because even if you admit there is a rational, non-scientific argument for God’s existence and that much about what God is can be further ascertained through such reasoning, there is still the question as to whether this God, known through philosophical reasoning, is the same as the God of faith (and then of which faith?). St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteen century theologian states, for instance, that while “there are some truths which the natural reason…is able to reach, some truths about God exceed all the ability of human reason.” This question is more of an issue for Christianity than it is for Judaism and Islam because of Christianity’s unique doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. St. Thomas argues, for example, that we can know philosophically not only that God exists but that God is one, pure spirit, eternal, perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, infinite, etc. The God of Christianity, however, is all these things, but is also three persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the Son entering time and space through His incarnation as a human being, with all the limitations (except sin) that that entails. By borrowing from philosophy, theologians of the early Church were able to explain the Trinity and Incarnation in such a way as to narrow the gap between these two very different, if not entirely contradictory, notions of God (i.e. between God being one, yet three persons, infinite and spiritual, yet a finite human). Nevertheless, a gap between these two conceptions of God does still exists. To the extent there is such a gap, a belief in the existence of God as Christians understand Him ultimately requires that one go beyond the God of philosophy, knowable by reason, to the God of faith, the belief of which obviously requires faith. It is this God, the God of faith, that Gervais is concerned with in his article — his argument simply ignores the God of philosophy.
Given this distinction between the God of faith and the God of philosophy, Gervais is, on the one hand, wrong to assume that God doesn’t exist unless we can prove it through science. As discussed above, he would need to show first that we cannot know of God’s existence through non-scientific philosophical reasoning. For if we can, we can have rational, albeit non-scientific, knowledge of God’s existence. On the other hand, Gervais is right in a sense about the God of faith, which appears to be his exclusive focus. Neither science nor philosophy can definitively prove, for example, the existence of the much more complex and nuanced concept of the Christian God. So if Gervais requires a strictly rational foundation for belief in the existence of God, then he is right that we cannot know in a strictly rational way that the God of any particular faith exists. But granting this, the most that Gervais can conclude is that it is the God of faith, as opposed to the God of philosophy, that doesn’t exist.
But on what grounds does Gervais require a strictly rational foundation for belief in the existence of the God of faith, and even if belief in the God of faith is not strictly rational, does that mean it’s irrational? I’m sympathetic with Gervais’ desire for firm evidence to support any claims to knowledge. This is understandable, of course, because this is how we distinguish between what’s truth knowledge versus mere opinion. It’s this commendable desire for true knowledge over mere opinion that explains why Gervais appears to want to limit knowledge to what’s scientifically verifiable. As he says, science is “based on hard evidence — evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded.” Rightly, Gervais takes this to mean that there are many things that we don’t know currently that science may discover, but also that what we know currently may proved to be false or incomplete and thus need revision. But Gervais fails to take the next step. His remarks also imply that human knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is incomplete. Specifically, his remarks about scientific knowledge imply: (1) there may be things that exist that are we do not know exist; and (2) even if we know they exist, we may not fully understanding them, or some of what we understand about them may not be true.
But if his argument implies that there may be things that exist that we just don’t know exist, then he can’t say that he knows for sure that God doesn’t exist simply on the basis that we don’t, at present, have such knowledge. Gervais would probably say in response that the existence of God is different from other things whose existence we may not know. God is not like things discoverable through science where we don’t know it right now, but may discover it eventually. Rather, God is the sort of thing that science can never prove exists. But this response, at best, begs the question as to whether the only knowledge is scientific knowledge, and contradicts his tacit admission, discussed above, that we can truly know things, perhaps even the existence of God, through non-scientific, rational means.
Further, if his argument also implies that one can know the existence of something without knowing all there is to know about it, and also believing some things that are not even true about the thing in question, then even Gervais would have to admit that belief in the existence of the God of faith is not irrational, purely subjective or a matter of mere opinion. As explained, Gervais’ argument assumes that we can have non-scientific, rational knowledge, and it is through such knowledge that many great Western thinkers believed we can have rational knowledge of God’s existence. Supposing we have such knowledge, then we can at least know of God’s existence and perhaps even a number of things about His essence. If one accepts, as Gervais’ argument seems to imply, that one can know the existence of something without knowing its essence and operation perfectly (and perhaps even being mistaken about some things), then even by Gervais’ argument it’s not irrational to suppose that the God of philosophy, whose existence we have rational knowledge of, is the God of faith. And, it is simply due to the limits of human reason that a gap between the God of philosophy and the God of faith still remains.
Reasons to Believe
Admittedly, this is not an airtight logical argument that deducts through a strictly logical argument the God of faith from the God of philosophy. Yet it shows that even on Gervais’ own terms, the belief in the God of faith is not wholly without some rational basis. If the rational, albeit non-scientific, arguments for God’s existence provide knowledge that God, as understood through philosophy, exists, then the limits of the human intellect provide some basis for saying that the God of philosophy and faith may very well be the same. And if that’s the case, then we certainly cannot conclude with Gervais that the God of faith does not exist, even if we don’t have an undeniably sound rational demonstration that He does.
On the other hand, Gervais points out that historians have catalogued over 3700 supernatural beings. Of course, the shear number of different ideas humans have had of God requires that we ask which understanding is the true one. For even if we can have philosophical knowledge of God’s existence and, due to the limits of human reason, can’t rule out the possibility that this is also the God of faith, we haven’t come any closer to showing that any one of the ideas humans have had of God corresponds to the God whose existence we can reason to through philosophy. Certainly, from a purely rational standpoint, this is an appropriate question. Although the limits of human reason provide some explanation as to the discrepancy between the God of faith and the God of philosophy, one wouldn’t be defying strict logic to deny that any one of the many gods of faith are the same as the God of philosophy and that, as a result, there’s no reasonable basis for discerning which god of faith is the one that truly exists.
But the fact that there are so many different religious understandings of what the God of faith is is also understandable and consistent with what has been said thus far. The various conceptions of God’s nature suggests that the question is not so much about the existence of God, for all societies have had some belief in the existence of divine beings, but rather what we should understand the nature and operation of the God of faith to be. I would further add that even if it is impossible to construct a logically rigorous proof of what God is, and thus, which God of faith is the correct one, that does not mean there are not signposts, so to speak, that point in the direction of the truth of one religion’s idea of God over others. Such “signposts” would not provide a logically rigorous demonstration, but would provide evidence amounting to a certain measure of probability of its truth. As such, even belief in the God of faith would not be, as Gervais, suggests purely subjective or merely a matter of opinion.
A discussion of what these signposts are and evaluation of their merits warrants another essay, but to clarify what I have in mind, I’ll offer a few examples of the sort of questions, that would assist in providing a basis for the discovery of such signposts that would, in turn, guide one in determining that the idea of a given religion’s God is more reasonable than others, and thus more probable. Again, this would only show the reasonableness of believing in one religion’s understanding of God over another and would not provide a strictly rational proof that what a given religion understands the essence and operation of God to be is the actual essence and operation of the God whose existence is known through philosophy. Following is a non-exhaustive list of the sort of questions that would assist one in explaining the reasonableness of one’s belief.
(1) What does the particular religion’s understanding of God’s essence and how God relates to humans imply for how humans should related to each other: is the primary basis love, strict justice, indifference, capriciousness, wrath, etc.; which one of these makes seems most consistent with cultivating the best in human nature; which would be most conducive to our social existence, promoting the greatest good in our relationships with friend, family and greater community?
(2) What does the particular idea of God in question imply about the overall vision of one’s life and its meaning: does the idea of God invest human life with profound dignity, meaning and purpose, or does it imply that our actions and lives simply do not matter, or leave us in the dark as to the meaning of life?
(3) Does the idea of God posed by a given religion adequately provide for the kind of complete and unending happiness humans generally desire?
(4) Does the idea of God and God’s interactions with humans, if any, comport with our socio-political nature? Is it compatible with the variety of cultures, traditions, social and political institutions in relation to which humans have lived throughout history? If it entails a certain detachment from the world, does it reconcile that detachment with our need to “earn our daily bread?”
(5) Does the idea of God conform to and make the most sense of our mixed experience of evil, sin and suffering as well as goodness, virtue and happiness?
(6) Does the given religion’s understanding of God adequately address the desire humans generally have for immortality (if one questions such a desire, I’d offer our obsessive quest to prolong this life as evidence), taking into account, as well, our general interest in preserving our personal history and identity?
(7) Does this idea of God provide for a coherent understanding of our dual nature as both bodily and mental, psychological and/or spiritual beings, and account for our experience of the integration of the two?
(8) Similar to what Voegelin, Dawson and Kirk suggest in their writings, does the idea of God reveal a certain fulfillment of humanity’s growing awareness of the transcendent?
Surely there are more such guiding questions that when answered would provide the indicators for determining the reasonableness of the God of faith and even, I think, the God of a particular faith. Gervais appears to assume that belief in the God of faith is a matter of mere opinion, an irrational, subjective choice. I’ve not done the sociological study required to determine why believers believe in God, generally, or in the God of their particular religion. But my guess is that believers have some reasons for their belief even if they have not exhaustively answered the sort of questions presented above. And even if a particular believer cannot provide reasons for his/her belief, that does not mean the belief itself is irrational. To the extent the belief can address the sort of questions posed above, there are reasons that make sense of that person’s belief. As such, Gervais is simply wrong to treat faith in God as simply a matter of purely subjective opinion. While such faith can never be strictly rational (otherwise it would not be faith), I contend that it can, nevertheless, have a rational basis insofar as there are reasons that offer some measure of probability that faith corresponds to the objectively true reality of God’s existence.
While there is much more that could be said about the question of God’s existence and whether and with what degree of certainty we can know of His existence, I want to conclude by pointing out that there is a coherence, at least in certain religions traditions, regarding faith and our limited knowledge of whether and what God is. One might find a sort of perverse irony or even an absurdity in the fact that human societies on the whole have always sought to know and understand the transcendent, but due to the limits of our intellectual and rational capacity often fall short of perfect knowledge of the transcendent. Of course, while strict logic does not require it, it wouldn’t be absurd, and would even makes some sense, that God (whose existence and essence we can know in a limited sense through reason) should, in fact, make Himself known to us. Faiths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, for instance, teach that God reveals Himself to humanity and that faith is our response to God’s self-revelation. The idea of God in this tradition, at least, acknowledges and overcomes the paradox of humans having limited intellectual capacity yet a near universal desire to know God. To the extent that faith makes some sense of this absurd predicament of the human condition, far from being irrational, one might even go so far as saying that faith has a certain rationality that the absence of faith lacks.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.