Expanding The Arc
Humans have believed in the supernatural, and in gods, for a long time. From the time of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, through the Greek and Roman periods, and during the middle ages, almost everyone believed in a god or gods. They believed in Marduk, Ra, Baal, Zeus, Jupiter, Christ, and Allah, among others. Gods were thought to be immortal and to directly intervene in human affairs; societies built huge temples to them and engaged in elaborate rituals to gain their good favor. But there were always dissenters. In ancient Greece, for example, thinkers such as Epicurus and Democritus dispensed with gods altogether, believing in natural causes for such things as lightening and earthquakes (ascribed in Greek belief to Zeus and Hades). And, famously, Socrates was put on trial in Athens because he was thought to be atheos, without belief in the gods.
Early belief in certain gods rapidly became entangled with loyalty to the state. Socrates was also put on trial because some of his followers—aristocratic Athenian youth who loved to watch him discomfort their elders—were implicated in the infamous “tyranny of the thirty” which occurred after the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404 BCE. Later, in the middle ages when Europe was united in its belief in a Christian god, it became heresy to question the beliefs of the church, which were supported by the various kingdoms. People were tried, tortured, and executed for not conforming to the state’s religious belief.
Then, as people became more secure and universities were founded, some thinkers began to try to place belief in god on a more rigorous, rational basis. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in his Suma Theologica, gave five rational proofs for God’s existence. Others, such as Saint Anselm (1033-1109), had earlier also attempted “proofs” of God’s existence. In general, however, God was thought to transcend human understanding, and belief became a matter of faith, not reason.
Finally, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the period in the West known as The Enlightenment, or The Age of Reason, many thinkers in the emerging sciences as well as public figures and politicians, such as Benjamin Franklin in the English Colony of Pennsylvania, began to deemphasize the differences in doctrine that separated the various religions. Instead, they envisioned a beneficent God who had created Nature, allowed it to develop according to Natural Law, and did not directly interfere in its workings (as in miracles). This belief came to be called Deism. However, most believers found this “intellectual religion” cold and uninspiring.
The traditional arguments for the existence of God are:
Today there has been a resurgence of debate about the existence of God. A group of so-called “new atheists” have challenged traditional religion—and religious values—in light of on-going religious conflicts around the world and the continued expansion of scientific insight into and explanation of the universe and human nature. Such books as Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation (all three published in 2006) and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) argue that there are completely natural explanations for the origins of the universe, human beings, and our concepts of morality. Some, like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, even argue that religion itself is one of the major contributors to the many social and moral problems that confront humanity today, and that, even further, it impedes solutions to those problems.
In contrast, David Bentley Hart argues in The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2014) that the atheists are superficial and misguided in their analyses of religion. Further, in a 2012 Gallup poll, when asked if they believed in God, 9 out of 10 Americans answered “yes.” That number has been steady since the 1940s. So what should you believe? Can the existence of God be proven rationally? Is belief in God simply a matter of faith? Should faith “transcend” reason?
If you want to further explore rational arguments for and against the existence of God, a good place to start is the “Philosophy of Religion” section in the Stanford Encyclopedia online. (This encyclopedia is a good place to begin to explore many philosophical issues.)
Below are five articles that discuss the existence of god; the first two are contemporary classics on the issue. The last three are on what might be called “contemporary atheism.”
Bertrand Russell. “Why I Am Not a Christian.”
C. S. Lewis. “Book I: Right and Wrong as a Clue to The Meaning of the Universe.” Mere
Christianity. “Book II: What Christians Believe.”
Sam Harris. “An Atheist Manifesto.” The Blog. SamHarris.org.
Reza Aslan. “Sam Harris and ‘New Atheists’ Aren’t New Aren’t Even Atheists.” Salon 21 Nov.
2014. This article emphasizes the difference between atheism and anti-theism.
Gabe Bullard. “The World’s Newest Major Religion: No Religion.” National Geographic 22 Apr. 2016.