The term 'God' is open to many definitions. For Don Cupitt in The Sea of Faith, it is 'the sum of all our values'. But this is a long way from the traditional Judaic-Christian conception of an infinite personal spirit who created out of nothing everything other than himself, who is himself eternal and uncreated, omnipotent, omniscient and all-loving and who has made his creatures for eventual fellowship with himself. It is this notion which is discussed here.
Some theologians would argue that the term 'exists' can be applied only to entities within the created realm, so that it is wrong to assert of the ultimate creator that he 'exists'. Thus, according to Paul Tillich and others, the question of the existence of a god can be neither asked nor answered. However, we shall not adopt this approach but instead assume that either the god as defined above exists or it does not.
There are 5 traditional 'proofs' of the existence of a god. It might be supposed that one would be enough, but perhaps there is safety in numbers. The first is the ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT. This maintains that God's essence proves his existence. It is an a priori argument, i.e. it rests independently of experience on purely logical considerations and if valid would achieve the kind of certainty exhibited by mathematical rules. St Anselm (1033-1109) formulated the argument as follows. The most perfect and real conceivable being is the idea of a being which must and therefore does exist because a non-existent could never be the most perfect and real conceivable being. In other words, existence is a perfection and since God is perfect he must exist. Descartes (1596-1650) also accepted this argument. The existence of God is part of his essence, he wrote in the Meditations, because " existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than can ... the idea of a mountain from the idea of a valley".
The argument is fallacious. Even Aquinas (1225-74) rejected it on the grounds that it is not self-evident that God exists. We cannot deduce from a concept that anything exists which corresponds to that concept. We can all dream dreams of perfect love, perfect happiness, perfect peace, and so on, but it is invalid to suggest that they exist outside our imagination. Arguably, a perfect being is in the same category: it is a dream, not a reality. Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason disposed of the argument by saying that existence is not a predicate. "Our consciousness of all existence belongs exclusively to the field of experience; any alleged existence outside this field is of the nature of an assumption which we can never be in a position to justify". He later adds: "We can no more extend our stock of insight by mere ideas than a merchant can better his position by adding a few noughts to his cash account".
The second so-called 'proof' is the COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT. This is basically the argument that the world is unintelligible without the existence of a god. A well-known formulation is the first cause argument, which goes back to Plato. In order for there to be causes undergoing and transmitting changes there must be an uncaused cause to originate the movement. Aristotle also claimed that change implies an ultimate unchanging source of movement because there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. In the terminology of Aquinas, there must be a prime, unmoved mover.
Another formulation is the argument from contingency, which maintains that each item in nature points beyond itself - is contingent on something else - for its sufficient explanation, so that either the regress of explanations run out to infinity, with the result that nothing is ever finally explained, or else it must terminate in a self-sufficient force which neither needs nor is capable of further explanation.
This argument is easily challenged. Is it easier to assume that the, universe is self-caused or that the universe is caused by a god who is self-caused? Applying Occam’s Razor (the principle of reducing assumptions to the absolute minimum), the former is the appropriate assumption, whereas the latter makes another unsupportable statement. The same point applies to the contingency argument. It may be the universe itself which neither needs nor is capable of further explanation. As Hawking puts it in A Brief History of Time, "if the universe is really completely self-contained ' having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end; it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?" We might also add that a god is not an ultimate explanation of anything unless we can explain this unmoved mover and why it created the universe in the first place.
The third proof of a god is the so-called TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT. This is the argument from design. It says that nature displays such order, complexity and beauty that it must have been purposely designed in this way - just as a watch needs a watchmaker in the formulation by Paley.
One obvious but important point is that, even if valid, this argument points not to a singular designer but several. For the more complex the design in the living world, the greater the number of designers. To illustrate, a paper plane is easily designed by one person, but a space shuttle requires hundreds of people to get going. The complexity of the universe, by this logic, is so great that it would require a great many gods to design and construct.
In any case, what we observe in nature is not design in this sense. It is order, pattern, symmetry. The 'laws of nature' are simply our way of describing the way things behave. Many of them are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance. Nor were human beings 'designed': we adapted to our environment. It is not that the environment was made to be suitable to us, but that by slow, gradual cumulative selection we grew to be suitable to it.
Fourthly, there is THE MORAL ARGUMENT. This has many possible formulations. Kant, who dismissed the previous three arguments, concluded that the only reason we have for believing in God was our own morality. He argued that our moral nature makes it necessary for us to believe in God as the ultimate good. But Kant avoided saying plainly that God actually exists, and he rejected the idea that our moral sense comes from God.
This is important, because many formulations of this argument claim that there would be no morality, no right and wrong, unless God exists. Bertrand Russell disposes of this argument as follows. "If you are quite sure that there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God's fiat, because God's flats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them" (Why I Am Not A Christian).
Humanists would reject the notion that religion provides an adequate basis for morality. As a principle, might is never right and morality is not simply a matter of obedience to divine commands or surrender to the will of a deity. Morality springs instead from human needs and human interests.
Another form of the moral argument is that for the remedying of injustice. The existence of a god is said to be necessary in order to establish ultimate justice. In the world there is often great injustice, the good often suffer and the less good often triumph. So there must be a god and there must be heaven and hell so that in the long run there will be justice. The only reasonable response to this argument is that it is a piece of wishful thinking.
A fifth and final 'proof' is the so-called ARGUMENT FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. Many claim that God is experienced on a personal level, and that we should simply receive him into our hearts without questioning.
A number of objections arise here. First, if religious experiences exist, what criteria are there for distinguishing the genuine ones from the illusions? To claim that an experience indicates an objective fact, there must exist objective and rational methods of demonstration. Otherwise we would have to grant the existence of every god that various people have felt to exist, including rain gods, tree gods, war gods, and even mischievous gods in a malfunctioning computer.
Second, people often misunderstand the state of their own minds and the cause of their feelings and emotions. Third, people who already strongly believe in a god will be apt to interpret certain experiences as coming from God.
Finally, it is sometimes said that religion is only for those who need crutches. This seemingly frivolous remark actually expresses something quite important. You hear plenty of stories of drug addicts, terminal patients, bereaved relatives, murderers and unhappy people 'turning to god'. But it would be absurd if someone said: "I was happy with my life, could cope with injustice, was not afraid of death and generally had a sense of wellbeing. Then suddenly I accepted Jesus into my heart!"
It would be absurd because religion has nothing to offer a person like this. Of course, there are many people who are not so gratified with life. They may therefore choose to use the idea of a god as a kind of cement to fill up the gaps in their happiness, just as others drag in a god to account for something which science has not yet explained.
All the so-called 'proofs' of the existence of a god are thus seen to be totally fallacious. On the other hand, there are many arguments AGAINST the existence of such a being. Can perfection create imperfection and yet remain perfect? Can an all-powerful and all-loving being create hatred, misery and suffering and yet remain both all-powerful to be able to prevent it and all-loving to want to prevent it? If God caused the universe, what caused God? If the universe always existed, what role is there for a god anyway?
Clarence Darrow said that he did not believe in God because he did not believe in Mother Goose. Humanists believe that the idea of a god rightly belongs in the dustbin of history. Nietzsche posed the question: Is Man a Blunder of God? Or is God a blunder of man? We believe that the latter is the case, and that humankind should throw off the shackles of a discredited, outmoded, repressive, dangerous and unnecessary creed and instead assume responsibility for our own lives and the lives of others. We should have the courage to rely on ourselves and our own powers. We should think, feel and act for ourselves, and abide by the logic of results. The Humanist position was well summed up by Bertrand Russell: "Remember your humanity and forget the rest".
"This liberty of thought, this liberty of expression, is of more value than any other thing beneath the stars. Of more value than any religion, of more value than any government, of more value than all the constitutions that man has written and all the laws that he has passed, is this liberty - the absolute liberty of the human mind. Take away that word from language, and all other words become meaningless sounds"