Having worked in youth ministry for most of my life, which included 6 years of professional work, I can certainly say that I’ve totally struck out when it comes to answering questions about the faith. These failures actually served as the impetus for me to expand my knowledge of the faith. In fact, it’s my time in youth ministry that convinced me to specialize in natural theology, which is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature and existence of God.
However, it seems that most religious educators, teachers, and youth ministers are satisfied with bad arguments for God’s existence which do nothing but drive people away from the faith. Which is why
I got to witness this first hand in my last parish when a 13 year old boy asked the parish school’s religion teacher “how do we know God exists?” Even though she was in front of the entire class, she ignored his genuine and pressing question, totally blowing him off.
That’s the worst thing she could have done.
At the very least, she could have said something like, “that’s a great question but might take more time than we have for class, let’s talk later.” or “I think that Fr. Z might be a better person to address that question.” Taking that tactic would have shown the kid that he and his difficulties are worth somebody’s time. But not only did this teacher fail to answer the question, she failed to show that kid that he’s loved and that his thoughts are taken seriously.
She totally bombed.
The class assistant, on the other hand, offered this gem:
“Haven’t you ever seen a newborn baby? Or a sunset? That warm feeling of appreciation…that’s God. And how can you doubt that”
Someone literally laughed but at least she tried…
The kids didn’t know that I was listening to their class, so when they saw me in the hall during lunch time, they rushed me to tell me about the exchange. We spent the entire 45 minute lunch period addressing his questions and difficulties.
They even skipped recess…
By the end of the conversation, everyone involved with the discussion felt that their concerns were alleviated and left with a renewed confidence in their faith.
All because someone took them seriously and addressed their concerns rationally…
For most people, “youth ministry” and “philosophy” could not be more unrelated. Apparently, these people don’t pay enough attention…
In case you haven’t heard the news, the number of Americans who deny or reject the existence of God has increased dramatically over the last decade or so. For some reason, most Christian teachers and catechists have missed this news or they somehow don’t find it to be a topic worth addressing. Even when well-meaning faith leaders attempt to address this issue, they usually end up making things worse because they have not adequately prepared themselves for these questions.
Over the next few weeks, I want serve you some of the fruits of my research by showing you the nuts and bolts of natural theology.
First, however, I want to show you the top 5 “arguments” for God’s arguments for God’s existence that you need to avoid:
#1. The Bible says that God exists and the Bible is God’s word. God wouldn’t lie and so God exists.
Yes. I have seen people use that argument or something like it, not many, but often enough to mention it here.
This argument doesn’t work because it is circular in so many ways. The whole question at hand is whether or not God exists but the “argument” starts with three hitherto unjustified assumptions about God:
- God exists.
- That God is the primary Author of the Bible
- That God doesn’t lie
Don’t get me wrong, I believe all of these things and that we can demonstrate #1 and #3 with certainty from reason alone while #2 is something we can believe with a high degree of confidence. However, this argument is wildly invalid because it assumes the truth that it seeks to prove.
Pro-tip: Never appeal to an authority that your debate partner does not revere. An atheist simply does not accept the authority of Scripture, full stop. It’s almost useless to quote Scripture to them.
#2 Appeal to Subjective Experience of God
Should we share our stories? Sure. But declaring, ” I WAS BORN AGAIN AT A BILLY GRAHAM MEETING IN 1984, I HAVE THE SPIRIT OF THE LIVING GOD IN ME! I DON”T BELIEVE GOD EXISTS< I KNOW HE DOES!!!1!!1!” Demonstrates nothing about God and only makes you, and by extension Christianity, look foolish. Why should we believe your testimony? Perhaps your experience, though real, was not an experience of God but some psychological phenomenon. How about people of other religions who have similar experiences? Does that demonstrate their God too?
The same goes for profound encounters in our life. One prominent Catholic speaker, whom I will call Sarah, is famous for her conversion from atheism to Christianity. Sarah was once brought on to a Catholic apologetics podcast to discuss a book she had just written about her story. When an atheist caller asked her how we can know that God exists, Sarah said that she became convinced that God exists after she had given birth to her first child and saw her baby’s face for the first time. For her, the beauty of the whole event was simply overwhelming and Sarah felt as if she had encountered God in this sublime moment.
Can beauty be used in a sound argument for God’s existence? Sure. But your own experience of God through beauty just won’t cut it, nor will just about any other subjective experience.
Pro-tip: If someone wants to hear about your subjective experiences and how they have affected you, go for it. But if someone is looking for an argument based on objective premises, then your story has little relevance. Your subjective experiences with God are great, but they can only serve as a “recommendation” at best because your experiences are just that– yours and yours alone.
#3 Cute Miracle Stories
As a Catholic, I firmly believe that miracles are not only possible but that they are also a major motive of credibility for the faith. When you use them for the sake of evangelization then you need to appeal to miracles that have multiple attestation or have withstood the scrutiny to testify to their veracity. I’m thinking things like the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, which had tens of thousands of witnesses, or Eucharistic miracles from Buenos Aires or Lanciano, both of which underwent numerous scientific investigations.
What doesn’t count is that time you really wanted to know what decision you needed to make at work and a YouTube ad gave you just the answer you needed.
Could that have been God? Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking.
What happened to you was just some really good marketing…and Google spying on you…
Finding Jesus on a piece of toast won’t help your case either…
Pro-tip: Miracles make an excellent case for the existence of God but you have to be judicious. Some odd, positive coincidence simply will not provide the intellectual substance for someone looking to feast their minds on truth.
#4 Just Pray and God Will Reveal Himself to You
Again, this is possible but it’s not something likely to convince a skeptic. I actually advise praying to God and asking Him to give you eyes to see the truth, but this is to be done in conjunction with continued study and guidance from someone who knows what they’re talking about.
Pro-tip: You can’t treat God like he’s your own personal Genie who magically appears once you say the right words. God will give you grace and work through people in your lives to help you come to know Him but he’s not some invisible tea-cup poodle who jumps in your lap.
#5 Any Ontological Argument
I wasn’t initially going to include this one because hundreds of very serious and talented philosophers think this argument is rock-solid. But talking about the Ontological Argument (OA) is always worthwhile in some way.
WARNING: This section is quite a bit more academic than the other four.
The Ontological Argument was first posited by St. Anselm in the 11th century and has undergone many revisions since, with the most famous recent example being that of Dr. Alvin Plantinga who has put together what I think is the most compelling version of this attempted argument. I highly encourage you to look up more robust presentations on YouTube, especially the ones on the channel “Inspiring Philosophy.”
However, here are two versions, one from St. Anselm and one from Plantinga:
To exist in reality is greater than to exist as an idea.
If God only exists as an idea then it is possible to conceive of something greater.
But God is that which nothing greater can be conceived
Therefore, God must exist in reality.
Premise 1: It is possible that a Maximally Great Being (MGB) exists.
Premise 2: If it is possible that a MBG exists, then MGB exists in some possible worlds.
Premise 3: If a MGB exists in some possible worlds, then MGB exists in all possible worlds.
Premise 4: If MGB exists in all possible worlds, then MGB exists in the actual world.
Premise 5: If MGB exists in the actual world, then MGB exists.
Conclusion: Therefore, MGB exists.
As you can see, the Ontological Argument has become very sophisticated in the last 900 years. Again, there is a lot more to be said for this argument than what I’m to write up here but no matter how much I’ve tried on this argument, I just can’t buy into it and there are two main reasons why:
- The overall feeling you get from this argument is that someone is trying to pull a fast one over on you, so even if it sounds like it makes sense…there’s still something not quite right. Besides, the terms are of such a character that you usually lose people about step 2.5. While this does not impact whether the argument works or doesn’t work— it just doesn’t work well in a ministry setting for that reason.
- Every ontological argument has the same Achilles heel: it starts with a proposed or nominal definition of God or MGB. Since that’s the case then every ontological argument begins with a definition of God produced from our own mind and then examines the meaning of that term God in an attempt to demonstrate that God exists. The problem with this approach is that it tries to pull real existence out of a definition which only has mental existence.
So, there are several problems here:
A. The ontological argument equivocates on “existence” with “mental existence” in the premises and “real existence” in the conclusion. Even if we say that we “intend God’s real existence” then all that is in your mind is your conception of God’s real existence, which means that it God’s existence in the premises is only mental. You just can’t get more from less…
B. The ontological argument confuses the distinction between a thing’s existence and its essence. Just to quickly explain: you can know what a Phoenix is without knowing whether it exists–right? Of course. Just because you have some definition of a thing or knowledge of its essence does not help you one bit in knowing that it exists. Even if your definition contains “necessary existence”, you don’t know whether such a definition has any members in the real world.
C. Finally, the ontological argument (OA) only works if its completely unnecessary. The way that human know anything at all is through the senses. It’s through our experience that we can come to know the essences of real things or recognize that such things exist. Once we have terms for the concepts of things that existing the real world, we can put them together to form an argument that demonstrates something beyond our direct sense experience. We do not experience God in such a way that we have direct apprehension of his essence. Hence, if the ontological argument is going to work then we either need to derive a definition of God from a different argument, like Aquinas’ 3rd way, or we must see God as He is in the Beatific Vision. If we get a definition of God that’s sufficient to make the Ontological Argument work then the OA is redundant. Likewise, if we see God as He is then His existence is self-evident to us. Through the Beatific Vision and Aquinas’ 3rd way, we come to know that essence and existence coincide in God. In other words, God’s very nature is Existence Itself with all of the glorious perfections that Pure Subsisting Being entails (more on what the heck that means later). Either way, the only ways the OA can work also make it completely superfluous.
I repeat: what I just said is a summary and simplification of the debate on whether the OA works or not. There is much more to be said for and against it. The OA itself is an argument that anyone who loves philosophy ought to take very seriously and for those that do wrestle with the OA, I promise that you’ll find yourself with clearer and sharper thinking for having done so– no matter where you end up in that debate.
Are There Good Arguments for God’s Existence?
Yes, I can think of about a dozen off the top of my head, but I wouldn’t include any of the above attempts in that list. Some that do work well enough would be the Kalam Cosmological Argument, or the Design Argument, or the Moral Argument. These do quite a bit of work moving the ball downfield towards belief in God. The best, however, are St. Thomas’ five ways and his other arguments precisely because they are practically irrefutable and traverse the gap between “first cause” and “God” with ease. (More on the “gap” problem later on in this series).
For now, avoid the five attempts mentioned in the post. If you are an atheist or just someone struggling with God’s existence and someone has offered you any of these attempts at proving God’s existence, please know that there are much better arguments on offer.
And I’ll give them to you later, stay tuned!
In the mean time, it would mean a lot to me if you would hit like and share this article with everyone you know!
Jonathan L. Stute, M.A.