Arguments for God




Copyright 2016 Chris Park

Shakespir Edition



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This ebook contains material drawn from my book God: Real or Imagined? which was first published in print format by Zaccmedia in 2013. It is part of the GOD MATTERS series, the other ebooks of which are listed in ‘Other books by this author’.




Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Philosophical arguments

3. The argument from design

4. Arguments based on design

5. The argument from sacred texts

6. The argument from consciousness

7. The argument from morality

8. The argument from probability

9. The cumulative case argument


About the author

Other books by this author



1. Introduction


For thousands of years the greatest minds of every generation have worked diligently to prove the existence of God, and for thousands of years great minds have produced valid refutations of those proofs.” Michael Shermer (2000)


English Christian writer David Watson (1984) bemoaned “our human arrogance which assumes that God must somehow justify his existence and explain his actions before we are prepared to consider the possibility of believing in him.”

However much we might regret that arrogance, the fact remains that a great many people today are unwilling to believe that God exists without having good grounds for doing so. Inevitably, therefore, a great deal of attention has been devoted to the search for plausible arguments for the existence God and good reasons for believing in God.


Is anyone there?

Former Bishop of Durham David Jenkins (1966) argues that “there has always been a debate about God, not only about what He is like, but about whether He exists at all.”

From that perspective, in an ideal world everyone would believe without question that God exists; there would be no debate over the matter. But of course that’s not the case and increasingly the default position for many people, particularly in western society, is that there is no God, and if there is a God it is a pale reflection of the Abrahamic God that is worshipped in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Why is God so elusive? Why doesn’t God make himself blindingly obvious to everyone? If God is as ubiquitous and all-knowing as believers say he is, why doesn’t he simply make everyone know and believe that he exists, and that would be the end of the matter? As David Jenkins puts it, “it might be supposed that God, if He existed, would be bound to have an existence so certain and so really real that anyone who was capable of thinking about Him at all would be bound to see that He really exists.”

In a nutshell, why does God play a cosmic game of ‘Where’s Wally’? From a believer’s perspective one answer is that God does not impose himself on us, but rather he grants us an element of choice and free will.

Believers would argue that we see God through a window into a different world, or in different ‘levels of reality’, material and spiritual. (This theme is explored further in the ebook Science and the Challenge to God in this GOD MATTERS series) Perhaps surprisingly, even New Atheist Sam Harris (2005) concedes that there is a “world beyond reason … [in which] a certain range of human experience can be appropriately described as ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ – experiences of meaningfulness, selflessness, and heightened emotion that surpass our narrow identities as ‘selves’ and escape our current understanding of the mind and brain.” Harris brings the argument back down to earth with a bump in concluding “the problem with religion is that it blends this truth so thoroughly with the venom of unreason.”

Fellow New Atheist Daniel Dennett (2006) views “the goal of either proving or disproving God’s existence [as] a quixotic quest – but also for that very reason not very important. … The important question is whether religions deserve the continued protection of their adherents.’ Presumably with Richard Dawkins in mind, Dennett points out that many atheists devote much time and energy “to looking at the arguments for and against the existence of God … hacking away vigorously at the arguments of the believers as if they were trying to refute a rival scientific theory. But not I. I decided some time ago that diminishing returns had set in on the arguments about God’s existence, and I doubt that any breakthroughs are in the offing, from either side.’

Dennett may well be right about the lack of “breakthroughs”, but given the amount of time and effort that have been devoted over many centuries to constructing arguments for God’s existence, it is only fair to give them an airing.

Nearly 200 years ago Hegel (1984) noted that “God does not offer himself for observation” so we have to find indirect ways of establishing at least the likelihood of God’s existence. As we shall see, these tend to rely more on lines of argument than on proof or tangible evidence, so weighing up the nature and credibility of different arguments is not without challenge. Ultimately, belief in the existence and nature of God is a matter of faith, which is explored further in the ebook The Nature of Belief in this GOD MATTERS series.



To help us better understand the essence of many of the arguments for God it is important to clarify two important things – sources of data and types of argument.

As David Jenkins (1966) pointed out “there are two sources of data which can supply the actual content of Christian belief or, at least, lead to its acceptance. These are commonly and shortly described as Reason and Revelation.” Reason is important because it is through reason - the search for a cause, explanation or justification for something - that we think about the world about us, the world that science tries to study objectively. Natural theology uses reason (including philosophical arguments) to establish the existence of God. Revelation - the making known of a previously unknown fact, often in a dramatic way - is very different from reason.

Revealed theology goes further than natural theology and reason; believers argue that it provides additional ‘truths’ that are not accessible to reason (such as the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the Trinity [the view of God as father, son and spirit] and the incarnation [Jesus as the son of God]). The theme of revelation is explored in more detail in the ebook Personal Experience of God in this GOD MATTERS series.

Arguments for God’s existence fall into two main categories – a priori and a posteriori arguments. A priori (meaning literally ‘before’ the fact) arguments are deductive; they argue from first principles, based on reason not experience.

Philosopher Richard Swinburne (1979) points out that in a priori arguments “the premises are conceptual truths, viz. propositions which would be true whether or not there was a universe of material or spiritual beings other than God.” Anselm’s Ontological Argument (explained in Chapter 2) is the most famous of the a priori arguments for the existence of God.

A posteriori (meaning literally ‘after’ the fact) arguments, on the other hand, are inductive; they are based on experiences and observations of how things really are, then reasoning back from facts or particulars to general principles. In a posteriori arguments “the premises report what are (in some very general sense) features of human experience – eg evident general truths about the world or features of private human experience,” as Swinburne puts it. Aquinas’s Five Ways (explainedin Chapter 2) are a posteriori arguments.


This book is part of the GOD MATTERS series. Other books in the series are listed in Other books by this author at the back of this book.




Return to Table of Contents




2. Philosophical Arguments

Philosophers have through the ages spent a great deal of time and effort wrestling with the question of whether or not God exists. The two most widely debated sets of philosophical arguments about God were put forward by Christian theologians Anselm and Aquinas.


Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Anselm was an eleventh century English Christian philosopher and theologian who became Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109). As Francis Collins (2010) points out, Anselm was a devout Christian who was also interested in understanding the rational foundations of what he believed.

He developed what has become known as the Ontological Argument, an a priori argument. The name is derived from the Greek ontos, meaning ‘being’. Keith Ward (2003) describes the argument as “absolutely infuriating” and notes that “since Anselm’s time it has taken many forms, all circling around the one central idea of necessary existence.”

Anselm’s argument is based on two ideas. The first is that if God exists at least in the mind, then God must also exist in reality. Merely thinking of God, even to deny his existence, proves that he exists. As Andrew Pessin (2009) puts it, given that God does exist in the mind of both believers and non-believers, then God does indeed exist. This is called the argument of necessary existence because, as Carolyn Ogden (2000) points out, Anselm believed that “God could not be conceived not to exist, for a being that can be thought not to exist is not as great as one that cannot be thought to exist. In other words, existence is necessary to the idea of God.”

Secondly, Anselm thought of God as the most perfect being imaginable, or in his words “that than which nothing can be conceived.” This is because “a being which could only be conceived in the mind would always be inferior to a being which also existed in reality. Therefore ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ must exist in reality,” as Patrick Clarke (2001) explains. As Karen Armstrong (1993) puts it, “since existence is more ‘perfect’ or complete than non-existence, the perfect being that we imagine must have existence or it would be imperfect.”

Peter Vardy (1999) points out that Anselm’s Ontological Argument “is totally different from any of the other arguments on several grounds:

p<>{color:#000;}. It does not start from experience as a starting point.

p<>{color:#000;}. It claims to arrive at the existence of God by analysing the idea of God and this idea does not depend on experience – it is therefore an a priori argument.

p<>{color:#000;}. If the argument succeeds, then the existence of God is logically necessary and, as a matter of logic, it simply does not make sense to doubt that God exists.”

Richard Dawkins (2006) dismisses Anselm’s argument as “infantile” and argues that “the very idea that grand conclusions could follow from such logomachist trickery offends me aesthetically.” Dawkins points out that several eighteenth century philosophers refuted the argument, including David Hume (1711-76) and particularly Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who recognised the “slippery assumption that ‘existence’ is more ‘perfect’ than non-existence.”

Theologian Keith Ward (2008) accepts Dawkins’ argument “that you cannot establish the existence of something just by the analysis of concepts,’ but he reminds us that “the function of the ontological argument … is not to prove God, but to remind us of the uniqueness and incomparability of the divine being. It spells out what it is to be a being of supreme perfection.”

Seventeenth century French scientist and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) developed Anselm’s idea a little further. He believed that the idea of God itself proves the existence of God, using the simple logic of causality, because the idea must be caused by God and so God must exist. As Andrew Pessin (2009) explains, “if nothing comes from nothing then the idea of an infinite being could only be caused by an actually infinite being. But nothing causes anything unless it exists. So an actually infinite being exists. So God exists.”


Aquinas’s Five Ways

The medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) rejected Anselm’s Ontological Argument, arguing – as Patrick Clarke (2001) puts it – that “had it been convincing, the existence of God would be self-evident to everyone,” which it quite clearly isn’t.

Aquinas took a different approach, an a posteriori approach based on arguing from what we can see of the world about us and tracing back to the causes of it. He was convinced that the world contains enough evidence to show that God exists, using the logic that if God did not exist then there is no way of explaining the world as we experience it. Richard Dawkins (2006) summarises the essence of Aquinas’s argument; Aquinas believed that “there must have been a time when no physical thing existed. But, since physical things now exist, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God.’ Aquinas explained his reasoning through five what he called ‘ways’, or arguments.

This is still a philosophical approach to the question of God’s existence, using arguments which as Michael Poole (2007) points out “may be seen as possible pointers rather than proofs.’ The arguments would not stand up in a court of law, but that should not be the basis on which to judge them. Similarly, the evidence is not particularly persuasive to atheists and scientists like Richard Dawkins, but that says more about their partial notion of reality than about the integrity of Aquinas’s thinking.

It is important to keep in mind what Aquinas was trying to do, and why he was trying to do it. Karen Armstrong (2009) reminds us that Aquinas “was not trying to convince a skeptic of God’s existence. He was simply trying to find a rational answer to the primordial question: ‘Why does something exist rather than nothing?’ All the five ‘ways’ argue in one way or another that nothing can come from nothing.”

The first three of Aquinas’s Five Ways, taken together, are often referred to as the Cosmological Argument. His Fourth Way is often called the Ontological Argument, and his Fifth Way the Teleological Argument.


[_ 1. Prime Mover - what was there at the beginning? _]

Aquinas’s First Way, the first part of his Cosmological Argument, is also known as the Prime Mover Argument or the Unmoved Mover Argument.

It argues from the fact of motion or change, and is based on the idea that everything in the universe is in motion, but nothing can be in motion unless it is moved by something else. In Aquinas’s words, “it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, moved by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.” (quoted in Clarke 2001)

Aquinas was not the first person to argue this way. As Andrew Pessin (2009) explains, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) believed that “wherever and whenever there is motion … there must exist God. And if the world has always existed and always will, and has been and always will be in motion, then so too God has always existed and always will.”

Generalising from motion and its cause, the Prime Mover Argument is about something (such as the universe) moving from ‘possible’ to ‘actual’. As Keith Ward (2008) points out, “if all states that come into being are made actual by something actual that contains the idea of their potentiality, then there must be at least one actual state that does not come into being. The simplest hypothesis is that there is one unchanging mind that contains all potential states of the universe.”


[_ 2. First Cause - what started it all? _]

Aquinas’s Second Way, the second part of his Cosmological Argument, is also known as the Uncaused Cause Argument.

It is based on the idea that there must be a beginning; nothing can cause itself, and everything is an effect that needs to be explained by a prior cause. Hence Aquinas argued “it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.” (quoted in Clarke 2001)

This is a similar argument to the Prime Mover one, but as Keith Ward (2008) points out it “amplifies [it] by drawing attention not just to change, but to the origin or coming into being of things. … there must be some ‘first cause’. That first cause does not just happen not to come into being. It could not possibly come into being, because it is timeless and eternal.”

Aquinas understood the ‘first efficient cause’ (God) as the explanation of the origin of the universe, with no cause before it.


3. Contingency – why is there something rather than nothing?

Aquinas’s Third Way, the third part of his Cosmological Argument, is also known as the Argument from Contingency. It builds on the first two Ways, and seeks to explain why there is something rather than nothing.

This is a fundamental question with obvious implications. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1961) believed that “it is not how things are in the world that is [the mystery], but that it exists.”

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees (2001) has said that “the preeminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations of physics, and actualised them in a real cosmos? Such questions lie beyond science, however: they are the province of philosophers and theologians.” Apparently philosopher Bertrand Russell declared that the universe is there because it is just there, which led John Cornwell (2007) to comment that it “seems as arbitrary as to say that dogs are there just because they are there.”

The argument is really about the difference between possibility and necessity. As Michael Shermer (2000) points out, in nature it is possible for things to be or not to be, but not everything could be in the realm of the possible, for then there could be nothing. This gives rise to the idea of necessary existence, or as Aquinas puts it a Necessary Being, a being which is not only possible but “necessary, having of itself its own necessity … this all men speak of as God.” (quoted in Clarke 2001)

John Cornwell (2007) argues that Richard Dawkins ridicules the question ‘Why is there anything rather than nothing?’ because he does not seem to understand it, which “is shown by the fact that [he] actually think[s] that this ‘argument for God’ is an argument for the ludicrous anthropomorphic deity that rightly appalls [him].”

Keith Ward (2008) also takes Dawkins to task for misreading Aquinas’s Third Way, “possibly … because he has not read it. Certainly the version of it he gives in his book is nothing like Aquinas’s argument (which, of course, comes from Aristotle). Aquinas’s argument is actually about the possibility of necessary existence, or of ‘what must be’. The heart of it is the claim that, if everything in the universe is contingent, then there might well have been nothing at all. But to suppose that the universe could originate from nothing is to give up all hope of a final explanation. So a truly final explanation must postulate the existence of a first cause that is necessary, that could not fail to exist or to be other than it is.”

Cornwell (2007) insists that “the question ‘why is there anything rather than nothing?’ is not a final bid for evidence but a quest for meaning or sense that has begun in a moment of wonder that there is anything at all.” Thomas Dixon (2008) points out that “science is unable to tell us why there is something rather than nothing. Cosmological theories can try to explain how the something that does exist works and how it is related to other cosmic somethings … But physical science cannot go beyond that to explain why the things that we call matter-energy and laws of nature ever came to be. Here we have an unclosable gap in our scientific knowledge, and one which all theists agree is filled by God.”


[_ 4. Perfection - God must be the best of all _]

Aquinas’s Fourth Way, his Ontological Argument, is also known as the Argument from Degree.

He noted that in nature there is a spectrum of goodness; some things are good and others things less so. He then suggests that there must be some maximum standard of goodness to compare everything against, and he argues that “therefore there must be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.” (quoted in Clarke 2001)

Richard Dawkins (2006) explains it like this – “we notice that things in the world differ. There are degrees of, say, goodness or perfection. But we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum. Humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us. Therefore there must be some other maximum to set the standard for perfection, and we call that maximum God.”

Keith Ward (2008) explains the Fourth Way from a more spiritual perspective: he writes that it “makes explicit that an eternal mind will not only contain all possible states of affairs. It will discriminate between them, and choose to realise in itself the highest forms of value. It will be the supreme Good, worthy of admiration and reverence for its unique perfection.”


5. Design – and the need for a designer

Aquinas’s Fifth Way, his Teleological Argument (from the Greek telos meaning ‘end’ or ‘purpose’), is also known as the Argument from Design.

According to philosopher Richard Swinburne (1979) it is based on three things – the fact that there appears to be evidence of order, purpose and design in the universe and in life; the belief that this cannot simply be the result of chance and needs explaining; and the conclusion that the universe and life must have been designed, so they must be the product of a designer (God) at work.

Keith Ward (2008) argues that the interpretation that, because things look as though they have been designed so they must have been designed “is not quite the point of the argument. … [It] is concerned with the idea of final causes … [and the view] that every substance has a goal, a state that fulfills its proper potentiality, towards which it tends by its nature. This sort of goal-directedness is just part of the nature of things. It is not designed or intended by anyone.”

Theologian John Baillie (1939) clarifies that the essence of the argument “is not that the works of God’s hands prove His existence but that they reveal certain aspects of His nature.” Philosopher of religion Peter Vardy (1999) concedes that “at most the Teleological Argument may show that there is some intelligence responsible for the universe, but what form this intelligence takes and whether it can be identified with the Christian God the argument may not be able to demonstrate.”


Conclusions about the Five Ways

Richard Dawkins (2006) is quick to dismiss the Five Ways, insisting that they “don’t prove anything, and are easily … exposed as vacuous.”

Alister McGrath (2007) argues that Dawkins “is clearly out of his depth, and achieves little by his brief and superficial engagement with these great perennial debates, which often simply cannot be resolved empirically.” Keith Ward (2009) also takes Dawkins to task, arguing “I think he has not got the patience to see what is going on, or how similar [this explanation] is to proper scientific enquiry, admittedly at the end of human understanding.” Michael Dunne (2006) is more pointed in his criticism; he says Dawkins “could have at least copied them down accurately.”

Although Dawkins’ dismissal of Aquinas’s arguments is ill-informed and partisan, Karen Armstrong (1993) points out that “these proofs do not hold water today. Even from a religious point of view, they are rather dubious, since, with the possible exception of the argument from design, each proof tacitly implies that ‘God’ is simply an-other being, one more link in the chain of existence.” As Alister McGrath (2007) explains, “the general consensus among philosophers of religion is that, while such arguments cast interesting light on the questions, they settle nothing. Although traditionally referred to as ‘arguments for God’s existence’, this is not an accurate description. All they do is show the inner consistency of belief in God …”




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3. The Argument from Design

Despite the inherent limitations in Aquinas’s arguments in general, the Argument from Design continues to have enduring attraction and is still widely used today. It takes various forms and is expressed in a variety of ways.

Although Alister McGrath (2007) insists that it is, strictly speaking, not an argument for God’s existence, many people’s views of God are heavily shaped by it. To give but one example, church leader David Robertson (2007) has written “to stare at the stars is for me one of the major if not the major reason for believing in God. I found it difficult to believe that this vast universe existed by itself, or as the result of an accident.” He is not alone in marveling at the tidy order of things; Michael Shermer (2000) points out that “the Number One reason people give for why they believe in God is a variation on the classic cosmological or design argument: The good design, natural beauty, perfection, and complexity of the world or universe compels us to think that it could not have come about without an intelligent designer.”

Eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) urged caution in believing that the universe must have some intelligent designer or maker behind it. He argued that “the intelligent designer may be neither intelligent nor a designer”, on four grounds summarized by Patrick Clarke (2001):

p<>{color:#000;}. Even if the universe is designed, it need not have been designed by God;

p<>{color:#000;}. For all we know, the universe is unique, and there is no evidence that universes need designers;

p<>{color:#000;}. For all we know, matter may have an inner tendency towards order (only artificial constructions such as clocks or watches need intelligent designers); and

p<>{color:#000;}. For all we know, the universe may be the result of pure chance.

English Christian philosopher William Paley (1743-1805) took the opposite view to David Hume. He saw all around him in the natural world evidence of intelligent design, and was convinced that the Argument for Design provided irrefutable proof for the existence of God. Paley explained his reasoning in the book [_Natural Theology _](1802), where he compared design in nature with design in a man-made object like a watch.

Karen Armstrong (2009) summarises Paley’s argument – “just as the intricate machinery of a watch found in a desert place bespoke the existence of a watchmaker, the exquisite adaptations of nature revealed the necessity of a Creator. Only a madman would imagine that a machine came about by chance, and it was equally ludicrous to doubt that the wonders of the natural world – the intricate structure of the eye, the minute hinges of an earwig’s wing, the regular succession of the seasons, or the intermeshing muscles and ligaments of the hand – pointed to a divine plan, in which every detail had its unique place and purpose.”

Paley’s explanation proved very popular and influential, but it has not been without its critics. Richard Dawkins (1986) has argued that if indeed there is a cosmic watchmaker, he must be a blind one given the many natural problems that exist, which is why he gave one of his first books the title The Blind Watchmaker.


Laws of Nature

Many people are impressed if sometimes puzzled by the fact that all of nature appears to operate in such a well-regulated and orderly way, thanks to the ‘laws of nature’.

Scientists spend much time and effort trying to describe and explain this order and these laws, often with great success. For example, Sir Isaac Newton worked out an equation for gravity that explains why apples fall and why the planets remain in orbit, and Albert Einstein formulated an equation that explains how mass and energy are related. The apparent fine-tuning of the universe and the so-called Goldilocks Zone are explored in the ebook Science and the Challenge to God in this GOD MATTERS series.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1998) was moved to write “why nature is mathematical is a mystery…The fact that there are rules at all is a kind of miracle.”

Thomas Dixon (2008) urges caution in how we think of the laws of nature because of the need not to view them as “entities or forces that somehow constrain all of reality. Instead, they can be interpreted in a more modest way as the best empirical generalisations we have so far arrived at to describe the behaviour of particular systems in particular contexts … Nor are we obliged to believe that the laws of, say, physics are more ‘fundamental’ than the knowledge acquired through biology, sociology, or everyday experience.”

Who wrote the laws of nature? Charles Darwin commented that “whether the existence of a conscious God can be proved from the so-called laws of nature … is a perplexing subject, on which I have often thought, but cannot see my way clearly.” (quoted in Keynes 2009)

The pioneers of modern science, such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, were also believers in God, and they looked on their research and discoveries as the search for proof of God’s handiwork. Thomas Dixon (2008) describes how “they envisaged nature as an orderly system of mechanical interactions governed by mathematical laws. And they hoped that people would see in this new vision the strongest possible evidence of divine power and intelligence.”

More recent scientists have tended to push God from centre-stage towards the margins in terms of explaining how nature works. But as Anthony Flew (2007) explains “Einstein, the discoverer of relativity, was not the only great scientist who saw a connection between the laws of nature and the Mind of God. The progenitors of quantum physics, the other great scientific discovery of modern times, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Paul Dirac, have all made similar statements …” But note that they generally used the expression ‘the mind of God’ in a non-theological way (this theme is explored in the ebook Religion and the Idea of God in this GOD MATTERS series)..

Keith Ward (2008) supports the argument that the laws of nature provide good evidence of God at work. AS he sees it, “God would not be superfluous … if God explained just why the laws of nature are as life-conducive as they actually are. The explanation would be what I have called a personal explanation – the laws are chosen by God precisely in order to generate intelligent life. If that is so, the existence of a designing God would certainly raise the probability of the laws of nature being such as to lead to the existence of intelligent life. It would make the existence of such laws virtually certain. So the God Hypothesis is not superfluous after all. It is a very good explanation.”

There is a chicken-and-egg dimension to the link between design and belief in God, however, which raises the inevitable question ‘”which came first’? Cardinal John Henry Newman had no doubt which came first in his experience; he wrote “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.” (quoted in Ruse 2007)


The challenge of infinite regress

Critics of Aquinas’s Prime Mover Argument and the broader Argument from Design are quick to seize on the problem of what is generally called regress, tracing back to a former state, ideally an original state, with a view to finding a way of explaining how things started in the first place.

As we shall see, a number of the common arguments for the existence God include the idea of infinite regress, the possibility of tracing things back forever, with no obvious beginning. Keith Ward (2008) emphasises that “an infinite regress of causes would leave the universe without a final explanation. So if this universe consists of chains of causes going back to one originative event (which it does), and if there is a final explanation of the universe, there must be some cause of the whole series of changes which is immutable, not capable of being changed by anything else.”

Critics insist that to assume “God did it”, as a way of explaining the unexplainable, is a cop out. Richard Dawkins (2006) argues that “to suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation.”

Believers reply that it is logical to see God as the ultimate cause. As Thomas Dixon (2008) explains, “to avoid an endless regress, at some point posit a first cause, a ‘prime mover’, and … what we know of the world suggests that this prime mover is that same God whom many have encountered through sacred texts and religious experiences. We cannot expect the natural sciences to help us with the question of a first cause.”


Appearance of design

The argument from design takes as given the fact of design and then goes on to explain the design as the result of a designer at work.

But, as many critics point out, just because something looks designed doesn’t mean that it is designed. There are three ways of accounting for the appearance of design in the world around us – it could be the result of chance, it could have arisen by natural causes, or it could be the product of intelligent design by some cosmic designer.

Philosopher David Hulme argued that the appearance of design in the universe is an illusion that might be the result of chance occurrences, but few scientists or theologians today would agree with him. Although Stephen Hawking (2010) concluded in his book [_The Grand Design _]that “spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist” that only ‘explains’ the beginning of things and not how things have developed since.

Philosophers find it easier to envisage the possibility of a universe devoid of rules. For example, Dinesh D’Souza (2007) argues that “there is no logical necessity for a universe that obeys rules, let alone one that abides by the rules of mathematics. … [because] the universe doesn’t have to behave this way. It is easy to imagine a universe in which conditions change unpredictably from instant to instant, or even a universe in which things pop in and out of existence.”


[*Design by natural causes *]

Natural explanations for the appearance of design are popular these days, particularly since Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution and progressive adaptation.

Patrick Clarke (2001) points out that the traditional Argument from Design “would lose much of its original force with the arrival of Darwinism in the 1850s, when ‘design’ was replaced by naturalistic explanations, such as natural selection.”

Richard Dawkins (2006) – arguably Darwin’s most enthusiastic promoter today – gleefully announced that “far from pointing to a designer, the illusion of design in the living world is explained with far greater economy and with devastating elegance by Darwinian natural selection.” He dismisses intelligent design as “not the proper alternative to chance” and argues that “natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has even been suggested.” To him “evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum [representation] of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance.”

Dawkins asks rhetorically “who, before Darwin, could have guessed that something so apparently designed as a dragonfly’s wing or an eagle’s eye was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes?”

Two things are key to his explanation of ‘apparent design’ – the link between complexity and probability, and the power of accumulation. Dawkins assumes that very complex things in nature are very improbable. He illustrates this with what he calls ‘The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit’, based on the argument that “the probability of life originating on earth is similar to a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard and having the luck to assemble a 747.” We will look at this argument in Chapter 8.

Accumulation refers to the way in which, through many generations over a long period of time, small adaptations and changes in a species can accumulate, eventually producing something that at first sight might appear to be highly unlikely. As Dawkins (2006) explains, “natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces. Each of the pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so. When large numbers of these slightly improbable events are stacked up in series, the end product of the accumulation is very very improbable indeed, improbable enough to be far beyond the reach of chance.”

This chain-reaction of progressive evolutionary change, Dawkins argues, helps explain what he calls ‘irreducible complexity’ (IC), which creationists wrongly believe evolution is about. Irreducible complexity refers to the existence in nature of things which look extremely complex – like the dragonfly’s wing or the eagle’s eye – which have apparently evolved over a long period of time by natural selection, but for which there is no surviving evidence of intermediary forms (such as an eagle with something like an eye, but one that is not fully formed and wouldn’t function as an eye does). Dawkins explains how “a functioning unit [eg the eye] is said to be irreducibly complex if the removal of one of its parts causes the whole to cease functioning.” According to the IC argument, as he spells it out, “either the eye sees or it doesn’t: either the wing flies or it doesn’t: there are assumed to be no useful intermediates. But this is simply wrong. Such intermediates abound in practice – which is exactly what we should expect in theory.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution provides a popular and intelligent natural explanation of the appearance of design in nature without invoking the need for a designer. It proposes that natural processes at work over long periods of time are sufficient to account for observed patterns and differences between species, and claims to demonstrate what the processes are and how they operate. As we shall see, evolution and the idea of God are increasingly being seen as not mutually exclusive.

But even with Darwinian evolution a major challenge remains – it tells us nothing about ultimate origins, in much the same way that the Big Bang might account for the beginning of the universe but it tells us nothing about what there was before that (hence we arrive at the problem of infinite regress). As Michael Poole (2009) puts it, “Dawkins’ belief that evolution is the only alternative to ‘ultimate design’ involves a category mistake. Once life has arisen, evolution provides a scientific explanation of the adaptation of living things to their environments. It can tell us nothing about pre-biotic states, nor whether God is responsible for the processes involved.”


Design by a designer

New Atheist Daniel Dennett (2006) writes, somewhat cynically, “it just stands to reason (doesn’t it?) that all the wonders of the living world have to have been arranged by some Intelligent Designer? It couldn’t all just be an accident, could it? And even if evolution by natural selection explains the design of living things, doesn’t the ‘fine tuning’ of the laws of physics to make all this evolution possible require a Tuner?”

Dennett’s view may be jaundiced but it is not uncommon. Fellow New Atheist Richard Dawkins (2006) rejects the argument based on intelligent design which he insists offers no “bona fide explanatory work.” But to reject it outright, as Dawkins does and for the reason he does, might not be justified.

As Keith Ward (2008) argues, “the design argument, in its seventeenth-century form – finding the existence of organic life-forms to be too improbable to have arisen spontaneously by chance – may have been superseded by Darwin. But the design argument still lives, as an argument that the precise structure of laws and constants that seem uniquely fitted to produce life by the process of evolution is hugely improbable. The existence of a designer or creator God would make it much less improbable. That is the New Design Argument, and it is very effective.”

Richard Dawkins points out that “the natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design [in the universe to actual design itself. … The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.” Who designed the designer, and who designed the designer’s designer, and so on ad infinitum. Here we encounter the infinite regress argument once again, although Marion Ledwig (2007) argues that it is unclear why the regress cannot stop at the designer, “surely this could be possible?”

Dawkins (2006) also argues against the idea of God as designer on the grounds of complexity and improbability. In his words, “however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!” and “a God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot [his emphasis] be simple.” As a result, he argues, “a designer god cannot be used to explain organised complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation.” He goes on to say that “intelligent design suffers from exactly the same objection as chance. It is simply not a plausible solution to the riddle of statistical improbability. And the higher the improbability, the more implausible intelligent design becomes.”

Critics of Dawkins’ argument point out that it is based on a category error, insisting that – unlike the universe, species and the rest of nature – God is not a thing or an object, so the question of complexity is meaningless. Marion Ledwig (2007) admits “it is unclear to me why an entity which is able to design something as improbable as the universe has to be even more improbable than the universe. That is, I don’t see why God has to be very complex and therefore very improbable. … even if God were irreducibly complex, this would only cause a problem if God had to be created from something, and if the laws which hold for life on earth also have to hold for God. But the latter is an unwarranted assumption.”

David Robertson (2007) outlines the reasoning about divine design from the perspective of a believer, concluding “the answer to the question who made God is simply ‘nobody’. God is not made. God is the Creator, not the creation. God is outside of time and space. (This is not to say that he is not also in time and space and that there is not plenty of evidence for him there.) God creates ex nihilo. That’s what makes him God. He does not craft from what is already there. He creates time, space and matter from nothing. … Christians and other theists do not argue that God was created. That is precisely the point. He did not come from anywhere. He has always been. He did not evolve, nor was he made. If there is a personal Creator of the Universe then it makes perfect sense to regard him as complex, beyond our understanding and eternal.”


Reconciling God and evolution

Not everyone believes that evolution and God are inherently incompatible and mutually exclusive as ways of accounting for the world around us, despite the forcefulness and intolerance of Dawkins’ rhetoric on the matter. There is ground in the middle.

Dawkins tries to make light of attempts to reconcile evolution and God by pointing to the writings of chemist Peter Atkins, a self-confessed humanist. In his book 1993 Creation Revisited, as Dawkins explains, Atkins “postulates a hypothetically lazy God who tries to get away with as little as possible in order to make a universe containing life. … Step by step, [he] succeeds in reducing the amount of work the lazy God has to do until he finally ends up doing nothing at all: he might as well not bother to exist.” Marion Ledwig (2007) chips in cheerfully that “the idea of a lazy God who wouldn’t have anything to do, because everything goes by evolution and natural selection doesn’t seem as ridiculous to me as Dawkins proposes. I actually think it is quite rational not to waste one’s energy and let the laws do the work for you.”

A more serious and better informed take on reconciliation is offered by well-respected scientist Francis Collins (2006), who describes how “soon after becoming a believer, I arrived at the perspective called ‘theistic evolution’ – the notion that God, in his awesome intention to create a universe that would support life, and most especially life in his own image that would seek out fellowship with God, used the process of evolution to achieve these goals. An amazing process, an elegant process, a process that may seem slow and even random in our minds, but for God, who is not limited in time or space, it could be achieved in the blink of an eye and in a way that wasn’t random at all.”

Alister Hardy (1979), former Professor of Zoology and founder of the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University, was also comfortable believing in both God and evolution. Hardy described himself as “convinced Darwinian … [with a] need to reconcile fully the Darwinian doctrine of natural selection with the spiritual side of man … after much hard thinking and searching of the literature, I am convinced of the truth of the selection theory but … I do not believe that all selection is just chance. Nor do I agree with the unwarranted dogma that belief in modern evolutionary theory shows that the whole process is an entirely materialistic one leaving no room for the possibility of a spiritual side to man.”

Dawkins (2006) is never one to miss an opportunity to dismiss the idea of God as ridiculous, but in doing so he often inadvertently displays his theological ignorance. In characteristically intolerant style, he insists that “even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts.”

Despite Dawkins’ outburst, one has to concede that there is a world of difference between suggesting that ‘a god’ did it, and establishing with any credibility that God did it. We find here echoes of the God of the Gaps argument that is explored further in the ebook Science and the Challenge to God in this GOD MATTERS series.

Thomas Dixon (2008) points out that a “serious problem for the theist is how to close the large gap between positing a first cause for the universe and identifying that unknown cause with the personal God of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or any other religious tradition.’

It is a real problem and when believers and non-believers debate it they retreat into their core territory and view their detractors as ill-informed and unwilling to recognise anything beyond their comfort zone and outside the boundaries of their own paradigm.



One of the biggest challenges to any possible reconciliation between evolution and God comes from the rise during the twentieth century of a fundamentalist approach to creation that is usually referred to as creationism.

Creation and creationism are two different things; creation is the divine act of creating the universe and creationism is a way of understanding that act. As Thomas Dixon (2008) puts it, creationism is “a term that can loosely be used to refer to any religious opposition to evolution.’ Most believers believe in creation by God, but creationism is very much a minority sport, rejected by most believers.

Creationism is based on a literal interpretation of the account of the creation as described in sacred texts (the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Bible or the Quran of Islam). The book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, tells of how God supernaturally created the universe and everything in it. In particular, it tells of how God created it out of nothing, at his command, in clearly defined stages over a six day period, at the end of which creation had been created. It tells of how humans were created towards the end of that six day period, “in the image of God”. Creationists take this account to be literally true, and allow for nothing to be added to it or subtracted from it. Thus, for example, they believe that everything that exists was created instantly in a sudden burst of divine creation, over a period of one week (six days of 24 hours each). This requires a young earth, no more than a few thousand years old.

Creationists believe that all of the scenery and landscapes we see in the world today – which geologists account for as the product of natural processes operating over vast stretches of time – were created by Noah’s flood about five thousand years ago, as described in Genesis. They believe that everything was created in the form we see today and has remained the same since. This requires fixity of species and allows for no adaptation, evolution, extinction or intermediate forms. This view of creation denies any prospect of common ancestry between species, including Darwin’s proposal that humans have descended from apes and so have an animal ancestry.

Creationism is alive and well, particularly in some parts of North America. Robert Winston (2005) recalls a fundamentalist church service he attended in Kentucky, where people “seemed to be deeply committed Christians most of whom believed in the literal truth of every word of the Bible. Most of these people, for example, believe that the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s flood, and that God put fossils of dinosaurs in place to fool gullible men into believing evolution.”

Creationist views are not held lightly, and passions can be raised when those views are challenged. This was certainly the case in the USA in 1925, in an infamous court case that has come to symbolise the conflict between faith and science (Dixon 2008). Shortly after teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution had been banned in state-funded high schools in Tennessee, a biology teacher called John Scopes decided to challenge the restriction and the law behind it. The court case became a high profile show trial between supporters of the right to free speech (and through that the right to teach about evolution) and conservative Christians (creationists at heart) who denounced the idea of evolution as immoral and blasphemous. Scopes lost the case and in the decades that followed many public schools across the USA gave greater prominence to teaching about creationism than about Darwin’s theory of evolution.


Intelligent Design

In recent decades a particularly dogmatic form of creationism has taken hold in North America. As Thomas Dixon (2008) points out, this is often referred to as Young Earth Creationism (emphasising belief in the recent creation of the universe a matter of thousands of years ago) or Creation Science or Intelligent Design (emphasising a new approach in which quasi-scientific explanations are offered in support of creationist claims based on literal reading of the sacred texts).

The Intelligent Design (ID) Movement emerged in the USA during the 1990s. One of its key arguments is that, as Michael Poole (2009) puts it, “some living things are so irreducibly complex that a single missing part would stop the organism functioning … [so] Such organisms could not have arisen by the normal evolutionary process … [and] They must therefore have been designed by an (unnamed) intelligence – generally understood as God.”

In confrontational mode, they point to Richard Dawkins’ (1995) account in his book River Out of Eden of the evolutionary development of the eye, which requires a series of forty adaptations in sequence, only the final one of which would yield an eye that actually sees properly. As Poole (2009) points out, they then ask rhetorically “How could that be the result of chance or natural processes?” Other examples of irreducible complexity they refer to include the development of blood-clotting, of the immune system, of the human eye, and of the bacterial flagellum (a microscopic tail-like structure that some types of bacteria have, which acts like a propeller and moves them around).

An American court case in 2005 revisited the ground covered in the 1925 Scopes trial, recast in terms of Intelligent Design or scientific creationism, not the original creationism (Dixon 2008). Parents of children at Dover Area High School in Pennsylvania sued the Dover School District because it allowed teachers to include Intelligent Design as part of science lessons, arguing that this promotes religion (while the US Constitution deliberately separates church and state), and it raises doubts about evolution. Supporters of ID argued that it was being taught as an alternative scientific theory, based on valid science not religious theory. Much of the argument in court centred on whether or not there is evidence of irreducible complexity in nature. It was argued, for example, that the flagellum was too complex to have evolved so it must be the creation of an intelligent designer. This was effectively a new take on the God of the Gaps argument. The court judgement went against ID, the judge declaring in summing up that ID was a religious view not a scientific one, and so it had no place in the classroom.

In their quest to discredit the idea of a designed universe, the New Atheists quickly turned their guns on any form of creationism as an easy target. Christopher Hitchens (2007) insisted that “creationism … is not even a theory [his emphasis]. In all its well-founded propaganda, it has never even attempted to show how one single piece of the natural world is explained better by ‘design’ than by evolutionary competition.” Richard Dawkins (2006) dismisses intelligent design as “politically expedient fancy dress.”

John Haught (2008) fights back, pointing out that “a key component of the new atheists’ case against God is to suppose that creationism and ID represent the intellectual high point and central core of theistic traditions. Most contemporary theologians reject creationism and ID for theological reasons, but the new atheists have decided, almost by decree, that theology does not count and should be kept out of their discussions about God.” Haught continues “most sensible theologians have no problem with the theory of evolution. Being a religious believer is not synonymous with being a creationist… Most sensible modern religious believers accept, rather, that if God wanted to make the world in the way that Darwin proposes, why should he not?” John Cornwell (2007) supports Haught’s position, arguing that “most sensible believers in the Book [the Bible] subscribe without demur to Darwin’s theory of evolution, while reading Genesis in the light of the mystery so well articulated by Martin Rees – ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’.”

Alister McGrath (2007) notes that the God of the Gaps strategy “is still used by the Intelligent Design movement … It is not an approach which I accept, either on scientific or theological grounds. In my view, those who adopt this approach make Christianity deeply – and needlessly – vulnerable to scientific progress.”

Michael Poole (2007) develops the case against Intelligent Design further, on four grounds:

p<>{color:#000;}. “No one knows whether a natural explanation will be found tomorrow: then, on ID reasoning, ‘intelligence’ seems to be no longer required. Claims made a decade ago that the development of blood-clotting processes and immune systems could not be accounted for by evolution are now seen as incorrect.

p<>{color:#000;}. It seems to overlook how intermediate components of evolutionary processes have different functions at different stages of the evolutionary process. Even the various parts of a mousetrap could be used for other purposes than catching mice; for example, the spring could keep a box-lid closed.

p<>{color:#000;}. If only what has specified complexity points to intelligence, what about the rest of creation which is also seen as God’s planning?

p<>{color:#000;}. It is difficult to see ID as other than a contemporary version of the ‘God of the Gaps’.”




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4. Arguments based on design

Alongside the various threads within the popular Argument from Design, there are three sets of arguments for God’s existence that are based on design. These are based on providence, beauty, and miracles.



Philosopher Richard Swinburne (1979) spells out what he calls the Argument from Providence, a variant on the classic design argument that centres on providing for human needs.

His premise is that we should expect a creator God, particularly one who is good, to provide for the basic needs of people and animals. And that is exactly what he sees in the world around him. As he puts it, our world “is providential in giving normally to man [sic] (and animals) the opportunity to satisfy their own biological needs for food, drink, safety, etc.; and … the opportunity to satisfy the biological and psychological needs of other men and of animals, and so to satisfy their own psychological needs for co-operation, friendship, etc. The very general features of men’s nature and circumstances … are such as a God has reason for making, and so there is some reason for supposing that he made them.”

Peter Vardy (1999) also comments on the Argument from Providence, noting that “nature seems to plan in advance for the needs of animals and humans. This planning cannot be accounted for by physical laws alone … [and] there must be more than physical laws to account for the tremendously high improbability of life.” God is the reason why this improbable state of affairs comes about.



Swinburne (1979) also develops the Argument from Beauty, arguing that “God has reason to make a basically beautiful world, although also reason to leave some of the beauty or ugliness of the world within the power of creatures to determine; but he would seem to have overriding reason not to make a basically ugly world beyond the powers of creatures to improve. Hence, if there is a God there is more reason to expect a basically beautiful world than a basically ugly world.”

This is by no means a new idea. Keith Ward (2009) notes that “belief in one God who creates this universe for the sake of the beauty and value that can only exist within it, and belief that the cosmos is an image of eternal beauty and wisdom, can be found in Plato …”

The Romantic Movement that originated in Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century as a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism was in part inspired by the awe and wonder of the natural world. As Karen Armstrong (2009) explains, “the Romantics were not averse to the mysterious and indefinable. Nature was not an object to be tested, manipulated and dominated, but should be approached with reverence as a source of revelation. Far from being inactive, the material world was imbued with a spiritual power that could instruct and guide us. Since childhood, Wordsworth had been aware of a ‘Spirit’ in nature. He was careful not to call it ‘God’ because it was quite different from the God of the natural scientists and theologians … The Romantic poets revived a spirituality that had been submerged in the scientific age. By approaching nature in a different way, they had recovered a sense of its numinous mystery.”

The focus of the Argument from Beauty is beauty in the natural world. Many people comment on how they can become lost in wonder at the beauty of an exotic sunrise or sunset, an attractive flower or colourful butterfly, a wild landscape or rugged seascape, exotic animals in the wild, a picture of earth from space, pictures of distant planets, microscopic images of everyday things in nature. Such images can take us out of ourselves and move us to reflect on bigger things beyond the everyday, to think about wider meanings beyond our own lives and experiences.

But the focus of the argument is not confined to the natural world. It could be argued that great writing, art, music, and other creative arts point to something intangible beyond the everyday, ultimately to the existence of God. Richard Dawkins (2006) suggests that, “if there is a logical argument linking the existence of great art to the existence of God, it is not spelled out by its proponents. It is simply assumed to be self-evident, which it most certainly is not.”

Dawkins dismisses the Argument from Beauty, arguing that its logic is questionable. But others are more open to the idea that a creative God not only made humans to be creative (“in his image”) but made them also to appreciate beauty and what it stands for.

Krista Tippett (2007) reminds us that “a passion for beauty has always been at the core of human religious experience. Art, architecture, literature, and music owe everything to religion. The examples begin pouring out if you ponder this for just a second, lush and wild, not just the music of Bach, but the mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, the calligraphy of the Qur’an, and so on and so on.”



The Argument from Miracles (another variant on the Argument from Design) is particularly contentious. Through it believers interpret “various public phenomena in the course of human history as evidence of God’s existence and activity”, as Richard Swinburne (1979) points out.

A miracle is typically thought of as an improbable or extraordinary event, and the argument runs that what are viewed as miracles, along with certain unexpected events and apparent coincidences, cannot be accounted for by science or natural law so they must have as their cause a higher power, usually God. Thomas Aquinas defined miracles as “things which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature”, and St Augustine saw them as “events we cannot forecast or expect with our present understanding of nature.” (both quoted in Clarke 2001)

Peter Vardy (1999) distinguishes between two types of miracle – what he calls ‘coincidence’ miracles (“an event that is in accordance with the laws of nature but which the believer sees as being due to the action of God”) and ‘violation’ miracles (created by “a transgression of the laws of nature brought about by God”). Most people think mainly of the second type.

The Argument from Miracles is based on three premises about God:

p<>{color:#000;}. God initially designed and created the universe;

p<>{color:#000;}. God designed and imposed the natural laws and rules which govern how the universe operates and explain why it is usually so stable and predictable; and

p<>{color:#000;}. From time to time God appears to temporarily suspend or alter the laws and rules, as a result of which unusual and unexpected things can occasionally happen.

Viewed this way, miracles require divine intervention in specific places at specific times. Among other things, this raises the question of how and why God decides to intervene there and then, and why God appears content to let the natural laws and rules operate without interference at other times and in other places. But this perspective is traditional, deep-rooted and enduring, particularly amongst believers. Thomas Dixon points (2008) out that “most early modern scientists … took it for granted that God, who was responsible for determining the regular way in which nature would normally operate, was also quite capable of suspending or altering that normal course of nature whenever he so chose. Nonetheless, the method they adopted was one that has favoured a view of God as designer and lawgiver rather than as interventionist wonder-worker.”

As Michael Dunne (2006) points out, like many other scientists today Richard Dawkins simply “does not accept the existence of miracles or supernatural events.” Many people regard the idea of God intervening in the world as untenable, groundless, and impossible to believe – either because they don’t believe that God exists in the first place, or they view God as absent and passive (deism) rather than present and active (theism). This theme is explored further in the ebook Religion and the Idea of God in this GOD MATTERS series.




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5. The Argument from Sacred Texts

There is an Argument from Sacred Texts (or Argument from Scriptures), which argues that God exists because it can be worked out from the scriptures. But this argument has a certain chicken-and-egg flavour to it, because anyone who does not believe in God is unlikely to be persuaded by evidence in sacred texts. Using texts to ‘prove’ or establish what they say about themselves leads to a circular argument!

All religions have sacred texts that believers accept as a major source of knowledge and insight. For example, it is more common for Christians to believe that God has revealed himself through the Bible than through revelation (which is explored further in the ebook Personal Experience of God in this GOD MATTERS series). Fundamentalists and other literalists treat sacred texts as much more than inspired by God, and treat them as literally true, as if dictated by God. As we have seen, such an approach lies at the heart of the clash in the USA between creationists and those who believe in Darwinian evolution

The problem is, as John Haught (2008) points out, that “both scientists and religious literalists share the belief that there is nothing beneath the surface of the texts they are reading … [to the scientist] Any intuition that a deeper drama might be going on beneath the surface of nature, as religion and theology maintain, is pure fiction. … [to the religious literalist] there is no reason to look beneath the literal sense, or raise new questions about the meaning of these texts when circumstances change dramatically from one age to the next. Both sides steer clear of theology.” He goes on to argue that “creationists are wrong to read the creation stories [in the Bible] as science, but at least they can pick up some of the religious challenge of the text … But the New Atheists cannot even do this much. They share the untimely scientific reading with creationists, but being also deaf to the clearly transformative intent of the Scriptures, they completely disqualify themselves as interpreters of biblical faith.”

The question of the authority of scripture is a vexed one. Richard Dawkins (2006) argues that “ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus …” although he writes, with a mixture of regret and scorn, “there are still some people who are persuaded by scriptural evidence to believe in God.” Fellow New Atheist Christopher Hitchens (2007) proposed that “the case for biblical consistency or authenticity or ‘inspiration’ has been in tatters for some time, and the rents and tears only become more obvious with better research, and thus no ‘revelation’ can be derived from that quarter.”

Believers inevitably see things rather differently. Nicholas Lash (2007) takes Dawkins to task for treating “all statements about God as if they were characteristically taken, by their users, as straightforward and literal description … [and] his curious insistence that the only way to take a biblical text seriously is to ‘believe it’ literally.” Keith Ward (2008) insists “what Dawkins fails to point out is that early biblical texts cannot be read in isolation from the totality of the Bible. What the Bible offers is a history of the development of the idea of God in ancient Hebrew religion. … For Christians, the teaching of Jesus [in the New Testament] puts the whole biblical teaching in a new light, making it quite clear that God’s love is unlimited, and God’s mercy and forgiveness are infinite.”

Krista Tippett (2007) adds that the Bible is “not a catalogue of absolutes, as its champions sometimes imply. Nor is it a document of fantasy, as its critics charge. It is an ancient record of an ongoing encounter with God in the darkness as well as the light of human experience. Like all sacred texts, it employs multiple forms of language to convey the truth: poetry, narrative, legend, parable, echoing imagery, wordplay, prophecy, metaphor, didactics, wisdom saying.”




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6. The Argument from Consciousness

The Argument from Consciousness (more correctly an Argument from the Existence of Consciousness) centres on how and why humans are conscious beings – aware not just of their environment but also of their own existence and thoughts, feelings and sensations.

Consciousness involves having a sense of one’s personal or collective identity, which includes the attitudes we have, the beliefs we hold, and our sensitivities to everything around us. It may be difficult to define, but we all know what it is from direct experience. No other animals appear to have this level of self-awareness.

Perhaps surprisingly, given how profoundly important it is not just from a philosophical point of view but in shaping our day-to-day existence and understanding of things, science can tell us little about consciousness. George Ellis (2004) points out that, “despite the enormous amount scientists know about neuroscience and its mechanisms, the neural correlates of consciousness, the different brain areas involved and so on, we have no idea of how to solve the hard problem of consciousness. There is not even a beginning of an approach.”

Daniel Dennett (1993) goes further and insists “human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery. A mystery is a phenomenon that people don’t know how to think about – yet.”

In his book [_Consciousness Explained _]Daniel Dennett argues that conscious states are “nothing more than” brain-states and brain-behaviour, but that conclusion appears to be going beyond current scientific understanding. Consciousness takes place in the brain, certainly, but it remains a mystery how the physical and chemical properties of the brain (brain-states) can give rise to consciousness. The problem is, as Keith Ward points out, “how conscious states – thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions – can arise from complex physical states.”

From his New Atheist perspective, Dennett sees consciousness as “the result of three successive evolutionary processes, piled on top of each other, each one vastly swifter and more powerful than its predecessor.” The three natural processes are:

p<>{color:#000;}. Genetic evolution (“selection of particular genotypes (gene combinations) that have proven to yield better adapted individuals (phenotypes) than the alternative genotypes”);

p<>{color:#000;}. Phenotypic plasticity (“the emergence of individual phenotypes whose innards are not entirely hard-wired, but rather variable or plastic, and hence who can learn during their own lifetimes”); and

p<>{color:#000;}. Memetic evolution (“the development of replicators and cultural transmission via memes”).

Richard Dawkins (2006) also looks upon evolution as a “consciousness-raising” process and on Darwinian natural selection as a “conscious-raiser.” Such a way of accounting for consciousness inevitably leaves no room for God.

From the perspective of a believer, Keith Ward (2008) argues that the scientific view of consciousness as being wholly dependent on matter – the physical and chemical processes that occur in the brain – is a delusion. Instead, he writes, “consciousness is the most evident source of existence there is, and it is not necessarily bound to matter. It will then be very natural for finite consciousness to have an affinity with the spiritual consciousness of God, and sharing in the divine awareness is the most natural form of existence.”

As Richard Swinburne (1979) explains, the Argument from Consciousness “argues that the fact that there are conscious beings is mysterious and inexplicable but for the action of God.” He explains that consciousness is a property that humans have but other animals don’t, making people “capable of marveling at the natural world and worshipping God, consciously rejoicing in the beauty of the natural world and the uncreated being who, if he exists, is its source.”

The human brain is an amazing thing, richly complex and still only partially understood, which drives all we are and all we do as humans. Many mysteries about it remain, such as what happens when its natural workings are disturbed, for example by injury or mental health problems, or by altered states of consciousness, for example through the medicinal or recreational use of drugs, or other stimuli including exposure to music or art. As the gateway through which we interact with external stimuli – including God – the mind inevitably also plays a critical role in human experiences of God, through such things as revelation, ecstatic religious experiences, and spiritual practices and disciplines. This theme is explored further in the ebook Personal Experience of God in this GOD MATTERS series.

In many ways we are prisoners of our own minds; we are simply too tied up in our own brains and thoughts to be able to form a clear understanding of what consciousness means and how it works. Sam Harris (2005) believes “the problem is that our experience of our brains, as objects in the world, leaves us perfectly insensible to the reality of consciousness, while our experience as brains grants us knowledge of nothing else.”




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7. The Argument from Morality

The moral argument for God’s existence, which in many ways builds on the Argument from Consciousness, is based on the belief that humans are moral beings and animals are not, and this moral drive comes from God.

Eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that “morality does not so much ‘prove’ God’s existence as oblige us to believe in it”, as Andrew Pessin (2009) puts it.

Richard Swinburne (1979) distinguishes between two forms of the Argument from Morality - “First there is the argument from man’s [sic] moral consciousness, his making moral judgements … this is an argument from man’s awareness of moral truths. … Secondly … there is an argument from the fact of morality itself, from the fact that there are binding moral truths (quite apart from whether men are or are not aware of them).”

The moral argument is derived from what Kant called the Moral (or Categorical) Imperative - our sense of moral duty, or as Patrick Clarke (2001) explains, “absolute, or categorical imperative (obligation) to obey the moral law if we are to behave as moral creatures.” Kathleen Jones (2007) points out that this “is what distinguishes human beings from chimpanzees. This is what distinguishes human beings from computers. This is what makes us more than ‘selfish genes’.”

The essence of Kant’s idea is that each person has an inbuilt ability to know the different between right and wrong. This is not a case of slavishly following rigid rules, but rather an ability to make value judgements by listening to our consciences. Francis Collins (2010) underlines the fact that “one of the most notable and unique characteristics of humanity, across centuries, cultures, and geographic locations, is this universal human grasp of the concept of right and wrong, and an inner voice that calls us to do the right thing. We may not always agree on what behaviours are right (since those are heavily influenced by culture), but we generally agree that we should try to do good and avoid evil.”

Keith Ward (2003) emphasises that Kant’s “great contribution to ethics was … to argue that there are necessary and universal moral truths, and that they are innate in the human mind, not given by some external authority, not even God.” Richard Swinburne (1979) need hardly mention that “the religious believer … considers the voice of conscience to be the voice of God.”




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8. The Argument from Probability

An interesting approach to the question of God’s existence is to consider how likely or improbable it is. There are a number of twists to the so-called Argument from Probability, which Richard Dawkins (2006) calls “the big one … It is seen, by an amazingly large number of theists, as completely and utterly convincing.”

Hugh Montefiore (1985), former Anglican Bishop of Birmingham in England, wrote a book called The Probability of God in which he argued that “the question [of God’s existence] can only be rationally resolved by a considered judgment concerning the balance of probabilities. It is likely that these probabilities will be assessed differently by individuals according to their presumptions and prejudices. …I cannot deny that the possibility that there is no God remains open. The important question is – how probable or improbable is it? It seems to me, on as balanced a judgment as I am capable of making, exceedingly improbable.”

Contrary as ever, Richard Dawkins concedes that “it is indeed a very strong and, I suspect, unanswerable argument – but in precisely the opposite direction from the theist’s intention. The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist.”


Complexity and the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit

Dawkins’ (2006) argument rests on his assumption that “any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same level of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument … demonstrates that God, although not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.” As material scientist Edgar Andrews (2009) points out, there are four steps in this line of reasoning:

p<>{color:#000;}. By common consent, the world is a highly improbable and complex system;

p<>{color:#000;}. If God created the world he must be more complex than the world he created; therefore

p<>{color:#000;}. God is less probable than the world; so

p<>{color:#000;}. God probably doesn’t exist.

Dawkins proudly announces that his “name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit.” As used in the game of chess, a gambit is an opening in which a minor piece is sacrificed in exchange for a favourable position overall.

The Boeing 747 Gambit is generally attributed to astronomer Fred Hoyle, who argued that the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the likelihood that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would randomly assemble a Boeing 747 from the bits and pieces lying around. Dawkins gleefully concludes that, “however statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as probable. God is the Ultimate Boeing 747.”

Colourful as it is, this line of reasoning has been dismissed as flawed on a number of grounds. Keith Ward (2008) suggests six particular reasons why the gambit does not succeed:

p<>{color:#000;}. “God is not complex in the way that material organisms are complex – made up of separate parts combined together.

p<>{color:#000;}. God, being not less than pure consciousness, demands a different kind of explanation than complex physical organisms do.

p<>{color:#000;}. That explanation is not in terms of probability.

p<>{color:#000;}. Any final explanation of a universe must somehow explain, or make virtually certain, its own existence. The relevant criteria for a final explanation are parsimony, elegance, comprehensiveness and – most importantly – necessity.

p<>{color:#000;}. The God hypothesis makes possible a simple and elegant reason for the existence of one or more universes, by proposing that they are actualised for the sake of their distinctive goodness.

p<>{color:#000;}. God can unify scientific and personal explanations in a harmonious way, without reducing one to the other.”

Generalising from the particulars of the Boeing 747 Gambit, Edgar Andrews (2009) asks “by what logic must we accept that one highly improbable entity exists (the universe) while another highly improbable entity (God) does not exist – simply because he is too complex or organised to do so?”


[*Dawkins’ Argument from Probability *]

Richard Dawkins (2006) tries another way of arguing that the existence of God is highly unlikely, insisting that “what matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.”

With his scientific perspective firmly dictating how he views everything, he is convinced that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other” in the sense that it can, at least in principle, be shown to be true or false. Thus, he concludes, “either he [God] exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about that probability.” Dawkins reminds us that “it is a common error [of reasoning] … to leap from the premise that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that his existence and non-existence are equiprobable.” Thus he set the scene for his evaluation of the probability of God.

Dawkins proposes a “spectrum of probabilities” about the existence of God, from certainty that God exists to certainty that God does not exist. Everyone can be placed somewhere along this continuous spectrum, no matter where they stand on the question of God. He divides the spectrum into seven sections or categories based on degree and direction of certainty, and labels each category accordingly. Thus the Dawkins taxonomy, in his own words, is:

p<>{color:#000;}. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.J. Jung, ‘I don’t believe, I know.’

p<>{color:#000;}. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. ‘I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.’

p<>{color:#000;}. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. ‘I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.’

p<>{color:#000;}. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. ‘God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.’

p<>{color:#000;}. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. ‘I don’t know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.’

p<>{color:#000;}. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’

p<>{color:#000;}. Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung ‘knows’ there is one.’

Dawkins believes that if no evidence of God’s existence can be found, a sensible person should adopt a position close to atheism. On this basis he suggests that the low probability of God’s existence leads to de facto atheism.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the intolerance with which he writes about the question of God and about believers Dawkins puts himself in the de facto atheist category, not the strong atheist one, apparently believing that the existence of God cannot be disproven.

This does not mean that Dawkins has hoisted the white flag in his campaign against the idea of God. As John Corlett (2009) points out, “what Dawkins’ arguments support is the idea that a certain rather popular notion of God is implausible, and for a variety of reasons that have been noted (for the most part) for centuries by philosophers from at least Kant to Hume and beyond. But this neither defeats theism itself (not even the strict supernaturalistic theism that Dawkins claims to refute) in its more plausible and interesting formulations nor adequately buttresses his alleged atheism – not even his probabilistic variety.”


[* Statistical probability - Bayes theorem *]

The Boeing 747 Gambit and Dawkins’ estimate of the probability of God are both based on a general notion of probability, a general sense rather than a calculation of whether something is likely or unlikely to happen or be the case.

A different approach uses the mathematical calculus of probability based on Bayes theorem. As Richard Swinburne (1979) explains, this is a statistical approach based on calculating revised estimates of probability in the light of experience and new information, one step at a time, using a standard set of procedures and formulae.

In what Richard Dawkins describes as “the oddest case I have seen attempted for the existence of God”, risk management consultant Stephen Unwin used the Bayes approach to calculate ‘the probability of God.’ Unwin starts by assuming complete uncertainty about whether or not God exists, which gives an initial probability of 50 per cent. He then revises the probability estimate six times, each time adding to the mix a fact that might have a bearing on the existence of God, to which he attaches a numerical weighting. The ‘facts’ are:

p<>{color:#000;}. We have a sense of goodness;

p<>{color:#000;}. People do evil things;

p<>{color:#000;}. Nature does evil things;

p<>{color:#000;}. There might be minor miracles;

p<>{color:#000;}. There might be major miracles; and

p<>{color:#000;}. People have religious experiences.

Taking these six ‘facts’ into account raises the probability that God exists up from 50 per cent to 67 per cent (ie there’s a one-in-three chance that God does not exist). Finally, as Dawkins puts it, Unwin “mysteriously boosts [the probability] to 95 per cent by an emergency injection of ‘faith’.”

Serious statisticians and theologians would drive a coach-and-horses through Unwin’s analysis and conclusions, but at least he was brave enough to take on Dawkins’ challenge of testing the existence of God as a scientific hypothesis, even if he appears to have stacked the odds in favour of God from the outset!


Hedging bets – Pascal’s wager

It is obviously difficult if not impossible to estimate the probability of God using conventional statistical techniques, and the philosophical approaches to estimating the likelihood of God clearly also have their limitations.

So an alternative approach starts from a different assumption and progresses in a different direction. It takes the form of a wager or gamble, and is named after its proposer the seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62).

Francis Collins (2010) describes Pascal as “a passionate seeker of truth, which he believed could be achieved by incorporating reason and faith.” Thus, as Karen Armstrong (1993) points out, Pascal insisted that faith “was not a rational assent based on common sense. It was a gamble. It was impossible to prove that God exists but equally impossible for reason to disprove his existence.”

But, as Patrick Clarke (2001) clarifies, Pascal “did not himself see faith as a gamble. He was a deeply religious man, who was merely trying to show the implications of faith to his unbelieving contemporaries.”

Andrew Pessin (2009) outlines Pascal’s wager: “if you choose the religious life you risk a small waste of time, itself balanced by other natural goods, in order to gain an infinite reward; and if you choose the unreligious life you risk infinite punishment in order to gain a finite reward, itself balanced by other natural risks. Clearly, choosing the religious life is the right and rational, and most of all prudent, way to go.” Pascal concluded that “you can’t prove that God exists, but you can prove that you should act as if He does.” That is the essence of his wager.

Richard Dawkins’ take on the wager is characteristically blunt: “you’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.”

In short, Pascal argued that believing in God is a better bet than not believing, because the expected return on believing is much greater than that of not believing. But, as Karen Armstrong (1993) points out, “the gamble is not entirely irrational, however. To opt for God is an all-win solution. In choosing to believe in God, Pascal continued, the risk is finite but the gain infinite. As the Christian progresses in the Faith he or she would become aware of a continuous enlightenment, an awareness of God’s presence that was a sure sign of salvation. It was no good relying on external authority; each Christian was on his own.”




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9. The Cumulative Case Argument

British philosopher of religion Basil Mitchell (1973) proposed the Cumulative Case Argument for the existence of God. Patrick Clarke (2001) describes it: “the method involves combining all the known arguments for God’s existence to form a composite picture that becomes in the end another argument for its own separate validity.”

Martin Prozesky (1992) points out that it “involves a process of adding together a whole set of arguments none of which wins the debate on its own but which amounts in the end to a balance of probability in favour of the believer.”

This argument builds on the idea of gestalt, the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Michael Poole (2009) suggests that there are a number of key ingredients in the cumulative case for God’s existence, which (in his words) may include:

p<>{color:#000;}. That there is a world. There is something rather than nothing, raising questions such as ‘What brought it into existence?’

p<>{color:#000;}. The kind of world it is. This suggests ‘an argument to design from order … and, thus, a ‘Designer’.

p<>{color:#000;}. The existence of beauty and moral values, including appeals to innate ideas of obligation and fairness.

p<>{color:#000;}. Revelation of things that we could not otherwise know.

p<>{color:#000;}. The evidential value of religious experience, including answered prayer. This, to the believer, is perhaps the most important.

p<>{color:#000;}. Historical evidence, drawing on both secular and religious sources.




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Andrews, E. (2009) Who Made God? Searching for a Theory of Everything. Darlington: EP Books

Armstrong, K. (1993) A History of God. London: Heinemann

Atkins, P (1993) Creation revisited. New York: Freeman

Baillie, J. (1939) Our Knowledge of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Clarke, P.J. (2001) Questions about God. A Guide for Students. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes

Collins, F.S. (2006) The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Basic Books

Collins, F.S. (2010) Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith. New York: HarperOne

Corlett, J.A. (2009) Dawkins’ godless delusion. International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion 65: 125-138

Cornwell, J. (2007) Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion. London: Profile Books

Dawkins, R. (1986) The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin

Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. London: Houghton Mifflin

Dennett, D.C. (1993) Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin Books

Dennett, D.C. (2006) Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. London: Penguin Books

Dixon, T. (2008) Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

D’Souza, D. (2007) What’s So Great About Christianity? New York: Regnery Publishing

Dunne, M. (2006) How not to be an atheist. Review of The God Delusion. Yearbook of the Irish Philosophical Society 2006, pp.213-220

Ellis, G. (2004) Science in Faith and Hope. London: Quaker Books

Feynman, R. (1998) The Meaning of it all: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist. New York: Basic Books

Flew, A. (2007) There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind. New York: HarperCollins

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Hitchens, C. (2007) God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Warner Twelve

Jenkins, D. (1966) Guide to the Debate about God. London: Lutterworth Press

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Poole, M. (2009) The ‘New’ Atheism: Ten Arguments that don’t hold water. Oxford: Lion Books

Prozesky, M. (1992) A New Guide to the Debate about God. London: SCM Press

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Swinburne, R. (1979) The Existence of God. Oxford: The Clarendon Press

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Tippett, K. (2010) Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit. London: Penguin Books

Vardy, P. (1999) The Puzzle of God. London: HarperCollins

Ward, K. (2003) God: A Guide for the Perplexed. Oxford: Oneworld Publications

Ward, K. (2008) Why There Almost Certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins. Oxford: Lion Books

Ward, K. (2009) The God Conclusion. God and the Western Philosophical Tradition. London: Darton, Longman and Todd

Winston, R. (2005) The Story of God: A Personal Journey into the World of Science and Religion. London: Bantam




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About the Author

Chris Park is a proud Yorkshireman, living in exile on the wrong side of the Pennines in Lancaster, England. After a career as an academic, specializing in the environment, he retired early to enjoy time to read, write, walk and travel, his four great passions after family. He has written numerous books, for academic and general readers, on both environmental and Christian topics. You can find details of them on his website (details below).


His website – www.chris-park.com

His Amazon author page – http://tinyurl.com/park-amazon-books


See Chris Park on the promo video for GOD: REAL OR IMAGINED?https://vimeo.com/74477523




Other books by this author

The GOD MATTERS Series – all available to download in different ebook formats, free of charge, from Shakespir.com

Religion and the idea of God

Doubt, denial and the death of God

Science and the challenge to God

Arguments for God

Personal experience of God

The nature of belief


Other free ebooks available from Shakespir.com

Enigma: St Francis of Assisi (2012)

Earthcare: Towards an environmental theology (2012)


Print books

Check his website at www.chris-park.com

His Amazon author page – http://tinyurl.com/park-amazon-books


Publisher’s page for GOD: REAL OR IMAGINED?http://zaccmedia.com/bookstore/product/god-real-or-imagined/


Promo video for GOD: REAL OR IMAGINED?https://vimeo.com/74477523



Arguments for God

While the existence of God cannot be proved one way or the other, a number of arguments have been put forward over the years that support both the idea and the existence of God. This book examines each of the main arguments - philosophical arguments; arguments from design; arguments based on design; the argument from sacred texts; the argument from consciousness; the argument from morality; the argument from probability; and the cumulative case argument.

  • ISBN: 9781310909634
  • Author: Chris Park
  • Published: 2016-03-19 18:50:09
  • Words: 15512
Arguments for God Arguments for God