Investigating the Unnatural – Why Believe in God? (RJS)

I began a discussion on Tuesday centered around four online essays. The first, a post on Naturalism and Investigating the Unnatural, is found on a blog written by John Wilkins, a philosopher of science in Australia. It refers to and comments on an online exchange between two philosophers on the New York Times site, What is Naturalism by Timothy Williamson (a Professor of Logic at Oxford) and Why I am a Naturalist by Alex Rosenberg (a Professor of Philosophy at Duke). Timothy Williamson has since come back with a third post On Ducking Challenges to Naturalism. Three philosophers shouldn’t have the last word on science, naturalism, and religion, however. Yet another article also appeared recently, Does God Exist? by Alan Lightman, a physicist and novelist, currently an adjunct professor of humanities, creative writing, physics at MIT (faculty page), a rather interesting mix.

My post on Tuesday asked if science was the religion of the 21st century. There was some push back against this idea in the comments. Perhaps science is not the religion of the 21st century, but some form of naturalism does appear to be the core philosophy of the 21st century. Naturalism formulates and forms the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives. The assumption of naturalism permeates everything under discussion – even the question of the existence of God. In this sense I think that it is fair to say that science is the 21st century religion.

Both Dr. Wilkins and Dr. Lightman bring the discussion from naturalism to investigating the unnatural – specifically the existence of God. Dr. Wilkins is an agnostic because we cannot eliminate the possibility that there is a God who does not intervene in nature:

But there are things we cannot show not to be real, because they are neither empirically disproven nor contradictory to our best knowledge. God (at least the kind of God I call “empirically inoculated”) is one of them. So the question now is: could God exist in a non-natural (which basically means a non-physical causal) fashion?

Dr. Lightman has essentially the same idea of a non-causal God in his essay.

Science can never know what created our universe. Even if tomorrow we observed another universe spawned from our universe, as could hypothetically happen in certain theories of cosmology, we could not know what created our universe. And as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not. The belief or disbelief in such a Being is therefore a matter of faith.

Such a non-interventionist God may be consistent with science, but it is not clear why anyone would believe in or defend the idea of such a detached God. This is not the God of orthodox Christian faith. Such a description, though, of a non-interventionist God consistent with naturalism, unconnected to the material world are sprinkled through the discussion of science and faith. It would be useful to probe some of the consequences and implications.

Today I would like to start the discussion with a simple questions – Why should we believe in God?

More personally – Why do you believe in God?

In light of the discussion above – What kind of God do you believe in?

Dr. Wilkins, rooted in naturalism, finds three possible reasons for belief in God – specifically his kind of “empirically inoculated” God: (1) revelation, (2) logic, and (3) tradition. His selection of reasons and his analysis of them is shaped by his assumption of what Alan Lightman has called The Central Doctrine of Science – the laws of the universe exist and are inviolable.

1. There is reason for belief in God if that God has revealed himself to us. But a God who reveals himself is essentially an interventionist God. Thus when naturalism rules revelation is not and cannot be a reliable guide. Apparent revelation is analyzed and rationalized.

2. There is reason for belief in God if the existence of God “is mandated by our other commitments (such as the existence of a universe).” There is reason for belief in the existence of God if, like an abstract mathematical proof, God is a logical necessity. This is something like Thomas Aquinas and his argument for God as the uncaused cause.

3. There is reason for belief in God if our tradition has dictated to us that God exists.

We believe in God because we were raised as Christians/Jews/Muslims/Mormons… This leads to a pure cultural relativism about gods. However, it is, I think, the main reason why we think Gods exist. Most Christians do not wish to be excluded from their community and family by denying something so vital to the cultural traditions. God is a kind of tribal marker (arguably, that’s why belief in deities evolved in the first place

Does Dr. Wilkins’s analysis capture the range of reasons for belief in God? The argument from tradition is not really a reason for belief in God – it is an empirical natural explanation for an observed phenomenon followed by a pragmatic decision to not rock the boat. This reason is rooted in the 21st century religion of naturalism and the search for entirely natural cause and effect. The argument that roots belief in tradition alone is in essence an argument against the truth and significance of any religious framework for life.

The reason from logic is irrelevant to real faith. With all due respect to Thomas Aquinas and the many who have followed him, a God who is merely a logical necessity is no more relevant to human life and existence than the mathematical proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem first conjectured in 1637 and finally proven more than 350 years later.

I’ll lay my cards on the table. I think that the only real reason for belief in God is revelation. The only reason for belief in God is because God has revealed himself to us through his relationship with his creation and his interaction with his creatures. Scripture is not the revelation, it is the record of God’s self-revelation and mission. Scripture is a light and lamp to guide our thinking about God.

The reason for belief in God is manifest in God’s mission in the world. This means that the story of God’s mission must be central to the gospel message. This story includes creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, but it is not limited to this narrative. It is not just a plan of salvation. The story of God’s work in the world is much deeper than this narrative alone allows. Jesus is the culmination of the Old Testament story of Israel and is the turning point in the story of the mission of God, specifically God’s intervention in and interaction with his creation. Incarnation, God become man, is the ultimate instance of divine interaction in the world.

What do you think? Why believe in God?

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  • John S. Wilkins

    I appreciate the measured response. I would like to make two points:

    1. I am not a professor, which in Australia means an academic at the top of the profession, and not merely a lecturer.

    2. I did not give reason 3 – tradition – as a probative reason to believe, but just as you said, as an explanation of why people believe. However, both of the other two also function as explanations (although generally it would need to be fleshed out as “the believer believes God has revealed himself” and “the believer believes the logic mandates belief in God”, since neither of those have any force on nonbelievers. This modal nature of the reasons means that the belief is forced by other beliefs had by the believer first. Hence, all of these are largely matters of faith.



  • rjs

    Thanks John, I couldn’t really tell from your blog what position you had in the system in Australia. And then these distinctions vary significantly from place to place.

    I corrected the post.

  • DanS

    There are so many reasons for belief not addressed or even in the radar of the science/faith discussion, such as the moral argument, the existence of personality and the human longing for things this world cannot satisfy – love, purpose, ultimate meaning. I don’t agree that the argument from logic is no more relevant than a mathematical theorem, that seems to drive a wedge between faith and logic – the very existence of logic suggests a connection to an intelligent creator. I just reread Justin’s apology and his use of fulfilled prophecy…lots of reasons that aren’t in the wheelhouse of the physical sciences.

    I would agree that revelation is one I would lean to first, including “general” revelation and the majesty of creation and, yes, the argument from “design”. Bottom line to me is that naturalism doesn’t come close to answering a lot of deep questions, doesn’t fit the narrative of the “interventionist” God in scripture and there is no reason for believers to give it much quarter.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    I’ll say that I’m not particularly fond of Reason 2. I found Aquinas and the Scholastics very powerful when I first was exploring Christianity; I find them much less so today. The abstract, bloodless ‘God of the Philosophers’ is one that doesn’t especially inspire me, and that I don’t think anyone would give up their life for (it also leads us to some ways of thinking about God that I don’t think are true, or beneficial). It’s worth remembering that Aquinas had a mystical experience towards the end of his life, after which he said something like ‘all that I have written is like straw, compared to the things I have seen.” Which I think is a pretty good summation of the relative importance of revelation vs. reason in knowing God.

    Tradition is important, but more as a way of telling us about God than proving that God exists. I believe in tradition because I believe in Christ, and I believe that he has continued to work through the church, and that therefore church tradition (which includes scripture) is (in large part) a reliable source of truth about him. If I didn’t believe in Christ, I wouldn’t believe in tradition.

    Ultimately, to me, it all comes down to revelation: both public (through scripture and tradition) and private (through personal experience with the divine). I actually place a lot more emphasis on the latter than a lot of people do.

  • T

    I don’t bicker with his categories of “reasons” to believe, as they are capable of being quite broad. Especially “revelation” has the potential to be very broad. The key for me is that each of the three does not work in isolation; they all combine to form and strengthen a person’s belief in God.

    I thought this line was interesting: “as long as God does not intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science has no way of knowing whether God exists or not.” This needs pushback because even when God does intervene in the contemporary universe in such a way as to violate physical laws, science, and therefore many scientists, still has no way of knowing, or I should say “verifying” whether God exists. I’ve personally witnessed and participated in God violating physical laws, and it does strengthen faith, but I don’t have God on command, so verification is impossible. God does such things even regularly, but that’s not the same as a physical law that we can manipulate at will. And further, if someone has made the leap of faith into a “pure” naturalism, then even the witnessing of such events doesn’t necessarily change the paradigm. The choice to believe (or even “hope”) that there is a natural explanation, even if unknown, seems to always be present.

  • T

    Again, whether calling naturalism a “religion” may or may not be helpful depending how one defines religion, but it is totally appropriate to say that believing the Central Doctrine of Science, or having faith that there is always a physical explanation for every phenomenon in the universe is exactly that: faith and even hope of a specific kind. One can believe this in varying degrees of both bredth (what percentage or types of phenomenon have physical explanations) and strength (how many or what kind of observations of “miracles” or similar phenomenon would it take to believe that a non-natural cause may be at work). But regardless, we are talking about faith when we talk about such tendencies.

    Wilkins may not realize it, but he is essentially in agreement with Wesley’s Quadrilateral. Faith is formed by a combination of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

  • MatthewS

    It’s not that I’m out of my depth on this one, I’m not even in the same pool.

    But in the spirit of conversation, beauty and creativity both speak to me of God. Why are people so creative? I know it’s subjective and that people explain it away but there is a spark in humans that is truly something amazing.

    Creativity: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
    Reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving
    how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
    in apprehension how like a god!” (the content of this piece of prose, and the work itself are both evidence) Same goes for van Gogh, Miles Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, etc. etc.

    Beauty: The new images from deep space moved my wife and I last night. We are the first generation of humans to ever see that.

    I am aware that these things do not stand on their own as incontrovertible proof of the Christian God but they speak to me of God nonetheless.

    One thought in moving from a God to the Christian God: I do not believe that people would dream up a benevolent deity that demands payment for sin but then offers himself and accepts his once-estranged people with open arms based on no merit of their own. I just don’t think that’s a human construct. On our own, I think we make angry, capricious gods and gods who are there to serve us.

  • T

    Regarding the questions, I don’t have any problem saying that I believe in God because of what I’ve personally observed (a combo of revelation and reason), and what others whom I trust have given to me (a combo of revelation, reason and tradition). But Naturalists have their “faith” for the same reasons, except, of course they would categorize the content of what they’ve observed as void of revelation from “God” only revelation of the phyisical world from the phyisical world, and would say the same of their ‘tradition.’

  • Amos Paul

    Firstly, I think you’re giving Aquinas and those of his ilk the short end of the stick when you say that what Aquinas argued is merely for the logical necessity of God. What Aquinas did *not* argue is that one should be a *Christian* because of this necessity, Indeed, Aquinas specifcally argued that revelation is as epistemologically sound of a foundation as philosophical reason. But, since many don’t believe in revelation, he illustrated that reason alone brings one, at the very least, to theism or deism.

    Aquinas, in fact, thought that *theology* is human reason founded upon revelation, whereas the philosophy, he argued, is merely human reason without revelation. His apologitcs simply argued that philosophy alone can be taken to the point where it may be more ready to accept revelation and, thus, move on to the higher pursuit of theology.

    Indeed, after having what amounted to a personal revelation experience of Christ, Aquinas ceased his work in writing saying that, “All that I have written seems like straw to me,” due to the glory of that revelatory experience.

    But *Secondly*, I’d like to propose an entirely different outlook on ‘why’ we believe in God. It has been proposed by more than one anthrpologist that humanity may be referred to as homo religiosus. This is because people seem to have an inborn belief in the Divine, which the persistence and preponderance of world religions is symptomatic of. I think this is a legitimate observation. I think that, in very real sense, we know and believe in God from birth.

    And this is actually along the lines of Alvin Plantinga’s “Reformed Foundationalism” theory of Epistemology. Plantinga’s Reformed Foundationalism asserts that all rational human knowledge is *founded* upon other knowledge down to the point of what are called ‘properly basic’ beliefs, which are beliefs so basic that any argument *for* the belief is actually less certain than the belief itself.

    Classical Foundationalism accepts only self-evident axioms, beliefs true by definition, and self-descriptions of sensory experience as properly basic. Plantinga challenged those limitations with ‘Reformed’ Foundationalism by accepting a broader range of properly basic beliefs in analyzing other things our minds also appear to rationally accept as properly basic. These are beliefs like that we interact act with other minds (like ours) in the Universe or that God exists.

    Within this paradigm, you can’t argue *for* properly basic beliefs, but you can argue *in favor* of them. That is, our experience and thinking may bring about doubts concerning our properly basic beliefs–but we should be able to, if the beliefs are true, defeat various kinds of doubt concerning those beliefs via arguments. Therefore, I fully accept belief in God as being a properly basic rational belief, and re-brand these sorts of reasons ‘for’ belief as, rather, arguments for we might not doubt our already existent belief in God.

  • rjs


    I am not intending to argue against Aquinas in total, only making a comment about this specific argument for the existence of God, which I find neither compelling or useful.

    Aquinas is certainly much deeper and more nuanced than just this argument.

  • Patrick

    Aquinas pretty much endorsed Aristotle’s logic on the prime mover concept didn’t he?

    Why do I believe in God?

    1) I see the universe and cannot imagine it accidentally got up there. As a young man, I almost lost my faith when challenged and this pretty much is why I can say “almost”.

    2) I am convinced we’re hard wired for faith in God, so this is a reason. I think some of Lightfoot’s comments lend credence to that idea( “then why do we keep discussing heaven and hell if science is our religion,etc”?)

    3) The resurrection of Jesus + the eyewitnesses + the Neronian persecution = powerful impirical positive evidence

    4) The destruction of Jerusalem 70 AD along the lines of the prophecies of Moses and Jesus documented by an anti Christian Jewish priest named Jospehus all add up to powerful impirical proof Jesus both existed and is who the Gospel accounts describe.

    What kind of God is He?

    Awesome beyond our imagination on the intrinsic good side, to include virtue love w/o measure, righteousness and justice among other virtues.

    Best way I can explain how to figure this is to know Jesus is the creator of the universe and now close your eyes and see Him nailed on that cross, beaten half to death previously by and at the behest of the most cruel and evil humanity, stripped completely naked and among His first acts is to provide protection for His mother by assigning His close friend John as her overseer.

    Like Jesus told Phillip, “If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen The Father”.

  • DRT

    I have chosen to believe in God.

    I have chosen because I realize that a world with God is better than a world without God, and, after all, it is my choice to believe or not.

    My decision is much like the SK leap of faith. It is not a rational decision. But who ever said we need to be rational?

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    Events in my life and in history lead me to tthe conclussion that God seldom invervenes in the affairs of humans. I see God as esssentially non-interventionist.

  • JohnM

    I don’t dismiss logic as a reason to believe. When I say “logic” I’m not necessarily talking about formal logic, though I think there is some merit to the formal arguments. I mean, by reason, common sense, intuition, (almost all human)tradition, and experience, what else WOULD I believe but that there is a diety? Seems to me it must take a determined effort indeed to be an atheist. Theism comes naturally, why fight it?

    Yes, the primary – I don’t as I’d say only real – reason to belief in the Christian God is revelation. It’s not so much revelation is a reason to believe (though that too)as Christians hold that revelation is primarily HOW we come to believe. By the grace of God I am aware of the truth. At the end of the day, whatever the arguments, anyone who believes in Christ believes becasue the Father has shown them the truth. That’s why we believe. That’s the reason, though in some cases apologetics may be the means.