Is God’s Existence Obvious to Everyone?

As a ‘friendly atheist,’ I believe that theists can be fully rational in believing that God exists. I know that some theists are ‘unfriendly theists’ in the sense that they believe

(1) The existence of God is obvious to everyone.

But why believe (1) is true? I’m aware that Romans 2 is often quoted in this context. Notice, however, that there is no logical contradiction between believing

(2) There is a supernatural creator of the universe


(~1) God’s existence is not obvious to everyone.

One could be persuaded that God exists on the basis of arguments like the kalam cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, etc., without believing that God’s existence is obvious to everyone. So is there any non-question-begging argument for (1)?

Here is one such argument:

(3) If X is a causal condition of Y’s rationality, then in order to be rational Y must presuppose X.
(4) God is a causal condition of morality, logic, etc.
(5) Therefore, insofar as we are rational, we must presuppose God.

For the sake of argument, let’s grant the truth of the highly doubtful (4). Even so, (3) is false. From the fact that X is a causal condition of Y’s rationality, it doesn’t follow that, in order to be rational, Y must presuppose X.

Consider the following analogy. Human life “presupposes” the existence of carbon atoms. If there were no carbon atoms, there would not be any human life. Yet there are many people in the world who are completely ignorant of carbon atoms or atoms in general, for they have little to no understanding of science. Therefore, although human life “presupposes” the existence of carbon atoms, there are many people who do not have an awareness of that fact. Similarly, from the fact, if it is a fact, that morality, logic, etc. “presuppose” God’s existence, it doesn’t follow that all human beings have an awareness of God’s existence. Additional premises would be needed to show how a ‘presuppositional relationship’ entails awareness of that relationship.

Autobiographical aside: it seems to me that (1) is not only false, but obviously false. Indeed, I find it interesting that some really smart people could honestly believe (1), despite the fact that I think it is obviously false. Of course, those same people could reply that I’m self-deceived.

Interview with Prof. Axgrind
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
Lessing’s Broad Ditch and Brad’s Lesser Ditch
Horia George Plugaru: The Argument from Physiological Horrors (2003)
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • a_theist

    Perhaps when they say obvious they mean that it doesn't require much persuasion for a rational person to appreciate the existence of carbon atoms.

  • NAL

    If theists can be fully rational in believing that God exists, and atheists can be fully rational in not believing that God exists, what does that say about rationality?

  • joseph

    The problem here is that one can be rational, but it doesn't say anything about the premise of one's worldview. Take Hitler (I know, people will invoke Godwin's law, no matter). His premise was that the German people were superior. Within that worldview, Hitler was rational.

  • Keith Parsons

    Of course, what we need to get clearer on here is how we understand rationality. Rationality is often, and plausibly, construed in terms of epistemic rights and duties. Following the spirit of William Kingdon Clifford's famous essay "The Ethics of Belief" this account of rationality notes that we have duties with respect to the formation of our beliefs. Clifford gives the example of a ship owner who sells tickets to poor immigrants for passage across the sea in a leaky, unreliable craft. He forms the belief "the ship is seaworthy" without duly and rigorously checking to see if it really is. When the ship sinks in mid-ocean with great loss of life, the owner collects the insurance and keeps his mouth shut. Surely, Clifford observes, this individual should have formed his belief about the ship's seaworthiness by honestly inspecting the ship rather than by accepting a belief congenial to his greed.

    If we have met our epistemic duties with respect to a belief, then we can be said to have a right to that belief. On this view of rationality, a belief is rational for us if and only if we have a right to believe it, i.e., we have performed all of our epistemic duties with respect to that belief.

    So, what epistemic duties do we have with respect to belief or nonbelief in God? Well, we have to admit right up front that many personal, subjective, and cultural considerations go into one's commitment to belief or nonbelief. I suspect that even at the neurological level some of us are inclined towards belief and others towards nonbelief. In my experience only fools and fanatics insist that their beliefs on matters of religion or politics are completely objective.

    So, how do you be rational with respect to belief or nonbelief? You seek out the best arguments for the other side and listen to them patiently and carefully. You analyze their arguments as rigorously as you can and if you find yourself resisting a conclusion, you have to ask as honestly as you can whether your resistance is based on logic or on prejudice. If the other side makes good points, and they will, concede them. Try not to get your ego too involved in the exchange; the truth is much more important than your feelings. Seek criticism of your views and listen to it carefully, even if it is expressed harshly. Try to see the people on the other side as seekers trying to get through this vale of tears as best they can, the same as you. When you do encounter nonsense and nuttiness on the other side, don't waste your time on it, but keep looking for the smartest and best. Can both theists and nontheists follow this advice? Sure, and in that sense they can both be rational.

    OK, folks, that is Parson Parsons' sermon for today.

  • The Uncredible Hallq

    Can we drop the friendly/unfriendly terminology? I know it's well-intentioned, but it's fucking confusing, not to mention at odds with the normal meaning of the words.

    For example, I've met fundamentalist evangelists who will deflect criticism of their beliefs (about unbelievers burning in Hell forever, etc.) by saying, "oh, I'm sorry other Christians weren't nice to you." This is a serious confusion, mixing up unfriendly behavior with odious beliefs.

    On the other end, Mormons have a reputation for being very friendly people. This makes many people inclined to be friendly to Mormons, even people who find Mormon beliefs kind of nutty. There isn't any inconsistency there at all.

  • Bradley Bowen

    I would have taken 'presuppose X' in (3) to be logical (i.e. a logically necessary condition) rather than causal.

    Why do you take this to be 'a causal condition' of X?

    I suppose that a logically necessary condition for logic is a bit circular, but God as a logically necessary condition for morality seems like what most believers have in mind.

  • NAL

    The Ethics of Belief (1877)

    I'll read it later.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Uncredible Hallq — Your point is well taken; the friendly vs. unfriendly terminology is not something I would use in everyday conversation. I'm not using the terminology in order to be nice, but because it's a piece of jargon in the philosophy of religion which I think has been reasonably well adopted by philosophers.

  • Graham Oppy

    The tag "friendly atheism" was coined by Bill Rowe in his 1979 American Philosophical Quarterly paper "The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism". It has come to be used by some to characterise the views of those atheists who suppose that theism is not necessarily irrational. It is worth noting that you can be a friendly atheist, and yet still suppose that the probability that God exists is vanishingly small (as close to zero as you please). So "friendly atheists" needn't be all that friendly!

  • Daily Coffee

    All things must be viewed through one’s worldview, personal convictions, and the like. We all view the world in a particular way. Our personal background, experience and circumstances help shape the lens through which we see and interact with the world, including our (dis)belief of God and our interaction with him.

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