Kreeft’s Case for God – Part 5: The Argument from Common Consent

WHERE WE ARE AS OF PART 4

In Part 1 and Part 2 I argued that eight out of ten (80%) of the last ten arguments in Peter Kreeft’s collection of twenty arguments (from Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Chapter 3) are AWFUL arguments that are not worthy of serious consideration, that we should thus toss them aside, and ignore those eight arguments.

In Part 3, I analyzed the logical structure of Argument #12 (The Argument from the Origin of the Idea of God), and in Part 4 I evaluated Argument #12 as being a BAD argument that provides ZERO support for the claim that God exists.

Therefore, in Parts 1 through 4, I have argued that nine out of ten (90%) of the last ten arguments in Kreeft’s set of arguments each provides ZERO support for the claim that God exists.  Since ZERO plus ZERO equals ZERO, the combined force of those nine arguments provides ZERO support for the claim that “God exists”.

Since 90% of the last ten arguments have FAILED to provide any support for the existence of God, I think it is a safe bet that Argument #19 (The Argument from Common Consent), the final argument to consider from the last ten arguments, will also FAIL, and that we will probably arrive at the conclusion that the last ten arguments in Kreeft’s list of twenty arguments ADD NOTHING to his case for the existence of God.  We shall now see whether this argument is as weak and/or as flawed as the others.

 

ANALYSIS OF ARGUMENT #19

Here is how Kreeft summarizes Argument #19 (The Argument from Common Consent):

1. Belief in God…is common to almost all people of every era.

2. Either the vast majority of people have been wrong about this…or they have not.

3. It is most plausible to believe that they have not.

4. Therefore, it is most plausible to believe that God exists.

(HCA, p.83)

To show the logical relationship between premise (1) and premises (2) and (3), we should make the wording of (2) and (3) more similar to the wording of premise (1), and insert the inference indicator word “therefore” between (1) and (2):

1. Belief in God…is common to almost all people of every era.

THEREFORE:

2a. EITHER almost all people of every era believed that God exists and they have been wrong about this, OR almost all people of every era believed that God exists and they have NOT been wrong about this.

3b. It is most plausible to believe that almost all people of every era believed that God exists and they have NOT been wrong about this.

THEREFORE:

4. It is most plausible to believe that God exists.

 

EVALUATION OF THE INFERENCES

The inference from premise (1) to (2a) is logically correct.  This would be more obvious if we added the following obviously true tautology:

A. EITHER God exists OR it is NOT the case that God exists.

This does assume that “God exists” is a claim or proposition that could be true or false, but I’m happy to grant the assumption that some plausible analysis of “God exists” could be produced that would make this a legitimate claim or proposition.  The combination of premise (1) with (A) implies (2a), so the first inference in this argument is OK.

The second inference in this argument also appears to be correct, at least if we understand the phrase “most plausible” to mean that one of the alternatives in (2a) is MORE PLAUSIBLE than the other alternative:

3c.  It is MORE PLAUSIBLE to believe that almost all people of every era believed that God exists and they have NOT been wrong about this, than to believe that almost all people of every era believed that God exists and they have been wrong about this.

Premise (2a) eliminates any other possibilities besides just these two possibilities, so the conclusion does seem to follow from the combination of (2a) and (3c).

Premise (3c) seems obviously controversial and questionable, so we need to take a closer look at that premise.  However, the basic factual premise, premise (1) can also be challenged, and so I will examine premise (1) first, and then examine premise (3c).

 

EVALUATION OF PREMISE (1)

1. Belief in God…is common to almost all people of every era.

This is a strong generalization, and I will argue that this claim is FALSE, and thus that Argument #19 is UNSOUND.

First of all, Kreeft provides no facts or data to support this strong generalization (!)

Religious Belief vs. Belief in God

Second, what he does say in support of this claim FAILS to provide a good reason to believe premise (1):

Everyone admits that religious belief is widespread throughout human history. (HCA, p. 83, emphasis added)

Does Buddhism involve religious belief?  Buddhists, especially Theravada Buddhists, do NOT believe in God:

…if we speak of faith in God as somehow characterising religions, we are confronted by the example of Buddhism, and in particular Theravada Buddhism.  There is here no belief in God.  The supreme value is nirvana. But nirvana is not described as a personal Being or Creator or Object of worship.  It is rather a state to be realised. 
(The Philosophy of Religion, by Ninian Smart, p. 6)

Buddhism is a world religion, and it involves religious belief, but it does not, at least in some of its forms, involve belief in God.

Furthermore, many Buddhists are polytheists; they believe in MANY gods.  In fact a common Buddhist belief is that there is a cycle of re-birth in which when humans die, they (usually) undergo re-birth ending up in one of six realms: (1) as gods in a heavenly realm, (2) as humans on earth, (3) as titans (“a race of demonic warlike beings”),  (4) as ghosts, (5) as animals, (6) as sufferers in a hellish realm.  (Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, by Damien Keown, p.35-37).

Becoming a god, is thus one of six possible outcomes of re-birth, and people usually undergo thousands or millions of re-births. In this Buddhist scheme, gods are born and gods also eventually die:

Sooner or later the good karma that results in a heavenly birth [as a god] will run its course, and even the gods will die and be reborn. (Buddhism, p. 47).

Buddhists commonly believe in MANY gods, and they believe that those gods are NOT immortal or eternal, but are finite beings who are born and who also eventually die.  Buddhists who believe in many finite and imperfect gods are polytheists, not monotheists.  They do not believe in “God” as the one-and-only eternal, infinite and perfect, creator of the universe.  The word “God” is a proper noun, not a common noun.  It is the name of a single person or being.  Thus, to say “God exists” is to assert that there is a single unique person who is the eternal, infinite and perfect, creator of the universe.  Buddhists, in general, do NOT believe that such a being exists.

Hinduism, the third largest religion in the world, is also, in general, polytheistic.  Hindus generally believe in MANY gods and goddesses, such as: Rama, Sita, Durga, Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, and Krishna (Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction, by Kim Knott, p. xiv).

Hinduism, however, includes a diversity of religious and philosophical perspectives, including six different traditional philosophical systems: (1) Samkhya, (2) Yoga, (3) Mimamsa, (4) Vedanta, (5) Nyaya, and (6) Vaisheshika. (Hinduism, p. 111).  Furthermore, there are some significantly different views within these particular philosophical systems.  One important and influential version of Vedanta was formulated by Shankara in the 9th century, CE:

To Shankara, atman [self] was really none other than brahman [ultimate reality].  There was no plurality of consciousness or being.  It was all one.   Liberation was achieved by removing ignorance, learning to discriminate between what was eternal and what only masqueraded as such, and then acquiring knowledge of the self’s identity with brahman.  (Hinduism, p. 28).

According to Shankara, brahman (ultimate reality) was impersonal and without qualities (Hinduism, p. 29).  Hindus who follow Shankara’s verion of Vedanta thus view ultimate reality as an impersonal force or principle:

…in the Upanisads,  the word Brahman comes to mean the source of power, and thus the impersonal, supreme, eternal principle behind the origin of the universe and the gods.  (Concise Dictionary of World Religions, by John Bowker, p.96)

Hindus who follow Shankara’s version of Vedanta might say they believe in “God”, but what they mean by the word “God” is clearly something very different from what Christians, Jews, and Muslims usually mean by the word “God”.  The traditional view of God in western religions is that of a personal creator who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.  Hindus who follow Shankara’s version of Vedanta do NOT believe that such a being exists.  Thus, although such Hindus have “religious belief”, they do NOT believe in God, not in the sense of the word “God” intended by most Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

[I should note that there are other versions of Vedanta in which “brahman” is understood to be a personal being and a creator, similar to the Western conception of God, so Hindus who ascribe to those other versions of Vedanta are correct, or at least more accurate, when they claim that they believe in God.]

In short, there are a significant number of Buddhists and Hindus who have “religious belief” but who do NOT believe in God.  Therefore, even if we grant the assumption that “religious belief” is widespread, it does NOT follow that “almost all people of every era” believe that God exists.   Kreeft’s  “evidence” in support of premise (1) thus FAILS to show that (1) is true.

Belief in God in the United States

One obvious source of evidence that might have influenced Kreeft’s opinion on this matter is the Gallup Polls that have been taken about belief in God since the 1940s:

Do you believe in God? YES
2017 May 3-7                      87%
2016 Jun 14-23                  89%
2014 May 8-11                    86%
2013 May 2-7                      87%
2011 May 5-8                      92%
1967 Aug 24-29                  98%
1965 Nov                              98%
1954 Nov 11-16                   98%
1953 Mar 28-Apr 2           98%
1947 Nov 7-12                     94%
1944 Nov 17-22                  96%

(see this web page:  http://news.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx )

Based on those figures, one might be tempted to conclude that:

In the 20th century, almost all people in the United States believed in God.

Since belief in God in the U.S. has dropped from over 95% in the 20th Century to below 90% in the 21st Century (according to the above Gallup polls), I’m not sure it would be accurate to say “almost all people” in the U.S. believe in God in the 21st century.  It depends on what we mean by “almost all people”.

It should be noted, however, that the figures from Gallup exaggerate the percentage of people who believe in God.  First of all, no definition or clarification is given in the poll question as to what the word “God” means.  So, the person answering the question is left free to interpret this word however they wish or however they are inclined to interpret it.  Some people who do NOT believe in God as understood in traditional Christian, Jewish, and Muslim belief, probably answered the question “Yes”, because they believe in some sort of deity or spirit or impersonal ultimate force or principle.

Another problem with the Gallup poll numbers is that people are only given two basic options “Yes” or “No”.  But in the area of religious belief there is a variety of points of view about “ultimate reality” and metaphysics.  There are monotheists, and polytheists, and pantheists, and panentheists, and atheists.  And there are different kinds of monotheists with significantly different concepts of the deity.  Some monotheists believe in a finite and imperfect deity, others believe in an infinite and perfect deity.  Also, polytheists come in different varieties.  Some believe that there is a chief deity that rules over the other deities, and other polytheists don’t believe that there is a chief deity.  Some polytheists believe that gods are immortal, and other polytheists (such as Buddhists) believe that gods, like humans, are subject to death.

When a poll question only provides TWO options: belief in God or no belief in God, some people are uncomfortable with both options, because saying they “believe in God” suggests that they believe in the God of Western religion (Christianity, Judaism, or Islam), but saying that the do NOT believe in God suggests that they are atheists who have no religious beliefs, and neither of those are accurate characterizations of their viewpoints.  So, people who are polytheists or pantheists or who believe in just one finite and limited god are tempted to say they “believe in God” just because that is closer to the truth than that they are atheists who have no religious beliefs, which is how they interpret (or think others will interpret) the answer that they “don’t believe in God”.

When other options are provided, it is no surprise that fewer people will then say that they “believe in God”.  For example, in some Gallup polls people were given a second religious alternative:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your belief about God — you believe in God, you don’t believe in God, but you do believe in a universal spirit or higher power, or you don’t believe in either?

Date                      God        Universal Spirit

2010 May 3-6      80               12
2008 May 8-11    78               15
2007 May 10-13  78               14
2004 May 2-4      81               13

(see this web page:  http://news.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx )

Notice that a significant percentage of respondents chose the second religious alternative.  In a Gallup poll taken in 2011, where no second alternative was offered, 92% of respondents answered “Yes” to the question of whether they believed in God; this is the exact same percentage as the sum of those who in the previous year said they believed in God (80%) and those who answered that they “don’t believe in God, but…do believe in a universal spirit or higher power” (12%).

When Americans are given this second religious alternative, 12 to 15 percent go for that option, people who would have said that they “believe in God” if only given the choice between “believe in God” and “don’t believe in God”.   So, belief in God, as understood in traditional Christian theology, is probably held by no more than 80% of people in the United States in the 21st century.

Furthermore, since the above question still fails to provide a definition of “God”,  some people who answered “Yes” do not believe in God as understood by traditional Christian theology and belief.  They have some idiosyncratic or non-traditional understanding of the concept of “God” and so they actually do NOT believe in God, as understood by traditional Christian theology and belief.

Barna Research has attempted to provide clearer definitions or characterizations of “God” to determine how many Americans actually believe in God in terms of the traditional Christian conception of God, and their surveys indicate that significantly less than 80% of Americans believe in the existence of God, so defined:

When asked to choose one of several descriptions of God, the proportion who believe that God is “the all-knowing, all-powerful and perfect Creator of the universe who still rules the world today” currently stands at two-thirds of the public (67%).   

(see this web page: https://www.barna.com/research/barna-examines-trends-in-14-religious-factors-over-20-years-1991-to-2011/ )

So, when a poll provides a clear definition of “God” that corresponds to the traditional Christian (or Western) concept of God, less than 70% of people in the U.S. in the 21st century say they believe that such a being exists.  Therefore, it seems to be the case that even the narrow claim that “almost all people” in the United States in the 21st century believe in God (as traditionally conceived of by Western religions) is FALSE.   67% of people does NOT constitute “almost all people”.

Belief in God Worldwide

The real problem for Kreeft’s claim, however, is that the United States is only one country out of many countries in the world:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Country#/media/File:1-12_Political_Color_Map_World.png

The United Nations includes 193 countries as members, and there are a few other countries that are not members of the U.N.:

https://www.countries-ofthe-world.com/all-countries.html

How many people in the world believe that God exists?

According to a worldwide poll conducted in 2011 by global research company Ipsos for Reuters News, only 45% of people believe in a “God or Supreme Being”:

Half of global citizens (51%) surveyed believe there is some form of ‘divine entity’: either a “God or Supreme Being” (45%) or “many Gods or Supreme Beings” (6%). This compares with two in ten (18%) who “don’t believe in God/Gods/Supreme Being/Beings” and another three in ten (30%) who are “undecided” of which 17% say “sometimes I believe, but sometimes I don’t” and another 13% say “I’m not sure if I believe”.

(see this web page:  https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/ipsos-global-dvisory-supreme-beings-afterlife-and-evolution )

Furthermore, this 45% figure is itself exaggerated, for the same reason that some of the Gallup polls exaggerated the percentage of people who believe in God: there is no definition or clarification provided of what the word “God” means.  Therefore, some people who have an idiosyncratic or non-traditional concept of God will misleadingly answer that they believe in a “God or Supreme Being”, when the being that they believe in is significantly different from God as traditionally conceived of by Western religions.

Based on the above worldwide polling data, the following claim is FALSE:

In the 21st century, almost all people in the world believe that God exists.

If we broaden the scope of the claim about the prevalence of belief in God from the United States (which is a very religious country dominated by Christianity) to the entire world, then we move from a dubious claim about the US to a claim that is clearly FALSE about the world.  

It seems likely that Peter Kreeft took his personal experience and understanding about belief in God in the United States (where he grew up and where he lives), and mistakenly generalized that experience and understanding to the entire world.  But this was a HASTY GENERALIZATION that led him to a FALSE conclusion.

Belief in God in the Past

One might try to defend premise (1) against the above objection by arguing that the 21st century is a time of great and unprecedented skepticism, and that belief in God was much more common and widespread in past centuries.  If belief in God was more prevalent in the past than it is now, then premise (1) could still be true, because the 21st century would be an aberration from the norm.

Recall that Kreeft’s claim has a very broad scope in terms of time:

1. Belief in God…is common to almost all people of every era.

Taken literally, “every era” would include the Paleozoic Era (from 541 million years ago to 252 million years ago).  Of course, there was no belief in God by people during the Paleozoic Era, because there were no people (no human beings) that long ago.  But clearly, Kreeft had in mind only those “eras” in which people existed, who could then either believe in God or not believe in God.

How long have people existed?  Homo Sapiens have been around for about 250,000 years. Is it true that “almost all” Homo Sapiens who lived 200,000 years ago believed in God?  I don’t think there is any evidence that shows this to be true.  Also, it seems unlikely that primitive humans believed in God.  There were no temples or churches, no priests, no missionaries, no hymns, and no sacred books 200,000 years ago.  People were very busy just trying to stay alive, and language itself was no doubt very primitive, so talking about ordinary observable things and events was difficult, let alone having deep philosophical or theological discussions.

It seems unlikely that belief in God existed prior to human civilization.  The first human civilization was the Mesopotamian Civilization which began around 3500 BCE.  So, if belief in God did not occur until the beginning of human civilization, then human beings existed for about 245,000 years without believing in God, and then some humans believed in God for about the past 5,000 years.   Given the vast period of time that humans existed prior to human civilization, if belief in God began around the time that civilization began, then the period in which (some) humans have believed in God was only about 2% of the time that humans have existed.  So, if we include the “eras” of human existence prior to civilization, it seems very doubtful that “Belief in God…is common to almost all people of every era.”

Of course, we don’t know for a fact whether humans believed in God 200,000 years ago.  There are no books or writings from that long ago, because writing was not invented until about 3100 BCE , in ancient Sumer, in Mesopotamia (see History of Writing, Wikipedia).  Since it is extremely difficult to know what humans believed or did not believe prior to the invention of writing, it is reasonable to infer that when Kreeft spoke of “every era”, he had in mind only HISTORICAL times, only those centuries and locations where humans had developed writing and so could record their experiences and beliefs for posterity.  So, I will assume that the scope of premise (1) is limited to the centuries after the beginning of human civilization, especially after the invention of writing around 3100 BCE.

OK.  So, is it true that “almost all” humans who lived 5,000 years ago (in Civilizations) believed in God?  Let’s start with the most ancient civilization, the Mesopotamian Civilization.  Did “almost all” of the people who were part of the ancient Mesopotamian Civilization believe in God?  So far as I know, none of them did.  At any rate, the dominant religious view was that of polytheism:

Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic; more than 2,000 gods and goddesses have been identified. The chief of the gods varied from period to period. For the Sumerians, it was Enlin, the Sky God. The Babylonians worshipped Marduk above all others, and Ashur was the supreme god of the Assyrians. Other notable gods and goddesses were Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility, Tiamat, god of the sea and chaos, and Sin, the moon god.

The Mesopotamians conceived of the material world as being deeply bound up with the divine. Every household, village and city had its own god. 

(see this web page: https://www.timemaps.com/civilizations/ancient-mesopotamia/ )

Unlike the more unified civilizations of Egypt or Greece, Mesopotamia was a collection of varied cultures whose only real bonds were their script, their gods, and their attitude toward women. The social customs, laws, and even language of Akkad, for example, cannot be assumed to correspond to those of Babylon; it does seem, however, that the rights of women, the importance of literacy, and the pantheon of the gods were indeed shared throughout the region (though the gods had different names in various regions and periods).

(see this web page: https://www.ancient.eu/Mesopotamia/)

So, the people of the earliest human civilization believed in MANY gods, NOT in one unique, eternal, infinite, and perfect creator of the universe.  They did NOT believe in God.

What about OTHER ancient civilizations? 

  • Ancient Egyptian civilization was polytheistic.
  • Indus Valley civilization was polytheistic.
  • Ancient Greek civilization was polytheistic.
  • Ancient Roman civilization was polytheistic.
  • Mayan civilization was polytheistic.

Notice a pattern here?  Most ancient civilizations were polytheistic.  So, for the period from 3000 BCE to the first century CE, it appears that “religious belief” was indeed widespread, but that monotheism and thus “belief in God” was NOT widespread.

In the past 2,000 years Christianity and Islam have grown to become the two largest world religions, with Hinduism running close behind in third place.  But even though the spread of Christianity and Islam have promoted the spread of belief in God, it is still not the case in the 21st century, that “almost all” people believe in God.

It is fair to say that as Christianity and Islam have grown and spread, belief in God has become more widespread, more prevalent than it was in the first 3,000 years of ancient human civilizations.  Even so, belief in God is still held by less than 50% of the human beings on this planet.  Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that it is NOT the case that “almost all people in every era” have believed in God (assuming that “every era” refers to the time since the beginning of human civilization, and especially the beginning of writing, around 3100 BCE).

CONCLUSION: Premise (1) of Argument #19 is FALSE, and thus Argument #19 is UNSOUND.

In Part 6, I will evaluate premise (3c) of Argument #19.

 

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