NATIONAL QUALIFICATIONS CURRICULUM SUPPORT
Religious, Moral and
The Existence of God
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Learning and Teaching Scotland gratefully acknowledge this contribution to the National Qualifications support programme for RMPS. The painting of Adam and Eve on p43 is by Janette K Hopper (chair of the Art Department, University of North Carolina, USA) and reproduced by kind permission.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland 2005
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Section 1: The cosmological argument 13
St Thomas Aquinas 14
Section 2: Does the cosmological argument work? 17
The big bang 17
Bertrand Russell 18
Has the cosmological argument been defeated? 19
Section 3: The teleological argument 23
The complexity of the universe 23
William Paley 26
St Thomas Aquinas 28
Section 4: Does the teleological argument work? 31
David Hume 31
The theory of evolution 32
Has the design argument been defeated? 33
Section 5: The problem of evil and suffering 37
Moral evil 37
Natural evil 39
Section 6: Does evil and suffering show that there is no God? 43
The freewill defence 44
Other religious responses 46
– The crucifixion 46
– Life after death 47
Section 7: Does God exist? 51
1: Aristotle’s four causes 53
2: The anthropic argument 55
3: Moral responsibility, personal maturity and strength of character 56
Still the question remains whether there is any more reason to believe in God than there is to believe that Elvis lives. Are those who believe in God any better justified? The answer, perhaps, is that they are not.’1
‘I don’t believe in an old man with a grey beard.’
‘Were there no other evidence at all, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.’
Sir Isaac Newton
Do you believe in God?
Some people may immediately answer this question with a resounding ‘no’. Others will say confidently ‘yes’ and others still will say ‘I’m not sure’. If this same question is asked of anything else that exists in the world it’s highly unlikely that any answers will be forthcoming! It would obviously make little sense to try to engage a cow with questions about God.
A cow is probably only really aware of its immediate surroundings. Humans, however, are very different. We are not only aware of immediate experiences like hunger, tiredness, etc., we can also think about our past, and even consider what will happen in the future. Humans also appear to have the unique ability to appreciate beautiful scenic views and enjoy music. It’s highly unlikely that any cow has ever spent much time thinking about its origins or its long-term future. It’s equally unlikely that it enjoys listening to Mozart or that it notices the beauty of the countryside. And it’s almost certain that no cow has ever considered the possible existence of a supernatural being.
The search for the existence of God says something very profound about humans.
‘How did the universe come into being?’
‘How did I come to exist?’
‘What is the purpose of life?’
‘Is there life after death?’
‘Is there a God?’
The first step: understanding what you’re looking for
Before you begin trying to prove that anything exists the first key thing you must do is establish exactly what it is you’re looking for. The modern day philosopher Peter Vardy makes this point by explaining that if you were asked to go on an expedition to find an aardvark you should first make sure that you know what an aardvark is. If you don’t then no matter how hard you try you’re simply not going to find one!2 The starting point of this course must first be to establish what most people who believe in God have in mind when they talk about God. To do this you must make every effort to consider what the philosophers and theologians mean(t) when they talk(ed) about God.
One of the obvious problems we have when we talk about belief in God is that it’s very difficult to try to express anything at all about God. Most people who believe in God accept that God is a mystery who is beyond our understanding. The Jewish hero Job states:
Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the almighty?3
One of the great Christian theologians was a man named St Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274AD). He was keen to point out that we have to be very careful when we use any words to describe God. He thought that God was so radically different from anything that exists in the world that knowing anything for certain about the true nature of God was almost impossible. He did however believe, as we will see later, that
we can know that God exists. Aquinas suggested that the only way we can talk about God is by using analogous language. This simply means that when people talk about God they often compare ‘him’ with familiar objects or ideas. Aquinas thought that the words we use never describe God exactly as s/he is but rather they correspond to what s/he may be like. One common way to express ideas about God is by using metaphors.
Definition: A metaphor is a tool used in language when a comparison is made between two things, based on resemblance or similarity, without using ‘like’ or ‘as’.
Sacred religious writings are full of metaphorical expressions about God. If we understood these references literally then we would have a very strange picture of God indeed.
Look closely at each of the descriptions of God found in various parts of the Bible.
God has measured the waters in the hollow of his hands and places the heavens between his thumb and his little finger.
He [God] will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.
Psalm 91:2, 4
I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live.
Psalm 116:1, 2
The writer doesn’t actually think that God has huge hands, feathers and an ear.
What ideas are being expressed in each of these three references above?
In the Christian religion people have also attempted to express ideas about God in great works of art. This is not common to all religions. Islam, for example, strictly forbids any attempt to produce an image of God because of the danger of misrepresenting God. Some Protestant Christians are also uncomfortable with any attempt to produce an image of God.
The great artist Michelangelo produced some of the most famous paintings of God. Some of these can be found in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Rome. These images can be downloaded from the following web site:
Any painting of God should also be understood as being metaphorical. When Michelangelo painted God in this way he wasn’t trying to suggest that God actually looks like this. He was trying, rather, to express ideas about God’s nature.
It’s very important to take time to recognise that philosophers and theologians do not think that God is ‘an old man with a long grey beard who lives in the clouds’.
The writers that you’re going to study were NOT trying to find a superman-type figure, who had arms and legs, a long beard and is incredibly muscular. The God we are interested in is essentially a spiritual being that is radically different from anything physical that we can see. Although many theologians disagree about the nature of God, we mostly tend to think about God in very traditional terms. The following characteristics are probably those that have been the most popular ways of considering God.
God is a being who is:
• Radically different from anything that exists in the physical universe (spiritual not physical).
• Omniscient (all knowing)
• Omnipresent (present everywhere)
• Omnipotent (all powerful)
• Eternal (was not created but has always and will always exist)
• Benevolent (good/loving)
If you are interested you may want to look up the following Biblical references that express other ideas about God. See if you can match them to the key ideas about God listed above.
Luke 12:7 Psalm 139:1–4
Psalm 145:5,6 Psalm 139:7,8 1 John 4:7
Exodus 34:6 Psalm 90:2