Man has learned to cope with all questions
of importance without recourse to God as a working hypothesis.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Letters
and papers from Prison, 8 th June 1944
Here we will look at some traditional arguments for Christianity.
These are arguments that theologians have now generally disowned.
They are nevertheless still popular. They may be refuted in
various ways: by identifying an unwarranted premise or a faulty
mode of argument, or by reductio ad absurdam: showing
that a premise must be wrong if, using logical arguments, the
implications of that premise are contradictory or absurd.
Argument: If God did not exist there
would be no point in our existence. Therefore he must exist.
Refutation: There are two implicit
assumptions here. One is that there can be a point to our existence
only if there is a God; the other is that there is indeed a
point to our existence. Neither is self-evident. The weaknesses
of the assumptions can be shown up by using the same argument
on something else: for example: if God did not exist there
would be no point in the existence of sea slugs. But is
there a point in the existence of sea slugs? And if there is,
would there be less point to their lives if God did not exist?
Unless one assumes the required conclusion (that there is a
point to the existence of humans/sea slugs) then the argument
simply falls down.
What the argument boils down to is this: I do not want to believe
that there is no God because the consequences do not suit me;
therefore I will believe that there is one. Many believers will
happily accept the argument, even when it is phrased like this.
Argument: This argument was well
put by Francis Bacon ".... certainly man is kin to the
beasts by his body; and, if he be not kin to God by his spirit,
he is a base and ignoble creature".
Refutation: This is really just a
variation of the preceding "Point of Existence" argument.
We have to believe that we are somehow better than animals,
because we do not like the idea that we are essentially the
same as they are.
We want to hold a special place in the Universe, so we have
to believe something that confirms our uniqueness. The argument
can be refined by pointing to abilities and aspects of behaviour
that seem to be peculiarly human, and God-given. This is the
next argument to be considered.
Argument: Human beings are different
from other animals, and the source of this difference can only
Refutation: This is a substantial
argument, which is worth considering in detail. It once appeared
to be promising territory to hopeful Christians. Humankind did
indeed seem to be vastly superior to animals in many ways. Humans
had material souls that would, eventually, be scientifically
proved to exist. Humans used tools and medicines, animals didn"t;
humans were altruistic, animals were selfish; humans experienced
emotions, animals didn"t; humans were self-aware, animals
had no concept of self; human beings used language, animals
did not; human beings were moral beings, animals were not. All
manner of differences could be cited as evidence of human uniqueness:
only humans fall in love, only humans cry, only humans farm
other creatures; only humans decorate themselves with artificial
ornaments, and so on. One by one these examples have been picked
The claim that humans had material souls that could be scientifically
proved to exist was never vindicated and has now been abandoned.
It is not true that only humans use tools or medicines. Lowly
butcher birds use thorns to butcher their prey, sea otters use
stones to dislodge and break open shellfish, and many other
animals use tools for other purposes. Animals use medicines
too. A number of primates change their diet according to their
health, and some animals even use recreational drugs such as
the loco-plant. It is not true that only humans are altruistic.
Many animals that live in communities are altruistic, baby-sitting,
food sharing, taking risks to warn others of danger, and so
on. By any standards, bees, wasps and termites are far more
altruistic than human beings. It is not true that only humans
experience emotions. Darwin himself wrote a book, first published
in 1871, on the expression of emotions in man and animals, that
shows how similar the expression of emotion is between species
It is not true that all animals lack self-awareness. For example,
chimpanzees and a few other higher primates soon learn to recognise
themselves in mirrors. That they truly recognise themselves
is demonstrated by the uses to which they put their mirrors,
for example checking their teeth *.
It is not true that animals do not use language. Octopuses and
other cephalopods have a sophisticated visual language that
to date has proved too complex for us to understand. Bees have
a complex visual language too, communicating sophisticated information
such as directions and distances. Dolphins have a sophisticated
sound language, and so do many primates. Chimpanzees can understand
human speech, but lacking suitable vocal cords they cannot articulate
it well themselves, though they can generate it well enough
using visual symbols. Neither is Christian morality much of
a guide. If we use faithfulness as a moral criterion, we find
that a number of species are more moral than human beings.
Elephants demonstrate intelligence and
empathy, and appear to mourn their dead.
Like many other mammals they form strong family bonds.
Unromantic as it is, the fact is that human love is indistinguishable
from the pair bonding in many other animal species. Again, it
is not true that only human beings cry tears: most sea mammals
cry in the same way. Even the most peculiarly human activities
turn out to be practised by other animals. Human beings are
not the only ones to farm. Other animals keep other creatures
for their own use: for example certain ants farm aphids for
the honeydew they provide. Humans are also not the only animals
to decorate themselves with artificial ornaments: primates do
it, dolphins do it, and so do killer whales *.
In short, there is no clear reason to believe that human beings
are superior to other animals. Their intelligence is easily
accounted for by evolution. In any case the putative argument
falls down on other grounds. First, there are human beings who
lack the facilities proposed as criteria. Babies do not use
tools, medicines, or language; nor do they practise altruism;
neither do they appear to possess self-awareness, nor knowledge
of mortality and their emotions are indistinguishable from those
of other primates; yet they are still human. So too for those
rare children raised in isolation from human kind, and so too
for many people born with various kinds of severe disability,
yet they too are still human.
Second, even if it was true that human beings are somehow
different from other animals, there is still a long way to go
to in order to establish the argument. Let us grant for the
moment that only humans use fire, or blush, or understand negative
numbers, or possess a sense of humour, or a conscience, or a
concept of morality, or believe in sociology, or experience
sexual orgasms. What then? What if we do have opposable thumbs,
a slightly different bone structure in the upper jaw, and a
unique larynx? Is this evidence of divine favour? Why? And why
is the bat's radar not evidence of divine favour? Or the
snake's infrared sensor? Or the chameleon's ability
to change colour? Or an elephant's "fingers"
on the end of its trunk? We see our own peculiarities as evidence
of divine favour, but this proclivity is evidence only of our
If we look at other animals we are likely to discover, not
that we are special, but on the contrary that we are remarkably
similar to all other mammals. All mammal mothers suckle their
young. We share much the same senses, if not always as well
developed. We share the same basic anatomical structures: bones,
muscles, nerves, blood, and so on. We eat, drink, breathe, excrete
and reproduce like them. We even sleep like other animals, down
to details like yawning when ready to sleep, experiencing REM
sleep, snoring, and stretching our muscles upon waking up. We
share the same instincts and reflexes. If we look at chimpanzees
and other primates, resemblances are even closer. We move like
them. We recognise their emotions, as they seem to recognise
ours. When they are young, chimpanzees and children share many
characteristics: they have the same grasping reflex; they complain
about being weaned, they learn through play, they share an instinctive
fear of snakes; they seem naturally to like climbing trees.
Both human and chimp infants will go into temper tantrums in
order to get their own way. The infants will tease each other
and adults, and the adults will generally tolerate this, even
doing some teasing of their own. Like all hominids, chimpanzees
have tickle spots that correspond to those of human beings.
When playing, chimpanzees make hoarse laughing noises that are
recognisable to humans. Chimpanzees greet each other, slap each
other on the back, embrace each other and even kiss each other.
Golden monkeys are given to holding hands with each other.
The closer we look, the closer primate societies resemble
ours. Their social hierarchies are similar. Sexual activity
is used for non-sexual purposes, for example to establish dominance.
Even social patterns are similar. For example, in all human
societies, as in all other primate societies it turns out that
aggression is most commonly exhibited by young males. Chimpanzee
mothers, like gorilla mothers and human mothers, tend to cradle
their infants with babies" heads held to the left-hand
side. We share conventions about showing respect. Both chimpanzees
and humans will bow and even prostrate themselves in the presence
of a superior *. Chimpanzees
regard flesh as a special food, and they adopt different social
conventions when they eat it. In human societies the most common
eating taboos and eating rules surround the eating of meat and
From a purely rational point of view there is nothing of importance
that clearly sets humans apart from the rest of the animal world.
And if there were, those who wish to use the human uniqueness
argument would still need to demonstrate that such a characteristic
could not be accounted for by some other mechanism, such as
There are other difficulties with human uniqueness arguments,
which first came to light when Christians started colonising
the world. Were Native Americans human? Were black Africans
human? Were chimpanzees and gorillas human? The answers seem
patently obvious now, but they were not all obvious then, either
to Christians or to anybody else. These difficulties were overcome
by scientific taxonomies that are now universally accepted
so well accepted that to most people it now seems bizarre and
insulting that such questions could ever have arisen. As so
often, Christian teaching has followed science: all human beings
(as classified by biologists) are credited with souls, and all
non-humans (again classified by biologists) are denied souls.
The problem seemed to have gone away, but it has not really.
For example, what would be the status of a creature that is
half-human and half-ape? For a Christian it opens up the same
old problem about souls. If a mad scientist created such an
animal would it have a soul? If not, what about a 3:1 cross,
or a 15:1 cross? The problem simply will not go away.
This difficulty can be dismissed as hypothetical. But other
difficulties can not be. For example, for a long time fossil
bones kept turning up that were classified as either human or
animal a fairly arbitrary and artificial distinction
to scientists. During the latter part of the 20 th century it
was established from the fossil record that a group of large-brained
hominids, called Neanderthals, coexisted with Homo sapiens
(modern humans) in Europe between about 40,000 and 30,000 years
ago. Most anthropologists now consider that the Neanderthals
were biologically distinct from modern humans, forming a separate
human species, Homo naeanderthalensis (both Neanderthals
and modern humans are thought to have evolved from common ancestors
who lived more than 300,000 years ago). The discoveries about
Neanderthals finally finished the old argument that God had
created a unique immutable humanity to live on Earth.
Furthermore, the uniqueness of Earth as the only planet with
life on it is also in doubt. Life on Earth is much more common
and pervasive than previously suspected. For example living
organisms have been discovered to flourish without oxygen and
in extreme conditions of temperature, acidity, pressure, and
so on. Analyses of how commonly the types of conditions necessary
for the development of life are likely to arise in the Universe
along with current knowledge of the age of the Universe
and estimates of the length of time that any life-forms that
develop might persist suggest at least a moderate probability
for the current existence of extraterrestrial life.
All Christian attempts to place humanity at the pinnacle of
God's creation have failed. Our planet is not the centre
of the Universe: as far as we can tell, it is an insignificant
backwater. It existed long before humanity appeared on its surface.
It is very probably not the only place capable of supporting
life. Humankind is in no way special, even on Earth. We have
evolved like all other animals, but we do not sit at the top
of an evolutionary tree, nor do we represent any type of evolutionary
“end point”. There is nothing to suggest that, in
the distant future, Homo sapiens (in common with other
animal species, present and extinct, including Neanderthals)
will be regarded as anything more than a temporary phenomenon
that occupied a short "slot" within the continuing
Argument: Hundreds of millions of
people are Christians. They cannot all be wrong. Therefore Christianity
must be right.
Refutation: The premise that large
numbers of people cannot all be wrong is simply invalid. Vast
numbers of people can believe the most obvious falsehoods. A
few examples of things that many people have believed but most
of us now regard as obvious falsehoods are: that God will give
judgement through trials by ordeal, that illness is caused by
sin or evil spirits, that comets are sent as divine warnings,
that women are inherently inferior to men, and that Earth is
flat. Further confutation may be found in the fact that hundreds
of millions of people reject Christianity in favour of other
religions. Indeed, more people reject Christianity than accept
it. Whoever is right, it is clear that hundreds of millions
of people can be wrong. The argument therefore fails.
Argument: The fact that we have a
concept of God (and a name for the concept) shows that the concept
Refutation: This is obvious nonsense,
unless we are prepared to accept the reality of concepts such
as elves, mermaids, unicorns, tooth fairies, non-Christian gods,
and Father Christmas.
There is a more refined version of the argument, which asserts
that knowledge of God is inherent in humankind. Over the centuries
theologians have tried to test this conjecture, but the only
way to do so is to find whether people have any sort of knowledge
of a divinity when they have never had the opportunity to hear
about any gods. Occasionally, abandoned babies are adopted and
raised by wild animals. If, as sometimes happens, they are subsequently
captured, they can be taught a human language and then asked
whether they have a concept of God*.
The process is more problematic than it sounds because human
language acquisition is difficult after early childhood. Even
allowing for this, there has been a notable absence of any evidence
of innate belief in any sort of divinity.
Argument: Either there is a God or
there isn"t. If there is and we accept that there is then
we are bound for Paradise, but if we fail to accept the fact,
we are doomed to eternal damnation. If there isn"t a God
we have nothing to gain or lose by acting as though there is.
Therefore the safe and rational option is to believe there is.
Refutation: This is an interesting
argument, although the premises are questionable, and the implications
are not all that Christian advocates might like. The first premise
is that if there is a God we shall suffer for failing to believe
in him. This is an extraordinary proposition, but it has been
part of Christian teaching for centuries, so we will accept
it for present purposes. The second premise is that there is
no penalty for believing in God if God does not exist. This
is clearly not true. Many people regard the intellectual dishonesty
penalty enough, while others consider that belief in conventional
gods, and especially the Christian God, to be empirically harmful
in many ways, as we will see later.
The question may be seen as one of probabilities. If the chances
were say 50:50 that God existed (and that eternal salvation
depended on belief in him) then Pascal's wager would be
worth accepting. Indeed if the chances were only 1 in a 100,
it would be worth taking. If the chances were only 1 in 1,000,000
it might still be worth taking. The difficulty arises because
of the need for a subjective assessment of the probabilities,
which determines the result. If one believes that the probability
of the Christian God (or anything remotely like him) existing
is smaller than the probability of some other (more extreme)
God existing, then the rational option is to believe in the
more extreme God, who would reward you more for believing in
him, and punish you more for not believing in him. Of course,
if the subjective assessment of the probability of any conventional
god existing is nil, then the whole argument collapses completely.
Once again the flaws in the argument are most clearly seen by
applying it to something else, for example to the gods of most
other religions. We could also apply it to any gods we like,
however fanciful. For example, consider the Moon. We have nothing
to lose by worshipping the Moon. On the other hand we have everything
to gain by it, on the off-chance that the Moon is divine, suffers
from a taste for earthly worship, and possesses a disposition
to reward those who provide such worship and to punish those
who do not. The argument inherent in Pascal's wager works
as well for the Moon, or a thousand other putative divinities,
as it does for the Christian God.
Argument: Christian martyrs have
shown such superhuman bravery and endurance in meeting their
deaths, that their fortitude can only be attributed to divine
Refutation: The premise here is that
at least one Christian martyr has behaved in a superhuman way.
Unfortunately not a single such death has ever been reliably
reported. Even if we accept the most liberal estimates for orthodox
Christian martyrs, then we find that heretics have died just
as bravely and horribly, and in much greater numbers. Gnostic
sects provide an example. The earliest Church historian mentioned
the immense numbers of martyrs claimed by the Marcionite sect,
a group who opposed the line now considered orthodox*.
Other religions have many more (and better-attested) martyrs
than Christians. Amongst them are pre-Christian Saxons, Cathars,
Jews, and Shi"ite Muslims. Numerous modern fringe sects
(like early Christianity and Shi"ite Islam) have clearly
appealed to people who have actively sought martyrdom, a predisposition
more indicative of their personalities than of divine favour.
It is also worth noting that the reason we do not hear about
putative Christian martyrs who changed their minds at the last
minute is not that they did not exist. Many Christians renounced
their faith under pressure, or avoided trouble in other ways,
but later Christians conveniently forgot about their existence*.
Tertullian tells us that whole communities of Christians avoided
problems by the simple expedient of bribery. Whenever Christians
have been put under real pressure they have apostasised (abandoned
their beliefs) en masse. Cyprian for example reported
mass apostasy, led by bishops, during early persecutions. Later,
millions abandoned Christianity for Islam. Even monks, when
put under pressure by their own Church, went off to join the
Saracens*. Again, when
the French Church came under pressure during the French Revolution
some 20,000 priests agreed to be de-Christianised, along with
Argument: Jesus" sacrifice was
so much greater than any other human sacrifice that it must
have been divine.
For this argument to be valid, its initial premise would have
to assume the argument's conclusion (that Jesus was divine),
because the only thing remarkable in Jesus" crucifixion
was that he was (or was later alleged to be) God incarnate.
By contemporary standards crucifixion was unremarkable. Numerous
peoples practised it, including Persians, Scythians, Phoenicians,
Carthaginians and Macedonians. Alexander the Great had crucified
about 2,000 inhabitants of Tyre. The Romans generally reserved
crucifixion for the dregs of society, and used it against those
found guilty of all manner of treachery, including rebellion,
desertion, spying, and even forgery. Crucified corpses were
a normal decoration of city gateways and roads. Before a slave
revolt in 71 BC, Spartacus crucified a prisoner in front of
his troops to show them what they could expect if they lost.
Spartacus and his slave-troops did lose and the survivors were
subsequently crucified on some 4,000 crosses set up between
Capua and Rome along the Appian Way. In 4 BC, some 2,000 Jews
were crucified by Varus after disturbances in Galilee following
the death of Herod the Great.
Another argument sometimes voiced is that there was a uniquely
special aspect to Jesus" death in that he deliberately
and voluntarily subjected himself to the agony of crucifixion.
But this is not convincing since many people have sacrificed
themselves to similar prolonged painful deaths. For example
some allied prisoners of war during World War II acted in a
way that they knew would cause them to be crucified by their
Japanese captors. Again, each year voluntary crucifixions are
carried out on Good Friday in Manila, in the Philippines. For
a long time people have volunteered to have themselves nailed
to crosses there, to emulate their saviour. Most are taken down
before they die, but not all.
That the founder of the religion should die for his ideas is
also commonplace. Religious leaders from Zoroaster to Joseph
Smith and David Koresh have paid the ultimate price for their
unconventional beliefs. Socrates, who denied the Athenian gods,
chose death rather than exile as a punishment for his teachings.
Argument: The success of Christianity
over the centuries is evidence of divine favour.
Refutation: There is no reason to
suppose that any religion's success is attributable to
divine favour. If it were then we would have to concede that
God once favoured, amongst others, animism, then Zoroastrianism,
then Buddhism, then Christianity, and now Islam. One might also
wonder why, if Christianity enjoyed divine favour, it has been
so badly fragmented for so long, and is becoming ever more fragmented,
and why factions find it necessary to use violence against each
Incidentally, this argument was popular in the early days when
the Church was still growing fast. When Celsus accused Jesus
of having been one of many frauds around at the time, Origen's only reply was that his movement was flourishing while others
were reduced to a mere 30 faithful or fewer*.
Muslims later used the same argument to prove the divine provenance
of Islam, and millions of Christians seem to have accepted this
proof. Within a generation of Mohammed's death in 632,
Islam had superseded Christianity in Arabia, Syria, Palestine
and Egypt. Within another generation it had taken most of Asia
Minor. Within a century Islamic hegemony stretched from the
Indus to Spain, leaving Rome and Constantinople isolated. Its
spread was at least as impressive as that of Christianity a
few hundred years earlier, yet Christians who apply the argument
to Christian success are rarely willing to apply it to Muslim
Argument: The beauty of the world
is evidence of a benign creator.
Refutation: In order to accept this
argument it is necessary to be selective about what one considers.
For example, compare a traditional Christian view with an equally
selective one* :
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
The purple-headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky;
The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one;
All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.
Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom,
He made their horrid wings.
All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.
Each nasty little hornet,
Each beastly little squid,
Who made the spiky urchin,
Who made the sharks? He did.
All things scabbed and ulcerous,
All pox both great and small,
Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
The Lord God made them all.
The point is a serious one. If we want to use nature
as an indicator of God's disposition, then we need to
consider cats torturing their prey, parasitic wasps like
the ichneumonidae feeding inside living animals, jackals
eating their prey alive, unborn sharks eating their siblings
alive, viruses, progressive terminal diseases, innocent
animals dying long painful deaths through gangrene leaving
their young to starve, and so on. Those who know most
about nature tend to agree that it is thoroughly amoral*.
It therefore provides no evidence of a benign god of any
... the Lord God made them every
Argument: According to this argument,
this world is the best of all possible worlds, even if there
is suffering and evil in it.
Refutation: This is not really a
different argument; it is more like a defence to the refutation
of the previous (Wonderful World) argument. In order to accept
it we have to accept that this is the best of all conceivable
worlds, even though it may not be apparent to us. A simple way
to confute the argument is to imagine a world that is identical
in every way, except that one small example of suffering was
omitted. Here we have a better world, which an all-powerful
God could have arranged for us instead of the one that currently
The argument is linked to a major philosophical problem (the
problem of evil) that we will consider in more detail later
on. Historically, the best of all possible worlds argument
was once quite popular, and was espoused by Leibnitz in his
Argument: Without belief in the Christian
God it is not possible to lead a full or productive life.
Refutation: Even if true this would
not prove that God exists, only that there was some advantage
to believing in such a being. In fact, there is no evidence
that Christians lead more productive, successful or fulfilled
lives than any other believers or than freethinkers*.
On the contrary, a disproportionate percentage of freethinkers
have excelled in many areas of life, and do not seem to have
been any less contented than their Christian neighbours.
Argument: The Universe cannot have
existed forever, so it must have been created, and its creator
must have been God.
Refutation: There are several problems
with this argument, which we shall discuss when we revisit it
as a traditional philosophical argument. For the moment we note
only that the argument suffers from a flaw common in the ancient
world and identified by Aristotle. The problem is that the argument
does not really answer the fundamental difficulty. It only moves
it one stage back. Thus, if we are unwilling to accept that
the Universe has existed from eternity, and that it must have
come into existence at some time, and if we conclude that God
must have been responsible, then we might ask the same question
of God. Has God existed from eternity? If so, then why could
the Universe not have existed from eternity as well? And if
God has not existed from eternity, then we need to ask what
existed before God came into existence, and we have an infinite
series of such questions. We are in the same position of the
ancients who wondered what kept Earth in place, and deduced
that it was carried on the back of a gigantic tortoise. And
what supported the tortoise? Four elephants. And what supported
the elephants? Other animals, perhaps. Pushing back but never
solving the problem is called regression of the explandrum.
It is a hallmark of an unsatisfactory explanation.
Argument: No one has proved that
God does not exist, and this must count as good evidence that
he does exists.
Refutation: It is indeed true that
there can be no way to prove that God does not exist, but this
does not in any way help to show that he does. To see why, we
need only consider comparable statements. There is no way to
prove the non-existence of any of thousands of other gods, or
of fairies at the bottom of my garden: no way to prove that
human affairs are not directed by extraterrestrial beings, no
way to prove that the Sun is not an intelligent deity, and no
way to prove that Father Christmas does not exist. The fact
that we cannot disprove a statement provides no grounds in itself
for believing it.