LeftowBrian.jpgLecture given by Professor Brian Leftow

Nolloth Profesor of Religion, Oxford University


Arguments proving the existence of G‑d


(Shabbat dinner, Hilary term, 2008)


Atheism is all the rage.  It sells lots of books, and they are angry books.  It is also close to being the majority creed of the UK.  A recent survey has it that 28% of Brits believe in a personal God.  Another 26% believe in "something," but do not know what (no mean feat). (Maybe it's a toaster.) By contrast, 26% believe in UFOs.  42% think religion is harmful, and I think it's a safe bet almost all of those are atheists. The new sort of atheist is aggressive.  They would like to convert you.  One move they all tend to make is to challenge you to prove God's existence, and claim that you're irrational or stupid to believe in God if you can't provide an argument that does so to their satisfaction. The criticisms they offer for standard arguments are mostly pretty poor.  Alvin Plantinga reviewed Dawkins' book, and said that he'd call the philosophy in it sophomoric except that this would be too hard on sophomores.  But the more basic idea the polemicists take for granted- that you need something like an argument for God's existence that would convince anyone to be rational believing it- is what I want to challenge.


To begin with, the atheist making this challenge suggests that if you can't convince anyone- i.e., in the circumstances, him- you shouldn’t be convinced yourself.  The thought is that to be a rational religious believer, you would have to put yourself in the atheist's position, supposing only what he supposes, and argue yourself into theism, using only considerations that would convince anyone.  But why?  Why should the standpoint of the atheist or agnostic be the touchstone from which rationality is assessed?  And the thought that only considerations that would convince any neutral observer are rational bases for religious belief is surely wrong.  For religious experience is a sound basis for belief.  It is rational to be convinced by your own experience.  If it seems to you that God appears to you, or speaks to you, that is an excellent reason to think that God exists, as long as you know you weren't drunk etc. at the time.  Prima facie, having God appear to you is as good a reason to believe in God as having a crested woodpecker appear to you is to believe in them.  But the one who hasn't had this experience may legitimately be more skeptical.  He may wonder whether it could have been as you say, whether your environment and background beliefs led you to misinterpret something, etc.  You may legitimately not take these doubts seriously: you know what it was like.  He doesn't, and so legitimately may.  Which makes the point that not all rational bases for belief are person-neutral.  People can rationally believe based on evidence others may rationally reject.


But you don't need experience to be rational in believing.  Nor do you need philosophical arguments.  I believe in God ultimately due to my acceptance of testimony on the subject.  I'm going to suggest that testimony is enough.


I grew up believing that there was some sort of God b/c this was what the grownups told me.  If this was irrational, then I ought also not to have believed that 2+2=4, that "dog" means dog, or that the Magna Carta was signed in England, b/c I believed these too only b/c that was what the grownups told me.  I was not under a rational obligation to doubt their testimony.  Nor was I under a rational obligation to investigate history and the set-theoretic foundations of mathematics for myself when I got older, to replace my testimonial basis for belief with some other sort.  I was not required to look up my history teacher's university marks, or travel to England, to believe rationally.  I still believe that the Magna Carta was signed in England for no better reason than that I was told it, others still tell me it, and I haven't come across anything that made me doubt it, or ought to have done so.  And surely I am rational to believe it, and perhaps even know it.  You might think that as a philosopher, I've learned some nifty arguments for God's existence, and these are now the supports of my belief.  Well, yes, I've found arguments I find convincing.  But the same arguments fail to convince people who come to them as atheists, and this rather suggests that other bases for belief are playing a large role in how I evaluate the arguments, and that I haven't really ultimately gotten away from testimony.


We learn most of what we know about the world by testimony.  What you know about history, science, mathematics came to you not b/c you did research or proofs.  You simply accepted your teachers' words, as your teachers did for most of what they learned from their teachers, and their teachers for most of what they learned, and so on.  If testimony were not a rational basis for belief, we could not rationally believe any of this.  If accepting it were not on its own a sufficient basis for knowledge, you could not claim to know one bit of history, science, mathematics, or even current political events. (Newsreaders are giving testimony.)  Either testimony is on its own sufficient to justify belief and render it rational, or no jury ever decides a case on the basis of rational, justified belief.  And either testimony is on its own sufficient for knowledge or no-one but a few archaeologists knows anything about ancient history.


I suspect that the only rational attitude is to give all testimony a prima facie pass.  What this means is: suppose someone tells you something. There are things that should lead you immediately to doubt a story.  Maybe he says that David Cameron is PM, but you've heard otherwise. (Notice, though, that it's what you've heard- testimony.) Maybe the story is simply crazy. (But could you judge it so w/o relying on beliefs you'd acquired by accepting testimony?) There are also things that should lead you to doubt a story's teller.  Maybe he looks drunk.  Maybe he has shifty, dishonest eyes.  Maybe his friends call him Liar Joe.  But if nothing like that is true, then the only rational attitude is to believe him, perhaps not with maximal confidence, but with confidence enough. 


The reason is simple.  If you did not do this, you'd be committed to one of two things: either finding some other principled basis to doubt the given story or teller, even though it "passes" the initial tests mentioned, or trying to sift all testimony as you received it- to try to accredit the witness, or test it for yourself, etc.  But could you know enough to do this w/o accepting other testimony?  Could you know what stories are crazy w/o relying on testimony?  You can judge who's drunk easily, and maybe you've seen firsthand that drunks can get things wrong or perhaps reasoned this out on the basis of experience- but maybe even that is only something you've heard.  The friends' calling him Liar Joe is testimony.  You don't know whether Cameron is PM without accepting the testimony of newsreaders and reporters: you aren't going to get to see him to ask, and surely you don't have to do so to be rational in believing this.  You couldn't speak a language without having accepted testimony about words.  In most cases, you're not even in a position of knowing enough to do the relevant checks and tests w/o first accepting testimony.  So: you can't sift testimony w/o relying on other testimony.  And it's not clear that you can have a principled basis for deciding which testimony to take initially on sheer trust (given the initial "pass" of the speaker, as someone who does not seem untrustworthy).  IF that turns out true, the only rational choice is to take all testimony initially on trust if the teller seems trustworthy.


You may continue to be justified in believing the testimony even if you find things that make you doubt the story or the teller somewhat, or ought to do so.  If the basis for doubt is considerable, perhaps you need to do something to allay it.  But that's the most you need do.  If you do it, your testimonial justification for belief remains undefeated and your belief is justified and rational.


And- finally- there is no non-question-begging basis for denying the same prima facie acceptance to religious testimony.  If it is rational to accept a story about physics, given that you have no particular reason to doubt the teller, why not one about God?  If all you need to do to remain rational is find a reasonable response to bases for doubts about physics, so too here. And whoever claims that we have an obligation to become skeptical about religious testimony, to investigate whether the sources are credible etc., needs to explain why the same doesn't hold for scientific testimony (e.g. looking up your teacher's undergraduate marks).  There is only one well-known argument about this, Hume's against believing testimony about miracles.  But not all religious testimony concerns the miraculous.  Some is just testimony to religious experience, or prophesied/fulfilled historical events.  And in any case, Hume's argument is a bust. 


It might seem that testimony to experience of God, or to miracles, should not get prima facie acceptance b/c it runs up against some of the barriers I mentioned earlier.  It is rational to doubt testimony if the teller seems crazy- and perhaps Dawkins thinks that anyone who claims to have heard God's voice shows himself to be crazy.  It is rational to doubt testimony if the story is literally incredible, or close to it- and perhaps Dawkins thinks that any miracle story is ipso facto incredible, and ditto any story about seeing a vision or hearing God's voice.  But why? 


It's probably craziness to seem to hear God's voice if it is very improbable that God exists- so perhaps Dawkins thinks that he has a good argument for this. (The absence of independent proof that God exists isn't an argument.  We have no independent proof that North American woodpeckers exist, save that some people have seen them and reported it.  If it's rational to believe them, other things being equal, it's just b/c there's no particular argument that they don't exist.) The only one out there is the argument from evil.  And while that argument can impress, the truth of the matter is that there are pretty good answers to it out there.  Of course, you know by testimony that some philosophers think there are, and some think there aren't.  It's a peculiar fact about philosophy, that an argument that seems crushing to some seems irrelevant to others.  One thing you could do is examine the argument and the answers for yourself.  But that's of limited value if you're not a philosopher: you should know that someone who spends more time on it might well see considerations you don't, and defer to some degree to expert opinion- which is divided.  So what's the rational answer in the face of that, given that you're not a philosopher?  I suggest that the absence of a consensus against God's existence on the basis of this argument, among people who've considered the question seriously, leaves you with little reason to think that people who think they've heard God's voice are crazy.  That's not to say no reason, but if there are a fair number of people who seem otherwise sane who claim this, the craziness block on accepting testimony doesn’t seem to apply. 


The theist's position may well be this.  He believes in God growing up, bc the grownups say so.  As he grows, he learns that their testimony traces ultimately back to a book in most cases.  There are in that book testimonies to religious experience he finds convincing- say, someone's account of a vision of a burning bush.  On testimonial basis, he continues to believe. Someone who as a child or young adult simply believes what they hear is behaving perfectly rationally.  And they may remain rational even after they come into contact w/testimony to other religions, and critical discussion of testimony to miracles, and critical Scriptural scholarship where that exists: all they need is a sufficiently reasonable response to the problems raised, or a good reason to think that an expert has such a response.  If someone is skeptical of your story about the Big Bang, to be rational in resisting his skepticism, you don't have to be a physicist.  You need only have good reason to think a physicist could do it for you, and refer your inquirer to the expert.  So too here: if you have reason to think someone can do the job for you, you can farm out the work. I f the theist can rebut the atheist's case against his testimonially based belief, or believe rationally that others can do it for him, the theist is fully rational.  Nothing more is required.