From as far back as the presocratic, satirical poems of Xenophanes, Western philosophers have pondered whether God’s existence can be proven. That these philosophers approached religion with a battery of constructive or destructive arguments is as unsurprising as that a hammer would treat everything like a nail. But almost by design these proofs and rational criticisms miss the point of religion.
Western Philosophy and the Axial Age
The ancient Greeks laid down some of the foundations of modern science and mathematics: Aristotle practically invented logic and biology, Democritus arrived at atomism by armchair reasoning, and Euclid revolutionized geometry with the axiomatic method. In the first century BCE, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius captured the free-thinking spirit of humanism that informed both ancient Greek philosophy and the European Renaissance.
The foundations of Western philosophy, therefore, are skeptical and science-centered. The quest was to obtain objective knowledge at any cost, even if that knowledge should prove subversive. This is why Western knowledge-seeking was called “philosophy,” the obsessive, potentially-exclusive love of knowledge. For example, Socrates was executed in part because his elitist interrogations were radical and damaging to Athenian democratic culture.
But religion long predated that philosophical quest. Before the patriarchy and imperialism of the world’s organized religions, there were childlike animism and shamanic magic, folklore and ancestral spirit veneration stretching back tens of thousands of years into the Stone Age. It’s safe to suggest that most worshippers who’ve ever lived didn’t approach religion by drastically overthinking the matter, entertaining idle or self-destructive doubts and compensating with disingenuous apologetics.
Arguably, a crucial moment in the recorded history of religion was the Axial Age, which landed like a bombshell in the first millennium BCE. According to Robert Bellah’s use of Merlin Donald’s theory of cognitive change, that period was impacted by the inventions of the Greek alphabet and writing, which invited meta-level questioning, an analytical, theory-based mode of thinking that overtook the earlier, analogical and narrative one. Instead of just taking their practices for granted by personifying and socializing with natural forces, people in Greece, India, China, and Persia became more self-aware as they came to define themselves as distinct from an increasingly-objectified world.
For example, this was the birth of that freedom of thought in ancient Greece which started with the Presocratics, and their radical questioning produced knowledge that was at once progressive and destabilizing. To have the cognitive power not just to reflect on our thoughts, but to build on previous efforts thanks to the written word is to introduce a layer of culture that further liberates us from our animal instincts.
That freedom is evidently a blessing and a curse, which is a hackneyed way of saying we’re dealing here with something like what Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject.” Modern cognition — the way of knowing that accelerated with the Axial Age — is like empire or climate change: we grapple only with the tip of the iceberg, because the whole of the thing is too vast to be comprehended.
The benefits of meta-questioning included revolutions in spirituality, from the Jewish prophets to the Upanishads, Buddhism, and Taoism, and also the seeds of scientific objectivity that would flower over a millennium later with the Industrial Revolution and with the more recent, stupendous advances in technology.
The main drawback of such questions is that they open us up to doubts that suggest our life is absurd. We learn there’s such a thing as too much freedom, the liberty to discover that mass culture is a fraud, nature is an amoral nightmare, and the spiritual, existential elites are doomed to hide out in caves or their equivalents, nursing their anxieties.
The Theist’s Hybrid Deity
The Western business of attempting to prove God’s existence is part of the philosophy of religion which infiltrated Christian and Islamic theologies. That philosophy began as philosophers ridiculed the dogmas of folk religion but realized, as the political philosopher Leo Strauss said, they had better help rehabilitate the societies their cogitations threatened to subvert or risk undermining their lifestyle of intellectual elitism. The laughable spirits and monsters of archaic folklore were replaced, therefore, with the God of the philosophers, with an abstract, metaphysical Absolute that could satisfy reason, if not the authentic religious impulse.
To “prove” that God exists is first of all to recreate God in the philosopher’s image. God becomes for Aristotle an intellectual that literally is incapable of caring about anything apart from its thoughts. God becomes the Prime Mover or First Cause, because natural causality had finally been discovered in all its disenchanted glory. And God becomes an “architect” and an “intelligent designer” for the deists of early-modern Europe, since God had to live up to the emerging standards of science and capitalistic industry.
The God that can be rationally proven by forlorn primates, though, is no God at all, since reason is just our primary tool for exploiting environmental conditions by objecting them. For instance, if God is the First Mover, he would be subject to the laws of motion, which would be absurd since God is supposed to transcend the limits of the natural order that he created. The naturalized God of the philosophers conflicts at every turn with the friendlier, more intuitive God of folk religion, because the former was meant to serve as a smokescreen to distract from the latter’s annihilation at Reason’s hands.
If you look at the definition of “theism,” you find reference to a curious hybrid of the pre- and post-philosophy deities. The theistic God is the “creator and ruler of the universe” that intervenes in nature with divine revelation, the latter point distinguishing theism from deism. Notice that this definition doesn’t emphasize the personhood or character of this deity. Indeed, since an act of creation can be understood causally without any trace of intention on the part of the cause, and even the act of ruling can be considered a case of physical control, without the need of personal involvement (the choice of laws or governing with a moral purpose), the theistic God as defined is very much an impersonal abstraction, befitting the impact of the philosopher’s resuscitation of religion.
The God of folk religion, as defined by the literalistic, exoteric interpretation of the creeds and dramas of religious scriptures has to be read into that definition of philosophical “theism.” You have to presuppose that this “God,” “Creator,” or “Ruler” is a particular person such as Yahweh, the Father of Jesus, or Allah. You have to presume that this deity controls the universe because God is wise and benevolent, merciful and just. You have to read between the lines to find the reassurances that God is especially concerned with our corner of Creation and that he promised to care for us in the afterlife, to save or reward those who worship him and follow his commandments, and to punish sinners and nonbelievers.
All of that theological rigmarole is left out of philosophy of religion, but no one cares about the crypto-atheistic abstraction of a mere First Cause or Absolute Ground of Being. If God is more like the Way from Daoism or the Force from Star Wars than like a divine person who literally speaks to us and intervenes in our affairs by way of fulfilling his gracious plan, concern with God becomes a pragmatic attempt to develop techniques for living well rather than a social relationship such as the one boasted of in the naïve conceptions of Western religions.
Rational Abstractions as Lame Stand-ins for a Divine Caretaker
Christianity especially harks back to primitive forms of worship, by identifying God with a particular human person. By maintaining that God incarnated in Jesus Christ, just as tribal religions had associated their deities with concrete totems, altars, talismans and the like, Christians set themselves up for the most excruciating internal conflicts between their folk intuitions and agendas, on the one hand, and the re-emerging challenge of philosophical rigour, on the other.
These conflicts were evident in the Scholastic tradition of pressing philosophical doubts about scripture as far as possible without provoking the ire of the intolerant Church. Anselm and Aquinas, in particular, wrestled with the pure philosophies of Plato and Aristotle from a dogmatic Christian standpoint; more precisely, those theologians meant to tame classical philosophy to honour their religious dogmas.
This, of course, was Catholicism’s modus operandi, since this is what Catholics did ever since their New Testament scapegoated Jews and Hellenized Judaism to make some Jewish scriptures suitable for adoption by the Roman Empire: if they couldn’t wipe out heresies by force, Catholics co-opted the opposing ideas and practices; hence the word “catholic” means broad-mindedness by way of making something (the gospel) universally applicable.
This gulf between the comforting religion we want and the pale imitation supplied by philosophical proofs and analyses widens into an appalling abyss with the conservative American efforts of Fundamentalists, Creationists, and Evangelical Trumpists. Here we see reason employed most cynically and feebly, the humanistic spirit of science and philosophy trampled to make room for some barbaric, anachronistic prejudices.
With Scholasticism or at least philosophy of religion proper, reason tamed faith, but now we have the anti-intellectual reversal in which faith tames reason. These dynamics show us what’s lacking with all so-called theistic arguments: the attempt to prove God’s existence, presupposing a mathematical standard of proof, turns God into a mathematical abstraction. Likewise, comparing God to causes, foundations, or essences turns God into a metaphysical abstraction. All such abstractions are irrelevant to what the masses have always wanted out of religion, which is a way to live without debilitating fears and doubts.
Accepting “proofs” of God from philosophy of religion or from debased theology is like taking an arsonist’s advice on how to avoid setting fires. With the aid of memory tools such as the alphabet and literacy, freedom of thought killed the God we’ve cared about throughout our recorded history. Reason disenchanted nature in toto; we stripped the world of meaning and inherent value to prepare for our extraction of the world’s material resources. The spirits vanished or became ossified in the civic religions and philosophy-laden bad fictions offered as lame substitutes for authentic spiritual experience.
What is that experience? It’s the innocence of Adam and Eve before their ironic maturation in the Garden of Eden. It’s the child’s naive optimism and faith in her parents and in the importance of her life. It’s the long-lost intuition that everything that happens in the universe is drenched with moral significance. Reason made all of that dishonourable at best, if not psychologically impossible in our late-modern period. To take seriously mere arguments about God is to miss the river for some ripples on the water’s surface.