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How to Believe in God: A Philosophical Approach for the Sincerely Disposed Skeptic

April 19, 2024


I have heard it said by several atheists that they wish they could believe in God but are unable to. Of course, I doubt that everyone who says this is sincere—it is quite an easy thing to say after all, and I have heard this line in political conversations as well (“I wish I could vote Candidate X, but . . . ” Frankly, no you don’t.). But I do not think that everyone who says this is insincere. This article is for the sincerely disposed skeptic—the genuine, intelligent seeker—or in other words, the person who really does wish they could believe in God, but for whatever reason, finds themselves unable to.

Experience tells me that people fairly often reject belief in God because of entanglements with religious or political ideas, prior negative experiences, or all the above; the idea of God, for them, is associated with notions or experiences that inhibit, or outright prohibit, believing in God because of their rejection of these notions or repulsion to these experiences. Perhaps they grew up in a repressive religious environment where God was viewed as an arbitrary and aggressive punisher, something used to intimidate rambunctious younglings by people in positions of authority, including parents. Or perhaps they see God as something necessarily associated with—for whatever reason—certain (often crude) interpretations of the Bible, rejection of mainstream science, or being a Republican. Or, as is common these days, they might just have had a very cartoonish understanding of God installed in them at an early age by some religious antagonist, the idea of God as some large, powerful entity within the universe, the proverbial bearded gentleman in the sky, or some other deficient idea like that; some idea, indeed, so obviously undersupplied by reason that no person who fancies themselves intelligent could ever accept it. This is quite understandable—all of it. 

Biographical note: As someone coming from an atheistic-naturalistic background myself, I can easily classify myself among those who really was open to believing in God, but because of the cartoonish idea of God that I held in my mind for many years, found myself unable to believe. As these notions dissipated and I began to see how philosophers thought about God, belief came fairly easily, and this eventually opened me to religion proper. For what it’s worth, I still reject now what I rejected back then—the comic strip version of God. In that sense, I am still a nonbeliever.  

I propose that a philosophical approach to God can help with these issues by removing barriers to belief through a conceptual clarification of what is meant by God. To understand why philosophers (many of them, anyway, past and present, from Aristotle to Aquinas, Leibniz to Lonergan) believe in God can create a new opportunity for genuine belief—an opportunity where one can begin a spiritual journey afresh, founded firmly upon reason.

God does not lack explanation; God is his own explanation.

As expected, the reason that philosophers believe in God is to make sense of things, because that is what philosophers are about. They are trying to render reality intelligible—or, really, they assume that reality is intelligible (that things make sense and aren’t fundamentally absurd) and are trying to grasp as much of that intelligibility as they can—which includes attempting to answer the big-ticket question of why there is anything included in reality and not nothing instead. 

The story, then, even at the risk of oversimplifying, is something like this: Philosophers consider things that do not make complete sense in and of themselves—that is, things that cannot account for their own existence or occurrence. Said differently, there is a bunch of stuff in the world that is obviously not self-explanatory. Inevitably, this stuff points to something “further out or higher up” to account for why reality includes it. 

To be more precise, philosophers have, down through the centuries, identified various features or attributes of things that imply that something is a caused entity; attributes that suggest that something is not self-sufficient in its existence and thus not ultimately able to account for its inclusion in reality by itself. For example, that something is contingent (that it is but didn’t have to be; that it could have been otherwise), composite (made up of parts), changing (moving from one state of being to another), and/or qualitatively finite (bounded or restricted with respect to shape, position, power, etc.)—all these are markers that we have not yet encountered the ultimate explanation we’re looking for, precisely because these features place limits on the intelligibility of something that leave coherent questions about why this thing exists (or exists the way it does) that cannot be answered just by considering that thing in and of itself. These inherent limits on intelligibility force us to look beyond the thing in question for some ultimately satisfying answer, especially to answer the big question of why anything of this type (contingent, composite, changing, finite, etc.) is included in reality instead of not. 

Many arguments have been given for why all contingent, composite, changing, and qualitatively finite things are, necessarily, caused entities, but I will not rehearse those arguments now. Rather, I will lean on common intuition: the shared—in fact, seemingly innate—curiosity we have to search out what determined things of this sort to exist and exhibit the features they do.   

Thus, if we’re to find some ultimately satisfying explanation of such things, we must escape or, if you prefer, transcend, whatever attributes imply being caused. That is, if we’re to ultimately find an explanation for contingency, we must posit necessity (that which must exist, no matter what); if we’re to ultimately find an explanation for complexity, we must posit simplicity (that which is uncomposed, lacking parts); if we’re to ultimately find an explanation for change; we must posit immutability (that which does not move into new states of being); if we’re to ultimately find an explanation for the qualitatively finite, we must posit the qualitatively infinite (unrestricted in power, knowledge, goodness, etc.). Strange as these descriptions may seem, they are, in fact, traditional descriptions of God as understood by classical theists, because only an entity of this sort could “fit the bill,” theoretically, as the ultimate foundation of things. 

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To reiterate, the philosopher arguing for God is ultimately positing a fundamental theoretical entity—the only sort of fundamental theoretical entity, I should say—that could somehow explain everything else in reality that needs to be explained by something other than itself, while also being able to explain itself. Importantly, to explain itself does not mean that it causes itself; it simply means that this thing is possessed of such a special nature that if we could comprehend its essence, we could “just see” why this thing exists and exists the way that it does, just as once we comprehend the nature of a mountain we can “just see” why it includes valleys. This makes God, importantly, an autonomous fact as opposed to a brute fact, where the explanation for God’s existence is internal to his special, self-subsistent nature as pure existence, or Existence Alone, as Aquinas put it. God, thus, does not lack explanation; God is his own explanation. (Though that explanation is not immediately available to us, it is reasonable to posit that it exists as the necessary foundation for everything else.) 

Now, because this fundamental theoretical entity must lack contingency-implying attributes, we have reason for thinking it is quite unlike anything in the natural-physical world, since all natural things are composite and bounded. Thus God, properly understood, as the noncontingent, absolutely simple, immutable, and qualitatively infinite transcendent reality, whose essence just is its existence, is so far removed from being anything like a bearded gentleman in the sky (which would itself be a composite entity pointing toward some further cause) that it is not even funny, and really just exposes as philosophically ignorant anyone who would think to describe God in such a manner. If you reject belief in God because that is your conception of God, then please keep at it. I’m with you. But just know that what you have rejected is not the real McCoy.  

In the simplest possible terms, it all comes down to this: Philosophers believe we need an uncaused cause to make sense of all the caused things, and only this sort of thing—this very special sort of entity, simple and unbounded—could be an uncaused cause. Nothing else will do. When we further analyze and think about what this uncaused cause would be like, we can deduce the traditional suite of divine attributes, including omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, and so forth. Aquinas, I dare say, is still the go-to philosopher for this.

If you say you want to believe in God, what is said here—and what is argued at length elsewhere, by many brilliant thinkers—should enable such belief. I have not claimed to provide definitive proof, only a reasonable basis, a removal of any major intellectual barrier to what might be described as Bare Theism. However, I should mention that reasonableness often comes cheap in philosophical circles, and in this sense what I have set out to do is almost, I dare say, a little easy. Establishing God’s existence beyond reasonable doubt is a more substantial project, and while that is a project I have substantially engaged, I do not think one needs all that much intellectual heavy lifting to reasonably assent to belief in God as understood by the great philosophical tradition. (Even many of the most sophisticated atheists are glad to admit that belief in God is a reasonable option, even if they don’t opt for it themselves.) Notice, moreover, that such belief has no immediate tie to religion, the Bible, or any political party. What I have described here is simply, as it is often called, the God of the Philosopher. 

But is the God of the Philosopher the God of the Bible? My space has run out, unfortunately, so I can only say this for now: If one accepts belief in the God of the Philosopher then it is an interesting and important question to ask what, if anything, Athens has to do with Jerusalem. It is that question, ultimately, that led me, a former skeptic, beyond Bare Theism to Catholicism.