arguments for God, philosophy

Arguing for Deism?

One curious objection I have seen and heard to arguments for the existence of God is that these arguments apply to deism, not Christianity. For example, Michael, an atheist blogger, writes, “Note that these are effectively arguments for deism, not Christianity!” about the Moral Argument (here). Another example is found in the irrational and rather virulent attack on theistic argument (laughably, they use Dawkins as the primary source for saying that all arguments for God’s existence have been refuted) can be found here. The author, confused about the implications of the cosmological argument, writes, “YECers actually deny the Big Bang, but Craig appears to be a deist.”

I must confess at least a little confusion about these comment and others which I have seen and heard. The objection seems to be that an argument for the existence of God (such as the cosmological argument) that could be utilized for deism doesn’t help the epistemic justification for belief in the Christian God. This objection is completely misguided, however, for a number of reasons.

First, Michael objects in this way in his discussion of the Moral Argument. But deism is the belief in “a creator who has established the universe and its processes but does not respond to human prayer or need” (Honderich, 195 cited below). Clearly, then, this god of deism cannot be the God towards which the Moral Argument points. The moral argument places God as the objective standard of morality for the universe (note, it doesn’t place God as the arbitrary decision maker for what is right or wrong–but argues that God has objective goodness necessarily or essentially, thus avoiding the Euthyphro dilemma Michael presses). It is hard to see how a god which doesn’t care about or respond to human need could be the objective standard of morality.

Second, the classic arguments for the existence of God don’t each point specifically to the Christian God, but serve as a cumulative case to demonstrate His existence and attributes. The Moral Argument argues for omnibenevolence; the teleological argument demonstrates omniscience and omnipotence (along with omnibenevolence, to a lesser extent); the cosmological argument illustrates omnipotence, transcendence, and necessary existence; the transcendental argument shows God’s transcendence and necessity; the ontological argument combines all of the attributes into its first premise (usually); the argument from consciousness demonstrates God as mind; the argument from reason demonstrates the rationality of God; the list could continue. Furthermore, almost all of these arguments show that God is personal, and therefore, by definition, not deistic but theistic. The objection is specious already.

Furthermore, how is it an objection to these arguments to say that they don’t each individually demonstrate the Christian God is the one true God? This seems to be a confusion about how arguments work. Argumenst for the existence of a god, as long as they don’t contradict the God of Christianity, can be taken as evidence for the existence of the God, namely, the Christian God.

Take an example of a case in court. A man is accused of committing murder. The victim was found hung in his room. The prosecuting attorney argues that the accused had the means–he recently bought some rope. He then argues the accused had motive–the victim had recently gotten a promotion for which the accused was vying. He also shows that the accused has rope marks on his hand and scratch marks on his face, which show the struggle which occurred as the accused allegedly hung the victim. He argues, finally, the accused had opportunity–he was in the room at the time the victim died and he was also the only other person in the room.

Now imagine how ridiculous it would be if the defense attorney stood up and complained that these arguments don’t really apply to the case at hand, because none of them demonstrates the accused committed the murder! They just show, individually, that he had means, motive, and opportunity; not to mention the strong evidence for the accused being involved in a struggle with some rope and another person. But to demonstrate the guilt of the accused, the defense continues, the prosecution must come up with an argument that demonstrates all of these things at once! Otherwise, they just demonstrate the other things individually!

Obviously, the defense attorney has something wrong here. But then the atheistic objector also has something wrong. The Christian philosopher of religion has argued that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, transcendent, necessary, etc.; the atheist responded by saying “those arguments individually only demonstrate a deistic God!” [Discounting, for the moment, that a deistic God wouldn’t share some of these attributes.] But that isn’t how the arguments work. Any argument which demonstrates that a God exists, as long as that God is not contradictory to the Christian God, can serve as evidence for the existence of the Christian God.

Source:

Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (New York, NY: Oxford, 2005).

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “Arguing for Deism?

  1. This is an excellent discussion of theism versus deism issues. I’ve written on this topic in my chapter, titled “David Hume and a Cumulative Case for Theism,” in the book *In Defense of Natural Theology,* edited by Douglas Groothuis and James Sennett.

    Posted by Doug Geivett | November 23, 2010, 10:27 PM
  2. By “deism” I didn’t mean just the classical definition of deism but something closer to “deism and/or generic theism” (which is a kind of vague non-denominational theism). Thanks for pointing out, I’ve edited the post to clarify.

    As for point two, I generally find that when these arguments are made their proponents act as if they naturally lead to the Christian god — but of course if successful they would be equally valid in establishing a host of other monotheistic religions. So the thing that makes it noteworthy for me is that it’s a case of Christianity being smuggled into a more generic debate (by implication).

    Finally, there’s a large gap between the YHWH of the Bible and the theological attributes of the Christian God which again is skirted over if the debate focuses on arguments that aren’t specific to Christianity.

    Posted by Michael | December 20, 2010, 8:37 PM
    • Yet none of these poses an effective counter to an argument for the existence of God. If an argument for God’s existence is successful, then the epistemic plausibility of theism goes up significantly. Even the edit in your post doesn’t do anything to alleviate this difficulty. By arguing for a god’s existence simpliciter, I am increasing the epistemic probability of theism. Thus, to object by saying I haven’t established all the attributes of the Christian God (and smuggle in the implicit premise that the argument therefore doesn’t benefit Christianity epistemically) is spurious. I return to my analogy of the attorney. Imagine the defense attorney said, “I object! There are other possible suspects!” That doesn’t somehow overcome the great epistemic probability that should be assigned to the guilt of the accused based on the evidence at hand.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 20, 2010, 9:21 PM
  3. I’m not sure what you mean — do you take my position to be that the main thing wrong with the generic argument is that if it’s successful it does not establish Christianity with certainty? Or that mentioning the objection that the argument is “for deism” is enough to refute it? Please clarify.

    Posted by Michael | December 20, 2010, 9:34 PM
    • Well if your position was your first sentence there would be a problem. Establishing a worldview “with certainty” is impossible. Epistemically probable or likely is not out of the question, however. Similarly, if you believe that mentioning that an argument is “for deism” is enough to refute it, there is an error there, as I argued in this very blog entry.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 20, 2010, 9:49 PM
  4. If we are to reach any sort of understanding I’d need to (as per my previous comment) get what you think is the precise position you’re trying to refute in this post.

    Posted by Michael | December 20, 2010, 9:52 PM
    • I am arguing against the position which construes that any argument which can be used in support of a deistic ‘god’ somehow loses credibility when employed in support of theism. I further charge that many who make this argument are confused in that they sneak theistic attributes into the deistic ‘god’ for which, they charge, theists argue.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 20, 2010, 10:04 PM
  5. That’s very far from my position (as per the original post) and I don’t think I’ve even encountered this position before. When the argument for a generic god is brought up by an atheist I think in all cases it was to question the strategy/motivation for this argument, not as something that makes the actual argument lose credibility.

    Posted by Michael | December 21, 2010, 8:41 PM
    • I’m glad you haven’t encountered the position. I am confused as to what you mean by saying it questions the “strategy/motivation for this argument.” Why should theists arguing for the validity of theism be surprising?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 22, 2010, 1:29 AM
  6. I don’t find it surprising, I just find it suss when it’s implied that these are arguments for the Christian god (as opposed to the Christian [conception of] god AND any number of potential other gods including the Jewish, Muslim, Bahai, Sikh [conceptions of] god and so forth).

    On the other side, I do find it surprising for those Christians who think being a Christian is necessary for salvation because if that’s true I’d think the main concern would be convincing someone Christianity is true, not just a form of theism. But if the supposed strategy is to first convince someone about the existence of a god using the generic arguments and then convince someone about Christianity then it might still be consistent.

    Posted by Michael | December 27, 2010, 5:15 AM
  7. The argument from morality does not prove anything. It proves at most that for objective moral values to exist, there must be a God who laid these principles down. I’m not willing to even grant that much, because saying that a figure laid down morality is not an argument for it being objective in nature.

    I am a Deist and I find that the cosmological arguments carry the most weight. Any additional arguments to prove that the deity is moral or Christian usually doesn’t prove anything logically.

    How can the argument from morality prove anything? It is an appeal to emotion at best. It suffices to say that natural law is a good ground for morality, because we obviously all exist due to having the innate ability to exist. We all want to exist in peace, therefore we should treat one another kindly. This can be said to not be objective due to the “is-ought” problem, and the question could be asked “How is it objectively moral to want to exist?” The answer obviously is that there is no objective groundwork to frame morality in.

    Suffice it to say that existence is objective in its nature, and the First Cause argument applies here. Theologians like William Lane Craig end up only proving Deism to be the case philosophically. Arguments toward the Christian deity do not even amount to proof in any degree. I’ve listened to the arguments countless times. I don’t see what the avoidance of Deism is about. Believing in God by rationality is much better than proposing the “faith” concept. Truth is the most beautiful thing of all.

    Posted by Michael | September 22, 2011, 8:10 AM
  8. The only argument that points to a personal God is the moral. I don’t see any of the others pointing to anything but A God. However, even the moral argument can point to a deistic God. It is entirely possible that a deistic God created us and loves us, and put a moral sense in us. But during our time on Earth, He may not actively participate in our lives, much like a teacher doesn’t participate in a test. He may be very involved with us in the spirit world after this life. But a deistic God not being involved in this life is no different than the theistic God that chooses not to answer certain prayers people offer up for help, and allows natural circumstances to play out. It happens all the time when Christians pray for healings or for relationships to be restored etc. but God is silent. If a Christian can accept God does not answer everyone’s cry for help, but instead allows circumstances to play out, then the idea of a deistic God not being directly involved in our time on Earth should not seem so strange. After all, this life would be a much more true test of our moral sense if we are not given all the answers and are left to figure it out for ourselves. But the deistic God may very well be very involved with us after we die. Also, some deists do in fact believe God is personal, and can answer prayer. So really, outside of trying to prove the Bible true by prophecy or by proving Jesus resurrected, there is no argument for God that discounts deism.

    Posted by James | August 16, 2012, 7:46 PM
  9. James, are you making a de facto or de jure argument here? I’m still not clear on exactly what you are arguing here. You wrote,

    The Moral Argument argues for omnibenevolence; the teleological argument demonstrates omniscience and omnipotence (along with omnibenevolence, to a lesser extent); the cosmological argument illustrates omnipotence, transcendence, and necessary existence; the transcendental argument shows God’s transcendence and necessity; the ontological argument combines all of the attributes into its first premise (usually); the argument from consciousness demonstrates God as mind; the argument from reason demonstrates the rationality of God; the list could continue.

    How does the teleological argument “demonstrate omniscience and omnipotence?” How does the cosmological argument “illustrate omnipotence?”

    Posted by epistemicnomad | January 10, 2014, 11:42 AM

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