Religion: Modernizing the Case for God

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Other scholars use what could be called the cumulative argument: they contemplate the comparative plausibility of various arguments and evidences using Adler's favored standard of judgment, the jury's proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." This permits atheists to avoid having to disprove God absolutely, which is as hard to do as prove his existence, and lets theists cite human phenomena that strict empiricism used to rule out. In The Existence of God (Oxford; $37.50), Richard Swinburne of England's Keele University concludes: "The experience of so many men in their moments of religious vision corroborates what nature and history show to be quite likely—that there is a God who made and sustains man and the universe." Basil Mitchell, a philosopher of religion at Oxford, advocates a "many-stranded rope of reason" like that employed by historians or scientists to develop the best explanation of evidence. Among his strands: individuals' experience of a mysterious "other" outside nature, the simple faith of believers and "cosmic awe" in encountering unusually saintly persons.

The procedure is double-edged. Oxford's J.L. Mackie, perhaps the ablest of today's atheistic philosophers, offers nonsupernatural explanations for such evidence, and raises the problem, as old as the Book of Job, of evil. The existence of evil is no "knockdown disproof of an omnipotent and wholly good God," he says, but it does make God , improbable. Plantinga renovates the theist's classic reply to this: the free will argument. Examining whether a semifictional, corrupt Boston mayor would have taken smaller bribes in other "possible worlds," he argues that even an all-powerful God cannot create a world in which mayors can choose to take bribes and that also contains no evil.

In religious circles, natural theology is not in vogue. Not all Roman Catholics can wholeheartedly accept the First Vatican Council's decree that "man can know the one true God and Creator with certainty by the natural light of human reason."

Though few people come to believe through the exercise of reason, cathedrals of thought can provide sanctuary for many when faith falters or is attacked by skeptics. Jude Dougherty, dean of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, also sees value in continuing to labor to reason God out in a day when all sorts of bizarre cults flourish. "If religion is not placed on a rational footing then anything can be considered religion."

Probably the major failing of such enterprise is that the results, however persuasive, tell too little about the nature and will of God. Blaise Pascal, anticipating modern objections to natural theology, believed that one cannot worship a dry concept, only the living God. Though a genius in science and mathematics, Pascal believed that "the heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know." But if in an age of science, faith in God can be more rationally grounded, as a growing number of philosophers now attest, then the reasoning soul who is so inclined can more surely and assuredly feel comfortable in moving beyond reason.

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