Why believe in God? Part I: God or Atheism

In a previous post I mentioned three key questions: Why believe in God? in Christ? in the Church? Today I want to start looking at that first, foundational question. Why would someone believe in a God (theism), rather believing in no God (atheism)? Or, how does one overcome uncertainty (agnosticism)?

First, I think it is important to recognize that this is a question that exists outside of any particular revelation. Being an atheist is more than just rejecting the Bible (or any other claim of a teaching revealed by God). It is the claim that there is not a God of any kind (revealed or not). So, let’s look at an example of someone who did not reach his belief in God through any particular religion.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle lived a few centuries before Christ, and pursued knowledge of the causes of things. For an effect to exist, a sufficient cause was required. So, why did something exist rather than nothing? He argued that there must ultimately be an “unmoved mover,” i.e., a First Cause that wasn’t caused by something else.

A classic example of his reasoning is setting up a chain of dominoes and knocking them over. There must be a first domino knocked over to cause the rest. Or, if someone has a tractor and says they borrowed it from a friend (who in turn says he borrowed it from another friend, etc.), you eventually have to reach the person who somehow acquired or made the tractor in the first place. Or, for a final example, if you see a train moving along a perfectly flat surface, you can logically conclude that there is something that gave it a driving force.

If there was no First Cause, then either 1) there would be no effects, or 2) there would be no need of causes to produce effects. Both he saw as contrary to reality—created things exist all around us, and follow the law of cause and effect. Therefore, he concluded that the Greek polytheism must be incorrect, and that ultimately one Unmoved Mover must exist. Aristotle speculated about what the nature of such a thing must be (infinite, eternal, etc.), but his concept of the Unmoved Mover contains the heart of what we mean by the word “God.”

This is a very simplified explanation, but it shows one road to belief in God that does not rely on any divine revelation. In revelation we believe that we learn more about the nature of God, the process of the creation of other things, how we interact with God, etc. However, at its root, atheism isn’t a rejection of these particular things. Atheism is the belief that there is no ultimate cause or purpose to reality, whereas belief in God is the claim that there is such a cause (whatever the particular qualities of that cause might happen be). Again, there is much more to say on the matter! I’ve provided one example of a path to belief, and want to continue this topic in the following posts by looking at two of the most significant objections to God: materialism and the existence of evil.

What is faith?

We generally think of faith in religious terms, but I want to start by looking at it in a broader context. Faith, at a basic level, simply refers to the act of taking something on the word of another.

The Letter to the Hebrews describes faith as “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Walking by faith is different from walking by sight (2 Cor 5:7)—by faith we receive things as true based on the word of another; by sight we ourselves can see the proof. If we were to limit ourselves to accepting only those things that we had personally proven or tested, we would live in a very small world. Instead, we trust the people that build our houses, prepare our food, or teach us complex sciences. This frees us from starting from scratch and allows us to flourish. Faith is not something strange to human beings. It is basically necessary for survival! The question is not really whether to have faith or not, but where we should place our faith.

Faith can also expand our vision. I think a great analogy for this (although a little technical) is light. Human beings are able to see some of the light spectrum with the naked eye, but that is just a small portion. With aid we can see the infrared, ultraviolet, etc. It is a pretty bold claim to say that there is nothing to be known beyond what we can know by human knowledge alone! And, this additional knowledge that we hold by faith isn’t necessarily less certain- although it may seem less clear to us personally. A child that (by faith) believes the world is round participates in the certainty of the astronaut who has seen it. So, it can be reasonable to have faith. Faith and reason are not opposed. They interact as two complementary ways to achieve knowledge.

The final point, then, is to examine the source of faith. There are basically three main claims of faith that are held by the Church: that God exists, that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, and that the Catholic Church holds to the fullness of his revelation. In my next posts I will look at some reasons for belief in these claims.

God bless!