Can anyone claim God doen’t exist?
Are agnostics just atheists who don’t want to declare their atheism? Are atheists just agnostics who don’t want to admit the possibility of a God. To be fair, we should let them speak for themselves. Here is what one renowned scientist has to say about his agnosticism:
The honest agnostic or atheist — we should assume that most of them are honest — makes a distinction between what he believes and what he claims to know. He then suggests that everyone else should do the same. The model below tries to depict the various possible states of mind a person can hold regarding the existence of God, based on these criteria. I think this model is limited (after all, it’s just a model), but it does give some general idea about these different states of mind, which involve varying degrees of certainty and belief.
This model is imperfect, because it does not bring into account several other states of mind besides belief and certainty. I believe it is important to make these distinctions, not only if you question God’s existence, but also if you believe in God and claim that anyone can be certain that God exists — a very bold claim indeed. To make that claim you not only need to know the difference between belief an certainty, but you also need to understand the other states of mind regarding the possession of truth as well.
Possible States of Mind with Respect to Attaining Truth
- Error is the mental state of incorrectness, when what one judges to be the case does not correspond to the actual state of affairs in reality. For example: The sun and all the planets orbit the earth.
- Ignorance is lack of knowledge with regard to some given fact or set of facts. For example: I was told that Mount Everest is in Tibet, but I don’t even know where Tibet is.
- Suspicion is an inclination of the intellect to affirm something as true without giving full assent. For example: I can’t find my wallet. I think someone picked my pocket on the subway.
- Doubt is indecision or suspension of judgment when faced with two apparently equal possibilities that cannot both be true at the same time. For example: It is very possible that there could be life on other planets, but I doubt it, because no one can know for sure based on the evidence we have so far.
- Opinion is a weak sort of assent based on reasonable considerations, accompanied by the realization that one could still be wrong. For example: I really think there has to be life on other planets, because the universe is so immense that it just seems impossible for earth to be the only place where life could exist.
- Certainty is warranted assent to truth, i.e., full assent to the truth of a given fact or set of facts, with the exclusion of all reasonable doubt, based on well-founded evidence. For example: Two physical bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Or… I have a splitting headache.
Two other states of mind need to be added to the list above. They differ from the others in that they involve voluntary consent (not to be confused with assent, which is not voluntary).
- Denial is a refusal to accept facts that are evidently true and ought to be accepted by any reasonable person (willfully rejecting objective evidence). For example: Elvis is still alive. Or… The Holocaust never happened; It’s all a big historical lie.*
- Belief is Fully assenting to possibilities that are neither completely evident nor improbable. For example: All life on earth evolved from one single celled organism. Or… God created the entire universe in six days.**
* Here we are not discussing psychological denial, which is a stage in the process of grief.
** Belief in the supernatural is what we call faith, e.g., faith in the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity or the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
When a person holds an opinion, he holds a position stronger than doubt (a suspension of judgment), yet he is not fully committed to his opinion. He remains open to the possibility that he could be wrong. In the case of belief, the person willfully accepts what he believes leaving little if any room for doubt. In many cases the object of belief can neither be verified or falsified. This is not to say that the belief in question is unreasonable, although some beliefs — such as belief in the tooth-fairy beyond the age of, say, 12 — are unreasonable.
Belief differs from both certainty and opinion in the following ways. When a person is in pain, he is not merely of the opinion that he is in pain nor does he just believe he is in pain, he’s certain of it, because the experience of pain is an undeniable phenomenon. Certainty regards facts that the person in question is not able to doubt based on the sufficiency of evidence.
This subtle distinction between belief and certainty implies that one cannot believe and be certain at the same time. If you are unable to accept that, then you don’t accept the distinction, and you can just disregard everything I just said. It is interesting to note, however, what St Thomas Aquinas says in this regard. He holds that one can prove the existence of God, and therefore be certain of it. Yet if one does not accept that rational proofs necessarily demonstrate the existence of God, faith (i.e., belief) suffices. However, there are many things that are unattainable to human reason which Christians believe to be true as a matter of faith (e.g., the doctrine of the Trinity).
Can anyone be certain of God’s existence or is it just a matter of belief?
As I mentioned Aquinas holds that God’s existence can be demonstrated and if it can be demonstrated then it can be made certain. If you accept Aquinas’s proofs then you are certain that God exists.
However. not everyone accepts Aquinas’s 5 ways to prove God’s existence. This does not mean, however, that agnosticism, atheism, or sola fidei are the only resorts. If a person accepts the evidence he finds to be sufficient to make him certain that God exists, then that person would say you can be certain that God exists. There are many types of evidence that people accept as sufficient evidence for Gods existence. One need not accept all of them or any of them in order to believe.
Some of the different types of accepted evidence are:
- The testimony of martyrs
- Personally witnessed miracles
- Miracles that one finds impossible to deny
- The order of the universe (intelligent design)
- Personal experience of God in prayer
Whether someone accepts any of these phenomena as sufficient objective evidence for God’s existence depends on each individual — which some might argue makes the criteria for judging mostly subjective. Several believers hold that none of these things actually prove God’s existence.
Many people who have studied the “intelligent design theory,” for instance, say only hints at the existence of a creator, but it fails to actually prove its necessity. As an argument it has too many holes in it — that is why they call it the “God of the gaps theory.” It cannot be used as a scientific (or philosophical) argument to prove God’s existence, because insufficient argument is no argument at all, unless the one using it clarifies that it is only a probable argument, not a demonstration of necessity.
The believer’s faith ultimately rests on Authority (with a capital A). Although many people do not accept arguments from authority (such as the testimony of martyrs), it is perfectly acceptable to accept it in faith, as we do when people tell us that they fulfilled a promise made when we cannot actually verify personally that they kept that promise.
Arguments from authority are, indeed, the weakest form of argument, except for in one scenario, i.e., the scenario of faith. In dogmatic theology, which presumes the acceptance of the doctrine it teaches arguments from Authority are the strongest form of argument. Authority, with a capital A, is the Authority of the one who reveals. It’s the Authority of revelation.
Accepting God’s existence as certain, does not make that person a believer. For instance, one may insist that the order of the universe proves (to him) that there is a God. Nevertheless, he may still refuse to accept the Creed of any specific religious denomination. Furthermore, Christians, for example, do not only believe in a supreme being; they believe that Jesus Christ is God, God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Accepting that doctrine takes faith, since human reason cannot devise ways to attain this knowledge with certainty.
In the end, Christian faith ultimately rests on the acceptance of revealed truth.