Arguing for Theism on Faith

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Theism or Atheism?

When humans consider the existence of God, they tend to look outward for evidence and inward for understanding. Humans must process both types of information through a filter that is based on an unwarranted confidence in human reasoning. Or, failing that, humans must fall back to rely on faith. The nature of faith may perhaps be characterized by an absence of definitive criteria other than the absolutes that are sometimes associated with faith. Consider the parameter suggested by the phrase: "Oh, ye of little faith" (Matthew 8:26). A believer can be described as having faith along a continuum: Great faith, little faith, no faith. However, if-then clauses are not attached to faith. It is generally not regarded as acceptable to claim that one will have faith, if something else -- whatever that concept of else may be. To qualify faith in this way transforms belief into bargaining: A person may promise to believe -- to have sufficient faith, going forward, to believe in God -- if only prayers are answered. To the contrary, belief that is grounded in human understanding is fraught with if-then qualifications. Accordingly, theism -- the belief in the existence of God -- can be defended from both a position of faith and a position of understanding.

St. Anselm argued that, "it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists" (St. Anselm, n.d.). Rather than conflate conceptualization by using "the word signifying it is conceived" with the phenomenon "when the thing itself is understood," St. Anselm determined that a lexicon may provide a definition, but it does not necessarily evoke understanding. True understanding, according to St. Anselm's argument, is dependent upon the reality of the thing -- the true existence of what is conceptualized. St. Anselm uses the word conceived, which be taken to be a birthing -- a coming into being -- than a perception of what might be. St. Anselm's assertions are derived from his faith, while Gaunilo argues from a position of evidence, insisting that, "the hypothetical excellence of this island exists as a real and indubitable fact, and in no wise as any unreal object, or one whose existence is uncertain, in my understanding" (Gaunilo, n.d.).

The overarching difficulty between the two believers -- St. Anselm and Gaunilo -- is that they argue from different philosophical positions, which is not unlike the sort of argument own would hear between scientists from an empirical, positivism approach and from a naturalistic, phenomenological approach. While both may explore and analyze the same problem, the fundamental tenets of their investigations differ widely, such that different sets of data are produced and separate conclusions may be drawn. The one scientist is driven to prove and the other to surmise.

William Paley (1802) argues that people try to make too much out of the evidence that is right in front of them, dissecting it according to what they know and understand. In his analogy of the watch and the watchmaker, Paley (1802) illustrates a way of orienting to physical matter that fosters pro forma acceptance, which may be all that humans can accomplish when it comes to examining evidence that God exists. Paley asserted that, "The consciousness of knowing little need not beget a distrust of that which he does know…" (1802, p.86). Having reasoned that people can only know a little about the watchmaker, Paley expressed the belief that it is acceptable to not appreciate why there were irregularities in the watch, why "the watch sometimes went wrong, or that it seldom went exactly right" (Paley, 1802, p. 85). Yet, Aikin and Talisse (2011) would impute malice to the watchmaker, or claim the watchmaker exposed indifference to the malfunctioning of an item he specifically designed and constructed. Accepting malice or indifference as attributes native to God establishes a conundrum; that is, unless the Aikin and Talisse (2011) proposition is accepted as the only feasible reason for a malfunctioning world: that a broken world is but an artifact of the existence of evil, and that it is unrelated to the existence or non-existence of God.

Aikin and Talisse (2011) assert that humans should seek to reconcile the nature of God and man, and to nature in creation. And when they fail at this objective, as Aikin and Talisse (2011) argue that they must, then the existence of God is not rational. Rather, the argument presented by Aikin
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and Talisse (2011) is a manifestation of the limits of man's understanding. Perhaps the nature of God and the natural world are not reconcilable anymore than, say, a watchmaker prone to weekends lost to drunkenness fits with the perfect timepiece he builds during the week. Or, taking the opposite tack, the imperfect timepiece is less than what the talented watchmaker is able to construct, and perhaps he has built other timepieces that are superior. Yet the person who purchases the imperfect timepiece is not likely to be aware of the more perfect watches, and so he surmises that the watchmaker is not as skilled as he professes or as others in community say he is. But is the measure of the watchmaker's skill not pegged to the perception of the owner of the watch? That is to say that, the man who owns one of the watches that works well will argue that the watchmaker is indeed a skilled artisan and a conscienscious man. While the man who owns a watch that doesn't keep time will tell anyone that will listen that the watchmaker is not a skilled artisan, that he takes good money for bad work, and that he really doesn't care if the watches he makes serve his customers well, or not. Both customers, if you will, are bound to experience their watch ownership through their own filters -- and they are quick to make attribution based on the quality of the watch they have purchased.

At risk of overusing the analogy of the watch and the watchmaker, suppose the world is presumed perfectly conceived at one point in time and functioned accordingly -- a point that is in accordance with the concept of Eden. But like a timepiece, the earth suffers from wear or entropy or evolution -- or whatever select change process is considered to effect the state of the natural world. A presumption that God must keep an active hand, so to speak, in the way the world exists can be liken to a watchmaker who continually visits every patron who purchased a watch to enable him to tinker with the mechanisms and set the clock in top working order. This would be an impossible task for the watchmaker and a tedious task for God. Moreover, it brings to mind the movie Groundhog Day in which the protagonist is entirely safe regardless of the circumstances and his own actions. Were the world to function in this way, people could take turns walking off cliffs, defying the laws of nature, confident that God would reach out and take them in the palm of His hand, placing them safely at the top of the overhang-to just do it all over again. What a happy game.

Human intellect is adequate to the task of keeping most people safe much of the time. Much of the harm people experience in their quotidian lives comes at their own hand, as a result of ignorance or carelessness or denial, or at the hands of other people through the same very human characteristics, or through malicious or malevolent intentional behavior, what Aikin and Talisse (2011) term moral evil. Why not give the watch owners the skills to keep their own watches in good repair? This principle, when applied to theology, is termed free will, and it is presumed to provide human kind with tremendous discretionary power to right wrongs -- or at least avoid them. Many of what Aikin and Talisse (2011) call natural evils [which, as Aikin and Talisse point out, are "ironically called acts of God (2011, p. 135] could be avoided if humans would actuate their free will in an intelligent manner. For instance, people build their homes in known flood zones or tornado alleys, and then declare God to be an unmerciful Being because He did not intervene to keep them safe or their property from being damaged. This type of scenario aligns well to Baruch Spinoza's assertion that "humans can recognize value only in terms of themselves and their interests -- we mistake inconveniences or things counter to our tastes for evils (1989, Book IV, as cited in Aikin and Talisse, 2011).

As human beings, the inhabitants of the earth appear to entirely unhappy that the world is not completely, perfectly good: our belief is that it could be and it should be -- and for this breach, we blame God. Humans don't shy away from applying human standards of morality to the actions of God. Socrates said to Euthyphro that, "different gods consider different…

Sources Used in Documents:


Aikin, S.F. And Talisse, R.B. (2011). Reasonable atheism: A moral case for respectful disbelief. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

King James Bible. Matthew 8:26.

Paley, W. (1802). The watch and the watchmaker, Chapter II.7. In William Paley, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, pp. 84-86.

Grube, G.M.A. And Cooper, J.M. (2002). Plato. Five Dialogues. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett)

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