Recently Gary Gutting, Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, posted an interesting article, “Does it Matter Whether God Exists?” on the New York Times philosophy blog The Stone. In it he considers the merits of John Gray’s argument that belief in God does not really matter when it comes to religion. Yes, you read that right. According to Gray, when it comes to religion, belief in God is ancillary to how one lives as a result of that religion. After considering various objections to this claim, Gutting goes on to, seemingly, endorse it because religious people are incapable of knowing whether the God we serve is benevolent or malevolent. In what follows I hope to show that both Gutting and Gray are wrong, primarily because they do not take seriously the actual Christian worldview.
Gray’s Charge that Belief in God is Unnecessary
According to John Gray, many religious systems do not care about what you believe, but instead care about how you live. This is true of “polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Chrisitan and Muslim traditions.” Now I can’t speak for adherents of other religious traditions, but, at first, I found the inclusion of Christianity in the list as being patently false. Then after a bit of reflection, I realized he may be correct. Some Christians do take, or seem to take, this approach. For example, well known Christian evangelical Brian McLaren has written that church doctrinal affirmations regarding Scripture should not use terms like ‘inerrancy’, ‘revelation’, ‘authority’, ‘literal’, etc. but instead simply read something like “The purpose of Scripture is to equip God’s people for good works” (Generous Orthodoxy, 164). Earlier in the same book he wrote, approvingly, of a mentor’s statement that, “In a pluralistic world, a religion is valued based on the benefits it brings to its non-adherents” (Ibid., 111).
The connection between McLaren and Gray is this. Both wrongfully believe that the primary concern regarding the Christian worldview is how we treat others — how we are to live. So, Scripture is to help us do good works. If we’re not inclusive of other religions, then we’ve missed the boat. However, historically orthodox Christianity places primary importance not on how we live, but on whether we recognize our sinfulness and believe in Christ as the means through which a relationship with God can be restored. This, of course, will lead to doing good works, but that is what follows from right relationship. And right relationship requires right belief. It would be odd if I could have a relationship with God without even believing that he exists! We must first “clean the inside of the cup” (something that requires we recognize it’s dirty), “then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26).
If your religious system does not require one to believe right things about the divine, then of course believing in God doesn’t matter. But that’s hardly worth saying. However, if your religious system does require it, as found in historical Christianity, then belief matters very much. While Gutting recognizes this, he does so only partially. He writes,
But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more [that is, much more than a good way of living here and now]. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death.
Notice that not even this gets Christianity right. First, historically orthodox Christianity does not say unbelievers will be annihilated. From Gutting’s perspective, it’s much worse. Unbelievers are to be damned for all eternity. But that’s not the real problem with his attempted response to Gray. The real problem is he puts the primary focus on eternity in heaven. That is going to be a glorious thing, but making that primary is just as wrong as making the doing of good works primary. Again, eternity in heaven is what follows from right relationship with God. Heaven is promised to those who believe, and it is that belief in God that matters most. As we will see, what leads to this misunderstanding is also what leads to the worry Gutting raises in the remainder of his post.
Gutting’s Skeptical Worry
Even though mainline Christian traditions are concerned about more than simply a particular way of life, their focus on an eternity in heaven (which we just saw isn’t quite right) “depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.” Well, the existence of such a being is precisely what Christianity teaches, so what’s the problem with this? The problem is that, according to Gutting, even if one could decisively establish, say via a cosmological or ontological argument, the existence of God, from that one would not have reason to think that such a being cares at all about our existence — on earth or in the afterlife.
Gutting thinks traditional arguments for God’s existence do very little, if anything at all, to give one assurance regarding salvation. “We would know that our salvation was possible: an all-powerful being could bring it about. But would we have any reason to think that God would in fact do this?” The problem is even greater when one considers that “an all-good being needs to take account of the entire universe, not just us.” Here the argument takes a very interesting turn into an area I have some familiarity with — the problem of evil.
Gutting points out that many responses to the problem of evil rely on the notion that there might be some evils that are necessary in order for God to achieve some greater good. The problem is that “we have no way of knowing whether humans might be the victims of this necessity.” For all we know, there may be some other beings in another part of the universe that can only have a really great good if we all end up suffering for eternity. If that is the only way that really great good can occur, and that good is sufficient to outweigh the evil we all will suffer, then God would be morally justified in allowing it. This is the downside of appealing to our limited knowledge regarding why a good God would allow something like the Holocaust. If the appeal to limited knowledge is justified, then that same limited knowledge precludes us from knowing whether we are all intended to an eternal future of suffering and not an eternity in heaven.
Where Gutting Goes Wrong
Just as Gray and McLaren don’t take seriously the actual Christian worldview, neither does Gutting. Gutting, however, is wrong in a second way. He fails to take into account why adherents of Christianity accept the Christian worldview as true. Let’s consider, briefly, each of Gutting’s failings. First, according to the biblical record, Christians have every reason to believe that salvation is assured to those that know God. The Bible is full of assurances of salvation and just a cursory glance through the NT makes this clear. (See, e.g., Romans 1:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:8.) Gutting’s worry may be troublesome for some quasi-theists or spiritualists that only accept the existence of some “Other,” but it simply isn’t a worry at all for Christians. Because Christians accept the Bible as divine revelation from God that is, to use McLaren’s naughty words, authoritative, infallible, objective and literal, Christians have an easy time dismissing this worry. The Bible gives Christians a whole host of reasons to think there is a promise of salvation and that the promise will be kept.
This appeal to the Biblical record regarding salvation leads to the second way Gutting goes wrong. Gutting wrongly assumes that Christians believe what they do only because they accept the conclusion of some argument for God’s existence. This may be part of what is going on, but no Christian philosopher or apologist I know maintains that the being established via an ontological argument must be identified with the one true God. Even Aquinas, in advancing his famous “Five Ways,” recognized this. According to Aquinas scholars John O’Callaghan and Ralph McInerny, Aquinas does not even use ‘God’ in the context of the Five Ways as a proper noun, but simply as a common noun instead. While the God he proved is indeed the true God, that isn’t directly entailed by the argument. What is entailed is the existence of some Other, but Aquinas had additional reasons to identify that Other with the one true God. Familiarizing oneself with prominent philosophers of religion and apologists today will show that not much has changed in this respect. If Christians do not accept the Christian worldview as true because of these types of philosophical arguments, then why do they?
The most fundamental reason is that in addition to general philosophical arguments for God’s existence there are excellent reasons to think the Biblical record is accurate. This is why, for example, well known philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig never simply gives a philosophical argument for God’s existence in his debates. He does that, but then also gives excellent reasons to think that Jesus is God and that he actually died and rose again. These, along with reports of religious experience of Christians, give one excellent reasons to think that Christian theism is true, not just some kind of minimal theism. If one has excellent reasons to think that Christian theism is true, then one ought to take seriously the details of that worldview. And the details of that worldview provide the basis for thinking that the Christian life is not simply about a way of life here and now and that we can be assured that salvation awaits those who believe. At the very least, it gives one reason to think that it matters very much whether one believes that God exists.
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John Gray, “Can Religion Tell Us More Than Science?” (BBC News)
Gary Gutting, “Does it Matter Whether God Exists?” (NY Times)
Ralph McInery and John O’Callaghan, “Saint Thomas Aquinas” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)