Why should a person believe in God? There are many possible motivations, but one is that belief in God provides an answer to some of life’s deepest questions—for example, why should I try to be a morally good person, and why should anything at all exist?
The structure of reality contains both our desires and what fulfils them, and the religious believer will say the same about our desires for God.
I have spent fifty years thinking and teaching and writing about Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). I take him to be the most important philosopher of modernity in the West. His contribution to the present question is a moral argument for the existence of God. He thinks that the best kind of person is one committed to the attempt to lead a morally good life, and that this requires thinking that the good is more fundamental to the universe than the evil in it.
Because we all of us want to be happy, this belief about the universe involves in turn a belief that we do not have to do what is morally wrong in order to be happy; a belief that these two things we deeply want, happiness and goodness, go together. In biblical language (from Psalm 85) this is the belief that justice and peace embrace. But what sustains this belief about the universe? Kant suggests that what sustains it is the belief that the universe is under the supervision of a being who loves us and cares that we be good people.
Doubting Our Doubts
The argument here is not presented as one that should be convincing to any rational person, as though rationality were a neutral ground that provides the premises from which the argument follows. I personally am skeptical about whether there is any such neutral ground. But the purpose of laying out the argument is to help us doubt our doubts. There are doubts pervasive in the culture about whether belief in God makes sense any longer. If Kant’s argument is a good one, it means that belief in God is rationally permitted even if it is not rationally required, and that it can be part of the belief structure of a good person.
One response to this claim is to say (with Freud) that this kind of belief in God is just wish fulfilment, the wish for a consoling Daddy in the sky. But Kant is not arguing that God must exist just because we want this. He is arguing from a commitment to the moral life and what this presupposes. He is not claiming to be able to show that this commitment to the moral life is rationally required. Moreover, he is not claiming that only theists can be morally good. But consider the analogous claims about food and water. Should we say that because we want food and water so much, the belief that they exist is just wish fulfilment? The structure of reality contains both our desires and what fulfils them, and the religious believer will say the same about our desires for God.
Beauty and Terror
I have recently had the privilege of reading a manuscript by my colleague Miroslav Volf called Roses in the Smokehouse, which is about the lives of his parents during a period of conflict and religious persecution. I strongly recommend reading it when it comes out. It makes the point in vivid detail from these biographies that these beliefs I have been talking about made a key difference in these two Christian lives. This is where the argument rests in the end, in our knowledge of the lives of particular good people, and the role their faith plays in their lives.
The primary objection to this moral argument is from our experience of evil. Miroslav’s parents experienced plenty. Kant is not proposing that we close our eyes to this. In his commentary on Job, he stresses that God’s address out of the whirlwind makes reference to both beautiful parts of creation (like the horse) and terrible parts (like Behemoth).
A Canvas by Raphael
We could compare Raphael’s painting of the Transfiguration of Jesus. This is one of his most famous paintings and was hung above his bier in the Pantheon in Rome when he died in 1520. On the top of the mountain are Jesus and Moses and Elijah, together with Peter, James, and John flat on their faces. But at the base of the mountain are two desperate parents with the other disciples trying and failing to cast out a demon from a young boy. Raphael has done something interesting here. He has painted two different perspective schemes, one for the top of the mountain where the perspective is from above, and one for the base of the mountain where the perspective is from below. Lord Shaftesbury, the famous British connoisseur from the early 18th century, found this a grave defect in the painting. He says it makes the mountain look like a molehill. He has a point. These two perspectives cannot be merged into a single structure. Nietzsche comments about this same painting that the top of the mountain is in fact an illusion. It is like sunspots in reverse. Sunspots are dark spots in our visual field when we have looked at what is too bright for our eyes. The illusion is like light spots to protect us from the dark. Or we might say with the well-known chorus, the other way round, that we should turn our eyes upon Jesus and look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. But Raphael’s genius is to give us both perspectives even though we do not know how to combine them. Both are real, even though we do not understand how they fit together.
God’s Good Purposes
I will end by going back to Kant. He thinks we cannot know how God’s good purposes are consistent with the evil we experience. But he also thinks that our commitment (if we have one) to leading morally good lives requires us to believe that these two things are in fact consistent even though we do not see how. He holds to the priority of practical reason over theoretical reason; theoretical reason stays within the sphere of what we understand, and practical reason takes us beyond this. This priority is not absolute, because if theoretical reason can demonstrate that some belief is wrong, practical reason is not entitled to believe it. But if theoretical reason has no such demonstration, practical reason prevails. There are other reasons to believe in God, arguments within the theoretical use of reason. I mentioned one right at the beginning, what is called the cosmological argument that believing in God helps us see why there should be anything at all. There is also what is called the teleological argument that believing in God helps us see why the universe should be counter-entropic, making a place for intelligent life. The present brief article is not the right place to explore these arguments. It has focused just on the moral argument, which speaks very directly to our practical lives.
John E. Hare is Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology emeritus. His books include God and Morality: A Philosophical History (Blackwell, 2007) and Why Bother Being Good? (InterVarsity Press, 2002). His interests extend to ancient philosophy, medieval Franciscan philosophy, Kant, Kierkegaard, contemporary ethical theory, atonement theory, medical ethics, international relations, and aesthetics (he is a published composer of church music).