Category Archives: Antony Flew

What Would Convince You to Abandon Theism?

In his essay “Theology and Falsification”, Antony Flew asks: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?” The context of the question is Flew’s contention that no matter what evidence comes their way theists will perform all manner of theological gymnastics rather than give up their belief. This, reckoned Flew, meant that their assertions concerning God were meaningless – they suffer “death by a thousand qualifications.” I’ve always thought Flew quite unfair to theists in this essay, but I find his question a fascinating one and so thought I’d give my own brief answer to it.

Firstly, it’s important to ask why a person believes in God in the first place. Someone might well believe God exists because of, say, a combination of the fine-tuning argument and the Kalam cosmological argument. Presumably if such a person was persuaded by good reason that both arguments are unsound then they would give up their theism. If they didn’t then it would seem that their belief wasn’t really based on such arguments after all. In any event, in cases like this there seems to be a fairly clear answer to Flew’s question. However, if theism isn’t so clearly based on some particular argument or group of arguments then the situation is much more complicated.

Whilst I believe that there are several arguments which clearly and strongly favour theism over atheism (in particular the contingency cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the anthropological argument from the nature of human beings as free, moral, conscious, rational persons), I can’t honestly say my theism rests on any of them. Should each of these arguments be defeated my theism wouldn’t necessarily crumble, (though it might weaken to the extent that these arguments offer some degree of confirmation). So, why do I believe in God? What does ground my theism? To be honest, I don’t really know. The common wisdom is that human beings arrive at their beliefs after a process of rational thought. Each of us, so the story goes, examines the various live options vying for our assent and weigh the evidence, discarding what doesn’t measure up, and accepting what does. It’s like a man wandering around a supermarket. He picks up various items and, after making a decision, either puts them back on the shelf or puts them into the trolley for the check-out. I don’t think belief primarily works this way. Believing this or that is typically a more passive exercise than the supermarket model. To a great extent we simply find ourselves with certain beliefs, or forming certain beliefs under specific circumstances. Our minds – the beliefs we hold as well as the processes we go through to arrive at them – are conditioned by many factors largely beyond our direct control: culture, society, upbringing, peer pressure, psychological make-up, character, temperament, desires, and all manner of accidents of life. These processes are whizzing away in our minds forming beliefs, and removing others, and often quite apart from our rational awareness. We thus find ourselves with all manner of beliefs without trying: I had boiled eggs for breakfast, my son is 9 years old, the earth is round, the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, Leibniz believed the world was the best possible, trafficking of human beings for sex against their will is immoral, Jupiter has 67 moons. Some beliefs are based on memory, some on testimony; others are based on perceptual experience or a sense of right and wrong that is difficult to define. We can of course challenge these beliefs. My friend might tell me that he remembers an astronomer telling him Jupiter has 63 moons. This might prompt me to check the matter out and adjust my belief if necessary.

Let’s then apply this to my theism. For whatever reason, I find myself with belief in God. The existence of God seems obvious to me as I contemplate the universe and reflect on life. Perhaps this is due to what Calvin called a “sensus divinitatis,” or perhaps it is due to the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Atheists might prefer to think of it as little more than a psychological quirk at best, or at worst a delusion. Whatever the cause, my theism is there as a fundamental part of my noetic structure, and a crucial part of how I make sense of the world around me. It isn’t very easy to spell out the circumstances under which I might give up my theism. However, there are a few candidates for defeaters.

Firstly, if someone produced a convincing argument that the concept of God was incoherent, then that would be the most likely case which would cause me to abandon theism. There have been a few attempts in the history of philosophy to produce such an argument, but none has as yet come close. However, if anyone succeeded then I suspect my noetic apparatus would respond by abandoning theism.

Secondly, and particularly in relation to my theism being specifically Christian, should historians ever show that Jesus did not in fact exist, or that the resurrection was a cooked up myth (perhaps by finding conclusive historical documents of some sort) then I would abandon specifically Christian theism. Since Christianity makes a number of unique historical claims, it is always open to historical disproof.

These two are the surest cases under which my beliefs about God would not survive, but there are other instances which might well threaten my theism. For instance, suppose I suffer a catastrophic illness, or witness a close family relative going through such trauma. This could well dissolve my theism. I don’t mean that I would give up my belief in such circumstances because I think that under them the problem of evil would suddenly appear cogent. I’m simply observing that under such circumstances many people have lost their belief in God, and that it isn’t implausible to think that the same could happen to me. Of course, it could equally happen that under such circumstances my belief would end up much more steadfast and sure. How could we ever know how our minds would respond under such life-changing circumstances?

I have already alluded to the fact that beliefs can be modified or ditched in the light of evidence and rational scrutiny. However, this is easier with respect to some beliefs than others. Let’s compare belief in God with the belief that Jupiter has 67 moons. Belief in God has a certain feature that beliefs such as “Jupiter has 67 moons” do not have. Philosophers call this feature the “depth of ingression.” This is the degree to which a belief can be given up without significant reverberations throughout the rest of our noetic structure. Some beliefs are central, others peripheral. Whether or not Jupiter has 67 moons doesn’t matter much. I could give it up without any further noetic consequences. Belief in God is not typically like that. It occupies a far more central place. My theism colours – or even determines – what I believe about many other (incredibly important) things: moral value, freedom, the nature of humankind, or what a good life is, to name just a few. In fact, belief in God can occupy such a central place that it becomes a normative belief – part of the standard by which we measure other beliefs. So, take the following anti-theistic argument from evil:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

A theist who entertains this argument might very well doubt premise (2) simply because “God exists” + (1) have so much warrant for them that (2) cannot be seriously considered. Of course, this doesn’t mean belief in God can never be overturned, for it could be by an argument which contains premises with at least as much warrant as theism. What it does mean is that it’s very easy to see why giving up one belief is a more complex affair than giving up another, and that it isn’t always easy to spell out the circumstances under which we would reject a belief the origin of which is exceedingly complex, and which occupies a central place in our noetic structure. Those who lose their belief in God tend to undergo a “paradigm shift,” a huge change in their noetic structure that often takes either a life-changing event (like a catastrophic illness), or a long time (as we see from deconversion stories) to take effect.

In my case, whilst there are circumstances in which I can imagine losing my belief in God, I suspect it is highly unlikely that I ever will.

Stephen J. Graham

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