June 2005 Religious Studies A2 question 5

(a) Analyse the key concepts of either arguments for the non-existence of God or critiques of religious belief. [12]

(b) Discuss the contributions of a study of religious language to the topic selected in part (a) [8]


(a) Key arguments for the non-existence of God have, in more recent times, revolved around the facts of modern science. Galileo, among others, helped to undermine the previous Ptolemaic view of an earth centred universe and since then physics and astronomy have gone on to give more evidence of the insignificance of man’s place in the universe with the founding of the Big Bang idea.

Genetics, too, has had a hand in producing arguments against the existence of God. Ever since the discovery of the double helix and the effort to codify the human genome there has been increased speculation along Darwinian lines that evolution is more than just survival of the fittest by natural selection of the genes but even less of God’s handiwork. Richard Dawkins has spearheaded a whole new area in modern genetics in which he has argued that we are as much a product of our ideas or memes which collectively collude to ensure survival as we are of just our genes. He wholeheartedly throws God out of the equation as he asks ‘Is technology just what our genes want, or is it a cultural conspiracy of our genes and memes? Does human DNA control the technosphere we’ve created and live in and around?‘ He suggests that the watchmaker of Paley‘s theory must have been blind: ‘the analogy is false. Natural selection, the unconscious, automatic, blind yet essentially non-random process that Darwin discovered, has no purpose in mind. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.’

In other words many scientists believe that the universe has been shown to be a self-contained entity and self-creating too that does not need supernatural or supranatural explanations for its existence.

Another argument for the non-existence of god comes from the classic problem for religious believers – why does a supposedly ‘good’ god allow evil and suffering to exist? God is regarded as having three classical properties: omniscience, omnipotence and omni benevolence and a number of other qualities like eternal, personal, infinite, flawless etc but to each of these the objection can be raised – so why does He allow suffering? The classical theodicies of Augustine and Irenaeus have tried to justify both God’s existence and the existence of evil and have either succeeded in changing the nature of God to fit in with their theories or concluded that our human understanding is limited and therefore we cannot hope to really understand why God should allow evil to exist. However as an argument for the non-existence of God however it fails to puncture a believer’s faith; the believer will continue to believe probably come what may though it can be instrumental in preventing someone who doesn’t already believe in coming to faith. God is also defined as ineffable and transcendent and within these definitions lies the idea that we cannot possibly fully comprehend God and maybe this is one of those times. Though Hume and other atheists would argue since there is no God there is no problem evil just is, maybe even a non-believer would agree that suffering and evil do allow for the development of higher traits like altruism, selflessness, loyalty and self-sacrifice.

A further argument for the non-existence of God is the idea that religious belief is just a meme, a unit of culture which is passed on from generation to generation and that what passes for religious experience can be explained as a neurological reaction. Recent biological research has ‘discovered’ a religious gene; this turns out to be a predisposition to ‘religious experience’. It is a gene which can be ‘turned on’; the so-called religious experience that people have is something which can be induced under the right ritual or meditative conditions and therefore is not a real religious experience and as a result Dawkins, again, suggests that the only reality of God’s existence is the idea that God exists.

Hanegraaff argues that atheism is unknowable; to assert that there is no God is not possible. ‘Only a person who is capable of being in all places at the same time with a perfect knowledge of all that is in the universe can make such a statement based on the facts. In other words a person would have to be God to say there is no God. Hence the assertion is logically indefensible.’

None of these are irrefutable arguments against the existence of God; rather they rely on the believer to prove his claim that God exists. Why should the believer do this? Surely it should be up to the non-believer to prove He doesn’t exist? There is too much ‘evidence’ from too many ‘reliable’ sources, over too much time to be mere coincidence. Ultimately we could do worse than to abide by Swinburne’s Principles of Credulity and Testimony: most people tell the truth most of the time so unless we have good evidence to the contrary we should believe them. As Davies put it if the balance of arguments for and against is more or less equal then religious experience should be allowed to carry the day. Or as Swinburne said: If the balance of evidence and probability were able to prove there was no god it would have done so, since it has not the ‘overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experiences of God, must be taken as tipping the balance in favour of the existence of God.


(a) critiques of religious belief


The key critiques of religious belief are the agnostic, the humanistic, the Marxist and the psychoanalytical critiques.

The agnostic critique revolves around the idea that faith is illogical and irrational. They do not deny the existence of God but refuse to accept that there can be sufficient proof. Proof is of course something which is in short supply since the nature of what we are seeking proof for is God himself and proof positive would change the very nature of God, but what about the balance of probability? None of the arguments in favour of God’s existence do prove it but between them they could justifiably be regarded as having the balance of probability. The trouble is that science deals in concrete world the world of the phenomenon, of objective reality whereas religious philosophy deals with the world of the spiritual, the numenon, of subjective reality and William James said ‘truth is what each individual perceives.’ However, there are two types of argument in philosophy: Inductive – smoking gun assumptions and deductive – so long as the premises are correct and sufficient the conclusion can be accepted. This should be enough to convince the atheist that their position is not logical; there is sufficient proof but they are unwilling to see it as such.

The humanistic critique that religious belief inhibits human development is a serious one. Bertrand
Russell said that we need to make the most of this life since there is no other and that faith in God weakens man’s drive to take moral responsibility. Atkins on the other hand, while believing the same, felt that believing in God was a desperate attempt to make ourselves and our lives significant. Nietzsche thought man had grown out of the childish need for God and it was time to take control of our own fate. Humanists regard science as the saviour of the world and that it is necessary for human development. However Einstein, a scientist and man of faith, said: ‘Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind,’ meaning that we need science but science needs the moral restraints imposed by belief in God to prevent it running amok. Though there are many criticisms which could be rightfully levelled a t religious extremism today and in the past, it is also undeniable that religion has been the single greatest inspirer of artistry and creativity throughout the ages. Perhaps it was impossible to have the one without the other, both extremes, but two sides of the same coin.

The third critique, the Marxist one is based on his belief that religion was the ‘opium of the masses’ and that it was what kept the poor and oppressed from rising up against their oppressors or their fate. It enabled the continuation of the status quo, the protection of the rich and powerful, and was a ‘social painkiller.’ Belief in an after-life in paradise kept people hopeful and prevented them dwelling too much on the shortcomings of their current situations and from doing something about it! It is certainly true that wicked people have used religion to oppress people; ignorance and superstition have been nurtured as a way to focus resentment away from its deserved target, hence the witch trials and inquisitions of the middle-ages onwards. But this isn’t the fault of religion itself but mankind’s own nature and habit of perverting knowledge and turning it into a weapon!

The final critique is the psychoanalytical view. Freud has a lot to answer for! His view that religion is but a sexual neurosis dating back to primitive times when the tribal father was killed and those responsible felt so guilty they replaced him with some all powerful father figure – God – and that all religious behaviour stems back to this, is simplistic! It denies the validity of some very real religious experiences and even if some could be explained away like this not all can! And therefore this criticism, too, fails.


(b) Discuss the contributions of a study of religious language to the topic selected in part (a)


Religious language and arguments for the non-existence of God.

Opponents of religion like Flew and Ayer would argue that believers use a specialised language to talk about God and because it has such deep rooted meanings that mean different things to different people there is no point even talking about it.

Anselm‘s definition of God as the Greatest being imaginable is understandable but one does not have to accept that there is such a thing as a God at all.

However theists would argue that every subject has its own specialised language and jargon and it is only logical for religion to have its own. You certainly can’t use scientific language to talk about religion nor mathematical jargon, just as you can’t play one game by the rules of another, thus religion should be judged on its own terms by its own rules.

According to Thomas Aquinas there are three types of language: univocal – words with only one meaning of which there are very few – equivocal – words with more than one meaning – and analogical – the language of comparisons, of similes and metaphors. It is also only logical to refer to God and aspects of His nature in analogical terms. Few have met God and since His being is so different to ours He can only be described in terms of things we already understand. This is the problem then, that theists are constantly comparing God to things we have experience of, describing Him in terms of earthly realities we have already encountered but none are precise, none are exactly accurate and though He maybe like a shepherd, king, judged, father He is also so much more than these in ways we cannot understand; this is what Peter Vardy called an analogy of proportionality.

In terms of arguments for the non-existence of God though the fact that theists use their own specialised language which has a content hidden from non-believers (like the concept of communion which to the Romans seemed as if the early Christians were believers in human sacrifice) means that you cannot properly analyse or criticise what you cannot fully understand and to fully understand you have to be a believer. A circular situation, a catch-22!

However Wittgenstein‘s invention of the concept of language games enabled a distinction to be made between ‘realists’ and ‘anti-realists’. The realists in particular believed in the correspondence theory of truth and argue that it is possible and necessary to describe a real world which exists independently of language. These then would argue that common ground could be found with the non-believers such that meanings could be agreed on and since we are seeking a reality beyond language surely this is God and the quest to understand that reality should take place.



Religious language and critiques of religious belief.

  • Rel lang hidden meaning, enables suppression of knowledge thus oppression of the illiterate masses (Marxist crit) but perhaps good reason why all should understand rel lang
  • See last para above for a reason why agnostic critique fails
  • See first point above for reason why humanistic critique fails
  • Yes rel lang has a deep hidden and historical content but cannot just replace (as suggested by Freud in psychoanalytical critique) with univocal and equivocal lang since these two by themselves are not deep enough to satisfy the human soul.


Not a good answer but I’d avoid this like the plague!!!!! sorry


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