Argument from Common Consent

Does God Exist Because People Believe It?

This argument was once used by theologians and philosophers, but has fallen out of favor among those who know what they are talking about. The reason, as it shall be seen, is that this is not simply an flawed argument but can also be a logical fallacy.

So why even bring it up? Aside from its historical importance, it has nevertheless remained popular among amateur and popular religious apologists. It certainly has a nice sound, and John Stuart Mill observed that it probably has had more influence on more people than other, more logically sound arguments.

The basic version argues that belief in some sort of god is innate or instinctive and has existed consciously in nearly the whole of humanity throughout history. The best way to explain this, or so the argument goes, is to assume that some sort of god really does exist after all. Belief in a god wouldn’t be so popular or pervasive if some god didn’t exist, therefore some god must exist.

The first objection is one which has been brought up in other places, like the Ontological Argument: there is no good, factual basis to assume that belief in a god is indeed innate and instinctive. It cannot be innate in the sense that it is present in our minds at birth, since some people manage never to believe in any gods. And it cannot be innate in the sense that it is a belief that we are predisposed to acquire, because there is no reason to think that all children will automatically acquire it without specific instruction or indoctrination.

The second objection is to the idea that there is any necessary logical connection between the widespread existence of a belief and in the existence of the object of that belief. Just because trillions of people believe a thing doesn’t make it true — this is the logical fallacy mentioned earlier. Truth is not decided by majority vote.

Besides, it is possible to explain the persistence of theism without the existence of a god - for example, by arguing that it has had survival value for the human species.

The Argument from Common Consent also appears in a slightly different version, with the premise that there exists not an innate belief in some sort of god, but instead an innate yearning for a god. Since there cannot be an innate desire for something without there also being an object for that desire, then the object of this desire — God — must exist. An analogous example often provided is an infant’s innate desire for food.

Once again, much the same objections can be offered — there is not, for example, any clear evidence that there exists in humans an innate yearning for a god which is not actually created by instruction and/or indoctrination later in life. The idea that there is an innate yearning for a god certainly does not explain the existence of millions of atheists who exhibit no such yearning.

The idea that we all “really” have such a yearning but simply deny it won’t work. This is similar to the common Christian claim that an atheist “really” believes in a god, but is in denial. No one not intimately familiar with a person can reasonably claim that that person is “in denial” of anything, much less of something as significant as a god.

To try and claim this anyway is one of the most arrogant and presumptuous attitudes that atheists have to deal with.

Moreover, even if such an innate yearning existed, that does not automatically mean that a real object of that yearning must exist. Once again, this yearning might have evolutionary survival value regardless of the truth of the matter. Or perhaps there is instead a yearning for security or justice which can indeed exist, but we transfer this yearning to an all-encompassing god which does not exist. The claim that a yearning logically necessitates an object for that yearning is invalid — it is an assumption, and an unsupported one at that.

Thus we see that the Argument from Common Consent fails to make the existence of a god more likely or the belief in a god more reasonable. The premises upon which it relies are questionable at best and often incorrect.

The conclusions it attempts to draw do not follow necessarily from the premises, even if they were true.

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