Does God Exist? What is God?

Why Defining God is Important

It might seem to some that discussing the nature, attributes, and character of a supposed god doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless there is some reason to think that this god or even any gods exist in the first place. After all, isn’t discussing whether or not a god is omnipotent or omniscient just a waste of time if we have no good reason to suppose it even exists?

This critique is not entirely without merit because it can indeed be a waste of time to discuss the characteristics of non-existent things.

Who discusses what color hair leprechauns typically have? However, it misses the fundamental point that we don’t know yet whether the alleged god in question is real or non-existent — and we can’t know or even speculate very far unless we have a clear idea as to what we are speculating about. Thus, the question of God’s existence is a bit pointless until we establish what, exactly, we are talking about when we use the term “God.”

Although that makes some logical sense, the fact remains that people spend a lot more time discussing the existence of God than discussing the nature and attributes of God — why is that? In fact, people do have some idea already of what they mean by “God,” thus rendering discussions about God’s existence meaningful to them. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily “meaningful” in the same way to the others involved in the discussion.

In other words, the term “God” may not carry the same meaning to all of those engaged in a debate about the existence of God.

One person may be asserting the existence of one god while another person may be denying the existence of another god entirely; thus, they are just talking past each other, not communicating meaningfully. This is an example of a common problem: getting involved in a complicated discussion without defining and explaining the most critical concepts.

Debating the existence of God is pointless unless people take the time to set some “ground rules,” including what they mean by “God.”

Although there is a potentially infinite variation in what people mean by “God,” there are some common attributes which are often discussed, especially among those who come from a generally Western tradition of religion and philosophy. Because it relies heavily upon a long tradition of intersecting religious and philosophical inquiry, it is commonly referred to as “classical theism,” “standard theism,” or better still “philosophical theism.”

Occasionally one might see it referred to as just “theism,” but this is a mistake because that term is already used to refer to the entire gamut of beliefs in various types of gods. What we are discussing here is not theism in general but a type of theism — the type developed by a particular tradition of theologians and philosophers in order to explain a particular tradition of religious experiences. This type of theism and this understanding of God are not inherently privileged enough to merit the broad label of “theism,” but they are common enough to merit specific attention here.

Of course, even that is disputed by those who contend that this purely intellectual understanding of God is weak and ineffectual, unable to truly explain and conceptualize the reality of God.

The God of the philosophers, it is argued, is not the God of faith — and attempts to identify one with the other will inevitably fail to help a person understand, much less critique, the positions of the religiously devout. This is also another reason why we are using the term philosophical theism rather than just theism: we are discussing particular theoretical and philosophical concepts which may, but need not, impact actual theistic beliefs.

Nevertheless, even though philosophical inquiry is not the same as religious passion, it isn’t possible to totally divorce the two. Faith in God, however ineffable it might at times be, necessarily involves faith in some particular god rather than in some other god — in other words, it relies upon assumptions about what this god is rather than is not.

Granted, it surely involves more than simply asserting that God has this or that attribute, but it necessarily involves at least doing that much.

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As soon as the theist makes assertions about faith and religious experience, she enters the realm of rational discourse and reasoned discussion. She may not have an entirely clear idea about what attributes her god has and/or she may have difficulty describing them, but the fact remains that her faith in her god rests upon beliefs about her god — and those beliefs are open to rational evaluation. They have become assertions which deserve to be critiqued and defended.

This is closely related to the important fact that when theists claim the existence of some sort of god, they assume (initially, at least) a burden of proof.The concept of a “burden of proof” is important in debates because whoever has a burden of proof is obligated to “prove” their claims in some fashion. If someone doesn’t have a burden of proof, then their job is much easier: all that is required is to either accept the claims or point out where they are inadequately supported.

It is thus no surprise that many debates, including those between atheists and theists, involve secondary discussions over who has the burden of proof and why. When people are unable to reach some sort of agreement on that issue, it can be very difficult for the rest of the debate to accomplish much. Therefore, it is often a good idea to try to define in advance who has the burden of proof.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the phrase “burden of proof” is a bit more extreme than what is often needed in reality.

Using that phrase makes it sound like a person has to definitely prove, beyond a doubt, that something is true; that, however, is only rarely the case. A more accurate label would be a “burden of support” — the key is that a person must support what they are saying. This can involve empirical evidence, logical arguments, and even positive proof.

In order to do that, however, they obviously need to make it clear what they are “proving” in the first place — or, to phrase it in a bit more appropriates, the theists need to make it clear what sort of god they are trying to show exists. It isn’t possible for others to evaluate whether the theist has done a good job in supporting their claim that some god exists if it isn’t clear what they mean by “god.”

This is why it is so crucial for theists to explain what attributes their god does and does not have. Unless we have some idea about this god’s characteristics, we’ll never know if the theist’s arguments are getting anywhere. Unfortunately, one of the chief problems in the theist’s case has always been putting together a set of attributes that, when taken together, a coherent, sensible, and not self-contradictory.

The attributes found in philosophical theism don’t always seem to make sense and don’t always mesh well with each other in large part because they don’t all stem from the same source. Philosophical or classical theism has essentially two parents: the theological and philosophical ideas developed in ancient Athens by philosophers like Plato, and the religious ideas developed among the ancient Jews.

These two strands came together and were worked upon over the course of Christian history, with Augustine and Aquinas being important figures in this process.

Because some of the characteristics are derived from the esoteric discussions in ancient Greek philosophy (like absolute perfection) while others are derived from the personal religious experiences of the ancient Jews (like God being a person), those characteristics have a tendency to conflict. Nevertheless, Christian theologians and Western philosophers have engaged in great efforts to find ways to make them compatible. Serious discussions about the existence of God and the value of a religion based upon belief in God really should take those characteristics and the attempts to harmonize them into account. Believers need to be aware of the ways in which they are weak while nonbelievers should be aware of the best arguments used as support.

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