Arguing for God’s existence in “Everyday Religion” class

Author: Josh Stowe

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Is it possible to have a philosophical and rational proof of God’s existence?

One answer comes in the form of another question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

This question, articulated by the 18th-century German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, animated the most recent session of Everyday Religion in a World of Many Faiths.

The class, offered by the Ansari Institute, challenges participants to consider big questions in a discussion-based format. It meets Thursday evenings and is free and open to the public.

In the latest session, Professor Adnan Aslan urged students to think beyond their own immediate faith backgrounds in order to make an argument that could appeal to a wider variety of people.

“If we want to argue for the existence of God, we cannot rely only on our own traditions and scriptures,” he said. “This is why the philosophical approach is so critical.”

Argument from contingency

Leibniz’s question—why is there something rather than nothing?—echoes St. Thomas Aquinas’ approach, which is known as the argument from contingency, Aslan explained.

Aquinas’ thinking goes like this: There are contingent things in the world, which begin to exist at some point. They are caused by other things, and could cease to exist. But if one goes back far enough, eventually there must be a non-contingent, or necessary, being that has always existed and caused other things to exist. Aquinas says this being is God.

Class participants acknowledged this argument has shaped their thinking—among them John Bosco Lugonja, a Catholic priest from Uganda. When Aslan asked him if the Big Bang might be sufficient to explain the existence of the universe, he identified the event as a contingent thing which pointed to a necessary being.

“Faith begins, and then we seek understanding,” said Lugonja, who is a Master of Global Affairs student with the Keough School. “But the universe points to something bigger.”

Ferit Akova agreed.

“We know there is an architect and builders behind a building,” he said. “If there is a universe, there must be something behind it. I believe God made us aware of his existence and his creation.”

A counter-argument

Aslan noted there are criticisms of the argument from contingency. Centuries after Aquinas, British philosopher Bertrand Russell made the case that the cosmological argument for God’s existence is a logical fallacy—the fallacy of composition. Just because the parts of the whole have a particular attribute (such as being contingent), it doesn’t follow that the whole also has that attribute. The stones that make up a castle wall might be small, but that doesn’t mean the wall itself is small.

Defenders of the cosmological argument might point out that the analogy is faulty, Aslan said—one could argue the correct analogy is that the wall is made of stone and is therefore itself stone. So, too, with the universe—it is made up of contingent things and is therefore contingent. But ultimately, something necessary, or non-contingent, must have caused it.

Implications for everyday life

Aslan ended the class, as he does each session, by pointing students to how the arguments they dissected play into their real-life experience.

“All these arguments are food for thought,” he said. “Either draw you close to God or you divert away. There is nothing in between.”

Noting that approximately 85 percent of the world’s population identifies as religious, Aslan said that humankind is, in fact, innately religious. And, he added, only a religious explanation of being can be truly holistic.

“Here in the modern world, we explain things with science,” Aslan said. “But science has limits—there are certain things it cannot explain. If we want a holistic explanation, only religion can offer it.”

How to join the class

A limited number of spaces are still available for this virtual class, which is free and open to the public. The next session will be 6:30 p.m. ET (US) on Thursday, Oct. 1.

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