In his apologetic for Christian and Theistic Realism Richard Harries deals with the tricky field of arguments for the existence of God. This is rather important as he is after all trying to argue for the existence of God as a real being, and furthermore propose that it can be posited using realist language.

Perhaps suprisingly he is not altogether convinced by the standard or classic arguments/proofs of the existence of God and even goes so far as to describe them as “regulative ideas” inasmuch as it lends comforting support to “those who would like to see the world as the product of a rational intelligence”. Yet, he argues, such regulative ideas are nothing more than “nice” – they have little logical foundation (they cannot stand alone). His concession to the traditional arguments is thus: “the so-called proof therefore must always leave the matter open”. In other words it is not so much a logical formula that may be presented to the sceptic or unbeliever in the hope that they would somehow be convinced of the necessity of belief, as it is a grounding in rational thought that satisfies the already believing.

I would like now to focus on his treatment of the argument from design, as it is an argument that still has great currency amongst theists and which causes the most consternation for materialist atheists – not least because of the seemingly pseudo-scientific nature of the language game that some modern proponents of the design argument seem to adhere to.

Harries argues that the argument from design fails from the outset. The notion that as a computer may infer a human designer so too the world implies a divine designer is an illogical inference by progression. The inference demands a standard of comparison and by its definition the universe (i.e. all ‘created’ matter) is beyond complete or categorical perception and thus will not yeild to comparison.

When it comes to the universe, I do not have a category of designed universes to compare with another category that have somehow sprung up of themselves. There is only one universe. (There may very well be many worlds in addition to this one but by definition the God with whom we are concerned is the Creator of all possible worlds, i.e. the universe.) So we are simpy not in a position, on the basis of logic, to say whether the universe is designed or not. The matter is open.

I would add that the God-hypothesis Harries is proposing (i.e. the Judaeo-Christian creator God) similarly by necessity is the creator of all possible universes, and if we wish to talk of parallel universes then a new terminology such as meta-universe is needed.

Harries continues by praising as an example the evolutionary account of the creatures of the world such as those posited by Dawkins. He has no problem with the theory that says that “through a process of natural selection and random mutation… the most complex and beautiful forms can evolve from simple ones over a long period of time.” This is a thoroughly reasonable scientific account and as the evidence to support it grows we have little or no reason to doubt its retitude.

However this does not negate the idea of a designer – as he has already argued the classical proof as it is, is beyond resolution and the argument must remain open. Consequently he advocates a theory of theistic evolution (without going into details).

He also accepts – to the point of sympathy anyway – the position of scepticism about God’s goodness as evinced through the waste and violence that is resplendent throughout nature. But he suggests this does not negate the idea of design and is concerned with altogether a different matter entirely. He neatly wraps up the theistic evolutionary worldview with a quote from Frederick Temple in the 19th century “God makes the world make itself”. In short he argues arguments from design do not prove the existence of God or design, but neither does a scientific description of how the ‘process’ works resolve the God-hypothesis either.

A final brief comment on the classic arguments for the existence of God as found in the philosophy of religion and their alienation from religious belief as practised and lived goes as follows: “A person could come to the end of a logical train of argument with the conclusion that God must logically, exist: and it could leave him stone cold.”

The classic arguments focusing as they do on various aspects or properties of the proposed divinity always diminish the meta-concept of the divinity that the Judeao-Christian traditions believe in and worship.

Later on in his consideration of rational arguments or proofs of the existence of God he touches on a postmodern or holistic psychology of belief and disbelief. “It is always possible to give a psychological explanation of both belief and disbelief.”

Of course such explanations do not prove/disprove the beliefs but they may shed further understanding on the processes involved. He uses monotheism and its attachment to the argument from causality as an example. A monetheist

“looking at the argument from causality will always tend to have some sympathy with it and want to go along with it, because he or she already believes there is a Creator. Because their heart already moves in gratitude from Creation to Creator, it is natural for their mind to move in that direction as well. Cardinal Newman once wrote that: ‘The whole man moves, paper logic is but the record of it.’ I believe this is too extreme and that logic can act as the helmsman of the ship, not simply a log book of where we have been. Nevertheless, Newman’s remark does bring out the important truth, that our great shifts of belief or disbelief are never purely intellectual, they involve the whole person. So, because we know God in our own life, we will naturally believe him to be present in the life of the world of which we are a part.”

I am reminded of two Wittgenstein quotes here that I feel are relevent (though I shall paraphrase). Firstly that the sum of belief dawns on the believer in the same way that as the sun rises we can better see to the horizon (in other words belief may be enhanced by logical or rational argument but rarely if ever can it be prompted by it). Secondly the world of the happy man is very different to that of the unhappy man – thus reinforcing Harries psychological point I think that a person who is inclined to theism will see and feel the strength of arguments that support his belief even though independent of this a priori belief those same arguments are incapable of logically resolving the questions.

I am moved to remember that St Anselm talked of “Faith seeking Understanding” and not of understanding or knowledge in order to find Faith.

Harries concludes the chapter concerning belief with a brief discussion on the various types of disbelief. “I suspect that most of those who disbelieve do so because they have had a bad experience of religion. Some do so because their understanding of religion is full of misconceptions. Some may be unwilling to make the necessary changes in lifestyle which the Christian faith asks of us. Others see no way of reconciling the tragic quality of so much existence with the claim that there is a loving Creator. There is a variety of reasons, all of which have to be looked at seperately.”

I find this brief paragraph unsatisfactory. On the one hand I appreciate his nuanced commentary that “atheism” is not one single monolothic entity. That there are various types of disbelief and reasons for disbelief and that each needs be considered seperately. I think that this kind of pluralism is a healthy alternative to the ‘them and us’ mentality often exhibited by the loudest tub-thumpers for either side. Yet I feel that he has missed out on the category of disbelievers who genuinely have concluded – indeed one might say believe – that there is no God. He would probably classify these as ‘misconceptions’ and this would betray the chauvenistic attitude of someone who maintains that in the end belief is good and disbelief (at the least) harmful to the self.

I would add though that such a category is difficult to discuss – atheists don’t like to be called ‘believers’ – even if they object to a narrow or naive definition of faith/belief. I would propose that it may even be difficult to isolate these different types of disbelief – for a person who through a solely materialist epistemology has decided that there is no God may very well have also had a bad experience of religion, hold different views on morality, and even be responding negatively to a radically different God-hypothesis than that held by believers.

Also he tends to bypass agnostics here, although one may say that his stance that the “proofs” of the existence of God are not “proofs” and that philosophically the matter remains open is a nod in their direction. All in all though despite these criticisms I think he displays a fairmindedness and openness to plurality of belief all too rare in this arena of debate.