"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Arguing for God?

At one of the Freethinkers meetings last year, we spent the meeting discussing the arguments presented for Christianity on an apologetics website. After having carefully refuted much of the website, a Christian, who happened to be present, agreed with the rest of us that the site did not provide very good arguments for believing in his religion. He went on to say that he felt the best arguments for his religion were contained in the Bible.

Almost immediately, I responded that, independent of whether or not the Bible is true or factual, it does not contain any arguments for Christianity (or for any other position for that matter.) As I pointed out, the Hellenistic tradition of codified argumentation was developed after the appearance of much of the Old Testament and, at any rate, did not make any serious contact with the Christian tradition until the Medieval Period (most notably within Catholic scholastic circles.) It stands to reason that this piece of intellectual technology would not have made an appearance in the Bible because the Biblical authors were not yet aware of such things. If the events in the Bible are true as presented, then the book would simply be a recounting of various historical events alongside some flowery poetic language (as in Proverbs or Psalms). Still, not an argument or a set of arguments.

Recently, I began wondering whether or not this was the case. Is there any kind of attempted justification for any position presented in the Bible and, if so, did people feel the need to justify their belief in Yahweh?

It turns out that the answer to the former question is yes (they did present arguments) and the answer to the latter question is almost no, they did not feel that they needed to justify belief in a deity (or any other supernatural claims.) First, I will explore what kind of arguments that they did present in the Bible and then I will present the single argument for God's existence I was able to explicitely identify in the Biblical text. Unfortunately for most Christians and Jews, it's in an extra-canonical book whose divine origins are contested by most churches.

Before doing anything else, I want to make brief mention of the origins of the idea of faith. To some modern religious readers, it might seem silly that one should have to provide justification for the existence of a deity. After all, didn't the Biblical writers simply have faith and wasn't this the reason they didn't think they needed justification?

It turns out that the word "faith", in the English language, appears rather late in the game, originally appearing sometime in the mid-13th century  and originally referring to the "duty of fulfilling one's trust". It was from the Old French word feid, which referred to something like confidence or trust.

Originally, the word "belief" referred to trust specifically in God and "faith" was reserved for a certain kind of promissory relationship between two people. It wasn't until the 14th century CE that faith took on religious implications, and it was still further, in the 16th century, that the word "belief" came to have its modern secular meaning.

Regardless, the idea of faith as non-rationally justified belief in God or some other divine presence seems to have only originated in the high middle ages, when there was competition between rationalist epistemic systems and those based in divine revelation. Since faith, as a concept in its most modern sense, is a relative late comer to the game, I find it inappropriate to use that concept as a basis to understand why people in the first millennium BCE (as in the Tanakh and the Talmud) and people in the first century CE (as in the New Testament) essentially chose not to provide arguments for their various supernatural beliefs.

Edit: While the concept of faith was articulated in Tertullian in the second century CE, and a word that is often translated as "faith" appears in the New Testament, I stick by the statement that what we call faith today, the concept in its modern incarnation, is a later invention. But even if it really did first appear with Tertullian (in his essay on Athens and Jerusalem) most of this article concerns the Hebrew Bible. Those arguments would still stand.

I would next like to discuss the existence of rhetoric, more generally, in Jewish and Christian scripture. In several places in the Hebrew Bible, there are arguments which are presented for various positions. Being largely culturally independent from the Hellenistic logic tradition originally codified by Aristotle, the arguments have a distinctly different flavor from those found in ancient Greek philosophical texts. David Frank (Frank, 2004) states that:

"...unlike the arguments in many Western texts [i.e. those in the Classical tradition], those in the Hebrew Bible are often indeterminate, confused, and can yield a host of reasonable but incompatible interpretations."

He goes on to state that:

"Auerbach argues that Greek reasoning is characterized by hypotactic logic (in which the elements of an argument are subordinated under a major or controlling premise) while Hebraic reasoning is characterized by paratactic rationality (in which the elements of an argument are juxtaposed rather than subordinated). Classical argument has a definitive end, a conclusion that captures the truth through apodictic reasoning, designed to end disagreement and speech."

What were the ancient Jews arguing about? Largely, they were arguing about law or justice (Frank, 2004 and Goltzberg, 2010). The Hebrew concept of commitment to justice, what is known as Tsedek (Frank, 2004), was first and foremost in many of these arguments. Frank details how, in the Tanakh, these arguments are often between Yahweh and people and how, at times, Yahweh changes his mind due to the arguments provided by persons set before Him in some divine court (Frank, 2004). Often, these arguments involve people asking God to be consistent with his own dedication to justice and good will (Frank, 2004).

In Frank's paper, he provides three examples of arguments between men and the deity. The first involving Abraham (found in the book of Genesis), the next involving Moses (from Exodus), and the last involving Job (from the Book of Job.) Theologically, that mere men can argue with Yahweh is something which does not survive into the Christian tradition and often the relevant passages are altered upon translation to remove this theological quandary (Frank, 2004). Nonetheless, that such things are present in the original Hebrew is not something which is debated by Jewish scholars (Frank, 2004).

There is a Judaic rhetorical tradition which is made use of in many of these circumstances and which is used more broadly in the Talmud. The species of rhetorical argument known as argumentum a fortiori was apparently used heavily by Jewish scholars in antiquity, especially in legal situations (Goltzberg, 2010).

In Hebrew, a fortiori arguments are termed val chomer arguments (Goltzberg, 2010). Part of Orthodox Jewish tradition states that they appear explicitly at particular points in the Torah and these are enumerated in the Talmud (in the midrash Bereshit Rabbah 92:7) as Genesis 44:8, Exodus 6:12, Numbers 12:14, Deuteronomy 31:27, I Samuel 23:3, Jeremiah 12:5 (actually, 2 arguments), Ezekiel 15:5, Proverbs 11:31, and in Esther 9:12.

What precisely is an a fortiori argument? Suppose that I'm a parent and I decide that if my child gets a B-, I'm not going to give the child a candy bar. The child comes to me with her grades and I see that the child has earned a C. I therefore do not give the child a candy bar. Formally, the argument proceeds as follows:

If the child earns a B-, they do not get a candy bar. If they earn below a B-, even more so they do not get a candy bar.

What's important here, is that a situation is presented which is less extreme than another situation. If some condition applies in the former situation, it applies even more so in the latter situation.

In the Talmud, there are laid down precise rules for the use of this argument and in what legal contexts it may be employed (Goltzberg, 2010). There is a principle introduced -- called Dayyo -- which states that in the more extreme situation the same verdict needs to be applied as in the less extreme situation (i.e. for any grade below a B-, the child does not receive a candy bar and I do not give out additional punishment over and above not giving out the candy bar.) Additionally, it is stated that court verdicts cannot be decided on the basis of val chomer arguments alone (Golztberg, 2010). In Jewish law, some additional kind of argument needs to be introduced in order to find a suspect guilty.

In the New Testament, there are several argumentative works. For instance, in Galatians and in Romans, Paul argues vehemently about the application of Jewish law to Gentile churches. These letters often appear rather harsh in tone (especially Galatians) and represent what was probably a difficult political situation.

In several places, the Biblical writers attempt to establish that Jesus is the messiah and is the fulfillment of the prophecies found in the Septuagint (the form of the Hebrew Bible that would have been available to New Testament authors.) In Hebrews, the entire book is devoted to trying to assert this claim, but it does not actually try to justify the claim using deductive-style argumentation. Perhaps the best examples (though these are by no means convincing to modern scholars) of attempted justifications for the divinity of Jesus would be two-fold: (1) the miracles that Jesus is purported to have performed (particularly in the central doctrine of the resurrection) and (2) in the details of Jesus' purported heredity (i.e. that his blood line meant he could be tied to the house of David as prophesied.) However, neither of these two claims has any independent evidence (historical or otherwise) in their favor and neither are forms of deductive argumentation (which is the present topic of this piece.)

Thus, while the ancient Jews felt it necessary to develop some kind of codifications of legal argumentation and the ancient Christians felt it necessary to provide some sort of justification for identifying Jesus as the messiah, they did not see it necessary to provide arguments for the existence of a Deity.

That is, for the most part. There are a few scattered references to arguments for the existence of a God. The best that exists is buried in a non-canonical book used by the Roman-Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Slavonic churches. This argument is in the pseudepigraphical Wisdom of Solomon, and I will refer to it as the Argument from Beauty.

Before getting to the Argument from Beauty, I want to mention that there is an assertion in Romans 1:18-23, that first God can be known from considering nature (some early form of the Cosmological Argument) and that all people know God to exist whether they want to admit it or not (thus, there are no true atheists). The Cosmological Argument alluded to in Romans 1:20 is probably the only other example of a Biblical argument for a Deity. Thus, perhaps the Biblical writers did not argue for God because they thought it to be knowledge known by all people (i.e. of course God exists; only the morally bankrupt think otherwise, as Psalm 14 seems to indicate.) I will not state here why this point can be dismissed (perhaps I will embark on that in a future post). Nonetheless, suffice it to say, that, as an atheist, I do not find it to be convincing to be told that I do not exist!

As for the Argument from Beauty, the relevant passage is Wisdom of Solomon verse 13:5:

"For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator."

Casting this into syllogistic logic, we have:

1. Nature is beautiful.
2. If (1) then God exists.
3. Therefore, God exists (by modus ponens from (1) and (2)).

This is the interpretation of Wisdom 13:5 favoured by the Harper-Collins Study Bible.

I won't bother refuting this argument since the main focus here is to answer what arguments, if any, for God's existence are in the Bible. This is the only one I can identify, albeit from an extra-canonical text that, unlike most other Biblical texts, was very heavily influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy.

I will end by noting that, for these ancient writers, Christianity and Judaism were likely still closely tied to folk religion. In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennet provides an explanation as to why members of folk religions might not be so concerned about proving that their god or gods actually exist (Dennet, 2007):

"...those who practice a folk religion don't think of themselves as practicing a religion at all. Their 'religious' practices are a seamless part of their practical lives, alongside their hunting and gathering or tilling and harvesting. And one way to tell that they really believe in the deities to which they make their sacrifices is that they aren't forever talking about how much they believe in their deities -- any more than you and I go around assuring each other that we believe in germs and atoms. Where there is no ambient doubt to speak of, there is no need to speak of faith."

It speaks volumes that, in ancient Hebrew, there was no word for religion.


Dennet, Daniel. (2007). Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. London, England: Penguin Books.

Frank, D. (2004). Arguing with god, Talmudic discourse, and the Jewish countermodel: implications for the study of argumentation. Argumentation and Advocacy, 41, 71-86.

Goltzberg, S. (2010). The a fortiori argument in the Talmud. In A. Schumann (Ed.), Judaic logic (pp. 177-188). Gorgias Press.


Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural PhenomenonScience & Religion Books)

Judaic logic: A formal analysis of Biblical, Talmudic and rabbinic logic

Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle AgesMedieval History Books)

Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Philosophical Logic & Language Books)

HarperCollins Study Bible - Student Edition: Fully Revised & UpdatedNew Revised Standard Bibles)

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