Existential Apologetics: A Survey

Taylor Crawford, David Eisinger, Lyle Enright, Tim Giovanetto, Caleb Gore, Tim McGarvey, and Todd Whelan
With Clifford Williams*


Existential apologetics is the defense of the legitimacy of existential arguments for believing in God. This article will describe these arguments and several critiques of them.

Proponents of Existential Arguments for Believing in God

The essence of an existential argument for believing in God is the claim that people are justified in believing in God because doing so satisfies a need. Each of the following authors puts forward an argument with this motif, some explicitly and some implicitly.

Pascal

Blaise Pascal's Pensées contains evidential arguments designed to show that Christianity is true, and it also appeals to the satisfaction of need to justify believing in God and Christianity. Pascal writes,

"What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself." [1]

If this passage contains an argument, it would go as follows:

1. Humans have a craving for true happiness.
2. Only faith in God satisfies this craving.
3. Therefore, humans are justified in having faith in God.

Pascal's wager can be given an existential twist. The wager presumes that we do not have enough evidence to believe in God, so that we must bet. If we bet that God exists and God does exist, we gain eternal bliss. If we bet that God does not exist and it turns out that God does exist, we lose eternal bliss and, moreover, must endure eternal pain. It is legitimate, Pascal claims, to bet that God exists, because doing so would satisfy our desire for eternal bliss and our desire to avoid eternal pain.

Soren Kierkegaard

Although there is no explicit formulation of an existential argument in Soren Kierkegaard's works, there are numerous passages in which such an argument is hinted at. In his Practice in Christianity, written under the pseudonym, Anti-Climacus, Kierkegaard considers the existential need for rest: "Come here to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. How amazing, amazing that the one who has help to bring is the one who says: Come here! What love!" [2] This passage can be formulated as an existential argument:

1. We need rest.
2. Jesus Christ offers rest for those who come to him.
3. Therefore, we are justified in coming to Christ.

In addition, Kierkegaard analyzes the human propensity to erect obstacles to believing in God. One such obstacle is hiding in a "crowd," such as a church, which people do so that they can avoid feeling the existential needs that would propel them to believing in God. [3] Kierkegaard seems to believe that overcoming these self-erected obstacles is possible, "slowly and honestly," [4] through individuality, introspection, and focus of the will.

William James

William James (1842-1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who put forward an existential argument in his essay, "The Sentiment of Rationality." [5] He writes, "belief (as measured by action) not only does . . . [but] must continually outstrip scientific evidence." [6] He illustrates this point with a scenario in which he imagines himself becoming trapped while climbing in the Alps, and the only possible escape is by a “terrible leap.” [7] With equal reasons both for and against making this leap, the “only difference is that to believe [you can make the leap] is greatly to your advantage.” [8] Advantage is here said by James to be a positive force in making certain decisions. This advantage in the Alps case is the satisfaction of the need to keep living.

The general principle James relies on is that the "ultimate principle [of a philosophy] must not be one that essentially baffles and disappoints our dearest desires and most cherished powers." [9] Materialism, the thesis that everything that exists is material and therefore that there is no God, does just this, James says: it "denies reality to the objects of almost all the impulses which we most cherish." [10] These impulses include "fortitude, hope, rapture, admiration, earnestness, and the like." [11] The inference from what James says is that believing in God is better because it does not undermine our dearest desires or frustrate our cherished impulses. He states, "In what did the emancipating message of primitive Christianity consist but in the announcement that God recognizes those weak and tender impulses which paganism had so rudely overlooked?" [12] Repentance is one of those tender impulses. "Christianity took it [repentance] and made it the one power within us which appealed straight to the heart of God." [13] He appears explicitly to be saying that it is legitimate to believe in Christianity because it satisfies a need to do so.

James argues for a similar view in his 1896 lecture, "The Will to Believe." [14] In it he says, "There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming." [15] Also,

"If the [religious] hypothesis were true, . . . then pure intellectualism, with its veto on our making willing advances, would be an absurdity; and some participation of our sympathetic nature would be logically required. I, therefore, for one, cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or willfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for this plain reason, that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule." [16]

Ernest Becker

Ernest Becker was a twentieth-century social theorist, anthropologist, and sociologist. His works include The Denial of Death, Escape from Evil, Angel in Armor, and The Structure of Evil. [17] His Denial of Death and Escape from Evil are of particular note here, as they contain something of an existential argument. For Becker, there appears to be only one existential need: the denial and avoidance of death. He also claims that people fear "sticking out," [18] but it is unclear whether this is a separate need or whether it falls under the fear of death. Becker's consideration of this rock-bottom fear of death takes the form of an anthropological study, in which he examines human cultures for what he terms "immortality projects"—human activities that are thought to aid in the denial of death and help, in some way, to live forever. He eventually comes to the conclusion that all immortality projects have failed, with the exception of faith in the Christian God (the ultimate immortality project). [19] Though Becker never explicitly stated an existential argument in his works, it could be formulated in this way:

1. We all have the need to construct immortality projects in order to deny
    and avoid death.
2. Faith in the Christian God is the sole successful immortality project and
    can satisfy our need to avoid death.
3. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God.

Daniel Taylor

In The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor claims that reason is a useful tool but that it is often misused. [20] One misuse of reason is to attempt to discover indubitable rational principles that can be used in evidential reasoning rather than to seek meaning in life. Finding meaning in life, according to Taylor, is “far more valuable” than finding certainty.[21] Proper meaning, Taylor argues, ultimately can be derived only from “a right relationship with God.” [22] Thus, Taylor argues, to commit to God and seek meaning is a better way to have faith than to try to validate God through reason alone.

Clifford Williams

Clifford Williams offers a systematic treatment of existential apologetics in his book Existential Reasons for Belief in God. [23] In this book, Williams outlines thirteen existential needs that he believes are felt at some point and to some degree by each person. He divides these existential needs into self-directed needs, such as the need for cosmic security, and other-directed needs, such as the need to love. His argument goes as follows:

1. We need cosmic security. We need to know that we will live beyond the
    grave in a state that is free from the defects of this life, a state that is full
    of goodness and justice. We need a more expansive life, one in which we
    love and are loved. We need meaning, and we need to know that we are
    forgiven for going astray. We also need to experience awe, to delight in
    goodness and to be present with those we love.
2. Faith in God satisfies these needs.
3. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God. [24]

Williams concedes that this argument by itself is fallacious and that it must be supplemented with reason and evidence. He considers what he takes to be the four most compelling objections to his argument and in responding to them explains how the satisfaction of need can be conjoined with reason and evidence. He also argues that the existential argument for believing in God requires that faith in God consist partly of emotion. [25]

Opponents of Existential Arguments for Believing in God

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche would take issue with the second premise of the existential argument for believing in God, as formulated by Clifford Williams in his Existential Reasons for Belief in God. [26] This premise is that faith in God best satisfies our existential needs. Nietzsche would say that something other than faith in the Christian God satisfies our basic needs. [27]

Nietzsche can be construed as putting forth an opposing existential argument. Humanity (or at least some members of humanity), according to Nietzsche, has the capacity to break free from the shackles of the herd and the herd's values and morality. Upon breaking free, these individuals—übermensch or supermen—create their own values. [28] Nietzsche's argument would be something like this:

1. Humans have certain existential needs.
2. Transcending the herd and becoming an übermensch best satisfies these
    existential needs.
3. Therefore, we are justified in transcending the herd and becoming an
    übermensch.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud declared that religious beliefs cannot be trusted because they are solely the result of the deep-seated desire for cosmic security: "religious ideas have arisen from the same need as have all the other achievements of civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushingly superior force of nature." [29] They are, therefore, illusions: "religious ideas . . . are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind." [30] In calling a religious belief an illusion, Freud does not mean that it is false, but that "we disregard its relations to reality," [31] that is, that we cannot infer that it is true. Freud would, accordingly, regard the existential argument for believing in God as promulgating an illusion—a belief that is not shown to be true. It is not shown to be true, he thought, because satisfaction of need is not a good reason for showing truth.

Reason and Need

Pure Reason and Evidentialism

Nineteenth century mathematician and philosopher W. K. Clifford argued that it is immoral to cultivate a belief in anything for which one lacks proper evidence. He declared this famous evidentialist principle in his 1877 essay, "The Ethics of Belief": "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." [32] Advocates of this and other versions of evidentialism would reject the existential argument for believing in God because it does not appeal to evidence for believing in God. Only if there is sufficient evidence for believing in God, evidentialism asserts, is one justified in believing in God.

Pure Need

The existential argument for believing in God is often thought of as appealing only to the satisfaction of need: I believe in God because I am satisfied when I do. Popular existential apologetics tends to go in this direction. A pure need version of the existential argument is not supplemented with evidence or reason. It is an appeal only to need.

Passional Reason: Reason and Need

Clifford Williams claims that although a pure need version of the existential argument for believing in God is fallacious, a version that combines need and reason is not. [33] Both need and reason are needed to support belief in God: "Need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile." [34] Williams describes a number of ways in which the existential argument for believing in God can employ reason. These ways consist partly of supplementing the existential argument with reason and partly of using reason on need. To use reason "on" need is to use reason to sort through the legitimacy of the existential needs.

William J. Wainwright also claims that reason and need should be combined when supporting belief in God. He constructs a prolegomenon to what he calls a "critique of passional reason" for religious belief in his 1995 book Reason and the Heart. [35] In this work, Wainwright explores the epistemological writings of Jonathan Edwards, John Henry Newman, and William James in order to give an historical framework for his thesis that emotion and reason need to be combined when arguing for belief in God. [36] Wainwright, Edwards, Newman, and James all share the conviction that pure reason is unable to prove the existence of God. [37] The passions, properly cultivated, they say, are necessary to guide reason: "Isolated reason is impotent." [38] People will not appreciate the force of evidence for believing in God without having particular emotions and desires. [39]

Pragmatic Arguments

Existential arguments for believing in God are pragmatic. Charles Peirce’s article in Popular Science Monthly from 1878 first introduced the concept of pragmatism to the general public. [40] In this article, Peirce states that the meaning and importance of thoughts can be determined only by looking at the effects they have. In contrast, Christian apologetics has relied heavily on the use of evidential arguments to prove, justify, or make the belief in God rational to the unbeliever. The key difference between purely evidential arguments and pragmatic arguments is that purely evidential arguments present evidence for the claim that the belief in God is true, without also appealing to the positive effects of having the belief, whereas pragmatic arguments try to justify believing in God solely on the grounds that doing so has positive effects. These positive effects in Christian existential apologetics consist of the satisfaction of existential needs.

Evidential Arguments Based on Need

Existential arguments for believing in God differ from evidential arguments based on need. The former say, "I believe in God because I need to," whereas the latter say, "I believe in God because doing so is the best explanation for the presence of certain needs in humans."

C. S. Lewis presents an evidential argument for belief in God that is based on the existence of certain desires: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. . . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” [41] The clue that tells the reader that this is an evidential argument instead of an existential one is the phrase "the most probable explanation." Lewis is giving evidence for a theistic explanation of the presence of certain desires in humans. He is not simply saying that we are justified in satisfying those desires with belief in God. Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft lays out Lewis' words in argument form like so:

1. Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can
    satisfy that desire.
2. But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no
    creature can satisfy.
3. Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and
    creatures, which can satisfy this desire.
4. This something is what people call “God” and “life with God forever.” [42]

Objections to the Existential Argument for Believing in God [43]

Does Not Guarantee Truth

This objection to the existential argument for believing in God states that believing in God because doing so satisfies a need does not guarantee that God actually exists. Existential arguments are like the following fallacious argument:

1. I need to be protected from enemies.
2. Believing that an invisible friend accompanies me wherever I go satisfies
    this need.
3. Therefore, I am justified in believing that an invisible friend accompanies
    me wherever I go.

Justifies Belief in Any Kind of God

This objection states that the reasoning in existential arguments for believing in God justifies belief in any kind of God, not just the Christian God. If one had a need to believe in a cosmic torturer, or in Descartes' evil demon, then, by the same reasoning in the existential argument for believing in God, one would be justified in doing so.

Not Everyone Feels Existential Needs

This objection states that not everyone feels the need to love a God or to be loved by a God or any of the other "existential needs." If this is so, then the existential argument becomes useless for these people.

Considering particular groups of people who seem not to feel these existential needs adds credence to this objection. One such group is psychopaths. Robert Hare, in his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, provides a general list of symptoms that can help to define psychopathy. Pyschopaths are glib and superficial, egocentric and grandiose, deceitful, manipulative, and impulsive; they have shallow emotions, poor behavior controls, early behavior problems, and adult antisocial behavior; they lack remorse, guilt, empathy, and responsibility; and they need excitement. (Note that while adult antisocial behavior is a symptom, it is distinguished from psychopathy). [43] Based on the fact that many of these symptoms seem to be a result of deficient brain chemistry, the question arises whether psychopaths are physically capable of feeling the existential needs mentioned in the existential argument for believing in God. [44] There could be several responses to this conundrum, including the assertion that psychopaths have different existential needs or, perhaps, a narrative of how psychopaths experience existential needs differently than the rest of the population.

Existential Needs Can Be Satisfied Without Faith

This objection to existential arguments for believing in God states that existential needs can be satisfied without faith in God. The need to be loved can be satisfied by human love, the need for awe can be satisfied by directing awe toward finite objects, and the need for meaning can be satisfied by achieving goals that one desires to achieve. If some people can satisfy existential needs without faith in God, then the existential argument for believing in God is useful only to a limited group of people. It would not be universally valid. And if it is not universally valid, it would not be valid at all.

Clifford Williams responds to this objection by appealing to a "restlessness test" and a "satisfaction test." [45] The restlessness test attempts to measure the amount of restlessness one has with non-faith ways of satisfying existential needs, and the satisfaction test attempts to measure the amount of satisfaction one acquires from non-faith ways of meeting the existential needs. Critics will respond by saying that any such attempts are too subjective. Without an objective way of measuring satisfaction, the existential argument for believing in God fails.

Existential Needs Can Be Satisfied with a Different Faith

This objection to existential arguments for believing in God states that the reasoning in it can be used to justify the faith or faith-like states in any other world religion, such as Buddhism or Hinduism. Buddhists could say that they find satisfaction in the sayings of the Buddha, and, therefore, that they are justified in believing in them. This fact would mean that the existential argument for believing in God would entail relativism, the assertion that conflicting beliefs are equally valid.

References

1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), #148, p. 45.
2. Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, edited and translated with Introduction and Notes by Howard
    V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 11.
3. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses, trans. Howard
    and Edna Hong (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) p. 109.
4. Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas Steere (New York: Harper
    Torchback, 1948), p. 117.
5. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," in The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (New
    York: Modern Library, 1968), pp. 317-45; also online at
6. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," p. 337.
7. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," p. 337.
8. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," p. 337.
9. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," p. 328.
10. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," p. 329.
11. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," p. 329.
12. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," p. 331.
13. William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality," p. 331.
14. William James, "The Will to Believe," in John J. McDermott, ed., The Writings of William James (New York:
      The Modern Library, 1968), pp. 717-735.
15. James, "The Will to Believe," Section IX, p. 731.
16. James, "The Will to Believe," Section X, p. 733.
17. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973); Escape from Evil (New York: The Free
      Press, 1975); Angel in Armor: a Post-Freudian Perspective on the Nature of Man (New York: MacMillan
      Publishing Co., 1975); The Structure of Evil (New York: The Free Press, 1976)
18. Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil, (New York: The Free Press, 1975), p. 158.
19. Becker, Escape from Evil, p.163.
20. Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Committment (IVP Books,
      1999)
21. Taylor, The Myth of Certainty, p. 94.
22. Taylor, The Myth of Certainty, p. 94.
23. Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith
      (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).
24. Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God, p. 32.
25. Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God, pp. 166-170.
26. Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God, p. 32.
27. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ed. Adrian Del Caro and Robert Pippin (New York:
      Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 69.
28. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufman (New York:
      The Modern Library, 1995), p. 243.
29. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W. W. Norton,
      1989), p. 697.
30. Freud, The Future of an Illusion, in The Freud Reader, p. 703.
31. Freud, The Future of an Illusion, in The Freud Reader, p. 704.
32. W. K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999), pp. 70-96
33. Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God, pp. 62-63.
34. Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God, p. 12.
35. William Wainwright, Reason and the Heart: A Prolegomenon to a Critique of Passional Reason (Ithaca and
      London, Cornell University Press, 1995).
36. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart, pp. 7-107.
37. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart, pp. 148-149.
38. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart, p. 13.
39. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart, p. 152.
40. "Charles Sanders Peirce," by Robert Burch, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
41. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) pp. 136-137.
42. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, The Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL:
      InterVarsity Press, 1994) , pp.1-3. Online at http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/desire.htm
43. These are drawn largely from Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God.
44. Robert Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (New York: 
      Guilford Press, 1993), pp. 24-25.
45. Hare, Without Conscience, pp. 54-55.
46. Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God, pp. 133-136, 139-142.

Further reading

Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1997)
Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, in Peter Gay, ed., The Freud Reader (New
     York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1989), 686-722
James, William, "The Will to Believe," in John J. McDermott, ed., The Writings of 
     William James (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), 717-735
James, William, "The Sentiment of Rationality," in John J. McDermott, ed., The 
     Writings of William James (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), 317-345
Jordan, Jeff, "The Ethics of Belief," in Jeff Jordan, Pascal's Wager: Pragmatic 
     Arguments and Belief in God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 37-72
Morris, Thomas, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand
     Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992)
Pascal, Blaise, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Books, 1995)
Wainwright, William J., Reason and the Heart: A Prolegomenon to a Critique of 
     Passional Reason (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995)
Williams, Clifford, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and 
     Emotions for Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011
Wynn, Mark R., Emotional Experience and Religious Understanding: Integrating 
     Perception, Conception and Feeling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
     2005)

Links

"The Epistemology of Religion" by Peter Forrest, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of 
"Religious Epistemology" by Kelly James Clark, in Internet Encyclopedia of 
"A Primer on Religious Existentialism" by Michial Farmer 
"The Heart's Deepest Longings" by Rich Vincent, a review of Soul Cravings by Erwin
     McManus


*This article was written as a class project during the Fall 2011 semester at Trinity College, Deerfield, Illinois, by seven of the students who were in the class. The title of the class was Existential Apologetics; the teacher was Clifford Williams. Students in the class wrote sections of the article, and the teacher edited them for style and content.

The books for the course were Thomas Morris, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Eerdmans 1992); William Wainwright, Reason and the Heart: A Prolegomenon to a Critique of Passional Reason (Cornell University Press 1995); and Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (IVP Academic 2012)

Copyright © 2012 by the authors and editor. All rights reserved.

Posted March 2, 2012

See also: A Cornerstone talk: Existential Apologetics