Need as a Reason to Believe in God

Cliff Williams

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
Trinity Co
llege of International University
Deerfield, IL 60015

A talk given at Wheaton College on September 17, 2014, based on
Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of
Desires and Emotions for Faith

The question I shall address in this talk is whether or not it is legitimate to believe in God on the basis of need. First, I will explain the question by setting up a puzzle. Then I will explain why I think that it is legitimate to believe in God, in part, because of need. Last, I will defend this thesis against objections.

The Puzzle

Here is the puzzle: On the one hand, need does not seem to be a legitimate motivator for believing that anything is true. On the other hand, need is often a motivation for believing in God and also is often appealed to by Christian writers, preachers, lay people, and even Jesus.

Perhaps the most well-known critique of believing in God on the basis of need is Sigmund Freud’s. In his The Future of an Illusion, he claims that all religious ideas are derived from need—the need, in particular, he says, “of defending oneself against the crushingly superior force of nature.”1 Because of this, Freud states that religious ideas are “illusions.” By an illusion, however, he does not mean that the belief is false: “An illusion,” Freud explains, “is not the same thing as an error. . . . We call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality.”2

Some people have interpreted Freud as saying that religious beliefs are false because they are derived from a need. And Freud has been critiqued for supposedly saying this—he is said to have committed the genetic fallacy, the fallacy of inferring that a claim is false because of the fallacious way in which it is derived. However, all Freud says is that we must disregard the belief’s relation to reality, that is, set aside the question of whether the belief is true or false. And in this Freud seems to be entirely correct. We cannot legitimately believe something to be true just because we need it to be true. We cannot legitimately believe in God just because we want there to be a God, or yearn for a God, or have a deep longing for a God. To believe in God just because we crave for a God to protect us, or hunger for a God’s love, or want to fill what we suppose is a God-shaped vacuum in us, is as illegitimate as believing that someone has a romantic inclination toward us just because we want them to have a romantic inclination toward us, or believing that we will never die just because we do not want ever to die. Need does not seem to be a legitimate motivator for believing that anything is true, much less for believing in God.

On the other hand, need is frequently a motivator for believing in God and is frequently appealed to in order to try to convince others to believe in God. For instances of the former we can read the accounts William James gives in his Varieties of Religious Experience. Here is one:

"My sadness was without limit, and having got entire possession of me, it filled my life from the most indifferent external acts to the most secret thoughts, and corrupted at their source my feelings, my judgment, and my happiness. It was then that I saw that to expect to put a stop to this disorder by my reason and my will, which were themselves diseased, would be to act like a blind man who should pretend to correct one of his eyes by the aid of the other equally blind one. I had then no resource save in some influence from without. . . . Renouncing then all merit, all strength, abandoning all my personal resources, and acknowledging no other title to [God’s] mercy than my own utter misery, I went home and threw myself on my knees, and prayed as I never yet prayed in my life. From this day onwards a new interior life began for me: not that my melancholy had disappeared, but that it had lost its sting."3

It is clear that this person is motivated to accept God’s mercy because he believed that doing so would free him from his sadness that was without limit. And, indeed, it did to a degree.

For instances of appealing to need in order to convince others to believe in God, we can consult just about any Christian devotional writer. Listen to what Thomas à Kempis writes in his well-known Imitation of Christ: “When Jesus is near, all is well and nothing seems difficult. When he is absent, all is hard. When Jesus does not speak within, all other comfort is empty, but if he says only a word, it brings great consolation.”4 In these statements, Thomas is clearly presupposing that we need comfort and consolation, and that it is legitimate to let Jesus get near us so that we may acquire comfort and consolation. We may, and should, believe in Jesus’s efficacy to give us comfort and consolation because we need to have these.

Jesus, too, appeals to need in order to draw people to believe in him. He does this in one of his most familiar invitations: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30; NRSV). Here Jesus declares that he will give rest to those who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens if they “come to him.” He assumes that people possess the need to be free from weariness and carrying heavy burdens. The inference is that Jesus believes that it is legitimate to “come to him” because doing so will satisfy these needs.

Here, then, is the puzzle we are faced with: it seems evident that need is not a legitimate motivator for believing anything, yet many people have come to believe in God because of their need, and many people, including Jesus, appeal to need to motivate people to believe.

What are we to do with this puzzle? Shall we side with Freud, and with W. K. Clifford, the stern evidentialist, and say that everyone who has believed in God solely because of need has done so illegitimately? If we did, we would have to condemn vast numbers of Christian believers to having a faith that is a product of mere wishful thinking, as Freud put it, and to having “stolen pleasures,” as W. K. Clifford put it. This condemnation, however, seems too harsh. What if some people don’t have the capabilities to use reason as extensively as Freud and Clifford supposed they must? What if God designed us humans to come to believe in her via reason and emotions and need? Can we rule that out so imperialistically as Freud and Clifford seem to do? Aren’t there cases in which needs and emotions are not extraneous to what is believed but are pertinent in some way to what is believed?

Shall we, then, side with vast numbers of believers, along with nearly all devotional writers, and Jesus, too, and say that truth, at least sometimes, can be acquired via need and desire and emotion? If we did, we would violate one of the fundamental canons of believing—don’t let your personal needs and emotions influence what you believe to be true. If we did not follow this fundamental canon, we would be prone to let in all sorts of wild beliefs into our mental reservoir. And, as W. K. Clifford points out, these beliefs could have, and sometimes do have, harmful effects on other people.

The correct response to the puzzle, I believe, is to say that each side has some truth to it. On the one hand, we cannot believe just anything we want to. Reason must be involved in our believings in some way. On the other hand, there are cases in which needs and emotions are legitimately involved in coming to believe that something is true, and believing in God is one of these cases. I want to explain now how both reason and need can be used together to motivate faith.

Existential Needs

In order to do this, I must back up and ask what the need for God consists of. Writers on Christian spirituality often say that we humans have a need for believing in God without explaining what exactly that need is. Sometimes they mention Blaise Pascal’s reference to an infinite abyss that can be filled only by God or C. S. Lewis’s allusion to a distinctively shaped hollow into which only God can fit.5 Pascal states that we crave for the infinite abyss to be filled and that we try to fill it with numerous other things besides God. What, though, does the craving to fill the infinite abyss with God consist of? I want to describe what I think the craving consists of, as this will be necessary for my overall thesis, which is that it is legitimate to believe in God in part on the basis of need for God. What I think we find, however, is that there is no one thing that the craving consists of. Rather, it consists of a number of things. I am going to list nine such things, which can be thought of as “God needs.” However, I shall call them “existential needs” so as not to prejudge the question of whether they can be satisfied only by believing in God.

(1) The craving for what I call “cosmic security.” When the dangers and uncertainties of life, including the possibility of imminent death, come to mind, the desire for an ultimate security often arises. This is the only desire that Freud said “religious ideas” come from. There are many more, however.

(2) The desire to live beyond the grave. This desire springs from the craving for cosmic security, which involves the desire not to cease existing.

(3) It is not mere existence that we want after we die, but a certain kind of existence, one that is free from the hazards of this life, free from anxiety about the future, free from constant depression, irremediable sadness, and nagging restlessness, in other words, a desire for something like heaven. We want these not only in the next life, but in this one as well.

(4) The desire for goodness, a desire that is evoked by a vision of an ideal life, a life that is full of virtues such as kindness, generosity, and glad cooperation among individuals of different races and convictions.

(5) In John 10:10, Jesus declared that he came to give people a more abundant life. This presupposes that people want a more abundant life. I like calling this kind of life “a larger life.” The desire is for more significant emotions, such as awe for grand landscapes, magnificent works of art, and beautiful prose; appreciative understanding of the emotional lives of our acquaintances; exhilaration at discovering new truths about ourselves or the workings of nature; moral awe when observing goodness.

(6) and (7) “To love and be loved is the delightful purpose of all human life,” wrote Richard Rolle in his fourteenth century The Fire of Love.6 We want to be loved by our parents at first, then by friends, and later perhaps by a life partner. But we also want to love—we want to care deeply about a small number of persons, to know them deeply and to trust them.

(8) We crave meaning. If we do not find it in one enterprise, we look for it in another, sometimes desperately.

(9) Justice and fairness. We want justice done when a wrong has been committed, and we want people, including ourselves, to be treated fairly.

The Existential Argument for Believing in God

There are undoubtedly more existential needs that are relevant to what I am going to call the existential argument for believing in God, but these are enough. Here is the argument:

(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.

(2) Believing in God satisfies these needs.

(3) Therefore, we are justified in believing in God.7

I intend the “we” in this argument to be simply a placeholder for “an individual.” The argument should not be read as saying that everyone has all of the needs or even that everyone has at least one of the needs. All that is needed to get the argument going is that one person has one or more of the needs.

Something like this argument is, I believe, what people have in mind when they appeal to need to justify believing in God. There is first a statement about what people need, or what an individual needs, such as being free from the burdensome cares of life. There is second the statement that believing in God satisfies this need. Then there is the inference that a person is justified in believing in God.

This process can be seen in the case I read earlier from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. The person in the case desperately wanted a new interior life, one in which his feelings, judgment, and happiness were not corrupted by his sadness. He thought that his sadness could be excised and a new interior life gained by abandoning all of his personal resources and by casting himself onto God’s mercy, which he did. When his sadness lost its sting, presumably he thought that his having cast himself onto God’s mercy was justified, just because it resulted in the satisfaction of his initial desire.

Before I explain how reason can be involved in the existential argument for believing in God, I need to distinguish it from an evidential argument based on need. C. S. Lewis uses this different argument in his well-known Mere Christianity. He writes, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction of 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.”8 In these statements, Lewis is arguing that the best explanation for the fact that humans possess certain desires is that there is a God who has instilled the desires in them. One of these desires, Lewis asserts, is the hope for heaven. This desire cannot be satisfied this side of the grave. So there must be a God who guarantees that the desire will be satisfied after we die.

The conclusion of Lewis’s argument is based on needs in a different way from the way in which the conclusion of the existential argument for believing in God is based on needs. In Lewis’s argument, the conclusion is said to be worthy of being believed because the premises provide good evidence for the conclusion. But that is not the case in the existential argument. Rather, in it the conclusion is said to be justified as a response to one’s need.

Actually, the response to one’s need is a “rational” response to the need, or a “reasonable” response. When one needs to eat, it is reasonable to eat. When one needs to rest from hard work, it is reasonable to take a break. And when one needs cosmic security, meaning, and life beyond the grave, it is reasonable to believe in a God who satisfies these needs.

This kind of rationality can be called “need rationality,” or “need reasonableness.” In need rationality, those who satisfy their needs by believing certain things or doing certain things are sensible and wise. They are taking care of themselves. Need rationality consists of successfully satisfying needs.

Need rationality differs from what William James, an early twentieth century American philosopher, called “merely logical” rationality.9 This kind of rationality is purely intellectual. It is objective and impartial about matters of truth. It sorts through evidence, makes conceptual distinctions, and clarifies ideas with precision. It is the kind of rationality that Freud and W. K. Clifford and other evidentialists claim is the only kind of rationality that will give us truth. I, however, want to say that it is legitimate to combine logical rationality with need rationality in order to come to believe in God. It is, in fact, necessary to do so—need rationality requires logical rationality so that need rationality does not go astray. And logical rationality with respect to believing in God requires need rationality so that believing in God is not sterile.

This combination of the two kinds of rationality fits human nature better than either need rationality alone or logical rationality alone. We are creatures with both needs and reason, and the ideal way to come to believe in God is through both need and reason. Here is how I think the two can be combined in the existential argument for believing in God.

Need and Reason as Motivators of Belief in God

I shall take as my starting point a quote from Migel de Unamuno, a Spanish philosopher who lived in the late part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, a quote in which he compares believing in God to acquiring a friend. He writes, “I believe in God as I believe in my friends, because I feel the breath of his affection, feel his invisible and intangible hand, drawing me, leading me, grasping me.”10 In this fascinating assertion, Unamuno states that he is drawn to believe in God in the same way he is drawn to believe in his friends, namely, through satisfying his need for intimacy and affection. What I want to add is that this drawing through the satisfaction of need is accompanied by the use of reason. Consider what takes place when we are drawn to someone as a friend.

Imagine that we meet someone who displays affection toward us. She wants to be with us, likes talking with us, and parts with an affectionate “Goodbye.” Imagine, however, that she is an extortionist, one who blackmails people whose vulnerabilities she uncovers. Eventually she hints that she wants us to join her in a scheme she is concocting. If her affection were the only feature that drew us to her and keeps us connected, we would remain friends. But reason kicks in and rejects her values and, with that, probably the friendship. Actually, reason has already been employed in assessing her worthiness of being a friend. It has weighed her values and trustworthiness. It has seen that being with her and receiving her affection fit with what we value. It has observed that she keeps our confidences—up until the time, that is, that she reveals her blackmailing scheme.

All of our friendships proceed in the same way, with a combination of the satisfaction of need and the employment of reason. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that many of our friendships proceed in this way, for satisfaction of need sometimes outweighs the employment of reason and we enter into friendships that are unhealthy. But when reason is employed in coming to believe in a friend, it does so by sifting and sorting—Can I trust this person? Are their values akin to mine? Do we get along when we are together? We probably don’t ask these questions consciously and deliberately, but do so rather intuitively and automatically.

I want to suggest that we often do the same for believing in God. To use Unamuno’s phrase, we are drawn to God because we feel God’s invisible and intangible hand, drawing us, leading us, grasping us. But this drawing, leading, and grasping are not blind. Reason checks God’s values, God’s trustworthiness, God’s character, and weighs whether believing God truly satisfies the nine existential needs I described earlier. And reason validates the legitimacy of the needs. I want to say something about how reason validates the legitimacy of these needs, because I regard this validation as a major role that reason plays in legitimizing believing in God on the basis of need.

Reason uses five criteria to assess the nine existential needs. First, reason asks whether the needs are felt by other people and not just by myself. If it were just I who longed to be loved by someone who is constant and unwavering in their love, then reason would be suspicious of my postulating an invisible, cosmic lover. Second, reason asks whether the needs endure. If the craving for meaning were simply an afternoon whim and did not return from time to time to energize and haunt, then again reason would be suspicious. Why should we trust an afternoon whim on which to ground a belief in a God, reason asks? Third, reasons asks whether the needs are significant or trivial. If the desire to love were trivial and superficial, reason would dismiss it as an unworthy motivation for loving a being whom one cannot see or touch. Only if the needs have great value will reason be persuaded that they can legitimately motivate one to believe in such a being. Fourth, reason asks whether each need is connected to a constellation of needs, each of which meets the first three criteria. If the need to live beyond the grave were isolated from other needs, reason would dismiss it. But if the need to live beyond the grave is connected to the needs for cosmic security and delighting in goodness, then together they possess more weight than each one singly. Fifth, reason asks how strongly the needs are felt and how intensely their satisfaction is felt. If there were little felt difference in satisfying a need, reason would not be likely to give it much weight.

I did not make up these five criteria just for the purpose of supporting the existential argument for believing in God. They are used in other arenas of life. In a courtroom trial for a crime, there must be more than one bit of circumstantial evidence in order for someone to be convicted, and the bits of circumstantial evidence should be witnessed by more than one person in order for them to convince a jury. The items of circumstantial evidence must also connect to each other, or they, too, would not carry much weight. The same is true when assessing whether reports of unusual phenomena are trustworthy or whether theories of personality accurately fit human nature. Unconnected, single bits of information do not convince, but numerous, connected bits do.

The nine existential needs satisfy the five criteria. Many people feel them; perhaps everyone has felt at least some of them. They are not just afternoon whims, but endure, often throughout one’s life. They are not trivial, but significant—those who feel them value them highly. They are connected to each other, forming a constellation, or a web. And they are felt strongly by at least some people.

We can infer from these considerations that the existential argument for believing in God is not a simple appeal to wish fulfillment, just as coming to believe in a friend is not the result of a simple desire to have that person as a friend. Each of these is a complex appeal to desire, in several ways. Neither one is simply an “I like this” argument. When philosophers declare that we should not trust our desires and emotions when we attempt to discover what is true, they usually have in mind the claim that we should not believe something just because we want to believe it. The existential argument for believing in God, however, appeals to a web of desires and emotions, not just one desire. Moreover, the desires are not all self-directed. Some are other-directed—the desire to love and the desire for justice and fairness, to which we might add the desire for awe and the desire to delight in the presence of goodness. So the argument for believing in God is not just a simple, “Believing in God benefits me” or “I want to believe in God,” but is more like “Believing in God encourages me to live up to my highest ideals,” in much the same way that coming to believe in a friend is not just “I want this person to be a friend,” but is more like, “Having this person as a friend will encourage me to be my truest self.”

In addition, the existential argument for believing in God presupposes that some philosophies are intimately connected to human desires. If the philosophies do not allow for the satisfaction of the desires they claim to satisfy, they should be rejected. Theism is such a philosophy. It tells us that believing in God satisfies the need for cosmic security, the need to know something that is perfectly good, the need to believe in something that gives a larger meaning, and more. These connections of theism with desires mean that need rationality is applicable to theism in addition to evidence rationality. In my words, need and reason combine to legitimate certain beliefs—need, because the beliefs are connected to need, and reason, because need requires direction.

One way to illustrate the difference between believing in God as a result of James’s merely logical rationality or Freud’s and W. K. Clifford’s evidence rationality, on the one hand, and believing in God as a result of need rationality, on the other, is to look at a dispute between Freud and Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist in the first half of the twentieth century. Jung became a friend and disciple of Freud but later broke with Freud over key points in Freud’s psychology. One of the assertions Jung made that Freud disliked was that religious experience could contribute to emotional well-being. Jung wrote, “No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses the great treasure of a thing that has provided him with a source of life, meaning and beauty.”11 If, Jung continued, “a healing religious experience . . . helps to make your life healthier, more beautiful, more complete and more satisfactory to yourself and to those you love, you may safely say: ‘This was the grace of God.’”12 Then he asks, rhetorically, “Where is the criterium [criterion] by which you could say that such a life is not legitimate, that such experience is not valid and that such pistis [faith] is mere illusion? Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live?”13

In these quotes, Jung is using something like my existential argument for believing in God. He is saying that because we need meaning, beauty, satisfaction, and splendor, and because belief in God helps us to acquire these, we are justified in having that belief. He puts this argument in terms of healing neuroses. And this, we can easily see, gives a deeper dimension to the issue of whether or not to believe in God than just a simple wish fulfillment. Neuroses are connected to deep desires, such as the desire for meaning and the desire for love, and to emotions such as fear of rejection and the fear of death. So Jung’s argument is more like my complex appeal to desire.

One wonders whether Freud would still have resisted believing in God had he thought that believing in God healed neuroses. It is hard to imagine him doing so. I am guessing, though, that some of you side with Freud on this, that is, believe that we are not justified in believing in God just because doing so heals our neuroses and gives us meaning, beauty, satisfaction, and splendor. These are merely subjective satisfactions, you might say, whereas what is needed to believe in an objective fact is objective and impartial evidence. So it is time now to answer some objections, which I will put in the form of questions, questions that you probably have been asking as I have been talking.


The first question: “Is there really a difference between believing in God on the basis of a simple desire and what you are calling a complex desire? Aren’t the two in the same epistemic condition? That is, if it is illegitimate to believe in God, or anything, because one has a simple desire to do so, wouldn’t it also be illegitimate to believe in God because of a complex desire? One could construct a case in which it is legitimate for a soldier to believe that her fiancé back home still loves her because of complex psychological conditions. But although that would satisfy what you are calling need rationality, it certainly would not justify believing that the fiancé still loves the soldier. Need rationality, no matter how complex, is not enough to show that facts exist. To do that, logical rationality, or evidence rationality, is needed.”

I concur with the idea in this question—need rationality is not sufficient by itself to show that facts exist. The Freudian and evidentialist point is correct, namely, needs by themselves do not prove facts. However, I also believe that needs cannot be dismissed entirely. We use need rationality in a number of life contexts, including the religious context I have been talking about, and we do so by adding reason, or James’s logical rationality, to it.

Consider, again, the involvement of the five criteria, that is, reason, with the nine existential needs in the way I described earlier. This involvement rules out certain options. It rules out believing in a cosmic torturer because one feels a need to believe in one. It does so because this perverse need does not satisfy all of the five criteria for legitimizing needs that I listed earlier. It is not had by very many people, it has little value, and it is not connected to a network of other needs. The involvement of reason with the nine existential needs in this way means that we can trust them more than we can trust the need for a cosmic torturer (if there is such a need in anyone). And this fact means that need rationality and logical rationality can be fused so as to produce a strong motivator for believing in God. A simple need rationality may be untrustworthy, but when it is combined with logical rationality, it is much less likely to go astray.

Moreover, there is a further way reason can be involved in the existential argument for believing in God. It is this: The evidential argument for believing in God I described earlier can be fused with the existential argument for believing in God. The basic idea in this fusion is that need is used both existentially and evidentially when coming to believe in God. Here is how the process might go: One feels some of the nine existential needs, perhaps all of them, and then imagines how faith in God would satisfy those needs. This is the existential part. In addition, one wonders how humans can have those nine needs without there being a God who has given humans those needs. This is the evidential part. Finally, one takes on faith in God. The faith is spurred both by the prospect of having the needs satisfied and by reasoning to a conclusion from premises.

Consider a fanciful case involving hunger. Let us imagine a scenario in which an adult human is created whole, without being born. She is placed in a meadow, and her first awareness is of wildflowers spread out in all directions. She wanders among them, enjoying their colors and shapes. Soon she becomes hungry. She wonders what the increasing discomfort in her stomach is due to. She reasons that there must be something somewhere that will alleviate her stomach pain so that she can continue to delight in the wildflowers. She heads toward the edge of the meadow where she finds a variety of fruits growing on trees and shrubs, which, she discovers, eliminate her pain when she eats them.

In this fanciful scenario, Eve, as I shall call her, used need in two ways—one, to reason to the conclusion that something must exist to ease her stomach pain, and two, to be spurred to take care of her need. If she had jumped to the conclusion that food exists just because she needed to alleviate her pain, we would rightly regard this process as fallacious. But when Eve’s being spurred to satisfy her need is combined with evidential reasoning based on need, her acquiring the belief that food exists is justified.

Satisfying need can be combined with evidential reasoning in a number of ways. Here is one such way, involving an acquaintance of mine who is a scientist with a Ph.D. in biorganic chemistry from the University of Chicago. Dr. Michael McCorquodale, as I shall call him, states,

"As a person whose interest has been in the sciences for quite some time, fairly early I understood that these systems of thought made sense out of large swaths of life and experience. . . . One thing I was looking for in a worldview was something that didn’t undermine the scientific approach.

"[Also,] somehow out of my upbringing I came away with the notion that the least satisfying or least valuable life is one that communicates that it is “all about me.” . . . When it’s only about me, the story becomes pathetic and tiresome and narrow. But when one imagines that there might be a story that’s about something bigger and grander than just me, then dimensions open up that otherwise would never have been perceived."

Then he states,

"I found ways of seeing that complement science, and evidence that is not just about me, that there are grander stories than the self-absorbed one that any one of us could write."14

Dr. McCorquodale reasoned both evidentially and existentially—the Christian worldview is consistent with science, and he needed a worldview in which the story of his life would not be just about him. His existential appeal is not as extensive as the appeal in my existential argument involving the nine existential needs, but it certainly is not so undeveloped as merely desiring that there be a God.

Now I can imagine you asking, “But, look, if there is both evidential reasoning and existential reasoning, as you call it, it is the evidential reasoning that does the work. The existential reasoning is irrelevant to whether or not one believes.” Professor Richard Swinburne, of Oxford University, in his Faith and Reason, put it this way: “If such inquiry [that is, a rational one] concludes that it is likely that there is a God, then the non-rational reasons for cultivating belief that there is a God are irrelevant, for we would already believe.”15 I shall call this the Irrelevancy Objection.

To this objection, I answer that things can easily be turned around—evidential reasoning is not needed if one is persuaded by existential reasoning, for one will already believe. The existential reasoning is what does the work. This claim can be substantiated by looking at what actually draws people to faith. Dr. Michael McCorquodale was drawn in part by an existential reason—he needed something to believe in that said that his life was not just about himself.

The Irrelevancy Objection needs to be recast so as to say that evidential reasoning ought to do the work and not just that it actually does the work, or, to use Professor Swinburne’s words, that non-rational reasons for cultivating belief ought to be irrelevant because only evidential reasoning ought to be trusted to found a belief in God. This recast version of the Irrelevancy Objection is much stronger than the original version.

To it I reply with what I stated earlier—the ideal way to acquire a belief in God is through both need and reason. Here is why—two interconnected facts: One, God is the kind of entity to whom creatures can, and should, connect via both reason and need, and, two, we creatures possess both reason and need of the sort that can connect to God. Given these two facts, it seems likely that God would want us to acquire a belief in her through both reason and need. And if we look at the Bible to discover the ways in which God actually does draw people to acquire faith, we see God appealing to forgiveness and peace that passes understanding and a clear conscience and an abundant life and healing of wounds and hope and dissolution of anxiety—all of which involve human needs. And these needs satisfy the five criteria I described earlier—they are deeply felt, they are valuable, they persist, many people have them, they are connected to each other. It is, in short, reasonable to let them draw us to faith in God. It is reasonable to come to believe that there is a God who satisfies these needs. I here use “reasonable” to include both need reasonableness and James’ logical reasonableness, in a fusion of the two.

A further objection to the existential argument for believing in God asks, “What about people who say that their existential needs are satisfied without faith. These people concede that they feel the existential needs, or at least some of them, such as the need to love and be loved, or the need for awe. But they find that the need to love and be loved is satisfied with human love, and that the need for awe is satisfied with awe at natural objects. For these people, then, the existential argument would not be efficacious. And, continues, the objection, would it not be relativistic to admit that the argument works for some people but not for others?

This objection, I think, is one of the strongest that can be leveled against the existential argument for believing in God. If the argument doesn’t work for some people, why should we think it works for anyone?

To this question I have two answers. The first is that it doesn’t matter whether other people satisfy the existential needs by means other than by believing in God. So long as I satisfy the needs by believing in God, I am justified in believing in God. This difference between me and others does not entail relativism. The second answer to this objection is that we need not accept at face value someone’s claim that they could not satisfy the existential needs by believing in God even though they do not satisfy them by believing in God. For satisfactions can be argued with. Someone who thinks they are fully satisfied with certain foods might find that they would be more satisfied with other foods. And someone who thinks their existential needs are fully satisfied without believing in God might find that their existential needs would be satisfied better by believing in God. This can be done by using four tests: the restlessness test, the obstacle test, the value test, and the satisfaction test.

With the restlessness test, one can determine the efficacy of particular ways in which one tries to satisfy the existential needs. With the obstacle test, one can uncover the non-cognitive obstacles that prevent one from feeling that believing in God satisfies the needs. With the value test, one can rank the value of the feelings involved in the means used to satisfy the needs. And with the satisfaction test, one can rank the degree of satisfaction involved in different ways in which the needs are satisfied.

The crucial question now is whether these four tests show that believing in God satisfies the existential needs better than any other means. The answer I would like to be able to give is that they do. However, doing that would require an extensive discussion beyond the scope of this talk. What I will point out, though, is that the tests show, at a minimum, that the emotions involved in satisfying the existential needs are capable of being scrutinized and improved. This fact means that the objection is blunted, because it assumes that the emotions involved in satisfying the needs must be accepted uncritically. I also point out that if the four tests can be used to show that believing in God satisfies the existential needs better than any other means, then the existential argument for believing in God needs to be recast to conclude that one is more justified in believing in God than in not doing so. And this conclusion, along with other premises can be used to conclude even further that one should satisfy the existential needs by believing in God. But I will not pursue this new version of the argument now.

Emotions and Believing in God

In the remaining minutes I want to say some things about the role of emotions in believing in God.

First, I want to point out that emotions, passions, and desires have not been valued as highly as reason in the Western philosophical and theological tradition. Emotions have largely been distrusted as being legitimately involved in acquiring beliefs. It is reason, the faculty that distinguishes humans from animals, and only reason, that can be trusted to acquire beliefs. However, if I am right in thinking that need, along with reason, is a legitimate motivator for believing in God, then emotions should be valued as much as reason for acquiring a belief in God. Here are a number of considerations in support of this claim.

If the existential argument for believing in God is a legitimate way to come to believe in God, then believing in God consists, at least in part, in the satisfaction of the nine existential needs. But the satisfactions of most of those nine needs just are emotions. Consequently, it is the prospect of having the emotions that satisfy the needs that does the prompting in the existential argument for believing in God.

Consider one of the needs I described earlier, the one which states that we want a certain kind of existence, one that is free from constant depression, irremediable sadness, and nagging restlessness, and also free from anxiety about the future. The emotion we have when we are free from anxiety about the future is a certain kind of contentment. The prospect of having this contentment can be a powerful motivator to believe in God. When we believe in God because of this motivator, our doing so consists, in part, of the emotion of contentment.

Part of the reason emotions have not been trusted is that they have been thought to be blind or raw sensations, devoid of conceptual content. But this is not true of very many emotions. It is certainly not true of emotions that are directed toward God. When the emotion of contentment is directed toward God, the conceptual content of it is that God gives us joy, frees us from restlessness, and will make our future secure, in the long run, come what may.

Think, also, of the fact that scripture frequently mentions various emotions as part of the life of faith in God. The rest that Jesus promises to those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens is an emotion. Some of the fruits of the Spirit Paul mentions in Galations 5:22 are emotions—love, joy, and peace. As Jonathan Edwards states in his Treatise on Religious Affections, “The holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal.”16 A few of these emotions, which Edwards calls affections because the word “emotion” was not in common use at the time, play a role in the existential argument for believing in God.17

Think, last, of the fact that having certain emotions is what contributes to making life so spectacular. Life would have less overall value if all we had were flat experiences or mere knowings, like Mr. Spock. The emotions accompanying experiences are what contribute significantly to the value of the experiences. The awe of experiencing the magnificent vistas when hiking in the Grand Canyon or in the Colorado Rockies above the tree line is what contributes to the momentousness of that experience. The same is true of our connections with God. They, too, would have less value if they were mere knowings or experiences and devoid of accompanying emotions.

Emotions also make God’s life spectacular, if we can speak of God having a life. God is not a cosmic Mr. Spock. God did not spin out the universe just via intelligence, as some theologians seem to say. God delights in beauty and goodness and obtains satisfaction from loving and being loved. These are part of what makes God’s existence so magnificent and awe-evoking.

From these considerations, along with the fact that humans possess both reason and emotions, it is fair to conclude that emotions should be part of what connect us to God, that is, part of the faith, the believing, the love, and the acceptance of love we direct toward God. And it seems fair to conclude that acquiring these involves emotions. Put differently, it seems fair to say that God uses both emotion and reason to instill faith in people, including both personal trust in God and the belief that God exists. God uses human emotions and reason in redeeming humans, in making them new creatures in Christ, in healing them of their wounds, and in turning agnostics and atheists into theists.

I end with a quote from Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions: “Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”18 Nussbaum’s assertion mirrors my thesis that need and reason work together in motivating beliefs. Paraphrasing the quote for the present context, we get: “Emotions are not just what fuels a person’s psychological mechanism; they are highly complex and messy parts of a person’s reasoning their way to God,” or more generally, “Emotions are not separate and distinct from reasoning, but often are part of reasoning, including reasoning one’s way to God. And there is no clean and precise way to distinguish reason from emotion.” When emotion and reason are conjoined in the right way in the existential argument for believing in God, the result is, I believe, a justifiable way of acquiring and sustaining belief in God.19


1. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), p. 697.

2. Ibid., p. 704.

3. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Signet Classic, 2003), pp. 207-208.

4. Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (London: Penguin Books, 1953, book 2, chapter 8, quoted in Invitation of Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology, ed. John R. Tyson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 199.

5. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), #148 (p. 45); C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 152.

6. Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love, trans. Clifton Wolters (New York: Penguin, 1972), p. 121.

7. From Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), p. 32.

8. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p.136-137.

9. William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (New York: Modern Library, 1968), p. 325.

10. Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life, trans. J. E. Crawford Flitch (New York: Dover Publications, 1954), p. 194.

11. Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1938), p. 113.

12. Ibid., p. 114.

13. Ibid., p. 103.

14. From Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God, pp. 29-30.

15. Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005), p. 132.

16. Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Religious Affections (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust,1986), p. 31.

17. See “emotion” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

18. Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 3.

19. For those wondering how I use “reason,” I do so in the following way: “Human reason is just the power we have to organize and interpret our sense experience as well as the power to draw conclusions that move beyond the confines of immediate experience. We sometimes talk of reason as if it were a separate organ for discovering truth. It is better thought of as a cluster of skills and abilities, abilities to work with and process what we’re given as we make contact with the outside world and reflect on ourselves.” Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 66-67.

Copyright © 2014 by Clifford Williams All rights reserved.