Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
I make absolutely no claims on originality here: during these parlous times when our nation’s Judeo-Christian roots are being not only challenged and questioned, but attacked and debased and erased, it’s always good to have a ready argument for the existence of God—especially since this weird atheistic vogue shows no sign of slowing down. So without further delay:
1. Paschal’s Wager
In this day and age, when the State not only supports but actively encourages almost every form of gambling, but actively and actually encourages it—and at the same time purveys the myth that the proceeds from state-sponsored gambling “goes to public education” (it’s hard to even type this canard without laughing aloud)—why not bet on the existence of God?
This concept, which dates back to the tortured French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), famous for his tome simply entitled Pensées, seems simple enough on the surface: either God exists or He doesn’t. However, since we are already in this crazy mixed up “game” of life, we have everything to gain by living our lives by “betting” that God does exist — and living a life in accord with that belief. And, if at the end of this life we find that God doesn’t exist after all, we will still have “won”, since we would have led a virtuous Christian life.
Paschal took a lot of grief for leaving the door open for the concept of God “not existing” but (a) this was part of the ploy of his wager, in which the player never loses, and (b) Paschal had slipped, at least in part, to the heresy of Jansenism, which ravaged most of France throughout the 17th century—and wouldn’t finally be stamped out until the time of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Still, Pascal’s wager makes a lot of sense, no pun intended—and it pre-empts the “I-don’t-want-to-play-this-game” argument by pointing out that it’s too late not too: one HAS to decide to bet either for or against the existence of God, as one is already alive—and hopefully preparing for a grace-filled death.
2. The Ontological Argument (or the Argument from Being)
Unlike Paschal’s wager, which had as its origin a man many considered a heretic, the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God dates back to Saint Anselm (1033-1109), who was both Archbishop of Canterbury and Abbot of Bec, and is known as “Doctor Magificus”.
Like Paschal, however, Anselm’s argument is deceptively simple: we can conceive of perfection (since we live in a world of imperfection where things break down and go wrong every day we often wonder what a perfect world would be like), and since we are imperfect beings we can conceive of a Perfect Being, which we call God. The clincher for this argument: if God weren't perfect, He couldn’t exist, and if He didn’t exist, He wouldn’t be God (or, for that matter, perfect).
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, this rather loose argument took hold and held on for so long not so much because The Church promulgated it as dogma (in the meantime, St. Thomas Aquinas would come along with his “Prime Mover” argument, see below), but because a group of 17th-century European philosophers—none of whom we’d call “practicing Catholics” (one was a Jew who was banished from his Synagogue)—rediscovered it and gave it their own twist: Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes all teethed on and wrote about The Ontological Argument. Still, despite its chicken-and-the-egg feel to it, the Ontological Argument still beats its detractors to the punch: namely, if one is so sure a perfect being does not exist, why are you still able to conceive it?
3. The Teleological Argument (The Argument From Design)
Though he doesn’t get direct credit for this one, St. Augustine’s poem “The Beauty of Creation Bears Witness To God” is about as accurate a summation of this theory behind God’s existence as one could hope for. In St. Augustine’s own immortal words:
Question the beauty of the earth,
The beauty of the sea,
The beauty of the wide air around you,
The beauty of the sky;
Question the order of the stars,
The sun whose brightness lights the day,
The moon whose splendor softens the gloom of night.
Question the living creatures that move through the water,
That roam upon the earth,
That fly through the air;
The spirit that is manifest;
The visible things that are ruled,
The invisible that rule them;
Question all these,
They will answer you:
‘Behold and see, we are beautiful.’
Their beauty is their confession of God.
Who made these beautiful changing things,
If not one who is beautiful and changeth not?
This philosophical/theological argument actually pre-dates Christianity and goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle—and pretty much lasted uncontested until the time of David Hume (the philosopher who proclaimed that there’s no guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though it has for millions of years). Part of the immediate appeal of this argument is that the earth in particular and the universe in general are indeed pretty amazing places—and ironically advances in science have actually helped this argument by showing how incredibly complex nature—make that “Nature”— truly is. (One need only turn on the National Geographic channel or NOVA for examples of this).
And the more one looks at cells, leaves, waves and their relation to the phase of the Moon; the rotation of the seasons, symbiotic relationships within the natural sciences, along with discoveries as deep as the ocean and as far as Mars, literally—it’s hard NOT to imagine that a “Divine Architect” (namely God) is behind such beauty.
Still, the Argument from Design suffers from the complaint that while the world is phenomenal, it is fraught with inexplicable natural catastrophes, from typhoons to tornadoes, sink-holes to tsunamis, which an atheist will use to point out that the world is not perfect.
It is worth noting here that the teleological argument doesn’t posit that the world is perfect, but that its creator is (here, refer to St. Augustine’s poem, supra). That He allows for such vagaries of nature and natural disaster is part of His inscrutable plan—and the fact that nature has not destroyed itself, but perdured (despite man’s attempt to destroy other man, and the earth in the process), is attributed to God’s perfection vis-à-vis man’s imperfection.
4. The “Prime Mover” or Cosmological Argument
Up until the middle of the 20th century (when Thomism enjoyed a new vogue thanks to Jacques Maritan and G.K. Chesterton), the concept of a Prime Mover was the classic Catholic philosopher’s case for the existence of God. St. Thomas Aquinas took Aristotle’s concept of an “unmoved mover” and gave it a Christian bent: the unmoved mover, the first cause, the being that sets all others in motion we call God. This argument took hold since Aristotle and Aquinas held such stature (even during their lifetimes) that it seemed like only simple common sense that one could not have an infinite series of causes—that there HAD to be ONE, and only one, prime cause, Q.E.D. God exists.
Atheists, hiding behind a cloud of computer screens and mathematical theorems, seemed to do damage to the Cosmological Argument by showing that there can be all kinds of “infinite” mathematical series. But this is a lot like saying you are going to build a “perpetual motion” machine: the minute you start building it, you’re acknowledging that such a machine does not exist, much less is in motion (let alone perpetually). While this might not be the most air-tight of all the arguments for the existence of God, I’d certainly throw my lot in with Aquinas and Aristotle instead of some Ph.D. in computer science in Palo Alto.