Religion (or:

'Life Positions')

  1. What is a 'Life Position'?
  2. Differences and Conflicts
  3. The Major Religions
  4. Concepts for Discussion
  5. Appendix: from the Conferences 

1. What is a 'Life Position'?

In Theory of Knowledge we are concerned with the ways in which claims to knowledge are justified in different areas. Thus, science and mathematics, as we have seen, are systems of knowledge, based on particular ways in which what is known is justified: for example, At the beginning of the course, we defined propositional knowledge, or knowledge that p, as ''the true belief that p, appropriately justified, without falseness,'' (p being the proposition that is known.) It should be clear that religious belief involves rather more than a belief that something is the case, and that religion is not 'just' a system of knowledge in the way in which science and mathematics are.
To be able to talk about religion, we need a different or an extended conception of belief.
It is sometimes supposed that all belief is 'reducible' to propositional belief, belief-that. Thus, my believing you might be thought a matter of believing, perhaps, that what you say is true; and your belief in free markets or in God, a matter of your believing that free-market economies are desirable or that God exists.

It is doubtful, however, that non-propositional believings can, in every case, be reduced in this way. Debate on this point has tended to focus on an apparent distinction between belief-that and belief-in, and the application of this distinction to belief in God ... Some philosophers have followed Aquinas (see Summa Theologiae) in supposing that to believe in God is simply to believe that certain truths hold: that God exists, that he is benevolent, etc. Others ... argue that belief-in is a distinctive attitude, one that includes essentially an element of trust. More commonly, belief-in has been taken to involve a combination of propositional belief together with some further attitude.

H.H. Price (1969) defends the claim that there are different sorts of belief-in, some, but not all, reducible to beliefs-that. If you believe in God, you believe that God exists, that God is good, etc. But, according to Price, your belief involves, in addition, a certain complex pro-attitude towards the object ...; you possess, in addition, an attitude of commitment and trust towards God. ...

Belief-in may be, in general, less susceptible to alteration in the face of unfavourable evidence than belief-that. A believer who encounters evidence against God's existence may remain unshaken in his belief, in part because the evidence does not bear on his pro-attitude. So long as this is united with his belief that God exists, the belief may survive epistemic buffeting – and reasonably so – in a way that ordinary propositional belief-that would not.

John Heil, in A Companion to Epistemology, 1992.
However, this does not mean that there are no religious truths to be known, for a religion is an outlook, a view of the world, from which certain religious truths do follow: what it does mean is that the justification of religious knowledge ultimately rests on the faith that the religious person has, and this faith is more than just some piece of knowledge.
But this belief-in something, as opposed to merely belief-that something is the case, and the pro-attitude mentioned above which is not easily dislodgd by contrary evidence, is not only found in people's religion. Even a person who is of no religion and holds to no faith, in the usual sense, will have certain fundamental things that they believe in and by which they live. They will have a framework within which they make sense of their experiences and make judgments, and this is what we will call a 'life position'; such a life-position can then be either religious or non-religious.
Exercise 1.1.:
List and briefly describe some other such life positions, (or Weltanschauungen, views of the world, or basic outlooks,) apart from religious ones (– e.g. atheism: the rejection of belief in God or gods.)
A religion or other life position therefore is an ideology, in the following sense:
ideology n. ... 2. Philosophy, sociology. the set of beliefs by which a group or society orders reality so as to render it intelligible. ...
Collins English Dictionary, 1991.
It is therefore not like something seen, but like the place from which we see things. And we cannot avoid taking such a life position, just as we cannot see things without seeing them from some place.

An ideology is something like what Edward de Bono (British writer, 1933 - ) calls a 'myth' (– clearly not in the sense of legends):

A myth is a fixed way of looking at the world which cannot be destroyed because, looked at through the myth, all evidence supports that myth.
Except that de Bono seems to be considering only the delusional, self-justifying aspects of ideologies, and not to see that we also all depend on having some ideology, to "order reality so as to render it intelligible."
If we now think of religion as an ideology, we can look for the justification of claims to religious knowledge on the basis of, or in the context of, a particular religion, but we cannot justify the religion itself in terms of something else, and it is misguided to even try to. And the same obviously holds for non-religious life positions.

Our inability here is similar to that which Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) expressed when he said: "Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth [– by using a lever.]" For as regards life positions, too, there is no 'firm spot' from which we could mount a conclusive argument.

If there is no such 'firm spot', does it follow then that there is never any point in discussing or comparing different religions or life-positions? One might often get that impression, for instance when one hears a typical argument between a religious believer and a non-believer, each trying to convince the other that his or her position is wrong, (or between an American and a communist, or between someone who believes in UFOs and someone who does not.) Disagreements in many important areas, such as art and morality, often have the same air of pointlessness.

But it seems to me that there are reasons why these most basic matters can and should be discussed, (and why religion should be a topic in the ThoK-course.)

  1. Firstly, by discussing and comparing different religions and life-positions – without always having to get others to agree with us, or to decide in the end who was right and who was wrong – we get to understand better other people who may have quite a different outlook, and when we understand them better our interactions can be more valuable.
  2. Secondly, there are in fact grounds on which we can make judgments, if not of the belief or life-position itself, then at least of the believer or the adherent of that position. That is, we can, and we should, expect a religious believer (or in fact anyone who holds – or claims to hold – some life-position)
    1. to lead their own life according to their faith or outlook. Thus, if someone proclaims himself a communist but exploits others for his own benefit, or a Christian but he incites others to violence, or an atheist but he prays when he has a bad tooth ache, then we do not need to take seriously the communism, Christianity or atheism he professes.
    2. to stand by their faith or outlook, and not to disregard completely actions of their fellow-believers. Thus, if someone proclaims himself a Muslim, then he must either defend the 1989 fatwa (= legal judgment; in this case a death sentence) against the author Salman Rushdie, or condemn as misguided, or plain wrong, the mullahs who pronounced it.
    3. to be broadly consistent in their beliefs and judgments. In the absence of a 'firm spot', of a universally shared perspective, we may not be able to criticise a person's most basic assumptions; but we can, and we should, stop taking them seriously if what they believe, and what they say and do, does not make sense in their own terms.
  3. And thirdly, only by being open to such discussions, by laying ourselves open to criticism from others who may have a completely different perspective, can we ourselves develop further in our own thinking.
Exercise 1.2.:
Try to think of other examples of the different kinds of inconsistencies suggested in ii. above that would make us suspicious of a person, and of their faith or other outlook.

Also try to give examples, perhaps from your own recent experience, of how discussions of a religion that is not yours, or of an outlook that you do not share, has enabled you to understand someone else better, or clarified your own views and opinions.

2. Differences and Conflicts

It is clear then that our religion or other life position is an essential aspect of who we are and how we lead our life. But for a great part of the history of mankind, and still in many parts of the world, religion and ideology have not just been an individual matter, to be discussed in a friendly and constructive way. Differences of religion or ideolgy have been, and are, at the root of many conflicts, and many wars have been religious wars – despite the fact that, in many cases, both sides proclaim a religion of peace and love.

The fact that religious and ideological differences are liable to become conflicts, that they have often led to persecution and war, is something that we must not avoid facing up to. Especially when we hold to a religion or ideology that has been (or is) so involved – and there are few that are not 'guilty'. Many people may find it difficult to take a critical approach to something that is so fundamtental to who they are – almost like being told that one's father is a thief. But I will suggest here two reasons why difference can become conflict.

One reason, it seems to, is simply incomprehension. A certain kind of mutual misunderstanding affects all discussions not only of religions and ideologies, but also of just concrete plans for the future, say. The problem is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make fair judgments.
The Christian ideal of loving one's neighbour and loving one's enemy, non-violence, serving the poor and suffering, redemption and salvation through the descent of God to earth, sharing together in a community of faith, has been coupled with inquisitions to root out those whose faith deviates or to impose the faith on those who do not choose it, averting the gaze from (when not blessing) the monstrous crimes of those in power, conquest in the name of bringing the doctrine to the benighted, following in the wake of colonial influence, opulent and satisfied status as an official and dominant ceremonial religion in the West. This is not the whole story about the Christian ideal as it actually operates in the world, but it is part of that story. ...

The temptation is to say simply that ... Christianity's underside is not true Christianity but institutionalist hypocrisy ... But this reply will not do. That is how those ideals operate, over and over again, in this world, on this planet, when we are the ones who do the operating. That is what they come to, what we make them come to.

It is not all they come to, however. ... The content of an ideal is not exhausted by how we actually manage to work it; it also includes its realization by better people than we are. ...

[But] In comparing two ideals, we have to judge the first's actual situation against the second's, and the first's ''ideal situation'' against the other's. It would be unfair to judge another actuality against your ideal – that is, to judge how another ideal actually works out against how your ideal ideally does.

Robert Nozick, The Examined Life, 1989.
The problem pointed to at the end of this passage is that when we discuss religions or world views, or even just plans, we may not be able to compare like with like, since we cannot help belonging to a religion or having a world view or favouring a plan ourselves, and this one we will look at differently from the way we look at other ones.
Exercise 2.1.:
What is the structure of the first paragraph in the passage quoted from Robert Nozick?

Write a similar paragraph about another ideal, or ideology, such as capitalism, or communism, or nationalism (– which are the ones Nozick writes about in his book.)

To explain the other reason that religious and ideological differences have so often resulted in conflict it may help to draw a parallel as follows:

1.all individuals have a deep-seated attachment to their family, their friends, their home, and so onindividuals have a faith or life-position: what they believe in is part of who they are, their identity
2.individuals who share a background form communities, for the purpose of joint actionindividuals of the same faith or life-position form communities, for the purpose of fellowship
3.hence: states, countrieshence: congregations, denominations
4.a nation is 'invented', to justify some political end: it appeals to the community's deep-seated attachmentsa religion is 'invented', to justify some political end: each individual who has a certain faith belongs to it
5.hence: tribes, factions, nationshence: sects, cults, churches
6.a nation acquires symbols, like the flag or a leader; it has a mythical origin and unity that set it aparta religion is represented by symbols, like the cross, a shrine, certain rituals; it has a creation myth that sets it apart
7.the superiority of, or supposed threat to, one's nation justifies action against 'the others', even war, to achieve the political endthe superiority of, or supposed threat to, one's religion is exploited for political ends, to justify action against 'non-believers'
8.nationalism: people are prepared to kill, to lay down their lives for their country!religion: people are prepared to kill, to lay down their lives for their faith!
 note: nationalism is so effective because it appeals to (= exploits!) each individual's most personal attachmentsnote: religion is so useful a justification because it appeals to (= exploits!) each individual's most deeply held values

(I am not quite happy yet with the terms
used in the column on the right ...    KA)
  1. Along similar lines, David Lloyd Thomas has argued in a lecture, 1997, that while states clearly do exist, nations do not, and that a nation is no more than the expression of a group's aspiration to have a political identity, typically to have or become a state.
  2. The distinction between an individual's faith and their religion, which is always in danger of being exploited for political ends, explains why it can happen that each individual may believe in peace and love, but their religious groups may be spreading war and hatred.
  3. What was said above about religion applies to non-religious ideologies as well: for example, Soviet-style communism exploited high-minded socialist ideals.
Exercise 2.2.:
Try to find cases of religious differences being exploited for political ends – almost any religious conflict in the world can be seen to be reducible to a political struggle.

( Example: the conflict in Northern Ireland, supposedly between Protestants and Catholics. 'The troubles' continued, despite appeals for peace from the leaders of both churches, until it was dealt with as a struggle for power between two political groups, Unionists and Republicans: the former had thought that they would benefit more from continuing as a province of the UK, the latter that they would do better as part of Ireland.)

Since writing these notes, and having read The God Delusion, 2006, by Richard Dawkins, (although that book covers much more ground,) I have decided that I must take a stand against religion, that it would be morally wrong to remain 'sitting on the fence'. Here goes:
Exercise 2.3.:
  1. Try to list some others of the "evidential requirements" that we routinely make in modern society, like the two examples in the first paragraph above.
  2. A statement obviously is not true just because a large number of people believe it: the number of people who believe a statement is not part of the evidence for it or against.
    1. Try to give examples of beliefs that were held quite universally at some time, but that we now reject, or even consider abhorrent.
    2. Try to give examples of beliefs commonly held by believers of some faith that would make us doubt the sanity of a person who expressed them as a personal belief, i.e. apart from their religion.

3. The Major Religions

To understand where different religions stand we should try to consider the sets of beliefs about the world that their adherents 'typically' hold, and the basis of value judgments that they 'typically' employ.

The obvious problem with this is that there are often great differences in the beliefs and values of individuals who profess to belong to the same religion, or to have the same world view, and it is difficult to establish what is typical: is it the 'average' position, or that of the greatest number, or that of the leaders of the faith, or the 'original' one, or whatever every adherent would agree with (– which might amount to very little)? For each religion there would seem to be 'liberals' and 'fundamentalists' and 'literalists'.

It is important to remember this when we learn about and talk about different religions. While the Religious Conference, for instance, does give an introduction to the world's main religions, we must bear in mind that the individuals who came to represent the different faiths may not be holding and expressing views that are typical.

Exercise 3.1.:
  1. Give examples, from two different religions or other life positions, of how the views would differ between (i) a liberal, (ii) a fundamentalist, (iii) a literalist.
  2. In which ways do you think the views expressed by representatives of different faiths at an occasion like the Religious Conference may differ from the 'typical' views of adherents of those faiths?

    Try to give concrete examples.

In order to understand some of them better, but also to understand better what constitutes such a religion, it may help to discuss and 'compare' some aspects of some of the religions that you may have learnt about.

(Humanism is here included as being 'almost a religion': most non-religious people are humanist in their outlook and values, but some of them in addition feel the need to join some organisation, like the British Humanist Association.)

Exercise 3.2.:
Make a large copy of the schema below, and write into the spaces what an adherent of that religion or other world view might say they know. Try to find propositions that are typical and distinctive.

Hinduism Buddhism Judaism Islam Christi-
what we are in the world        
about this world        
the nature of the god(s)        
about the other world        
our relation to the god(s)        
the role of observances        
a main moral principle        

  1. Think of another aspect, like the ones in the first column, by which different world views can be compared or distinguished.
  2. Consider another, non-religious life position, like the religious ones in the top row, and compare it to and distinguish it from them.

Knowledge, in the sense in which we are concerned with it in this course, is propositional knowledge: so the scientific and mathematical truths we know can be stated, though perhaps requiring a specialized language. And the same holds for religious knowledge.

However, one way in which a religion is more than a system of knowledge is that it requires, apparently, means of expression and communication other than language.

Exercise 3.3.:
In groups of four or five, one of whom needs to act as the 'group secretary' and write things down, follow the procedure suggested on the right to produce an outline for an essay or seminar on the following topic.

''Religions seem to require particular means of expression and communication, such as symbols, art and ritual. Using examples, discuss how these are used and for what purpose.''

A way of organizing the process of writing an essay or preparing a seminar which was described before is to divide it into four phases, with different purposes and rules, although in one's actual work these phases will usually not be sharply separated:
  1. brain-storming, i.e. generating ideas, being creative,
  2. sorting,
  3. structuring,
  4. writing, or speaking.

4. Concepts for Discussion

The view taken here is that religion, like other world views, is an ideology, and therefore not something known but rather the basis on which we have knowledge, and that the justification of religious knowledge ultimately rests on the religious person's faith.

However, religious people themselves often do not view their faith in that way; and in Western, or Christian, and specifically Catholic, philosophy and theology much effort has gone into discussing what evidence we can have for or against religious faith, or specific religious beliefs.

The basic assumption is that theistic belief is justified only if it is or can be shown to be probable with respect to some body of evidence or propositions – perhaps those that are self-evident or about one's own mental life, as Locke thought. But is this assumption true? The idea is that theistic belief is very much like a scientific hypothesis: it is acceptable if and only if there is an appropriate balance of propositional evidence in favour of it. But why believe a thing like that? Perhaps the theory of relativity or the theory of evolution is like that: such a theory has been devised to explain phenomena and gets all its warrant from its success in doing so. But other beliefs – e.g. memory beliefs, belief in other minds – are not like that; they aren't hypotheses at all, and are not accepted because of their explanatory powers. They are instead the propositions from which one starts in attempting to give evidence for a hypothesis. Now why assume that theistic belief, belief in God, is in this regard more like a scientific hypothesis than like, say, a memory belief? ... No one has succeeded in showing that, say, belief in other minds or the belief that there has been a past, is probable with respect to what is certain for us. ...

... I believe that there has been a past and that there are other people; even if these beliefs are not probable with respect to what is certain for me (and even if I came to know this) I couldn't give them up. Whether or not I accept such beliefs isn't really up to me at all: I can no more refrain from believing these things than I can refrain from conforming to the law of gravity ... Perhaps theistic belief is properly basic, i.e. such that one is perfectly justified in accepting it without accepting it on the evidential basis of other propositions one believes.

Alvin Plantinga, in A Companion to Epistemology, 1992.
Here are a few ideas from the discussions that have taken place in Christian theology, and more generally Western philosophy, on the evidence for and against religious faith, or specific religious beliefs:

evil, the problem of :
See: theodicy.

experience, religious :
These are experiences, (usually:) of earthly things, reported by poets and mystics, which by being unearthly, powerfully majestic and forever desirable break through the person's normal awareness and the natural order of the world, and can be accounted for only as revelations (see: revelation,) God being the object of the experience.

For example: ''And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.'' (Exodus 3:2.)

feeling, religious :
Whereas in our ordinary awareness we find ourselves free in certain respects and dependent in others, our religious awareness consists of an immediate feeling that our very freedom is determined, by what can only be called God. It is the immediacy of this feeling of dependence, contrary to the freedom we may experience in actuality, that shows it to be not of this world, and hence evidence of God's objective existence. (See: revelation.)

intuition, religious :
Some recent Catholic theology replaces the indirect recognition of God, through proofs and arguments, by direct recognition: the certainty characteristic of religious experience assures the validity of the content of these experiences. Thus Scheler asks: ''How strange is this suspicion of the self-justification, the self-evidence of religious awareness, which shows itself in the need to base its first and most obvious assertions on something other than the essential content of what the awareness is of. Should what is most fundamental be based on what is less fundamental?''

Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804) :
Immanuel Kant. 19kB Kant refuted the traditional proofs of the existence of God; (see: proofs for the existence of God.) For instance, to the ontological proof he objects that while the conception of God includes predicates like omnipotence, existence is not a predicate that forms part of the conception but attaches to the whole of the conception: ''One hundred real thalers don't contain the least bit more than one hundred possible ones'' – the conception is the same no matter if they do or do not exist.

Instead, in The Critique of Practical Reason, 1788, Kant deduces the existence of God from the fact that we are capable of objectively moral action, which requires a moral world order, which is clearly not to be found in the natural world and therefore further requires there to be an omnipotent moral being to guarantee it.

miracle :
''... 1. an event that is contrary to the established laws of nature and attributed to a supernatural cause. ... [C12: from Lat. miraculum, from mirari, to wonder at]'' (Collins English Dictionary, 1991.)

Miracles are one of the ways in which God can reveal Himself (– see: revelation.) Explaining an event as a miracle is not a very strong explanation, so the following criterion has been suggested: we should, for the time being, accept that an event is a miracle if any other explanation would be even less likely.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1846-1900) :
Rather than trying to prove that there is no God, which would require a kind of argument he dismisses, Nietzsche argues against religion on the basis of psychological evidence: when we have understood fully why people believe in God, how certain groups benefit from religion, and so on, then the question whether there is a God has disappeared.

''What the occasion is for our cheerfulness. – The most important recent event – that 'God is dead,' that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable – has begun to cast its shadow over Europe'' (The Gay Science, 1882.)

Friedrich Nietzsche. 19kB

predestination, the problem of :
Predestination expresses the doctrine that all events are determined by the action of God's will; or the narrower doctrine associated with the French reformer Calvin (1509-64), that the final salvation of some of mankind is foreordained by God from eternity.

The problem is that if God is omniscient and omnipotent (i.e. all-knowing and all-powerful) and if everything happens of necessity, then man does not have free will and therefore cannot commit sin.

The question of how man could have free will despite God's foreknowledge of our actions was much discussed in the middle ages, by scholastic philosophers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Leibniz (see: theodicy) too held that God's absolute foreknowledge of the course of man's inclinations does not involve predestination and can be reconciled with human freedom.

proofs for the existence of God :
Such proofs can be reduced to three traditional ones. In The Critique of Pure Reason, 1781, Kant tried to refute the traditional proofs based on theoretical reason; (see: Kant, Immanuel.)

revelation :
''... 3. Christianity. a. God's disclosure of his own nature and his purpose for mankind, esp. through the words of human intermediaries. b. something in which such a divine disclosure is contained, such as the Bible. [C14: from Church Latin revelation, from Lat. revelare, to reveal]'' (Collins English Dictionary, 1991.)

theodicy :
''... the branch of theology concerned with defending the attributes of God against objections resulting from physical and moral evil. [C18: coined by Leibniz in French as théodicée, from Gk. theos, God + dike, justice]'' (Collins English Dictionary, 1991.) The problem is how there can be evil in the world if God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent.

The German philosopher/theologian Leibniz (1646-1716,) the last 'universal genius' – he was also a physicist and discovered the infinitesimal calculus (at the same time as Newton) –, put forward three answers to this problem:

The views of Leibniz were caricatured by Voltaire in the character of Dr. Pangloss, in his satirical novel Candide, 1759:
Pangloss taught metaphysico-theologo-cosmologo-nigology. He proved incontestably that there is no effect without a cause, and that in this best of all possible worlds, his lordship's country seat was the most beautiful of mansions and her ladyship the best of all possible ladyships.

''It is proved,'' he used to say, ''that things cannot be other than they are, for since everything is made for a purpose, it follows that everything is made for the best purpose. Observe: our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly indented for breeches, and we wear them. ... And since pigs were made for eating, we eat pork all the year round. It follows that those who maintain that all is right talk nonsense; they ought to say that all is for the best.''

On the voyage Pangloss explained to him how all was designed for the best. James did not share this view.

''Men,'' he said, ''must have somewhat altered the course of nature; for they were not born wolves, yet they have become wolves. God did not give them twenty-four-pounders or bayonets, yet they have made themselves bayonets and guns to destroy each other. ...''

''More examples of the indispensable!'' remarked the ... doctor. ''Private misfortunes contribute to the general good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more we find that all is well.''

And talking to other survivors of the earthquake in Lisbon, in which ''thirty thousand men, women and children were crushed to death under the ruins,''
Pangloss consoled them with the assurance that things could not be otherwise:

''For all this,'' he said, ''is a manifestation of the rightness of things, since if there is a volcano at Lisbon it could not be anywhere else. For it is impossible for things not to be where they are, because everything is for the best.''

Dr. Pangloss comes to a bad end, being taken away by the inquisition, when he is found guilty, despite his protests, of not believing in original sin and denying the Fall of Man (– see: predestination):
''Your Excellency must excuse me,'' said Pangloss; ''Free Will is consistent with Absolute Necessity, for it was ordained that we should be free.''
Exercise 4.1.:
  1. Are there examples of religious practices you can think of which might help to give rise to religious experiences?
  2. Opposing the Marxian view of the pre-eminence of economic causation, the German sociologist and political economist Max Weber (1864-1920) emphasized the role of religious values, ideologies, and charismatic leaders in shaping societies. His famous Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1904-5, related Calvinist ideals to the rise of capitalism in Europe.
    How do you think the Calvinist belief in predestination gave rise to capitalism's high valuation of material success?
  3. Do you think one can believe both that God is omniscient and omnipotent and that man has free will? How?
    The problem of predestination or 'theological determinism' is how we can have free will although God already knows, and may even have decided, how we shall act. Other forms of determinism are 'scientific' and 'social determinism'. Give examples of what might be meant by these terms.
  4. Give examples of revelatory experiences, drawn if possible from different religions.
  5. When we talk about the problem of evil, what is meant by ''evil''? Give examples of what you think should be included.
    How do you think non-Christian religions view evil, in the different senses, and how might they account for it?

5. Appendix: from the Conferences

  1. John Jenkins, "What is in a Name? – The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God"
    Friday, 09 Aug 03

    While many believers accept that their faith cannot be proved to be true – otherwise, would it really be faith? –, there have always been attempts to prove the existence of God in such a way that a non-believer would have to accept that there is a God. (Note that such a proof would still only lead to belief that God exists, not to a belief in God – see above.)

    One such argument, put forward by Anselm of Canterbury in the 13th century, goes like this (– he uses as his definition of God that He is "that greater than which nothing can be conceived," but I will just use "the most perfect being"):

    premise i.: We define God as the most perfect being.

    premise ii.: Amongst the perfections of the most perfect being must be existence, because something that does not exist would be lacking in perfection.

    conclusion: Hence God must exist.

    Now, it is quite clear that there is something strange going on here, because the argument moves from something in our minds, the definition of God, to something in the world: that God actually exists. So there are two standard refutations, attacking the two premises of the argument (– note that the argument is valid, so if we did accept the premises, we would have to accept the conclusion):
    1. The first refutation is that the concept of "the most perfect being" need not identify anything in particular, and so is not a proper definition. Why not?
      1. Consider triangles: it is necessary that a triangle has three sides, that is part of the definition, as well as certain other properties, and that is how I can recognise a triangle. Similarly, (on premise i.,) it is necessary that God is the most perfect being, that is part of the definition. But a thing being the most something or other – like God being the most perfect being – is not (unless there is only a finite number of things to consider) enough for me to recognise that thing.
      2. We can compare "the most perfect being" with "the most perfect island" (this is a standard example): whatever you imagine to be the properties of the most perfect island, you might imagine a more perfect island, with somewhat different properties, so "the most perfect island" is grammatically well-formed, but it is not a proper definition.
    2. The second refutation (Immanuel Kant) is that 'perfections' are properties of an object – God being omnipotent (= all-powerful) is one of the properties that makes him perfect –, but existence is not a property. Why not?
      1. A property of an object is something that helps me to recognise the object, to identify it as such, and enables me to decide if the object exists or does not exist; so existence cannot be one of those properties. For instance, if I know the properties of unicorns (they are like horses, but have a big horn on their nose: this is another standard example,) I can decide whether there are unicorns or not, whether they exist. So their existence, or non-existence, is determined by comparing our observations with the properties in the definition, it is not itself a property.
      2. We can compare "God exists" with "Horses are numerous (= there are many horses)": knowing the properties of horses, I can identify them and count that there are many; but knowing that there are many of them does not help me to identify a particular animal as a horse: being numerous, like existence, is not a property of an object.
    So, even if the concept of the most perfect being did make sense, actually existing would not be a necessary part of that concept.

    What remains of the ontological argument is that for a believer – at least a certain kind of believer: other religious traditions may have quite different conceptions of God – the concept of "that greater than which nothing can be conceived" is something one can meditate on in prayer.

Picture of Kant from: Microsoft Encarta 96.
Picture of Nietzsche from: Microsoft Bookshelf 1993.