I don’t have faith that God exists.
To some, that may seem like a surprising, even shocking, statement. How can I be a Christian without believing in God? The key here is to recognize that having faith that God exists and believing that he exists are two different things. Believing that he exists simply means that I think God really does exist, but having faith that he exists is something different, something that we Catholics shouldn’t do.
What Faith Is
To see what I mean, let’s take a look at what exactly the Church says the Christian virtue of faith is:
But the Catholic Church professes that this faith, which is the beginning of human salvation, is a supernatural virtue by which we, with the aid and inspiration of the grace of God, believe that the things revealed by Him are true, not because the intrinsic truth of the revealed things has been perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. (Dei Filius chp. 3, ¶2)
In other words, faith is essentially trust. To have faith in God means to trust that his revelation to us is true, and that is not all that different from the faith we place in human beings every day of our lives without thinking about it. For example, when we read or watch the news, we trust that the reporters are telling us the truth; when we meet new people and they tell us about themselves, we trust that they’re telling us the truth; and when we go to the doctor, we trust that he is telling us what’s really wrong and what will really make us better. Granted, there are also many differences between the faith we place in God and the faith we place in others, but at its core, faith is still just trusting that what someone says is true.
And once we understand that, we can see why the Christian virtue of faith can’t apply to the existence of God. If faith is trust in God, we can’t have faith that he exists. We have to know that he exists before we trust him, so his existence cannot be an object of our faith.
What We Don’t Have Faith In God’s Existence
Instead, the Church teaches that we can know the existence of God through unaided reason. Look at this quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Church teaches that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty from his works, by the natural light of human reason. (CCC 47)
In other words, we can know that God exists through various philosophical arguments, which thinkers (both Christian and non-Christian) have been discovering and perfecting for millennia (we’ll look at one of them later on). And in case you think this is just some weird philosophical quirk that the Catholic Church picked up somewhere along the way, take a look at what St. Paul says on the subject:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. (Romans 1:19-21)
In this passage, Paul is talking about pagans who reject the one true God, and he’s saying that they should know better. Because the existence of God is knowable by human reason without the help of divine revelation, they have no excuse for rejecting him. In other words, he is saying exactly what the Church says: we don’t need faith to know that God exists.
An Argument for God’s Existence
So what kinds of arguments can we give to show that God exists? There are a bunch, but I’d like to focus on just one, the argument that I personally find most persuasive. This is a form of what is usually called the contingency argument. It is based on a distinction philosophers make between things that are necessary and things that are contingent. To understand what that means, imagine that you are looking at a circle with a diameter of 2 inches. From that description, you can figure out the circle’s radius, area, and circumference by using a few simple formulas that all high school geometry students learn.
And why is that? Why can you so easily figure out those other properties of the circle simply by knowing its diameter? Because circles have certain necessary properties. Simply by virtue of being a circle, there is a necessary relationship between its area, radius, and circumference. For example, its radius has to be half its diameter, and we can contrast this with contingent properties, such as the actual length of its diameter. While the relationships of a circle’s diameter to its radius and area are set in stone and absolutely necessary, the length of its diameter isn’t. If I want to draw a circle, I can make its diameter anything I want, so it is contingent rather than necessary.
So far, we’ve been looking at necessary and contingent properties, but we can also apply this distinction to individual beings. When we look at the world around us, everything we see is contingent. Nothing that we see or experience had to exist. For example, I didn’t have to exist, you didn’t have to exist, the computer I am writing this on didn’t have to exist, and the building I am writing this in didn’t have to exist. It is all contingent. Moreover, if we think about it a bit more, we also see that all of these contingent things depend on something else for their existence. For example, people are made by their parents, and computers and buildings are made by people.
And if we keep going, we can see that there is a chain of causation that stretches way, way back into the past. For instance, I was made by my parents, who were made by their parents, who were made by their parents, and on and on it goes. Now, what’s really interesting about all this is that as far back as we can see, every link in that chain of causation is a contingent thing. As far as we can tell, nothing in our world has ever been necessary; there has never been a single thing in it that absolutely had to exist.
Now, this raises a question for us: does that chain of contingent causes and effects stretch back to infinity? I would suggest that it cannot, and to see why, let’s do a little thought experiment. It may seem silly at first, but bear with me. It will all make sense in the end. Imagine that you try to hang a paperclip in midair. Would that work? Of course not. To fix the problem, you add another paperclip to the chain, thinking that the second paperclip will hold up the first one. But would that really work? Again, no. Imagine now that you try adding a third paperclip, then a fourth one, then a fifth.
None of those solutions work, so you try adding an infinite number of paperclips. You reason that each paperclip would be held up by the one before it, so the problem would be solved. But would that really work? Again, no. No matter how long your chain of paperclips is, if it is just hanging in midair, it is not going to stay there. Even if it is infinitely long, that’s not going to solve the problem; instead, it is just going to keep falling forever and ever. The only way to get a chain of paperclips to stay up is to hang it on something else that can stay up by itself.
And why is that? If you hang up a chain of paperclips, it is true that each one in the chain stays hung up because of the one before it, but each paperclip is only a conditional explanation; it is what we can consider an “if” explanation. It holds up the one below it only if some other condition is fulfilled (in this case, if it is also being held up by something else). However, no matter how many conditional explanations we add together, even if we have an infinite number of them, we can never get an unconditional explanation. We can add together all the “ifs” we want, but that will never get us a rock solid statement of actual fact. Put another way, we can talk all day long about what would be the case if other things were true, but from all that we will never be able to deduce what is in fact true.
And that’s the exact same problem we have with an infinite chain of contingent causes and effects. Like an infinite number of paperclips suspended in midair, it’s simply a bunch of conditional explanations that can never add up to an unconditional one; it’s a bunch of “if” statements that can never add up to a statement of what really is. As a result, an infinite chain of contingent causes and effects cannot adequately explain anything that we see in the world around us.
The Necessary Being
The only real alternative is to say that the contingent chain of causes and effects stops at a necessary being. There has to be something out there that exists necessarily and that also lies at the beginning of every chain of causation, and when we think about what this being must be like, we can see that it is in fact God. Granted, philosophy alone can’t prove everything we believe about him (for example, it can’t prove that he is a trinity of persons), but it can demonstrate enough to tell us that there is some being out there that we can call God. For example, this being has to have an intellect and a will. If it is the ultimate cause of every contingent being, then contingent beings cannot have any perfections that the necessary being does not. Simply put, the necessary being cannot give what it does not have. Now, since some contingent beings are persons with intellects and wills (like us), the necessary being must have them as well. As a result of this and some other properties we can show that it must have, this being really is the thing we call God.
This is a basic version of the contingency argument, and there’s a lot more that can be said about it. There are a bunch of other questions that it raises that I simply do not have space to answer in one article, but I hope that this at least gives you a good introduction to the argument and to the whole idea of proving God’s existence through philosophy.
Why It Matters
So why does this all matter? Why can’t we just accept God’s existence on faith and continue living our normal, Catholic lives? If we do that, we run into an unanswerable question: why do we have that faith? I cannot think of an answer other than saying that we just do, and if that is the case, then our faith is irrational. It would be like my telling you that I believe in unicorns because I just have faith that they exist. Does that seem reasonable? Of course not! That’s just another way of saying that I believe in them for no reason, and that is irrational. At best, it is just wishful thinking.
So if we just have faith that God exists, we’re essentially saying that we believe in God for no real reason, and our faith fares no better than a groundless faith in unicorns. Instead, for our faith to be true, it has to have some rational basis at its core, and that rational basis starts with our ability to know God’s existence through reason alone, through philosophical arguments such as the contingency argument.