"What are clearly of interest to people in an age of religious skepticism are arguments to the existence (or nonexistence) of God in which the premises are known to be true."
The rise of the so-called New Atheists has made the intellectual argumentation about God and religion once again a subject that captures the interest of at least some significant subsections of the population in the Western countries. From professional research papers to message boards to blogs for Christian women, the discussions have emerged in an array of arenas.
But many professional philosophers, theists and atheists alike, have expressed some frustration concerning the attitude as well as the arguments of these authors (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc.). The revised edition of Richard Swinburne's classic work, The Existence of God, arrived on the scene a few years before the whole New Atheist movement even got started. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly), the New Atheists have failed to seriously engage the arguments presented in this book.
While being a former Oxford University professor (like Dawkins), Richard Swinburne exemplifies some qualities that are the polar opposites of the New Atheist polemicists. His tone is neutral and academic, his arguments are rigorous to the point of making the book a difficult read for those who lack previous training in philosophy, and his conclusions are still somewhat modest. Striving to present an objective, detached perspective on the existence of God, Swinburne states, "What are clearly of interest to people in an age of religious skepticism are arguments to the existence (or nonexistence) of God in which the premises are known to be true by people of all theistic or atheistic persuasions" (p. 6).
Being a philosopher of science and an authority on inductive logic, Swinburne carefully sets out his methodology for assessing competing hypotheses. His approach is basically Bayesian, but (to the relief of many) he has strived to keep mathematical equations to the minimum. His basic approach is to argue that the appropriate criteria for evaluating the probability of a hypothesis consists of a priori considerations of its simplicity, its scope, and its fit with background knowledge, and of the a posterior question of the explanatory value of the hypothesis as postulated to explain the relevant sets of evidence. After carefully formulating a precise concept of God, he proceeds to argue that various features of the world and human experience (the existence of the universe, its law-like regularity, its fine-tuning, the existence of a human soul that arguably cannot be reduced to matter, etc.) tend to inductively confirm the God-hypothesis. He argues that even if no single argument for the existence of God might not raise the probability of the existence of God to the level of being more probable than not, it is the cumulative force of many arguments taken together that does so raise the probability.
Swinburne also formulates principles that can be used to evaluate the evidential value of religious experience. He argues that it is a basic epistemological principle that in the absence of good reasons to the contrary, we should assume that things are as they appear to us. Applied to the issue of religious experience, this implies (together with the background knowledge of the other arguments, which have already raised the probability of God's existence) that a person who has a religious experience may well be in such an epistemic position that (s)he should be taken his/her experience as veridical.
Swinburne spends a significant amount of time dealing with the single most powerful argument for atheism, namely, the problem of evil. While his treatment of this subject may strike the more emotionally-oriented person as too cold and detached, it is the type of approach that a philosopher needs to take when trying to assess an argument in a rational manner.
Few philosophers of religion would question that Swinburne's work has had a profound influence in the scene of the Anglo-American Analytic tradition in the field of the Philosophy of Religion. While opinions may drastically differ with regard to some of his specific arguments, his rigorous methodology is very admirable and no serious philosopher who is interested in the God-question should neglect to read this book.
The Existence of God Oxford University Press 2nd edition June 3, 2004, 376 pages
I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:
“Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong.We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land. “Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. “Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing on us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him. “Now, Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts,turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill.Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us. “Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, our God, and hear;open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”