"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
June 3, 2004