As part of my exploration of new approaches to apologetics, I’ve been reading through Clifford Williams’ book Existential Reasons for Belief in God.
So far, the hardest thing about understanding Williams’ thesis has been getting my head around the difference between an evidential argument for faith that uses needs as evidence of God and the existential argument for faith which asserts that faith in God is justified because it satisfies certain human needs.
One of the most well-known versions of the needs-based evidential argument is from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction of those desires exists,” writes Lewis. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.”
A more recent version of this same argument comes from N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian. In his book, Wright asserts that the universal human needs for justice, spirituality, relationships, and beauty are, in fact, universal because God put them in every human heart. Humanity yearns for those things precisely because they are echoes of the imago dei that still reside, however faintly, in humanity.
I have always found these arguments to be pretty persuasive, mostly because they combine the use of reason with an honest description of how humans actually function. Just look around. Look at thousands of years of art, literature, and philosophy. These gut-level longings are a universal part of the human condition.
And I think that it is because of my familiarity with these evidential arguments that I had a hard time understanding the difference between what Lewis and Wright are saying and what Williams is suggesting.
In its standard syllogistic form, Williams’ argument goes something like this:
- We need answers to the big questions of life. We need cosmic security. We need to know that we will live beyond the grave in a state that is free from the defects of this life, a state that is full of goodness and justice. We need a more expansive life, one in which we love and are loved. We need meaning, and we need to know that we are forgiven for going astray. We also need to experience awe, to delight in goodness and to be present with those we love.
- Faith in God satisfies those needs
- Therefore, we are justified in having faith
The first time I read this, my bias toward evidentialist arguments (which, let me make clear, is not the same thing as a bias toward evidentialism) still made it hard for me to see the force of the argument. It was only when Williams offered specific examples of the existential argument that I began to understand the value of his approach.
The example Williams gives in the book is the mother who has to believe that her son is alive in order to preserve her sanity. Or the lawyer who has to believe that his client is innocent so he can do a good job in representing him. Or, most poignantly, the person who’s life is so hard that she has to believe that the next world will be better than this one.
The existential argument for belief states that a person is justified in believing something—and is, in fact, being entirely reasonable in one’s belief—when that belief fulfills his need for meaning and helps him function in the world.
Since the existential argument is obviously more about pragmatism than truth, I was still wrestling with how much apologetic value the existential argument could actually have when the perfect illustration of it showed up, unsurprisingly, in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In an episode from season 3 called “The Wish,” a demon gives Cordelia the opportunity to get revenge by creating an alternative reality in which Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. But instead of returning to some pre-Buffy Summers high school utopia, Cordelia finds herself in a world that has been completely overrun by vampires. This alternate reality is bleak, hopeless, and unflinchingly violent. And Cordelia dies within hours.
When Giles (who is a good guy regardless of which universe he finds himself in) discovers that this reality is not the way things were supposed to be, he explains to Buffy that if she destroys the talisman of the demon who granted the wish, reality will revert to its original structure. A cynical, battle-scared Buffy replies “The world is what it is. We fight; we die.”
“But,” Giles responds “I have to believe in a better world.”
Later, when Giles finally confronts the demon and has the opportunity to destroy her talisman, the demon tries to shake his resolve by asking “how do you know the other world is any better than this?”
“Because it has to be,” he answers as he crushes the talisman and puts reality back to rights.
So here is a perfect example of the existential argument for faith. Giles needs faith to function. He needs faith to carry on when everything seems hopeless. His belief that there must be something better than the life he is currently living gives him the resolve to do what he has to do.
The existential argument for belief, then, asserts that Giles was justified in having faith for no other reason than that it gave him the courage he needed to act—and in acting, change the world.
At this point, the big shiny purple elephant in the room is that while the existential argument for faith may be psychologically valid, it is still only pragmatic. People may be justified in having faith because it helps them function, but the existential argument still gives them no reason to believe that the object of their faith actually exists. At this point, it seems that all Williams has done is score a point for old-fashioned American pragmatism that says, “if it works, then it’s true.”
But Williams himself is the first to admit this. He acknowledges that the fact that faith satisfies a human need (no matter how universal) is insufficient grounds to demonstrate the truth of God’s existence. His goal (with which I agree, by the way) is not to use the existential argument to prove the existence of God, but to bring balance back to apologetics:
Satisfaction of need by itself does not warrant belief in God, yet somehow satisfaction of need seems legitimately to draw us to belief in God. How, then, can we use satisfaction of need to believe in God if satisfaction of need is not in general an acceptable foundation of true beliefs? The answer, I believe, is to accept both the drawing power of need…and its evidential force. (p. 102)
People are not simply creatures of reason, says Williams. They are also creatures of emotion, imagination and needs. And faith is most firmly grounded when it is acquired through both reason and emotion. What Williams wants to do is supplement evidential apologetics with existential apologetics. “The two basic ideas of the book,” he writes” are the drawing power of need and the certifying ability of reason. Need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile.”
It is this idea—that apologetics is most effective when it engages the whole person, not just that portion of the brain that deals with syllogisms and fallacies, that is at the heart of the new trends in apologetics. Reason is essential to faith, but, as Williams accurately observes, people come to Christ for all sorts of reasons, many of which involve emotions, intuition, and imagination.
And if our desire is to see people come to know Christ, it seems silly to ignore them. While I would never use the existential argument as a reason why someone should believe in Christ, it’s human nature to hang on to whatever gets us through the night.
And as apologists, we need to understand all aspects of what make people tick, not just the tidy, intellectual parts.