Modified Common Consent Argument

One of my favorite, fun little arguments for the existence of God is formulated by Roman Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft and is called, “The Common Consent Argument.” You may read the argument here – http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm#19. Kreeft states the argument as follows:

  1. Belief in God—that Being to whom reverence and worship are properly due—is common to almost all people of every era.
  2. Either the vast majority of people have been wrong about this most profound element of their lives or they have not.
  3. It is most plausible to believe that they have not.
  4. Therefore it is most plausible to believe that God exists.

From a Christian perspective there are a number of problems with the first premise of the argument. While Christianity probably has more adherents than any other world religion, it is doubtful that Kreeft has in mind the Christian God in premise 1, but something more akin to general or classical theism. (Then again, Kreeft is an inclusivist, so I doubt that he even needs to make such a distinction.) According to passages like (most notably) Romans 1.18ff, belief in God is universal. If the Christian God is the referent of “God” in the first premise then that premise is false since it claims that, “Belief in God…is common to almost all people of every era.” Belief in God is not just common to almost all people of every era; it is common to all people of every era. One would struggle to find an atheist who would agree with such a strong statement. So the trick here is to weaken the first premise while remaining faithful to Scripture. Consider the following three examples:

a. A professed belief in God – that Being to whom reverence and worship are properly due – is common to almost all people of every era.

b. Belief in some form of deity – a being to whom reverence and worship are properly due – is common to almost all people of every era.

c. Belief in the supernatural is common to almost all people of every era.

The referent of “God” in (a) is the Christian God, but there are a handful of problems with the premise as stated. First, there are difficulties with apparent anachronisms. Did the Hebrew people really believe in the same God that Christians believe in? Christians would say “yes,” but few atheists would. Hence there is a potential counter-example to the claim as it is made with respect to era. Second, the number of people groups who have not professed belief in the Christian God results in a number of people who do not profess belief in God much greater than is implied by the wording of the premise in question. Third, narrowing the premise to refer to only the Christian God is counterproductive to the task of strengthening the argument against the background of theological convictions. The premise may be stated in a much stronger fashion without sacrificing biblical fidelity as will be momentarily demonstrated.

The “supernatural” in (c) is a much broader concept than that of the Christian God expressed in (a), but perhaps the concept of the merely “supernatural” is too broad. Different people can mean many different things by “supernatural,” and the point here is to focus upon theistic belief, not miracles or extrasensory perception or aliens.

The best option available for restating the first premise of the argument is (b) which states that, “Belief in some form of deity – a being to whom reverence and worship are properly due – is common to almost all people of every era.” Now, the Christian can affirm that while everyone believes in the Christian God, people also deceive themselves into believing in other gods. It is this belief in other gods with which even atheists would agree, while affirming as well that some people, though not all, also believe in the Christian God. The Christian is taking it for granted that the premise in question is referring to professed beliefs. It is difficult to ascertain how else one would discern what beliefs any given individual maintains. Likewise for the atheist. The argument may thus be restated as follows:

1. Belief in some form of deity – a being to whom reverence and worship are properly due – is common to almost all people of every era.

2. Either the vast majority of people have been wrong about this most profound element of their lives or they have not.

3. It is most plausible to believe that they have not.

4. Therefore it is most plausible to believe that some form of deity exists.

Now in reference to the type of experiences which give rise to the belief cited in the first premise of the argument Kreeft wants to point out that, “if God does not exist, then these things have never once—never once—had a real object” and he asks, “Is it really plausible to believe that?”

[I]t is thinkable that those millions upon millions who claim to have found the Holy One who is worthy of reverence and worship were deluded. But is it likely?

It seems far more likely that those who refuse to believe are the ones suffering from deprivation and delusion—like the tone-deaf person who denies the existence of music, or the frightened tenant who tells herself she doesn’t hear cries of terror and distress coming from the street below and, when her children awaken to the sounds and ask her, “Why is that lady screaming, Mommy?” tells them, “Nobody’s screaming: it’s just the wind, that’s all. Go back to sleep.”

It will not help the atheist to say that this argument weighs on the Christian theist by virtue of the widespread belief and/or experiences of non-Christian theists, for the Christian theist has explanations of this behavior readily available to him or her. Self-deception was cited earlier, but the Christian worldview also posits evil spirits bent on deceiving humans into worshiping anything other than the One True God of Christian Scripture. Believers in God also frequently misunderstand and/or misrepresent His nature because of their sin. The point here is that supernatural experiences are readily explained within the context of the Christian worldview, but it is difficult to see how they may be explained at all within an atheistic worldview.

What about the conclusion of the argument? Does it really do justice to God when one claims only that, “it is most plausible to believe that some form of deity exists”? No, but the argument is offered as an argument from within the presuppositional framework of Scripture, and within that framework it really is most plausible to believe that some form of deity exists, namely, the God of Christian Scripture. Not only is it plausible to believe that God exists, but it is actually and necessarily the case that He does. In this argument one merely shows independently of Scripture that it is most plausible to believe that God exists. The argument serves as further confirmation of the truth of the Christian faith.

The atheist, on the other hand, is in serious trouble. He or she must concede that the vast majority of all people in the world in the past, present, and probably the future have and will continue to believe in the existence of various theistic entities. And what is the atheist to do with that?

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John Loftus Calls It Quits

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