Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.
Does God Exist?
Stan, a philosophy student, has decided to take the plunge and ride one of the highest roller coasters in the country. He's afraid of heights but knows the ride will be over in about two minutes and the likelihood of any danger is low.
As the ride begins, he's feeling exhilarated, but when they hit the second loop, something goes wrong. The ride creeks to a stop, and he's stuck hanging upside down with other passengers in a way that isn't supposed to happen. Up until now, Stan hasn't believed in God, but in this terrifying moment, it seems like a good time to start thinking about whether one exists.
In his philosophy class, they've been discussing divine command theory. As he awaits what he can only hope will be a successful rescue off the ride, he hangs upside down and ponders whether God exists. He's also wondering if there is anything that God morally requires of him in case these are his final moments of life.
Approaches to the Concept of God
As a person who neither believes in nor denies the existence of God, Stan has been agnostic for much of his life. Now he's debating if he could actually be a theist, or a person who believes in the existence of a God.
But he also values reason and rationality. It will take a lot to convince Stan that there is a good chance of God's existence. In fact, he's remembering how he's usually thought of belief in God as the same as the belief in unicorns, leprechauns or sea monsters. An atheist, or a person who does not believe in the existence of a God, might argue that there is little to no evidence that God exists, just like there is little or no evidence that sea monsters exist.
Nature of the Universe
What Stan starts to think about in his perilous situation is that belief in God could be viewed as different than believing in a fanciful creature. He considers whether belief in God is about more than just another item or creature. Belief in God could be viewed as a belief about the very nature of the universe and the nature of morality and existence itself.
So, how would a theist view morality? Divine command theory is an approach to ethics that views God as the source of moral laws. You can remember the name by thinking of how 'divine' refers to 'God' and 'command' refers to 'laws': divine commands are God's laws.
If Stan is ready to be convinced that he should believe in God, he'll find that this also means he will now have answers to some tough philosophical questions. If he believes in the moral commands of a divine God, he'll finally be able to state the origins of morality, or in other words, how a sense of morality was created in the first place. For an atheist or agnostic, it can be harder to pinpoint the origins of how morality came to be.
If he decides he is a theist, Stan might also have the comfort of knowing that no matter what happens in life, people will ultimately get what they deserve from a God who enforces moral rules. If somebody purposefully broke the roller coaster, God is powerful enough to punish them, according to some traditions. This is a comforting thought to Stan as he looks at the world upside-down from 400 feet in the air. If Stan has been a moral person in life, he might even believe that this will entitle him to live forever in paradise, another comforting thought, given that his life could be about to end.
He might also feel a sense of relief that he now has an explanation for his feelings of obligation and guilt. He's wondered why he has felt drawn toward actions and behavior that weren't even taught by his parents. He sometimes has found himself acting in ways that require self-sacrifice simply because he knew deep down it was the right thing to do.
So, Stan can see some benefits to a belief in God and an approach to ethics based on this belief, but he still needs additional convincing even at 400 feet. He remembers from his philosophy class that the approach taken by divine command theorists is not about proving without a doubt that God exists. Using reason alone, Stan recognizes that a person cannot demonstrate to others without a doubt that there is a God.
What he can do, though, is consider some reasonable premises that make an argument for the existence of God. The end result of the argument is not that God exists for certain, but that God probably exists; that it is likely that God exists. A bit of an easier claim to make, though still quite hard to convince others.
Stan also remembers that most divine command theorists don't necessarily argue that a person must believe in God to behave morally, from a philosophical standpoint. Stan may still end up following moral laws without knowing that is what he's doing. If there is a God and God determines the moral laws, Stan might still end up doing the right things in the eyes of God, even as an atheist or agnostic.
As the roller coaster suddenly begins to move again and the ride comes to a much-appreciated end, Stan hasn't exactly arrived at a conclusion about God and the ethics of aiming to obey divine commands. This will take some more consideration when he's not busy getting his legs to work again and woozily walking away from the coaster.
Divine command theory is an approach to ethics that views God as the source of moral laws. Philosophers who promote divine command theory don't necessarily aim to prove that God exists without a doubt. They typically aim to identify some reasonable premises that make an argument for the existence of God.
Before he got on the coaster, Stan considered himself agnostic, a person who neither believes in nor denies the existence of God. As he felt his life at stake, he considered becoming a theist, a person who believes in the existence of a God. But he also knows that even if he is an atheist, a person who does not believe in the existence of a God, he may still ultimately act in moral ways since he may follow moral commands without knowing it.
Try to do the following after watching this video lesson on divine command theory:
- Differentiate between theists, agnostics and atheists
- Provide an explanation of divine command theory
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