American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition


Back to Classical Unitarian Writings page

Why Do We Believe in God? Or Evidences of Theism

James Freeman Clarke

A Chapter from Steps of Belief (1870). Excerpted from the University of Michigan Making of America online collection, available free of charge at:

The present chapter has two subjects: first, Why do we believe in God? second, What are the proofs of His existence?

These two questions are very different ones, and may require very different answers. It is one thing to believe a fact, another thing to prove it. A proof is only one kind of evidence: it is evidence addressed to the logical understanding. But we believe a great many facts, which we have never had proved to us, and which we cannot prove to others. I believe my own existence. I not only believe it, but I know it. This is the most certain knowledge we have; for if we doubt our own existence, the very doubt is evidence that we exist. We could not doubt, unless we existed to doubt. We are so certain of our existence, that we cannot disbelieve it, if we try to do so. And yet, though we know our own existence as an absolute certainty, we cannot prove it logically, in any way, to a disbeliever.

Suppose I should say: "Prove that you exist. I deny your existence; now prove it." You reply perhaps: "You see me, you hear me speak, I touch you with my hand; that is proof." " No," I answer: "I seem to see you, I fancy that I hear you speak, I appear to touch you with my hand. But in dreams I see and hear people; and they talk to me, and tell me what I did not know before. They seem as real as you do. How do I know that I am not dreaming about you? Prove to me that you are a substance outside of my mind, and not such substances as dreams are made of." You cannot do it. No man can do it. No one can prove his own existence to another, nor to himself. He is conscious of his own existence, and so he knows it; that is all, but that is enough.

In the same way, it is impossible to prove to a doubter the existence of an outside world. If I doubt the existence of an outside world, you cannot prove it to me by any argument or chain of logic. You say to me: "Do not you see it? do not you touch it? does it not seem outside of yourself?" "Certainly," I reply, "it seems outside of myself; and so do the images in my dreams seem outside of myself. I am only aware of my own sensations: how do I know that there is any thing real corresponding to them outside of me?"

You cannot get beyond this. If a man is not satisfied with the evidence of consciousness, and wishes a logical proof addressed to his understanding of the existence of an outside world, he cannot have it. We can neither prove our own existence nor that of the world, to one who questions the evidence of consciousness. The two facts of which all mankind are certain are incapable of proof.

And, if we could prove the existence of the outside world by means of logical arguments, we should not make it more certain, but less so. We should bring it down from the sphere of knowledge to that of probability. An argument can only produce probability. It can produce a very strong degree of belief, a belief so strong as to be almost as good as certainty for all practical purposes; but it is not so certain as experience.

We believe, on the ground of argument, that there is such a place as London, or that there was such a man as Julius Caesar and our belief is almost equal to certainty, but not quite. If we had talked with Julius Caesar, if we had lived in London, we should have been more certain. Intuition and experience give a higher certainty than argument can produce.

If a man has no ear for music, and does not know the difference between two tunes, you may convince him by argument that there is such a thing as music. You can say: "If music does not exist, is it likely that men and women should spend so much time and money in concerts, oratorios, and in taking musical lessons; that they should make and buy pianos, flutes, violins, trumpets, harps, and organs; that in all lands and all times there should have been musical instruments, tunes, and songs? Is it probable that mankind should have entered into this great conspiracy among themselves to impose on each other? Is it not more probable that music is a reality? " And the man, very likely, would be entirely convinced by this argument. But his belief in music, based on such an argument, must evidently be very much less strong, than if he himself had a sense of melody, harmony, tune, and time, and thereby knew the reality of music.

Just so, you can convince a man born blind, by dint of argument, that there is a visible world of color and grace, of light and shade. Since all men, except a very few, agree in this, you may argue that it is more likely that the few should be deficient in the sense of sight, than that the many should be mistaken in thinking that they see. Since, in all lands and all times men have agreed in speaking of a visible universe, it may be highly probable even to a blind man that there is such a universe. But if he could see it, this probability would at once rise into knowledge.

In the same way, we can adduce evidence which ought to convince the atheist, of the very high probability of God's existence. Perhaps, as some men are color-blind and others are music-deaf, there may be some persons blind and deaf toward God, whose spiritual senses are dull and as yet undeveloped. We may give such persons very good reasons for believing, on grounds of argument, that God exists. Such reasons I will now proceed to give. But I wish it to be understood that I am only attempting to make the existence of God probable by means of proofs: by and by, I shall show how it is that we can know God, by a certainty above all argument, higher than all logic, and more satisfactory than any process of reasoning ever can be.

First, we may say to our atheist, just as we would say to our deaf man, or our blind man, "Is it probable that men, in all lands and times, should enter into a conspiracy to make believe that there is a God? Differing from each other in all possible ways as to what sort of a being God is; fighting together and murdering each other, about these differences, the vast majority of mankind, in all ages, have yet believed in Beings, or a Being, above this world, and higher than man -- the Maker, Ruler, Law-giver of this universe. Is this universal faith likely to be an invention or a deception? Is it a tree without a root? Is it an effect without a cause? Is it not far more likely that man is naturally a religious being, that he has an organ by which he can perceive the infinite, the eternal the supernatural, as a reality? Unless there is a supernatural world, unless there is a God -- a God whom men perceive, faintly or clearly -- how can you account for this universal faith of the human race in the supernatural world and in God?"

The atheistic answer to this argument sometimes is, that religion is the work of priests, who have invented it, and who keep it up as a cheat, in order to get a support out of men, by playing on their credulity and their fear. You may weigh the force of this answer by observing how it would sound in another case. Suppose the man who had no ear for music should say, "Oh yes! I know that men have always had what they called music; but this has been an invention of the musicians. They have imposed on men by making them believe there was such a thing as music, merely to get a support out of them by selling their organs and pianos. Music results from a conspiracy of the musical-instrument makers and musicians."

A proof of the existence of God -- usually called the ontological proof -- is to be found in the very idea of God existing in the human mind. How did man get the idea of an infinite and perfect Being? He does not find any thing in himself infinite and perfect: he is finite and imperfect. He does not find any thing outside of himself infinite or perfect. The world of nature is, as far as his organs of observation reach, finite and imperfect. Did he invent this notion of an infinite and perfect Being? But then he must have invented it out of nothing; for there is nothing similar to it in the universe. All that we perceive outside of ourselves, all that we feel within ourselves, is finite. Yet we all have a clear conception of an infinite, supreme, and perfect Being. Is it not probable that this idea comes to us by means of a spiritual organ, the object of which is the infinite and perfect Being?

If we did not find this idea in ourselves, if we did not find it in the outward world, if we could not have created it out of nothing, how did we get it, except by receiving it through our spiritual nature, or our higher reason -- that is, by seeing the infinite and perfect Being, through the eye of the soul? An argument something like this has seemed satisfactory to some of the greatest minds the world has produced. It has been declared a complete proof of the existence of God, by Anselm, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz. "For," say they, "we have the idea of a perfect Being in our minds. But existence is a part of this idea, and a necessary part; for an imaginary being is less perfect than a real being. Therefore, we are so made as necessarily to believe in the existence of a perfect Being. Whenever we think of God, we are obliged to think of him as existing. And we can have no higher proof of any reality, than that we necessarily believe in its existence, so soon as the idea of it arises ill our mind."

We believe in the soul for the same reason that we believe in body or matter. All that we perceive of matter are its phenomena, which are known to us through the senses; and we find all these sensible phenomena going together, or correlated: hence we infer one substance in which they inhere and call it matter. Just so we said, all that we perceive of mind are its phenomena, which are known to us through consciousness. We are conscious of thought, feeling, hope, fear, will, effect; and we find them all also correlated -- all belong together; hence we infer a substance in which they inhere, and call it soul. But, now, all these phenomena are finite, changing, limited, imperfect. Yet there are also certain infinite phenomena. We perceive certain phenomena as infinite. We cannot limit space or time; we cannot limit power or cause; we cannot limit truth or goodness. Above all finite powers and causes, above all finite laws, above all finite goodness, we perceive infinite power, infinite wisdom, infinite goodness. And as all these are correlated and go together, we infer substance in which they all inhere, and call it God. Just as we infer matter, as the necessary basis of sensible phenomena, we infer God as the necessary basis of spiritual phenomena; and this by a spontaneous act of the reason in all these three cases. We infer matter from material phenomena; we infer mind from mental phenomena; and we infer God from spiritual phenomena.

Then, after the ontological argument for the existence of God, comes what is called the cosmological
argument. Where did the world come from? It did not make itself; and we did not make it. The modern answer of some philosophers seems to be stolen from Topsy. Topsy says, " I wasn't made, missis'spects I growed." So these philosophers say, " The world grew: it was developed." But let us not be cheated by words. An advancing world needs an author, quite as much as a world which stands still. A world which has the power of unfolding itself out of chaos into perfect order and beauty, demands a cause, even more than an unchanging world.

Every thing we perceive in the outward universe is dependent. The mineral kingdom is held fast by gravitation to its place, and is moved to and fro by force outside of itself. The vegetable kingdom depends on earth, air, water, for its life. The animal kingdom depends on the vegetable kingdom and the mineral. And the earth itself, with all on it, depends on the sun for motion, light, heat, growth, life. These all depend on each other: none can stand alone or go alone. But on what do all depend? Whence comes the order, the arrangement, the growth, the permanence of them all, fusing them into a whole, a Kosmos of order and beauty? Every thing that we see, hear, and know in the outward universe is dependent: on what do all depend? What hand holds them all up? What mind plans, every day, the events which are to happen in the universe? This great world is only as a little infant which cannot take. a single step alone. What parent watches its tottering footsteps, and makes provision for its ignorant future?

Development is a word very easy to say. But the history of this earth shows crisis as well as development. I go out with my geological teacher for a ramble. He shows me, under my feet, the traces of awful convulsions, of times when the solid rocks rolled in liquid fire; when the atmosphere, a hundred miles high, was filled with gases no animal lungs could breathe. He shows me other long periods in which an immeasurable ocean rolled above our continents, depositing them in successive strata, through uncalculated myriads of years. Again, he shows me other epochs during which fearful animals crawled amid the slime of a half-dried earth, and devoured its gigantic vegetation. Again, the scene shifts, and all this northern hemisphere is a mass of ice, upon which one long snow-storm beats and drifts and falls, day and night, during a hundred years. The storm at last ceases; the snow melts; the icebergs and glaciers fall away: new heavens and a new earth arrive, fit for the home of man.

What mighty hand, what far-seeing mind, guided our earth, a drifting ship, without compass, terrific forces, capable of blowing the earth to pieces, are now guided and restrained by the same great hand of power. Under our feet, a few miles down, there probably rolls an ocean of fire: above it, separated by a thin crust, rests the weight of five oceans. Let a crack occur, and an ocean pour down into this central furnace, and what could save us? Let the central fire lift the oceans a few thousand feet, and another universal deluge would come. Who sets a limit to the extremes of cold in winter, and heat in summer; so that the thermometer shall only oscillate between safe limits? We have a tornado occasionally, which blows down a few houses and trees. Let its force be but increased a little, and it would sweep away man and human civilization from the face of nature. Who says to the storm, to the sea, to the heat of summer, to the cold of winter, to plague, to famine, to fire, to pestilence, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further, and here shall thy power be stayed "?

I go out into the woods in the fair October days. Over a million flickering leaves, the innocent fires of autumn pour their flaming glories. Every imperial tint appears -- of scarlet and crimson, orange and yellow. The climbing vines hang from the branches their unbought draperies, more gorgeous than those of kings' palaces. The oak-leaves run up through their long gamut of browns. Little mosses cluster round the roots of the trees; a soft bed of tender green and gray lichens variegates their trunks. The clouds slide softly past the openings above; the brook circles and sweeps through light and darkness below. Who has bathed the world with this ineffable, indescribable beauty? If you come home after a few weeks' absence, and find your room arranged for you -- another picture on the walls, a new and pretty carpet under your feet,- you bless in your heart the thoughtful love which provided them. When we go out amid the infinite beauty of the advancing or declining year, and listen to the melodies of woods and winds and waters -- all new every hour, every moment -- shall we think they come by accident, or by some blind, cold law?

I had rather be "A pagan suckled in a creed outworn," amid "the intelligible forms of ancient poets," and "the fair humanities of old religion; " for the Greeks saw something divine in nature,- caught glimpses of naiads by the mountain streams, and of dryads hiding in the summer woods. Their ignorance was wiser than our cold reason, which disenchants nature of love and life. But wiser still the conception which finds God, the universal Father, above all, through all, and in all. Then earth becomes again alive; its soul is no more wanting. Again the little hills clap their hands; again the forests, lashing their branches in the storm, and the sea, rolling its long waves up the gleaming beach, call aloud upon God:

"God! let the torrents, like a voice of nations, Answer; and let the ice-plains echo, God! God! sing, ye meadow streams, with gladsome voice; Ye pine groves, with your soft and soul-like sound; Ye signs and wonders of the elements Utter forth God, and fill the world with praise."

It is a law of nature, that, when we see adaptation, we infer design. When the geologist picks up a stone so smoothed and sharpened as to be adapted to do the work of a hatchet, he infers that it was probably designed for that object. But when he finds another and another, tens and hundreds, and with them other stones adapted for other human uses, his suspicion passes into certainty. But the world in which we live is crowded in every part with adaptations. Air, earth, sea, are adapted to furnish homes and food for various vegetables and animals. The lenses of the eye, and the optic nerve behind them, are adapted to the waves of light which roll from the sun, ninety millions of miles away. The eye is telescope and microscope, altering its own focus to suit the distance of the object. How admirably is the hand adapted to the work it has to do! It is a portable toolchest, capable of the finest and the strongest work. The optical-instrument maker can find no better instrument than his thumb with which to grind the object-glass of a telescope. The blind man reads his letters with the ends of his fingers. Merely to enumerate the adaptations of the human body would require a work larger than that Chinese novel which, they say, occupied its author sixty years in writing, and was concluded in 162 folio volumes.

The world is throughout woven into a great web of adaptations, dovetailed together, part fitting into part without friction, without jar. Did it come together thus without any foresight or design, the growth of blind law? Then we may say that the roof which covers St. Peter's, with its trusses, its beams, its rafters, its braces, might have grown up by sore law of development; for, for every mortise and every bearing in that roof, there are a million adaptations in the world around us. I hold in my hand, we will suppose, a volume. It is, let us say, Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." It narrates that vast transaction in a long, majestic succession of chapters, each teeming with knowledge and interest. I ask my atheist whence the book came. On his theory he might say: "It came by a chance process, without design. The lead out of which the types were made happened to get run into moulds, and by accident letters came at the end of each type.

These types, whirled round in the vortex of circumstance, at last came together in a printing-office, and got themselves arranged by good luck in a printer's stick. Other materials, flowing together, developed themselves into paper and a printing-press; and by a natural law the letters were so arranged as to print this consecutive history. This," says my atheist, "is the philosophical explanation of the matter. No Faust invented printing; no great historian composed the story: it is unphilosophic to assume design, when development will explain it sufficiently." Is the atheist offended that I put such an absurd theory in his mouth? But what reason have we to attribute the mere record of Roman history to design, when you think no design apparent in Roman history itself, with all other human history; when you think that the wonderful story of earth and man drifted by a blind accident upon the stage of being?

Such are the arguments by which the great thinkers of antiquity -- Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, -and the great thinkers of modern times -- Descartes, Leibnitz, Newton, Malebranche -- have demonstrated the existence of the Deity. Because the idea of God is to be found in the human mind as an inherited possession; because, without this idea, the world is a chaos and the universe has no order; because the human mind, advancing inevitably from cause to cause, can only stop when it reaches the uncaused Source of all things; because the world itself, the more we study it, resolves itself more and more into a majestic order and a beauty inexplicable except on the assumption of a creative and loving Mind, the beginning and end of all things -- we find ourselves intellectually convinced of made by a power-loom, that therefore it does not come by design? If we saw a watch so made that it would produce other watches, we should not think less skill shown in this construction, but more.

Plutarch says (as quoted by Neander): "The ancients directed their attention simply to the divine in phenomena, and overlooked natural causes. The moderns turn away from that divine ground of things, and explain all things by natural causes. Both these views are partial, and the two ought to be combined." Because we can explain the machinery by which the hands of a clock turn, it does not follow that they are not designed to show the hour. If one accept the doctrine of the transmutation of species, without connecting it with final causes, we return to a world of chance, as absolutely empty of intelligence as that of Epicurus; and all that I have said above, in the illustration of Gibbon's History, is then fully justified.

Yet, in reviewing these three main arguments for the existence of a supreme and perfect Being, we find that they all fail of producing full conviction, because they attempt to do by reasoning what reasoning is incompetent to perform; namely, to give us knowledge of that which we do not already know. The truth is, that we can only know God by revelation of himself to us, in us, around us. And these arguments have force only so far as they call attention to the fact that God comes and shows himself to us. We cannot, by searching, find him; but he finds us by revealing himself to us. The ontological argument, for example, is really this, that there is deposited in the human mind, below all else, the conviction of the existence of a perfect Being, which is God revealing himself to us in the soul. The cosmological argument means, that God, in showing us finite and dependent existence, whispers to our thought that there is also necessary and independent being. And the power of the teleologic argument is, that it calls our attention to the vast web of nature; showing how part co-operates with part, and how a great universe of order and beauty arises out of this multitude of atoms, each by itself without power.

The doctrine of development, which has taken such an impulse in modern times, has not in itself the least atheistic tendency. Suppose the universe, at first, to have been a nebula, and all the present Kosmos to have come out of that nebula by the working of natural laws. All this must have happened in time, and had a beginning; for allowing millions and millions of years for each step, they, at last, carry us back to the formless nebula. Now, is not as much intelligence, as much power, as much love necessary to make a world-creating nebula, as to make a world?

The argument resulting from all these arguments is therefore this. There arise in the human mind, by the necessity of its nature or condition, three ideas: 1. Of the Perfect. 2. Of the Necessary. 3. Of a Designing Cause. These three ideas cannot be separated. The Perfect Being, the Necessary Being, and the Designing Cause must be one. Consequently God reveals himself to us as the perfect, intelligent Cause of the universe. But this is a revelation, not a demonstration. Put into logical forms, as an argument, the power of it to convince is much less than when looked at as a vision of the Almighty. For God does not wish to convince the unwilling of his existence, by a logical triumph over their reluctant understandings; but rather to show himself to the pure in heart, who desire to see him. He hides these truths from the wise and prudent, and reveals them unto babes.

We have thus glanced at the arguments by which the being of God is demonstrated. But now if you ask, " Why men believe in God?" I must give a different answer. Men believe in God, because they are made to believe in him, -because religion is natural to men, - because to trust in a Higher Power is a need of the human mind and heart. Men worship and adore God because their heart and their flesh cry out for him. Human nature has a craving for an infinite Upholder and Friend. Men do not eat and drink because books of physiology have taught them that food is necessary to support life, and have explained how it is transformed by the digestive organs into blood and flesh. They eat because they are hungry. So men do not worship because they have had the existence of God satisfactorily proved to their intellect; but because they are hungry for some spiritual and angelic food. No matter how low down men are, they feel this appetite; no matter how high they go, they do not outgrow it. They may sometimes fancy that there is something wise and manly in dispensing with religion. They may, in certain states of civilization and manners, stand apart from religious institutions. Some, like the great poet, Lucretius, may confound religion with superstition, and so reject both.

But these are passing passions, eddies in the stream of thought: the great human current sweeps as steadily toward God, as the Amazon or Mississippi toward the ocean. While man's intellect, lost in the boundless varieties of things, seeks some unity, some central axis of belief, it can only rest in the idea of the Supreme Being. While man's will aspires upward, - ambitious of progress, growth, accomplishment, -it must always seek strength through faith in a Supreme Providence, guiding all souls in their appointed path. While man's heart yearns for a love, which no earthly affection can satisfy, it must turn to commune with the infinite Father. While human life is full of sorrow, men cannot dispense with that comfort which comes from the consolation of the Holy Spirit. As long as tyrants are to be resisted, slaves redeemed from their chains, the power of the wicked opposed, and the black depths of cruelty and selfishness uncovered to the day, - the lonely reformer, with no earthly helper, must trust in an infinite and almighty Justice. All goodness longs for God; all who love truth cry out for the perfect Truth; every thing noble within us ascends toward him. As we trust in the better and higher part of our nature, we believe more and more in God. So it is that faith is the evidence of things not seen, -so it is that the pure in heart at last see God.

Yes! it is no misuse of language to say that we can know God, as certainly as we know the outward world, or our own soul. It is by experience that all knowledge comes, not by reasoning. By repeated experience, through the senses, we know the world outside of us; by repeated experience, through the consciousness, we know the faculties and powers of our own soul; by repeated experience, through the reason, the conscience, and the spiritual nature, we come to know God.

Those who only look down never see the sky. The inward eye, which sees God, is darkened by worldliness and sin. Until, we look up, in a disinterested love of truth and goodness, God remains only a problem and a possibility. The mere worship of form does not bring us near to him, but only that worship which is in spirit and in truth. But loyalty to conscience, trust in goodness, obedience to truth, - these unseal the eyes of the soul, and bring us into permanent communion with the Infinite and the Eternal.

We do not see God by merely opening our eyes: we must also open our heart. Prayer, devotion, the struggle for truth, the martyrdom to duty -- these bring us near to the Deity; these are the cherubic wings by which we ascend, passing the flaming bounds of space and time. To know God aright requires a great energy of soul, or a great humbleness of heart. Little children see God in their unsoiled simplicity and purity; their angels do always behold the face of our Father: and we must be converted from our worldliness, and become as little children, in order to perceive that infinite beauty. The greatest intellects have been most awed before the idea of God. " To know God aright," says Plato, "is difficult: to speak of him aright to others, almost impossible." " He veils himself behind his works," says Schiller, "and allows the atheist to deny his being by that very tolerance, showing his majestic presence more fully, than if he had struck him dead with a thunderbolt." "Who shall name him?" says Goethe.

"Who shall name him?
Who dare say
' I believe in him'?
Who can deny him, -
Who venture to affirm
' I believe in him not'?"

The grandest intellects have always bowed most profoundly before that Infinite Presence. But the child-like breast says, Abba! Father! This word "Abba," literally Papa, is in almost all languages the same, and the first word spoken by the infant; and so, in its highest signification, it is the first word spoken when we become once more little children, and enter the presence of the Heavenly Father.

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. The existence of God can never be proved satisfactorily to a doubting intellect; for the proof rests on spontaneous insights. But we come to know God by communion, just as we come to know the outward world. Only by acting on the outward world, and letting it react on us, do we become sure of its substantial reality. And so only by communion with God, speaking to him, receiving his answer, talking with him, beholding his face in righteousness, do we become at last as sure of the real presence of God as we are of the reality of the world.

2003 American Unitarian Conference