Can arguments convince?

Belief in God involves a total structure of thought

Belief in God is often portrayed as irrational, as depending completely on the believer’s psychological state of mind.

If evidence is valid, we would expect that it makes a similar impression on any observer. However, as far as belief in God is concerned, there is a marked difference. Believers accept certain evidence, non-believers something else. It shows that the reasoning here is totally subjective.

The reason for this is that the change over from unbelief to belief, and the other way about, involves a major reversal of structural thought. It brings about a new perspective. It requires a paradigm shift, a re-ordering of one’s mental constructs.

Atheists have their own, integrated construction of reality in which God has no place.

Those atheists who still cling to the old wheel, by simply replacing God with an absolute value such as Truth, may have an implicit belief in God, as we have seen. Bertrand Russell summed up the meaning of his own life in three overriding passions: his longing for love, his search for knowledge and his pity for the suffering of other human beings (see: The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, London 1967, Prologue). Are Truth and Beauty and Love not precisely aspects of the transcendent reality expressed in the notion of God?

But there are real atheists, people who deliberately and consistently exclude the existence of any reality apart from the observable universe (see e.g. M.MARTIN, Atheism. A Philosophical Justification, Philadelphia 1990).

The interesting thing about this is that to prove atheism, that is: to prove the non-existence of God, turns out to be an impossible task. It is like proving that there are no other universes beside our own (see: S.A.SHALKOWSKI, “Atheological Apologetics”, American Philosophical Quarterly 26 (1989) pp. 1-17.


Likewise, the change over from atheism to belief is the turning upside-down of a world view. It is a structural reversal, a paradigm shift. That is how those who experience it describe it. The final event is usually a sudden adjustment of one’s complex belief structure.

Graham Greene who found faith only as an adult, experienced this shift. In The End of the Affair, he makes the adulteress-heroine Sarah Miles write to her lover Bendrix: “I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.”

G.K.Chesterton testified to it being like many jagged and unconnected pieces suddenly joining up in a snug fit. “No one will be convinced about the reality of God if we find that something proves it”, he said. “What really convinces us is when we find that everything proves it.”

One consequence of this situation is that both atheists and believers argue from within their own framework of convictions. As WilliamJames shrewdly observed, “the truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion” (see: W.JAMES, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Edinburgh 1902; London 1960, p. 88).

A single argument will not easily dislodge one’s complex network of beliefs. Rather we will have to focus on the totality itself. See also P.LEE, `Reasons and Religious Belief’, Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989) 19-34; J.L.GOLDING, `Toward a Pragmatic Concept of Religious Faith’, Faith and Philosophy 7 (1990) 486-503.

For those who have experienced religion, it is not difficult to recognise that it does not concern detail but the whole, that it involves the totality of life and universal meaning. 



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of creation