Does a god exist?

Surely humans are too complex to have been created by accident? But what about all the suffering and evil in the world? And hasn’t science shown that gods don’t exist? Looks like we need to explore this…

1 / 7

Can you match the theory to the philosopher?

2 / 7

How to spot a god

Ever wondered how the world came about? Questioned why you’re here and what the point of life is? Worried about what happens after you die?

More

People in every corner of the world have been puzzling over these kinds of questions for as long as we've existed, arguing about whether the world we can see and explain is all there is or if life might have another dimension. There's even a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to thinking about this - it's called metaphysics. It basically tries to answer two simple but huge questions: 'what is there?' and 'what is it like?'

Some people think that the answers to these questions come from science and learning, and that the only reason we still wonder about these things is because we haven't discovered the non-supernatural answers yet. Others choose not look to science, but for various reasons they don't believe in the idea of supernatural beings or powers either. For example, some question the existence of a good god in a world where there is evil. These are all forms of what's known as 'atheism'.

Other people believe that it's very difficult to know about or prove the existence of a god - they're called ‘agnostics’. Some agnostics believe that it’s actually impossible to know for sure about a god, and all we can do is guess. Whereas others just think that we don’t know right now - because our understanding is limited or we haven't got enough information  - but that as humans progress we might eventually be able to learn and grasp enough to know for sure. 

And others believe that there is something beyond the natural world, even if we can't completely understand it, some kind of god in charge of it all - they're known as 'theists'. Many theists believe that god has been revealed to humans, through texts, historical events, miracles or special experiences. 

There are many types of religions and they have different beliefs and ideas about what a god might be like, although there's general agreement about what a god is - 'a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes'. Sounds like a pretty good job.

There's general agreement about what a god is - 'a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes'.

There's a bit of competition for the role though - across the world people believe in a whole load of different gods. But despite the different names, forms and personalities of the many gods, there are at least a few things that many of them have in common: 

They played a part in creating the world

  • Sikhs believe that God is Karta Purakh, the Creator-Being, and he formed the earth from a part of himself. 
  • Hinduism has a few different stories about how the world came about, but they all agree that the god Lord Brahma was in charge of creating it.
  • In Māori mythology, it's Heaven and Earth themselves which are the gods and the source of all creation and they're known as Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother).
  • In Islam, Christianity and Judaism, God is believed to have made the whole universe all by himself in 7 days. Some believe that these 'days' are metaphorical and that God created the universe in a much larger space of time.  
  • Other gods shared out the job of creation, with the first god giving birth to other gods who in turn created bits of the world - this is true of both the Egyptian and Greek gods. 
  • Some gods don't get any credit for making the world, but are at least believed to have been around right from the start - like the Japanese Shinto gods Amenominakanushi, Taka-mi-musuhi-no-kami and Kami-musuhi-no-kami.

They have awesome powers

  • Christians and Jews believe their God is omniscient (he knows everything), omnipotent (he can do anything) and omnipresent (he can be everywhere) - pretty impressive. 
  • Sikhs and Muslims also believe in one all-powerful supreme God. 
  • Some religions have a god for almost every occasion. The Greeks had gods like Zeus who controlled the weather, Hades who ran the underworld and Hypnos who was in charge of sleep. Canaanite and Shinto faiths also have multiple gods. 
  • Some gods can make bad stuff happen - the fierce Hindu goddess, Kali is constantly depicted as ruthless, especially in local stories, and Egyptian goddess Tefnut could cause droughts just by getting angry. 
  • Other gods are just a bit puzzling - like the God of the Bahá'í faith who's believed to be the most powerful being in the universe but whose followers can't say much about his specific powers - they think he's so far beyond humanity that we can't actually know anything about his nature.

They need a lot of attention

  • Allah commands his followers to pray to him five times every day. 
  • Traditionally, Aboriginal people (Australian natives) regularly pray and offer gifts of respect to their ancestral gods. 
  • Some Christians meet to praise and thank God once a week at church. 
  • Many Shinto followers have a kami-dana (god shelf) in their houses, where they pray and make offerings of flowers or food to the gods. 
  • Many gods have special festivals or feasts dedicated to them - like Janmashtami, which celebrates the birth of Krishna, or the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece, held to honour Zeus. 
  • Most gods also get a special building or place dedicated to them, like a mosque, church, temple or shrine (which they can get quite fussy about - Princess Liễu Hạnh, a Vietnamese goddess, was said to have been so angry when one of her temples was destroyed that she inflicted a horribe disease on everyone in the surrounding area!)

They give people guidance about how to live

  • Muslims look to Allah to tell them what's right and wrong and live according to his will as revealed in the Qur'an
  • Followers of Shinto are also expected to carry out the will of the gods, which they can find in their holy books Kojiki or Nihon-gi
  • Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha so that they can gain the ultimate wisdom (a state called 'enlightenment') and reach Dhyanas (a blissful state of meditation and full absorption). 
  • The Christian God also has some pretty clear rules for how to live, handing down the Ten Commandments.
  • Some gods don't pass out instruction manuals for life in quite the same way, but still have huge influence over people's behaviour and choices - like in Greek mythology, where if you didn't please the harvest god you'd end up with rubbish crops and go hungry, or if you annoyed the god of fertility then you wouldn't be blessed with kids. 

So, now you're armed with some ideas about what a god might be like and you've started to get to grips with why people might believe in one. But the question still remains - does one exist or not?

The UK has historically been a Christian country, with many people believing in the Judeo-Christian God - but why?

The UK has historically been a Christian country, with many people believing in the Judeo-Christian God - but why?

3 / 7

3 reasons God has to exist (according to Western philosophy)

  1. Because the universe is like an iPhone
    1. Known as a teleological argument (from the Greek word telos which means ‘end’ or ‘purpose’) this theory basically says that the universe is like an iPhone. If you found an iPhone on the ground you wouldn’t imagine the phone had just created itself – it’s a complicated bit of technology with an obvious purpose, so you’d assume that someone had designed and made the phone before it got dropped. The universe is the same. It’s such a complex place (just think for a second about how volcanoes work or what the sun is made of) that it’s impossible for it to have come about by chance - it must have a designer and creator. So the universe itself is the proof that God exists. This argument (also known as the argument from design) has been made by lots of different philosophers, but 13th century writer Thomas Aquinas usually gets most of the credit.
  2. Because people have to come from somewhere
    1. Quite a few philosophers (including big thinkers like Immanuel Kant) have played around with an argument for God’s existence that comes from the scientific theory of cause and effect. That’s the theory which says that for every thing that happens (an effect) there must be a thing that makes it happen (a cause). And if that’s true, if human beings - who can feel emotions, think and be creative - are the effect, then they must have been created by something that also has those qualities, such as a god. The clever-sounding name for this idea is an anthropological argument – anthropology is the study of people and comes from the term anthropos which is Greek for ‘man’. So this type of argument is one that starts with something about human beings and ends with God as the explanation. 
  3. Because the idea of God is so brilliant
    1. This argument was first put forward by St. Anselm in the 11th century and it’s what’s known as an ontological argument (ontology is the study of ‘being’ and looks at ideas of reality and existence.) Anselm’s particular argument was this: God is the best possible being that can be imagined and since he can be imagined he obviously exists in your imagination - in your mind. However, a being that exists only in your mind is not as good as a being that exists in your mind AND in reality, which means that if we say God only exists in our minds then we’re saying that something even better than God can be imagined. But then we’d be contradicting ourselves - we can’t imagine something better than God because the definition of God is that he’s the best thing we can imagine! So that means God must exist.
4 / 7

God's not real

Dan Barker used to be a Christian minister, but now he’s a firm atheist – so what are his reasons for changing his mind about God’s existence? And are they good ones?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btJazTimH4M

There’s a small tribe on an island that’s part of Vanuatu that considers Prince Philip to be their god.

There’s a small tribe on an island that’s part of Vanuatu that considers Prince Philip to be their god.

5 / 7

Here are 8 creation stories - but what do YOU believe?

  1. Cosmic eggs
    1. The Taoists believe that a vast expanse of nothingness eventually created a cosmic egg, from which hatched P’an ku, the first living being. As P'an Ku grew, his height pushed the eggshell above him upwards to become the sky and the bit below him downwards to become the earth. The bad news is that the sheer effort of it all broke P’an Ku into pieces - but the good news is that his limbs became mountains, his blood the rivers, his breath the wind and his voice the thunder. His two eyes are the sun and the moon. And last but not least, the parasites on his body became humans. Doesn’t say much about us!
  2. Create, preserve, destroy, repeat
    1. Hindus believe that the world is created and destroyed in a day, but that every day lasts four thousand million years. Lord Brahma (the creator god) makes the world and leaves Lord Vishnu (the sustainer or preserver god) in charge. Sadly, Brahma doesn’t work nights and when he goes  to sleep Lord Shiva (the destroyer god) comes along and wrecks it all. So, each morning, Lord Brahma creates the world all over again.
  3. If at first you don’t succeed...
    1. The supreme Inca deity, Viracocha, first created man by breathing into rocks. Sadly, his first try didn’t go so well and he created unruly giants. Not quite what he’d planned. Disappointed, but undeterred, he destroyed the giants in a flood and had another go, this time using clay. It all went a bit better and he created man and woman, and spent the rest of his days disguised as a beggar, trying to teach his creations the lessons they needed to thrive.
  4. The clash of the legends
    1. Greek mythology tell us that it all began in the Void - a state of vast emptiness which was soon joined by Gaia, the Earth Mother, and Eros, the most beautiful of the gods. Gaia gave birth to the God of the Sky, Uranus (or Ouranos if it helps). Next up are the Titans, the ultimate heroes, but then it all gets a bit messy... Gaia and Uranus make Cyclopes (the one-eyed monsters) which freak out Uranus so he wants to kill them all. Gaia tries to hide them inside herself to protect them, but bloodshed and betrayal follow - Uranus is castrated by Kronos, who starts swallowing up his own children. Better stop here before it gets worse.
  5. “Let there be light”
    1. The Bible’s creation story reads like an epic task list. Day 1: Separate light and dark (how is that even possible?) Day 2: Push up the vault of the sky. Simples. Day 3: Create land and sea (oh, and don’t forget vegetation). Day 4: More work on that sky stuff - we’ll need heaven, sun, moon and stars. Day 5: Add birds and fish. Day 6: Animals please and of course men and women to oversee them. Day 7: Chill out and recover from all that creating.
  6. Armpit giants and massive ice cows
    1. According to Norse legend life began with a frost giant, Ymir, and a giant cow, Adhumla, made from melted fog and ice. Ymir creates giants from his armpit (as you do) whilst Adhumla feeds them while unearthing other giants by melting more ice. If that wasn’t enough, these giants then mate and give birth to the god Odin and his brothers, who thank them by killing them all and their creator Ymir. On a happier note, Odin recycles Ymir’s body pretty efficiently - his flesh makes the earth, his skull becomes the heavens, his blood becomes the sea and his brains are turned into the clouds. (Bit like our friend P'an Ku, really.) Finally his bones make the mountains and his hair turns into trees. And all that good stuff creates Midgard (or Earth) where the gods breathe life into into two tree trunks to create the first man and woman.
  7. Dreaming of a spewing rainbow serpent
    1. For the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, creation begins in a period they call ‘dreaming’. The world already existed, but was bare and cold. Not ideal. It was waiting for the Rainbow Serpent who was sleeping underground with all tribes of civilisation in her belly waiting for the perfect moment to emerge and spew (no better word for it) forth all the ingredients to bring life to the world. And she didn’t stop there - she also gave them laws, and those who obeyed them were given human form, those who didn’t got swallowed up, spat out and, in the ultimate act of sustainability, were transformed into rocks and hills.
  8. Vomiting up your children
    1. The Egyptians have a number of creator gods and so have more than one creation myth. The one you’re most likely to come across tells of a vast expanse of water known as Nuthat, which created the first, all-powerful god Re. Re created a son and a daughter in a not-entirely-pleasant fashion - he spat out his son Shu (god of air) and vomited up his daughter Tefnut (goddess of water). Lovely. These two gave rise to the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, who set the limits of the world. Geb and Nut in turn produces Osiris, god of fertility and regeneration; Isis, goddess of motherhood; Set, the god of chaos; and Nephthys protector of the dead. Quite a family.

Now that we know so much more about science and the world, haven’t we moved on from the idea of a god?

Now that we know so much more about science and the world, haven’t we moved on from the idea of a god?

6 / 7

Science and faith: besties for life

Alister McGrath (an Oxford professor of Science and Religion) argues that science and religion actually go together quite happily, as he thinks they each explain different parts of the universe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKf470eVqVU

7 / 7

Playing God: 7 actors who've taken a turn being The Big Guy

  1. Will.i.am
    1. The rapper, singer and The Voice judge can also add ‘being God' to his CV after appearing in American drama Joan of Arcadia. The show opens with God popping up to remind Joan that she promised to do anything he told her to if he let her brother survive an otherwise fatal car crash. Throughout the series God takes the form of different people - young kids, teenage boys, old ladies, gambling guys (enter Will.i.am) - asking Joan to do things. This version of God is pretty demanding, but he's also painted as the ultimate good guy, as the things he gets Joan to do are always about helping others (like when he tells her to ask the school bully to a dance and later reveals that if she hadn't done that the bully would have gotten drunk and shot 12 students.)
  2. Whoopi Goldberg
    1. When you don't have long to left to live and you want some comfort from God, who better than the epic Whoopi Goldberg to remind you to treasure what you have? In rom-com, A Little Bit of Heaven, fast-living heroine Marley finds out she has terminal cancer, but to soften the blow God (unusually in the form of a woman, Goldberg) appears to her and - in full genie fashion - offers her three wishes. God might be a woman here, but the focus is really on the fact that she grants the wishes in unexpected ways, proving her heavenly wisdom as she gives Marley the opportunity to appreciate the positive things in her life and to prepare for saying goodbye.
  3. Morgan Freeman
    1. "If you think it's so easy, do it yourself!" is pretty much the theme of the film Bruce Almighty, where acting legend Morgan Freeman takes on the role of God. Local news reporter Bruce just can't seem to catch a break at work, getting stuck with the worst jobs whilst his nemesis steals a promotion from right under Bruce's nose. He doesn't take it well, gets himself fired and blames who? God. But God seizes the chance to have a little fun whilst teaching Bruce a lesson - he hands over all his powers, letting Bruce be in charge for a while, but also leaves him with all his heavenly responsibilities. Disaster inevitably ensues as Bruce learns that it's not just down to God to answer our prayers, it's up to us to pray for the right things.
  4. Jim Parsons 
    1. Although we usually see Jim worshipping science rather than God (as Sheldon Cooper in the Big Bang Theory) he's played the big guy on stage in An Act of God. The play is basically a conversation between God and some of his angels where God reveals the mysteries of the Bible and answers some of humanity's hardest questions about life, the universe and everything. And, just as you'd expect from Jim Parsons, he plays a pretty up-to-date deity - a sarcastic, tweet-sending, selfie-taking God who just wants to set the record straight about a few things, hoping to get humanity on a better path.
  5. Alanis Morissette 
    1. No-one likes to be fired, and angels are no exception - especially when they find themselves shoved out of heaven. The film Dogma follows the plots and schemes of two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) as they mess with the lives of people on earth in an attempt to get back to paradise. But God's not happy and shows up (in the form of singer Alanis Morissette) to try and thwart their plans. And she gets to put her vocal chords to work when she uses her voice to blow up the head of one of the fallen angels. Grim. This God is definitely a being who's keen to keep her power, although she also wants to make sure humans aren't hurt and spends a lot of the film sorting out the earthly messes made by her errant angels.
  6. Hugh Bonneville
    1. This God isn't just all-powerful, he's all-singing and all-dancing in the stage show Spamalot. It's a musical re-telling of the classic Monty Python film The Holy Grail, which takes a hilarious but slightly surreal look at the legendary British leader, King Arthur and his quest for the cup of eternal life. God is played by Hugh Bonneville and is a rather tetchy figure - he's certainly got no time for the typically British urge to say sorry for absolutely everything! He's still rooting for humanity though and wants Arthur and his Knights to find the Holy Grail to set a good example to his subjects and grow in their faith and knowledge of God.
  7. Val Kilmer
    1. Prince of Egypt is a traditional animation (it uses hand-drawn frames rather than computer-generated ones) so you don't get to see Val Kilmer stepping into the role of God - but you do get to hear his deep, awe-inspiring tones. The film is an adaptation of the Book of Exodus, the second book in the Bible, and follows the life of Moses from being a prince of Egypt to his ultimate destiny to lead the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt and into a land of their own. It's an epic biblical tale of perseverance, adventure and miracles where God is shown to be powerful but also hugely protective and merciful towards Moses and the Israelites.