Common Consent Arguments for the Existence of God

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Numerous philosophers and theologians have appealed to the "common consent" of humankind (the consensus gentium ) as support for certain doctrines. Richard Hooker, for example, in his Treatise on the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity appeals to this common agreement of humankind in justifying his view that the obligatory character of certain moral principles is immediately evident. Most frequently the conclusions supported in this way were those asserting the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul. In the present entry we shall confine ourselves to common consent arguments for the existence of God.

Among those who favored arguments of this kind were Cicero, Seneca, Clement of Alexandria, Herbert of Cherbury, the Cambridge Platonists, Pierre Gassendi, and Hugo Grotius. In more recent times these arguments were supported by numerous distinguished Protestant and Catholic theologians. G. W. F. Hegel did not accept the argument, but he thought that it contained a kernel of truth. Rudolf Eisler, in his Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, ranks the argument fifth in importance among so-called proofs of the existence of God, and this seems an accurate estimate of its place in the history of philosophy. At the same time, J. S. Mill was probably right when he observed that, as far as the "bulk of mankind" is concerned, the argument has exercised greater influence than others that are logically less vulnerable. Although there are hardly any professional philosophers at the present time who attribute any logical force to reasoning of this kind, it is still widely employed by popular apologists for religion.

Some supporters claim relatively little. "In no form," wrote the nineteenth-century theologian Robert Flint, "ought the argument from general consent to be regarded as a primary argument. It is evidence that there are direct evidencesand when kept in its proper place it has no inconsiderable valuebut it cannot be urged as a direct and independent argument" (Theism, p. 349). Cardinal Mercier similarly regarded the argument as "indirect or extrinsic." It does not by itself prove the existence of God, but it is a "morally certain indication that there are proofs warranting the assertion that God exists" (A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 55). Father Bernard Boedder and G. H. Joyce claim a great deal more. Boedder (Natural Theology, p. 63) regards it as an "argument of absolute value in itself." The universal consent "of nations in the recognition of God must be deemed the voice of universal reason yielding to the compelling evidence of truth." Later, however, he admits that it is not "absolutely conclusive, except when taken in conjunction with the argument of the First Cause" (ibid., p. 75). Joyce, a twentieth-century writer to whom we owe one of the fullest and clearest statements of one version of the argument, is far more sanguine. He calls it without any qualification a "valid proof of the existence of God" and seems to regard the conclusion as established with "perfect certainty."

The argument has rarely been stated by any philosopher in the form of a simple appeal to the universality of belief in God. In this form it is patently invalid and invites Pierre Bayle's comment that "neither general tradition nor the unanimous consent of all men can place any injunction upon truth." There is, on the face of it, no reason why the whole of humankind should not have been as wrong on a speculative topic as it has been on some more empirical questions on which, history teaches, it has been mistaken. The actual versions of the argument advanced by philosophers are more complicated and can be conveniently grouped into two classes. In the first we have arguments in which the universality of belief, for reasons peculiar to this particular case, is taken as evidence either that the belief itself is instinctive or that it is due to longings or needs which are instinctive. It is then concluded, for a variety of reasons, that the belief must be true. In the second group we have arguments according to which the universality of the belief, in conjunction with the claim that believers used reason in arriving at their position, is treated as evidence for the existence of God. We shall refer to arguments of the first kind as "biological" versions and to those of the second kind as the "antiskeptical dilemma." Whatever the shortcomings of these arguments may be, they cannot be dismissed simply on the ground that the whole of humankind may well be mistaken.

Although no doubt some of the disputes in which philosophers and others have engaged in this connection are antiquated and sometimes have a slightly preposterous ring to modern ears, other related issues are still very much with us. For example, it is still maintained by a number of influential philosophers and psychologists that people are "by nature" religious, so that the spread of skepticism and atheism is likely to lead to highly undesirable results. "It is safe to say," writes Carl Jung about his patients, "that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers" (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, p. 254). Nor are attempts lacking even in our own day to show that everybody "really" believes in God, no matter what they may say or think. In the course of evaluating various forms of the Argument from Common Consent, we shall have occasion to say something about these more contemporary issues as well.

Biological Forms of the Argument

instinctive belief in god

A familiar version of the biological form of the Argument from Common Consent is found in Seneca's Epistulae Morales (Letter 117):

We are accustomed to attach great importance to the universal belief of mankind. It is accepted by us as a convincing argument. That there are gods we infer from the sentiment engrafted in the human mind; nor has any nation ever been found, so far beyond the pale of law and civilization as to deny their existence.

Seneca did not elaborate on the nature of the "sentiment" that is "engrafted in the human mind," but later writers did, especially when replying to criticisms such as John Locke's. In the course of his polemic against the theory of innate ideas, Locke had rejected the initial premise of the argument as plainly false. His reasons were twofold. First, he noted with regret that there were atheists among the ancients, and also, more recently, "navigation discovered whole nations among whom there was to be found no notion of a God" (Essay concerning Human Understanding, Book I, Sec. IV). Aside from questioning the prevalence or even the existence of unbelief, the usual reply to this kind of criticism has been to make a distinction between two senses in which an idea or a belief may be said to be innate or instinctive. Such an assertion may mean that the idea or the belief is present in the human mind at birth as an image or some other actual "content," or it may amount to the much milder claim that it is present as a disposition to arrive at the belief when noticing certain things in the world or in oneself (usually this is stated very strongly to the effect that, when noticing the things in question, the person cannot help coming to believe in God). It is then explained that belief in God is instinctive in the latter or dispositional sense only. To avoid the charge of triviality, the defenders of the argument usually insist that because of this disposition, teaching or indoctrination is not required. Thus Charles Hodge, who makes it clear that he advocates a doctrine of the innateness of belief in God in the dispositional sense, adds that "men no more need to be taught that there is a God, than they need to be taught that there is such a thing as sin" (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 199). "Adam," he also writes, "believed in God the moment he was created, for the same reason that he believed in the external world. His religious nature, unclouded and undefiled, apprehended the one with the same confidence that his senses apprehended the other" (ibid., pp. 200201).

Several comments are in order here. To begin with, the theory that belief in God is innate does not become vacuous when it is stated in this way, so long as we are told what the facts are in the presence of which a human being cannot help coming to believe in the existence of God. However, when these facts are specified as the adjustments of organisms to their environment or as our experiences of duty and obligation (and these are the ones most frequently mentioned), Locke's objection seems to be fundamentally intact. For, apart from the question of primitive tribes, a great many of the unbelievers in Western culture appear to have been fully exposed to these facts. But this does not usually move the proponents of the argument. Aside from certain rejoinders that will be discussed later, their formulations usually contain highly elastic words that make possible a speedy disposition of apparent negative instances. The unbeliever may have been exposed to the relevant facts but not "adequately"; or he may have been exposed to them adequately, but his religious nature may have been "clouded" or "defiled"; or, contrary to outward appearances, the unbeliever may really believe, but the belief may be so faint as to be barely perceptible. This last method was adopted by Hodge when faced with the negative evidence drawn from the observations of blind deaf-mutes. Unbelievers like Ludwig Büchner had pointed to several famous cases, including that of Laura Bridgman, who either could not be brought to form an idea of God at all or who reported that, prior to instruction, no such idea had entered their minds. As far as is known, Hodge never made any empirical studies of blind deaf-mutes, but this did not prevent him from replying with full confidence. "The knowledge obtained by Christian instruction so much surpasses that given by intuition," he assures us, that the purely intuitive knowledge of the blind deaf-mute "seems as nothing" (ibid., p. 197).

At this stage one must raise the following questions: Under what circumstances would a human being not possess an innate belief in God? More specifically, let us suppose that a person observes the facts of organic adjustment and experiences a sense of duty and obligation but nevertheless maintains, with all appearance of sincerity, that he does not believe in God. Under what circumstances would it be true to say that he had observed the facts adequately, that his religious nature was not clouded or defiled, but that he nevertheless had no belief in God? Unless these questions are satisfactorily answered, the argument does not really get off the ground. For it is meant to be based on an empirical premise, and the premise will not be empirical if it is retained no matter how human beings may respond to the stimuli that are supposed to activate the innate disposition to believe in God.

Waiving this difficulty, and granting that the distinction between the two senses in which a belief may be instinctive circumvents the first of Locke's objections, the argument would still be open to his second criticism, namely, that the universality of an idea or a belief does not establish its innateness. It may well be possible, Locke argued, to account in other ways for the universal occurrence of an idea or the general agreement on a topic. The ideas of the sun and heat, he wrote, are also universal without being "natural impressions on the mind" (op. cit., Book I, Sec. 2). Locke, who was primarily concerned with the origin of the idea of God rather than with any question of the universality of belief in God, claimed that he could give an adequate account of how this idea arose in the human mind without an appeal to innate ideas, and John Stuart Mill later offered a detailed account of how belief in God might be universal without being instinctive. Reasons for rejecting such accounts would have to be offered before one could infer the innateness of belief in God from its universality.

Mill, one of the few great philosophers of recent times to discuss this argument in detail, objected to it on several other grounds as well. Assuming a belief to be innate or instinctive, he asked why this should be any reason whatsoever for regarding it as true. The only justification for this transition that Mill could think of he dismissed as begging the question. This is "the belief that the human mind was made by a God, who would not deceive his creatures" (Three Essays on Religion, p. 156), which of course presupposes what is to be proved. Whether this is in fact the only possible justification of the inference from the innateness of a belief to its truth, Mill's observation that the former does not by itself afford evidence for the latter seems to be very well taken. The force of his point, however, may be obscured because instinctive beliefs are frequently referred to as a priori and because this and related expressions are ambiguous. In this present context, calling a proposition a priori simply means that it was not affirmed as the result of instruction. In other contexts, and more commonly, to say that a proposition is a priori logically implies that it is a necessary truth and hence requires no empirical confirmation. It should be clear that if a proposition is a priori in the former sense, it does not automatically follow that it is a necessary truth or a truth at all. If an empirical or, more generally, a nonnecessary proposition were instinctively entertained, it would stand just as much in need of proof or confirmation as any other; and, except for a few defenders of the Ontological Argument, believers and unbelievers alike are satisfied that "God exists" does not express a necessary proposition.

Flint and others complained that Mill was unfair because there are versions of the argument that cannot be accused of circular reasoning. It will become clear in the next section that the antiskeptical form of the argument is in fact immune from such a criticism (and Mill was probably not familiar with it). However, it is difficult to see how the version of the biological argument which we have been discussing can bridge the transition from the instinctiveness of belief to its truth without introducing God as guarantor of the instinct's trustworthiness.

innate yearning for god

There is, however, another version of the biological argument which can perhaps be stated in such a way as to avoid the charge of circular reasoning. This version, moreover, has certain additional advantages over the one considered previously. "All the faculties and feelings of our minds and bodies," writes Hodge, "have their appropriate objects; and the possession of the faculties supposes the existence of those objects." Thus the eye, "in its very structure, supposes" that there is light to be seen, and the ear would be "unaccountable and inconceivable" without the existence of sound. "In like manner" our religious feelings and aspirations "necessitate" the existence of God (op. cit., p. 200). "The yearning for some kind of God," in the words of Chad Walsh, a contemporary defender of the argument, "does point toward an in-built hunger in each of usa hunger for something greater than we are." But every other hunger has its normal gratification. This is true of physical hunger, of love and sex, and of our craving for beauty. If, similarly, our religious hunger did not have its proper gratification, it would be difficult to see "how it got built into our natures in the first place. What is it doing there?" (Atheism Doesn't Make Sense, p. 10).

This version of the argument escapes one of the difficulties of the version considered earlier. It can very plausibly be argued that absence of belief in God does not prove absence of a yearning for God; and in fact there are undoubtedly unbelievers who wish they could believe. But, granting that the existence of unbelievers does not prove that the wish for God's reality is not universal, this version of the argument nevertheless appears to be open to a number of fatal or near-fatal objections. To begin with, there seem to be exceptions here also. There seem to be people who not only do not believe in God but who are also devoid of any hunger for God. Furthermore, even if this hunger were universal, it might, as before, be possible to explain it on some basis other than that it is innate; or, putting the point differently, one would have to be satisfied that all such explanations are inadequate before one could conclude that it is innate. More seriously and waiving such objections as that the analogy between "religious hunger" and either physical hunger or having organs like eyes and ears is more than dubious, statements to the effect that we have eyes because there is light are objectionable on several grounds. Neither the observed facts nor contemporary biological theory warrants any such assertion. We are entitled to say that we have eyes and that there is light and that the eyes are useful because there is light, so that, other things being equal, organisms with eyes are likely to win out in the struggle for survival against organisms without eyes. Many kinds of biological variations are not similarly useful, but these are rarely noticed by proponents of the argument. When reading the teleological formulations of these writersWalsh's question "How did the longing get built into [italics added] our nature in the first place?" or Hodge's remark that "possession of the faculties supposes [italics added] the existence of the appropriate objects"one can hardly avoid the suspicion that although God is not explicitly brought into the premise of the argument, these authors surreptitiously introduce a designer who supplied organisms with their native equipment in order to fit them to their environment. It might indeed be possible to establish the existence of a designer on other grounds, but in the present context the defender of the argument is guilty of circular reasoning and thus would not escape Mill's stricture. No such circularity is involved if the instinctive desire is made the basis of an argument for immortality after the existence of a beneficent deity has been independently established. Dugald Stewart, in his Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man (Edinburgh, 1828, Book III, Ch. 4), offered such an argument, observing, "whatever desires are evidently implanted in our minds by nature, we may reasonably conclude, will in due time be gratified under the government of a Being infinite both in power and goodness." Stewart was not guilty of circular reasoning, since he thought that he had previously proved the existence of God by means of the Design Argument.

The Antiskeptical Dilemma

joyce's argument

One of the most carefully developed statements of the second main form of the Common Consent Argument is found in G. H. Joyce's The Principles of Natural Theology. There are three stages to this form of the argument. (1) As in the biological versions, it is contended that practically all human beings, past and present, can be counted as believers in God. Here, however, it is not maintained that there are innate tendencies in human beings to believe in God. If anything, the opposite is true: people crave liberty of action and resent any being with superior authority. If, nevertheless, nearly all human beings are "perfectly certain" of the existence of their "absolute Master," this can be so only because "the voice of reason" is so clear and emphatic: "All races, civilized and uncivilized alike, are at one in holding that the facts of nature and the voice of conscience compel us to affirm this [the existence of God] as certain truth" (op. cit., p. 179). (2) If the whole of humankind were mistaken in a conclusion of this kind, it would follow that something is amiss with man's intellect, that "it is idle for man to search for truth." In that event, pure skepticism would be the only alternative. (3) However, all of us, unless we wish to be perverse, realize that "man's intellect is fundamentally trustworthythat, though frequently misled in this or that particular case through accidental causes, yet the instrument itself is sound" (ibid.). Since reason is fundamentally trustworthy, universal skepticism is not a serious alternative to the acceptance of humankind's conclusion that God exists.

Some writers, though not Joyce, are concerned to add that on this topic great men are at one with the masses of believers. "Even for the independent thinker," writes John Haynes Holmes, "there is such a thing as a consensus of best opinions which cannot be defied without the weightiest of reasons" ("Ten Reasons for Believing in Immortality," in A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap, New York, 1965, p. 241). If there were no God and no afterlife, the deceived would include, in the words of James Martineau, "the great and holy whom all men revere." Whom are we to reverence, he goes on, "if the inspirations of the highest nature are but cunningly-devised fables?" (ibid.).

Joyce is aware that the "common consent" of the human race on this subject has been challenged from two sides. To the criticism that there are unbelievers at the present time and that the history of Western countries records instances of other unbelievers, he replies that these are so few in comparison with the number of believers that they do not affect the "moral unanimity of the race," and he adds that he never meant to claim that literally everybody who ever lived has affirmed the existence of God. To the criticism that there are primitive peoples without a belief in God or at least in one God, Joyce replies that there is in fact no race without religion and that even where there is belief in a plurality of gods, it is invariably found that "the religion recognizes a supreme deity, the ruler of gods and men" (p. 182). Joyce concedes that the supreme deity of primitive religions often lacks some of the characteristics attributed to God by Christian and Jewish monotheists. But this does not affect the argument, since "an idea of God does not cease to deserve that name because it is inadequate" (p. 181). A person may be said to believe in God if he believes in a "Supreme Being, personal and intelligent, to whom man owes honor and reverence" (ibid.), regardless of what else he also believes or fails to believe.

objections to joyce's argument

The claim that belief in God is practically, if not indeed strictly, universal in the human race is shared by defenders of both forms of the Common Consent Argument. We shall discuss the difficulties of such a position in some detail in the next section. Meanwhile, it should be pointed out that even if the moral unanimity of humankind on this subject is not questioned, the argument, as presented by Joyce, appears to be open to two powerful objections.

To begin with, it presupposes that all or most believers in God arrive at their belief by means of reason or the intellect. If this is not the case, then the argument clearly fails, since nothing derogatory about reason would follow if it was not the source of the mistaken conclusion. In actual fact, it seems more than doubtful that the majority of men use reason in any significant sense in arriving at belief in God or even in fortifying their belief after their original acceptance of it. In making this observation, "reason" is not used in any specially narrow sense. A person may, in a perfectly familiar and proper sense, be said to have arrived at a conclusion by means of reason without having set out any formal arguments. However, there seems to be a good deal of evidence that the majority of human beings came to their belief in God by traditional indoctrination. Nor is it particularly plausible to maintain that originally this belief was the product of reason. If reason had anything to do with it, its role, in the opinion of most contemporary psychologists, was probably quite subsidiary. Joyce's view that man's natural inclinations would lead to denial rather than to belief in God seems highly doubtful. There is a good deal of disagreement about the exact psychological mechanisms involved, but the majority of psychologists seem to think that man's loneliness and helplessness, as well as his animistic propensities, incline him to belief in protective (and also hostile) cosmic powers. This does not, of course, mean that such beliefs cannot also be adequately supported by rational considerations, but it does undermine Joyce's argument.

It should be emphasized that the view just outlined is by no means confined to antireligious psychologists. Fideistic theists would most certainly endorse these observations, as would many believers who have stressed the evil and suffering in the observable world. Indeed, most of the defenders of the biological form of the Common Consent Argument would be opposed to Joyce's account. "Our own consciousness," in the words of Charles Hodge (op. cit., pp. 199200), "teaches us that this is not the ground of our own faith. We do not reason ourselves into the belief that there is a God; and it is very obvious that it is not by a process of ratiocination, that the mass of the people are brought to this conclusion."

Even if this difficulty could be overcome, however, and if it were granted that human beings arrive at their belief in God by reason, Joyce's argument would still be in trouble. If "universal skepticism" stands for the view that human beings can never find the true answer to any question, then it is not implied by the rejection of the universal belief of humankind in God. All kinds of other explanations of the "universal error," short of "the radical untrustworthiness" of human reason, seem possible and cannot be ruled out without further ado. It has, for example, been widely held by Kantians, nineteenth-century positivists, and fideists that human reason, while trustworthy as long as it deals with empirical and purely formal issues, is not fit to handle questions transcending experience.

As for the observations of Martineau and Holmes, several points are in order. To begin with, "appeals to the best opinion" are of logical force only in areas in which there are experts, as there are in physics or dentistry, for example. In this sense there is no such thing, either for the independent thinker or for anybody else, as a "consensus of best opinion" when we come to such questions as the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, just as there have been great men and great philosophers who believed in God, so there have also been great men and great philosophers who did not. Since presumably both groups cannot be right, we will be left with the conclusion that men who deserve to be "reverenced" are occasionally mistakenno matter which view is taken on this subject. Finally, there is nothing about the loftiness of an "inspiration" that guarantees its truth. People whose loftiness makes them believe the best about their neighbors are probably as often mistaken as those whose lack of loftiness makes them believe the worst.

Is Belief in God Universal?

Let us now turn to a discussion of the detailed objections to the premise which all forms of the Common Consent Argument share, namely, that all or practically all human beings are believers in God.

anthropological objections

To begin with, there is a series of objections based on what is known or allegedly known about primitive tribes and about religions which are not monotheistic. We have already seen that Locke believed, on the basis of the reports of travelers, that there were whole nations without the notion of God. This view was widely advocated by anthropologists and sociologists in the nineteenth century, many of whom did not rely on the reports of others but spent long periods studying the beliefs and habits of primitive peoples at first hand. It was developed in considerable detail by Sir John Lubbock in his pioneering work, Prehistoric Times, and it had the unqualified endorsement of Charles Darwin, who, in The Descent of Man (Ch. 3), reported confirmations in his own experience with the Fuegians. The denial that belief in God is universal was an essential part of the position of the so-called evolutionary anthropologists. They maintained that there was a gradual transition from animism, via fetishism, to a belief, first, in many gods and then, finally, in a single God. Several of these writers, however, used the word religion very broadly to include belief in any unseen spiritual agencies, and in this sense both E. B. Tylor (the eminent evolutionary anthropologist) and Darwin were ready to admit that religious belief appeared to be universal among the less civilized tribes. The philosopher Fritz Mauthner, who followed this tradition, expressed himself very strongly on the subject. In Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande (Vol. IV, Ch. 10) he accused Christian missionaries of "translation impertinence" in dragging out of aborigines the confession that they believed in a heavenly Father, when more careful investigation revealed that they did not mean anything of the kind. He also protested against the trick, as he called it, by advocates of the consensus gentium, of using the word religion ambiguouslyat first in the broad sense of Tylor and Darwin, in which it may be plausible to maintain the universality of religion, and then shifting to the narrower sense, required by their argument, in which it implies belief in God or gods.

Critics of the argument have also pointed out that there are numerous tribes believing in polytheism without having in their theology one supreme deity. Hence, even if the argument were otherwise sound, it could not prove the existence of a single Supreme Being.

Finally, it has been maintained that there are religions, of which Buddhism is the most notable instance, which have no belief in God at all.

To the last of these criticisms, the customary answer is that, while the founder of such a religion may indeed not have believed in God or gods, once these religions spread, they acquired theologiesand sometimes exceedingly extravagant ones at that. Joyce, who was familiar with this objection, regarded the example of Buddhism as highly favorable to his argument. It was his contention that no religion or philosophical system which rules out belief in God "has ever succeeded in maintaining a prominent hold on any people" (p. 197). In China, Buddhism flourished, but there it became a polytheistic religion. In India, on the other hand, where the original agnostic teachings were not substantially changed, the Buddhist creed could not hold its own and had to give way to modern Hinduism.

The existence of polytheistic religions is not, of course, questioned by defenders of the Common Consent Argument. Some, indeed, like Flint and Mercier, are willing to concede that the argument, by itself, does not favor a stronger conclusion than that God or gods exist. This, however, is not the usual reaction. Recent advocates of the argument have commonly challenged the entire scheme of the evolutionary anthropologists. Basing their argument largely on the work of the Austrian anthropologist Father Wilhelm Schmidt (18681954) and others belonging to the "theological school," they deny that polytheism antedates monotheism and insist, furthermore, that in every polytheistic religion there is one supreme deity. According to Schmidt, the simplest peoples are also the oldest, and they are believers in a very pure monotheism. Their God possesses all the main attributes of the God of Christianity and Judaism: he is the creator of reality, he supplies the foundation of morality, and he is also omnipotent, omniscient, and supremely good. As societies became more complex, this monotheism became transformed into various kinds of animism, polytheism, and ancestor worship. Even among these later cultures, Schmidt finds "a clear acknowledgment and worship of a supreme being," while all other "supernormal beings" are regarded as far inferior and subject to him.

It would be idle to get involved here in the controversies between Schmidt's school and other schools of anthropology, especially since there are objections to the Argument from Common Consent which can be evaluated without taking sides on anthropological issues. Perhaps the only comment worth making is that while contemporary anthropologists are willing to credit Schmidt and other members of the theological school with some sound criticisms of the evolutionary anthropologists and with a good deal of impressive field work, the great majority of them regard his basic theories as quite unsupported by the available evidence.

unbelievers in the western world

The other main challenge to the claim that belief in God is universal consists in pointing to the unbelievers in Western culture. It is admitted that unbelievers are a minority, but it is argued that they are and have for some time been too significant a minority not to affect the "moral unanimity of mankind" on this subject. This challenge and the various attempted rebuttals deserve, but have very rarely received, extended discussion.

"Belief" redefined

One way in which the significance of individual unbelievers may be discounted is apparent in the tendency of some Protestant writers to define "belief in God" or "religion" or both so broadly as to make it virtually impossible for a human being not to be a believer or to be religious. In our own day such writers frequently follow Paul Tillich's definition of an atheist as someone who believes that "life is shallow" and of an irreligious person as someone who has "no object of ultimate concern." However, the use of such definitions to do away with unbelievers achieves a victory which is purely illusory. It will now indeed be possible to call a man like Denis Diderot a believer and religious. But in the sense in which there was a dispute about the existence of unbelievers, namely, whether there are people who do not believe in the existence of what is usually understood by "God," Diderot and countless other people will still have to be classified as unbelievers. Moreover, if the premise of the Common Consent Argument is now a true proposition, with "believer" used in the new sense, the conclusion established, if any, would not be the one originally aimed at. It would not show that God exists but rather, using Tillich's redefinitions, that life is not shallow and that there are objects of ultimate concern.

Unbelievers discounted as abnormal

One of the favorite devices used to defend the consensus gentium against irritating exceptions has been the charge that unbelievers are in effect too morally or mentally defective to count as representative of human opinion. Strangely enough, this tactic was used by Pierre Gassendi, who was highly critical of Herbert of Cherbury's argument and from whom, in view of his own independence of thought, one might have expected something better. In the course of expounding his version of the argument, Gassendi minimized the number and importance of atheists, declaring that they are either "intellectual monstrosities" or "freaks of nature." More recently this defense was adopted by some eminent nineteenth-century Protestant theologians. Thus A. H. Strong, in a text that was widely used in Protestant seminaries, observed that just as the oak must not be judged by the "stunted, the flowerless specimens on the edge of the Arctic Circle," so we must not take account of unbelievers in judging the nature of man (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 56). One of the rivals of Strong's book was Hodge's Systematic Theology. Hodge was not to be outdone. A man's hand, he reminds us, may be so hardened as to lose the sense of touch, but this does not prove that the hand is not "normally the great organ of touch." Similarly, it is possible that "the moral nature of a man may be so disorganized by vice or by a false philosophy as to have its testimony for the existence of God effectually silenced" (op. cit., p. 198). Human beings cannot abandon belief in God "without derationalizing and demoralizing their whole being" (p. 201); and the belief, or rather lack of belief, of such a "derationalized" and "demoralized" individual does not count.

Perhaps two brief comments will be sufficient here. First, Hodge at least is begging the question when he refers to the "false philosophy" that silences the testimony for the existence of God. The question is precisely whether this is a false philosophy. If this were already known, there would be no need for the Argument from Common Consent. Second, and more important, anybody having the slightest familiarity with the history of unbelief must surely protest that many of the outstanding thinkers of the last two centuries were avowed unbelievers. Like other mortals, they may have been frequently in error, but to dismiss them as freaks, to compare them to stunted, flowerless oaks, or to regard their moral nature as disorganized by vice is surely outrageous nonsense.

Unbelief discounted as an illusion

Some of those who regard the unbeliever as "unnatural" or "monstrous" do not, perhaps, wish to refer to any actual human being. This may be so because some of them also maintain that really everybody is a believer in God even though he may say the opposite and believe that he believes the opposite. (The strategy here is rather different from the redefinitional maneuver described above.) Hodge, for example, offers two reasons in support of such a position. First, unbelief is such an unnatural state that it cannot last. "Whatever rouses the moral nature, whether it be danger, or suffering, or the approach of death, banishes unbelief in a moment (ibid., p. 198). There seems to be an obvious answer to this. It is true that unbelievers have become converted or reconverted on occasions, but it is equally true that others have remained unbelievers right to the end of their lives. Furthermore, those who became converted must really have been unbelievers before their change of position, or else there would have been no conversion. To this it must be added that there are also shifts in the opposite direction, and if a person does not count as an unbeliever at all because he ultimately becomes a believer, then those who change from belief to unbelief will have to be counted as unbelievers exclusively.

Hodge's second reason would probably have a much wider appeal. "It is hardly conceivable," he writes, "that a human soul should exist in any state of development, without a sense of responsibility, and this involves the idea of God. For the responsibility is felt to be not to self, nor to men, but to an invisible Being, higher than self and higher than man" (ibid., p. 197). Hodge is certainly not alone in taking the line that if a person is a moral creature and not lacking in sensibility, then he must be a believer in God. Even at the present time there are many people who seem to rule out a priori the possibility that a good person can be an unbeliever. To give just one illustration, Justice William O. Douglas wrote a highly laudatory preface to a recent collection of the court pleas of Clarence Darrow (Attorney for the Damned ). Darrow had repeatedly stated and defended his agnosticism, and he never once retracted this position. Nevertheless, seeing that Darrow was such a kind and compassionate man, Douglas remarks: "Darrow met religious bigotry head-on but he obviously believed in an infinite God who was the Maker of all humanity."

There are several confusions in reasoning of this kind. To begin with, the criteria which all of us employ to determine that a man is kind, that he does not lack sensibility, that he shows responsibility in his relations with other human beingsthat, in short, he is a "moral person" or a good manare quite distinct from those which we employ when determining that he is a believer in God. This at any rate must be so if the statement that all believers in God and only believers in God are good is to be, as it is usually taken to be (both by those who accept it and by those who deny it), a factual claim and not a tautology.

Second, the claim that responsibility is invariably felt not to oneself or to other men but to an invisible Being is unwarranted. Assuming that some people do on occasions feel responsibility to an invisible Being, this is certainly not true of all. If people who assure us that they feel responsible, but not to an invisible Being, are to be discounted or disbelieved, why should we count and accept the assurances of those who say that they feel responsible to the invisible Being? Moreover, it appears that the attitude, even of religious believers, is not generally in accord with Hodge's account. If a believer borrows money and considers himself obligated to return it, he surely, like an unbeliever, regards himself as obligated to the person who lent him the money and not to anybody else. Suppose believers were asked the following question in such a situation: "If an atheistic philosopher persuaded you that God does not exist, but if otherwise the situation remained exactly the sameyou needed the money badly, your friend helped you without hesitation, you promised to repay him as soon as possible, and so onwould you still consider yourself obligated to repay the loan?" It seems very doubtful that more than a handful of believers would reply that they no longer regarded themselves as obligated.

Questions about whether a person who says that he believes or disbelieves a proposition and who is apparently not lying, does really believe or disbelieve it, are complicated by the fact that "belief" is an ambiguous word. Without entering into any subtleties or attempting an elaborate analysis, it may be granted that there is nothing absurd in the suggestion that a person may sincerely regard himself as an unbeliever when in fact he is a believer, or vice versa. It is helpful in this connection to distinguish belief in terms of verbal responses and positions adopted in purely theoretical contexts from belief insofar as it is exhibited in actions and in involuntary responses, especially to critical situations.

Bertrand Russell discusses this question in a little-known essay titled "Stoicism and Mental Health." He points out that people who say, with all appearance of sincerity, that they believe in an afterlife seem to fear their own death or regret the death of their friends as much as those who say that they do not believe in an afterlife. He explains this "apparent inconsistency" by remarking that the belief in the afterlife is in most people "only in the region of conscious thought and has not succeeded in modifying unconscious mechanisms" (In Praise of Idleness, paperback ed., London, 1960, pp. 133134). Many of us, like Russell, are inclined to regard the latter, the sense in which belief is expressed in involuntary responses and not merely in theoretical contexts, as the "deeper" sense. We say that a man has reached and avows a certain conclusion, but "deep down" he really believes the opposite. It must be conceded to the defender of the Argument from Common Consent that there are people who are unbelievers in the verbal and theoretical sense but who in a deeper sense do believe in God. This is notoriously true of some who are brought up in a religious home and much later come under the influence of skeptical thinkers.

Nevertheless, the Common Consent Argument is not really helped by this admission. For, in the first place, there can be no reasonable doubt that a good many people are unbelievers in both senses; and second, not a few cases are known of believers, that is, people who sincerely believe in God in terms of their verbal and theoretical responses whose actions show them to be unbelievers "deep down." This fact has been repeatedly stressed by religious writers when castigating some of the members of their own groups as "practical atheists."

Unbelief seen as a negligible influence

Some defenders of the argument are quite ready to admit the existence of highly educated unbelievers. In other words, they question neither the genuineness of the lack of belief nor the intellectual standing of unbelievers. However, they add to this the fact that unbelievers have failed and are bound to fail to make any major inroads on humankind at large. "We find a disposition on the part of some few philosophers to dispute the validity of the belief," writes Boedder (op. cit., p. 68), "but nevertheless the belief has proved to be persistent and indestructible in the mass of humankind. It is this persistency among the mass of men, retained even in the teeth of skeptical opposition, on which our argument is based."

Sometimes a comparison is made between the unbelievers and the philosophers who deny the existence of an external world or the reality of space and time but are rightly laughed off by ordinary people whose common sense is intact. Granting that the ordinary person is in some sense right as against the philosopher who denies the reality of time, to confine ourselves to one such case, the comparison seems to be very weak in more ways than one. For one thing, unbelief in matters of religion is not at all confined to professional philosophers or to people who are naturally referred to as intellectuals. Furthermore, as G. E. Moore has pointed out, the philosophers who say such things as "time is unreal" and who presumably in some sense also believe this, also say things and cannot help saying things which indicate that they also do not believe it. The very philosophers who say that time is unreal nevertheless use clocks, complain when their students are late, plan for the future, and engage in the same activities that the ordinary man regards as presupposing the reality of time. Nothing even remotely comparable can be found in the case of unbelievers as a class.

However, returning to the original question, it is not at all certain that unbelieving philosophers and other critics of belief in God have not significantly affected the masses. There seems to be a good deal of evidence to the contrary; but even if it were true and the impact has in fact been negligible, this could be explained quite plausibly without supposing either that belief in God is inherent or, as Boedder claims, that reason, properly used, is certain to lead to a theological conclusion.

Are Men by Nature "God-Seekers"?

There are philosophers and psychologists of influence who either do not believe in God at all or who, at any rate, do not favor the enterprise of buttressing belief in God by means of "proofs" but are nevertheless concerned to maintain that human beings are by nature religiousthat they are, in Max Scheler's phrase, "God-seekers." They would point out that it is this question of "philosophical anthropology," and not any question about the validity of the Common Consent Argument, which is of real interest and human importance. Though perhaps invalid as a proof of the existence of God, the Common Consent Argument does embody an important insight about the nature of man.

These writers are a great deal more sophisticated than most of the traditional defenders of the argument, whose views we considered in preceding sections. They do not at all deny that, in the most obvious sense, the world is full of unbelievers, but they would add that a great many of these unbelievers feel a strong urge to worship something or somebody and therefore invent all kinds of surrogate deities. Man's "gods and demons," writes Jung, "have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names." Those, in the words of Miguel de Unamuno, "who do not believe in God or who believe that they do not believe in Him, believe nevertheless in some little pocket god or even devil of their own." "Religious agnosticism," writes Scheler, "is not a psychological fact, but a self-deception it is an essential law [ein Wesensgesetz ] that every finite spirit believes either in God or in an idol. These idols may vary greatly. So-called unbelievers may treat the state or a woman or art or knowledge or any number of other things as if they were God" (Gesammelte Werke, Vol. V, pp. 261262). Scheler adds that what needs explanation is not belief in God, which is original and natural, but unbelief or, rather, belief in an idol. The situation is not infrequently compared with the sexual instinct and what we know about the consequences of its suppression. If the sexual instinct does not find natural gratification, it does not cease to be operative but becomes diverted into other and less wholesome channels. The worship of institutions and human deities is said to be a similarly pathological phenomenon.

An evaluation of this position, which amounts in effect to an endorsement of the theory of the religious instinct without inferring the existence of God from it, is not possible here because it would involve elaborate discussions of child psychology and the causation of neurosis and "alienation." Here we can only observe that in the opinion of many contemporary thinkers there is no reason whatever to suppose that human beings are "by nature" religious. In their opinion the "hunger for God," in its orthodox no less than in its newer "substitute" expressions, is invariably the result of certain deprivations and traumatic experiences. People who suffer from insufficient contact with other human beings and who do not find the natural world satisfying will tend to experience longings for something supernatural or feel a need to endow human beings with supernatural attributes. Some of these writers would go further and maintain that traditional religion, through its life-denying morality and irrational taboos, is itself in no small measure responsible for the existence of the type of personality that displays the hunger for God. Sigmund Freud, who took this position, conceded that those in whom the "sweetor bitter-sweetpoison," as he called religion, had been instilled early in life were unable to dispense with it later on. The same, he added, is not true of others who have been brought up more soberly. "Not suffering from neurosis," they will "need no intoxicant to deaden it."

See also Cambridge Platonists; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Clement of Alexandria; Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God; Darwin, Charles Robert; Degrees of Perfection, Argument for the Existence of God; Freud, Sigmund; Gassendi, Pierre; Grotius, Hugo; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herbert of Cherbury; Hooker, Richard; Locke, John; Martineau, James; Mercier, Désiré Joseph; Mill, John Stuart; Moore, George Edward; Moral Arguments for the Existence of God; Ontological Argument for the Existence of God; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Scheler, Max; Seneca, Lucius Annaeus; Stewart, Dugald; Teleological Argument for the Existence of God; Tillich, Paul; Unamuno y Jugo, Miguel de.


There is no full-length study in any language of the different forms of the Common Consent Argument. The major reference works contain either no entries or else very brief and unhelpful ones. Even Rudolf Eisler's "Consensus Gentium," in Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 vols., 4th ed. (Berlin: E.S. Mittler, 1930), devotes less than a page to this subject.

The fullest defenses of the argument are found in Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Scribners, 18711873), Vol. I; Bernard Boedder, Natural Theology (London, 1896); and G. H. Joyce, The Principles of Natural Theology (London: Longmans, Green, 1923). Briefer discussions also favoring the argument are contained in A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Griffith and Rowland, 1907), Vol. I; Robert Flint, Theism (London: Blackwood, 1877); Hermann Ulrici, Gott und die Natur, 3 vols., 3rd ed. (Leipzig: T.O. Weigel, 1875), Vol. I; and Cardinal Mercier, A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, translated by T. L. and S. A. Parker, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1928), Vol. II. The famous nineteenth-century biologist G. J. Romanes, in "The Influence of Science upon Religion," which forms Part I of his Thoughts on Religion (Chicago: Open Court, 1895), defends the biological form of the argument as proving not that there is a God but that if "the general order of nature is due to Mind," then the character of that Mind is "such as it is conceived to be by the most highly developed form of religion."

A popular contemporary statement of the biological version of the argument is advanced in Chad Walsh, Atheism Doesn't Make Sense (Cincinnati, n.d.). Among earlier writers, Cicero defended the argument in De Natura Deorum, Book II, Sec. II, translated by C. D. Yonge as The Nature of the Gods (London, 1892); by Herbert of Cherbury in De Veritate, translated by M. H. Carré (Bristol, U.K.: University of Bristol, 1937); and by Pierre Gassendi in Syntagma Philosophicum, in his Opera Omnia, edited by H. L. H. de Montmorency and F. Henri, Vol. I (Lyons: Lavrentii Anisson and Ioan, 1658).

One of the earliest criticisms of the argument was by Locke, in Essay concerning Human Understanding (London: Thomas Bassett, 1690), Book I. There are brief and unsystematic critical discussions in several of the works of the freethinkers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, including Bayle, Paul-Henri Holbach, and Büchner, but the first detailed and systematic critique is found in J. S. Mill, Three Essays on Religion (New York: Henry Holt, 1874). More recently, the argument has been attacked in John Caird, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Glasgow: J. Madehose, 1880); Fritz Mauthner, Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte in Abendlande, Vol. IV (Stuttgart, 1923); and in two books by Josef Popper-Lynkeus: Das Individuum und die Bewertung menschlicher Existenz (Dresden: C. Reissner, 1910) and Über Religion (Vienna: R. Löwit, 1924). Popper-Lynkeus' criticisms are, for the most part, an elaboration of David Hume's remark that "the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real." Hume's discussion of this topic occurs in Sec. XII of The Natural History of Religion (London, 1757; critical ed. with introduction by H. E. Root, London: A. and C. Black, 1956), a work which also anticipates many of the conclusions of the evolutionary anthropologists of the nineteenth century. There is a discussion, at once critical and sympathetic, in Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples, translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch (New York, 1921).

Two more recent works surveying the evidence concerning the religious beliefs of primitive tribes are Guy E. Swanson, The Birth of the Gods (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), and W. J. Goode, Religion among the Primitives (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1951). Wilhelm Schmidt's theory is stated in his The Origin and Growth of Religion, translated by H. J. Rose (London; Methuen, 1931). A view similar to Schmidt's was expressed by Andrew Lang in various works, including The Making of Religion (London: Longmans, Green, 1898) and Magic and Religion (London: Longmans, Green, 1901). The Anthropological Review 2 (1864): 217222, contains an interesting summary of an address by the Reverend F. W. Farrar, "On the Universality of Belief in God and in the Future State," in which a great deal of evidence is presented to the effect that neither belief in God nor belief in an afterlife is universal. The discussion following Farrar's address is also reported, and most of the participants, including W. R. Wallace, fully supported Farrar's negative conclusion.

J.-H. Leuba, The Belief in God and Immortality (Boston: Sherman, French, 1916), presents evidence concerning belief and unbelief among academic groups in the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, there has been virtually no study in depth of religious belief and unbelief in the general population of any country.

Jung's views on the natural religious needs of human beings and the sickness of modern men who have lost their religion are stated in Psychology and Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1938) and Modern Man in Search of a Soul, translated by W. S. Dell and C. F. Baynes (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1933). Scheler's similar views are found in his Vom Ewigen im Menschen, in Gesammelte Werke, 4th rev. ed., Vol. V (Bern: Francke, 1954). The opposite position is defended by Sigmund Freud in The Future of an Illusion, translated by W. D. Robson-Scott (New York: H. Liveright, 1928), and Wilhelm Reich, in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, translated by T. P. Wolfe (New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1946). The views of Freud and Reich are foreshadowed in Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, translated by George Eliot (London, 1853).

Paul Edwards (1967)