Existential Reasons for Believing in God

By Clifford Williams

Christian apologetics typically employs evidential arguments to justify believing in God. Without undermining the importance of such arguments, I want to advocate for existential arguments for believing in God. An existential argument does not give evidence for thinking that God exists, that is, for thinking that “God exists” is true, but states that believing in God is justified because it satisfies certain needs. A person who is convinced of an existential argument says, “I believe because I am satisfied when I do.” A person who is convinced of an evidential argument says, “I believe because there is a good reason to do so,” where “good reason” consists of true statements from which one can infer that God exists.

An obvious response to existential arguments is to say that satisfying needs has little or nothing to do with the correctness of any belief, and it is the correctness of belief in God that should be the basis of the belief.

To this, I say, yes. If satisfaction of need is the only basis for believing in God, it is not trustworthy. But reason can be added to satisfaction of need so that satisfaction of need becomes trustworthy. Moreover, believing in God should not consist only of emotionless assent to arguments showing the correctness of the belief. It should also consist of emotions based on the satisfaction of certain needs.

The central claim of “existential apologetics” is that the ideal way to justify believing in God is through both the satisfaction of need and the use of reason. This claim entails that the best believing in God consists of emotion and assent. This conception of believing makes it integrate with more parts of who we are than is the case with just a need or reason conception of belief. As tied to need, believing in God satisfies the cravings that matter most to us, which makes it deeply comforting. As tied to reason, believing in God satisfies our need to be truly connected to what is real. This, too, is deeply comforting. Believing in God needs both kinds of comfort in order to be compelling.

Reason can be added to satisfaction of need in several ways. The first is to point out that it is not just one need that believing in God satisfies, such as the need for a cosmic protector that Freud critiqued. There is, rather, a variety of interlocking needs that believing in God satisfies. The existential argument for believing in God can thus be stated in this way:

          1. We need cosmic security. We need to know that we will live beyond the grave in a state that is free from the defects of this life, a state that is full of goodness and justice. We need a more expansive life, one in which we love and are loved. We need meaning, and we need to know that we are forgiven for going astray. We also need to experience awe, to delight in goodness, and to be present with those we love.

          2. Believing in God satisfies these needs.

          3. Therefore, we are justified in believing in God.[1]

With the eleven or twelve needs mentioned in the argument, it is harder to dismiss than one that relies only on one need.

An objector might say, though, that, given the logic of this argument, one could just as legitimately believe in a cosmic torturer by appealing to the “need” for people to suffer.

Here we can appeal to “need criteria.” The need criteria assert that the needs that are the basis for believing in God must be felt by many others, must endure, must be significant, must be part of a constellation of connected needs, and must be felt strongly. These five criteria rule out the “need” for people to suffer as a basis for an existential argument for believing in a cosmic torturer, because the need is not felt by many people, does not endure, and is not part of a constellation of connected needs. The five criteria also rule out afternoon whims and other peripheral needs.

The criteria themselves are justified because similar criteria are used in a number of other circumstances—in assessing reports of unusual phenomena, in courtrooms to assess evidence, and by psychologists who construct personality theories. The need criteria are, accordingly, independently acceptable. And, here is the point—they are a way of using reason to assess existential needs.

Still, someone might wonder why people could not just as legitimately say that believing in some nontheistic way satisfies the needs mentioned in the existential argument, such as believing in a nontheistic religion or in a nonreligious way of living.

The answer involves using what I call “the restlessness test,” “the obstacle test,” “the value test,” and “the satisfaction test.” In the restlessness test, one tries to determine whether one is still restless after having satisfied the existential needs. In the obstacle test, one tries to determine whether one has noncognitive obstacles to believing in God. In the value test, one tries to determine the value of the emotions that one has when satisfying the existential needs. And in the satisfaction test, one assesses the satisfying emotions for their endurance, significance, and connectedness to other satisfying emotions. Each of these tests is, again, a way of combining the use of reason with the satisfaction of need in order to validate the satisfaction.

Applying the need criteria to the existential needs and employing the four tests to appraise one’s satisfaction of the existential needs are, to be sure, slippery. But this fact does not show that the need criteria and the four tests have no value at all. They do. They can be used to make a convincing case for a number of truths. They show that a life of compassion satisfies the need for meaning and love better than a life of watching television six hours a day. In like manner, they show that believing in a God who loves and forgives satisfies the need for cosmic acceptance better than a life of uncertainty and anguish about one’s inability to be good all the time.

What I call existential apologetics is just these sorts of showings. It consists of showing that believing in God is justified because it satisfies certain emotional and existential needs. Based on my view that both need and reason are important for securing belief in God, the claim I want to make about existential apologetics is that it is both a legitimate and needed enterprise.[2]


[1] Quoted from Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 32.  

[2] This is a condensed version of my “Existential Arguments for Theistic Beliefs,” in Paul Copan and Charles Taliaferro, eds., The Naturalness of Belief: New Essays on Theism’s Rationality (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019), 161–173. Used with permission.    

Clifford Williams is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Trinity International University. His Religion and the Meaning of Life: An Existential Approach was published recently by Cambridge University Press.

Quotable—Aren’t We Better Off Without Religion?

New Atheists have spun a credibility-killing web around faith. In 2004, Sam Harris published The End of Faith: Religions Terror, and the Future of Reason, followed in 2006 by Letter to a Christian Nation. That same year, Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion, which remained on the New York Times best seller list for fifty-one weeks. In 2008, the late Christopher Hitchens launched his tour de force of new atheist persuasion, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. These rhetorically gifted men preached that Christianity was neither plausible nor desirable. Dawkins ridiculed a faith disproved by science. Hitchens sought to puncture the sagging balloon of public opinion that imagined Christianity was a force for good.

Invigorated by these triumphs, atheists have boldly claimed the moral and intellectual high ground— even when that has meant trespassing. In a popular 2011 TED talk, “Atheism 2.0,” School of Life founder Alain de Botton advocated a new kind of atheism that could retain the goods of religion without the downside of belief. He salivated over the black American preaching tradition and the enthusiastic response of congregants: “Thank you Jesus, thank you Christ, thank you Savior!” Rather than abandoning rapture, de Botton suggested secular audiences respond to atheist preaching by lauding their heroes: “Thank you Plato, thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen!” One wonders how Shakespeare, whose world was fundamentally shaped by Christianity, would have felt about being cast as an atheist icon. But when it comes to Jane Austen, the answer is clear: a woman of deep, explicit, and abiding faith in Jesus, she would be utterly appalled.

Likewise, at the 2016 “Reason Rally,” designed to mobilize atheists, agnostics, and “nones,” multiple speakers invoked Martin Luther King’s March on Washington—as if a rally that despised Christianity would have pleased one of the most powerful Christian preachers in American history. In the same year, I stumbled upon an Atlantic article that promised to explain “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories.” As a Brit living in America, I read it eagerly, only to find it arguing that American children’s stories are less compelling because they are more Christian. The author cited The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia as examples of stories shaped by paganism, failing to note that Tolkien and Lewis were passionate Christians who grounded their stories in the death-and-resurrection truth claims of Jesus. J. K. Rowling, another author referenced on the side of good-old British paganism, chose not to disclose her fragile Christian faith until the last Harry Potter book was published, precisely because of its Christian influence: she feared it would give the story away. The trend persists. In an oddly appropriating act, the 2018 film version of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time expunged its many Christian references.

Meanwhile, brilliant skeptical storytellers have captured our imaginations. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been revivified in a popular Hulu dramatization. It imagines New England ruled by a pseudo-Christian sect, the Sons of Jacob. Women’s bank accounts are suspended. Women are forbidden to read or work jobs. Those still fertile after a nuclear fallout are assigned to male “Commanders,” who seek to impregnate them in a monthly ceremony, supposedly modeled on Abraham’s impregnation of his wife Sarah’s handmaid. Partly inspired by the 1980 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Atwood envisages a similarly repressive, supposedly Christian regime.

Back in my own motherland, the iconic sci-fi series Doctor Who takes viewers on breathless sprints between the moving, the witty, and the profound. The Doctor is in many ways deeply Christlike, and Doctor Who is one of my all-time-favorite shows, but its anti-Christian messaging is hard to miss. “Weeping angels” feed on human lifespans. “Headless monks” are ruled by faith: decapitation has rendered them literally thoughtless. The fifty-first century church is a military operation. The list of compelling stories, shows, and songs that invite us to reject religion is long, and we forget how much of the cultural capital we see as universal was sculpted by Christianity.

To some extent, of course, we Christians have dug our own grave. The entrenchment of the culture wars has led many believers to lose touch with their heritage, while Christians and atheists alike assume that secular means normative. Christians invented the university and founded most of the world’s top schools to glorify God. And yet studying is seen as a threat to faith. Christians invented science, yet science is seen as antithetical to Christianity. Christians have told some of the best stories in history. But if the tales are too good, too entrancing, too magical, we assume that the authors cannot espouse this supposedly story-killing faith.

—Excerpted from Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin (Crossway, 2019).

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