KEVIN’S BLOG There is no such thing as an impossible God

Whilst I’m not a total advocate of philosophical approaches to RE, their benefits are undeniable. The subject can’t do without a critical layer. Though religious beliefs and practices shouldn’t be conflated with philosophical ideas – the nature of religious beliefs and practices can, often, be very different from that of the rationally worked-through principles found in philosophy – in approaching what we might call the formal claims on truth made by different religious traditions, some engagement with the philosophy of religion seems necessary.

 

I enjoyed philosophy of religion as a university student and even more as a teacher. Questions about the existence or qualities of God, religious experience, miracles or the problem of evil appear to engage and stretch the minds of upper secondary age students in powerful ways. I guess this explains the phenomenal recent success story of Religious Studies A level. In 2017, 23,856 entries were recorded, compared to 11,132 in 2003. This is an increase of 114%, greater than for any arts, humanities or social science subject. 23.3% of entries for Religious Studies A level were awarded an A or an A*. [1]

 

Many of you will be busy preparing to teach Religious Studies A level lessons and, given the curiosity and appetite of your students, looking for enhancement material beyond that provided by the standard textbooks. Well, the Research for RE website contains a very varied set of materials, relevant in different ways to different aspects of RE, including research that can be applied directly to Religious Studies A level teaching. The definition of research adopted for the website is broad, including the kind of scholarly or philosophical activity highlighted in this blog post. This month I’m featuring research by the philosopher Patrick Todd. [2]

 

The new generation of Religious Studies A level specifications continue to include philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God. Research for RE reports an article in which Patrick Todd demonstrates how God can’t have qualities which are impossible to have. [3] This point affects arguments against the existence of God in important ways. Let me elaborate. An argument against theism could be that God is supposed to possess a certain quality, such as omniscience; but that having the relevant quality is impossible (no being knows everything: it would include knowing that you knew everything, but this knowledge would be based on your knowing everything, and something cannot be based on itself). Therefore God does not exist. But Patrick Todd sees such arguments as ineffective. If having a given quality is impossible, and God is the greatest possible being, God need not have that quality.

 

There are better ways of arguing for atheism, continues Patrick Todd. You could argue that God would have to have a quality (e.g. perfect goodness) in order to be God; then prove that its possession is impossible. Or that an existent God would have to have a certain quality, and prove this to be inconsistent with the facts of the world. Evil, for instance, is a fact of the world, incompatible with a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God. Patrick Todd introduces some interesting vocabulary. An ‘OmniGod’ possesses all ideal qualities. A ‘MaximalGod’ possesses only those ideal qualities that are possible. Nevertheless, a ‘MaximalGod’ is no solution to the problem of evil: the existence of the greatest possible being is still brought into question by the existence of evil.

 

You could give your A level students a bit of an edge by getting them to register on Research for RE, read the report of Patrick Todd’s research and perhaps consult the original article. A print-out of the Research for RE report gives you an excellent lesson plan and resource, moreover. In its ‘How RE teachers might make use of it’ section, we are advising that teachers of A level Religious Studies could use the material directly with students, when teaching about the nature of God, or arguments for and against the nature of God. The students could, for example, evaluate the ‘OmniGod’ / ‘MaximalGod’ distinction. Is ‘MaximalGod’ an adequate concept of God? How far is it compatible with other important beliefs such as creatio ex nihilo or miracles? Is Patrick Todd correct to argue that ‘MaximalGod’ is no solution to the problem of evil? In these ways, the students would deepen their understanding of the issues, extend their subject specialist language and be challenged to be critical.

 

We would be very interested indeed to hear about how it goes. You are encouraged, of course, to leave feedback on Patrick Todd’s research on the Research for RE website. Additionally, if you leave comments below, or email them to Kevin@cstg.org.uk , we will follow them up; we hope in future to publish case studies of how Research for RE reports are being used by teachers or other RE professionals. Finally, if you have found a Research for RE report to be particularly interesting or useful, you may wish to nominate it to be featured as RE Research of the Month – again, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

 

1 https://www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/news/a-level-religious-studies-entries-remain-high/

 

2 You can meet Patrick Todd virtually at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xmi5d4tibXY

 

3 Read the report at http://researchforre.reonline.org.uk/research_report/god-cant-have-qualities-which-are-impossible-to-have/?show_me=research_report&about=5&taxes=philosophy-and-ethics. (you can also find a link to the original article there).