Why are we so bad at being convincing?

For the past few years i’ve been very interested in philosophy of religion. I’m a science student but i’ve taken a few philosophy classes (all philosophy of religion) and it’s become one of my biggest academic interests. I spend a lot of time reading arguments about religion and arguing over them myself and yet, no one ever seems to come out convinced. Why is this?

We’ve had people like Aquinas and Anselm churn out supposedly very good arguments for centuries and yet, the world is still awash with people who aren’t Christians, why is this?

My philosophy of religion professor is decently renown in the field and his idea is that a lot of religious arguments aren’t so much made for proving it to other people (because people are bound to deny a lot of the premises) but are more made to justify the beliefs people already hold or provide a rational case for them to continue to believe. Is this the case?

I can’t speak for everyone. It’s not so much that i don’t want to believe. I went to catholic schools for the entirety of my pre-university life. There have been times (without getting into specifics) in my life where it would have been greatly beneficial for me to believe in a God. So, it’s not that i don’t want to. It’s that i can’t, based on the evidence and arguments i see, it points towards the conclusion there is no God, so, i have little choice in believing that.

I think that’s just important to mention because i suspect some people might just accuse me of arrogance against God or not wanting to believe to preserve my current lifestyle or something.

Thanks for all the ideas guys, kp.

theistic arguments soley ]

[Thought i should just point out this is my interpretation, as a non-philosophy major, of my professors idea. I wouldn’t go around attributing it to him just because i mentioned it. I could be totally wrong. Don’t want to cause anyone any trouble.]

It seems i can’t edit my post (no idea why), so, i’d like to just emphasise I’m not attacking religious arguments specifically. I realise what might be the utmost convincing argument, like the problem of evil, is just as easily brushed off by believers as some of the best arguments for God are brushed off by me. It’s a two way street.

My question more lies in the fact why it seems its very hard to convince people and why are arguments are so bad that they don’t immediately convince people like a lot of other things we do in our life do.

I think most of our beliefs are not the results of ‘convincing arguments’, but of life experience, of background, of situation. No matter how many ‘convincing arguments’ one made to a lifelong Republican, they will never switch sides. The same with religion. A committed Catholic will never be convinced otherwise. And the same with a committed atheist.

Religious and philosophical positions are often accepted for aesthetic reasons (someone ‘likes’ Christian or Buddhist morality, someone ‘likes’ the Mass in Latin, or enjoys Derrida’s writing style, etc.). Our beliefs tend to follow our preferences. And, last of all, we construct argument to support our position.

The best argument we can give people for the message of Christ is to put His teachings into practice. Hopefully, people will ‘like’ being compassionate and humble, and the idea of Heaven and a Loving God. That is probably the best we can do.

Good question, I wonder this myself.

Here’s my answer corresponding to the two parts of the problem:

(1) the logical problem which consists in two facets (a) that evil at least seemingly refutes the existence of God, and (b) that people don’t know the meanings of the philosophical terms involved in the debate like “potentiality” or “actuality” or the different “causes”.

Here ignorance and an obvious and evident contradiction combine to render our proofs unconvincing.

(2) a zeitgeist problem which consists in two facets (a) that there are very few resources that delve deeply into the aristotelian thought behind Christian proofs and so one must , through uncommon dedication and toil, learn it on one’s own time and (b) all the sources of authority and popularity in society are firmly un or anti-Christian (the universities, the press, entertainment) so that, before people begin to even criticize/analyze the world around them, their powers of critical thought must necessarily be founded on anti-Christian premises. Hence, when a christian presents his arguments, the slightest lack of evidence or certainty on the poor fellow’s part is taken as a fatal weakness which, quite aside from the weakness of the atheistic argument, does not have the saving grace of popular authority on which to fall back.

I was intellectually an agnostic atheist for a period of time myself. There just didn’t seem to be any good arguments for the existence of God. I personally think that most of the arguments for God’s existence aren’t worth much. Sure, a lot of them are interesting, but after close inspection, they give us next to nothing. Thomas Aquainus’s five proofs are no good after close inspection, the ontological argument is unsound, like the kalaam cosmological argument or the argument from morality… ocasionally, I would happen upon a proof that seemed flawless, like Lewis’s trilemma. But I wondered, if a sound proof for God’s existence has been around for more than a half century, why isn’t everybody a Catholic, or at least christian? Such a mindset made me sceptical of even the best proofs.

My philosophy of religion professor is decently renown in the field and his idea is that a lot of religious arguments aren’t so much made for proving it to other people (because people are bound to deny a lot of the premises) but are more made to justify the beliefs people already hold or provide a rational case for them to continue to believe. Is this the case?

I think that yes, unfortunately, this is the case for most religious people. It was rather depressing when I, at the age of twelve, could look at some of the “proofs” for God’s existence and see the errors. I thought “really? Is that the best you could come up with?” I think that yes, most proofs of God are made up by believers who want to justify their own belief.

And of course, the same is true for atheists. When they try to show supposed contradictions in God’s nature, they perform just as badly as a theist who tries to that God exists from an empirical standpoint. Both are usually dealing with matters beyond their area of expertise. The atheist with theology, and the the theist with the material world.

Of course, it is difficult to speak for myself. If my belief in God is irrational, would I know it? The fact is that no one can be completely objective. What we believe is determined by what evidence and reasons we find. These, in turn, are determined by the evidence and reasons we look for. The reasons and evidence we look for are determined by what we want to be true. In other words, if a person wants theism to be true, he’ll look through a book on theism, and find the evidence that he’s looking for. Conversely, if someone wants atheism to be true, he’ll look through an atheistic book for evidence. So both the theist and the atheist are rational in the sense that they beleive what they believe based on the knowledge they are aware of.

Which brings me to the reason why not all people belive the same thing. As much as it pains me to admit it, I had to acknowledge that not everyone is perfectly reasonable. That’s true on both sides of the aisle. Both atheists and theists have personal benefits for beleiving what they believe.

That isn’t to say that we can’t attempt to be rational people with some degree of sucess, as I believe some have. We just need to be careful not to brainwash ourselves into one way of thinking. There are people who manage to do this, but they seem to be few and far between. It would be difficult for these people to find each other’s arguments over all the argumental “noise” from both sides. That’s why not even all the rational people believe the same thing. However, one would expect good proofs, over a period of time, to be adopted by all rational people. That’s why it is doubtful that there is a sustantial conclusive proof for God’s existence. If there were one, you would expect all rational people to eventually join the theistic side. I believe that I’ve come up with a proof that shows that God has a high Probability for existing. It is not conclusive. And, as far as I know, it’s new, meaning that I don’t know of anyone else who has proposed it, so the rational people of the world haven’t been able to accept or reject it.(Likely it’s been proposed and has failed so badly that it hasn’t made it into the philosophy books:thumbsup:) Let me know if you are interested in it! :slight_smile:

I’ll just simply say that, when I look at science, and all the discoveries we’ve made, for me, I can’t see there not being a God. I won’t get deep into the why, but with every scientific discovery, I look at it, and I just get more solidified in my belief in God. And I don’t deny the discoveries, unless there is good reason to do so (like the “faster than light” particle), they just simply make me feel as though it was God who designed it to be that way.

So, I think whether we’re convincing or not has some to do with how people see things, or what people see in things, like random vs. purposeful. There are some that without an explanation that fits into how they view the world, they will remain unconvinced.

Side Note:

Interestingly, when I went through my period of doubt in my early to mid teens, it was my interest in science that led me back to God. Christianity came a few years after that. And it wasn’t until about 2-3 years ago that I started to come back to Catholicism.

+1 :slight_smile:

For me the idea of trying to prove God is an exercise in futility. Trying to argue the point is equally as futile. God is of an order of magnitude so far above man that we lack the capacity to prove him within our limits. Trying to may seem interesting but it lacks the ability to succeed. Understanding comes through revelation not arguments. Trying to intellectually prove God doesn’t work. Religion is faith. Science shows us the order with which God defines the material world. The creation answers to the creator not the other way around. God is not bound by the laws in which we exist. So to attempt to fit God into these laws is futile. If your looking for God seek revelation not proof.

Christianity requires a call of some sort by God. Abraham was called out of Ur in some way. We’re not told how, but he didn’t make up his mind on some logical axiom that God existed. Moses responded to a burning bush, not a treatise on divine reality. Mary responded to an archangel, not an “Idiot’s Guide to Becoming a Virgin Mother”.

There’s always a call. In my own case, I was an atheist for a while. During that period my father died, and appeared in my room. Yet despite that experience, which I wrote off as a bad dream at the time (it was anything but), I still didn’t become a Christian till nearly four years later. And even then it was due to a couple of other things - I was going through the worst period of my life, and at the same time I was getting this sort of mysterious spiritual push to start attending a Presbyterian Church where I’d previously done some Sunday School years before.

But it took a “double whammy” a bit over a year after that before I was finally convinced of the reality, the “double whammy” being something like a breath going through you in waves from head to foot, very clear, very pronounced, clearly imposed by something external to me, and in reponse to a reading from the Bible, viz. “… a man after my own heart…”. I had two more as it turned out, but they were more in the way of instruction.

I did not sit down and read a philosophy manual, and I doubt if many people become Chrisitans on that account.

Aquinas and Anselm may have churned out supposedly very good arguments for centuries, but they themselves didn’t come to faith due to philosophical arguments. They were already Christian before they wrote - that is, they’d already been “called”.

John 6:44 NIV

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day

From my own experiences I would say that it is a less a question of the mind and intellect and more a question of the will. We must will changing our minds when good reasons are presented. We demand airtight proofs for things we are not willing to change our minds to accept. Yet we are willing to believe most other things without such rigorous proof.

If someone were to contradict your ideas, it would take a strong will to change your mind. In most cases you will just argue on and on, demanding higher and higher standards of evidence until the opposing party gives up and nothing happens and you walk away triumphant. Or you could listen and think “Hey, while not a proof there is evidence for what he is saying” and concede that his ideas might actually be right, or that you will at least concede the possibility.

Perhaps this capacity to be corrected is needed to be open to grace.

To add to my own post above, with extracts shown, the foremost apologist of the 20th Century was CS Lewis. Yet he too was an atheist, or ‘freethinker’ for quite some time.

But God came upon him, as he narrated in his autobiography -

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted for even a second from my work, the steady unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I had greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not see then what is now the most shining and obvious thing: the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words *compelle intrare * ‘compel them to come in’, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them: but properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

Lewis was called. He did not respond to some apologetic philosophy, but sensed God coming upon him. But after he was called, and responded, he then set about justifying God through apologetic argument, hoping that someone, somewhere might turn upon a phrase, or an argument, and being to wonder if God really existed. At that point, when a man starts to think about God, God has a chance to act, because He will not force a man to make a choice for Him.

St. Paul was called partly by the angelic face of Stephen and his forgiveness even as he was being stoned - as he rode to Damascus, he would have remembered this strange event, and begun to doubt the truth of his own beliefs. Then bingo! God hit him, and pretty hard in his case.

Christians are called - not persuaded into faith by philosophical argument.


And it is the “argument” that Jesus tells us to give…They will know that you are my disciples by your Love for one another…John 13:35


To address this from the more philosophical position (though I am no philosopher) the above points to what surely must be the most convincing argument in any situation…Consistency.

Arguments are all fine and good in an academic setting…but what happens when one leaves the “classroom”?
If we argue FOR God, do we then live that belief? I am afraid that all too often we do not. Of course we can fall back on the position that we are imperfect and sinful which is fine…But when there is so little real belief evident in a world populated by a substantial percentage of supposedly “God fearing” peoples…well - the inconsistency has a dampening effect on any intellectual argument.

The Atheist on the other hand - arguing against God usually does live that belief. He need not fear God because in his view there is no God to fear. His actions are therefore based on what he - himself - finds good and so does not act inconsistently.

If we take a family unit as an example…A Child raised in a stable and faith consistent environment is more likely to retain that faith…However if the environment is not faith consistent…chances are greater that they will lose the faith. WHY??? - Because what is professed does not match what is lived.

This applies just as well to a general society as it does to a family unit. If a society as a whole claims to be “Christian” but does not act Christian - what weight will be given to their arguments by those who they are trying to convince?


A lot it has to do with our current historical age in North America and Europe. Since the beginning of recorded history, it has been “easier” to believe in God and spirits than to believe in a world without this supernatural dimension. It is only very recently in historical terms that the opposite condition has arisen, that it has become harder to believe in God than it is to not believe in God. What I am talking about here is the “default” position that most people would slip into if they went about their lives in an uncritical or reflective way. I mean no insult to agnostics or atheist by saying this though. Christians and other religions have had this default position for bulk of history.

As for Aquinas and Anselm’s arguments, you have to limit what reason can prove about the faith. We believe that you can rationally prove the existence of God. The rest is, as Anselm and Augustine state it, “Faith seeking understanding.” This is reasoning based on revealed faith. And so, you have to believe it first before being able to enter into the arguments.

Your philosophy of religion teacher was probably trying to say something along those lines.

That said, make sure he does not slot Christian philosophical argument for the existence of God in the realm of religion. These have the same claim to our rational investigation as other philosophies. In fact, you can’t really fully understand the history of philosophy, or even current philosophy without having some grounding in philosophical questions about God, being, and existence.

And on the note about why Aquinas and Anselm’s philosophical arguments are not more convincing, well most of the world is monotheistic, even in North America.

God bless,

Re your conversion: I too was hit over the head by God… it’s amazing that He calls the least of us and guides us back!

But I do believe that the proofs for God’s existence are based on the writings of Aristotle, who was obviously not a Christian, or even a monotheist, yet who came up with these arguments from natural knowledge.

I think there are two problems with the 5 Proofs: one of which I gathered because of my reaction when I was a practical atheist. This is that when presented by Christians, they present it as if to someone who already believes. They do not express the proofs as if they were foundational stepping stones but as if they were proofs for God as we understand Him as a result of being Christian.

The second is that atheists currently require material rather than philosophical proof; they don’t even understand the idea of philosophical proof and think it is a rhetorical trick.

My philosophy of religion professor is decently renown in the field and his idea is that a lot of religious arguments aren’t so much made for proving it to other people (because people are bound to deny a lot of the premises) but are more made to justify the beliefs people already hold or provide a rational case for them to continue to believe. Is this the case?

I can’t speak for everyone. It’s not so much that i don’t want to believe. I went to catholic schools for the entirety of my pre-university life. There have been times (without getting into specifics) in my life where it would have been greatly beneficial for me to believe in a God. So, it’s not that i don’t want to. It’s that i can’t, based on the evidence and arguments i see, it points towards the conclusion there is no God, so, i have little choice in believing that.

First of all, I think it is a waste of time to debate with an atheist/agnostic of any sort. There are a few cases where an atheist is invincibly innocent for their disbelief but in most cases their disbelief is vincible.

For that reason I tend to agree with your professor that the arguments of St. Thomas and others are most fruitful in that they reinforce the faith of believers. But, that they fail to convince most non-believers does not mean they are invalid. It is just that most atheists come to them with a closed mind.

But the Faith really does not need the approval of philosophy. Divine Revelation is perfectly valid as the unfolding of this revelation through the history of Israel through the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles testify. I would suggest two things. First, read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Secondly read " Aquinas " by Edward Feser.

Finally, I have observed that most young people leave High School poorly formed in their Faith. They have heard but have not listened. Then they go off to the University and come under the influence of teachers and professors who are hostile to the Faith and treat it as unworthy of thinking men and women. This attitude is nothing but an attempt to show the student that to be accepted in modern society one must shed the influence of childhood beliefs and become " reasonable " and " broad minded " and " non-judgmental " adults.


P.S. St Anselm’s argument has not been regarded as valid by most Catholic Philosophers.

St. Thomas is perfectly valid but he is very deep and requires a lot of study and thinking.

More appropriate is the common sense of ordinary people. They see the universe, its beauty, its order, its goodness, its existence, the testimony of their conscience and say only God could have been responsible for all this and its existence. Contrary to what your professors may say, this is the only logical conclusion. Did you cause yourself, can you, by your own will, add a single hair to your head? No. Neither could your parents, or their parents, etc. Did the matter of the universe cause its own existence? No, how could that which is mindless cause anything? :thumbsup:

What is it about the theistic arguments that you find lacking or what is it about the atheistic arguments that you find compelling?

Another point, which may or may not be related, God is Love, the experience of God is about love.

And I think that our society in a way denies love. We teach students not to have sex because it will result in babies by giving them dolls designed to show the bad aspects of babies without the good aspects of babies. Our society practically encourage them to have sex but based on a shallow, selfish concept of what they call love. Look at the definition of love: feelings of affection, romantic or sexual attraction.

But love is so much more than the self-centered good feelings another stimulates in us, and in our society it seems like we don’t even know about that at all. Because our society tries to eliminate any bad feelings and think everyone should always feel good and fulfilled and have lots of self-esteem, we don’t talk about love as a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the good of the other, which is the ultimate in love.

So I think that might have something to do with the difficulties some have with believing in God. Not that I blame our society altogether, one must ultimately blame original sin.

For one thing you’re trying to prove supernatural truths to a world that’s set up, due to the Fall/pride, to prefer itself to God. Faith is a “de-structuring” of Original Sin-a rebellion against rebellion against God.

Great Post…:thumbsup:


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