Existential Reasons For Belief In God (Book Review)

If you ever wanted a book to impress your girlfriend by how smart you are, Clifford William’s Existential Reasons for Belief in God will do the trick…either that or she will want to break up with you because you’re just that nerdy.

The title of the book presents no illusion or mystery to it’s inside contents. A creative cover image, not a very creative title. But this is a good thing because the book itself is a serious book with a serious philosophical topic: existential need. I mean, after all, it would be a terrible thing to be caught unaware in a discussion on existentialism. Things like this take time to prepare for. 😉

Williams apparently has two main tasks in the book: 1) To dismantle the notion that faith is all mental assent; 2) To dismantle the notion that emotionalism equals faith. His overarching purpose is to show that “the ideal way to acquire faith in God is through both need and reason, and that faith should consist of both emotion and assent” (12). Indeed, he encourages the reader to recognize that this is a “middle-of-the-road” argument, emphasizing rationalism and emotionalism as proper ways of acquiring faith when used together.

It is in this vein that Williams’ book should be accepted well and thought through critically. As one who has fallen into both traps at times in my life, I agree with Williams’ overarching understanding of faith as both need and reason.

Before anyone jumps the gun, let me remind you that Williams’ is not primarily arguing that needs prove to us in a sort of evidence way that God exists but that they provide justification for those that do believe in his existence. Williams puts the distinction as such: “The evidential argument tries to support the existence of God by showing that God’s existence is needed to explain how people got those needs, whereas the existential argument tries to show that we can justifiably have faith in God solely because it satisfies the needs” (43). Indeed, “the existential argument does not give evidence for thinking God exists. It says that faith in God is justified solely because it satisfies certain needs” (41).

For anyone ready to attack Williams’ based on a claim that needs prove God’s existence, they will be let down. It’s not here, though William’s does seem to allude that this may be very well and true. It’s just not his primary concern. Instead, Williams wants to put to rest the notion that one’s own sense of satisfaction of needs is a poor reason to believe in God.

Williams does this by stating the existential argument as follows:

1. We need cosmic security.

2. Faith in God satisfies these needs.

3. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God.

What are these needs? Going beyond Freud’s euphemism of “cosmic security” in which the only need to be met was the protection against a superior natural force, Williams suggests that there are two basic types of needs: self-directed and other directed.

Self-directed needs, or Freudian needs, are those which are interested in getting something: cosmic security, life beyond the grave, heaven, goodness, significance, to be loved, have meaning, and to be forgiven. Other-directed needs are those which Freud would have benefited from recognizing. For example, we often have a need not just to receive  love but to love another. Or we have a sense to rejoice in goodness or honor. Williams mentions, along with these three others: awe, the need to be present in a situation, and justice and fairness (20-27). These, of course, contrast with Freud’s one simple need for cosmic security. Williams, thus, quotes Carl Jung, a pupil of Freud, with approval: “Where is the criterium by which you could say that such a life is not legitimate, that such experience is not valid and that such a pistis is mere illusion? Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live?” (101).

Of course, Williams recognizes, along with William James, the possible limits of his argument to be credible: needs are not enough to justify faith. Rather, need and reason together form a sort of friendship which inevitably can help one acquire faith. He notes, “Need has been such a driving force for believing in God that we should look for someway to legitimize that force. The way to do so, I believe, is to add the use of reason to need” (63), thus allowing the existential argument to have an embedded cognitive function.

Williams does well to carefully analyze four legitimate objections: 1) The existential argument does not guarantee truth (“Invisible George”); 2) The Existential Argument Justifies Belief in Any Kind of God (“Tyrant George); 3) Not everyone feels existential needs; 4) Existential needs can be satisfied without faith.

These objections are dealt with so thoroughly that I will refrain from doing so here, though it should be admitted that in each case Williams recognizes the need for needs and reason to operate together.

Finally, Williams spends the last two chapters of the book talking about faith, emotion, and pursuing faith. Here Williams makes a controversial statement against many of his fellow academics: faith should partly be made of emotions. Objections that emotions are blind or that they change are dealt with in turn, leading Williams to suggest that emotions have a cognitive component called a “construal” which, in simple terms, are the subconcious perceptions based upon the known context. For example, if you hear of a man losing his wallet you immediately feel sympathetic for the individual, assuming that cash or cards or ID were equally lost. Perhaps he even told you such a thing. However, the next day you learn that the man only lost a library card which could be easily replaced in about ten minutes. Everything else was left in a desk at home. As Williams remarks, “In the second case, the emotion I had toward my acquaintance depends on my construal of what has happened to him” (162). The emotion changes because the construal changes. Faith, then, can be an emotion with an object (God) and a construal of that object which, may change depending upon whether the perception is correct or not.

The book is a solid philosophical approach towards existentialism and justification for belief in God. Almost every major thesis of the book can be contended with at the outset, but the interested reader must not assume that his own objection has not been grappled with. Williams apparently seems to recognize the obvious objections which would come from such an existentialist argument and he attempts to deal with them. He does it well. It also helpful that Williams seems very well versed in both Freudian and Kierkegaardian thought. The two figures seem to stand like opposing pillars in his argument, with the former insisting that cosmic security is an illegitimate motivator for faith and with the latter suggesting that the satisfaction of needs can be a legitimate force to draw one to God.

The book is heavy, but is accessible to the non-expert. It is written well, clearly, and succinctly (standing just over 180 pages). The personal stories from laymen help to ease not only the heavy material in and out but help to relate it to everyday life. Sometimes it is hard to see how philosophical ideas (especially those with names like “existentialism”) can relate to us in an everyday way. Williams seems to know this. Finally, the book stands as an excellent sign of a transition from a modernist worldview to a postmodernist one. Williams is not suggesting that modernism, as a whole, has failed but he qualifies his approach to the worldview by noting that emotions and psycho/spiritual need are equally legitimate approaches towards finding faith and determining truth. Empiricism is not the only justifier.

A small critique on the book: one must keep in mind Williams’ opening point about needs and reason working together to develop faith. Occasionally the emphasise on need and satisfaction of needs minimizes Williams’ claims about the necessity of reason. This may be somewhat of an over reaction since, at the end of the day, the book is concerned with existential satisfaction and Williams is apparently responding to those who have taken such a hard lined modernist approach, whether Christians or non-Christians.

If you are up for some unique, critical, and fairly accessible philosophical reading for the summer, this is the book to read. Whether you agree or disagree with the book’s arguments, you will have not read something in vein and it will almost certainly increase (or begin) your understanding of existentialist philosophy.