Epistemology,  Existence of God,  God,  Natural Theology,  Philosophical Theology

No Concept, No Belief

You couldn’t believe in something unless you knew something about it. If I said to you that a meroganon lives at the end of my street you might say I am nuts, but you would first want to know something about a meroganon. You couldn’t know if I am nuts unless you knew something about a meroganon. I could describe one to you by listing some of its basic features. After some time you would have in your mind the concept of a meroganon and you could then be justified in thinking that I have lost my mind.

Consider the person (there may be more than one) who has not read this blog. That person does not even know the name, ‘meroganon’. The person does not have a concept of a meroganon and so does not believe in a meroganon. I don’t know much science. There are probably many entities that some people have concepts for and that I do not. I couldn’t have a positive belief about the existence of any of these entities unless I had a concept of them. It follows that to believe in the existence of something I need to have a concept of it but that I might not believe in many things that I don’t have concepts of without denying their existence.

The point is:

you can’t believe in something unless you have a concept of that thing.

The same goes for God. You couldn’t deny or accept the proposition, ‘God exists’ unless you had some concept of God. Once you have the concept, you can believe in him or not. If you have no concept, then you wouldn’t believe in the existence of God but you would also not be able to deny his existence. Non-belief is not the same as denial. In order to deny the existence of God we need a concept of God. But we might not have a concept of God and therefore not believe in the existence of God.

Most concepts are gained by having some acquaintance with something. If you met a meroganon you would gain a concept of a meroganon. Perhaps you could gain a concept of a meroganon if I am acquainted with one and told you about it. A concept is a set of properties ascribed to an entity should that entity exist. It doesn’t have to exist in order for us to gain a concept. If I made up some set of features of a meroganon, you and I would have a concept of a meroganon.

However, there are some connections between concepts and existence. For example, a concept of some supposedly existent entity cannot contain a contradiction. You can’t have a coherent concept of a square circle and that is proof enough for most people that there is no such thing, nor can there possibly be such a thing. I say ‘most people’ because there are some who deny basic laws of thought such as the law of non-contradiction. To my mind, no one can really deny the law of non-contradiction. But I’ll leave that thought for another day.

Back to how we might get a concept of God. It is not easy to describe how we might have an acquaintance with God. Some philosophers think we have something like a perception of God. Others suggest that any direct acquaintance we might have with someone who is incorporeal (does not have a body) would require a sixth sense. It is not clear how we would know if there is such a sense. Most Christian philosophers and theologians think that most people gain the concept of God without some direct experience of him. Instead we know about him through revelation: God tells us about himself through nature and through his word, the Bible. We are also made able to know him personally in a personal relationship because, according to Christian theology, Christians have been given the Holy Spirit who is present within us. It is difficult to tell whether or not this relationship would count as an experience of the same kind as we have when we hang out with our embodied friends.

It is plausible that everyone has at least some concept of God no matter how anaemic or mistaken. It is also possible that there is some minimal shared conceptual content among all people. Apart from the fact that any study of culture throughout history reveals that people have talked about gods in nearly every time and culture, the Bible itself seems to suggest that every human being has a concept of God in virtue of God’s revealing of himself in nature. Romans 1:19-20 says:

…what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…

So, according to the Bible everyone has some minimal concept of God in common. But a concept of God varies greatly from one group of people to another, even from one individual to another. Some people’s concept of God is not easily discerned. I can find out what Hindus thinks about God from their teachings; I can read about what most Muslims think in the Koran. What I am not sure about is what the average non-believer thinks. Non-Believers tend not to record extensive analyses of God. In the same way I have very little to write about a meroganon, an atheist has little to say about God. They are likely to be less motivated to understand the details of something they don’t believe in and don’t like, than someone who is convinced that the entity to which the concept relates is going to judge them for their earthly life.

All this leads me to say the following: I’m going to be pretty poor at convincing anyone of God’s existence unless I first provide some help with enlarging, correcting and attending to a non-believer’s concept of God. Who is he? What is he like? What are his properties? How does he act?

The task of philosophical theology is generally an in-house activity. We are supposed to help articulate a clear set of doctrinal positions derived from scripture and taking into account the wisdom available from historical and biblical theology along with a good understanding of current philosophical parlance and advances. The orthodox creeds would not have been the way they are without help from those who had read up on their Aristotle and Plato.

But, if the average unbeliever has only a meagre concept of what we Christians believe in and worship, he or she would benefit from some concept surgery. Philosophical theology should not merely help the systemic theologian express him or herself clearly, but communicate a coherent concept of God to unbelievers in order that, when we get around to arguing over his existence, we are talking about the same person.

That’s not to say you can’t refer to God with an insufficient concept, only that if you are going to be persuaded to believe he exists, it would be better to know who he is. I can gain a concept of a non-existent entity such as a unicorn or a meroganon without successfully referring to either of them. And a person might go from unbelief to belief without gaining a change in concept until after belief. But (i) there must be some minimal concept for belief and (ii) the more coherent and comprehensive the concept the better.

There is no such thing as a meroganon nor do I have a very big concept of one. If you force me to talk about him. I will say that he is small enough to live in a house, covered in fur, and kind to humans. 
I will start posting short concept surgeries in the coming weeks: just basic stuff like his ‘attributes’ and some of the problems we Christians have with our own developed concept such as how one divine being can be three divine beings. 
I got convinced that the most important question human beings ask is: Who is God? I have a hopelessly non-updated blog on the topic (here) and wrote a book for teenagers (here)

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.


  • Udo

    Thanks for this insightful article. It made me think again about the difference between atheism and agnosticism, and how these two terms seem to merge into one on some definitions of atheism. It seems increasingly popular among atheists to define their atheism as “a lack of belief in God” rather than the traditional understanding of “the belief that there is no God”. To have a belief in God, means minimally that you think that the statement, “God exists” corresponds to what is actually the case – that it is true. So it seems that this alternative definition of atheism suggests that when you lack a belief in God, then you do not have a belief about whether the statement ‘God exists’ is true or false (whereas traditional atheism affirms that the statement ‘God exists’ is false). But to my mind this is the same as saying you simply don’t know whether God exists and therefore indistinguishable from being an agnostic about God’s existence. This would imply that the words atheism and agnosticism are mere synonyms, which doesn’t seem right etymologically. In other words, this alternative definition of atheism simply collapses into agnosticism. Or do you think I’m missing something?