The Truth about the Holy Mountain and its Monks (Dr Panagiotis Grigoriou, 2001)

NOTE: This article is taken from the Sunday Typos, June 10, 2001. It was written to refute Monk Michael’s accusations. Dr. Gregoriou is a Neurologist-Psychiatrist and director of the Psychiatric Department of the Halkidiki General Hospital.1 In this article, Dr. Gregoriou validates Monk Michael’s claim that there are Hagiorite monks who have mental disorders, see psychiatrists, and take psychiatric drugs.

Halkidiki General Hospital.

I was motivated to write this article when I read the Monk Michael Hatziantoniou’s interview with the journalist Peter Papavasileios (see the magazine “E” in the Sunday Eleftherotypia, April 22, 2001).

The reason I thought of myself to be a “substantive qualifier” is that I’ve practised psychiatry for 20 years. For the past 12 years, I’ve been the Director of the Psychiatric Department of the Halkidiki General Hospital in whose jurisdiction Mount Athos falls in terms of health coverage.

With my position, I know very well the question under dispute (the use of psychiatric drugs on Mount Athos). Moreover, the fact that I have regularly visited Mount Athos since 1974 (I was then a graduate student at the Medical School of Athens University) permits me to know the people and things of the area quite well.

Ιατρικής Σχολής του Πανεπιστημίου Αθηνών
Medical School of Athens University

Firstly, why did the news use the pompous title with the exclamation that “They Take Psychiatric Drugs on Mount Athos?” For a prudent and impartial reader, it has the same “originality” as “They take antibiotics or antihypertensive or anti-rheumatic medications on Mount Athos.” Psychiatric drugs are also medications that relieve and help the people who need them. I don’t understand why particularly on Mount Athos the mentally ill should not take psychotropic drugs. Is it not a shame to be excluded from the therapeutic means of modern medical science?

Fr. Michael rents his garments: “I cannot bear this situation,” he says. He maintains that anyone can cure their mental symptoms with personal effort. Something that is heard daily amongst the ignorant: “Banish your anxiety, pull the sadness from your soul, throw it out,” etc. Similar views proceed either from ignorance or out of some unconscious fear against mental illness and psychotropic drugs. If such counsels were effective then the existence of our psychiatrists would probably have been unnecessary.


Another “scandalous revelation” Fr. Michael makes—that Hagiorites are visiting psychiatrists—pertains to the same spirit! But are we psychiatrists such defiled beings that all sensible and virtuous people must avoid us “so as not to be defiled?” The fact that Hagiorites visit psychiatrists constitutes an occasion of praise, not reproach. If they didn’t visit psychiatrists then they should be accused of medievalism and criminal omission.2


I stress here that the attitude of some religious people—even spiritual fathers—who claim that anyone who lives in God should never resort to psychiatrists or psychotropic drugs is, in every respect, incorrect.3 They believe that psychiatrists wrongly assume responsibilities that belong exclusively to God and the spiritual father. The Hagiorite monks, following the vibrant spiritual tradition, avoid such absolutes. They recognize the difference between mental and spiritual problems. Like all other diseases, they consider mental illnesses result from defects and the corruption of post-Fall man. They do not identify mental illnesses with outside demonic influences. The respect of the Hagiorites towards the proper use of its results is an example of wisdom and ampleness of spirit.

If I understood correctly, Fr. Michael implies amongst his contradictions that the way of life imposed upon the monks (militarization) is what causes psychiatric problems. He also insinuates that some Hagiorites (I wonder what percentage?) who regretted becoming monks were trapped in the system and because they were prevented from leaving the monastery occasionally they killed themselves or set themselves on fire.4 Then the abbots, in order to deter their escape from Mount Athos, issue them psychotropic drugs to bend their will and make them thoughtless, subservient zombies! Yet, Fr. Michael doesn’t complain that he had such a treatment when he decided to abandon his monastery. Contrary to what one not acquainted with such things might imagine, the way of life on the Holy Mountain is not disease producing but rather psychotherapeutic.

Thic Duc
On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc shocked the world when he burned himself to death in public as a protest against the Vietnamese government, a gesture known as self-immolation.

The reference to famous boxes with mysterious contents is naive at the very least. The monasteries obtain their drugs from pharmacies, usually from Thessaloniki, because they don’t operate a pharmacy on Mount Athos. The medication orders for the needs of 80-100 people (with a large percentage of elderly) for a period of one or two months apparently have some volume and should be packed well in “boxes” to reach their destination safely. Usually, these boxes contain drugs of every kind and a portion of them are psychotropic drugs. Let he who doubts ask any pharmacy serving a population of 2,000 residents and let him learn what the current monthly consumption of psychotropic drugs is and a percentage of all drugs, but also an absolute number inserted in boxes and let him calculate their approximate volume. It should be taken into consideration that a significant portion of these drugs are consumed for the extraordinary needs of the numerous visitors as well as the hundreds of laymen who work on the Mountain.5


Mount Athos is also entitled to have its mentally ill. It would be very unnatural if they didn’t exist since the percentage of those in the adult population who exhibit mental disorders at any given time has been estimated at around 15% for residents in the Western hemisphere.

Besides, as we know, one does not require a bill of health to become a monk, nor is a monk expelled from his monastery when some serious illness appears.6 Mount Athos is not an unrealistic place, nor does it aspire to present an outward image of an “elite” community, like the “caste” of Eastern religions or Gnostics or whatever else. The Athonite State, Panagia’s Garden, is an open space, social and genuinely human; a struggling society journeying towards God. The sick have their place and even honour in such a community! Where else would the remaining healthy monks show their love, patience and ministry if not to those who are beside them even if they happen to be sick?

Caste system

I cannot tolerate that Fr. Michael—the author of the article—professes the popular unscientific opinions: “Don’t go to the crazy doctor, he will make you completely crazy and you will be stigmatized for life!” Or, “Don’t take psychiatric medicine, they’re narcotics, you’ll become dependent and you’ll be rendered a vegetable!” Such positions need no response, this would be futile.7

As a doctor, my ascertainment is that the mentally ill on Mount Athos are treated more correctly, more scientifically and more effectively than whatever in the outside world.8 The monastic family surround the suffering brother with much care, love and tolerance and spare neither expense nor labor to ensure the best possible treatment and aid.9 He is provided a treatment rarely seen in today’s society, with respect to mental illness, the suffering monk’s soul and his dignity—a treatment that preserves the patient’s self-esteem.10 It should be made clear that in no way is an incompetent person involved in the treatment process. They follow the indication on the medication from the specialist physician, which is prescribed under the responsibility of the rural clinic in Karyes. Also, the administration of drugs and the assessment of the patient’s clinical progress are not made by upstart monks. Most of the monasteries have at least one or more doctor-monks with extensive experience who have impressed me with their scientific competence and awareness.11 The long existing journey of mentally ill Athonite monks is many times better than those who have mental illnesses in the world, where human dignity is trivialized with confinement in psychiatric asylums or the taunts of their fellow villagers.12

The Town of Karye
The Town of Karyes

Fr. Michael’s inappropriate parallelism of Bedouin doped out on hashish and the Athonite monks is an unfortunate verbal exaggeration.13 It might have been worthwhile before the interview was published to have a psychiatrist (of a trusted newspaper) examine the text and question whether Fr. Michael’s allegations have any scientific standing. I am certain that he would have agreed with me that the anti-psychiatry opinions usually belong to uneducated people.14


Regarding Fr. Michael’s “showcase” allegation, Mount Athos does not claim to be a society of perfect men.15 Moreover, he stresses in the last paragraph of the interview (essentially negating everything previous): “The majority of monks are very nice guys! The love, they look at you with clean eyes. I speak for the majority because there are certainly a very small number of monks who have a pure heart…” If this is the case then what is with all the scandal-mongering throughout the rest of the interview? He did not clarify for us from the start of the interview that he was only speaking about a few exceptions! He allowed us to believe that this is the picture of Mount Athos in general. According to Fr. Michael, what is the real and representative showcase of Mount Athos? The 5-10 likeable mentally ill patients, 5-10 unruly monks and the one monk who set himself on fire? Do we not wrong the 2000 struggling monks who live imperceptibly with ascesis, a pure life and hard work, and are happy and normal?16

We were distressed in seeing the exceptions generalized. The error of one was aggrandized and expressed while the virtue of the many was hushed up. The Hagiorites know this and it is natural and imperative for them to take precautions. We accuse them of hypocrisy because they protect themselves? What family would voluntarily surrender the proclamation of their son or daughter’s deviation to public vilification and shaming? By protecting the reputation of the person who erred, as well as the family’s reputation, from the sneer of the voracious publicity, we hope to heal the wounds. Otherwise, “the last error becomes worse than the first.” Mount Athos is a community of true love where the erring sinners are neither ostracized nor pilloried or stoned.17 They are consoled and covered as suffering brothers and they are “economized” with sympathy and spiritual treatment so they are induced to “repentance and come to salvation.”

Elder Makarios

Fr. Michael’s interview saddened me. He light-heartedly accuses holy people—humble and obscure to the general public—but accomplished in the heart of whoever knew those who apparently “raised themselves as charismatic figures” to captivate souls! It is a shame for a monk to offer his brothers and fathers as victims to the Moloch of publicity in exchange for the silver pieces and the honorary title of “debunker” and “whistle-blower” who apparently tells everything out right. The monastic life starts out with promises of obedience, humility, and devotion to the brotherhood. Self-projection and self-complacency are not included in these promises. In searching for the deeper “why”, I would say that Fr. Michael’s position against the Holy Mountain, in a psychodynamic interpretation, serves as a personal apology.18

Finally, I want to reassure and cheer up those who were perhaps troubled by reading the publication of “E”. No! The Mountain is not a “concentration camp,” nor some “mental hospital” for dissidents.19 The Kassandres and those appearing as benevolent dirge singers have no place here!20 Mount Athos did not lose the “rota”, it is not sinking! The Holy Mountain continues to sail correctly as it has for centuries. For over a thousand years, the rowers stand vigilant night and day at their oar. The Captain—the Lady of the Mount—holds the steering wheel firmly and the compass firmly shows God’s Kingdom. It is not shipwrecked and it collects castaways!

The island of Amoulianni, off the northwest coast of Athos, was once said to be run like a sort of ‘concentration camp’ for naughty monks.


  1. A google search of Dr. Grigoriou’s name in Greek only produces results in connection to this article. There is no photo, articles or a record of him anywhere in Greece other than in relation to this article. Other doctors with the same name do not have the same credentials as listed here. There is a Dr. Panagiotis Dimitrios Grigoriou in the UK, GMC # 7015533. His primary medical qualification is listed as Ptychio Iatrikes 2006 National Capodistrian University of Athens and he is obviously not the same person as the author of this article.
  2. According to the contemporary spiritual fathers of Greece, all neuroses stem from the guilt of unconfessed sins. The monastery is a hospital where the sick go to be healed. However, if daily confession and revelation of thoughts, combined with frequent Holy Communion and the Jesus Prayer isn’t helping the monk, will a psychiatrist be able to help the individual monk more than his own spiritual father? Hierotheos Vlachos writes, “Orthodoxy is mainly a therapeutic science and treatment. It differs clearly from other psychiatric methods, because it is not anthropocentric and because it does not do its work with human methods, but with the help and energy of divine grace, essentially through the synergy of divine and human volition… I know that the term `psychotherapy’ is almost modern and is used by many psychiatrists to indicate the method which they follow for curing neurotics. But since many psychiatrists do not know the Church’s teaching or do not wish to apply it, and since their anthropology is very different from the anthropology and soteriology of the Fathers, in using the term `psychotherapy’, I have not made use of their views. It would have been very easy at some points to set out their views, some of which agree with the teaching of the Fathers and others of which are in conflict with it, and to make the necessary comments, but I did not wish to do that. I thought that it would be better to follow the teaching of the Church through the Fathers without mingling them together. Therefore I have prefixed the word `Orthodox’ to the word `Psychotherapy’ (healing of the soul), to make the title “Orthodox Psychotherapy”. It could also have been formulated as “Orthodox Therapeutic Treatment”.(Orthodox Psychotherapy, Introduction)
  3. Most contemporary spiritual fathers are not against their spiritual children going to psychiatrists and, in certain cases, taking psychotropics. See However, some spiritual fathers do not agree with monastics seeing psychiatrists or taking psychotropic drugs.
  4. It is amazing that Dr. Grigoriou, with all his experience, is unaware of the vast amount of research in his field on the subject of blind obedience, authoritarianism, cult-like mentalities, and the emotional and psychological abuse that exist in such oppressive atmospheres. Evidence shows that these things lead to neuroses, PTSD, and various other mental illnesses. Studies on the emotional and psychological effects of confinement and feeling trapped are also in abundance.
  5. Dr. Grigoriou does not clarify if these medications are administered to laymen by monastics that are licensed professionals, or if these professionals have up-to-date training.
  6. This statement is not true, at least for the monasteries under Geronda Ephraim. There are numerous stories in circulation about the numerous monastics Geronda Ephraim sent packing on Mount Athos. The reasons ranged from not doing obedience, causing to many scandals, becoming a danger to themselves or others, homosexual incidents, or just so deluded that something really bad could have happened if they were allowed to stay. Geronda Ephraim has also sent a number of novices home from Arizona for various issues. As for prerequisites, homosexuals are generally not allowed to become monks. Geronda Ephraim has said it’s like inviting the devil into your monastery, and without going into specifics, he has hinted at the damage such men have caused in monasteries on Mount Athos. Also, people with mental illnesses are gently discouraged from becoming monastics in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries and are usually told it would be better for them to remain and struggle in the world.
  7. Monk Michael did not say those things in his interview. Perhaps Dr. Grigoriou heard read them in some of his other writings?
  8. As a layman who visits the monasteries and witnesses the front stage behavior—without actually living in a monastery or being a monk and witnessing the back stage behavior—Dr. Grigoriou is not in a position to make such a catch all statement. Monastics who make statements like this usually have a PR agenda.
  9. Sick monks—either physically or mentally—have all had their own experiences of neglect from their brother monastics. One who has to stay in his cell may be forgotten and not have meals brought to him, or the person who tends to them may get caught up in another obedience and not show up to help, etc, in some cases remaining in a dirty diaper for a day or so before his monk-attendant comes to change his diaper and bathe him. A monastic suffering from some ailment may not be able to go to a doctor for a long period of time due to whatever circumstances, thus prolonging the suffering. At other times, the Geronda may say do patience and one has to endure. Again, one may have been given specific instructions for recovery and the Geronda will cut it short, saying it’s not necessary, you’re fine and you have to work, now go.
  10. Again, Dr. Grigoriou is trying to paint an unrealistic utopia experience for ailing monks. Fr. Makarios of St. Anthony’s Monastery, AZ is a perfect example of how this is not always true. After he received his head injury and remained in a somewhat vegetative state, it put a strain on the brotherhood. Some of the younger monks giggled and mocked some of his newly acquired idiosyncrasies, especially during the services when he would stand up abruptly and say insensible things or pass wind in church throughout the night. Initially, Geronda said, “What use is he now? He has the mind of a baby,” and wanted to send him home. However, he did not send him away because he felt obliged to keep him (Fr. Makarios’ father is a priest who helps out at Geronda Ephraim’s nunneries). Of course, there was economia given to him due to his mental incapacitation but not all his brother monks had patience and understanding towards him. The reality in a monastery is once you start losing your usefulness you are made to feel like a burden. Woe unto those who get old and have nothing to contribute to the monastery; even more so if they need to take other monastics from more useful jobs to help them in their daily routine.
  11. In many of the monasteries, the doctor monastics do not keep up-to-date with their training. Thus, many times one finds a doctor with an outdated degree. Of course, the basics don’t change much but would you trust going to a doctor who graduated from university in say 1990, never had a practice, and has not kept up-to-date on his training or the new breakthroughs in science and medicine nor had his license renewed?
  12. Again, this is a far stretch of a statement. A perfect example would be the monasteries here in North America where fat-shaming is quite common among the monastics. The following information is not written to center anyone out or further fat shame individuals, but to point out that these things happen in the monasteries just as they do in the world. Furthermore, there is a complex link between obesity and mental illness and fat shaming is a method of stigmatizing. In the beginning, Fr. Germanos was constantly the brunt of jokes and taunts about his weight (both to his face and behind his back). In the mid-90’s, when Fr. Germanos was visiting Archangels Monastery in Texas, Geronda Dositheos walked up to him and said, “Do you know what we use to do to fat kids in school?” and he bumped his stomach into Fr. Germanos’ stomach. Also in the mid-late 90s, while Fr. Germanos was looking for property in New York, Geronda Ephraim gave many homilies to the Fathers in Arizona. In a couple of homilies, he’d joke about Fr. Germanos with his cheeks puffed, arms outstretched indicating fat, and wobble his body back and forth. All the Fathers would break out in laughter at this display. Though Fr. Germanos was not present for these homilies, he’d hear his brothers laughing and mocking him years later when these cassettes were digitalized and all the monasteries were given the DVDs. Another time, Fr. Germanos had forgot to erase his data from the treadmill they bought for the monastery. Fr. Kassianos, Fr. Michael and Fr. Kosmas had to move it from the living room up to the attic to make room for pilgrims and read the data which included his weight. These monks then joked about it and revealed to the other fathers, including Geronda, how much Fr. Germanos weighed. As time went on, stress-eating and high dessert diets increased in the other monasteries and the other superiors and second-in-commands also started to increase in weight and size; many hitting the 300lb + mark. As the other monastics’ weights increased, the teasing of Fr. Germanos decreased. Once, when the subject of how much weight all the abbots have been gaining came up, Fr. Germanos said jokingly, “It’s because you all judged me.” Taunts and shaming exist in the monasteries and neither the physically deformed, the handicapped or mentally ill are spared. Of course, those who become offended are given this explanation, “We do it out of love, not malice.” But in what universe can this be considered monastic, let alone Christian conduct? Sarcasm, contempt and mockery are not indications of brotherly love nor the presence of the Holy Spirit.
  13. It’s not a far stretch. For example, when Fr. Gergory was a hieromonk at St. Anthony’s Monastery, he drank skullcap, St. John’s Wort, and various other nerve relaxant teas around the clock. And he walked around like he was zoned out and doped up. Other monastics that have a blessing for sleeping pills or herbal remedies to help them sleep also have similar demeanors. The monastics who have a blessing to take Lorazepam for anxiety attacks, panic or stress also have similar doped out demeanors. However, the monastics who take antihistamines with pseudoephedrine are a little more alert and tweaked out (though in some monasteries the use of allergy medicine with pseudoephedrine is no longer blessed. This is because some monastics were abusing the medicine and taking it even when they had no allergy symptoms).
  14. Dr. Grigoriou opens his article with his credentials, familiarity with Mount Athos and the fact that there are Hagiorite monks on psychotropic drugs. These things, he states, make him a “substantive qualifier” to address Monk Michael’s interview. Now, Dr. Grigoriou suggests any psychiatrist is quite capable of analyzing the subject. Someone in Dr. Grigoriou’s position must be aware that many Greek psychiatrists are atheists and have biases and predispositions against Christianity, especially the monastic life.
  15. The deeper issue is when the showcase and external image of a monastery become more important than the individual monastics. How often does the showcase image lead to harm (either of a monastic or a laymen)? To what lengths will a monastery go—lying, perjury, gaslighting, cover-ups—what illegal activities will it commit, to ensure that its image remains spotless? And how do these methods damage individuals?
  16. This is a classic example of monastic minimization of serious issues. Not to mention, Dr. Grigoriou is actually stigmatizing the mentally ill by indirectly calling them “abnormal,” when he states that the other monks are “happy and normal.”
  17. Ostracizing does occur in monasteries. This usually happens when a monastic is not doing obedience or toeing the line. Many times, the superior may instruct the members of the brotherhood to ignore this individual, do not talk to him/her, walk away if this individual tries talking to you, etc. Ostracizing also occurs when one is punished in the Lity or given only rusks or one piece of fruit for a meal while everyone else has a full meal. Ostracizing erring monastics is suggested as an instructional technique by St. Basil the Great, St. John of the Ladder and many other Church Fathers.
  18. This resembles a spiritual father’s reproach to his spiritual child; the wording is attempted to instill guilt. The author is playing the Judas card; a classic amongst the Elders. A similar tactic was used in the HOCNA circles when former monastics started revealing the homosexual abuses perpetrated by their Geronda, Fr. Panteleimon Metropoulos. Ad hominen and straw man attacks and arguments were used against the former monastics that were sexually abused and raped. Gaslighting and dismissing them as deluded liars and Judas traitors was a common tactic used. In the last century, similar methods were used in other Orthodox scandal stories against the accusers/ whistle-blowers. In many of these situations, it eventually came to light that the accused were guilty and they ended up in prison or defrocked.
  19. The island of Amoulianni, off the northwest coast of Athos, was once said to be run like a sort of ‘concentration camp’ for naughty monks. (See Ralph H. Brewster, The 6,000 Beards of Athos, 1935, p. 26). Up to early 1900s, Ammouliani was a dependency of Vatopedi Monasteryof Mount Athos. In 1925, the island was given in the refugees’ families who had come from islands of Propontis (Marmaras Sea), after Asia Minor Disaster. The population of the island was developed quickly and today the island has over 500 residents. Nowadays Ammouliani is a touristic place with frequent transportation with the opposite coast.
  20. The Cassandra metaphor(variously labelled the Cassandra ‘syndrome’, ‘complex’, ‘phenomenon’, ‘predicament’, ‘dilemma’, or ‘curse’) occurs when valid warnings or concerns are dismissed or disbelieved. The Cassandra metaphor is applied by some psychologists to individuals who experience physical and emotional suffering as a result of distressing personal perceptions, and who are disbelieved when they attempt to share the cause of their suffering with others. In 1963, psychologist Melanie Klein provided an interpretation of Cassandra as representing the human moral conscience whose main task is to issue warnings. Cassandra as moral conscience, “predicts ill to come and warns that punishment will follow and grief arise.” Cassandra’s need to point out moral infringements and subsequent social consequences is driven by what Klein calls “the destructive influences of the cruel super-ego,” which is represented in the Greek myth by the god Apollo, Cassandra’s overlord and persecutor. Klein’s use of the metaphor centers on the moral nature of certain predictions, which tends to evoke in others “a refusal to believe what at the same time they know to be true, and expresses the universal tendency toward denial, [with] denial being a potent defence against persecutory anxiety and guilt.” (See Klein, M., Envy and Gratitude- And Other Works 1946–1963)
  • Filotheou Brotherhood late ca. 80s/early 90s [Geronda Paisios of Arizona, kneeling far right, Fr. Germanos of NY kneeling opposite]
    Filotheou Brotherhood late ca. 80s/early 90s [Geronda Paisios of Arizona, kneeling far right, Fr. Germanos of NY kneeling opposite]

Causes, Wagers, and Morals (A.C. Grayling, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, pp. 95-106.


The cosmological argument, in its various forms, infers the existence of deity from observations about the contingency of the world. It is similar to the teleological argument in being empirically based, but it differs in that, instead of focusing on the appearance of design in the world, it concentrates on the facts that the world came into existence, that it could have been different (this is what is meant by the world being ‘contingent’), and that everything is governed by causation – everything is the effect or outcome of preceding conditions and circumstances that caused it.

The standard form of the cosmological argument says that because the world came into existence, it must have been created, and it must have been created for the following reasons: it is contingent, so it must be grounded on something that is non-contingent, which is to say, necessary. Everything is the effect of a preceding cause, which means that the causal chain runs backwards in time to earlier and earlier causes. Now, either there is a first uncaused or self-caused cause, or there is a regress of causes going back infinitely. But this latter supposition makes no sense, so there must be a first cause which is itself uncaused or self-caused.

And then the usual big jump is made from ‘a first cause’ or ‘a necessary ground for contingent being’ to a god – indeed, to the god of traditional religion.

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One immediate comment that the cosmological argument invites is to say that it is an expression of a psychological need to have explanations about why there is a world, how it began, and where it is going. It is a feature of human beings that they are eager for accounts that give explanatory closure. The scientific mindset, which welcomes the open-endedness of uncertainty because it is an invitation to enquiry and discovery, is the opposite of this. Notably, a religious explanation of how the world began, why it exists, and where we are all going to end, can be given in twenty minutes or less. It takes years to master the rudiments of physics.

Arguments of a cosmological type are found in Plato and Aristotle, but a clear modern statement of the argument’s basic idea is given by Leibniz in his assertion that ‘nothing can exist without a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise’.12 In the physical world revealed by empirical observation, this principle – known as the ‘principle of sufficient reason’ – takes the form of a causal claim stating that every contingently existing thing has a cause of its existence. And then the rest of the argument falls into place: the chain of causes cannot run back infinitely, so there has to be a first cause, and since this first cause is itself not contingent upon or caused by anything else, it must be non-contingent, that is, necessary.


There are a number of obvious responses, each equally definitive. One is to question the necessity of a non-contingent first cause. Why cannot the universe be its own reason for existing? Science has a very good account of how the universe we occupy – whether or not it is one of many, perhaps infinitely many – has evolved from a beginning whose nature can be carefully reconstructed, to within a minuscule fraction of time after the initial singularity (the ‘Big Bang’), by tracing back the evolution of physical phenomena as they now are.

The logic that underlies this did not have to wait for contemporary physics to be clear. Hume argued in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) that if you explain each individual contingent thing in the universe, you thereby explain the universe, and that it is a fallacy of logic to suppose that once you have done this you still have to explain the existence of the universe as a whole. This is cognate to what in logic is called the ‘fallacy of composition’, which we commit if we say that because each member of a school of whales is a whale, the school of whales is a whale – in other words, that a collection has the properties of its individual members. By reasoning in an analogous way, we see that to explain each thing in the universe does not leave the universe as a whole to be explained; the sum of individual explanations does the work already.

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Hume also called into question the principle of causation that underlies the argument. Why accept a priori that everything has a cause, given that we can conceive of effects independently of causes? Defenders of the cosmological argument say that without strict adherence to the causal principle we cannot make the universe intelligible. But this might be because of the psychological need noted above, to reduce everything to a neat explanatory framework – the universe might in fact work in ways that do not comply with our intellectual preferences.

Kant approached the cosmological argument differently in his Critique of Pure Reason. He argued that it is not really an empirical argument, but a concealed version of the ontological argument, for it invokes the concept of a necessary being to serve as a ground for the contingent universe. But the concept of a necessary being is shown by discussion of the ontological argument to be empty.


Some of Kant’s critics use a technical philosophical distinction to answer him. They claim that he has mistaken the idea of a logically necessary being with the cosmological argument’s requirement for a metaphysically necessary being. The distinction works in rather the way that equivocation over the term ‘necessary’ worked in relation to Dr Pangloss’s nose, as explained above. A logically necessary being is one that must exist. A metaphysically necessary being is one that must exist in order for the universe to have a stopping-point for the regress of causes, that is, as a ground on which contingent existence can rest. Thus, metaphysical necessity is relative, logical necessity is absolute.

But Kant can reply that this attempt to restrict attention to the ‘necessary condition’ sense of ‘necessity’ is spurious, because what is being proposed is a being that has to exist, whether our ground for asserting this is the definition of the being (as the ontological argument has it) or the contingency and causal dependency of the world upon such a being (as the cosmological argument asserts). Any counter to the claim that the idea of a necessary being makes sense is therefore a counter to both arguments.

Some defenders of the cosmological argument position it as a version of the ‘inference to the best explanation’. This move has it that because of our ignorance about the why and how of the world, nominating a deity as both its source and the reason for its existence is ‘the best available explanation’.

This is a very feeble argument; it clutches arbitrarily at something to fill the explanatory gaps in our knowledge, and has no better claim than if we just as arbitrarily invoked the existence of fairies for the same purpose. Moreover, to summon so undefined and implausible a thing as a deity to perform this role is to explain the universe in terms of something more mysterious and arbitrary than the universe itself. That takes us nowhere.

Thomas-Aquinas-Picture-Quote-e1394104417378The arguments so far discussed all aim to establish the proposition ‘that God exists’. They are arguments that date from the long era before natural science began to give us a far better grip on the nature of natural phenomena and their operations and sources. They are arguments spun out of semantics and armchair philosophising based on very little real knowledge of the world. They wear their inadequacies on their sleeves, and such interest as they have belongs to the history of ideas – a great archive of surpassed speculations.

A quite different tactic is to argue that it is prudent to believe that there is a deity, whether or not one can otherwise provide reasons for thinking so. In fact, this move is specifically aimed at supporting belief in a deity of the traditionally conceived type, that is, one that is interested in human beings on this planet to the point of promising rewards for obedience and worship, or punishments otherwise.


The most celebrated such argument is Pascal’s wager.13 Pascal said that because the existence of a deity can be neither proved nor disproved (here he was mistaken; see above) by rational argument, one has to take the different course of considering the advantages and disadvantages of believing that there is a deity. If there is a deity, the advantage of believing in its existence is huge; it is a benefit that pays off for all eternity. If there is no deity, then one has not lost much by believing in its existence anyway. Therefore, it is prudent to believe.

In contemporary theory this argument is stated in terms of ‘expected utility’. Pascal’s point is that no matter how small the probability that a deity exists, as long as it is non-zero the utility of believing it far outweighs the disutility of believing it; therefore it is not just prudent but rational to believe.

Some theistic critics put the interesting argument that this very pragmatic reason for believing is too cold and calculating to be the kind of belief that an interested god would want from its creatures, and this might count against the utility of believing in this way; if such a god exists but is offended by the calculating nature of the belief, the sought-for benefits will not be forthcoming. So Pascal’s prudential argument is self-defeating.

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Voltaire’s response to Pascal’s wager was characteristically acute: ‘the interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists’.14 This is of course right. But the two chief criticisms of Pascal’s argument are that its starting-point does not do what is required of it, and that it is not the case that the existence of a deity cannot be disproved.

First, Pascal says that as long as the probability of a god’s existence is non-zero, then the utility of believing in it outweighs the utility of disbelieving in it. Note that this is only so if, in addition, you believe that there is life after death, heaven, reward and punishment, indeed a whole raft of additional things that Pascal simply assumes accompany belief in the existence of a god. If the probability that there is a god is vanishingly small, what is the probability of the truth of all this additional matter?

Pascal Quote

Grant for a moment that Pascal’s prudential calculation applies to these things too. Now consider that by parity of reasoning the same amount of sense can be made of the claim that there is a non-zero probability that fairies exist, however vanishingly small that probability is; or that the gods of Olympus exist, or even that there is green cheese beneath the surface of the moon. Admittedly the utility of believing some of these things will be very low or even negative, but there could be utility in believing some of the others: belief in fairies, for example, might yield a great deal of charm and pleasure, and it might even add explanatory value. (It used to be believed that fairies were responsible for curdling milk, and for stealing small household objects such as pins and shoelaces.) In no such case could the usefulness of believing these things by itself make it rational to believe them.

This point applies to other forms of a prudential or, slightly differently, pragmatic argument. It is sometimes claimed that theistic belief should be encouraged because it makes people behave better, or because it comforts them in time of trouble, and that it can discipline whole populations by making them believe that they are being watched always and everywhere, and that they will inevitably, no escape possible, be rewarded or punished for what they do. The utility or the prudential value of this is offered as making (the inculcation of ) belief rational. This is where it is relevant to revisit the points about proof made earlier, and fully worth repeating.

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It was noted that in formal systems of logic and mathematics, proof is demonstrative and conclusive. In deductive logic all inferences are actually instances of petitio principii because the conclusion is always contained in the premises, and deductions are merely (even though often not obviously) rearrangements of the information in the premises (consider: ‘all men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal’). As noted earlier, there can indeed be psychological novelty in the outcome of a deduction, but never logical novelty; this latter only happens in inductive inference, where the informational content of conclusions goes beyond the informational content of their premises. For this reason inductive inferences are known as ‘ampliative’

But inductions are not proofs in the sense of formal proof. Their success or otherwise turns on how probable the premises make the conclusions, or – differently and better viewed – how rational the premises make acceptance of the conclusions. And this relates them to the non-demonstrative sense of ‘proof’ which is at issue here.

In non-demonstrative contexts ‘proof’ is to be understood in its proper meaning of ‘test’. Steel and other materials are tested or ‘proved’ – loaded until they crack or break, heated until they warp or melt, frozen until they shatter, or whatever is appropriate – and this is the sense in which we talk of the ‘proof of the pudding’ or ‘the exception that proves (tests) the rule’. Claims to the existence of anything are subject to proof or test in this sense. This is where Carl Sagan’s ‘dragon in the garage’ example demonstrates its worth.

Again remember Clifford’s strictures on belief. When the evidence is not merely insufficient but absent or contrary, how much more wrong to do as Doubting Thomas was criticised for not doing, and as Søren Kierkegaard encouraged: to believe nevertheless.

This point weighs particularly against those who, in similar vein to Plantinga but with less disguise in theological or philosophical clothing, claim that one can choose to believe because it is comforting or satisfying to do so, or because it gives hope even if one knows that it is the very slimmest of hopes. These are psychological motivations which are no doubt very common among adult believers (children, as we saw, believe because they are evolutionarily primed to be credulous, and therefore believe everything the adults in their circle insist that they believe). But Clifford’s point about the ethics of belief demands that we make mature and responsible use of our cognitive capacities, and nothing that Pascal or anyone else (William James had a similar view15) says in the way of prudence, caution, hope against hope, or the benefits of believing even on poor grounds, can stand against that.

 William_Kingdon_Clifford_by_John_CollierWhat of the moral argument for the existence of deity? We need only the briefest discussion of it. Stated at its simplest, it is that there can be no morality unless there is a deity. Put a little more fully, the argument in effect says that there can be no moral code unless it is laid down, policed, punished and rewarded by a deity. Religious apologists would prefer to state the case differently: that morality is the response of a loving creation to its loving creator. Or, alternatively put again: because god is so nice, we should be nice to each other. The existence of moral evil (the tsunamis and childhood cancers) raises questions about the love and niceness of the deity if there is one, but the positively spun versions of the moral argument do not hide the fact that it consists in saying that morality is groundless unless ordained, and its breaches sanctioned, by a deity. This view is consistent with the assumption made, in the case of Judaeo-Christian religion, that humans are ‘fallen’ or innately sinful beings who need salvation.

The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity is refuted by the existence of good atheists. Arguably, non-theists count among themselves the most careful moral thinkers, because in the absence of an externally imposed morality they recognise the duty to examine their views, choices and actions, and how they should behave towards others.

Consider the thinkers of classical antiquity – Aristotle, the Stoics and others – and one will see that their examination of ethics was not premised on the belief that morals were a matter of divine command, or that they were responding to the requirements of a deity, still less that they were seeking reward in an afterlife, or the avoidance of punishment. Their example illustrates the falsity of the claim that moral principles can only come from an external agency.

Nor were these thinkers persuaded that supposed analogies between moral and natural law suggest that both require to have been laid down by a deity; nor again that the only ground for the actual or even apparent objectivity of ethical principles is that they are the product of a divine will.

Kant, this time in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), demonstrated one way to underwrite the objectivity of moral law; he argued that reason identifies the categorical (unconditional) imperatives that specify our moral duties, and that this would be so whether or not a deity exists.

There is an important point implicit in this view. The fact that anyone commands us to do something is not by itself a reason why we should do it, other than prudentially (as when we are threatened with punishment for not obeying). The action in question has itself to be independently worthy of doing, or there has to be a reason other than someone’s merely wishing or commanding that we do it, to serve as a genuine reason for it.


A related consideration, called the ‘Euthyphro Problem’ after a discussion of it in Plato’s dialogue of that name, is this: is an act wrong because a god says it is, or is it forbidden by god because it is wrong? If the latter, then there is a reason independently of the will of a god that makes the act wrong. But then there is morality without god and the moral argument for the existence of god fails. If the former, then anything god commands (murder and rape, for example) would be morally good, just because he commands it; and then, as Leibniz puts it, ‘In saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but merely by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realising it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary?’16

Behind the thought that there needs to be a god to give and enforce moral principles is the further thought that such principles require the backing of authority, for otherwise there is no answer to the moral sceptic who asks, ‘Why should I be moral? Why should I not lie or kill or steal?’ because there is no ultimate sanction for his failure to live morally. To thinkers of this persuasion, morality is empty unless it can be enforced.

The examples of the good atheist and the classical philosopher also rebut this view. There are many sound reasons why we should seek to live responsibly, with generosity and sympathy towards others, with care and affection for them, and with continence, sound judgement and decency in our own lives. We can see the value of these things in themselves, and from the point of the benefits they bring society and its individual members, including ourselves. A thoughtful person could decide not to be the sort of person who steals even if he would never be found out or punished, precisely because he does not want to be such a person, and because at least one person knows what he would be doing if he did such things – namely, himself; and if he has standards, he might well choose to live up to them.

In short, there is no need for an external enforcer to make us the kind of people who take such thoughts seriously; and we might all prefer to live in a world where people seek to be morally worthy because they see the point of it, not because they are being watched and will be rewarded or punished according to the degree to which they abide by the rules. In the latter sort of world one cannot tell the difference between those who are acting out of principle and those who are acting out of prudence, and perhaps wishing they could do otherwise – doing it inauthentically, as the point is sometimes put. How much better is a world for being a world of volunteers, not slaves!

Arguing by Definition (A.C. Grayling, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, pp. 83-94.


The various versions of the ontological argument come down to saying in effect that deity exists by definition. It is an a priori deductive argument, that is, an argument by reason alone, and it turns on analysis of the concept of deity. This, therefore, is where the problems with defining the word ‘god’ really bite.

The classic statement of the ontological argument is given by the eleventh-century philosopher St Anselm in his Proslogion. He began by considering the concept of ‘a being than which no greater can be conceived’. If such a being did not exist, then there would be a ‘greater’ being than it, namely, one that did exist. But by hypothesis ‘the being than which no greater can be conceived’ is the greatest being there is. Therefore, it must exist. And Anselm identified this being as the deity, because of the other attributes of deity which together make it the only plausible candidate for the ‘greatest being’ – omnipotence, omniscience and the rest.

Leaving aside the undefined notion of ‘greatness’ for a moment, let us note the following. At any given moment, someone is the tallest person in London. This is a matter of logic, not of human physiology. If there are two, three or more tallest people in London who are exactly the same height, then whichever of them got out of bed latest on the day in question would be the tallest person in London, because gravity would have had slightly longer to act on the other two, shortening them fractionally. This latter fact is a matter of physiology and physics, but it connects to the logical fact that one of the Londoners – the richest, laziest or least healthy of them, because longest abed – is the tallest on that day. Finally, note that even if everyone in London were short, as a matter of logic one of them would nevertheless be the tallest.

Now consider the idea that someone is the ‘greatest’ person in London. Whatever that might mean, note that such a person need not be very great, he need only be less un-great than everyone else in London. One can now see why the Anselm argument does not get us from logic to divinity. If by ‘god’ Anselm means the least un-great individual anywhere, this is an uninteresting result. It does not improve matters to substitute the phrase ‘most perfect being’ for ‘greatest being’, as some do with the ontological argument. The universe’s most perfect being might be very imperfect, only less so than other imperfect beings, and not at all a suitable candidate for existence as a deity.

Note that the argument requires the comparative element; that is crucial; the claim cannot be ‘that there is a perfect being’, it must be ‘that there is a most perfect being’ or ‘that there is a being than which no other being is more perfect’, so that it can be more perfect than a perfect being which does not exist.

From the outset therefore there is the problem of getting from the supposed fact that something must have some property in the highest degree relative to any other similar thing, with it being the case that the highest degree is very high; and so without offering any ground for thinking that because it is the ‘most-est’ of its kind, it is a deity – let alone the traditionally conceived God.

It should also be noted, as a footnote, that there is a problem with the assumption made by proponents of some versions of the ontological argument that ‘perfection’ admits of degrees, making it a relative rather than an absolute notion. But there is a strong case for saying that ‘perfect’ is an absolute term, that is, applies in an all-or-nothing way. If something is perfect, then it is perfect, and cannot be more or less perfect than another perfect thing. It is legitimate to say that something might approach more nearly to perfection than other things do, but then by hypothesis none of the things being thus compared is perfect anyway. Yet the Anselm-type of ontological argument requires that perfection (or in Anselm’s terminology, greatness) be a matter of degree, otherwise the argument will not work.

Perhaps the ontological argument’s proponents take perfection to be a relative notion because it is an all too familiar fact that imperfection has degrees; not only are some things more imperfect than others, they can also become more and less so. But to say that something is less imperfect than something else is not to say that it is more perfect than it. It might be less imperfect in having one less flaw, and yet be extremely flawed.

The fact that ‘less imperfect’ is not the same as ‘more perfect’ is a function of the fact that the conceptual polarities ‘perfect-imperfect’ (and others like it, such as ‘mortal-immortal’) are mistakenly assimilated to such examples as ‘flat-bumpy’ and ‘calm-anxious’. In these latter cases we know what each of the contrasting concepts applies to; we can point out examples of flat things and examples of bumpy things. But in the case of ‘perfect-imperfect’ and ‘mortal-immortal’ we only know what one of the pair applies to (imperfection and mortality, of course). The opposite pole in each case is merely notional, arrived at by extrapolation from the concept we know how to apply.

st-anselms-chapel-0021So there is a problem with the Anselm type of ontological argument which relies on an existing something’s being more perfect than a non-existing perfect thing. Yet even if one leaves aside the question whether ‘perfect’ is an absolute or relative term, there is still a further problem. What does ‘perfect’ mean, as applied to deity? The formula ‘God is perfect’ in traditional theistic doctrine is intended to mean ‘omnipotent, omniscient, morally pure, without needs or appetites’ (though capable, according to the Bible, of emotions of anger and love). Arguably, though, these fall into the category of expressions which are sayable without being thinkable, like the example, given previously (p. 21), of the apparently intelligible sentence which expresses a logical impossibility.

For consider: ‘omnipotent’ means ‘all powerful’ in the sense of ‘is capable of doing anything’ or ‘is unlimited in action’. This immediately causes difficulties, well illustrated by nonsense questions such as, ‘Could an omnipotent being eat itself?’ Suppose the reply is that such a being is not the kind of being that eats, because it is immaterial. Does this mean that it cannot eat? If so it is not omnipotent: omnipotent means ‘can do anything’. If the answer is that it can eat but does not, then one can probe the coherence of the concept by asking, ‘What might it eat if it chose to?’ Alternatively, and more consistently, the first answer might be developed as follows: to say that an omnipotent being cannot eat because it is not the kind of thing that eats (compare: you cannot ‘sleep furiously’, because sleeping is not the kind of thing that can be done furiously), one is saying that its field of omnipotence is whatever is consistent with its nature. But this simply defers the difficulty again. We now need to know what its nature is to know the respects in which, within the limits of its nature, it is unlimited in power. Will this satisfy the sceptic? No, because this is already to say that the supposedly omnipotent being is only qualifiedly omnipotent – and that is a contradiction in terms.

These points are neither frivolous nor pedantic, because they show that pressure on the concept of deity quickly exposes incoherences, leaving its defenders only with the ineffability move for protecting their adherence to it. But the ineffability move cannot give us an ontological argument, which crucially depends on assertions about the nature of the deity.

Notice that these thoughts, if they cannot be answered, undermine the ontological argument even before its details are examined. But let us examine them anyway; and in a stronger form that does not require a comparative notion of perfection.


The argument’s most familiar version is given by René Descartes in the fifth of his Meditations (1641). His version has it that the concept of a non-existent ‘supremely perfect being’ is a contradiction, just as it is a contradiction to deny that the interior angles of a plane triangle add up to 180 degrees. Accordingly, because we can conceive of a ‘supremely perfect being’, it follows from the very definition of it that it necessarily exists.

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The definitive response was stated by Immanuel Kant in the ‘Dialectic’ of his Critique of Pure Reason (1787), which is the section of that famous work devoted to exploring how reason can go wrong, as happens in the ontological argument. He pointed out that ‘existence’ is not a property of anything, but a condition of anything’s having a property. In Descartes’ statement of the argument, existence is a perfection which deity cannot lack, and it is therefore a property among the other superlative properties ascribable to the deity. But, said Kant, any possessor of properties cannot have its own existence as one among those properties; it must (so to speak, already) exist in order to be a possessor of properties. You cannot say of a table, ‘It is made of wood, has three legs, is round, and it exists,’ for it might have properties different from being wooden, three-legged and round, while still being a table – a metal, four-legged, square table perhaps – but it could not be non-existent and still be a table.

The point is illustrated by noting that if one thinks Descartes’s form of the argument works, a parallel version of it can be used to prove that a devil must be necessarily non-existent. It would go as follows: ‘There is a being which is the least perfect of all beings; such a being which does not exist is – since existence is a perfection – less perfect than one that does; therefore the least perfect being necessarily does not exist.’ Here non-existence is asserted to be a property of a being whose other properties are, presumably, evil, malevolence, impurity and so forth: but one wonders how a non-existent thing can be evil and impure, thus demonstrating that existing is a logically different category from, because a logically prior category to, any properties anything might possess.


A version of the ontological argument is offered by the American theist philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who does not claim that it proves that a god exists, but that it establishes that it is rational to think that a god exists.9 His argument turns on a standard way of explaining the ‘modal’ concepts possibility and necessity. Something is said to be possible if there is at least one way a world could be – a ‘possible world’ – such that it exists in that world. A world is a possible world if it is either our actual world (to be actual it has at least to be possible) or is a non-actual world the concept of which is without internal contradictions. And then we say that something ‘exists necessarily’ if it exists in every possible world – which is merely a different way of saying: a ‘necessary something’ is a something that must exist no matter what else is the case.

Plantinga’s argument is as follows. There is a possible world in which something exists that is the greatest thing there can ever be (a thing which has ‘maximal greatness’). Therefore there is such a thing. And then Plantinga says this thing is god. As noted, Plantinga (wisely) does not take this to prove the existence of a god, but claims that it makes belief in a god rational.

Another approach in this style of reasoning is to say that there is a possible world in which there is a necessarily existing x; and therefore x exists. And as with the ‘greatest thing’ in Plantinga’s version, this necessarily existing thing is identified as a god.

Neither strategy works. The second formulation turns on a technical principle in modal logic: ‘If it is possible that it is necessary that p then, by a certain rule, one can infer that p is necessary.’ Here is the explanation: anything which is possible exists, by definition, in at least one possible world. If it is possible that there is a necessary x, then there is at least one world in which x exists necessarily. But if x is a necessary being – if it must exist and cannot do other than exist – then it must exist in every possible world, including the actual world. Therefore if it is possible that there is a necessary x, there is actually a necessary x.

Leave aside the question what such a thing would be, and why – given that it is only by stipulation that a god is a necessary being – the necessary being in question is the God of theistic tradition, and ask: what reason is there for thinking that anything exists necessarily? That is, on what grounds is it claimed that it is possible that anything is necessary? In fact, the argument is question-begging, for by saying that there is a world in which something is necessary, by the definition of ‘necessary’ what is thereby being asserted is that it has to exist in every possible world. Yet with equal plausibility it can be claimed that ‘there is a possible world in which nothing exists necessarily’ – which means ‘there is a possible world in which everything is contingent’ – and if this is possible (as it surely is: our own world is such a world!) then it follows that nothing is necessary, because only if it is not possible for there to be a world in which nothing is necessary can there be any necessarily existing thing – for remember: such a thing would have to exist in every possible world.


The first version of Plantinga’s argument, which starts from the premise that ‘there is a possible world containing a maximally great entity’ is vulnerable to the challenge that one can equally start from the premise that there is no possible world in which anything is maximally great, from which it would follow that necessarily there is no maximally great thing. Are there grounds for preferring one of these starting premises to the other one? Arguably, given the problem, discussed above, questioning whether the phrase ‘maximal greatness’ means anything, it is the second premise which is marginally more intelligible and therefore sensible. At the least this shows that you have to begin by accepting that there can be a ‘maximally great something’ for the argument to have any grip; and that of course is to argue in a circle.

It would seem that Alvin Plantinga has abandoned attempts to show by argument that it is rational to hold theistic beliefs, because he now argues that there is no need to provide such arguments, on the grounds that belief in the existence of a deity is a ‘basic belief’ from which one begins, not at which one ends by investigation and argument.10 By a ‘basic belief’ is meant such as ‘the past exists’, ‘other people have minds’, ‘one plus one is two’. So Plantinga is arguing that it is just as obvious, fundamental and unquestionable that ‘God exists’.

The least of the problems with this breathtaking assertion is that the supposed basic belief that ‘the past exists’ – and so for the other examples given – can and have regularly been challenged by rational sceptical argument, and yet they are a good deal less contentious than the claim that gods, goddesses and other supernatural beings exist, or that at least one such exists.

The main problem is that calling a belief ‘basic’, so that you do not have to argue for it or provide evidence for it, is gratuitous: you can help yourself to anything you like, and of course anything follows. Choose a convenient belief, give it the most convenient content for what else you wish to believe, and then claim that it is ‘basic’ and therefore in no need of justification. This is too obviously unacceptable to need much comment. As Daniel Dennett said of this view of Plantinga’s, this is ‘Exhibit A of how religious belief can damage or hinder or disable a philosopher’.

The claim that there is a deity with supernal powers has exactly the effect of claiming that a contradiction is true: nothing can be inconsistent with the existence of such a being, and therefore nothing can test whether or not it exists. It is yet again Popper’s dictum, ‘What explains everything explains nothing,’ which shows what is wrong with that.


In Plantinga’s view, the critiques of religious belief given by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are worthless: in an interview for the New York Times he described Dawkins as ‘dancing on the lunatic fringe’ and Dennett as engaging in ‘inane ridicule and burlesque’ rather than argument.11 Apart from this, by its nature, being a case of the pot calling the kettle black, it comes richly from someone who thinks we have no need to provide argument or evidence for a belief in deity. Two things that stand out in Plantinga’s claims are, first, that theism is more consistent with science than atheism because a universe ruled by a deity is an orderly one, and therefore fit for the operation of natural laws; whereas a universe not ruled by a deity would be disorderly and not fit for description by science. This is a bizarre view: it seems to imply that unless the universe had a ruler it would be naughty, with galaxies and stars disobeying the laws of gravity and the rest. The point Plantinga misses, in common with all apologists who wish to insert a deity into the picture, is that if the laws of nature describe the universe successfully, then it blunts Ockham’s Razor to bring in an unnecessary addition to the framework of explanation for this fact.

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The second point that stands out from Plantinga’s views is his claim that everyone has a sensus divinitatis but that in some people – Dawkins, Dennett, the writer of these words – it ‘does not work properly’. The Latin phrase, literally ‘a sense of the divine’ but meaning ‘an innate conviction that god exists’, is used as a booster to the claim that belief in god is ‘basic’ and in no need of justification. Again, this would be a very convenient view for the theistic cause, because it applies to everyone without exception; the non-believer is told that his sensus divinitatis is not working properly, not that he has no such thing, and this is why he cannot accept that ‘there is a god’ is as basic a belief as ‘one plus one equals two’.

I repeat the quotation from W. K. Clifford: ‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ It has to be said that by Clifford’s lights Plantinga’s approach provides an example of complete intellectual irresponsibility

Arguing by Design (A.C. Grayling, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, pp. 73-82.


Proponents of the teleological argument deduce the existence of a deity from the appearance of design in nature. Strictly speaking, the argument is only entitled to try proving the existence of a designer; it is a bigger step to say that this agency created the universe as well as designed it, because however natural it might be to think that an agency capable of designing a universe might also be capable of creating it, nevertheless there is no evidence in the appearance of design that the designer was the creator too.

But grant, for a moment, that if there were a designer, it would also be the creator; it is an even bigger step to get from there to the deity of a particular religious tradition, such as the Judaeo-Christian tradition. There are many other religions and mythologies in which the agency credited with creating the universe has no further interest in it, or at least no interest in humans.

Contemporary ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) advocates are careful not to say what they take the teleological argument to prove the existence of, other than an Intelligent Designer – at least not while they are trying to get their textbooks into American schools alongside biology textbooks. Their creationist or ‘Creation Science’ predecessors were less careful, stating straight out that they took the argument to establish the existence of the Judaeo-Christian ‘God of the Bible’. As the foregoing consideration shows, ID advocates would have a task to advance beyond an Intelligent Designer if their eventual aim – as everyone knows it is – is to defend a traditional Judaeo-Christian commitment. (Islam is a creationist religion and faces the same problem.)

Many of those in the eighteenth century who today would call themselves atheists described themselves as ‘deists’ because they were unable to see how the universe and life could begin without a creative act of some kind.8 They were puzzled by the obvious difficulty that positing a creating agency merely pushes the problem back a step – where did the creating agency pop up from? what explains it? – yet in the absence of any other resource they accepted the fudge. Note that this is not the same thing as an argument from design, but rather is a version of the argument that says: ‘in the absence of having any clue as to what the explanation might be for something, just settle for saying “a god did it”.’ This is the ‘god of gaps’ move.

The deists also held, on the sound empirical evidence otherwise available to them, that the creating agency was no longer at work in the universe – that it was either no longer around or no longer interested. Consequently they did not subscribe to any religious practices other than for form’s sake. At that time it was, in social terms, very difficult not to pay lip-service to the forms.

As the deists’ dilemma shows, the teleological argument was taken seriously in the eighteenth century, by which time two centuries of science had proceeded far enough to reveal many of the natural world’s beautiful complexities, but not far enough to explain their origin and development.

William Paley by George Romney
William Paley by George Romney

The most famous statement of the argument from design was given by William Paley. In his Natural Theology (1802) he invites us to imagine finding a watch on the ground while out for a walk, and being forced to conclude from an examination of its structure and properties that it was made by an intelligent agent. But if we think this of a watch, which gives every indication of being wrought by a purposeful agent, how much more so must we think the same of the eye, which, he wrote, ‘would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator’.

If this is the most intuitive statement of the design argument, the clearest statement of its logical structure is given by David Hume in his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). He has his character Cleanthes say:

David Hume
David Hume

“Look round the world; contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.”

Hume rejected this argument. His rejection of it turns on three points: on the weak and misleading nature of the analogy between natural things and man-made machines; on the fact that there are alternative explanations of how natural phenomena came to be as they are; and – the point made above – that if the argument established that the universe must have been designed, the most this could establish is the existence of a designer.

In accepting this last point the deists were of course being persuaded by the supposed analogy in play. But they were also making use of the fundamental principle that everything has a cause. Philosophical thinking about causation was influenced by Aristotle’s doctrine of causation, which turns on a fourfold distinction between the ‘formal’, ‘material’, final’ and ‘efficient’ causes of things. The ‘formal cause’ is the plan or design of something. The ‘material cause’ is the stuff out of which it is made. The ‘final cause’ is the purpose or end for which it came into existence. And the ‘efficient cause’ is the actual work that brought it about. On the analogy proposed by the teleological argument, just as intelligence ineliminably figures in any account of the final and efficient causes of human artefacts, so a like intelligence must be supposed to explain the final and efficient causes of natural things.

Stained-glass window showing William of Ockham
Stained-glass window showing William of Ockham

The weakness of this analogy, however, is revealed by the second counter offered by Hume. This is that there are other and better explanations of natural phenomena. Although cosmology and biology had not reached the levels of explanatory power that experimental and theoretical advances have since together permitted, Hume could see that postulating a designer to explain the appearance of nature blunts Ockham’s Razor, the principle which states that one must employ the fewest assumptions and invoke the least number of entities necessary to explain something. So if there could be alternative explanations which are simpler in themselves and more consistent with observed fact, invoking an extra agency is unnecessary. If Ockham’s Razor were not a principle of enquiry, why not hypothesise that flowers are coaxed out of their seeds and up through the soil by fairies, one for each flower?

Moreover the design hypothesis is implausible because it purports to offer an explanation by invoking something itself unexplained. The deists who felt disquiet about this should have taken their disquiet seriously, because explaining something by something unexplained amounts, obviously, to no explanation at all.

And finally the argument is inconsistent with the many examples of bad design that nature offers us (wisdom teeth and the human appendix merely begin a very long list), together with nature’s failures (most life that has ever been on Earth is now extinct) and repeated efforts at producing structures (there are nearly two dozen different evolutionary pathways to types of eyes, something Paley did not know). The first point is a logical point, the second is an empirical one.

One way that defenders of the teleological argument seek to salvage it is by saying that the deity works indirectly, by making natural laws the instrument for realising his designs. He creates the laws, then the laws create nature, thus fulfilling his purposes. This however is an even worse violation of Ockham’s Razor; it accepts that natural laws create the universe by themselves, and then postulates an additional entity to be a creator of the laws.

This is also an example of what Karl Popper meant when he said that a theory which is consistent with everything – which says that nothing can refute it – explains nothing. Consider the ID proponent who rejects the theory of biological evolution while arguing that the designer works through natural laws. He moves the designer further back down the causal chain so that no example of naturally occurring adaptation is inconsistent with this hypothesis – which therefore makes the hypothesis empty.

A more contemporary form of teleological argument turns on the idea of ‘cosmic fine-tuning’. This argument begins from the observation that the universe’s initial conditions, and the physical laws and parameters operative within it, are ‘fine-tuned’ in such a way as to make it possible for life to appear on this planet. Had they been different in even the smallest way, life as we know it could not have happened.

For example: if the strong force in the atomic nucleus had varied in either direction by more than 5 per cent, or if the electromagnetic force binding electrons to atomic nuclei were stronger or weaker, life could not have emerged. If the relative masses of neutrons and protons were different, life could not have emerged. If the gravitational force were different even by a minute amount, main sequence stars like our own sun could not exist and accordingly life of our kind would be much less likely.

If the ‘big bang’ had not been exactly as it was, either the universe would have collapsed upon itself immediately, or it would have expanded too rapidly for the evolution of stars like our sun; so either there could have been no planet Earth with life on it, or at very least our kind of life would not have appeared.


The concurrence of these just-right values constitutes what has been called ‘the Goldilocks enigma’. How can the universe be so extraordinarily apt for life to emerge on our planet, given the infinitesimal chance that nature’s laws should all coincide in the right way for it? Therefore – some say – it must have been designed by a purposive agency.

Much might be said in response. We are asked to think that there is an agency whose aim was to produce us by bringing it about that, after nine billion years or so – the universe is about thirteen billion years old – forms of life would emerge that after a further four billion years would eventuate in us (the first prokaryotes appeared on our planet about that long ago).

Let us leave aside the fact that this speculation makes us the aim of the great universal story; all those billions of years, billions of galaxies, billions of stars – it is all aimed at producing us, with our wars, our dentistry needs, our fashion sense. Even if these things were part of the design to test us so that we can get into another universe – the posthumous one – it would seem a trifle excessive. The least one can say is that it is a view that does not suffer from immodesty about the importance of human beings to the cosmos.

Consider instead the following fact. If my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents (all 64 of them, living about two hundred years ago) had not lived where they did, and done the things they did – and pretty exactly as they did them – I would not exist. But this is a retrospective observation, which I can only make because in fact I exist, even if I am filled with wonder at the (very fortunate for me) millions of coincidences which resulted in me. If my forebears had been inconsiderate enough to do other things in other ways and places instead, with the result that I did not exist, I would not now be marvelling at how fine-tuned history was in bringing it about that I exist. I do not however think that my existence was the point and purpose of all these events, however lucky for me. Rather, I think that it is only because I exist that I see that I would not have existed unless these coincidences occurred.

The ‘Goldilocks dilemma’ of my personal existence, and that of the universe’s parameters and laws, is exactly the same thing.

A variant explanation of the illusion of purpose in the ‘fine-tuning’ version of the design argument is provided by Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss in Candide, a book prompted by the 100,000 deaths in the earthquake and tsunami which devastated Lisbon in 1755. The catastrophe made Voltaire doubt that this world is the ‘best of all possible worlds’, or that it is under the government of a benevolent agency.


Consider Dr Pangloss’ explanation of the human nose, which is that it was purposely designed to support spectacles. This exposes the fallacy in the fine-tuning argument, to see which one needs to know a little logical technicality, as follows.

The fact that a human nose (use the letter X to symbolise the nose) is a necessary condition for spectacles to be perched in front of the eyes (use the letter Y to symbolise ‘spectacles being perched in front of the eyes’) does not entail that, because Y is the case, X is in itself necessary. ‘Necessity’ in the logical sense of ‘having to be so’ is not the same thing as the necessity involved in a ‘necessary condition’ – here things have to be so only relative to something else’s being the way it is. In the case of X’s being a necessary condition relative to Y, but not in itself necessary, X could have been different, and if it were so, there would, or at least might, be no Y. For example: if humans did not have noses, spectacles might be worn as goggles are, held before the eyes by an elastic strap.

onion10-5This is just how it is with the universe. We humans are the Y of which nature’s parameters are the X. We exist because the parameters are as they are; had they been different, we would not be here to know it. The fact that we exist because of how things happen to be with the universe’s structure and properties entails nothing about design or purpose. Depending on your point of view, it is just a lucky or unlucky result of how things happen to be. The universe’s parameters are not tuned on purpose for us to exist. It is the other way round: we exist because the laws happen to be as they are.

Theistic Arguments (A.C. Grayling, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, pp. 65-72


In this and the following chapters I examine ‘arguments for the existence of God’, as the standard phrase has it. I do it in detail, and in the context of other considerations that arise in discussion of these arguments – semantic, psychological and polemical considerations chief among them – something that is too rarely done, although doing it brings a great deal of light to bear on the arguments themselves.

The importance of this contextual approach to these arguments is that apologists for religion wish to sustain the impression that such discussions are rational in the way that discussion of genetics or Roman history is rational, and in the way that discussion of fairy lore, or astrological concepts as employed in assertions such as ‘Mercury is in opposition to Mars in the Third House’, is not. It is rational to discuss the fact that lots of people believe that astrology reveals character and destiny, but it is not rational to discuss whether people born under the sign of Aries are typically more rash than those born under the sign of Gemini. Theological discourse is of this latter type – ‘Is the Son of one substance with the Father?’ and ‘Does the Holy Ghost proceed from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone?’ are utterances that have caused wars, persecutions, schisms and burnings at the stake; and they are exactly of the same category as ‘Are Aries people more rash than Gemini people?’ – that is, they are part of the internal discourse of the belief system, and they only make sense to anyone who has accepted the premises and parameters of the belief system already.


Let us call discussion about why people believe in astrology an ‘external discussion’ and discussion about the different character traits of Aries and Gemini people an ‘internal discussion’. We then see that ‘arguments for the existence of God’ are intended as external discussions, and therefore an invitation to rational argument about theistic claims. One large problem with this, as we shall repeatedly see, is that to have this external discussion one has to make use of internal discussions in the crucial sense that it is these latter which tell us what the former are about. The question is: what is this thing theists call ‘god’ that these arguments are going to try to prove exists? How can you prove such a thing exists (or: such things exist) unless you know what is under discussion? You can only say what is talked about by reference to the internal discussions; but the internal discussions only make sense if the external discussion has shown that there is something to talk about.

A Teleological Argument Print by Daniel G Walczyk
A Teleological Argument Print by Daniel G Walczyk

This problem has to be borne in mind throughout what follows.

Anyone who studies philosophy or theology immediately meets with a standard set of ‘arguments for the existence of God’. The best known is the ‘argument from design’, called by philosophers the ‘teleological argument’ from the Greek word telos meaning ‘aim, end or purpose’.

The second well-known argument students meet with is the ‘ontological argument’, an argument that claims to establish the existence of a deity by reason alone. It does this by claiming that a deity exists by definition.

A third argument is the ‘cosmological argument’, like the teleological argument an attempt to provide an empirical basis for the existence of a deity, but this time inferring it from the supposed fact that the world cannot be its own cause or ‘ground’.


Other arguments include a moral argument, roughly speaking that there cannot be morality unless there is a deity, and a collection of further considerations intended to establish that theistic belief is rational, desirable, or at very least prudent.

In all these cases an argument is being offered, and arguments invite rational scrutiny. The word ‘argument’ is here being used in its logical sense to mean the derivation of a conclusion from premises. Premises can support a conclusion either demonstratively and conclusively, as in the formal deductive systems of logic and mathematics, or by rendering the conclusion plausible or persuasive to the point of making it irrational not to accept it (and, if relevant, to act upon it). This distinction was explained earlier. Argument of the latter kind is inductive. Arguments endeavouring to establish the ‘existence of God’ can be either deductive or inductive.

I put ‘scare’ quotes around the phrase ‘existence of God’ because, as noted earlier, use of the capitalised word ‘God’ makes it look like a proper name which, in virtue of being one, carries the suggestion that it names something. There is a major debate in philosophy about naming, which we know cannot have straightforward existential implications given that some names, such as ‘Harry Potter’, name fictional entities; and this alerts us to the possibility of question-begging assumptions being involved in arguments that claim to establish the existence of something when talking about that something already seems to presuppose its existence, or at very least the possibility of its existence.

It is better to insist on the formula I began with, namely, ‘arguments for the existence of deity’, although we immediately find ourselves in need of an understanding of what is meant by ‘deity’ or ‘god’ and their cognates. The difficulties relating to this, mentioned earlier, greatly complicate the task of analysing attempted proofs of existence, for how can one prove the existence of something unless one knows what it is supposed to be?

There is a further complication. This is that most religious people do not, of course, subscribe to their religion because of arguments in favour of it, still less arguments establishing the existence of the deity central to it. The arguments examined here are without exception rationalisations of beliefs which are already accepted. In the great majority of cases, people belong to their religion because it is the religion of their parents, learned in childhood and thereafter constantly and in diverse ways reinforced by being present and observed in their communities. When a religion is adopted in later years the impulse for it is almost wholly emotional rather than rational; proselytising of teenagers and adults typically targets loneliness, confusion, failure, grief, anxiety and depression as opportunities for conversion. The psychological support given by the fellowship thus offered is attributed by the convert to his newly formed relationship with that religion’s deity – or so the sceptical observer of this phenomenon would say. It is difficult to find sound empirical data on the length of time that converts remain converted; anecdotal evidence suggests that late conversion, even when it produces the zeal that makes converts more devoted than the (so to speak) natives of the faith, more often than not does not ‘stick’.


Because non-rational motivation plays a much greater role in prompting and supporting religious commitment than ‘arguments for God’s existence’, it merits particular challenge, because having faith – holding beliefs and accepting doctrines either without evidence or even in the face of countervailing evidence, which most religious people actually regard as a virtue – directly controverts canons of intellectual integrity. ‘Faith’ is not a respectable or admirable thing; having been so long paraded as a virtue and worthy of respect, the truth is otherwise: its critics have no compunction in saying that it is irresponsible, lazy and too often dangerous.

Because it would be fruitless to attempt proof of the existence of something which is undefined, ineffable, or too mysterious for finite minds to understand or describe, one has constantly to remind oneself of the difficulty in attaching meaning to the word ‘god’ or ‘deity’ in talking of arguments for the existence of such a thing. As noted in Chapter 2, it is common for religious apologists to reply to critiques of such arguments by claiming that deity is incomprehensible, which puts an end to the debate because, tautologously, there is nothing to be said about what nothing can be said about. Yet as it happens, religious apologists actually find a lot to say about such a thing after all – not just that it exists, but that it has a specifiable nature (it is ‘love’, it is omniscient, omnipotent, morally pure and the like), and they even know with a great deal of precision what it requires of mankind in the way of behaviour and commitments. This does not appear to strike apologists as contradictory, which it is. The ineffability claim is inconsistent with the fact that most religions have scriptures or literatures which say a great deal about the divine being or beings that figure in them. The standard arguments for the existence of deity draw upon this material. For example, the classic version of the ontological argument premises that the deity whose existence it seeks to prove possesses ‘all perfections’, meaning at very least no limits to or defect in any such positive property as wisdom, purity and goodness (the opposites of ignorance, lustfulness and evil). The positive properties are said to include power – indeed, all-power: omnipotence – but power cannot be a positive property unless qualified as such, because presumably evil agencies (the devil and his minions) have some degree of power – they cannot work their evil otherwise. However: the all-good, pure, all-powerful, all-wise being is the traditional conception of deity in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, of which there are offshoots including Islam and Mormonism; and the concept of deity in all these is therefore similar.

Note that the positive characteristics attributed to deity are the ones we humans most approve of and wish we had. Obviously enough we are finite beings, limited both in intelligence and in knowledge, and given to various weaknesses and failings. Our lives are brief and often beset with trouble and illness. Deities tend to have the opposite of these things, and the promise held out to those who will obey their priests is that they will achieve the same at some future time – after death usually, though some sects are more optimistic. Traditional definitions of deity turn on negations of the human lot, and are therefore anthropomorphic in reverse: based on desirable opposites of undesirable human characteristics. Those who say that the nature of deity is ineffable avoid having these considerations offered as a count against theism, but then ineffabilitists are strictly speaking not in a position to offer proofs for the existence of deity, or (more weakly) reasons why anyone might think there is any such thing: if they are serious about the ineffability claim, they have painted themselves into the corner of not being able to say very much, or indeed anything.


This raises an interesting point. Think of trying to get an investor to put money into a scheme which cannot be described or talked about. It is unlikely that anyone was ever persuaded to believe in a we-know-not-what; an indescribable deity has to be arrived at by retreat from a defined deity, a deity of tradition or childhood. The other alternative is that the person persuading someone to believe in a we-know-not-what would have to have great charisma and plausibility; no doubt this sometimes happens. But even here there has to be something to start with, some sense of the word ‘god’, which the persuader can say is not correctly understood (by all the other religions no doubt) or ‘cannot be spoken of or described’.

The standard arguments for the existence of deity are said to belong to what is known as ‘natural theology’ rather than revealed religion, but we see from the foregoing considerations that what natural theology owes revealed religion in the way of a concept of deity is obvious and inescapable. Therefore it is the deity of tradition – eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, in short infinitely possessed of all the positive characteristics that people most admire and wish they had – whose existence the arguments for the existence of deity attempt to prove. This type of deity is to be understood as the subject under discussion throughout the following.

Another point that has to be mentioned in order to be set aside is that the deity of tradition is always referred to as ‘he’ (believers write ‘He’); this is an accident of history, but in personalising the deity it once again forces a circular assumption that such a thing exists even in the process of attempting to prove its existence.


The two most often discussed arguments are the ‘teleological’ and the ‘ontological’. I begin with them, taking each in turn.

Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains (R. Joseph Hoffman, 1994)

Fifteen volumes long, Against the Christians was written by the Roman pagan Porphyry circa 280 and was an educated man’s studied attack on Christian theology. An exceedingly powerful and successful work, it and commentaries on it were condemned by the imperial church in 448 and burned. Only remnants which were contained in books that were primarily about other matters have survived until the present. As you will see, Porphyry used a literal interpretation of the Bible, a scathing wit, and an attack on Christian’s intelligence, integrity, and morals (piety, loyalty to the state, and character) to undermine the new, up-start religion, Christianity.


This book is divided into 2 parts: part one contains translations of Porphyry’s writings while part two contains Hoffman’s analysis of Porphyry’s writings.

  1. Referring to Mark 16:18, Porphyry writes: “In another passage Jesus says: “These signs shall witness to those who believe: they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover. And if they drink any deadly drug, it will hurt them in no way.” Well then: the proper thing to do would be to use this process as a test for those aspiring to be priests, bishops or church officers. A deadly drug should be put in front of them and [only] those who survive drinking it should be elevated in the ranks [of the church].

If there are those who refuse to submit to such a test, they may as well admit that they do not believe in the things that Jesus said. For if it is a doctrine of [Christian] faith that men can survive being poisoned or heal the sick at will, then the believer who does not do such things either does not believe them, or else believes them so feebly that he may as well not believe them.” page 50

  1. Referring to Matthew 17:20, Porphyry writes: “A saying similar to this runs as follows: “Even if you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, I tell you in truth that if you say to this mountain, Be moved into the sea – even that will be possible for you.” It seems to follow that anyone who is unable to move a mountain by following these directions is unworthy to be counted among the faithful. So there you are: not only the ordinary Christians, but even bishops and priests, find themselves excluded on the basis of such a saying.” page 51
  1. Porphyry writes: “The God concept with which Israel began was basically polytheistic (Exodus 20:3). God was limited in power (Exodus 4:24) and local in character (Exodus 18:5; 33:3; 14-16). The most that could be claimed for yahweh was that as a national god he protected his people from neighboring peoples and their gods. His throne was on the high mountain; storm and volcanic phenomena were taken as manifestations of his presence (Exodus 19:16-19; 33.9f; 40:34-38).

The transition from desert to settled life on the land (believed to be his gift to a “chosen” people) produces a change in the character of this God paralleling the change in people’s fortunes. Yahweh became the god of the armies of Israel, a was God – the God of hosts – who aided Israel in the subjugation of neighboring peoples or the defense of territory already taken. His other face, if not benevolent, was less severe: as giver of land, he was also the ball (fertilizer) of the soil and took responsibility for its fertility and for the rain, as well as for the famines that were occasionally used to winnow the population and the floods that might be sent to winnow the population and the floods that might be sent to wash away the unrighteous, “as in the time of Noah” (Gen. 6:1f). As revealed in his political dealings with his chosen people, Yahweh was fickle. Peace and security are less thematic in the history of Israel than political instability, warfare and religious apostasy.” page 96

A drachm (quarter shekel) coin from the Persian province of Yehud, apparently showing the god YHW (Yahweh) as a bearded man seated on a winged and wheeled throne
A drachm (quarter shekel) coin from the Persian province of Yehud, apparently showing the god YHW (Yahweh) as a bearded man seated on a winged and wheeled throne
  1. Porphyry writes: “Apparently Jesus declared the Pharisees beyond the scope of salvation for their interpretations of the law (Matthew 5:20). which tended to focus on technical requirements rather than personal conversion.” page 117
  1. “Jewish tradition and later pagan critics knew Jesus as the son of a woman named Miriam or Miriamne, who had been violated and become pregnant by a Roman soldier whose name often appears a Panthera in talmudic and midrashic sources. The “single parent” tradition, if not the story of Jesus’ illegitimacy, is still apparent in Mark, the earliest gospel (Mark 6:3), as is an early attempt to show Jesus’ freedom from the blemish of his background (Mark 3:33-4).” page 122

“To counter the reports of Jesus’ illegitimacy more than to secure his divine stature, his mother was declared the recipient of a singular divine honor: Jesus was the son of Mary – a virgin – “through the holy spirit” (Matthew 1:20). As is typical of his writing, Matthew comes closest to revealing the argumentative purpose of his birth story and its links to Jewish polemic against Christian belief in his reference to Joseph’s suspicion of Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:19). He is also careful in the birth story and elsewhere to provide evidence and proofs from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible – as a running narrative. ” page 122


Tombstone of the Roman soldier Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera (c. 22 BC – AD 40), in Bad Kreuznach.
Tombstone of the Roman soldier Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera (c. 22 BC – AD 40), in Bad Kreuznach.
  1. Regarding the Biblical prophecies concerning Jesus: “Porphyry notes that what is said in Hebrew prophecy could as well apply to a dozen other figures, dead or yet to come, as to Jesus.” page 131
  1. “As the mission progressed with its apocalyptic teaching persistently an issue in debates with itinerant Jewish teachers, the churches developed a variety of strategies for dealing with the delay: the gentiles would be converted before the last days (Mark 13:10) the power of pagan Rome and of the emperor would decline before God’s son could be revealed in glory (Romans 16:20, Thess 2:2-10) Jesus himself had professed ignorance about the time of this coming (Mark13:32), or had refused to speculate about the signs of the last days (Mark 8:11-12) the kingdom of God was already working “secretly”and was being progressively realized through the success of the Christian mission (Luke 12:49-56; 17:22-37; Matthew 38-42).

It is best to regard these rationales as defensive and experimental. Jewish apocalyptic tradition itself had been mystically vague, studiously mysterious with respect both to the “timing” of the apocalyptic events and to the identity of the son of man.” pages 135-136


Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones Dura-Europos Synagogue-Syria
Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones Dura-Europos Synagogue-Syria
  1. “According to the early critics Tacitus, Pliny, and Aristides, Christianity was to be judged according to the unwillingness of its adherents to compromise. They were superstitious fanatics given to outpourings of enthusiasm, or they occasionally indulged in sexual orgies in association with their eucharistic banquets.

With the satires of Lucan, the moral critique of the church enters a new phase. Born at Samosata (Syria) around 120, Lucian regarded Christianity as a form of sophistry aimed at an unusually gullible class of people – a criticism later exploited by Celsus. The members of the new sect worship a “crucified sophist,” an epithet that suggests the influence of Jewish views of the church on pagan observers. Like Galen, Lucian imagines the Christians as men and women with little time, patience or ability for philosophy, and who are willing to enthrone new leaders and gurus at the drop of a hat. To make his point, Lucian invents a mock Cynic-turned-Christian priest, Peregrinus Proteus, who dabbles in a thousand different sects and philosophies before becoming an “expert” in “the astonishing religion of Christianity. . . .


Lucian’s “hero” is a shyster -the first example in literature of an anything-for-profit evangelist who bilks his congregation. . . . For all its looseness of detail, Lucian’s portrait of Peregrinus can be said to reflect a popular view of the Christians at the close of the second century.” page 145 – 146


  1. “In his comments, Celsus attempts impartiality: He is no admirer of Judaism [‘runaway Egyptian slaves who have never done anything worth mentioning’] but acknowledges the antiquity of Jewish teaching and juxtaposes it with the newness of Christian doctrine. He thinks Christian teachers are no better than the begging priests of Cybele and the shysters of popular religions. Importantly, Celsus does not dwell on the impurity of Christian ritual (though he alludes to it), but emphasizes that Christians are sorcerers like their founder, that they lack patriotism, and that every Christian church is an illegal association which exists not because their God arranges it (thus Tertullian), but because the emperor does not choose to stamp them out entirely.


The True Word or True Doctrine of Celsus was divided into two sections. In the first, Celsus presents a Jew as the antagonist to Christianity; in the second, he argues his own case. The strategy seems intended to show that Christianity is opposed not only by the philosophers of the “pagan” empire, but also by those with whom the Christians claims to have the closest affinity. In this way, the church could be seen to have neither the wisdom of the philosophical schools nor the antiquity of custom and law to its credit. Its teaching was merely eccentric -sectarian in the mean sense of the word. In his hierarchy of civilization, the Egyptian were beast-worshipers, the Jews infinitely worse in their religious practices, and the Christians renegade Jews “whom their miserable countrymen despised and hated.” What would have aroused official distaste for Christianity, however, was Celsus’ suggestion that the Christians were “breaking the religious peace of the world.” With an outlaw as their head, they were rebels by nature and tradition.

Celsus’ “Jew” is strident in his dialogue with the Christian teacher on the failure of the life of Jesus, a theme to which Porphyry will return over a century later. That Celsus would emphasize this theme is unsurprising: we have already noted that it was at the heart of the earliest Jewish-Christian “dialogue” and their fictional reenactments by teachers like Justin. Celsus’ “Jew” is, however, a more worthy opponent that Justin’s. In the pagan dialogue, the Jew lectures the Christian; in Justin’s the Christian lectures – and defeats – the Jew.

 koumbelidiki-kastoria (18)

Familiar slanders resurface in the True Doctrine : Jesus was the son of a woman named Mary by a Roman soldier named Panthera. . . .The resurrection is rejected on the grounds that the only witnesses were “women half crazy from fear and grief, and possibly one other from the same band of charlatans, who dreamed it all up or saw what he wanted to see – or more likely, simply wanted to astonish his friends with a good tale.” pages 148-149

  1. “Church fathers from Eusebius to Augustine were intimidated by Porphyry’s challenges and arguments – so much so that his worthiest opponent (Macarius Magnes) is not an especially articulate one, wholly unable to play the role of Origen to his Celsus. [Origen wrote Contra Celsum, the best classical refutation of Celsus’ True Doctrine.] Constantine in the fourth century and Theodosius in the fifth decided that the only way to overcome Porphyry’s objections was to put his books to the torch. Thus, the extent of his writings against Christianity is unknown.” page 155

  1. “The process of disputation (propositions followed by refutation) was the Socratic means of arriving at truth. Christian teachers such as Justin, Origen, and Minucius Felix had long since affected this style of literary opposition, though their opponents were either dead (Celsus) or fictionalized (Justin’s Trypho), thus rendering them more amenable to persuasion.” pages 156-157



  1. “The “end” of knowledge is truth, though one could also call it a “god.” This “god” is not the Christian god, nor even the Christian idea of God. Theologians from the second century onward had misread Plato (and would later misread Plotinus and Porphyry) on this fundamental point.” page 159
  1. “Porphyry’s “God,” therefore, has no need to save because he is not affected by sin. This is not to say that the philosopher fails to recognize a category of actions which are displeasing to God. But these actions are expressions of active failure and not of a passive genetic deficiency in a Godcreated race of men, as Augustine theorized. God strengthens those who practice virtue and “noble deeds” (Marcella 16), but he does not (cannot) punish those who fail to practice virtue or who do things contrary to virtue (Marcella 17), since the divine nature can only work for the good.

Accordingly, the classical Christian theodicy does not arise in Porphyry’s thought; he thinks it foolish to speculate, on Christian premises, about an all-good God, creator of an originally good world, over which, through lack of foresight (omniscience) or power (omnipotence) evil reigns and in which he is obliged to intervene time and time again. The puzzles of Christian theology are non-puzzles for Porphyry: The pieces comprise not a picture but a muddle, and can only be slotted together by trimming edges and omitting embarrassingly contorted segment. This, however, does not prevent Christian priests and teachers from selling their wares as a kind of philosophy. While religious observances -pagan or Christian – are not actually harmful, they encourage the simple-minded in a belief that God has need of them. The only true priests are the wise of the world, not the “fools praying and offering sacrifice”. The only truly sinful man is “he who holds the opinions of the multitudes concerning God” (Marcella 17), and those who think that tears, prayers, and sacrifices can alter the divine purpose. The Christian god fails, in Porphyry’s view, because he epitomizes false opinion, baseless hopes. He is changeable, fickle, unpredictable. His priests preach “mere unreasoning faith [in a God] who is gratified and won over by libations and sacrifices,” without perceiving that men making exactly the same request receive different answers to their prayers (Marcella 23). Worse, human beings seem to believe that their basest actions can be erased by prayer, or, caught in the web of their illogic, they become haters of the world and the flesh and mistakenly accuse the flesh of being the source of all evil (Marcella 29). “Salvation” for Porphyry cannot begin with self-hatred or the abnegation of the flesh. In its demythologized form, it is simply the “soul’s” quest for wisdom as expressed in the pursuit of virtue – an acknowledgment of redemption being natural to the soul because of the soul’s affinity to God. Porphyry does not think of the body as vile; he thinks of it as the discardable “outer man,” whose satisfaction cannot be a final end or goal because it is corruptible, limited, and earthbound. The body defines creaturely existence and not the soul’s quest.” pages 162-164

  1. “In a devastating critique which has not survived, but which has evoked plenty of reaction from his critics, Porphyry began Against the Christians with an attack on the Christian view of prophecy. Although Platonism had actually inspired the allegorical interpretation of prophecy by teachers such as Origen, the philosopher’s nemesis, Porphyry condemned the use of allegory as a means of explaining away difficulties and contradictions in the biblical text. It has even been suggested that Porphyry drew some of his polemic directly from Origin’s book on the difficulties of interpreting scripture, the Stromatesis. All he had to do was to “accept Origen’s negative statements . . . and reject the deeper spiritual meanings” that Origen found for them . . . . Despite his contempt for allegory – a feature which shines through rather clearly in Macarius’ fragments – the philosopher was more concerned with chronology than interpretation. He denied the extreme antiquity of the Moses story, the traditional dating of the law, and the ascription of the Book of Daniel to the period before the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.E.” page 166
  1. “Furthermore, we know from Augustine (City of God) that Porphyry complained of the influx of educated women into the church; in his Philosophy from Oracles, written around 263, he laments (en masque as Apollo, the god of enlightenment) that it is almost impossible to win back anyone who has converted to Christianity: it is easier, he says, to write words on water than try to use argument on a Christian. They simply cannot understand the folly of worshipping as a god a man who had died as a criminal.” page 168
  1. “The truth seems to be that Porphyry regarded Jesus as a criminal, justly punished for his crimes by the power of the Roman state, and hence undeserving of the status of hero or of the divinity conferred upon him by his misguided followers.

Whatever Porphyry may have thought of Jesus, the bulk of his criticism was reserved for the evangelists, the apostles of Jesus – especially Peter – and the Christian mission epitomized by Paul. . . Macarius’ “pagan” deals with most of the same subjects we know, from Augustine’s Harmony, to have attracted Porphyry’s criticism: that the apostles fabricated genealogies, that there are discrepancies concerning the time of Jesus’ death, that Jesus had not claimed to be divine, and that the teaching of Jesus was obscure and self-contradictory. ” page 171

  1. “A general view of Porphyry’s work yields the following picture: Beginning with an introduction in which the ambitions of the Christians were repudiated (“they want riches and glory. . . they are renegades seeking to take control” . . . , Porphyry went on to show their unworthiness. They accepted but misunderstood the “myths” and oracles of the Jews, then turned around and altered these to make them even more contemptible . . . . Their religion had neither a national anchor nor a rational basis; they required initiates to accept everything on blind faith. Moreover, the initiates themselves were the worst sort of people, moral invalids who (cf. Celsus) found security in their common weakness . . . . The Christians had proved that they cared nothing for those who had lived in the era before the coming of Jesus: these could not be saved.

The Christians taught absurd doctrines about the suffering of God or the suffering of a some of the supermen god. They also prayed for the destruction of the world, which they hated because they were hated by it – and believed that at its end they alone would be raised bodily from the dead . . . . The sky would be destroyed and the ruler of the world would be cast into an outer darkness, as a tyrant might be driven out by a good king. By such thinking the Christians showed contempt for God. How could god be angry? How, if all powerful, as even some of their teachers said, could his property have been stolen in the first place?

After attacking the chronology of the Old Testament . . . and arguing against Christian allegorical interpretation, Porphyry took up the subject of the writers of the gospels and epistles, whom he regarded as ignorant, clumsy, and deceptive. The fact that he wages his assault chiefly against the “pillar” apostles, Peter and Paul, suggests that he regarded the destruction of their reputations essential to wiping out the claims of an emergent Catholic Christianity . . . . Thus Paul himself had called Christian believers “wretches” (1 Cor. 6:9f) and promised his followers the resuscitation of the “rotten, stinking corpses of men” (cf. Augustine, City of God 22.27). As for Peter, he had been called “satan” even by Jesus, yet was entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of heaven . . . . The apostles proved themselves traitors, cowards, weaklings, and hypocrites – even in the accounts written by them.

Hecate, Greek goddess of the crossroads
Hecate, Greek goddess of the crossroads

The Jesus allegedly praised for piety and wisdom by Hecate in Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles, finds no grace in Against the Christians. His parables are trivial and incomprehensible. They are “hidden from the wise but revealed to the babes” (Matthew 11:25), a state of affairs which encourages ignorance and unreasonableness. Jesus and his followers represent a lethargic ethic of the status quo, the very opposite of the Greek quest for moral excellence; indeed, his blessing on the poor and downtrodden and his repudiation of the rich make moral effort impossible. Had he not taught that selling everything and giving it to the poor (Matthew 19:21), thereby becoming a lout and a beggar and a burden on others, was the height of Christian perfection? . . .

Isis changing the sex of Iphis. Engraving by Bauer.
Isis changing the sex of Iphis. Engraving by Bauer.

Furthermore, Jesus did not follow his own advice. His show of weakness in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest was disgraceful: having preached fearlessness in time of persecution to his disciples, he exhibited only fear and trembling at the moment of his capture. When Jesus stood before his accusers, he spoke like a guilty man, not like a hero on the order of Apollonius of Tyana who had been hauled before Domitian . . . . Had he been a god on the order of the ancient heroes, he would have flung himself from a parapet of the temple, he would have appeared after his death to haunt Herod and Pilate – or, indeed, to the Senate and People of Rome, to prove he had risen from the dead. That would have convinced everyone of the truth of Christian belief, and it would have spared his followers the punishment they now suffered for their beliefs. In short, had Jesus cared for his followers he could have taken care to spare them their martyrdom.” pages 172-173

Imaginary debate between Averroes (1126–1198 AD) and Porphyry (234–c. 305 AD). Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century
Imaginary debate between Averroes (1126–1198 AD) and Porphyry (234–c. 305 AD). Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century

The Christian Doctrine of Resurrection (Celsus, ca. 177)

NOTE: According to the Christian father Origen, Celsus (Κέλσος) was a 2nd-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Early Christianity. He is known for his literary work, The True Word (Λόγος Ἀληθής), which survives exclusively in Origen’s quotations from it in Contra Celsum. This work, c. 177 is the earliest known comprehensive attack on Christianity.

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Those who teach the existence of another god besides the God of the Jews have no intelligent answer to give in response to my criticisms. True, they take as their defense the notion that the prophets of the Jews foretold the Christian God. But this is a very old ploy: those who offer up a new god really have none to give; and those who maintain that the prophets spoke of the God of the Jews and not about some other, better god will always come back with, “Yes, it was inevitable that things should have turned out the way they did-and why? Well, because it was predicted that they would.” It is easy for the Christians to use the books of the Jews to their advantage, since anyone can prove anything from so-called prophecy: The predictions of the Pythian priestess, or of the priestesses of Dodona, or of the Clarian Apollo, or at Branchidae, or at the shrines of Zeus, Ammon, and of countless other prophets, the Christians regard as so much babble; but the predictions of the Judaean prophets, whether they were predictions or not, since those who live around Phoenicia and Palestine are used to speaking in a certain way, are taught as the unchanging word of God-as something wholly marvelous! Of this I have first-hand knowledge, knowing the people of that region as I do, and knowing the several types of prophecy.

The Pythia seated on a tripod (from the inside of an Athenian drinking cup)
The Pythia seated on a tripod (from the inside of an Athenian drinking cup)

For example, there are countless in that region who will “prophesy” at the drop of a hat, in or out of the temples. Others go about begging and claim to be oracles of God, plying their trade in the cities or in military outposts. They make a show of being “inspired” to utter their predictions. These habitually claim to be more than prophets, and say such things as “I am God,” or “I am a son of God,” or even “I am the Holy Spirit,” and “I have come [to bring life] for the world is coming to an end as I speak. And the wicked will perish [in the fire] for their sins. I shall save you; you will yet see me, for I am corning again armed with heavenly powers. So blessed is he who worships me now. Those who refuse, whole cities and nations, will be cast into the fiery pit. Pity those who don’t know me and what is ahead for them, for they will repent in vain and cry for mercy in vain. Those who hear me and believe in me will be saved (from the fire).” This sort of thing is heard all over Judaea by these most trivial of prophets; and they go on, after parading these threats in front of an audience, to babble about the signs of the Last Days-or to speak of mysterious happenings that no sane and intelligent person would trouble himself to figure out. Their talk is complete nonsense, and for this reason is appealing to the minds of fools and sorcerers, who can take their “predictions” and do with them what they like.

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma
The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma

Indeed, I have talked with any number of these prophets after hearing them, and questioned them closely. On careful questioning (after gaining their confidence) they admitted to me that they were nothing but frauds, and that they concocted their words to suit their audiences and deliberately made them obscure.

Now it stands to reason that when the Christians point to the Jewish prophets in order to defend their doctrine of Christ, they are on very shaky ground indeed. To prove that God would suffer all sorts of indignities is no truer just because some Christian claims it was foretold in prophecy; for God does not suffer, and God cannot be humiliated; he does not call the wicked alone to be saved. A god would not eat the flesh of sheep (at Passover); a god would not drink vinegar and gall; a god does not filthy himself as the Christians say their Christ did. Look closely at their logic: If the prophets had said that the supreme God was to be born in servitude, that he would undergo a painful death as a slave, does this mean-given that it was foretold-that God must die such a death in order that through meeting the terms of the prophecy it might be believed that he was God? At any rate, this seems to be the run of their argument. But it does a foul injustice to the prophets, who could never have predicted such a thing. It is a perfidious misreading of the oracles of the Jews. So the question of whether they did or didn’t predict the suffering and death of God does not count for anything. All that an intelligent person must ask himself is this: Do such claims do justice to the idea of God, since it is an axiom that what God does is good and that God does no act that is unworthy of his nature? This entails that what is disgraceful, mean, and unworthy should be disbelieved about God, no matter how many babbling fools say it was postulated of him. (For who are we to believe-a rabble of mistaken prophets, or the philosophers?)

Jephthat Sacrifices his Daughter (Judges 11:29-40)
Jephthat Sacrifices his Daughter (Judges 11:29-40)

It is mere impiousness, therefore, to suggest that the things that were done to Jesus were done to God. Certain things are simply as a matter of logic impossible to God, namely those things which violate the consistency of his nature: God cannot do less than what it befits God to do, what it is God’s nature to do. Even if the prophets had foretold such things about the Son of God, it would be necessary to say, according to the axiom I have cited, that the prophets were wrong, rather than to believe that God has suffered and died.

I ask the Christians to consider further the following case: If the prophets of Yahweh, God of the Jews, were in the habit of telling the Jews that Jesus was to be his son, then why did he give them their laws through Moses and promise them that they would become rich and famous and fill the earth? Why did he guarantee that they would slaughter their enemies (infants and all), and whole races of people, as Moses teaches, before their eyes? Does he not threaten to do to them what he has done to their enemies for their disobedience? Yet we are to believe that his “son,” this man from Nazareth, gives an opposing set of laws: he says that a man cannot serve God properly if he is rich and famous or powerful (or for that matter, if he is intelligent and reputable!). The Jews base their religion on God’s promise to give them a land of plenty, but the Christians say one must pay no attention to food, or to one’s larder-any more than the birds door to one’s clothing, any more than the lilies do. The Jews teach God’s vengeance on their enemies, but Jesus advises that someone who has been struck should volunteer to be hit again. Well, who is to be disbelieved-Moses or Jesus? Perhaps there is a simpler solution: perhaps when the Father sent Jesus he had forgotten the commandments he gave to Moses, and inadvertantly condemned his own laws, or perhaps sent his messenger to give notice that he had suspended what he had previously endorsed.

Icon reflecting the continuity between the Old Testament and Christianity (17th c.,St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai)
Icon reflecting the continuity between the Old Testament and Christianity (17th c.,St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai)

What do the Christians suppose happens after death? Given that they represent God as having a body like our own, it is not surprising to find them saying that we go to another earth, different and better than this one. The latter notion they derive from the ancients, who taught that there is a happy life for the blessed-variously called the Isles of the Blessed, the Elysian fields-where they are free from the evils of the world. As Homer says, “The gods will take you to the Elysian plains at the ends of the earth, and there life will be easy.” Plato, who teaches the immortality of the soul, calls the place where the souls are sent a region: “The world is enormous, and our part of it, from the Pillars of Hercules to the Phasis, is only a fraction; like so many ants or frogs around a marsh, we mortals cluster about the sea, as do people elsewhere. And in various places around the earth there are hollows of differing sizes and shapes into which water, mist, and air have coalesced. But the land of the souls is pure and lies in the ethereal regions.” Plato’s words are, to be sure, difficult; one cannot know for certain what he means when he says that because of our weakness and slowness we cannot get to the ethereal regions that lie atop the heavens, or when he says that only if we were able to bear the vision would we know true heaven and the true light when we saw it.

Elysian fields
Elysian fields

It seems that the Christians, in attempting to answer the question of how we shall know and see God, have misunderstood Plato’s doctrine of reincarnation, and believe in the absurd theory that the corporeal body will be raised and reconstituted by God, and that somehow they will actually see God with their mortal eyes and hear him with their ears and be able to touch him with their hands. Such ideas can also be found among the hero cults of Trophinus, Amphiarus and Mopsus, so where it is claimed that gods may be seen in human form. [These, however, are not the supreme God] but men who were human in form and manifested their powers openly-not coming down secretly like this fellow who deceived the Christians in one virtually unnoticed apparition.

0295 Amphiaraus-leaving-for-war

The Christians are preoccupied with the question of knowing God, and they think one cannot know God except through the senses of the body. Thus they think not as men or souls think, but as the flesh thinks. Still, I would try to teach them something, slow-witted though they are: If one shuts his eyes to the things of the senses and tries to see with his mind’s eye, and if one turns from the flesh to the inner self, the soul, there he will see God and know God. But to begin the journey, you must flee from deceivers and magicians who parade fantasies in front of you. You will be a laughingstock so long as you repeat the blasphemy that the gods of other men are idols, while you brazenly worship as God a man whose life was wretched, who is known to have died (in disgraceful circumstances), and who, so you teach, is the very model of the God we should look to as our Father. The deceit you perpetrate with your ravings about miraculous doings, lions and other animals in double form, and superhuman doorkeepers (whose names you take the trouble to memorize!) and the general madness of your beliefs, are to blame for the fact that you are marked for crucifixion. It is your rejection of true wisdom-that of inspired poets, wise men, philosophers, and the like-that [leads you to execution].

According to Orthodox Tradition, the Apostle Peter went back to Rome where he was martyred in '67 by crucifixion upside down
According to Orthodox Tradition, the Apostle Peter went back to Rome where he was martyred in ’67 by crucifixion upside down

Plato teaches us the true theology when he writes, “To find the Maker and father of this universe is difficult; but it is impossible, having found him, to proclaim him to all men.” Both prophets and philosophers have sought the way of truth; but Plato knew that most men could not follow it. The wise men who speak of such things tell us that any conception of the Nameless First Being is dependent on proper reasoning-either on knowing his manifestations in the synthesis of things, by analyzing his distinction from the material world, or by analogy. In short, to talk about God is fraught with difficulty, because it is to talk about what is indescribable; and of this I would teach you, were you able to grasp it. But seeing that you are given to talking about the flesh and what happens to it, I doubt you would understand my lesson. Still:

Being and becoming are, in turn, intelligible and visible. Truth is inherent in being; error inherent in becoming. Knowledge has to do with truth, opinion with the other; and similarly, thought is concerned with what is intelligible, and sight with what is visible. Thus the mind knows what is intelligible, and the eye what is visible. What the sun is to visible things (as being neither the eye nor the sight, but rather the cause of the eye’s vision, the existence of sight, the possibility of seeing visible things, and in turn the cause of objects’ being made accessible to the senses), so is God to intelligible things. He is not mind, intelligence, or knowledge; but he causes the mind to think, and is hence the cause of the existence of intelligence, the possibility of knowledge; he causes the existence of intel ligible things-of truth itself, of being itself-since he transcends all things and is intelligible only by a certain power which cannot itself be described.

The Wise Plato is found in the dome at the Monastery of Evangelistria in Zagorohoria and was painted in 1809.
The Wise Plato is found in the dome at the Monastery of Evangelistria in Zagorohoria and was painted in 1809.

What I have just said, I have said to those able to understand it. You Christians would be doing well to understand any portion of it. And if any divine spirit had come down to preach divine truths about God, that spirit would have preached no other lesson. It was because that spirit operated even among the ancients that they were able to provide so many valuable instructions [for our benefit]. If you are not able to grasp their lessons, then keep quiet and cover your ignorance; do not try to tell us that those who can see are blind and that those who can run are really crippled, since it is you who are blind of spirit and crippled of soul, teaching a doctrine that relates only to the body and living in the hope of raising a dead thing to life. It would have been better had you in your zest for a new teaching formed your religion around one of the men of old who died a hero’s death and was honored for it someone who at least was already the subject of a myth. You could have chosen Herakles or Asclepias, or if these were too tame, there was always Orpheus, who, as everyone knows, was good and holy and yet died a violent death. Or had he already been taken? Well, then you had Anaxarchus, a man who looked death right in the eye when being beaten and said to his persecutors after being thrown into the mortar: “Beat away; beat the pouch of Anaxarchus; for it is not him you are beating.” But I recall that some philosophers have already claimed him as their master. Well, what of Epictetus? When his master was twisting his leg he smiled and said with complete composure, “You are breaking it.” And when it was broken, he smiled and said, “I told you so.” Your God should have uttered such a saying when he was being punished. You would even get more credit if you had put forward the Sibyl (whom some among you cite any way) as a child of God. Instead, you take her oracles and twist them, inserting things to suit your purposes, including the notion that a man who lived a bad life and died a bad death was a god. You might even have chosen Jonah instead of Jesus-or Daniel, who escaped from the wild beasts, or those about whom similar fables are told.


You Christians have a saying that goes something like this: “Don’t resist a man who insults you; even if he strikes you, offer him your other cheek as well.” This is nothing new, and it’s been better said by others, especially by Plato, who ascribes the following to Socrates in the Crito:

“Then we should never do wrong?”


“And should we not even try to avenge a wrong if we are wronged ourselves, as most would do, on the premise that we should never do wrong?”

“So it seems.”

“So, should we do harm, Crito, or not?”

“I should say not, Socrates.”

“Well, then, is it just or unjust to repay injury with injury?”

“Unjust, I would think.”

“Because doing harm to men is no different from doing wrong?”

“Exactly so.”

“So we should never take revenge and never hurt anyone even if we have been hurt.

Death of Socrates

Thus writes Plato, and he continues:

“Be careful to see whether you agree with me and it is acceptable to you, and then let’s reason together on the assumption that it is never right to do wrong and never right to take revenge; nor is it right to give evil for evil, or in the case of one who has suffered some injury, to attempt to get even. Do you agree with my premises or not? It seems to me the truth of what I say is evident, and seems as valid today as it did yesterday.”


This was Plato’s opinion, and as he says, it was not new to him but was pronounced by inspired men long before him. What I have said about it may serve, part for whole, as an example of the sorts of ideas the Christians mutilate. But unless it is assumed that this is the only case, I assure you that anyone who cares to try will find countless other instances of their perversions of the truth: They say they detest altars and images; so do the Scythians; so do the nomads of Libya; so do the Seres, who don’t believe in God at all; and so do many everywhere, who have no use for what is right. Herodotus tells us that the Persians take the same view: “The Persians,” he relates, “do not consider it legal to establish altars and images and temples; and they think people who establish them are stupid. This idea of theirs seems to come from the fact that they do not regard the gods as having a nature similar to that of human beings, as do the Greeks.” And Heracleitus confirms this when he writes, “They pray to images as if one were to have a conversation with a house, having no idea of the nature of gods and heroes.” Heracleitus, than whom none is wiser, says rather secretively that it is ridiculous to pray to images if one has no understanding of the nature of gods and heroes. Further, Heracleitus may be taken to mean that an image of stone, wood, bronze, or gold, made by a craftsman, cannot be a god, and hence the practice of praying to it is ludicrous. I mean, only a child thinks that things are gods and not images of gods. But if they mean that we should not worship images as divine because God has a different shape, as the Persians seem to think, then the Christians refute themselves: they teach, do they not, that God made man in his own image, and thus man’s form is like his own. What sense is there, then, to their refusal: if they will agree that images and votive offerings are intended for the honor of certain beings (whether they resemble these beings in form or not), why maintain that those to whom they are dedicated are not gods but demons, and then conclude that image worship is demon worship and not to be tolerated by the God-worshipers!