Patrick Glynn’s God: the Evidence

Michael Martin

Patrick Glynn, a former atheist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, argues in God: The Evidence[1] that new scientific discoveries in cosmology, psychology, and medicine add up “to a powerful–indeed, all-but-incontestable–case for … the existence of soul, afterlife and God (p. 2).” Written in a breezy popular style without nuances or subtle arguments and with a dust cover displaying glowing endorsements from Michael Novak, Robert Bork and Hans Kong, Andrew Greeley, Sir John Templeton, and George Weigel, Glynn seems completely unaware of the recent philosophical defenses of atheism by Antony Flew, Kai Nielsen, Keith Parsons, Quentin Smith and me.

In this review I will concentrate on Glynn’s appeal to evidence from cosmology, mental health and medicine, and out- of-body and near-death experiences to support his belief in God and the soul. In a brief final section I will consider Glynn’s reflections on reason and spirituality. I will show that Glynn presents no persuasive evidence for God and the soul. The evidence he puts forth can be faulted at every step, his arguments are weak, his presentation of alternative views is unfair, and his knowledge of the relevant literature is inadequate.

Evidence From Cosmology

Glynn’s main thesis in Chapter One is that recent findings and thinking in cosmology point to the inescapable conclusion that life is not accidental but is the result of design.[2] The Universe, he says, has been “fine tuned” to support life. His argument is based on the Anthropic Principle, according to which “seemingly arbitrary and unrelated constants in physics have one strange thing in common–they are precisely the values you need if you want to have a universe with life (p. 22).” Even the slightest deviation from these constants would make life impossible, says Glynn. Accordingly, this principle provides a teleological explanation of these constants and is an embarrassment to the prevailing mechanistic view of science.

There are four questions to ask about Glynn’s use of this recent evidence and thinking in astrophysics. Does the use of the anthropic principle commit one to some Cosmic Purpose? Does the existence of a narrow range of physical constants that are compatible with life show that human life would be extremely improbable without a Cosmic Purpose? If the answer to the second question is yes, is there any reason to suppose that this Cosmic Purpose is connected with God? Are there any nonteleological explanations that are as good or better than an explanation in terms of God?

Regarding the first question, it can be admitted that some scientists use the Anthropic Principle in an explicitly teleological way;[3] for example, they argue that the Universe has certain properties in order to produce intelligent human life. However, this kind of reasoning does not necessarily entail a commitment to some Cosmic conscious purpose. Thus, for example, the statement that the heart beats in order to circulate the blood does not necessarily imply a conscious purpose; it can merely mean that the function of the heart is to circulate the blood. Similarly, statements in astrophysics of the form “X is Y in order for W” can be understood functionally.[4] In addition, it is possible to use the Anthropic Principle in a purely methodological way. For example, the statement: “The universe is isotropic in order to produce intelligent life” can simply mean, “The universe’s being isotropic is a necessary condition for intelligent life.”[5] Although here there is not even the suggestion of a functional analysis, there is an obvious anthropomorphism in the sense that the focus of attention is on human life. However, this anthropomorphism entails nothing about the metaphysical makeup of the universe and seems to be justified on purely heuristic grounds.[6]

With respect to the second question, Glynn’s argument is not clear, but a plausible reconstruction of it is this:

1. There is an extremely large number of possible values for the physical constants in the Universe.
2. Only a very narrow range of possible values is compatible with human life.
3. All of these possible values are equally probable.
4. Hence, it is extremely improbable that human life occurred by chance.

It is important to note that although this argument requires premise 3, no evidence is provided for 3 and it is difficult to see what support could be given it. Of course, one might attempt to justify 3 a priori via the Principle of Indifference (PI):

Assume all possibilities are equally probable unless there is reason to suppose otherwise.

But although Glynn may tacitly assume PI, there is no reason to embrace this principle and, indeed, without careful restrictions it leads to a paradox.[7]

One could instead attempt to justify 3 empirically in terms of the frequency interpretation of probability. On this construal the claim that life in the Universe is improbable would amount to saying that the relative frequency of universes with human life relative to the class of all universes is low. Since, however, we have only knowledge of one universe–this one–the frequency theory is not applicable. In short, Glynn’s rationale for supposing that life is extremely improbable without a Cosmic Purpose fails since he does not seem to realize that judgments of probability are possible only when we have certain kinds of information. This information is lacking in the present case.

However, let us suppose premise 3 in my reconstruction of Glynn’s argument is true and that the conclusion follows. This brings us to the third question. Glynn assumes that recent cosmological evidence and reasoning establish the existence of God, but how does one derive the existence of God from (4)? Glynn seems to be tacitly assuming a further argument that can be formulated as follows:

4. It is extremely improbable that human life occurred by chance.
5. If it is extremely improbable that human life occurred by chance, then the best explanation of human life is that it was created by God.
6. Hence, the best explanation of human life is that it was created by God.

But why should one accept premise 5? God, as usually understood, is by definition a being that is all good, all knowing, and all powerful. Nonetheless, human life could have been created by many gods or by an evil being or by a finite god or by an impersonal creative force.[8] Why is God in the traditional sense a better explanation than these alternative accounts? As I have argued elsewhere, the traditional concept to God is incoherent[9] and an incoherent idea has no explanatory value. Moreover, even if I am mistaken and the concept of God is coherent, several unanswered questions connected with God as a explanation of human life detract from its explanatory value. Consider:

1. How could God create the Universe out of nothing?
2. According to the standard Big Bang interpretation, anything that comes from the Big Bang singularity is impossible in principle to predict. So even if God caused the Big Bang, how could He have fine tuned the Universe to make it compatible for life?
3. Since a cause exists prior to its effect, how could God be the cause of the Universe since, according to Big Bang cosmology, time came into existence at the beginning of the Universe?
4. Why did it take billions of years for human life to evolve if it was designed by God?
5. Why does human life have so many problems if it was designed by God, e.g., disease, natural disasters, etc.?

This brings us to the last question. Given the problems in connection with an explanation in terms of God it is hardly surprising that nonteleological alternatives have been suggested by atheists. Two of these are considered by Glynn and they are mistakenly dismissed. Glynn discusses the theory that order can be generated from disorder, a view which has been powerfully argued by Victor Stenger.[10] It is well known that order can be created by chance on a computer programmed to produce random dots on as screen, and that complex structures can be created by computer models from very simple rules.[11] Apparently unaware of arguments against his position, Glynn simply dismisses this idea (p. 47). Glynn also discusses the hypotheses put forth by cosmologists that there may be an extremely large number of alternative universes. It has been conjectured that what we call our universe–our galaxy and the other galaxies–may be one among many alternative worlds or universes. On this view THE UNIVERSE as a whole is composed of a vast number of such worlds or universes, the overwhelming majority of which are lifeless because the various requirements for life as we understand it are not met in them. According to this theory, however, given enough universes it is very likely that in some of these the complex conditions necessary for life do exist. Curiously, Glynn objects to this hypothesis on the grounds that these universes are “purely speculative, undetected, and undetectable in principle (p. 50).” Why he thinks his explanation in terms of a transcendent God does not have these problems is not made clear. In any case, the alternative universe explanation does not possess the problems that are connected to an explanation in terms of God.

In short, since Glynn has failed to address these four questions in an adequate manner, he shows neither that life is improbable without God nor that God is the best explanation of life.

The Evidence From Mental Health and Medicine

Glynn devotes Chapters Two and Three of this book to arguing that belief in God is conducive to mental and physical health. In them he cites studies that purporting to show that people who do not attend church are four times as likely to commit suicide as those who attend it frequently. Similar studies are adduced to show that religious commitment is related to overall happiness, freedom from depression, stress, and alcohol abuse. However, Glynn makes no attempt to analyze this evidence, but even if it is accepted, it shows at most that belief in God is advantageous to one’s health–not that belief in God is epistemologically justified. Indeed, Glynn at one point acknowledges that certain kinds of illusions are conducive to happiness (p. 73).

But should one accept the kind of evidence Glynn supplies ? One basic problem with it is that the studies he cites do not control for various relevant causal factors. As a case in point, the suicide study finds a correlation between lack of church attendance and suicide. However, many people who attend church go for social, not religious, reasons just as many people who do not go to church have a deep religious faith. Thus, the correlation may be a function of the social support and community feeling provided by regular attendance at churches or church surrogates and may have nothing to do with religious belief. Empirical research comparing the rate of suicide among regular attenders of humanist groups,UnitarianChurches(where most members are nonbelievers), the North Texas Church of Freethought and so on to the rate among regular attenders of Christian churches is needed. If such research showed that nonbelievers had a higher rate of suicide than believers, then some interesting conclusions could be drawn about the advantages of religious belief for mental health. However, such research results are not now available.

Similar problems arise in connection with the medical evidence cited by Glynn. He claims that lower blood pressure, is associated with higher church attendance, but if this is true, it shows very little since the correlation may have nothing whatsoever to do with religious belief.

Methodological flaws also cast doubt on other studies Glynn cites. For example, he argues that religious believers report greater overall satisfaction and happiness with their lives (pp. 64-65). However, as psychiatrist Wendell Watters and psychologist Albert Ellis have argued, Christians’ self-reports of mental health and happiness are likely to be misleading. Since they are taught to believe that just because they are Christians they should be happy and better adjusted, they may unintentionally falsify their true feelings and states of mind.[12]

In addition, Glynn is selective in the evidence he cites. To mention two obvious examples: although he argues that people who did not attend church frequently are four times as likely to commit suicide as those who do, he fails to mention the large group suicides occurring within religious cults–consider Jonesville and Heaven’s Gate–and seems to be unaware of the mental health problems affecting born-again Christians.[13]

Another dubious aspect of Glynn’s argument is his thesis that immoral living–by which he seems to mean sexual promiscuity in particular and rampant hedonism in general–is conducive to unhappiness and psychological ill heath. As I have argued elsewhere, absolute moral standards are compatible with atheism.[14] Here let me just say that Glynn wrongly assumes that atheists would have a problem embracing the thesis that uncontrolled hedonism leads to unhappiness and psychological ill health.

Evidence From OBE and NDE

Glynn uses out of body experience (OBE) evidence and near death experience (NDE) evidence to argue for the existence of an after-life and a soul. In OBE a person experiences herself as floating free from her body while seeing her body from a third person perspective–usually from an elevated position. The crucial question is whether such experiences are veridical. Glynn’s most impressive argument for the veridical nature of OBE rests on the evidence of anesthetized patients who later accurately describe their surgical procedures–apparently perceived from a position above the operating table. Can the patients’ reports be accounted for without supposing that their souls have left their bodies and are observing their operations? Glynn naively accepts the patients’ denials that they never saw such procedures on TV and were not acquainted with them in other ways (p. 111, p. 115) and only considers the hypothesis that the patients were deliberately lying (p.115). However, they could have simply forgotten what they had seen and have constructed their stories from the depths of their unconscious. Glynn also seems to assume that anesthetized patients are completely unaware of what is going on around them, yet we know that this is not always true.[15]

However, let us suppose that Glynn is correct that the patients’ knowledge about their operations could not be achieved in normal ways. Does it follow that their souls temporally departed from their bodies? No, for there is a simpler hypothesis, namely, that some patients have ESP. If so, they could have gotten their information from their powers of telepathy or clairvoyance. ESP is a simpler hypothesis than Glynn’s soul hypothesis because it postulates fewer entities. In order to account for the evidence Glynn must assume disembodied souls as well as ordinary objects and human beings whereas the ESP hypothesis does not assume disembodied souls. True, it might be argued that on Glynn’s soul hypothesis one does not have to assume the existence of ESP. However, since according to the soul hypothesis souls “perceive” the surgical procedures and this cannot be accomplished by human vision, souls must also have some sort of ESP.

NDE is a special case of OBE. According to the standard account, in a typical NDE a person sees her body on a bed with the resuscitation team gathered around it, but her vantage point is outside and above her body. The person feels herself being drawn through a long tunnel. She catches sight of dead relatives and friends and encounters a ‘being’ of very bright light, a ‘loving, warm spirit’–often interpreted as Jesus. The spirit helps her to review the events of her past life panoramically.

In fact, NDEs are more varied than this. Some studies report no tunnel experiences and no panoramic reviews, other studies report hellish experiences, and in the context of nonChristian cultures NDE are given nonChristian interpretations. Further, many people who are near death have no such experiences. What are we to make of this? Naturalistic explanations have been given for NDE that range from hallucinations to anoxia (oxygen starvation) to hypercarbia (elevated level of carbon dioxide in the brain) to temporal lobe involvement. Glynn briefly reviews the evidence for these explanations and finds them all wanting. Whether his specific criticisms are valid is difficult to determine and, in any case, is beyond the scope of this review. However, the general thrust of his discussion should be noted. Glynn admits that anoxia, hypercarbia, temporal lobe involvement and so on produce symptoms closely related to NDE. Indeed, hypercarbia produces experiences that by Glynn’s own admission are striking similar to NDE and artificial stimulation of the temporal lobe produces OBE and the feeling of another “presence”. But Glynn objects to the hypercarbia theory on the grounds that there is no reason to suppose that people with NDE have elevated carbon dioxide levels and to the temporal lobe explanation because NDE includes “language, body image, narrative lines, even smells–factors that are known to involve other parts of the brain (p.127).” However, in the light of these suggestive bits of evidence one would have thought that, although at the present time the exact mechanism is not completely understood, NDE can probably be explained in terms of brain physiology. Reason surely does not dictate Glynn’s leaping to a supernatural account. In addition, Glynn also neglects to inform his readers that empirical studies have shown that there are significant psychological differences between people who have experienced OBEs and those who have not (OBE-ers and non-OBE-ers) which are relevant to whether a leap to the supernatural is justified. In particular, studies indicate that OBE-ers are less likely than non-OBE-ers to be able to distinguish reality from fantasy.[16]

Glynn does leap, but to which supernatural account he jumps is not altogether clear. Glynn seems to think that heterogeneous NDEs can somehow be harmonized to support a type of generic religious belief and he speaks glibly of a core moral vision common to all major religions (p. 130).[17] But if there is one thing that the comparative study of religion teaches us, it is how different the moral –not to mention the metaphysical–visions of reality are in different religions. There is no generic religion. NDE cannot support Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism at the same time for in important respects these religions are inconsistent with one another. Independent of Glynn’s misplaced hankerings for a generic religion, one thing is clear: he wants us to think that NDE supports belief in an afterlife. However, the belief in an afterlife is dubious on independent grounds.[18] So even if the evidence for naturalistic accounts of NDE is problematic, Glynn’s account of NDE is just as doubtful.

Reason and Spirituality

In the final chapter of his book Glynn argues for the limitations of reason and science and the need for spirituality. Although the reasoning is rambling, unfocused, and unclear, three aspects of Glynn’s views deserve brief comment. First, in an important respect Glynn’s argument seems to be self-refuting. In so far as reason and science are questionable, so are the thinking and appeals to science that Glynn has used throughout his book to support his belief in God and immortality. How can he have it both ways: how can he use science to try to prove his religious case and then plead for the limitations of science? Second, his portrayal of contemporary moral philosophy is at best one sided, at worst grossly unfair and distorted. Citing Richard Rorty as his only example, Glynn attempts to show that contemporary philosophy is following in the relativistic footsteps of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Glynn seems never to have heard of contemporary ethical philosophers William Frankena, Richard Brandt, and David Brink who advocate views of morality very different from Rorty’s. Third, Glynn takes a completely uncritical view of religious ethics in general and of Christian ethics in particular and seems completely unaware of the problems of basing morality on belief in God and on the New Testament.[19]


In summary, Glynn’s God: The Evidence presents no persuasive evidence for God and the soul. His evidence from cosmology, psychology, and medicine do not add up to an all-but-incontestable case. Indeed, the evidence he puts forth can be challenged, his arguments are deficient, his presentation of alternative theories is unjust, and his grasp of the relevant material is defective.


[1] Patrick Glynn God: The Evidence (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1997). vii1 + 216 pp. $22 (hardback). Page references to this book will be placed in the body of the text.
[2] Although Glynn does not rely heavily on alleged problems with the theory of evolution to support his belief in God, he cannot resist exploiting the recent controversies among evolutionary theorists to try to help support his case. According to Glynn, Darwin’s theory is now fraying at the seams (p. 47). In order to support his view he refers to the controversy between Stephen Jay Gould on the one hand, and Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins on the other. However, such internal controversies within evolutionary theory provides no more support for a teleological interpretation of evolution than for creation science. See Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, (Open University Press, 1983), pp. 142-151.
[3] See J. Wheeler, “Genesis of Observership”, in R. Butts and J. Hintikka (eds.) Foundational Problems in the Special Sciences (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1977). See also John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), pp. 21-22 for a discussion of the Strong Anthropic Principle.
[4] George Gale, “Anthropocentrism Reconsidered”, in A. Donagon, A. N. Perovich, Jr. and M. V. Wedin (eds.) Human Nature and Natural Knowledge (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co. 1986), p. 237.
[5] See Barrow and Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, p.16 for a definition of an uncontroversial and nonspeculative formulation of the Anthropic Principle (the Weak Anthropic Principle) which says basically that the values of physical and cosmological quantities are restricted by the requirement that there exist locations where carbon based life can evolve and by the requirement that the Universe is old enough for this life to have already evolved.
[6] George Gale, “Whether Cosmology: Anthropic, Anthropocentric, Teleological?” Current Issue in Teleology (ed.) Nicholas Rescher (Lantham, My.: University Press of America, 1986), p. 105.
[7] See Marguerite Foster and Michael Martin (ed.) Probability, Confirmation, and Simplicity, (New York: The Odyssey Press, 1966), pp. 22-26.
[8] See Leslie, “Anthropic Principle, World Ensemble, Design”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 19, 1982, p. 141.
[9] See Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), Chapter 12.
[10] See Victor Stenger, Not By Design (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988)
[11] Doug Krueger, What is Atheism? A Short Introduction (unpublished), pp. 34-5.
[12] See Wendell Watters, “Response to Shumaker,” and Albert Ellis, “Are Atheists Really More Psychologically Disturbed than Religionists?” Free Inquiry, 13, 1993, pp.17-19.
[13] See Edmund D. Cohen, “And Now–Psychiatric Wards for Born Again Christians Only,” Free Inquiry, 13, 1993, pp. 25-30.
[14] Martin, Atheism, Introduction; Michael Martin, “Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape,” July 23, 1997
[15] See Terrence Hines, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 70
[16] See Hines, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, p. 72.
[17] The exact nature of this core is never made clear.
[18] Michael Martin, “Problems With Heaven,” July 22, 1997
[19] See note 14 and Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity, (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), Chapter 6, Appendix 1.


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