I’ve often heard that even if the ontological argument is sound it is not rhetorically convincing because it comes off as just a word game. I think this depends heavily, however, on how the argument is presented. If the professor stands up and tells the students that people find the argument unconvincing for a full ten minutes before dismissively presenting the argument in two, then the students are likely to find it unconvincing. The triumphalism of much modernist philosophy works like this: they go on and on about the historical defeat of moral realism or belief in the soul, presenting the historical arguments for these beliefs in a superficial way, then they use students’ responses as implicit evidence that these positions really have been defeated and that only ignorant rubes think that way any more. I suppose this often happens because the professors themselves have only a cursory knowledge of the authors they take themselves to be refuting—perhaps because they were taught in the same way a generation ago. They conveniently ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of people on Planet Earth today still believe in God, morality, and the soul, just not in the little enclaves these philosophers create for themselves.
On my final exam this year for ancient and medieval philosophy, I allowed the students one softball short-answer question: “What was the most convincing argument that we read this semester?” Imagine my surprise when when six out of thirteen students gave the ontological argument as their answer (out of perhaps thirty different arguments that we covered), including the least religious students in the class. Part of this, admittedly, has to do with the larger context of the course. From the beginning of each semester I choose to focus heavily on the classical notion of Being and this allows us to anticipate Kant’s objection that existence is not a property. But I think a more important factor is that those students are hungry for real arguments. The religious ones have been told that there are no arguments for the existence of God so “you just gotta have faith.” The irreligious ones have just been fed from infancy the public-school propaganda that “smart people don’t believe in God any more.” When both camps encounter an argument, therefore, presented by a professor in full seriousness as an argument—rather than merely an episode in the inevitable march of history toward gay rights—they become excited. And they listen.