Atheism of late has gotten a bad name thanks to its rather callow contemporary adherents—Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. But history has produced a few brilliant atheists as well—like my favorite, Nietzsche—and the Church’s best theologians have long taken atheism seriously.
The insightful British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP, distinguishes between two different types of atheists in his excellent collection of essays God Matters. McCabe points out that some atheists reject what they take to be a peculiar religious conception of God: God as a sort of really big, really powerful guy, a “Top Person,” to use McCabe’s phrase. In rejecting such a (mis)conception of God, McCabe says, Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.
But there’s another type of atheism, one exemplified by Bertrand Russell, which amounts to the refusal to ask a particular type of question. Contrary to the picture atheists often try to paint of themselves as bold questioners and champions of truth, such an atheism amounts to a sort of intellectual suicide. It is this type of atheism that Thomas’ much celebrated and much maligned “five ways” are meant to counter.
Thomas’ critics, both believers and skeptics, point out that the sort of God of whom he speaks in the second question of the Summa Theologica bears little resemblance to the God of Scripture and tradition. Affirming the existence an Aristotelian Prime Mover is not the same as believing in the God of revelation, a God who dies for us on the Cross out of love. The God of the five ways seems frightfully abstract, and it is hard to see how one moves from such abstraction to, say, prayer.
Such criticism is not wrong as far as it goes, but it seems to me it misunderstands what Thomas is doing in that part of the Summa. His style of writing, I admit, is painfully dry, but we shouldn’t let that obscure the rich mystery into which his philosophy is meant to draw us. Thomas understood, of course, that Christianity is a matter of entering into a relationship with God, not mere intellectual assent to propositions.
An important hint at what Thomas is up to in the five ways comes in the preceding article, when Thomas acknowledges, “The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles.” This tells us that the discussion of God’s existence that immediately follows is not an introduction to Christianity; it is not faith-lite, or even a way to arrive at faith. Faith is a gift given us by God, not something we talk ourselves into.
Some would read Thomas’ proofs as attempting to do just that, to talk ourselves into faith, but such a reading doesn’t do credit to the philosopher’s subtlety. Being talked into something is not the same as entering into relationship with Someone. Instead, Thomas’ five “proofs,” it seems to me, are a way of asking questions that leave oneself open to God. They are, to use his word, preamble, a way of remaining intellectually—and spiritually—alive for those who do not have faith.
To return to McCabe:
To prove the existence of God is to prove that some questions still need asking, that the world poses questions for us… To assert the existence of God is not to state a fact within an established intellectual system but to claim the need for exploration; it is to claim that there is an unanswered question about the universe: the question ‘How come the whole thing instead of nothing?’
Last year I read a radio debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston, S.J., about the existence of God. What struck me most about Russell was that his argument was not an attack on God, but an attack on reason; he could only maintain the position that he did because he refused to ask questions to which he did not have the answers. So, to the Big Question—“Why is there something rather than nothing?”—Russell couldn’t even say, “I don’t know.” Instead, he refused to acknowledge the question.
If we all took Russell’s approach, it would mean not only the death of philosophy, but the death of science—and every other branch of inquiry that dares to push beyond the bounds of what we already know.
Aquinas’ five ways are questions about the universe. Though McCabe doesn’t mention Aquinas explicitly, his approach is indebted to him. McCabe goes on to point out that for any object we encounter—another person, the earth, the solar system, a dog named Fido—we can ask an almost infinite array of questions, one of which is “How come?”
“How come Fido?,” McCabe says, can be asked on several different levels. How come Fido and not some other dog? How come a dog and not a giraffe? How come an animal and not a rock? These questions can be answered in a variety of different ways, some of which will push the bounds of our knowledge. Some answers will involve Fido’s parents; others biochemistry, genetics, natural selection; still others the motives of Fido’s human owners.
Now, we could arbitrarily refuse to continue asking questions at any point. Those who deny Darwinism and natural selection, might refuse to ask the question “Why a dog and not some other species?” If they did so—and some do, content to assert that dogs just exist and that’s that—such people would likely be subject to a certain amount of intellectual opprobrium. In a sense, they’d be guilty of turning off their intellect’s most critical faculties; they’d be guilty of a sort of intellectual suicide.
The most difficult question of all, however, is not “Why Fido rather than a giraffe?” or “Why Fido rather than Rover?” but “Why Fido rather than nothing?” Aquinas’ “proofs” (the first three at least), all ask this question, “Why something rather than nothing?” They ask it, of course, of the universe as a whole rather than of Fido in particular because if we continue to stubbornly ask questions about Fido or ourselves or any other thing, at some point they will lead us to the big question about everything. Why something rather than nothing?
Aquinas—with McCabe—calls the answer to this question “God.” We can say a bit more about what sort of an answer this is, mostly in terms of what God is not. If God causes everything, for example, we know that he is not just another thing within the universe—not a really big guy or a force like gravity but stronger. We know, in fact, that any further questions we ask about God will be groping and inadequate, that in order to enter such a discussion about God we will necessarily be stepping into terrain which our language—which deals with the stuff we do know—is ill-equipped to navigate.
To assert the existence of God, in this context, is to assert the existence of mystery, to assert the validity of questions we not only can’t answer, but aren’t sure how to ask.
As McCabe puts it:
We come across God, so to speak, or rather we search and do not come across him, when the universe raises for us a radical question concerning its existence at all.
Aquinas’ five ways do not prove the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they invite us to embrace an attitude of wonder, to dare to face questions we cannot answer on our own—and in doing so to remain alive to the silent whisperings of Someone in answer.
James Alison too has argued that when you contrast the God of Israel and Jesus to gods in the environing culture, Christianity is more like atheism than it is like any other religion. Of course it is widely known that the early cristians were regarded as atheists by the Romans.
Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed reading it.
I especially like that you pointed out that determining whether or not God exists does not necessarily direct us towards any particular religion or ideology. I am a junior at a Jesuit high school, and having not been raised in a particularly religious household, the Christian Discipleship course that I am currently taking is the first opportunity I have had to look at how my values reflect those of the Church. I think that before even asking ourselves whether or not we believe in God, we need to look at what in our lives gives us meaning and fulfillment. This class has forced me to look at my life much more analytically than I normally do. I always knew that being around kind people made me happy, but I never really realized how much meaning I find in acts of kindness that I myself do for others.
Although I don’t really know exactly what I believe yet, the realization that virtues carry so much meaning definitely makes me more open to the idea of God than I was before I learned about Christianity. To me, the fact that there are such things as good and evil is enough to open up the possibility of a divine being. What made you decide to be Christian?
Thanks again for bringing up such an interesting topic!
Thanks for your reply, Jack. I’m glad to hear about the Christian Discipleship course and how it’s caused you to start asking important questions.
There’s a lot I could say about why I am a Christian. I certainly do value the intellectual aspect of Catholicism; I find it more compelling and coherent than any other worldview I’ve encountered. But even more important have been my experiences in prayer and the sacraments. Christianity really has to be experienced, not just understood. I haven’t had anything that anyone would classify as a “mystical” experience, but I know that I am different when I pray, that prayer changes me in ways I don’t always expect or anticipate.
A good part of my life I spent trying just to be a good person. I spent two years in the Peace Corps doing volunteer work, but at some point I realized that even that wasn’t enough. There was something even deeper I desired, and that something was God. In Jesus we discover that God desires us too, that God doesn’t wait for us to complete the impossible task of finding him, but that he finds us. And I had to say “yes” to that.
I must say that your knowledge of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and its application towards atheism is not only very learned, but brilliant as well. It effectively challenges dogma, even if unintentionally.
However, I do have one quick concern with the line of reasoning. While you seem to describe the answer to the question of “something rather than nothing” quite well, my only real observation is that such an idea may deny any sort of philosophical and/or scientific inquiry into the future. To say that “God did it” does seem to be jumping to a conclusion rather quickly, especially for something that may be greater understood in the future (like astronomy), or something that may never be understood accurately at all (like chance)
Even then, however, your ability to deduce such an idea from such a source is quite impressive, to say the least. Keep up the good work.
Thanks for your kind words, Eric, and the point you bring up really gets to the heart of what I’m trying to say. Here saying “God did it” is really a way of allowing us to keep asking questions, philosophical, scientific, and otherwise into the future. Aquinas only says “God did it” so that he can begin to ask the questions that follow, like “What do we mean by God? What can we say about God? How can we even begin to talk about God?” Until we start to ask those questions, the word “God” functions somewhat like a placeholder for the ability to ask questions itself.
I’m also glad you brought up astronomy and chance. “Chance” is a non-answer. Chance doesn’t mean anything it all. Saying “chance” is the same as saying “I don’t know what the answer is, and it’s really hard to keeping asking the question, so I’m going to stop asking it.” What I’m arguing Aquinas is doing with his five ways is saying that “God” is a way to keep asking ultimate questions instead of giving up.
What makes these questions so hard, however, is that they’re the sort of questions a science like astronomy, because of the constraints science places upon itself, can’t ask. The most astronomy will be able to do is add more links to the chain of causation, but it can’t even begin to ask why there is a chain to begin with.
I hope that addresses your concern… let me know if I’ve misunderstood.
In making the distinction between atheists rejecting the religious conception of God as one great being, and those that refuse to ask a wide scoped you raised a point that hits home for many people in modern society. The refusal, or in some cases the inability, of some to ask questions that require, as Søren Kierkegaard put it, “a leap of faith” reflects more upon our society as a whole. People look for black and white answers to their questions, it might be a level of comfort, but those that go beyond what is easy to see and put into words, benefit. We need to exercise courage within our everyday lives. Sometimes that means accepting questions do not always have answers or even the ability to be put into words and asked logically. It takes great courage to confront these questions without answers and even more to have faith in an abstract. However, shouldn’t we do more than just confront the question though? We need to talk about them aloud and exchange thoughts. There is more to learning than simply acknowledging that a question exists. We must confront the question, as you most certainly brought up, that is the first step, but in asking the question, we should persevere for another question just as good. You touched on an interesting topic that, atheism, as mentioned, has earned an undeserved negative connotation. People need to develop a greater sense of courage and meet God not on the plain of logic and reason, but on that of faith.
Sean, you make an excellent point. Just asking questions without attempting to answer them is never enough. Some pseudo-intellectuals think that just posing questions without trying to answer them makes them profound. I think it makes them cowards because in attempting to answer questions we always risk being wrong, and they’re afraid to take that risk. Risking giving an answer also means lots of hard work — the parts of Thomas I talked about in this post are at the very beginning of the Summa but they are followed by several hundred pages of questions and answers as he goes through all that hard work. That’s what separates a really great thinker from a poseur.
Thank you very much for your post, I really enjoyed reading it.
You bring up a number of fantastic points in this article. In particular, I found your thoughts on questioning quite intriguing. Frankly, I believe one of the hardest and most important abilities to perfect in life is the ability to ask questions. However, as you mentioned, this ability often becomes extremely conflicted when combined with the idea of God and religion. I believe that for many people (such as Bertrand Russell), the result of this conflict is to question everything or to question nothing. In the end, the best people, both intellectually and spiritually, are the ones who are willing to ask the difficult and unanswerable questions about God and religion no matter what the conclusion is. Additionally, the crucial part of this entire process is that no matter what the conclusion is, is must be one of faith because in the end, the answers to the question of the existence of God is nothing more than a leap of faith.
However, I do have a question after reading your article. Do you believe that taking a somewhat logical approach when asking the question of God’s existence is necessary even though the question is something completely illogical? In other words, how do you approach the question of God’s existence or is it just a matter of the person asking the question.
Johnny, Thanks for your words. I wouldn’t want to say that faith is “illogical.” Just because something isn’t proven using quantifiable methods, doesn’t mean that it is illogical to believe it. For example, can you prove that the laws of physics will hold in the future? Or that the past actually existed? Or that other minds exist? That time flows continually? Probably not, but it’s not illogical to believe any of these things.
Reason can show us its own limits; it is logical in other words to know that logic can’t teach us everything. To think otherwise, in fact, would be quite illogical.
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