Friday, October 5, 2012
Who wants to be an atheist?
Suppose something like Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? hypothesis turned out to be true, and the God of the Bible was really an extraterrestrial who had impressed the Israelites with some high tech. Would you conclude: “A ha! Those atheists sure have egg on their faces now! Turns out the Bible was right! Well, basically right, anyway. True, God’s nature isn’t exactly what we thought it was, but He does exist after all!” Presumably not, no more than if the God of Exodus turned out to be Moses with an amplifier and some red fizzies he’d dumped into the Nile. The correct conclusion to draw in either case would not be “God exists, but He wasn’t what He seemed” but rather “God does not exist, He only seemed to.”
Or suppose something like Frank Tipler’s Omega Point theory turned out to be correct and the universe is destined to evolve into a vastly powerful supercomputer (to which Tipler ascribes a kind of divinity). If you had been inclined toward atheism, do you think you would now conclude: “Wow, turns out God does exist, or at least will exist someday!” Or rather only: “Wow, so this really weird gigantic supercomputer will exist someday! Cool. But what does that have to do with God?”
Now suppose that someone said: “You know, it’s not just that I don’t think von Däniken’s alien ‘gods’ or Tipler’s supercomputer ‘god’ actually exist. I wouldn’t want them to exist. I wouldn’t want the world to be like that.” Perhaps he fears that von Däniken’s alien “gods” might end up like the extraterrestrials of the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” or that Tipler’s “god” might end up like the supercomputer of Harlan’s Ellison’s chilling short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” But perhaps not. Perhaps he just finds the ideas inherently distasteful or unattractive. Would there be anything wrong with this attitude? It’s hard to see how. It would be like hoping that unicorns don’t exist, or that there is no life on Mars, or indeed that Thor, Jupiter, or Quetzalcoatl don’t exist. There might be some suspect motive on the part of someone with such an attitude -- a strange belief that the existence of unicorns would somehow put unwelcome moral constraints on his sex life, or a fear that Thor might end up acting like a superhero and interfere with his criminal activities, or whatever -- but it seems implausible to suppose that there has to be.
But now consider a statement like Thomas Nagel’s famous remarks from his book The Last Word:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
Is this evidence of some suspect motive on Nagel’s part? Well, obviously I cannot know Nagel’s mind. And judging from his work over the years, including The Last Word itself and his recent and fascinating book Mind and Cosmos (my review of which will appear soon), one had better think twice before accusing Nagel of intellectual dishonesty. Few naturalists are as frank as he is about the difficulties facing their position, or as open to hearing intelligent criticism. Suppose, then, that Nagel’s view of God is something like that of Antony Flew, who opined in the Introduction to the 2005 reissue of God and Philosophy -- after his own conversion from atheism to a kind of deism, mind you -- that:
It should perhaps be noted here that not only the God of Islam but also the God of Christianity was originally conceived on the model of an Oriental despot -- such as Saddam Hussein -- insistent that his subjects should be always obedient to, and forever praising of, their master.
Now this is of course a ludicrous caricature, and perhaps Flew should have known better than to peddle it -- as with Nagel, I have no way of knowing his mind. But suppose someone sincerely thought that the God of the Bible, of the creeds, and of thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, was essentially a cosmic Saddam Hussein -- an egomaniac who issues arbitrary commands and backs them up with nothing more than threats, but who also happens to be disembodied, immortal, unbelievably powerful, and extremely well-informed about everything that happens in the universe. Would it necessarily be unreasonable or dishonest to hope that such an essentially anthropomorphic “God” did not exist? Why?
The point, as my longtime readers will have already guessed, is once again to underline the importance of fidelity to the tradition of classical theism. In the combox to my most recent post on the subject, a reader complained:
I certainly believe in such a God [i.e. the God of classical theism]-- but I don't think it's very Christian of Christians to be constantly congratulating ourselves on our superior philosophical acumen.
Well, the point has nothing to do with self-congratulation. And it has nothing to do either with my personal views or those of any other individual thinker, not even Aquinas. Classical theism is the common heritage not only of Thomists and other Scholastics, not only of orthodox Roman Catholicism, not only of Eastern and Protestant Christians whose thinking is informed by the greatest thinkers of Christian history, but also of Jews and Muslims, and of philosophical theists of the Platonic and Aristotelian stripes. And there are also elements of it to be found outside the West (unsurprisingly given that the basic truths of natural theology are, naturally, accessible in principle to all human beings). As a Catholic I would of course maintain that the doctrine of the Trinity represents a more penetrating understanding of the divine nature than non-Christian conceptions. And of course I happen to think the Thomistic way of articulating classical theism is philosophically and theologically superior to the alternatives. But that is all neither here nor there for present purposes. What is to the point is that in the general dispute between atheism and theism, classical theists of all the varieties named are at one with each other -- and at one with atheists -- in rejecting crudely anthropomorphic conceptions of deity. No Christian, Jew, or Muslim who understood his religion would say “Well, if it turned out that God did not exist and Thor was the best we could do, I guess we would have to worship him instead.”
One reason for emphasizing the importance of classical theism, then, is to make it absolutely clear what is really at stake in the dispute between atheism and theism, and to push aside certain obstacles which for some atheists of good will may stand in the way of their taking theism seriously. I would suggest that the obstacles in question concern a misleading perception of arbitrariness in theism, arbitrariness of which classical theism cannot justly be accused but which is indeed to be found in cruder forms of theism. Such arbitrariness is of at least three sorts:
1. Metaphysical arbitrariness: Some atheists suppose that belief in God is essentially belief in a kind of “magical” being, where magic is a kind of pseudo-explanation and indeed something inherently unintelligible. Or they suppose that the existence of God would be a kind of unintelligible “brute fact” that is certainly no more plausible that the existence of the universe as a brute fact, and indeed less plausible than the latter alternative given Ockham’s razor. But all of this is precisely what the classical theist denies. Classical theism maintains that there are no ultimate “brute facts,” that reality is in itself intelligible through and through. And its reasons for saying so are grounded in sophisticated metaphysics, not crude appeals to magic. (I have addressed these matters at length here and here.)
Hence, when classical theists say that God does not have a cause, that is not because He is an arbitrary exception to a general rule. Other things require causes because they have potentials that require actualization, or parts (whether material or metaphysical) that need to be combined, or have an essence or nature that is distinct from their existence and thus needs to be conjoined to it. But God is pure actuality and devoid of potentiality, and thus cannot in principle be actualized by anything else; He is absolutely simple and thus does not have parts which need to be combined; and He is Subsistent Being Itself and thus cannot have being or existence imparted to Him. This makes God not less intelligible than things that require a cause but more intelligible. (I have said much more about this in various posts on classical theism and the cosmological argument.)
By contrast, whatever is not metaphysically simple, or pure actuality, or subsistent being itself, would -- however otherwise impressive in its strength, knowledge, or moral qualities -- be less than ultimate and would thus require an explanation outside itself. This would apply to all the gods of the various heathen pantheons, who typically have material and temporal limitations of various sorts. It would also apply to any view about the God of the Bible that would deny that He is metaphysically simple, purely actual, etc. These views implicitly make of Him a brute fact and something that differs from created things only in not happening to have a cause of His own. They essentially reduce Him to a glorified Zeus or Odin.
So, atheists rightly object to the metaphysical arbitrariness of these crude conceptions of deity. But their objections have no force against classical theism.
2. Moral arbitrariness: Many atheists suppose that to attribute goodness to God is to say that He is a moral agent like us, only much better behaved. Or they suppose that God’s status as a moral lawgiver must involve the issuance of arbitrary commands backed by threats, and that to avoid this result would require acknowledging that there is a moral standard independent of Him and to which even He must answer. And they might wonder in light of all this exactly why God’s demands on us are ones we should be expected to follow. Does it really boil down to His having the ability to threaten us with damnation? What does that have to do with morality per se (as opposed to self-interested calculation)? But all of this rests on a trivialization of the notion of divine goodness. For the classical theist God does not merely “have” goodness, as we do but to a higher degree. He just is Goodness Itself, that by reference to which other things are good or bad to whatever degree they are. To say:
God’s demands on us are arbitrary; or if not, then He must be appealing to some standard outside Himself.
is thus like saying:
Euclidean triangularity as such makes arbitrary demands of particular Euclidean triangles when it requires of them that they have straight sides and angles that add up to 180 degrees; or if not, then Euclidean triangularity as such must be appealing to some standard outside itself.
It is, in other words, a category mistake, a basic failure to understand the nature of the reality in question -- or purported reality, for whether one actually believes in either Euclidean geometry or classical theism is beside the point. (I have addressed these issues at greater length here and here.)
Damnation, in turn, is ultimately a matter of one’s character having become permanently corrupted so that one is, as it were, forever incapable of even wanting to be near that which just is Goodness Itself. One’s will has become fixed on evil and thus cannot be in the divine presence. It is a matter of metaphysical necessity rather than arbitrary divine whim. (As General Honoré might put it, the damned soul is one that has become metaphysically “stuck on stupid.”)
By contrast, whatever is less than Goodness Itself is something that would be subject to a standard external to him, and would be something about which we could intelligibly ask why we should respect its demands. Now all the gods of the heathen pantheons are like this (which is precisely why they are described as having various moral virtues or vices to varying degrees). And views of the God of the Bible that would interpret Him merely as a particularly admirable moral agent would also make it intelligible to ask why we should obey His commands and whether He must be subject to a standard external to Him. Again, they essentially make of God a glorified Zeus or Odin.
Here too atheists are right to object to the arbitrariness of the conceptions of deity in question. But their objections have no force against classical theism.
3. Epistemological arbitrariness: Atheists often suppose that to hold that God is the ultimate cause of things is to assert a lame “god of the gaps” hypothesis subject to overthrow by future scientific discoveries. Or they think that it is, even worse, a sheer appeal to faith understood as the will to believe without evidence. Understandably, they wonder why belief in Zeus or Quetzalcoatl couldn’t be equally “justified” by faith, or why one of these pagan deities would be any less plausible a “god of the gaps.” But the main arguments for classical theism are precisely the opposite of “god of the gaps” arguments; and far from resting on an irrational faith commitment, the very content of classical theism is inextricably tied to a commitment to the rational intelligibility of the world.
The explanations of common sense and empirical science explicitly or implicitly presuppose a world of changing things, of causal relationships, of complex entities whose parts require composition by something outside them. When the classical theist says that God is pure actuality, subsistent being itself, and absolutely simple, what he is saying is precisely that none of the explanations of common sense or science could in principle count as genuine explanations at all unless there is a cause of the world that is like this. In particular, change -- the actualization of potential -- would not be possible unless there is something that is pure actuality and thus can impart the power to actualize to other things without having to derive it from anything else. Things could not exist even for an instant unless there were something which, as subsistent being itself, could cause their existence without having to be caused itself. Composite things could not exist unless there were a source of reality which, being absolutely simple, did not have to be composed itself. In short, the explanatory resources of common sense and of science are intelligible in principle only within the context of a classical theist metaphysics. That -- and not some arbitrary faith commitment -- is why classical theism will not be overthrown by science. It is rationally and metaphysically more fundamental than science, not less fundamental. For its rational foundations are to be found, not in the gaps in current science but in the necessary preconditions of any possible science. That, at any rate, is what the classical theist argues, and he does indeed argue for his claims rather than merely assert them. (I have said much more about all this in various posts on the cosmological argument.)
By contrast, it is hard to see how the deities of the heathen pantheons could be argued for in anything other than a “god of the gaps” manner. Why suppose that Thor exists (say) unless this were somehow the “best explanation” among others of lightning phenomena, or of certain apparitions people in northern Europe have had? Precisely because these entities would be metaphysically less than ultimate, no appeal either to the ultimate explanation of the world or to the necessary presuppositions of the very practice of explanation could be used to argue for their existence (as such an appeal can be deployed in arguing for the existence of the God of classical theism). And any view of the God of the Bible that would make Him metaphysically less ultimate than the classical theist conception of God would, similarly, reduce Him to the sort of thing for which “god of the gaps” arguments might seem the best we can do.
Once again, atheists are right to object to the arbitrariness they see in lame arguments of this sort. But once again, these objections are irrelevant to classical theism.
So, why would anyone want atheism to be true? Well, I might want it to be true if I thought theism was essentially the silly, vulgar thing atheists often suppose it to be. (Indeed, I was an atheist for about a decade, before I had any clear understanding of what the classical theist tradition really had to say.) To paraphrase Aquinas, serious defenders of theism ought to know and uphold the classical tradition lest in their disputes with the other side they “bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh” (Summa Theologiae I.46.2). Or, more importantly, lest they cause well-meaning atheists to reject theism on the basis of entirely avoidable misunderstandings.