Who’s Deluded?

An Atheist Just Doesn’t Get Aquinas


Does God exist? A recent spate of "new atheists" claims to prove that God does not. Perhaps most prominent among them is Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and Oxford University professor. The 2008 publication of the paperback version of his book The God Delusion added to the more than 1.5 million copies already in print.

According to Dawkins, religious believers are delusional for believing in God because it is a belief without any rational justification. He dedicates a large section of the book to a philosophical critique of arguments given for God’s existence by St. Thomas Aquinas and others.

The preface to the paperback edition contains a response to critics in which Dawkins offers rebuttals to the robust, sometimes scathing, criticism of the first edition. Each criticism merits a sentence, such as, "You can’t criticize religion without a detailed analysis of learned books of theology" followed by a few paragraphs from Dawkins in response. His response to this particular criticism is instructive:

I would happily have forgone bestseller-dom if there had been the slightest hope of Duns Scotus illuminating my central question of whether God exists. The vast majority of theological writings simply assume that he does, and go on from there. For my purposes, I need consider only those theologians who take seriously the possibility that God does not exist and argue that he does.

 Ignorant? Or Just Ignoring?

In fact, Scotus is one such theologian. He provides a number of philosophical arguments in at least four different works—all of which are simply ignored by Dawkins. Scotus’s arguments are not based on faith or revelation or personal "religious experience," but rather on what can be known by reason. Dawkins "knows" prior to investigation that Scotus can teach him nothing about the question of God’s existence without even being aware that Scotus addresses the question. This assumption amounts to a close-minded dogmatism.

Also missing in The God Delusion is any consideration of contemporary philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, John Haldane, Robert Adams, and William Lane Craig, who offer philosophical arguments (not theological) for God’s existence. I rather doubt Dawkins would take kindly to a critique of biology which ignored the work of virtually all prominent contemporary biologists and only selectively treated their predecessors. To ignore such philosophers and their arguments—with the claim that one need not be an expert in leprechaunology to dismiss belief in leprechauns—is to beg the question. Precisely at issue is whether or not there is a God; simply ignoring (or being ignorant of) counter arguments and asserting that the faith in God is akin to belief in the emperor’s new clothes is straightforward begging the question.

The God Delusion also ignores or is unaware of medieval and contemporary forms of the Kalam argument for God’s existence. William Lane Craig summarizes this argument as follows:

In one of the most startling developments of modern science, we now have pretty strong evidence that the universe is not eternal in the past but had an absolute beginning about 13 billion years ago in a cataclysmic event known as the Big Bang. What makes the Big Bang so startling is that it represents the origin of the universe from literally nothing. For all matter and energy, even physical space and time themselves, came into being at the Big Bang. . . . Out of nothing, nothing comes. So why does the universe exist instead of just nothing? Where did it come from? There must have been a cause which brought the universe into being. We can summarize our argument thus far as follows: 1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. 2. The universe began to exist. 3. Therefore, the universe has a cause. Given the truth of the two premises, the conclusion necessarily follows. From the very nature of the case, this cause must be an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being which created the universe. It must be uncaused because we’ve seen that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. It must be timeless and therefore changeless—at least without the universe—because it created time. Because it also created space, it must transcend space as well and therefore be immaterial, not physical. ("Does God Exist?," www.reasonablefaith.org)

The Kalam argument poses significant difficulties for Dawkins and other atheists who accept that science can reveal the truth about the world. The first premise—whatever begins to exist has a cause—seems to be presupposed by scientific inquiry itself which, in part, investigates how things come to be. The second premise—the universe began to exist—is itself accepted as scientifically justified by the evidence of the expansion and cooling of the universe. Given the premises, the truth of the conclusion logically follows. The universe has a cause, and the name most cultures give to the "cause of the universe" is God. So, how does Dawkins critique this argument? He simply ignores it or is unaware of it.

Inductive Fallacy

Dawkins does not ignore St. Thomas’s five ways of demonstrating God’s existence but offers a rebuttal to each of them. His exposition, however, reveals that he does not understand the thought of the Angelic Doctor. To show that a proposition is mistaken requires that the position first be understood. We cannot refute what we do not understand.

Although Dawkins correctly notes that the first three ways, from movement, causality, and contingency, share a rejection of infinite regress, he misunderstands both the particulars and the larger metaphysical context of Thomas’s five ways.

Take, for example, Dawkins’ summary of Thomas’s proof from causality: "Nothing is caused by itself. Every effect has a prior cause, and again we are pushed back into regress. This has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God." A careful reader will note Dawkins’ formulation of Thomas differs from Thomas’s actual argument. Thomas denies that there can be an infinite regress in per se efficient causes, but does not deny that there could be infinite regress in other respects or that some kinds of regress terminate in a natural being.

Dawkins provides no argument in favor of infinite regress of any kind. He does not deny this premise to Thomas. Quite to the contrary, he points out that:

some regresses do reach a natural terminator. Scientists used to wonder what would happen if you could dissect, say, gold into the smallest possible pieces. Why shouldn’t you cut one of those pieces in half and produce an even smaller smidgen of gold? The regress in this case is decisively terminated by the atom. The smallest possible piece of gold is a nucleus consisting of exactly 79 protons and a slightly larger number of neutrons, attended by a swarm of electrons. If you "cut" gold any further than the level of the single atom, whatever you get is not gold. (The God Delusion, 102)

Just as gold ends in a natural terminator of a single atom, so too regress towards the first cause can end in a natural terminator.

The unstated premise of Dawkins’ argument is that since some regresses (splitting the gold) end in a natural terminator, all regresses must end in a natural terminator. This is an example of the inductive fallacy. Just because some men are born in Spain, it does not follow that all men are born in Spain. Likewise, even if some regresses end in a natural terminus, it need not follow that all regresses end in a natural terminus. Dawkins has given us an example of a regress ending in a natural terminator; he has given us no reason at all to think that all regresses end in a natural terminator.

The Cause of It All

Further, the example given by Dawkins is irrelevant to Thomas’s argument from causality, movement, or being. Consider the argument from causality. If we have a piece of gold and split it in half, it is not the case that one half of the piece causes the other half of the piece to exist. One half of the piece could be destroyed and the other half continue to exist. There is simply no causal link between the two pieces of gold. By contrast, Thomas is talking about chains of causality in which the removal of one link in the chain would cause the other links in the chain to cease to exist. For example, you and I are (right now) caused to exist by atmospheric pressure. If atmospheric pressure were to cease to exist or change radically, we too would cease to exist—as would happen if we were on the moon without a space suit or at the bottom of the ocean without a submarine to maintain the atmospheric pressure. Likewise, atmospheric pressure is itself something that is caused to exist by further caused beings: temperature, air density, altitude, and relative humidity. If these factors were to change radically or be removed, then atmospheric pressure would change radically or cease to exist. These factors themselves are caused to exist by still other factors, and so on.

Thomas’s point about this causal chain of existence is that it must terminate in something that has existence not from another but rather from itself. The causal chain that causes us to exist is entirely unlike one lump of gold that is split into two small lumps. Without air density, atmospheric pressure ceases to exist. Without atmospheric pressure, we cease to exist. Without the one small lump of gold, the other small lump of gold can continue to exist. Dawkins’ example is irrelevant and misses Thomas’s point about causal relationships.

Likewise, Dawkins misunderstands Thomas’s fourth way. Thomas notes that we differentiate created things as more or "less good, true, noble and the like. But ‘more’ and ‘less’ are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum." Thomas continues, "the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; . . . Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God" (Summa Theologiae I:2:3). Dawkins retorts that given this reasoning, since things are more or less smelly, we would have to say that God is the "perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness." This understanding of Thomas fails to appreciate the real meaning of the text. As Edward Feser notes in his book Aquinas,

Let us note first that Aquinas is not in fact trying to argue in the fourth way that everything that we observe to exist in degrees (including heat, smelliness, sweetness, etc.) must be traceable to some single maximum standard of perfection. . . . Rather, he intends to use the principle in question to explain truth, goodness, nobility, being and the like specifically. . . . Aquinas is mainly concerned in this argument to show that to the extent that these transcendental features of the world come in degrees, they must be traceable to a maximum. . . . Since Aquinas is not in this argument concerned with heat, cold, sweetness, sourness, fragrance, smelliness, and other mundane features of reality, Dawkins’ objection simply misses the point. (Ch. 3)

Likewise, as Feser points out in his book The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, Dawkins misunderstands the fifth way, which argues that the order found in nature which must ultimately be explained in terms of an intelligent being ordering things to their ends. Dawkins believers this argument is undermined by evolution, but in fact the argument Thomas is making is true, even of non-living things that are not evolving as living species. One could leave all living creatures out of the argument, and still the orderliness of laws of physics and the regularity of the planets and of chemical reactions requires an ultimate explanation in terms of God.

Dawkins objects that even if we admit a terminator of the regress in causation or explanation,

there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity in design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins, and reading innermost thoughts. (Delusion, 101)

In other words, even if there is a first cause, this cause need not be God as understood in the traditional sense with all the attributes ascribed to the Divinity.

On this score, Thomas would agree with Dawkins insofar as the five ways were never intended to be a full description of all that can be claimed about God through rational argumentation. True, most people would call the origin of the universe, the first cause, "God," but Thomas would agree that the five ways do not, simply of themselves, show that God enjoys perfection, omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, and creativity. Dawkins’ critique amounts to the fact that in a single article (the smallest complete subsection of the Summa), Thomas’s work does not show all that can be shown rationally about God. This is rather like critiquing a biology textbook because it does not lay out all that can be known about biology in the first two pages.

The Rest of the Story

For this reason, in both the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra Gentiles (whose complex argument for God’s existence Dawkins completely ignores), Thomas goes on to argue that the first cause must be a Being without composition, without beginning or end, without change, and without evil (intellectual or moral) of any kind. These divine attributes are corollaries that can be deduced from the notion of an uncaused cause.

For each of these corollaries, Thomas offers a number of different arguments. For example, to argue that the first cause must be perfect, Thomas indicates that, a "thing is perfect in so far as it is in actuality: Therefore it will be imperfect inasmuch as it is failing in actuality" (ST I:4:1). The first cause is in actuality, for if it were not in actuality, it could not cause anything else to exist, so the first cause must be perfect. Likewise for the other traditional characteristics of God, Thomas argues from the basis of the first mover, the first cause, and the necessary being, etc. to the conclusion that God must have certain other attributes—including perfect intelligence, freedom, and love—which make up the traditional attributes of God.

In a separate objection to Thomas, Dawkins argues that these traditional attributes are mutually incompatible. "If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent" (Delusion, 101). In Dawkins’ view, the idea of God is like a square circle or a triangle with four sides—contradictory and therefore absurd and impossible. If God is unchanging, he cannot change his mind. But if God cannot do something (such as change his mind), God cannot be all-powerful.

For Thomas, God is both all powerful and unchanging, and these attributes do not contradict one another. (See "Why God Can’t Change His Mind," page 14.) Dawkins mistakenly assumes that both omniscience and omnipotence would be at work in time. For Thomas, God doesn’t "already" know how he is "going to" intervene. God is eternally intervening and is eternally knowing his intervention at all points in history. Dawkins misunderstands the nature of an eternal God outside of time, which is unsurprising since The God Delusion provides no evidence that its author read anything other than a single article from Thomas, and clearly not the later articles in which Thomas addresses the question of God’s eternity and God’s relationship to creatures in time.

No Wonder

Dawkins may be an excellent scientist. He fails badly, however, as a philosopher. It is not just that he misunderstands and provides fallacious critiques of Thomas’s five ways. It is not just that there is no evidence in The God Delusion that he understands or is even aware of prominent contemporary philosophers of religion who argue in favor of God’s existence. The worst part is that he is ignorant of his own ignorance. He appears closed to wonder about the deepest questions in life, questions that the empirical method of science cannot answer. Dawkins oversteps his scientific knowledge in the delusion that such training makes him competent to judge dogmatically the deepest philosophical and religious questions.

SIDEBAR

Why God Can’t Change His Mind

Is Dawkins correct that omnipotence and immutability are mutually exclusive? It is true that we can do things that God cannot do. For example, we can kill ourselves, we can be deceived, and we can get injured. God cannot die, cannot be deceived, and cannot be injured. However, that God cannot do such things does not mean that God is not all-powerful because the potential to die, to be in error, and to be injured really indicates not a perfection but a lack of perfection, not power but a lack of full power.

Is changing your mind a power and perfection or a lack of power and perfection? If you do not know something and you change your mind to knowing it, such a change makes you more perfect. But in Thomas’s view, God already knows everything. So if God were to change with respect to knowledge, it would not be a manifestation of perfection but a falling away from perfect knowledge. Therefore, omniscience and immutability are not self-contradictory, but rather different characteristics that necessarily belong to the first cause we call God.


Raised in Seattle, Christopher Kaczor graduated from the Honors Program of Boston College (1992) and holds an M.M.S. (1994) and a Ph.D. (1996) from the University of Notre Dame. He did post-doctoral work in Germany at the Universität zu Köln as an Alexander von Humbolt...

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 3.