Progressive Pieties, Islamist Terrorism and the Catholic Church: A Study in False Equivalence

I am often left feeling bemused when I read progressives’ attempts to make sense of Islamist terrorism. Previously, the trope that impoverishment and anomie caused people to perpetrate terroristic acts was in vogue. Whilst this explanation was never entirely bereft of merit – the lives of many young men who yielded themselves to such murderous rage have been marked by social or economic dislocation – it dramatically underplayed the formative role of ideas and ideology as legitimating forces of politico-religious violence. Moreover, the many examples of comfortable, seemingly well-connected and well-resourced individuals engaging in terrorism undercuts the thesis that poverty or marginalisation are the primary drivers: Osama Bin Laden was the son of a Saudi billionaire, whilst the present head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is a trained surgeon from a prosperous Egyptian family. Such profiles extend to the so-called “foot soldiers” of radical Islam. The leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, had been studying for his PhD in Germany at the time of his heinous act, whilst the infamous “Jihadi John” – grisly poster boy for Islamic State – was a young British man who’d attended Westminster University. Poor and wretched souls (economically speaking) they were not.

Thankfully, one doesn’t hear this alleged explanation bandied about with quite the same confidence. Even many on the Left have begun to recognize that there may be a causal connection between certain conceptions of Islam and terroristic violence after all. They have subsequently retired the older view that putatively religious acts of terrorism were nothing more than a proxy for merely social, political or economic grievances. Labor’s Anne Aly, for example, has rubbished the idea that economic deprivation, say, can do the heavy lifting in this regard – an opinion that is all the more significant, given that she herself is a Muslim.

But the passage of time has not necessarily seen a vast improvement in progressive approaches to the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism: having quietly abandoned one means of obfuscation, some on the Left have enthusiastically adopted another. One might call it the idea of religious equivalence, or the notion that all religions may, with equal likelihood, fuel acts of violent extremism (whether political or not). Even if some forms of, say, terrorism have their roots in Islamic doctrine, so the progressive might concede, it is equally true that other religions – Catholicism, for example – can justify such acts with comparable ease. Thus, one witnesses otherwise intelligent and well-travelled individuals claiming that terrorism perpetrated by the IRA and Protestant Loyalists during the Northern Irish “Troubles” was religious violence – on par, say, with the macabre theatrics of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, who self-consciously drape their acts in theological language. I won’t delve into why such a claim is wildly mistaken; others have ably accomplished that task. I merely point to it as yet another progressive attempt to deflect criticisms of (radical) Islam as an ideological incubator for violence and wanton bloodshed.

Child Molestation as a Form of Catholic Extremism?

Not so long ago, the former Premier of NSW (and self-identified Catholic), Kristina Keneally, penned a piece for The Guardian Australia, which included a species of the foregoing argument. Hers, however, contained a novel twist.

In her article, Keneally does not cite alleged examples of Catholic-inspired terrorism to argue that her own religious tradition is just as prone to corruption. Instead, she suggests that child molestation, rampant within the church for so many years, was actually a form of “Catholic extremism” – a distortion of teaching that was nevertheless discernibly Catholic, like the supposedly debauched interpretations of the Koran that mark out Islamic radicals. Keneally’s main point seems to be that certain (read: conservative) expressions of Catholicism were in some sense responsible for permitting the horrors of child sexual abuse, fostering these abhorrent acts. For her, the phrase “institutional sexual abuse” is too “bland”, too anodyne, to describe what she believes is indelibly linked to various elements of Catholic dogma. The supremacy of the Church’s authority, a belief that God was providentially protecting it from scandal, or the efficacy of prayer in securing moral transformation: these things, Keneally avers, have led inexorably to the destruction of scores of young lives. Indeed, she writes:

The end result of this flawed theology and ecclesiology is the nauseating, terrifying, grotesque, ritualized and repeated violent assaults and rapes of children by Catholic clergy and religious.”    

In Keneally’s eyes, child sexual abuse is a manifestation of “radical Catholic ideology”, just as the burning of Christians or the mass rape of women from minority religions is a manifestation of radical Islamist ideology.

Keneally’s is certainly a creative approach to a knotty problem. However, her analysis suffers from several critical defects, which prove fatal to her argument. Most obviously, it is quite wrong to equate child molestation within the Catholic Church and, say, Islamist terrorism as twin exemplars of some wider phenomenon we might call religious extremism. Radical Islamic terrorists explicitly justify their actions by releasing written tracts replete with references to the Koran and the example of Mohammed. For example, after ISIS-affiliated terrorists massacred scores of revelers in Paris entertainment districts in November 2015, the organization released a celebratory post about the carnage, quoting from the Koran to explain the reason for the attack. The quote is drawn from Sura 59:2: “Allah came upon them from where they had not expected, and He cast terror into their hearts so they destroyed their houses by their own hands and the hands of the believers”.

Other statements, whether disseminated by ISIS or some other extremist outfit, are laced with similar theological legitimations. The purveyors of such violence are convinced that what they are doing is a form of religious fidelity, warranted – even demanded – by their sacred texts. Mark Durie, an expert in Islamic theology, comments that “ISIS fighters are taught that non-Muslims, referred to as mushrikin (‘pagans’) or kuffar (‘infidels’), deserve death simply by virtue of their disbelief in Islam.  For ISIS, killing disbelievers is a moral act, in accordance with Sura 9:5 of the Qur’an, ‘fight and kill the mushrikin wherever you find them’, and Sura 9:29, ‘fight (i.e. to kill) the People of the Book’”. And in a widely-cited article on ISIS for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has written about that group’s consistent efforts to couch their actions in the language of apocalyptic jihad. Radical Islamists, far from being reticent about their motives, seem proud to stand on a theological system that is drawn directly from Islam’s foundational traditions.

By contrast, there are no biblical texts, church traditions, theological commentaries, sermons, homilies or papal encyclicals justifying child sexual abuse or enjoining the faithful to engage in it. No priests charged with sexual offences have, to my knowledge, cited any sacred writings to rationalise their crimes. This is not merely a case of there being no such attempts to sacralize child abuse; the very structure of the Christian religion renders the possibility that someone would do so illogical. The alleged parallel swiftly dissolves when one compares Mohammed and Jesus, both of whom act as moral paradigms for their respective followers. Unlike the life of Islam’s founder – which seems to offer ample warrant for war-like activity among the putative soldiers of Islam – Christ’s life offers no such grounds for the molestation of children. Where one set of macabre and notorious acts appears to be explicitly justified by adherence to a religious creed, the other represents a grievous betrayal of that religion’s overriding ethos and vision.

What of Keneally’s claim that certain elements of Catholic dogma have, in corrupted form, helped sustain the practice of child sexual abuse amongst the clergy over the years? To the extent that this is true, it still falls far short of anything remotely resembling a distinctively Catholic form of extremist violence. Take the alleged relationship between Catholic ecclesiology and the entrenchment of child molestation. Large, labyrinthine organizations may make the exposure and prosecution of such crimes difficult, but there is nothing uniquely Catholic about this. As the historian and commentator, Gerard Henderson, has helpfully pointed out, the current Royal Commission into these matters found that proportionally, child sexual abuse has been more common in the Uniting Church – the structure of which is far more diffuse – than in the Church of Rome. This is certainly revealing, for it suggests that a strongly hierarchical organization is not unusually susceptible to this kind of wickedness; if anything, the data points in the other direction. Here is what Henderson has written about the matter (bracketed annotations are mine):

“[There were] 2504 incidents or allegations [of child sexual abuse] between 1977, when the Uniting Church was formed, and 2017 [i.e., over a 40-year period]. This compares with 4445 claims with respect to the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2015 [over 65 years]. And the Catholic Church is five times larger than the Uniting Church.”

It’s also worth pointing out that other large institutions, both religious and secular, have sought to protect perpetrators in an effort to preserve the “greater good” (often window-dressing for naked self-interest and reputational advancement). The BBC is a good example – all the more so, as it is a non-religious, non-sectarian entity. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal in 2012, it was alleged that the BBC had protected other stars accused of sexual abuse, whilst serious institutional failings allowed perpetrators to ply their evil trade with impunity. Dame Janet Smith, who chaired an inquiry into the whole sordid saga, said that a “macho culture” prevailed at the broadcaster, which fostered rampant sexism and sexual harassment. She went on to indict the BBC for the institutionalised fear that many experienced, such that they felt unable to speak out. Finally, she excoriated those who were more concerned about individual and corporate reputations than they were about sexual predation. The point is that a tawdry and desperate attempt to cling to the laurels of an institution’s moral authority – at times leading to the craven abandonment of the victims of abuse – isn’t unique to religious bodies. Acquiescing to the supposed demands of the “greater good” cannot be given a peculiarly religious or theological gloss, for the very reason that this phenomenon – grubby though it certainly may be – is something common to every sector of humanity.

The contention that warped conceptions of prayer saw church institutions fail to act against suspected child molesters is also flawed. It may well be true in an individualised or historical sense, but what does this tell us about the purported link between Catholic doctrine and child sexual abuse? Keneally is simply unsuccessful in substantiating the broader claim that such practices are instances of a species of so-called Catholic “extremism” – i.e., that there exists a necessary link between the one and the other. I’m sure there were some Catholic faithful who, as a result of their belief in the power of prayer, did not respond adequately to accounts of abuse. But praying for the transformation of sinners – even those guilty of the most heinous of sins – is logically consistent with labouring for justice on behalf of victims, and bringing perpetrators to account. Prayer itself is a morally neutral mechanism. Assuming its efficacy, it may be used to try and secure either just or iniquitous aims. In that sense, it is like a car: a tool, which can be used ethically or unethically. More than that, an authentically Christian view of prayer must include the conviction that one’s supplications are directed towards a righteous God, who cares for the poor and watches over the vulnerable. The Book of Psalms brims with images of a deity who welcomes and listens to those who practice righteousness (Ps 15), who rescues the poor (Ps 35:10) and vindicates them (Ps 113:7). For the follower of Jesus, such prayers are often accompanied by acts that seek to secure relief for the oppressed – again, as a consequence of authentic faith. To be saturated in the Christian scriptures, then, is to pray with a fervent desire for justice to be accomplished – the very antithesis of the (unnamed) individuals Keneally cites as evidence for “radical” Catholicism.

The ongoing comparison with Islamic extremism illuminates the point. Whereas prayer that implicitly permits inaction in the face of abuse is a violation of Christian petitionary principles, terroristic violence in the name of Islam would seem to bear the imprimatur of sacred Koranic texts. Again, it may be helpful to refer to the justifications Islamists themselves have offered for their barbarism, as cited above. There is nothing morally neutral about those statements, for they seem clearly to enjoin the killing of non-Muslims as a direct manifestation of religious devotion. Similarly, there appears to be little room for saying that radical Islamists are guilty of distortion, since the texts in question are bracing in their clarity. To that extent, at least, there is a clear – one might even say necessary – causal connection between acts perpetrated by the likes of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, and the theological ideas they regard as their touchstone.

Towards the end of her piece, Keneally expresses obvious pessimism about the future. Her fear is that such crimes may still find conducive environments within the Catholic Church, as seminaries become “more orthodox and traditional”. Keneally implies that the underlying and sustaining cause – that nefarious wizard behind the curtain – of all that we have witnessed is none other than moral and religious conservatism. Her concern that the problem of child abuse within Catholic institutions may not abate ultimately rests on the assumption that conservatism and/or religious traditionalism provide settings that enable, harbour or conceal such offending. Unfortunately for Keneally, this jars with the historical evidence. The relatively widespread prevalence of child sexual abuse within the Uniting Church is once again instructive. The UC has long adopted a “low” form of ecclesiology, where the autonomy of the local church and its members is highly prized. Moreover, it has embraced female ministers, knows nothing of compulsory clerical celibacy, and has long championed the rights of same-sex attracted people (up to and including support for same-sex marriage). Indeed, the values and outlook of the UC tend to resemble modern progressive culture, such that in many areas, the boundary marking out the Church’s distinct identity has all but vanished. These convictions witness to a relatively liberal institution – one which nevertheless proved to be even more vulnerable to high rates of child sexual abuse than the Catholic Church.

What’s more, the recent experiences of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne suggest that moral and religious conservatism has been no more a barrier to addressing the scourge of sexual abuse than its liberal counterpart, and may have gone further in trying to arrest it. Under the archbishopric of Frank Little, clergy guilty or suspected of sexual abuse were often moved from parish to parish, shielded from scrutiny. By contrast, Little’s comparatively conservative successor – a man by the name of George Pell – established the so-called “Melbourne Response” in 1996 (soon after he became archbishop) with the co-operation of Victoria Police. The aim of the programme was to provide assistance to abuse survivors, which included the co-ordination of compensation packages. It was by no means perfect, and a fair amount of legitimate criticism can be levelled at it. But the “Melbourne Response” was one of the first initiatives of its kind to try and systematically address a problem that had beset the Church for many decades. Thus, the unfolding direction of historical events (at least in Melbourne) was precisely the reverse of what Keneally seems to assume.


Trying to have an honest conversation about these matters is sometimes difficult. I certainly understand the impulse to avoid offence, or to deflect criticism of a particular religious group because of fears concerning abuse and societal ostracism (even if they are exaggerated). But when those impulses lead a person to blunder into a thicket of false analogies, muddled analysis and historical ignorance, broader discussions regarding the causes of terrorism are hardly well-served. Kristina Keneally has tried to persuade us with what she sees as piercing honesty, allegedly exposing child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church for the degenerate religiosity it is. Degenerate? Most certainly. Religious? Well, no. Despite its pretensions to insightful – even subversive – analysis, her article exemplifies all the calumnies I have just mentioned. Ultimately, it serves as a testament to the overriding influence that a rigid progressive orthodoxy can exercise upon intellectual honesty and clarity of thought.

(Christian) Religion and Secularism: A Response to Brian Morris

Note: this article first appeared in the online newsletter Engage.mail, published by the Evangelical Alliance’s ethics think-tank, Ethos.

I am usually fairly sanguine about the place of Christianity within modern society. Claims that an aggressive secularism is systematically attempting to extirpate religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, from the public square can often seem exaggerated. Every so often, however, I find my insouciance disturbed by some honest pundit or commentator, who with unusual clarity reveals the intentions of a certain strand of secular thought. Aside from providing (some) warrant for those anxious about anti-Christian hostility, such candour does have the advantage of giving one a fairly clear target at which to aim.

The opinions of Brian Morris, which appeared in both print and online media outlets last year (see, for example “It’s Time: Make Politicians Wear Religion on their Sleeve,” New Matilda, 17th August, 2015), constitute one such example. Morris, a former journalist, has turned his hand to advocating for his particular conception of secularism. As part of this project, he called on MPs to openly declare their religious commitments, in much the same way that elected officials reveal any pecuniary interests that may conflict with their parliamentary duties. Morris contextualised his view by saying that ‘politicized religion’ has surreptitiously retarded progress on a number of fronts, including efforts to legalise same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia. For him, parliamentary debate around SSM ‘subverts any notion of a secular Australia’.

Targeting Christianity especially, Morris argued that in a multicultural and multi-religious country such as Australia, it made sense for Christian MPs to be more transparent about their views. He suggested that one way of ensuring greater openness was to have politicians’ beliefs – and their influence on whatever views they may happen to hold – placed on public record. Others, like Fiona Patten (head of the Australian Sex Party) appear to have gone even further, suggesting for example that some kind of register of religious affiliation might be appropriate.

But let’s stick with Morris for a moment. One might be tempted to agree with him, at least to some extent. Say an MP is both a staunch member of the Catholic Church and has parliamentary oversight for various social welfare organisations (many of which have roots in, and are connected with, institutional Catholicism). It’s fair and reasonable to think that such an individual would be completely transparent in revealing his or her religious links. If that’s what is meant by politicians’ religious commitments being registered or placed on public record, then one will hear no argument from me.

The trouble is that Morris means more than this. Indeed, the suggestion that the airing of religiously-grounded views in parliament (say, in relation to the SSM debate) is itself evidence of the subversion of secularism indicates as much. So, too, does his interpretation of the Australian Constitution, which he argues was intended to ‘keep religion out of politics’. At base, it seems that Brian Morris wants to excise religion and opinions rooted in religious devotion from the public square. This is not merely advocacy for the institutional separation of church and state – something with which we can all agree – but for the rather radical idea, common among a more aggressive species of secularist, that religion’s presence in public-political life should be completely uprooted.

There are, however, several glaring problems with that kind of position. To begin, one must ask how it would even be possible, logistically-speaking, to achieve such an aim. How does Morris and others of his ilk propose to interrogate politicians on their religious commitments or to ensure those beliefs are publicly registered? Lying behind this is the very basic question of how one actually defines religion, which – notoriously – eludes all efforts at delimitation. What counts as a ‘religious’ commitment in the first place? Mere church membership? General theistic belief? A relatively doctrinal construction of religious convictions? What about the certainty that the cosmos is unified by a ‘higher’ meaning? In an age of spiritual pluralism, where all kinds of beliefs may fall under the umbrella of ‘religion’ (including those of politicians), arguing for some kind of public record comprising such beliefs is to engage in a project that defies precision by its very nature.

Similarly, how would Morris propose MPs corral their religious convictions in order to approach contentious issues in a manner that pleases him? He dismisses, for instance, Eric Abetz’s complaint that only the ‘intellectually bankrupt’ could expect a religious individual to ‘leave their religion at the doors of parliament’. But what’s to object to here? In my view, it reflects the common-sense view that religion – like any kind worldview (even atheistic ones) – is often embedded in the deepest strata of a person’s thinking and behaviour. Asking, say, a Christian to view policy issues without framing them through the lens of his or her worldview is akin to asking someone who wears glasses to remove them in order to ‘properly’ appreciate the lines and contours of a landscape painting.

This appears to be joined to Morris’ (unworkable) suggestion that religion in Australia should be ‘re-positioned’ as a wholly privatized phenomenon. However, short of barring religious individuals from entering public life, it would seem impossible to guarantee that religiously-inspired beliefs – which constitute a ‘framework of reality’ that enables many people to make sense of their world – seep into public discourse and parliamentary debate. Indeed, as social entities, religious individuals are themselves evidence that religion cannot be a purely private matter; their very presence suggests that the public and private dimensions of life can never be truly walled off from each other. Moreover, it seems that Morris has ‘solved’ the question of how one is to define religion only by conveniently opting for a narrow conception – driven, one thinks, by Enlightenment dualisms. Unfortunately, he has ignored the phenomenological diversity of religious expression, substituting for it a reductive characterisation that simply assumes (wrongly, I might say) its inherently privatized nature. Morris adopts a very ‘thin’ understanding of spirituality, which, apart from anything else, fails to reckon with both its ubiquity and its formative role in driving many individuals to work for the common good by way of public and political service.

In promoting his views, Morris evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. But he also fails to understand the nature of Australian secularism, and does so in two main ways. First, Morris’ view that the Australian Constitution was meant to banish religion from political discourse is quite misleading. It was not intended to purify the political process of the apparently baleful effects of religious thought. Rather, the Constitution’s provisions regarding religion prohibit the passage of laws that establish an official creed, hamper religious freedom or disqualify anyone from public office on the basis of their religious (or non-religious) convictions. Here is the relevant statement, from S.116:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

The text says nothing about individual politicians forming and articulating their opinions on a range of issues according to a religiously-grounded worldview, and to say that it does suggests adherence to a peculiarly aggressive form of secular absolutism. If anything, the Constitution ensures a kind of ideational pluralism, where a host of ideas, creeds, norms and principles – both religious and non-religious – can compete with each other on an equal footing. The infrastructure of the state may be free from formal religious control, certainly; but this in no way means what Morris thinks it means – namely, the public invisibility of religious or spiritual worldviews, or the people who embody them.

Second, in advocating a shift of religion’s place in contemporary Australian life, Morris seems to ignore the very deep roots it has sunk into the country’s political, legal and social landscape. As such, he has de-historicized the country’s institutions, divesting them of their religious-ethical content. I regard it as uncontroversial that Australia’s political culture, its laws and many of its normative principles (whether codified or not) owe a great debt to what might broadly be called its Judeo-Christian heritage. Of course, we are the beneficiaries of a number of intellectual streams, including that constellation of ideas known as the Enlightenment. But it is more than a little churlish to suggest that religion – in this case, Christianity – has no place in the very institutions it helps underpin. No one is suggesting, say, that Christian individuals should be given carte blanche simply because of the spiritual tradition they carry. But again, it would seem intrinsically impossible, given the origins of many of our political and ethical values, to completely leach the public square of religious influence. Calling for politicians to reveal their religious commitments (as they might their financial interests) frames the debate in terms of a basic conflict between one’s spirituality and a fully-orbed devotion to democratic processes. But if what I have said about the foundations of Australia’s political culture is correct, then there is no necessary conflict; quite the opposite, in fact.

* * *

Those like Brian Morris seem to be espousing a revolutionary kind of secularism, which seeks to effect a tectonic change in the conduct of Western politics, and religion’s place in modern society. Unfortunately, Morris badly misconceives both religiosity and secularism, even as he casts himself as the latter’s defender. Calling for elected officials to publicly declare their so-called religious interests – part of a wider attempt to ‘re-position’ religion as a purely private matter – is logistically impractical and intolerably intrusive. It fails to reckon with the ubiquitous reality of a dimension of life that can never be wholly privatized, whilst hollowing out a favoured concept in the interests of zealously prosecuting a particular agenda. Of course, this is not an implicit call for spiritual revanchism; I don’t think we should seek a return to the pre-secular past. That said, Christians ought to be confident as they step out into the public sphere, knowing that the cultural framework is not only not inimical to their values, but owes a great deal to them. The efforts of radical secularists notwithstanding, one’s attempt to influence public discourse or enter the political arena as (say) an avowed Christian is a legitimate enterprise.

Christian Theology and Democratic Politics: Part One

This piece is the first of a series of essays looking at the links between Christian theology and democratic thought. Not only does it contain the first substantive part, but also the introduction to the entire series.


“What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” This question, famously asked by the early church theologian Tertullian, was meant to interrogate the alleged relationship between Hellenistic philosophical methods (“Athens”) and a Christian-revelatory understanding of knowledge (“Jerusalem”). The implication of Tertullian’s rhetorical riposte to those who sought some kind of concord was that no such relationship existed; Christian theology and Greek philosophy were strangers on the road to truth.

The question came to mind as I pondered the relationship between Christianity and democratic politics. It’s particularly apt, since Athens is conventionally seen as the cradle of Western democratic thought – the place where the notion of participatory politics (variously defined) was first nurtured. Has Christianity – “Jerusalem”, in other words – contributed anything to that project? Is it possible to discern traces of Christian thought in the long, winding enterprise we call democracy? Or is the relationship characterised by antagonism and (mutual) misunderstanding? For my money, I think it is possible to uncover ways in which Christian theology has succeeded in shaping democratic political thought. To draw a straight line between the two is, of course, impossible; a number of influences, whether religious, philosophical, historical, economic, cultural or nakedly political, have contributed variously to the evolution of democracy, especially its liberal iterations in modern, Western experience. Although it’s unrealistic to think that those factors can be neatly distinguished, my concerns nonetheless lie with Christianity’s intellectual contribution to the democratic project. Here, I want to substantiate the proposition that Christianity has played an important – one might even say formative – role in the later development of democracy.

As such, if it’s difficult to argue that Christianity did not give rise to democracy in simple, one-dimensional fashion, then I think it’s equally implausible to say that it had nothing, or little, to do with this most cherished of Western inventions. For starters, given that democracy evolved in precisely those nation-states that were, for many centuries, soaked in Christian teaching (however corrupted it may have become), it would seem reasonable to posit some kind of connection. More than that, Christian theology has provided some of the deeper philosophical and ideological resources for later democratic thinking: not the democracy of ancient Athens (which preceded New Testament Christianity by some centuries), but of later stages of thought composing the substructure of Western politics. To be sure, uncovering those resources might require some work, so much of it being latent. Rather than forming part of the democratic superstructure (like voting and fixed terms for elected individuals), Christian theology helped form the bedrock of thinking that eventually produced ideas, individuals and institutions explicitly committed to many of those features we normally associate with modern democracy. Instead of being responsible for any one element of democratic politics, it is truer to say that Christianity fostered a culture conducive to this kind of political arrangement in the first place. It was, in other words, the seedbed in which democracy, watered and nurtured by further streams of thought, came to flourish.

The complicated, circuitous (though nonetheless strong) relationship between Christianity and democracy is one caveat that I wish to include. There are, however, others. Whilst I will point out the multifarious connections between Christian theology and democratic thought – such that the roots of democracy could even be said to have been nourished by religious doctrine – I am also aware that the church has had something of a chequered history when it comes to the evolution of Western political systems. Far from being a champion of liberty and equality, it has seemingly been a purveyor of tyranny, oppression and rigid hierarchy. Rather than furthering the cause of democracy, it has often seemed to have a retarding effect on its advance. I am certainly aware of the criticism, and wish to take it seriously (often made by rabid atheists, who seek to divest Western culture of anything resembling positive Judeo-Christian content). I also want to take seriously the beneficial influences of other intellectual and cultural traditions upon the evolution of democracy. I do not intend to claim that Christian thought and theology is uniquely responsible for the modern Western system of democratic government that many of us enjoy today. Such an assertion is not only supremely arrogant; it is also patently false. That said, only wilful blindness – a consequence, perhaps, of the searing glare of ideology – could lead one to deny the bequests Christianity has made to Western political thought.

As yet another qualification, I must also acknowledge the ambiguous relationship between ideas and history generally. This phenomenon presents itself in the form of two main contentions, both of which are germane. First, one might argue that I am implicitly trading in abstractions of both Christianity and democracy, without attending to their diverse historical incarnations. Some might even argue that such “Platonic forms” do not exist at all; only the relative, and relatively messy, examples of what we have come to call Christianity and democracy have any purchase on reality, forever eluding universal definition. Second, I could be accused of failing to appreciate the complex historical circumstances surrounding the development of democracy. One might suggest that what follows ignores the myriad forces related to democracy’s evolution, as well as the vicissitudes of concrete historical experience, which blunts the otherwise marked influence of pure ideas. To be sure, I am cognizant of falling into the trap of some sort of idealism, without according due respect to history. And although my reflections will concentrate largely on the ideational structure of the connection between Christianity and democratic thought (whilst occasionally referring to the way it has manifested itself historically), I am sensitive to the ever-present influence of the often piecemeal, inchoate nature of so much of history. I certainly do not want to neglect the historical-cultural matrix, especially as it pertains to the development of Christian dogma and its relationship with democracy.

At the same time, however, I am no historicist, and I think that ideas – complexes of coherent intellectual concepts, formed with intentionality and deliberation – can, and indeed do, participate in the trajectory of the historical process. Similarly, it is possible, even advisable, to try and define Christianity and democracy (even at the risk of illegitimate abstraction). Unless we’re prepared to give up the pursuit and propagation of truth through language, then we must accept that words have limited fields of meaning. For present purposes, then, when I speak of Christianity, I am thinking of a religious and theological tradition that accords primacy to the Bible as a divinely-ordained witness to God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ, and which holds to the major creeds of the early church. Furthermore – and despite its own diverse traditions – I think democracy (at least in its modern, Western, liberal guises) could be minimally defined as an institutional, political and philosophical concept that variously combines the following features: the rule of law; accountable government as an expression of the people’s will; legal and political equality; and the separation of political power, such that no one branch of government has unmitigated pre-eminence. Words, like suitcases, can carry a great deal, and these ones – “Christianity” and “democracy” – carry at least the kinds of contents I’ve just described.

Some Focal Images

So much for clearing the decks. How might the influence of Christianity upon democratic politics be detected today – if not in explicit statements of ideals, but in the marrow of Western political culture? I propose to examine this question through several focal images, each of which crystallizes the deep connections between Christian theology and dogma, on the one hand, and crucial features of later democracy on the other. Those images can be described as follows: the transcendence of law; servant leadership; human dignity in excelsis; a new way of social ordering; and the plurality of the triune God. Though distinct, they are, as we’ll see, deeply interrelated. In this first Part, I shall concentrate on the rule of law.

Part One: The Transcendence of Law 

Christianity has often appeared to have an ambivalent relationship to the concept of law, especially as it manifests itself in the various legal codes of the OT. In certain parts of popular evangelicalism, valuing the law means flirting with legalism; it was just such an attitude that saw the Jews reject Jesus (so it is argued), spurning the grace of God in an effort to merit their own salvation. Other streams of Christianity recognize, as the first Christians did, the ongoing relevance of the law. Thus, for example, the Gospel tradition preserved Jesus’ own declaration that he came, not to abolish the law, but to “fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17). The complexities involved in interpreting this statement are legion; but at the very least, it suggests the enduring importance of law, even in the new dispensation inaugurated through the ministry of Christ. Further, a letter like James indicates that the primacy of the law, however its appropriation may have changed as a result of the advent of Christ, was something to which the early church adhered. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James’ condemnation of partiality in the church is grounded in an extended application of the OT law of neighbour love (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Jas 2:8ff). This and other admonitions reflect James’ broader dependence on Torah, particularly in the realm of social concern (cf. 1:25, 27; 2:8-12). How the notion of “ongoing relevance” is parsed remains a thorny issue, to be sure; but the theological and legal traditions the early church inherited when it appropriated the Hebrew Scriptures has ensured the enduring transmission of those texts – as well as the basic moral and political precepts they embody – throughout much of Western history. The influence of a Jewish – and subsequently Christian – understanding of law upon democratic thought extends, not merely to individual strictures or ordinances, but to the entire conceptual architecture of biblical legal thinking, and its importance to the ordering of a political community.

The transcendence of law is a necessary (though by no means sufficient) condition for the flourishing of a democratic political culture. It is certainly crucial to the establishment of a democratic framework that safeguards individual rights and substantiates equality of all citizens within a particular polity. Law’s supremacy ensures that people’s activities are judged and regulated, not according to the arbitrary whims of a capricious ruler or state system, but within the context of a transcendent and impersonal legal framework to which all are subject. It affords people predictability in their dealings with each other and with the state, where disputes and disagreements may be resolved with relative transparency. Meanwhile, it constrains behaviour (including governmental behaviour), which might otherwise undermine the basic aspirations of a polity that seeks to guarantee political equality and the integrity of its citizenry. Thus, the codification of an abstract body of law is absolutely essential to the ordered functioning of a community, holding together its diverse parts in relative harmony. As Hayek said, “Only the existence of common rules makes the peaceful existence of individuals possible”. Modern theories of constitutionalism owe something to this principle: a king or government that operates according to a prior legal structure (i.e., a constitution) is one whose behaviour is regulated. The rule of law tames governmental and state institutions, and the community itself is ultimately “constituted”, not by any one individual, or even by a cabal of individuals, but by an originating framework which stands supreme (even where it has been formulated by such a cabal).

Without the sovereignty of law, one of two states may prevail: either anarchy or tyranny, both of which are inimical to democracy. First, there is anarchy. The absence of a supreme legal code, siting above the diverse (and sometimes discordant) desires and goals of which a putative community is composed, can lead to the breakdown of civil order. Such a framework helps restrain and harmonise potentially conflictual interests that individuals seek to pursue. Remove it, and those interests are left to mutate, even metastasize, in a chaotic and wanton fashion. In such an environment, where law’s restraining power is non-existent, the powerful are able to dominate and exploit the weak, thereby destroying any aspirations towards political equality or individual liberty. All this may be news to devotees of anarchism, who naively believe that humanity’s fundamental goodness is such that the broad architecture of law is unnecessary, or even oppressive. But even a cursory glance at those states that have experienced the dissolution of law and order provides some evidence that apart from law, individual and communal existence rapidly descends into a Hobbesian state of nature. Here, the frail are preyed upon by the strong, and an enervating suspicion of one’s fellows (beyond, perhaps, family or kin) abounds.

Second, tyranny. A despotic ruler is well poised to use his power to establish himself as the embodiment, the very repository, of all legal wisdom. Law no longer possesses a transcendent reality apart from any one individual; on this view, it, too, it is subject to the impulses of a single ruling power (whether this is an individual or a clique of individuals). Again, empirical and historical evidence – not to mention a basic conceptual understanding of different political forms – suggests that despotic rule is antithetical to a democratic culture that affords each individual a degree of security, personal liberty, or the privilege of political participation. In those polities that are dominated by a single, tyrannical leader, the law is reduced to a plaything – the existence of which cannot be separated from those who claim to manifest it in themselves. Whereas anarchy represents the radical pluralization of law, such that everyone is a law unto themselves, tyranny substitutes that for a comprehensive legal monism, where all power to establish the boundaries of lawful (and unlawful) behaviour is focused in the person or body that rules. He, or they, sit atop whatever legal strictures have been enacted, untrammelled by any kind of institutional constraints. In either case, the suppression or contravention of individual rights, and the denial of democratic co-operation, is likely to swiftly occur.

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Of course, the normative character of law cannot, by itself, quarantine democratic politics from Charybdis of anarchy and the Scylla of tyranny. Its mere presence is not enough to guarantee either adherence or harmony; here, an anarchic state of affairs is a constant threat. And, as noted, law itself is susceptible to use as a weapon by tyrants and dictators, and can become an unwitting agent in the attempt to legitimise the suppression of a person or people. Nevertheless, the rule of law – that is, the law as king – is of fundamental importance, providing a necessary pre-condition for successful navigation between these twin dangers. And it is this idea of law’s supremacy, to which every member of the community is accountable, that finds expression in the establishment and development of biblical law. There, the law maintained a pristine transcendence over every individual, and, as the Pentateuch has it, helped to constitute the very community of God. Both its identity and its status as a coherent entity were (in principle) safeguarded and substantiated by the law’s normative character. Here, we see the ancient stirrings that subsequently found expression in later constitutionalism. It was the law that bound the community together – an integrated body of people, drawn together through mutual deference to common rule. One only needs to glance at, say, Deuteronomy 4:1-14, to recognize the function of the law’s paramountcy over, beneath and within the redeemed community.

Importantly, even the king of Israel himself, who was otherwise well-positioned to test the law’s sovereignty, was subject to it. Deuteronomy 17:14-20, which functions as a kind of charter for kingship, is crucial to understanding this point. There, the people of Israel are told that if they desire to have a king rule over them upon entering the land, that man is to be selected by Yahweh (vv.14-15). After prohibiting any future regnant from accumulating too much wealth – lest he rise too far above his compatriots (vv.16-17) – Moses (assuming for the moment Mosaic authorship) commands complete royal devotion to the law he is propounding (vv.18-20). A prospective king is to assiduously study the law, so that he may come to know and obey it. However, what is most important is the assumption lying behind these strictures – namely, that the king does not create the law; he, along with every other Israelite, is to submit to it. The OT scholar Gordon Wenham suggests that this way of conceiving of the role and nature of law within a political community was unique to ancient Israel. In contrast to the nations and kingdoms of Mesopotamia, where the king was the author of law (and, to that extent, the author of ethical reality), an Israelite king was himself a subject – subject to the overarching covenantal legal code instituted by Yahweh, whose character formed the basis for its own, enduring transcendence. In theory at least, biblical law was meant to regulate and restrain behaviour – even the behaviour of those residing in the upper echelons of power – precisely because they themselves depended for their authority on that which was both more fundamental and utterly supreme. Indeed, we witness the unfolding of the principle of law’s supremacy over the Israelite community – not to mention the king himself – in later OT history. Even a cursory glance at the books of Kings and Chronicles reveals that the various kings were evaluated, not by military prowess or territorial expansion, but by fidelity to a legal code that was greater than themselves. The king lived under the law, to the same extent as the sojourner or servant. The repeated cycles of royal sin and divine judgment testify to the outworking of the idea that not even one so powerful as the ruler of Israel was above it.

In a slightly different – though no less relevant – vein, we see the umbilical link between the absence of law, and the consequent trampling of the rights and dignity of the vulnerable, in the book of Judges. There, in chapters 17-20, we find the repeated refrain, “In those days Israel had no king [everyone did as he saw fit]” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25; I will examine this a little more below). At the time, Israel was operating in a liminal phase of its existence: constituted as a people, identified by its possession of the law, it was not yet a nation in a formal, institutionalised sense. One of the major themes of Judges concerns Israel’s attempts to struggle against both external enemies and internal discord. By the time we reach the end of the book – that is, chapters 17-20 – we are confronted with a poisonous mix of broad-based anarchy and the intimate, personalised tyranny, flowing from a general lawlessness. The twin dangers that inevitably result from the absence of law are on display in this section of Judges, to which the thematic refrain, quoted above, emphatically points. The author laments the fact that the nation had frayed, and the sovereignty of law had been abandoned – such that every man was a law unto himself.

The dark consequences of this chaos are plain, above all, in chapter 19. That passage – which frames the subsequent events by lamenting that Israel had no king (v.1) – sees a travelling Levite giving his concubine over to a group of rapacious men (19:22-26, esp. v.25). In response to her rape (and consequent death), he callously takes her body, dismembers her, and sends the pieces to the various tribes of Israel (vv.29-30). The meaning here is two-fold. First, the concubine’s broken body symbolized the fractured people of Israel, divided and without the unifying presence of the covenantal law. The author appears to be making a point, amongst other things, about the devilishly anarchic implications of the people’s abandonment of the law. However, the author makes a second, and subtler, point, critiquing both the prevailing situation and the Levite’s ruthless actions as a reflection of that situation. Indeed, there is no hint that whoever wrote Judges approved of what the Levite did. Quite the opposite, in fact. He implicitly condemns the priestly man’s actions as just one more example of what happens when anarchy, instead of God and his law, reigns (cf. v.1). Earlier, I spoke about the twin dangers of chaos and tyranny in the absence of a coherent body of law to restrain behaviour and harmonise the diverse members of a community. Here, they both find sad expression in the violent negation of one woman’s dignity and life.

But it should be noted that the author of Judges was not simply longing for a king who would put his despotic stamp upon the nation – thereby swapping the extreme pluralization and privatization of law for totalitarian legal monism. His sad refrain was not merely for the imposition of regal order, by whatever means, but for a righteous royal who would mediate God’s just and wise order to the community by devoting himself to obedience to the divine law. Even for the book of Judges, the law is pre-eminent, and a king is only desirable to the extent that he, too, submits to it. The writer stands against lawlessness and disorder, on the one hand, and the mere presence of a “lawless” ruler, on the other. Underlying his view is a firm belief in the normativity of law – an expression, he might say, of the transcendent God’s character – as something to which all are bound, and upon which the reality of an ordered society is possible.

Law’s sovereignty is incomplete, however, without the accompanying commitment to equal application to all citizens. Actually, it would seem that they go hand-in-hand, for the natural concomitant to an abstract body of legally binding rules is the narrowness of interpretation and application: only those features of a person’s behaviour that are relevant to the rule in question are to be taken into account. Thus, if someone is accused of murder (for example), it is simply irrelevant whether they have white skin or black, or whether they worship Jesus Christ or Vishnu. All that matters is whether they are guilty of breaking the identified rule. For all intents and purposes, legal subjects are abstracted subjects, and it is this abstraction – part of the same foundation upon which modern democracies are constructed – that also helps to protect individuals from arbitrary exercises of power, making predictable the consequences of one’s behaviour (whether for good or for ill).

How much this commitment owes to biblical thought is a question I can’t definitively answer. I merely observe that this, too, is an idea that finds some expression, however it is inflected, in OT legal codes. That is why, for instance, judges are commanded to determine cases with impartiality (Deut 16:18-20). Numbers 15:15-16, 30-31 also provides the raw ingredients for a fully-fledged conception of legal abstraction. There, we find Yahweh laying down instructions for offerings at the Temple. He declares that both native-born Israelites and foreigners are bound by the same rules, and in the same way. Notwithstanding other laws that reflect an imbalance between ethnic Israelites and non-Hebrew foreigners (for instance, some of the laws around slavery; foreigners appear to be a different category of people from aliens, in any case), it would seem here that ethnic and national differences are irrelevant to the duties prescribed for individuals living within the community of Israel. Equality before the law – and with that, equal application of the law – can be seen in verse 15: both types of people, Israelite and non-Israelite, will be the “same before the Lord”. It was precisely because of the law’s overarching role in regulating, prescribing and proscribing behaviour that there was no variance between an Israelite and a member of another tribe living within the confines of the covenant community. Anything less – say, if laws relating to Sabbath-keeping could be applied differently, depending on whether or not the individual was a Hebrew – would have meant the raw primacy of ethnic identity as the foundation of the community (as opposed to the law). Whilst OT law is not framed in so abstract or conceptual a manner, one may discern a relationship between Torah-inspired accounts of law, and later Western legal principles regarding equal application of rules and the fundamental parity of legal subjects.

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OT law operated in a political environment sharply different from what prevails in Western societies today. Ancient Israel was no proto-democracy; it was a theocracy, with the king acting as God’s appointed representative, upholding and exemplifying his law. Further, we must recognize other streams of legal thought, particularly those of Ancient Rome, which have subsequently influenced Western democratic thinking. Nonetheless, we ought to consider the power of the general importance of the biblical concept of law-as-sovereign as it has been transmitted through the various stages of Western political evolution. As but one example, we may cite the framers of the Magna Carta, that great landmark in the development of the Western political system. In an interview with Mercatornet.com, freelance researcher, Thomas Andrew, commented that the charter codified the concept of the rule of law, such that even the king himself was subject to it. But he also suggested that this emphasis had strong theological roots. Medieval thinkers drew on the reflections of St. Augustine, whose writings on law and justice found their way into a conception of human authority – even royal authority – that was subordinated to law. This principle was eventually enshrined in the Magna Carta, reflecting the influence of both Christian theologizing and ecclesiastical influence. But of course, the views of Augustine and others were shaped by, and soaked in, the concerns and emphases of Scripture. The esteemed place that law occupies in the OT was woven into the very structures of Western legal and political thinking as a result.

Even if it has shed its explicitly religious trappings (e.g., its identity as the expression of God’s character and will for his people), the concept of the law’s supremacy, when transposed into a secular key, provides the basis for an ordered community, in which no one individual – and no one body – may act with unrestrained power. To be sure, one may question the ultimate basis upon which a secular society constructs a transcendent legal framework in the absence of an ethical standard that is itself grounded in God. However, the notion of law’s normative status certainly bears the hallmarks of an OT (and subsequently Christian) understanding of the concept. Despite having moved away from an explicitly Christian view of the world, secular Western societies have nonetheless retained and developed the idea that law exercises sovereign influence over all people, and that an ordered political community requires adherence to a legal code beyond the reach of even the most powerful institution or individual (with the caveat that it may be changed only in accordance with a pre-existing body of law, and only in accordance with a strict set of rules that limit legislative caprice). Indeed, the normativity of law has engrained itself into the political culture and the collective consciousness of the West, providing a necessary plank in a foundation which undergirds institutional restraint and respect for individual dignity.

The Monk and the Atheist (and no, it’s not the Beginning of a Joke…)

Richard Dawkins is perhaps the world’s most famous atheist. He might not be the most insightful, or the most learned, however. Indeed, when it comes to fields beyond his own expertise, evolutionary biology, he is clearly out of his depth. Unfortunately, he seems not to realize it, making confident pronouncements on a range of subjects about which he knows very little. His so-called “analysis” of Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways, found in his screed The God Delusion (hereafter, TGD),[1] is a case-in-point: at just about every stage, he evinces a thorough lack of understanding of the good monk’s arguments for the existence of God. The mind boggles at how such an eminent public intellectual, who has enjoyed a glittering career communicating the seemingly opaque truths of science to a wide audience, can misread and misunderstand arguments that have been propounded, debated, analysed and scrutinised for more than 700 years. One wonders why the (now retired) Oxford academic couldn’t have simply walked across to, say, Blackfriars College[2] and asked a resident theologian for an accurate summary of Aquinas’ thought. I’m sure they would have obliged.

Dawkins explores Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God as a way of opening the chapter in TGD that purports to deal with the main rational and philosophical defences of theistic belief. Wading through his analysis makes one wish that he had excised this section from the book entirely; at least that would have been a more honest way of signalling to the audience that one is not interested in anything the opposing side might have to say. In any case, given my own interest in cosmological arguments, I thought that a sustained examination of Dawkins’ attempted critique of the Thomistic variety was appropriate – if for no other reason than to try and re-assure those who may have been overawed by his fame, and overwhelmed by his bluster.

In the relevant section of TGD, Dawkins attempts to critically analyse all of Aquinas’ Five Ways. However, only the first three “Ways” could be called cosmological arguments in any sense, and it is upon these that I shall focus. Dawkins simply conflates them, at one point writing that “they are different ways of saying the same thing” (emphasis mine); this, despite the fact that they are actually subtly different attempts to reason from various empirical observations, via metaphysical principles, and ultimately to God (perhaps the good Mr Dawkins isn’t really interested in subtle thinking – or charitable interpretation – when it comes to theological matters and theistic arguments. No…perish the thought!).[3] There are several reasons why I think Dawkins’ arguments against Aquinas’ “proofs”[4] fail (and do so ignominiously), leading one to the sobering conclusion that they are essentially worthless. One advantage of Dawkins’ sloppy conflation of Aquinas’ cosmological arguments is that my rebuttals are equally relevant to each one. As such, my remarks may be seen as generally applicable, though I will signal any specific references to one of Aquinas’ first three Ways. A quick caveat before we get started: this is not meant to be a complete exposition and defence of Aquinas’ cosmological arguments. Even though it will be necessary to explore elements of his metaphysics in some detail, my primary purpose is to expose the fallacies and misunderstandings contained within Dawkins’ attempted critique. It will be easiest if I simply enumerate my objections in sequence.

First, Dawkins seems, wrongly, to assume that Aquinas was interested in trying to argue against an infinite regress – at least, if one uses that term in a chronological sense, stretching backwards through time. He writes that Aquinas’ cosmological arguments “rely upon the idea of a regress, and invoke God to terminate it”. It seems clear that Dawkins employs the term in just such a chronological sense, because further on, he compares the Thomistic solution to the impermissibility of a regress with the Big Bang. The Big Bang is currently seen as the best explanation for how our universe began. But of course, it takes its place at the head of a causal sequence stretching across time, via the various stages of cosmic development. On several occasions, Dawkins refers to the supposed importance of this regress, and the claimed absurdity of such a phenomenon, to Aquinas’ argument(s). But this is quite misleading. Aquinas never relies upon the idea of an infinite regress, and whatever mileage one might get out of claiming that such a phenomenon is nonsensical is irrelevant to his purposes. Here is how W.P. Carvin, a philosopher of religion, describes Aquinas’ view, in reference to the argument for the Unmoved Mover, or First Way:

“…Aquinas was [not] thinking in terms of a ‘billiard ball’ theory of motion, where to say that ‘everything that moves is caused by something else in motion’ is to think of an endless chain of billiard balls stretching back into infinity, each one hitting the next forever. There would be no logical reason for there not to be an infinite chain of such billiard balls…”

This is exactly correct. Substitute “discrete cosmic events” for “billiard balls”, commencing with either the Big Bang or God as the “first member” of that causal chain, and you’d have a fair interpretation of what Dawkins thinks Aquinas is saying. And if Aquinas was arguing against an infinite regress of the kind upon which Dawkins bases his critique, then the English anti-theist might have a point. There would be no clear reason to think that whatever initiated this causal sequence was God – or if it was, that this God was required for anything more than the first step in that process. Indeed, as Carvin asserts (perhaps over-stating his case), there would be no logical reason to think that this kind of causal series cannot stretch backwards into infinity. But, as Carvin also suggests, this fails to see what the good monk was attempting to do. For one thing, when he speaks of “moving” and “motion” in the First Way, Aquinas uses those terms in much the same way as we might employ the word “change”. As such, he is not simply referring to the type of movement to which the billiard ball analogy would be universally applicable. For another, Aquinas’ analysis in the First Way, in addition to analysing local motion (movement from one place/location to another) refers to simultaneous, instrumental change. He talks of a present regress of causes, going downwards, through ever deeper layers of reality – not a succession of discrete events, going backwards in time. Contrary to what Dawkins seems to imply, Aquinas is not analysing a sequentially ordered series of change and causation (at least in the First and Second Ways) in an effort to provide a metaphysical account of these phenomena. Take, for example, a person playing hockey. The competitor uses a hockey stick to guide and manipulate a ball to wherever he wants it to go. The hockey stick itself functions as an instrument in the player’s hands, driving the ball forward. Thus, the ball, the hockey stick and the hands are working in a simultaneous causal relationship. There is also a relationship of instrumental dependence existing between these members: the hand is driven (“actualised”, to use the appropriate jargon) by the muscles, which are in turn actualised by the player’s nervous system, which are upheld by his physical structure, which is itself upheld by its atomic structure, gravity, the weak and strong forces, and so on. All of this occurs in the present, simultaneously, with each member necessarily dependant on others for its causal power. What we have, then, is a seamless ribbon of activity and actualisation. Talk of infinite regresses, as least in a temporal sense, is wide of the mark.

Even worse for Dawkins is the fact that in none of the relevant Ways was Aquinas hugely interested in whether or not, say, the universe had a beginning in time. In fact, as some philosophers have pointed out (e.g., Edward Feser), he didn’t think that the temporal beginning of the universe was something that could be demonstrated philosophically – and argued that it would still require a cause, even if were itself infinite. That alone should call into question Dawkins’ invocation of the Big Bang as a possible solution to the problem Aquinas posed; to raise it as a possible alternative to Aquinas’ view is, apart from anything else, simply irrelevant, precisely because the putative beginnings of the universe, or the manner in which it came into existence, or whether it came into existence at all (as opposed to being a necessarily existent “object”) are not issues to which Aquinas is trying to provide an answer. Moreover, as the hockey player example suggests, Aquinas’ argument does not require something as grand as the universe for explanatory purchase; the everyday objects of our experience are sufficient as a basis for its deployment. Invoking the Big Bang as some kind of explanatory rival to God for the beginning of our universe is to commit a category mistake (and arbitrarily fails to apply the causal principle to that particular event). So again, it is quite clear that Dawkins simply hasn’t done his homework.

The regress to which Aquinas refers, and which forms basis for the second half of his Unmoved Mover argument (i.e., the First Way), is one that, as I have noted, goes downwards through the various strata, or layers, that compose the reality within which we exist. The hockey player example, which I outlined above, is once more apt. And because Aquinas is talking about a hierarchical-instrumental, and not a temporal-sequential, regress, he argues that it must, of necessity, terminate in a Prime or Unmoved (that is, unchanged and unchangeable) Mover. His argument is that every other so-called “cause” in a particular causal chain is derivative, in that each does not possess independent causal power. Strictly speaking (so Aquinas says), it is only the First Mover that really causes anything at all. Remove that cause, and the entire sequence fails to become extant (I should also point out that in using the word “First” to describe this Mover, I am not thereby implying that it is simply the first in an ordinal series. Rather, I am using it in the sense of “primary” or “most fundamental”). Every subsequent cause depends on that first “movement”, for in its absence, there would be no such causes.

Think of it this way, as Aquinas did. He argues that there are basically two types of causal series: ones that are accidentally arranged; and ones that are essentially arranged. An example of the former type would be the relationships forming a genealogical line of fathers and sons: Kent begets Wayne, who begets Clark, who begets Bruce, and so on. But Bruce’s ability to in turn beget a son does not depend on the existence or activity of Kent. Kent could have long since died by the time Bruce got around to having any sons at all (for that matter, Wayne and Clark could have long since perished, too; this would not prevent Bruce from having children). The various parts of this causal series are accidentally arranged – not in the sense that they have been randomly or haphazardly thrown together without deliberation or foresight, but because the latter members of the sequence do not depend on the earlier members for their causal power (in this case, the generation of children). The hockey player analogy is an example of the latter type of causal series, which is essentially arranged: each member would be bereft of any causal power at all if not for the earlier members (“earlier” in a metaphysical, rather than a temporal, sense). What power they do have is derived or secondary; remove (say) the hand gripping the hockey stick, and both the hockey stick and the ball cease their activity. Remove an individual’s atomic structure, and he, along with the ball and hockey stick, will all cease “causing” or “moving” anything at all. From his references to modern cosmology, it is apparent that Dawkins is implicitly thinking of the former type of causal series when he refers to an infinite regress. However, on the assumption that Aquinas is thinking of essentially ordered causal series – where concurrently extant causes form a simultaneous sequence in the present, such that the removal of the earliest member would lead to the collapse of the series in its entirety – it would appear to be the case that an infinite regress would not be possible, even in principle. The philosopher, Edward Feser, puts it this way:

“What Aquinas is saying, then, is that it is in the very nature of causal series ordered per se [i.e. essentially] to have a first member, precisely because everything else in the series only counts as a member in the first place relative to the actions of the first cause. To suggest that such a series might regress infinitely, without a first member, is therefore simply unintelligible”.

Similarly, David Oderberg, in commenting on Aquinas’ First Way, suggests that an essentially ordered series is one where there is, as I have noted, a relation of instrumental dependence, in which members in that series would not be able to do or to actualise anything apart from the causal power of earlier members (which, in the final analysis, would also be derived). A causal series of this nature would, for want of a better word, be “rootless”, in that it would have no metaphysical foundation upon which to become extant. Oderberg asserts that even if (say) the universe were eternal, and had no beginning, it certainly does not preclude the possibility of a first member, the existence of which is metaphysically necessary – not to mention metaphysically (as opposed to temporally) prior – for the existence of such a universe.

Second, Dawkins thinks that Aquinas is far too hasty in arguing that this Unmoved Mover (or, if one were to apply this to the Second Way, a First Cause) is to be identified with, or given the appellation of, God. According to Dawkins, Aquinas is simply “conjuring up a terminator…and giving it a name…” and of capriciously “calling it [i.e. the terminator] God”. Anyone reading Dawkins’ appraisal of Aquinas’ arguments would come away with the impression that the good monk has simply leapt on the apparent problem of an infinite regress (misconceived by Dawkins, in any case), and arbitrarily invoked an already worked-out concept of God. Now, I cannot avoid pointing out the asinine attempt to pit theism and the Big Bang against each other, as Dawkins does. It’s clear that he doesn’t understand at all the difference between these two types of explanation. The former is a metaphysical argument; the latter is a probabilistic hypothesis that seeks to explain physical phenomena, and which is itself in need of explanation (as I noted above). As a result, Dawkins’ comparison is entirely unwarranted, since the two explanations function in different ways, and at different levels. Be that as it may, Dawkins is simply wrong to think that Aquinas has hastily, and arbitrarily, invoked God as an explanatory agent. According to Aquinas, whatever else God is, he is that which the cosmological arguments he uses say he[5] would have to be. In the case of the First Way, for example, the Unmoved Mover is a being of pure actuality (to massively simplify this concept, it is the argument that the Unmoved Mover contains within himself no potentiality – in other words, no change, and nothing that needs to be actualised by something else. It is “pure act” in the sense of being fully and completely actualised, possessing no “latent” qualities or potential for change). It is the only way, according to Aquinas, that “movement” (i.e., change) can take place in the world. In saying that this is what all people know as God, Aquinas is suggesting that whatever else people mean by the label “God”, he would have to be (a) Being of pure act – changeless in himself, but effecting and guaranteeing change in other, contingent, things. The conclusion of, say, Aquinas’ First Way leads one to an Ultimate Mover; and it is this “Mover”, being ultimate, that Aquinas argues is identified with God.

Perhaps a couple of examples will suffice to demonstrate the shallowness of Dawkins’ critique at this point. Edward Feser, for instance, has said that Dawkins’ complaint is akin to someone who, when confronted with a three-sided polygon, suggests that it’s arbitrary to call such a figure a “triangle”, and that it would be more parsimonious to “conjure up a point or a line” instead.[6] For a three-sided polygon just is a triangle; it is simply the nature of things for such a state of affairs to obtain. It’s not gratuitous to apply this term to such a shape, any more than suggesting that an Unmoved Mover would have to be identified with the notion of God as the ultimate explanation of (in this case) the various contingent instances of change or causation in the world.

My own example might also help to shed light on Dawkins’ error. Suppose that your mother is the only parent in your life, and that it has been this way for as long as you can remember. Suppose, too, you know that, although your mother bore you, she did not generate you by herself; there was another individual involved in that process. Let us also assume, for the sake of argument, that you do not have (complete) knowledge of your own origins, as well as the biological processes by which human individuals come into being in the first place. Now, you might be encouraged to embark on a journey of discovery: reading whatever material you can lay your hands on in an effort to discover how it is that people come to be, and even attempting to find the mysterious individual who was personally responsible (along with your mother) for your generation. Imagine that you find this person, and, having arrived at some understanding of how human beings are generated, recognize him as the person who was a partner in your creation – in other words, the one whose own genetic material was combined with material from your mother to eventually form you. What would you call this man (and a man he would have to be)? You would, of course, call him father, for that is what he would be. Your journey of discovery leads inexorably to the conclusion that, whatever else this individual might be – short, skinny, and battling a nasty case of halitosis – he just is your father. By definition, a father is a man who has a child; apart from any other qualities, this is the necessary, essential relationship he would have to the individual he helped generate. You could hardly be accused of conjuring up the figure of a father, or of using the word indiscriminately, in order to explain the role this man played in your generation. The nature of things means that it could not be otherwise. And anyone arguing that you’re guilty of haste, arbitrariness or caprice would be, shall we say, a little wide of the mark.

Hopefully, it’s clear by now where I am going with this. As you might have come to the inexorable conclusion that the man involved in your generation is necessarily your father; and just as you would unavoidably have to call a three-sided shape a triangle; so Aquinas’ cosmological arguments – to the extent that they are sound – inevitably lead to the conclusion that, whatever else one means by the appellation “God”, identifying it with the so-called Unmoved Mover (to refer to the good monk’s First Way) is not arbitrary, but metaphysically required. This Unmoved Mover – this ultimate explanation for why change occurs at all – is by definition God, in the same way that the man who helped create you just is your father. “God,” it should be said, is not a proper name, any more than “father” is. Rather, it is meant to capture the notion of an ultimate ground of being, change and causation; the final (or first) foundation upon which all reality sits. Aquinas’ arguments, to the extent that they succeed, lead to this Being as the referent to which “God” – whatever else people may imagine when they use that term – points.

Third, Dawkins’ own conception of God, which he uses to try and argue against the likelihood of the “God hypothesis”, is, as we shall see, hopelessly confused. The problem begins when he discusses Aquinas’ Ways and the issue of the infinite regress. There, he argues that defenders of theism “make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God is immune to the regress”, presaging a fuller treatment of what he considers his signature anti-theistic argument. It makes its appearance later in the book, and the English anti-theist even helpfully distinguishes it in the index of TGD (see ‘argument, author’s central, 188-9’). The basic thrust of Dawkins’ thesis is that any God capable of creating the cosmos would have to be at least as complex as the results of his creative activity, and as such, would have to be at least as improbable (if not more so). In discussing the so-called “Goldilocks Zone” within which the emergence of life is made possible, Dawkins writes that any god capable of calibrating the many variables of our cosmos to produce such a habitable zone “would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself [the so-called “six numbers” that refer to cosmological constants necessary for life], and that’s very improbable indeed”. Later, he repeats this assertion, arguing that “God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain”. And in challenging theologians and theistic philosophers to answer his seemingly insuperable charge, Dawkins asks how they cope with the argument that this god must be supremely complex and unlikely: “need[ing] an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?”

Dawkins goes on to dismiss the efforts of theistic scholars like Richard Swinburne, who he says unjustifiably invoke the notion of divine simplicity to try and avoid the problem he has posed. According to Dawkins, Swinburne (for example) has utterly failed to provide proof that God would have to be “simple”, and suggests that this simply (pardon the pun) couldn’t be the case. Sounding like a broken record, he insists that this God would need a “mammoth explanation” of his own. All of this is deeply relevant to Dawkins’ attempted critique of Aquinas, for two reasons: on the one hand (and as we have seen), he thinks that Thomistic arguments for the existence of God are just as vulnerable to his central thesis as are those of a more modern “bent”; and on the other hand, it is well-known that Aquinas was a great exponent of the doctrine of divine simplicity, which is precisely the doctrine Dawkins derides as a gratuitous non-solution to the “problem” of divine complexity and improbability.

In regards to the former point, I have already noted how Dawkins’ critique seems to trade on a very simplistic – nay, incoherent – concept of God. That he could even countenance the idea that this “god” would himself require an explanation shows us that Dawkins is very far from the final explanation that Aquinas’ “Unmoved Mover” or “First Cause” seeks to provide. If Aquinas is correct, then the kind of god that is reached by his cosmological arguments would necessarily be without external explanation. A god who is apparently vulnerable to the irresistible flow of, say, an infinite regress – something Dawkins thinks is a possibility – is no god at all. He might, at best, function as some kind of extra-mundane being, which possesses of a degree of causal power, but which is itself in need of an explanation for its existence. And a “god” like this is a contradiction in terms. Any such being is simply – necessarily – not God; its candidacy for that title would be automatically invalidated by its explanatory “parent” (which, on Dawkins’ logic, would have to cede its position to yet another causal agent, and so on). One ought to remember that for Aquinas, God is the ultimate cause of change in this world, and the ultimate reason for the existence of contingent things. Anything less, and you’d be left with a finite (though perhaps still powerful) entity, whose existence is itself contingent, and whose being relies on something more fundamental than itself. As such, the metaphysical ultimacy inherent within Aquinas’ basic conception of God (and which I would argue is an essential component of any such conception) is utterly absent in the kind of Platonic demiurge with which Dawkins seems to be toying.

Moreover, as Keith Ward has pointed out, Dawkins appears to be allowing a particularly virulent kind of dogmatic materialism to infect his understanding of God. How else does one explain his insistence that any god capable of creating this complex universe would have to be even more complex (and to that extent, improbable)? I couldn’t find any specific justification for this assertion, save for the latent presumption that materialistic reductionism is absolutely and everywhere applicable. It seems that Dawkins cannot avoid analysing reality through the prism of his own philosophical worldview – namely, that all things must have, and be reducible to, a complex physical basis (it’s unclear whether Dawkins thinks that God must, in some sense, be physical; either way, it’s clear that he depends on a thoroughly incoherent idea of what God is). Unfortunately, this is simply assumed, rather than argued, but Dawkins treats it as a universal axiom to which even God is subject. As such, we can add question-begging statements to incoherency on the charge sheet. In any case, it should be clear by now that any god that is mechanically complex in the way Dawkins thinks would have to be composed of parts (whether material and/or metaphysical). But if this is the case, then, as Edward Feser has perceptively suggested, this being “would be metaphysically less fundamental than [said] parts, and would depend on some external principle to account for the parts being combined in the way they are”. And a derivative being like that could not, even in principle, be considered God.

But what of the latter point, namely, that the notion of divine simplicity is some kind of ad hoc attempt to ward off the disarming power of Dawkins’ central thesis? Well, it should be borne in mind that the doctrine of divine simplicity – whether in its ancient or modern iterations – was not cooked up as a way of answering the challenges of Oxford atheists. Rather, it is presented as something that follows organically, so to speak, from (in this case) the basic groundwork laid down by Aquinas’ first three “Ways”. As I said, that God is simple is an idea for which Aquinas was well-known – though Dawkins does not seem to make the connection in his analysis. For Aquinas, to say that God is simple is to say that he is in nowise composed of parts (whether physical or metaphysical). Now, it is too difficult to outline the complete case for divine simplicity here; that would entail a detailed exposition of the other Thomistic “Ways”, which would take us too far afield. But even if we were to confine ourselves to the good monk’s cosmological arguments, it is still possible to see how they might lead one to justifiably conclude that God would have to be simple.

For instance, if God is purely actual (as the First Way suggests), then it would seem to follow that he is unchangeable. That is, if God is purely actual, having no unactualised properties within him, then it follows that he cannot undergo change, either of a metaphysical or a physical kind; for change, on a Thomistic view of reality, entails the ontological transition from potentiality to actuality. This implies that God could not be composed of a body, since parcels of matter – out of which bodies are composed – seem universally susceptible to change. This appears to be a constitutional entailment of compositeness, of bits and pieces of physical “stuff” being brought together in different forms. And if God were a composite (likely, on Dawkins’ account), then he would not only owe his existence to something more fundamental than himself, as Edward Feser’s quote above suggests; he would himself be susceptible to change, just as much as the features of his putative creation. Thus, since the First Way suggests God is unchangeable, it also leads one to the justified conclusion that he could not be a conglomeration of various physical elements (thereby ruling out the idea that God might be a complex entity – and to that extent, improbable). Similarly, if God is imperishable and necessarily existent (as the Third Way suggests), then he would also have to “exist” outside time – thus, being eternal. To exist within time is to be susceptible to change, generation, decay and corruption, and therefore, to lack necessary existence. This, too, seems to be something inherent in composite “things”. Although it represents a slightly different starting-point, the Third Way also appears to allow Aquinas to say that God is not (materially) composite, but simple.

But in saying (for example) that God is not capable of change, and that he is purely actual (as opposed to being a composite of act and potency), the good monk is also arguing that he, God, is metaphysically simple. It’s impossible to enter into a detailed discussion of this point, given that it deals in some fairly arcane medieval metaphysics. Suffice it to say, however, Aquinas’ conclusions regarding God’s metaphysical simplicity logically emerge from prior arguments regarding his existence – in our case, the first three “Ways”. The upshot of all this is that divine simplicity in no way constitutes some kind of magical invocation, without basis and without reason. Rather, it seems to be an inescapable concomitant of Aquinas’ basic arguments for God’s existence. What is more, denying this tenet leaves one with the kind of incoherent concept that characterises Dawkins’ understanding of the Divine (and which I have already spent time critiquing).


What more can one say? It’s clear that Dawkins has little idea when it comes to Aquinas’ natural theology in general, nor his cosmological arguments in particular. His errors are far from insignificant – as if he were guilty merely of getting a detail wrong here and there. Rather, Dawkins’ writings betray a fundamental lack of understanding, which undermines his attempted critique of Aquinas at a structural level. At one point, he confidently assures his readers that Aquinas’ proofs “are easily…exposed as vacuous”. Having now read his foray into medieval metaphysics and theistic philosophy, I think one would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate epitaph for the English atheist’s own efforts.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006).

[2] One of the main Catholic theological colleges at the university.

[3] The philosopher Edward Feser provides a comprehensive and detailed summary of the Five Ways in his book on Aquinas, called (surprisingly) Aquinas. See Feser, Aquinas (London: Oneworld Publications, 2009), 62-130, and esp. 65-99 for an exposition of the first Three Ways. See also Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), 91-101.

[4] I place “proof” in scare quotes, not because I think Aquinas’ arguments are actually worthless, or do not constitute metaphysical proof for the existence of God, but because I am not assuming this to be the case.

[5] Of course, I do not think that God has a gender, for as God, he is beyond gender. I use this for the sake of convenience.

[6] Feser, The Last Superstition, 100. I have slightly changed the parameters of the example as Feser has used it.

The EAAN and its Critics

One particular argument against philosophical naturalism[1] that I have found persuasive is philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.” He and others have advanced the argument for about twenty years now. The EAAN (as I shall refer to it hence) contends that evolutionary theory, when combined with naturalism, renders the latter unlikely. Some iterations use this initial assertion as a platform for theism. At the very least, the EAAN would suggest that one cannot have rational justification, if naturalism is true, for believing it.

How so? Well, evolutionary processes are not, in the final analysis, interested in truth. Survival and adaptation are the primary goals of evolutionary change, and its primary mechanism, natural selection; truth, if it occurs at all, is a contingent consequence of this process – “subordinated to the utilitarian principle of mere survival,” as theologian Conor Cunningham has written. If nature is all there is (as philosophical naturalism contends) then truth is merely a local affair. It no longer possesses a universal quality, by which individual thoughts may be judged or evaluated, and towards which human minds are inherently oriented. Truth cannot be attained with any degree of confidence, for the cognitive faculties used in its pursuit are the products of a process of natural selection that is, at best, neutral in its stance towards epistemic assurance. Such assurance is subservient to the overriding function of survival. This function entails that true statements about reality might, at times, be harnessed in an organism’s effort to adapt to its environment; however, this isn’t necessarily, or essentially so, for survival might not always “need” truthfulness to prevail. Truth may or may not be associated with adaptive behaviour, for survival and adaptability are bereft of any innate tendency towards it. If error or deceit proves to be more efficient in guaranteeing survival, then they may “win out,” as it were, for natural selection does not “select” for truth. As such, we cannot trust our cognitive capabilities to help us arrive at what is, and according to an evolutionary account of humanity’s intellectual development, we have no warrant for believing naturalism to be true.

On the other hand (so some versions of the argument go), a belief in God – which is, by definition, opposed to naturalism – provides a person with a far stronger foundation for trusting in his cognitive faculties and developing a reasonably (or roughly) accurate picture of the world. This isn’t to say that an individual will always be correct, or that his thought processes will never lead him astray. But, given that we seem naturally to trust in our cognitive and rational abilities, it is suggested that theism, and not naturalism, supplies us with surer epistemic footing.

The EAAN, at least in this iteration, concludes that our abilities to reliably think, reason and hypothesize about the reality we inhabit make better sense in light of the belief in their creation by a God who is omniscient and perfectly rational. If he is the Source of all truth and being, and is the ultimate guarantor of every contingent instantiation of truth; and if human beings have been made to reflect him in some sense (or, at the very least, ultimately owe their intellectual faculties to God); then we are far better off resting upon this belief if we are going to persist in trusting what our minds tell us about the external world. The only alternative, the EAAN would say, is perennial agnosticism and doubt about everything – including naturalism itself.

Various people have attempted to rebut the argument, employing a number of strategies. Two rebuttals that have been penned recently come from Justin Thibodeau and Massimo Pigliucci, both of whom are professional philosophers. In pieces written for their respective blogs, Thibodeau and Piggliuci offer what they believe are defeaters of the EAAN. Now, part of me hesitates in disagreeing with their assessments of Plantinga’s original thesis; after all, they have made careers out of rigorous philosophical thinking, whilst I am simply some guy, sitting in his study, tapping away at a computer. Nevertheless (and despite the appearance of a certain amount of temerity on my part) I shall endeavour to engage with their rebuttals, and point out why I do not think they successfully defeat Plantinga’s EAAN.

Thibodeau’s Thesis

I shall start with Justin Thibodeau. Interestingly, Thibodeau doesn’t deny that evolutionary theory undermines naturalism. He may deny it, but he doesn’t offer any arguments to rebut the contention. Rather, in a short essay entitled “The EAAN Turned on its Head,” he argues that theism doesn’t give us any more warrant for trusting our cognitive faculties than naturalism does. How so? Well, he suggests that it’s entirely possible that God, in his infinite wisdom, has endowed us with unreliable cognitive faculties. With the assistance of sceptical theism, he contends that there may be such reasons, even if we cannot determine what they are. Thibodeau likens this to the reasons why God might permit gratuitous evil: even if there may be no apparent reason for the presence of such horrendous suffering within the world, that doesn’t mean there is no actual reason. According to sceptical theism, the apparent lack of divine purpose behind, say, the Holocaust, or child rape, is due to our cognitive limitations – our inability to discern or comprehend the infinitude of the divine Mind. In other words, because we are finite creatures, we cannot possibly understand all God’s reasons – the infinite Source of all knowledge and wisdom – in allowing so much palpable suffering.

His conclusion is that God may have similarly prevented us from developing reliable cognitive faculties. Like the sceptical theist who argues that God’s permission of gross evil may be due to reasons we cannot comprehend, Thibodeau suggests he has similarly, and mysteriously, truncated humanity’s rational capabilities. Just because we don’t know why doesn’t mean it’s not the case. Here is Thibodeau in his own words:

“But is it true that we should expect God to create creatures with reliable cognitive faculties? Why would we think so? If God had a good reason to create humans with unreliable faculties, then wouldn’t he do that? Perhaps there is some greater good that God can only realize by creating creatures with deficient cognitive faculties… I conclude, therefore, that there is no reason to suppose that God does not have such a reason. If he does have such a reason, then, if theism is true, our cognitive faculties are not reliable. Thus, theism does not account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.”

Earlier in his piece, Thibodeau states that he thinks metaphysical naturalism is “probably true” – in which case, he doesn’t regard it as likely that there is a God who would endow us with faulty intellectual equipment. He’s simply proffering it as a way of suggesting that theism doesn’t give us any greater warrant for trusting in the deliverances of our minds. If his account is correct, then theism offers no more justification than naturalism does for our epistemic confidence.

On the face of it, this seems rather compelling. However, having reflected upon what I take to be the crux of Thibodeau’s thesis, I see a rather glaring problem: it is ultimately self-defeating; that is, by suggesting that God could well have given us unreliable cognitive apparatus, Thibodeau actually undermines the very foundations of his argument.

Let me explain. As I noted, Thibodeau contends that God could well have given us faulty cognitive equipment – in which case, we have no more reason to suppose that equipment is reliable than we would if naturalism were true. But if this is the case, why should we listen to Thibodeau? Why should we put stock in anything he has said on the matter? Perhaps God has endowed us with unreliable intellects and imperfect rational faculties. However, if this is so, we would never be able to know it – precisely because our knowledge of the world has to pass through the “filter” of those same faculties. If they are unreliable, then, we would be unable to determine that for ourselves. An unbridgeable epistemic gap would separate us from the object of our knowledge.

The implications for Thibodeau’s argument are significant. Of course, Thibodeau has simply floated this as a possible notion; it would seem that he is ultimately agnostic on the matter. Even so, one is compelled to ask how, if God has created him with faulty cognitive abilities, he is able to place any trust in his capacity to forms conceptual chains and make the argument he has made? How is he is able to understand and harness the structures of language to formulate coherent statements? Even if he thinks he is using these things with relative precision, what reason does he have for such confidence? Perhaps his own mind is “deceiving” him into thinking that it is reliable. Maybe its unreliability has somehow produced the illusion of dependability (if that is how God has willed it to be). And why should his audience have any trust that he has reasoned correctly, or that it has comprehended his contention accurately? Indeed, if Thibodeau’s argument is correct, and God has, for whatever reason, made humans with unreliable intellectual powers, it logically entails an intrinsic lack of confidence in said argument. If this sounds self-contradictory, you’d be correct: it is self-contradictory. Such a claim is like the man who says that everything he utters is a lie, for both Thibodeau’s contention and the hypothetical man’s statement collapse in on themselves. More than that, it is akin to the mendacious gentleman always speaking to people who willfully misunderstand everything they hear. Thus, if Thibodeau is correct, we not only have no way of knowing this to be the case; we have no reason for trusting his – or our own – ability to arrive at a rational determination regarding its truth.

One can quite easily extrapolate this argument. For if it is the case that God may well have given humans unreliable cognitive equipment, there is no reason whatsoever to have confidence in anything. It places at risk, not only sophisticated philosophical arguments or complex scientific hypotheses, but also the mundane instances of rational understanding – those which allow us to read a street sign, or infer from the smell of gas in the kitchen that the stove might be on, or make a clear distinction between conscious and unconscious states (i.e. whether one is sleeping or awake). The entire edifice of our mental lives breaks down; it is impossible to discern how deep the cognitive “rot” goes, for the only way to even begin to determine the answer to that question is via…our rational faculties. Simply claiming that our basic senses are self-evidently reliable (if not perfect) will not do; for if God has created us with imperfect cognitive faculties, then any assertion to the contrary, based on their apparent reliability for daily tasks, can simply be dismissed – or met with serious agnosticism – as just another possible manifestation of fundamentally flawed intellects.

This wider problem is not unique to Thibodeau’s main thesis, for it is something that, according to proponents of the EAAN, also afflicts philosophical naturalism. However, it does deepen the problems the contention in question faces. For instance, Thibodeau has relied, as I said, on his ability to grasp concepts, form chains of reasoning, and comprehend the meaning of language. But these abilities do not stand in isolation; manifested in his essay, they are simply present instantiations of an intellectual “stream” that began many years before. Indeed (and to change the metaphor), they are inescapably built upon the simpler acts of reasoning, perception and comprehension in which we all engage. However, if God has created humans in the way Thibodeau (hypothetically) suggests, then not only his argument, but everything upon which it is based, should be treated as unreliable. His basic intellectual skills, developed over a number of years, are to be handled with just as much suspicion as the higher-level reasoning he has employed in constructing the argument under discussion.

To sum up: Thibodeau may have offered an imaginative response to Plantinga’s EAAN, but for the reasons I have outlined above, I believe it to be self-refuting. His argument reflects an implicit faith in the reliability of his cognitive faculties. In this, I heartily join him; the supposition that they are reliable is, I believe, basic common sense. But if they are dependable – as Thibodeau seems to believe – then it is unlikely that God, if he exists, has created humans in the way Thibodeau imagines. Otherwise, he has no business making his argument in the first place. Such is the conundrum. Therefore, I believe that turning the EAAN on its head, as Thibodeau has tried to do, fails to work. Plantinga’s original contention, at least from this rebuttal, remains safe.

Massimo’s Musings on the EAAN

So much for Justin Thibodeau. What about Massimo Pigliucci? I have to say that when I first read his piece, I thought that he had provided what amounted to an unassailable rebuttal to the EAAN. Now, having read it over a few times, I do not think the arguments he presents are necessarily insurmountable. It’s still very impressive – and, at the very least, has taught me to slow down, step back, and think more carefully about arguments that may, in the past, have won my immediate assent. So it is in that vein that I engage with what he has written.

Firstly, I think that Pigliucci has misunderstood the nature of Plantinta’s argument. He seems to be implying that it is a “formal argument in logic,” before going on to say that Plantinga’s conclusions in no way follow the premises outlined. Indeed, Piggliuci faults Plantinga for arbitrarily proposing theism as an explanation for the reliability of our cognitive faculties. He writes:

“For instance, there is no non-arbitrary reason to think that God created us in his image (what, just because it says so in a book written by unknown human beings thousands of years ago?), nor that “in his image” ought to include the ability to form reliable beliefs about the world. After all, there are a number of respects in which God did not bother to make us similar to himself (omnipotence, for instance; not to mention that he likely doesn’t have nipples), so why arbitrarily assume that reliability of beliefs is one such aspect? It certainly doesn’t follow from the premises of the EAAN.(Emphasis mine).

Now, I concur with Pigliucci that Plantinga has hastily employed biblical language to describe the possibility that God has created beings with reliable cognitive equipment. “In his image” is clearly drawn from Genesis 1:26-27, and to that extent, narrows the definition of God considerably. If the EAAN is meant to substantiate a general kind of theism, then Plantinga has gone too far: the argument can only support (at most) a generic belief in God. Further work would have to be done in order to demonstrate the existence of, say, the God whom Christians believe has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth. Using the language of “image” to denote our relationship to God is, I agree, arbitrary.

But wait a minute. I said before that I think Pigliucci misunderstands the general nature of Plantinga’s argument. Contrary to what Pigliucci has said, Plantinga (at least as I read him) has not offered his conclusion to the EAAN (i.e. that God provides a better explanation for our rational powers than does naturalism) as a formal argument in logic [2]. Rather, he originally proffered it as a probabilistic hypothesis, which seeks to coherently explain the reliability of our cognitive faculties, given evolution generally, and natural selection in particular (note this is related to the conclusion; Plantinga’s argument against a naturalistic explanation for the reliability of our cognitive faculties – as distinguished from his hypothesis that God provides just such an explanation – is an “in principle” contention). It seeks to achieve what a scientific hypothesis sets out to achieve: gather up the relevant data, and posit an explanation that is likely to adequately deal with that data. It should not be construed as a tight, logical argument, such that the conclusion follows inexorably from the premises.

However, this is what Pigliucci seems to have done. Rather than seeing theism as a probabilistic hypothesis to the question of the reliability of our cognitive faculties, he has instead inferred strict logicality. Plantinga’s suggestion is simply that theism can better account for the reliability of our intellectual and perceptual abilities than naturalism. As an explanatory hypothesis, God could be seen as offering justification for the trust that we place in those abilities. If both evolution via natural selection and the reliability of human cognition are taken as granted, then the data in front of us asks for an explanation. Theism, as the stated goal of the EAAN, proposes to offer such an explanation – plausible, but not necessary. Of course, if Plantinga had meant to offer an argument in formal logic, then it’s true that his conclusion simply does not follow from the premises given. Pigliucci would be correct in pointing out the “leap” thus taken, and chastising Plantinga for arbitrarily selecting rationality and cognitive reliability as the defining qualities that evince God’s creation of humanity. However, accusations of explanatory caprice are wide of the mark, for the relationship between premise and conclusion was, as I said, only ever meant to be probabilistic.

Pigliucci might argue that, even if charges of arbitrariness carry less weight as a result, we still have no good reason to think that God, in creating human beings, chose rationality as the defining characteristic of our “image-bearing” natures. Now, as I said, I think he is right to critique Plantinga for using plainly biblical language, since the EAAN gives no warrant for doing so. That said, I think a more generic description of the relationship between humans and God can succeed in denuding the charge of arbitrariness. Indeed, I think it reasonable to suggest that God, if he exists, might be the ultimate source of that particular quality. One doesn’t have to import the concept of the imago dei to offer that as a plausible hypothesis. If it’s the case that philosophical naturalism, when conjoined with natural selection, fails to account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties, then an explanation has to come from somewhere, lest we accept human rationality as a brute fact. Moreover, if philosophical naturalism cannot so account for reliable human intellects, then this raises the possibility of a non-naturalistic explanation. How did human cognition develop otherwise? Positing a God, whose intellectual and rational powers are far in excess of humans (to say the least) would seem to provide a basis for trusting what our minds can tell us about reality. Contingent instantiations of mind and intellect can be plausibly construed as “pointers” to a greater Mind that has so created them (via whatever means). This should not be (mis)interpreted as an attempt at formal logical. Rather, it is a reasonable inference based upon a traditional conception of God (one that would include the elements of will, intellect, power, eternality, infinitude, and so forth). It functions as a bare, causal explanation that is weighed according to the data at hand, and alternatives on offer.

Pigliucci offers examples of other qualities, which are true of either God or people, to suggest that the many differences between the two render questionable the tendency to highlight cognitive reliability as a particularly clear point of divine-human identity. To that end, he states that humans haven’t been given omnipotence, and that God likely doesn’t possess nipples. But neither of these examples demonstrates arbitrariness on the part of Plantinga and others. In regards to omnipotence, it would simply be impossible for God to so endow human beings. Omnipotence is an essential quality of Deity – the power that underlies all contingent instantiations of power. How would it be possible to create humans with power that rivals God? In what way is it coherent to say that humans could enjoy the kind of power that underlies their own existence (which is part of any complete definition of divine omnipotence)? What would it mean if there was more than one being possessed of omnipotence? Would humans be able to override the plans and will of God? Would they be able to override each other? Answering either “yes” or “no” means that someone is left without omnipotence. Consequently, the idea is incoherent. God, far from capriciously deciding to withhold some quality from humans, cannot give something that is uniquely his, by nature.

Moreover, Pigliucci seems to have failed to note that humans, though they do not possess, say, omnipotence, are endowed with power. Whilst it might be true that people, by their very nature, cannot possibly have this quality in an infinite sense (for the reasons given above), it is the case that we possess the (limited) ability to create, control, initiate, shape or guide. This is self-evident: my typing this blog essay is a manifestation of power (trivial though it may be). Scientists splitting the atom, or engineers digging a tunnel to make way for a road, are examples of power. My lifting my hand to scratch my nose is also such an instance. These instances are comparatively small, and although there is a fair degree of variation amongst them (scratching one’s nose can only be loosely compared to the splitting of an atom of hydrogen), they are also limited and contingent– just like humans’ rational and cognitive powers are. Humans do not have infinite power, but this isn’t analogous to human cognition; rather, it corresponds to omniscience, which humans similarly lack. Whilst there are good reasons for supposing that God would not – indeed, could not – have endowed humans with omnipotence (or any other infinite quality), the plain fact of finite human power, in all its forms, offers us a parallel to the idea that human cognitive equipment, despite its limitations, may have been fashioned by an intellect that far exceeds it.

What, then, of Pigliucci’s other example? He implies that, whilst humans have nipples, God most probably does not. Does this mean that proponents of the EAAN have gathered up all human characteristics, and then randomly selected cognitive reliability and its provenance as providing special warrant for theism? I don’t think so. Most definitions of God would suggest that he is without a body, which obviously includes the absence of all the bodily parts that humans, as material beings, possess. Pigliucci implicitly recognizes this, but does not seem to realize that having nipples is simply a reflection of embodied existence. It didn’t have to be that way, of course; nipples aren’t necessary features of physical existence. However, they are an example of what it means to live in a material world – something by which God, “lacking” physical form, is not bound. To say otherwise would be to reduce God to the level of physicality, another feature of the material realm, thereby robbing him of his essential infinitude. It doesn’t make sense to say that God could have nipples, or a head, or a beard – or anything else characteristic of physical existence. There is nothing arbitrary about this, for such differences rest upon natures, or essences, that can be – indeed, must be – intelligibly parsed. The reason there is a lack of identity between God and humans in certain respects is the vastly different modes of existence and being they inhabit.

On the other hand, it is possible to see how our cognitive faculties, finite as they are, might owe their ultimate existence to God. It appears to be a reasonable conclusion based upon plausible connections. Indeed, it could be said that human examples of cognition are simply limited instantiations of the far superior cognition of the Divine Mind. If it’s the case that God exists (which Pigliucci accepts for the sake of argument), then it’s an entirely rational hypothesis that he ultimately undergirds the reliability of our minds’ deliverances. If proponents of the EAAN have selected this quality over others, then it’s perhaps due to the fact that mind, above all other human characteristics, is most resistant to a philosophically naturalistic interpretation. Of all qualities, it is the one which most clearly sets humans apart from the natural world they inhabit. An unconstrained intellect – such as that possessed by God – seems to provide hypothetical warrant for the trust humans place in their own cognitive powers.

Pigliucci then analyses Plantinga’s suggestion that natural selection cannot select for true beliefs. He criticises Plantinga’s assumption by pointing out that most biologists (as well as other scientists working in the field of evolutionary theory) would not rest human cognitive development entirely upon natural selection’s shoulders. He doesn’t specifically cite any other mechanisms of evolutionary change that might account for the reliability of human cognition, although he does refer briefly to rapid brain development as an (unintended?) by-product of the burgeoning complexity of early hominid communities. But does this offer firmer ground than natural selection as an explanation for the trust we place in our cognitive faculties (if naturalism is true)? Again, I don’t think so.

First, an unintended by-product of, say, the development of human societies, seems to be less secure than natural selection as an explanation for cognitive reliability. Although it cannot select for true beliefs – only adaptive behaviour – natural selection still works according to an intelligible set of principles (e.g. selecting those behaviours that are most conducive to survival within a particular environment) that could, at times, lead to the propagation of true beliefs (via adaptive behaviour). There seems to be at least some basic kind of intentionality, or goal-directedness, inherent within natural selection that provides partial warrant for trusting the deliverances of one’s mind. But if a person’s cognitive abilities are, in the final analysis, a derivative of other (blind) forces at work, how does this explain the daily, implicit trust one places in it? Can a mere accident, which seems to have no meaning and no intelligibility, offer warrant for our epistemic and intellectual confidence? This might be a good approximation of arbitrariness – of chance, randomness, caprice and the like. If such an account is true – i.e. that human cognition and its reliability is simply an unforseen by-product – how is one then to explain its inherent, conscious, goal-directed nature?

Pigliucci states that natural selection cannot account for, say, the ability to expound Fermat’s Last Theorem. This is probably true. But why should an accidental “side-effect” of other phenomena – which themselves have evolved, largely as the result of natural selection – be seen as offering any more explanatory power? As far as I can see, it is even less satisfactory than natural selection (which can at least boast some kind of structure, and offer a partial explanatory account of how true beliefs might have come to predominate over false ones). There appears to be no firm causal link between this account and the reliability of our cognitive functions. How is it any more plausible to say that our minds are the result of accidental forces than it is to argue for natural selection as the chief causal agent? The cause (unintended by-product) jars significantly with the effect (minds that are characterised by rationality, intentionality, a “bending towards” the truth, etc).

Second, even if “mind-as-by-product” can function as some kind of explanation, it still doesn’t explain why human brains, up to the point at which they began to evolve into more sophisticated organs, should have been seen as trustworthy. Presumably their owners used them to accomplish whatever it was they were capable of. At that stage in the evolution of our species, human cognition may not have been constitutionally capable of, say, writing a sonata, or discovering the special theory of relativity. Even so, those later, more complex stages would not exist without the simpler phase(s) (where natural selection would have exerted some influence). But this brings us back to the original question – how natural selection, on naturalism, could account for true beliefs (however rudimentary). As I have indicated, I think natural selection could furnish a partial explanation for those deliverances. But what reason might we have to think that all such deliverances can be accounted for in this manner? What justification do we have for believing that natural selection will always favour true beliefs, rather than merely adaptive behaviours? And if these are still disputed questions, and the “by-product” theory of human intellectual reliability somehow rests upon these earlier iterations of human cognition (which surely has to be the case, in order for an integrated account of this phenomenon to succeed), then how can we plausibly – justifiably – rely upon higher-level instances of cognitive functioning? There’s no reason to think that further developments in mental prowess can be completely de-coupled from earlier developments that owe their existence to natural selection. Surely these mechanisms would have to “interact” at some level? However, if this is the case, the debate is dragged back to “square one.”

Third, this line of argumentation seems to miss something fundamentally salient about evolution and the behaviour of other organisms – and consequently, something about the unique significance of human cognitive faculties. Now, before moving on, I should point out that this is something that seems to afflict materialist versions of philosophical naturalism specifically. Pigliucci may or may not be such a naturalist; I have no idea. My remarks aren’t directed at him specifically, although his account of human cognition – at least in his blog post – seems to neglect the deeper issue. Moreover, it is part of the wider debate, so a few words are in order.

Let me elaborate. Whether true beliefs are the result of natural selection or are the unintended by-product of increasingly sophisticated brains (can one equate cognitive sophistication with an orientation towards truth?) is perhaps beside the point. Other, non-human organisms seem to be able to adapt to their environments without the benefit of either truth-orientation, or truth-discernment. Here, I am not referring to other mammals, or even, say, birds. One might take a bacterium, for example. Such an organism might well be adept at surviving in a changing landscape, but this proficiency could hardly be the result of the bacterium being concerned with what is “true.” This crucial element of the human mind – which, it would appear, separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom – is totally lacking in many lower species, which do not even have the ability to distinguish truth from fiction. Aside from further indicating what the EAAN argues – that evolution via natural selection does not select for true beliefs (since such organisms, “fit” though they are in the evolutionary sense, are completely lacking in beliefs or the capacity for belief-formation) – this point helps throw an important dimension of the human mind into sharp relief.

What I mean is that human cognition cannot plausibly be reduced to the constituent, material parts of the brain. It is concerned – intrinsically, one might say – with intentionality, goal-directedness and meaning. I’d also add that it has a general orientation towards truth, although it’s clear this isn’t practiced universally. That said, and as I indicated above, of all the phenomena in the natural world, it is human cognition that is most resistant to a naturalistic account – and it’s precisely because of the features of intentionality, etc. to which I have just referred. There appears to be an explanatory and metaphysical “gap” between the physical elements which compose the brain, and the various functions – as well as the inherent nature – of human cognition. To be sure, this criticism applies only to materialistic versions of naturalism (materialistic naturalism being a sub-set of the philosophical variant). However, it is held widely enough for the criticism to have at least some force. It would seem, too, that materialism – in other words, the notion that reality is composed of material “stuff” – is frequently naturalism’s bedfellow. That being the case, it is difficult to see how material processes could possibly do all the “heavy lifting” when it comes to thought and cognition. Appeals to natural selection, or some other evolutionary mechanism, do not get to the nub of the issue; if thinking consists of nothing more than the shift from one physical process to another, in accordance with causal laws (e.g. the firing of neurons, or the profusion of chemicals in the brain), then it is difficult to see where meaning, intentionality, and the like are to be found. Indeed, as the philosopher Ed Feser argues in his book The Last Superstition:

“…a belief’s truth or falsity is tied up with its meaning…on the materialist’s account, meaning plays no causal role whatsoever in any thought processes.”

This seems to me to be correct. If blind physical processes are what constitute the relations between thoughts – as materialistic versions of naturalism hold – then it effectively screens out the role of semantic meaning. Since truth and falsehood – and hence, rational cognition – are ineradicably tied to meaning, then it would appear that certain strains of philosophical naturalism cannot be rationally justified. Of course, it could be argued that non-materialistic forms of naturalism might have more success in providing a cogent account of human cognition, given evolutionary theory. Some kind of immanent teleology, for example, may do the trick (Pigliucci points to mathematical Platonism as a possibility). The EAAN doesn’t necessarily home in on this issue, preferring to limit itself to the relationship between natural selection and the propagation of true beliefs. As Pigliucci suggests, it may not have as much to say about other forms of naturalism that don’t entail materialism. Even so, I think it can point to deeper problems associated with some versions of naturalism, narrowing the field of plausible, explanatory accounts of the phenomena at hand. And given that naturalism and materialism frequently go hand-in-hand, the EAAN might be able to furnish a rebuttal to a large swathe of naturalistic thinking. At the very least, arguing about which evolutionary mechanisms might be responsible for reliable human cognition can, in fact, miss the metaphysical crux of the issue.

* * *

This piece has gone on long enough. Suffice it to say, I don’t think that all of Thibodeau and Piggliucci’s arguments against the EAAN work (at least those surveyed in this essay). I haven’t reviewed all of Pigliucci’s points, which may yet prove to be valid. He is also certainly right in highlighting some of the (less significant) limitations of Plantinga’s original contention. And, it should be said, there may well be other arguments out there which do succeed in defeating it. Nonetheless, despite what these particular critics say, I’d argue that there is still life in the EAAN.

[1] In deploying the EAAN, I take Plantinga to be referring to philosophical naturalism, rather than, say, methodological naturalism. The latter is simply a method of understanding and investigating the natural world, without reference to God or any super- or supra-natural agency. The former, however, makes an ontological claim about the nature and boundaries of reality. To be sure, one can make a further distinction between materialistic and non-materialistic naturalism. I recognize that Plantinga doesn’t always make such a distinction clear. However, philosophical naturalism’s materialistic sub-type seems to be implicit in this analysis. In any case, whenever I use the term “naturalism,” I am always referring to its philosophical, or metaphysical, iteration. Furthermore, its materialistic sub-type is assumed. I shall attempt to make those distinctions clear in my brief discussion of materialism towards the end of the essay.

[2] To be sure, I think the EAAN itself – that naturalism, when conjoined with natural selection, is self-refuting – is an argument in logic. However, this only gets one part of the way to God. As I understand Plantinga, that particular step in probabilistic, in that it takes the logical force of the EAAN to provide a platform for a theistic hypothesis. Indeed, we should remember that the argument is called the EAAN, not the EAFG (Evolutionary Argument For God) – despite the fact that most (all?) defenders are theists.

God’s Omnipotence and Free Will

Quite a while ago, I wrote a post on the claimed compatibility of belief in a good, all-powerful God, and the presence of evil in the world. It was massively simplified, and probably didn’t do justice to the complexities involved. Nor did it really try to engage with any counter-arguments. The following is a small step towards rectifying that situation. It concerns the counter-claim that God, being all-powerful, should be able to create people who are truly free, but who always choose to do good. The issue turns on the definition of divine omnipotence, with critics of the free will defence arguing that such a definition would have to include the ability to create what is contradictory – including free people who always choose to do the “right thing”. Written in the style of an informal essay-cum-letter to a fictional interlocutor, the piece attempts to grapple with these rejoinders. 

Dear Jim,

You’ve raised an interesting issue in regards to the apparent clash between God’s omnipotence and the notion that there cannot exist people who always freely choose to pursue the Good – chief of which is, I suppose, confession of God’s lordship. You seem to be suggesting that an omnipotent God should be able to create such a reality – i.e. people who always freely choose him, and goodness in general (however defined). What might be characterised as “forced free choice” is sometimes used to argue that God should be able to create the sorts of people who will simply choose him – always and indubitably, without exception. You seem to suggest that anything less presents us with a contradictory picture of God: able, on the one hand, to create things out of nothing, unconstrained by the limits of his creation; and, on the other, “limited” by the fact that he apparently cannot create individuals who are both free and incapable of rejecting him or goodness. There are several reasons why I do not think this argument works.

To begin, I do not think that you quite realize the gravity of what you’re suggesting. One might call it illogical. I, however, think it’s much worse than that: an utter nonsense might be the best way to characterise your suggestion (please know that I am not trying to be derogatory in using the word “nonsense”). Forced free choice, just like a round square or a married bachelor, is an incoherent concept. It’s not so much that God cannot break some rule that would otherwise allow him to create such a state of affairs; it’s that such a state is completely bereft of meaning, and to that extent, cannot exist. There can be no rule to break, precisely because incoherent states are devoid of the intelligibility required to make any such rule meaningful in the first place. They are characterised by a fundamental privation of meaning. Indeed, they are completely void of sense. Speaking metaphorically, incoherent states are to reality what black holes are to light: absolute negation.

It will not do to suggest that an omnipotent God should simply be able to perform such feats. I think you’re trading on a very simplistic definition of the term, in any case. Omnipotence does not simply mean doing whatever one wants. A better starting place would be to suggest that God, being the source of all there is, is also the foundation for all acts of power (or potency) we observe in our world. We witness all sorts of expressions of power, even on a daily basis: the power of thought; the power to walk; the power to create fire; the power to melt a substance, changing it from a solid to a liquid; and so forth. Underlying all these contingent instances of potency is God. He is the ultimate ground, and guarantor, of whatever power is exhibited in this world. Hence, we employ the word “omnipotent” (omni = all + potent = power). Now, I’m not saying that God’s power doesn’t go beyond what we observe in this world; it certainly would, and is therefore absolute and maximal. It is not as if God is powerful only in relation to “this” material world.[1] As the ultimate form of existence, his power is unsurpassable. All I am saying is that omnipotence primarily deals with divine potency in relation to our world, given that it’s our primary reference point (we can speculate on the creation of other worlds, but that remains a vague project). Added to this is God’s unbounded nature, or the fact that he faces none of the constraints that both his sentient and non-sentient creations – bound as they are by the material realm in which they live – face. As a result, whilst the power/potency of material things is derived (for example, a man can plant a tree in the garden, but that power rests upon the functionality of his muscles, his internal constitution, the absence of disease, the integrity of his atomic structure, the presence of gravity and other fundamental forces that maintain that integrity, the presence of raw materials conducive to his intended goal), God’s is inherent and completely within himself. There is no lag between his decision to do something and its being done; nor does he require effort to bring something into being. It is immediate and self-caused, underlying all other manifestations of power we experience and see within the material realm.

Incidentally, I would suggest that the Bible comes fairly close to certain elements of this understanding of omnipotence. Actually, it’s probably true to say that the biblical authors, not being terribly interested in abstract philosophizing about the divine nature, were content to conclude from the works of nature that God was simply “all-powerful”. To put it another way, God is seen in Scripture as “almighty”, or maximally powerful, with the created world functioning as Exhibit “A” for that claim. The Bible simply doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting upon what God’s power might mean in an abstract sense. And, despite claims that it doesn’t place limits on God’s abilities (depending on how one thinks of “limits”), the truth is actually the opposite. Hebrews 6:18, for instance, states quite clearly that it is impossible for God to lie. Or what about James 1:13, which says that God “cannot be tempted”? According to your conception of omnipotence, these would count as substantive constraints upon divine power. But what would it mean to say that God “could” commit wrong? What would it mean to say that God is “capable” of lying? Mendacity, in particular, is a neat example of why it is God is “unable” to do certain things. The act of deception, false testimony, and the like, is, in many respects, the opposite of truth. Classical understandings of God conceive of him, not merely as eminently truthful, or as the repository of all truth (though these things are so), but as the paradigm of truth. It is what he is in himself. As such, God could not do anything that contradicts his own, essential truthfulness, any more than a truthful statement could be false. In any case, the aforementioned states are hardly befitting the perfect nature of the Deity. However, my point here is to suggest that the Bible, contrary to the assertions of some, does in fact place “boundaries” (if they can be called that) around God’s nature. It simply will not do to maintain the notion that the Bible offers up some unconstrained conceptualisation of God’s power – even to the point of implicitly endorsing incoherence.

Back, then, to what I said about self-contradictory states of affairs and positive attributes in my first substantive paragraph. It is quite wrong-headed to suggest that God’s claimed omnipotence is inconsistent if he cannot create such states. Because they are negative states (precisely because they are characterised by lack – i.e. of meaning and coherency), it is not correct to say that God lacks power if he “cannot” bring them into being. There is no such thing as an inability to do something that has no – can have no – positive meaning; as such, God is not hitting his head on some kind of metaphysical “ceiling”, beyond which he cannot go. To take a similar, though not identical, example: blindness. Now, blindness, unlike some of the self-contradictory examples I have given, is a perfectly intelligible state. I mean, there are people who lack the power of sight. But where there is a connection between these two examples is precisely this concept of “lack”. Blindness is characterised by a lack of sight, whilst an incoherent state is characterised by a lack of meaning. Both are, in a sense, parasitic upon what we would take as foundational, positive states (in that blindness, for example, isn’t really intelligible apart from a certain knowledge of what it means to see). Now, I have no problem suggesting that God’s omnipotence is not impugned simply because he lacks the “power” of blindness, because it is not really a power at all. Similarly, and for this reason, I do not think that the “inability” to make real an incoherency – whether a blind person who can see, a bachelor who has a wife, or a free person who only has one course of action open to him – casts doubt on God’s supreme power.[2]

I would go further and suggest that any such ability, even if it were possible, would represent some degree of incoherency within the very nature of God himself – meaning, of course, that such a concept (as with every other example of incoherency) collapses in on itself. How so? Well, for an incoherent state to be possible, it has to be extant somewhere, with its grounding in something else. In other words, it cannot possess existence independently of God, if indeed God is considered as ultimate. Its potential reality, then, must “reside”, if you like, in the divine mind, for it is the divine mind that guarantees and grounds the possible existence of anything at all. Moreover, the idea of an incoherency is closely related to the “framework” of reality; to that extent, it is intimately related to the character of God. Unlike, say, a blade of grass, a car, or even something conceptual like love (which are mere features of reality), talk of incoherencies, etc. concerns the very structures which give rise to such features in the first place. To argue for the existence of a married bachelor is actually to make a comment on what reality, at its most fundamental, should, or could, be like – and the fundamentals of reality bring us fairly close to their Author (at least, more so than the various phenomena that rely upon them). However, if reality itself can be incoherent, we may ask whether there is, in fact, some kind of incoherency within the divine nature. This appears to be untenable. We have to ask ourselves, then, whether those states render God utterly nonsensical. Is it possible for self-contradictions to exist within such a being? Moreover, what are we to make of the idea that God, possessing the kind of omnipotence for which you have argued, should be able transform his own nature into something that is self-contradictory? The problem, at this point, becomes particularly sharp. Should God be able to render himself both existent and non-existent at the same time? Should he be able to erase his memory? Should he be able to create a world in which he is powerless? There is no reason to think that your rather eccentric definition of omnipotence, should it be true, cannot be applied to God himself; it has to, if such a definition is to be upheld consistently. If it is true, though, I’m afraid that we move into the realm of the absurd.

Furthermore, if your original suggestion holds, then it would also be possible to argue that God is both limited and unlimited; that he is both omnipotent and constrained in his power. It negates the very point you are attempting to make, since on your account of things, two mutually contradictory states can exist simultaneously in the one space. So in undermining God’s omnipotence, you’re actually upholding it. Arguing in this manner means that God can both fail and satisfy your semantic demands. Similarly, if incoherent states are possible – or that God, if he truly is omnipotent, should be able to create them – it would be correspondingly possible to argue for God’s existence, even if atheists have demonstrated conclusively that it is not the case. For if self-contradictions are possible, then we could have no problem with God’s simultaneous existence and demonstrated non-existence. Thus, the non-believer’s case is actually wounded.

But I digress. Let us assume for a moment that such states are possible, and that it does not threaten the integrity of the divine nature. Why would God create incoherent states within this realm? If reality could ever be self-contradictory, what does that mean for our actions, for our pursuits? What would it mean for our quest for knowledge, if reality did not possess a fundamental coherency that was open to investigation? What would it mean for all our moral efforts, if an action could simultaneously be classed as moral and immoral? Why should we trust anything we seem to observe or experience if reality possesses such inherent ambiguity? Imagine, for example, that rape can be both righteous and wicked at the same time. What would it mean for us to make any kind of judgment upon it, if there are no stable reference points to anchor such judgments? Coming to any conclusions regarding any action, according to any criteria, and developing a coherent account of the world around us, would be rendered impossible. This is true, not only for moral truths, but for physical truths also. The possibility of incoherent states (to say nothing of their actuality; there’s no reason to think that God might not have created them in other realms, aside from the notion of “forced free choice” upon which your argument hangs) would make it impossible to draw any conclusions about, say, physical reality. The scientific project would, in principle, be a non-starter. Even your current efforts to critique the notion of an omnipotent God implicitly rely on an acceptance of coherency. Making an argument, forming chains of reasoning – indeed, discovering the richness of the external world, and developing systems of thought and behaviour based on those discoveries – cannot proceed without it. I would argue, then, that even if God were “able” to do the things you suggest, there are important moral reasons for him not doing so.

It seems to me that the concept of “forced free will” (or however one might choose to characterise it) is something that not even an omnipotent God could do. Due to the aforementioned reasons, I do not believe that your argument has been successful in pointing out a flaw in the characterisation of God as all-powerful. And, even if God were capable, and the ability to create incoherent states were an inescapable part of the divine nature, I’m not sure that we would do well to argue for them.

Thank you for your enquiries. I do not claim to be especially gifted in this area, but I have tried to deal honestly with the issues involved. Even if I haven’t convinced you, I hope you can at least understand that my failure was a sincere one.



[1] When I speak of “world”, I am using it in a very broad sense to denote the reality within which we exist.

[2] I suppose it could be suggested that if blindness, even if it is characterised by “lack”, can exist, then there is no reason why incoherent states (also distinguished by what they lack) should also be able to exist. If God can cause blindness (which the Bible indicates) why, then, can he not create a married bachelor or a free person who is imprisoned? There are a couple of things that I would say to this. First, the relationship between God’s agency and blindness is not as direct as one might assume. It is true that he is able to cause it, but I think it better to conceive of this process in a more layered manner. For example, God might create a flash of light, so bright that someone is blinded by it. Or he might introduce a virus into a person’s system that eats away at that individual’s retina, thus having the same effect (remember, this is just a hypothetical example). Thus, his actions might lead, inexorably, to blindness in a person, but he himself does not create blindness in the same sense that he might create other things that possess a positive existence. Blindness is not a part of God in the same way that, say, life is, and so whatever relationship there is between God and such a state, it should be seen as indirect. Second, even though blindness and incoherent states might share the same “quality” (if I can call it that) of lack, they are very different beasts. I say more about that in the next paragraph.

The “Ethics” of Fourth-Trimester Abortions

I work in organisations that care for, and support, some the most vulnerable people in our society – those with a disability, and those with a serious mental illness. As such, I have the good fortune of being able to routinely witness some fine examples of human nobility. Nevertheless, there are moments when I am shaken out of my reverie and reminded that all is not well (to say the least) with our culture.

One such moment occurred a couple of weeks ago, when I perused an article in The Age newspaper (Henrietta Cook, “Abortion Paper Led to Death Threats”, March 2nd, 2012). As many of you are aware, the story concerned outraged responses to an academic paper arguing for what the authors termed “post-birth abortions” – in other words, infanticide (perhaps the authors momentarily realised the savagery of their suggestion. Hence, the euphemism “post-birth abortions”). It was, I must admit, the sort of read that made my stomach churn. Here were two “ethicists”, Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini (hereafter, G & M), arguing for the legitimacy of the killing of infants if they became an “unbearable burden” to their families. What’s more, their arguments were published in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Medical Ethics (“After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, 23rd February, 2012). It’s difficult to articulate the horror one experiences when confronted with the sober reality, the monstrous nadir, of our moral undoing. Claims that this was simply a theoretical discussion, not meant for a general audience, are, I would argue, beside the point. The fact that they were suggested in a mainstream intellectual forum forces me to come to grips with, not only the ethical decrepitude of the principal authors, but also the present nature and future trajectory of our culture – a culture that has enabled such views to be aired and sponsored.

It is of course tempting at this juncture to lean on Leon Kass’ notion of “the wisdom of repugnance”, and leave it at that: some ideas are so intuitively abhorrent that opposition to them needs no defence. I sympathise deeply with that response, to be sure. This particular idea, that newborns can be killed in certain circumstances (something I shall interrogate below), is a legitimate target for such revulsion. Indeed, to suggest such a course of action is to offend our deepest, most basic sense of right and wrong. But to simply rest on an inarticulate sense of moral outrage is, I believe, inadequate. No view, regardless of how demonstrably evil it may appear, should be espoused with impunity. If for no other reason than to expose philosophical fallacies and academic depravity, I shall attempt to engage with the ideas, assumptions and premises that underlie G & M’s argument.

Our ethicists commence their piece by suggesting that, in some cases, the birth of a child may be intrinsically unbearable for the mother. Later, they suggest that some children constitute an “unbearable burden” for families and society. Given that society already permits abortion within the womb, G & M argue that the same conditions ought to apply to newborns. This, they seek to defend on the grounds that newborns and foetuses are not persons, and should therefore be treated similarly when questions of abortion arise.

Leaving aside the authors’ conception of personhood for a moment, it is clear that G & M begin their paper with a tenuous, nay completely unsupportable, premise. Their argument that there are certain instances where the birth of a child is intrinsically unbearable – not because of disability or deformity, but because the act of giving birth to, and raising, a child is itself unbearable – is unwarranted. Now, there are some things in this life that truly deserve to be described as such: a man attempting to uphold a 15-tonne container is, according to basic science, engaging in an unbearable act. But having a child cannot be seen as unbearable prior to doing so. No one can predict with certainty that doing so will present an impossible task for the prospective parent(s), even after a few days or weeks. How can it be argued that raising a child will present an insufferable burden for those who have the responsibility of doing so? That is what the word “unbearable” suggests – an absolute certainty about the nature of a situation.

The problem is that one cannot posses this level of knowledge prior to, or just after, the birth of a child. We are historical creatures, bound by time and the flow of events. What may seem to be unbearable at a certain point will not necessarily be so days, weeks or years down the track. As William M. Briggs, a professor at Cornell University, has remarked, “since [the] birth and…subsequent care of a child is a contingent event, we cannot claim that any birth and rearing is unbearable in advance” (“Academics – Who Else? – Call for the Killing of Babies”, 28th February, 2012). Moreover, making this kind of prediction groundlessly assumes that the reality of an impossibly burdensome newborn is an exclusive one. In other words, the notion of the “unbearable” implicitly suggests that a newborn could be nothing else but a burden – and an insufferable one – to its parents. According to this view, it could not, at the same time, be a joy, a challenge, an enriching experience and an embodied example of the gift of life. Most people reading this will likely agree that such a view is demonstrably false. And so, we see that G & M have already built their argument on a fallacious assumption.

Even more serious is the inconsistent case G & M try to mount in order to reduce the moral status of newborns. Our authors argue that a child just born is on the same moral plane as a foetus, largely because neither can be called persons. G & M ground this assertion in a certain conception of personhood – namely, that one first has to have the ability to formulate aims and appreciate life. Only then can one be called a person and have a moral right to the life they possess. What one notices, however, is that G & M themselves appear to be confused about the essential nature of a newborn baby. For instance, in developing their argument for the non-personhood of newborns (and therefore, the lack of harm done to them if they are intentionally deprived of life), our authors suggest that they are “not persons in a morally relevant sense”. I’m not sure if what they wrote was a slip of the tongue (or pen, or keyboard), but they still grudgingly admit that, in some sense, a newborn is a person. According to G & M, a newborn child may not be a “person” in relevant moral terms, but they cannot escape using that word to describe it. Perhaps our authors still have an incipient awareness that a human baby is a person; indeed, to use that word is to make an implicit declaration about the subject in question. Maybe G & M, on some level, still recognize this.

In any case, I’m unsure at this stage how to interpret their statement regarding newborns, personhood and moral relevance. Do they mean to argue that a newborn is a person, but in a morally irrelevant sense? If so, what does that signify? If their definition of personhood is the sine qua non of the concept, then a newborn child is no person at all. Indeed, I think this is what they mean by “morally relevant”. Nevertheless, their inability to escape the fact that a newborn is in some sense a person is reflected in their compulsion to use the word. Later, however, G & M make a startling admission: if someone asked them if they would had been harmed if their parents had decided to kill them as newborns (or foetuses), they would have replied “no”. And why? Because there would have been “no one” in existence to be harmed. It’s difficult to reconcile this concession with the abstract definition they offered earlier. And, apart from a chilling statement of self-condemnation (or an example of perverse courage, depending on how you look at it), the authors seem to be unaware of a very important fact: the newborn baby is hardly “no one”; it is very much “someone”, even if G & M have trouble unambiguously affirming its personhood. It is patently absurd to describe a crying, writhing infant as “no one”, as if no one existed. Of course, our authors would have to admit that something does “exist” – but if not a person, then what? How would one categorise a newborn if not to use the concept of personhood to describe it? It seems that our authors are ignoring embodied evidence that, at the very least, weakens (further) their strident claims.

Nevertheless, G & M insist that a newborn is not a person, and that to deprive it of life does not constitute harm. However, their confused argument does touch – briefly – on a fundamental issue that forces them into such an inconsistent view of a post-natal baby. Whilst denying it the status of personhood, our ethicists admit that it is hard to determine exactly when a human baby becomes a person. That is precisely correct. Personhood is not a static concept, and it would appear to be a notoriously difficult task for an external observer to definitively state when an individual “becomes” a person. No matter: our enlightened pair skate over this minor detail on their way to a confident affirmation of the newborn’s non-personhood. One is left agog at G & M’s seeming insouciance in the face of life-and-death issues. They largely ignore the crux of the issue – namely, the apparent moment someone enters the realm of personhood – which leaves their argument in tatters. If it is so difficult “to determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’”, is it wise to make such bold assertions about its moral rights (or lack thereof)? It appears that G & M have condemned their argument with their very own hands.

Here, we reach the heart of the matter – and the centre of the debate between advocates of abortion and those who venerably oppose it. G & M, perhaps unwittingly, have given us a glimpse of the basic philosophical problem: just when does a human subject become a person? Of what does personhood consist? Our ethicists would argue that one becomes a person upon attaining some measure of value for life, and an ability to formulate aims. Personhood as a concept and personhood as an epochal stage of human development are, for our authors, indissolubly linked. But again, I would argue that they are working with a deficient definition of the person. Implicit in their argument that newborns are non-persons is the idea that one has to have actualised all the attributes of personhood in order to possess the rights thereof. Yet this ignores the unfolding nature of the concept. Personhood is, I submit, an emergent phenomenon. Now, as a Christian, I believe that the creation of human life results in a person from the moment of conception. However, it is also true to say that this does not become apparent at one moment in time, fully formed. From the moment of conception – and on, through all the stages of life until death – a person is a cascading genesis of human development. A foetus and a newborn are potential persons, in that they contain within themselves the seeds of their own individuality. Now, G & M explicitly eschew the notion of “potential personhood”. But why? Why should their static, actualised version win out over a philosophical model that seems to fit better with “facts on the ground” (so to speak)? A newly born infant (or a foetus) may not have highly developed goals, or a sophisticated appreciation of the value of life. But the capacity for developing those goals, and appreciating life is intrinsic to the newborn. It is not something that is imposed, externally. It resides within the individual, and emerges, gradually, over time. Moreover, it continues to develop over an individual’s life course. It could be said, then, that the project of personhood is an unfinished one. G & M concede that the moment of personhood (as they define it) is hard to determine. And so it is, if one adopts the narrow, actualised conception upon which our ethicists seem to rely.

In suggesting that a newborn is not harmed if deprived of life because it does not count as a person (according to their narrow conception), our authors fail to appreciate the intimate connection between the post-natal infant and the more developed individual. They ignore the fact that the two are inextricably linked – if I were not an infant, for example, I would not be here now. That much is absurdly obvious, but the value G & M ascribe to existing persons is based in part on qualities that were already present, though not yet actualised, in the infant (and even the foetus). Again, they may appeal to the non-actualisation of qualities as a way of arguing their case. I would argue, however, that there is something decidedly curious about arguing for the value of so-called “actualised” persons, over-against newborns, when the two are developmentally inseparable. In writing about the unborn (though the quote is equally relevant when concerning newborns), Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith writes that they are “…actively disposed to develop into a mature version of [themselves], though never ceasing to be the same being” (emphasis mine). Despite the many and varied changes a person undergoes throughout his life; despite the unfolding nature of existential reflection he might experience; despite the historical perspective he will eventually develop: he is still bound to his earlier, infant self. That is why there is nothing odd, for example, about referring to myself at the age of two weeks as “me” or “I”. Suggesting that no harm is done to a newborn, and that it can therefore be killed, inadvertently devalues and relativises the more mature life that grows organically from it.

Even if G & M’s definition of personhood were accurate in an exclusive sense, how do they know that newborns fail to meet the relevant criteria? For instance, how do they know that a post-natal infant has no aims? Now, it’s true that an individual at this stage of life does not possess the more sophisticated aims that one might attribute to someone older. A newborn obviously does not dream to be a professor or an astronaut, to write music or to work with disabled children (how can it, when any hope of formulating goals supposedly worthy of the right to life is snuffed out by our authors’ suggestion?). Nonetheless, we can say that it most certainly does have aims of a more basic nature. A newborn aims to eat, to sleep, to be close to its parents, to experience love and intimacy, and to absorb whatever information it can about the world around it. One might even say that a newborn is actively developing towards the point at which it is able to self-reflect and actualize its appreciation for life. These are plainly goals, and though the newborn may not be able to articulate them, they deeply challenge one particular dimension of G & M’s conception of personhood.

Chillingly, personhood, as defined by our authors, risks sliding down the so-called “slippery slope”. Now, it’s true that many progressives hate the slippery slope argument. And, of course, it’s difficult to argue on the basis of something that hasn’t happened (yet). Still, in addition to representing the latter stages of one slippery slope, G & M’s paper stands at the head of another. It opens up the possibility that not just newborns, but also others who don’t fit their definition of personhood, are theoretically liable to their recommendations. If it’s so difficult to pin down the moment of personhood, how long does the pre-personhood stage of human development last? Two weeks? Two months? Two years? What about people who are profoundly disabled intellectually? Those with late-stage Alzheimer’s? Those in a coma who may never emerge? What about people who simply don’t think a lot about their lives, and what they mean? (OK, that was more in jest). These categories of individuals evidently fall outside the authors’ philosophical zone of personhood. Can they be deprived of life if they become a burden to their families and society? This line of reasoning may appear extreme, but once the absolute right to life is removed, then there is no logical reason to stop. Indeed, the authors argue something rather similar, in that they justify the notion of post-birth abortions on the current reality of pre-natal abortions. My rhetorical questions above simply extend the horrific logic further.

G & M’s paper, awful as it is, represents the final stage of a cold, logical process. The authors argue that this debate has been raging for several decades, and in this they are correct. The question of personhood – or its commencement, at least – has been debated with alacrity and vehemence as a consequence of organised advocacy of abortion. Once the attribution of personhood to the foetus was challenged, it was only a matter of time before the boundaries of the concept, along with the rights that went with it, were pushed further out. More to the point, once the objective moral status of the foetus (grounded in the “concrete” distinction between life and non-life, before and after conception) was abandoned, any demarcation between person and non-person was always going to seem arbitrary. Our authors have, in some ways, exposed that arbitrariness. But they have also offered us a ghastly utilitarian ethic that coldly pits the interests of the family against the needs of our society’s most vulnerable members.

*   *   *

To conclude: one wonders whether, in the words of columnist Barney Zwartz, our authors are “…allow[ing] thuggish thinking to smuggle in the desired conclusions of the premise” (“Killing Inconvenient Infants, The Age, March 7th, 2012). Indeed, our authors seem intent on reducing the moral status of newborns in order to uphold a brutish recommendation. Whether this is certainly the case is ultimately unanswerable. What is not unanswerable is the question of what this paper reveals about the present state of Western culture. Most people are bound to feel some sense of moral outrage if confronted with these suggestions, and rightly so. I wonder, however, if we shouldn’t also feel some collective sense of shame. Although the reasons for cultural, social and philosophical shifts are sometimes difficult to delineate, I would argue that this paper also represents a particularly extreme example of what happens when a society loses hold of certain perspectives that once underpinned the nobility of human dignity and value. In this case, it is the Judeo-Christian notion of the imago dei that has been lost – or rather, spurned. It is clear that the absolute dignity of life, whether in the womb or just beyond it, has been founded upon the metaphysics of Judeo-Christian thought. It is equally clear that we have lost that mooring, to our own detriment.

But our predicament is one of our own making. The fact that such thoughts and ideas could be entertained in a serious journal of ethics ought to compel us to reflect upon what we have done – or failed to do – to prevent our society reaching such a point. Ideas do not develop within a vacuum; rather, they constitute the climax of historical and philosophical processes that take place within, and between, societies. As some ideas are lost or rejected, others take their place, offering us a culmination of incremental trends. The idea that it might be morally justifiable to kill a newborn is one such culmination. It has had its genesis over many years of thought and reflection – not just in the rarefied arenas of academia, but also on the ground, in the street and in the home. We are complicit in the emergence of this particular idea, because we have failed to arrest the trajectory of a culture that has led to its promulgation and dissemination. And for that, we should be ashamed.