Ed Feser

Christian Reflections on the Coronavirus: A Rebuke to Modern Illusions

Introduction

Like so many people over the past few months, I have been somewhat unnerved by the Coronavirus outbreak. Never in my lifetime have I experienced a phenomenon whose reach has been truly global, even as its effects are felt in the most intimate corners of daily existence. A lingering atmosphere of confusion brims with tales of the virus, abetted by rumour and exaggeration. Signs of its presence have been everywhere: in nations trying to wall themselves off to halt the spread of infection; in the pangs of hesitation one feels over the simplest of social interactions; or in the eerily empty streets of once bustling city centres. An unceasing stream of media reports have revealed the apparent power of the contagion to warp social reality – threatening to unravel those dense webs of habit and custom within which a safe, predictable life is made possible. That COVID-19 is a silent, spectral force only seems to add to the prevailing mood of unease.

Shattering human illusions

One thing that has struck me about this crisis is the way it has dramatically laid bare many of the illusions that beguile human beings, especially those of us who have been conditioned and shaped by the modern world. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our distorted relationship with nature.

Enslaving nature

Human beings have long sought to dominate the natural world, convinced that it would placidly submit to the hand of man. It’s a conceit to which people in the West are particularly vulnerable, something that has been true since at least the time of the Enlightenment and its immediate precursors. Whether one traces this turn to the early scientific work of Francis Bacon – who sought to expand the bounds of humanity’s imperial enslavement of nature – the Cartesian separation of the mental from the physical, or even the emerging mechanistic picture of creation (for machines can usually be manipulated at will), the Enlightenment has led inexorably to the conviction that human mastery over the natural realm is both possible and desirable.

The development of science was a key part of this attempt to exercise sovereignty. It was believed that through scientific discovery and technological progress, human beings would succeed in wresting nature’s secrets from her, enabling them to predict, channel, and control her course. Beneath this enterprise lay a thoroughly instrumental conception of nature, which held that the natural environment was valuable only insofar as it could be exploited by humanity in its relentless pursuit of advancement; as theologian Michael Northcott has eloquently observed, nature was seen merely as “malleable matter available for reconstitution in the service of human wants”. Any notion that it was a force of independent or intrinsic worth, to which human beings would sometimes have to defer, gradually receded.

Belief in the inevitability of technological progress and its unrivalled ability to tame nature has, of course, seeped into Western consciousness during the succeeding centuries. The expectation that human beings will ultimately succeed in pacifying ever-larger tracts of the natural environment is now an article of secular faith. Similarly, the idea that sufficient application of technical acumen to a particular problem will solve it is now a cherished part of the modern canon.

It is certainly true that scientific advancements have had remarkable success in allowing people to enjoy respite from nature’s onslaught. Nor can it be denied that harnessing natural forces has brought immeasurable gains to vast numbers of people. A mixture of stunned amazement and humble gratitude is often the most appropriate – indeed, the only – response. Of course, one may ask whether this alone justifies the Panglossian predictions made for human capacity. Just as relevant is the fact that as such progress emerged and took root, it inevitably changed the relationship between human beings and their environments. Humans consequently began to view themselves, not as integrated members of the natural order, but as something above and apart from it.

Trying to break out of nature’s orbit

To talk of human transcendence over nature is to highlight a second key presumption inherent in modernity. Its connection with human attempts to domesticate the natural order is one of mutual reinforcement: allegedly sitting above the system of nature in an ontologically exterior realm, humanity came to see itself as free to shape that system at will; meanwhile, the undeniable success of such efforts simply legitimised the expansion of human empire, reinforcing the exalted position they had arrogated for themselves. It is not inaccurate to say that the accomplishments of science both bred and buttressed a metaphysical and ethical position concerning the relationship between human beings and their environment. Whatever the logical defects of that move, it, too, is part of the philosophical foundation of the modern West.

Descartes’ views on the connection between the mental and the physical may help explain these shifts. The Cartesian divorce between the intellectual and material dimensions of human beings had its external analogue in the separation between humanity – the only earthly beings possessed of rationality, the sine qua non of the mental – and nature-at-large. As science writer Alex Blum has observed, Descartes’ metaphysical commitments unwittingly structured modern science so as to conceive of human being existing “outside” nature. The French philosopher himself talked of humans becoming “masters and possessors of nature”, a phrase which also reflects the highly instrumentalist character he attributed to it. Combined with the objectifying gaze of emerging scientific discourse, the transcendence of the human person over nature was now churning within the bowels of Western culture. With the establishment of this hierarchy, human beings – now metaphysically unshackled from the natural world – could act as its overlords, manipulating their environment “to suit [their] own ambitions”.

Coronavirus and the unseating of modern dogmas

The rapid emergence of COVID-19 over the past three months is a rebuke to such hubris. It is also a stern reminder that for all the confidence we place in human ingenuity, nature cannot finally be tamed. Whatever local forms of control human beings exert over their environments, they remain contingent or provisional – and, more to the point, far more vulnerable to collapse than we would care to admit. Many people in the global South are inured to nature’s caprice, of course; to the devastation it has wrought, whether through a decades-long drought or a deadly Ebola outbreak. It is citizens residing in the developed world – those who often enjoy the luxury of being able to avoid nature’s encroachments – who are now experiencing life in the shadow of something that continues to elude the most assiduous efforts to control it. That vulnerability, long concealed by a seemingly unending conveyor belt of technological marvels, is now being unmasked.

All the economic might and technical sophistication of the modern West has, in many places, failed to stave off the spread of the virus. In fact, it’s precisely those symbols of Western-inspired progress – international travel and trade, ageing societies, industrialisation, and high-density urban environments – that have amplified the threat, contributing to the spread and lethality of COVID-19. Far from conquering the natural world, people are now quite literally retreating in the face of nature’s advance: leaving their cities bereft and empty, and ensconcing themselves in their homes to evade the contagion’s grasp. And even where it has been successfully suppressed, victory has only been secured at the cost of economic ruin.

Yes, human beings have successfully shaped aspects of the natural world. Such will no doubt continue after the present crisis subsides. But the virus has jolted us into recognizing an obvious truth: that nature’s teeming complexity persistently outstrips our ability to fully comprehend – and therefore fully control – its many secrets.

The world of economic networks provides a useful analogy. Philosopher Edward Feser recently wrote about the late F.A. Hayek, arguing that the Anglo-Austrian economist believed that the “deep reason” socialism could not work in practice is that human planners simply cannot hold within their mental grip the “vast aggregate” of human needs and wants composing an economic system. Imagine, then, attempting to firmly grasp (much less dominate) the entire scheme of nature, including its near-limitless ensemble of organisms and ecological cycles. The natural world is a great, roiling cauldron, its various ingredients clashing – sometimes violently – in ways so diverse that they defy human calculation. Moreover, as anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has written (in relation to modern Amazonian farmers), our environments, far from being docile or compliant, frequently exhibit a “robust, defiant vitality” in the face of human efforts to conquer them. COVID-19 is only the latest manifestation of that defiance. What can this mean but that total sovereignty over the natural world will forever remain a vaporous dream – a “chasing after the wind” (to borrow from Ecclesiastes)?

This basic lack of control applies even to that part of nature we know best: our own bodies. Whilst there have been far deadlier pandemics in human history, the Coronavirus is probably the largest mass health event of the late-modern age – an era of rapidly ageing populations, advanced medicine, and the miracle-like defiance of death’s ravages. Although the world’s immiserated past and present have known that life is a delicate gift, modern folk are “culturally insulated…from the notion of death…”. The relentless, exhausting ubiquity of the present outbreak, uprooting and frustrating every dimension of the ordinary, or tearing at communities in highly developed nations, has forced us into a reckoning with our own mortality – the necessary sequel to our finitude and creatureliness. Human illusions have once again been exposed by the pathogen, particularly where they have taken root in cultures that simply expect inexorable progress. Rather than bending nature to the force of our collective will, we are invariably its subjects.

In similar fashion, the contagion shatters the belief that humanity occupies a position of transcendence over nature. That much should be apparent from what I have said about the virus and the human body, with our native fragility exposed in the most intimate fashion. COVID-19 forces us to recognize the sobering fact that human beings, for all their unique capabilities, remain denizens of the natural order. We are not so thoroughly different that we can claim some kind of ontological autonomy; the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the created world remain permeable. Whatever else it is, humanity is ineradicably physical, having been formed by the same material compounds that compose the environments we inhabit and the resources we consume. Not only do we depend on propitious circumstances within nature for our survival; we are also shaped by the natural world to a remarkable degree, even at the level of deep genetic change (as the field of epigenetics is rapidly discovering). Our corporeality means that we are conditioned by the natural world – whether for good or for ill – for we cannot exist as fully enfleshed human beings apart from that framework. As theologian Christopher Benson has rightly pointed out, our embodied state means that we cannot be completely “sealed off”, as it were, from the external world. We cannot avoid the truth that we are integrated members of precisely the same ecological system that produced COVID-19. All of us are bound to a system that not only sustains us, but also leaves us vulnerable to its predations.

Seeking guidance from a more ancient source

The pathogen has surely succeeded in undermining modern pretensions. But might it not also clear ground for new attitudes to take root – attitudes that are more consistent with reality as one finds it?

The Christian Scriptures and the wisdom they have inspired lay out the rudiments of an alternative approach to the natural world. For one thing, the Bible provides clear witness to nature’s untameable power. Whether one envisions the present natural world as an Augustinian corruption from a paradisal state, or as an unfinished project still wrestling with discordant elements, the fact remains that it is replete with titanic forces that frequently issue in destruction. Even a brief glance, say, at the psalms reveals word after poetic word concerning creation’s ferocity. The sea, for example, was often used as a particularly arresting image for the looming chaos that threatened God’s people (e.g., Pss 29:3-10; 69:14-15; 77:16; 104:6-9). Such was its raw, inscrutable, untamed power that it functioned as the perfect embodiment for cosmic evil. Only Yahweh himself, Israel’s covenant God, was able to tame those unruly forces, shutting up the sea and subduing the mythical beasts of Leviathan and Behemoth (Ps 104:7-9; Job 41). These elements resonated as well as they did because people intuitively understood that the natural world is a fearsome, independent power, often exceeding – and even overwhelming – humanity’s capacity to control it.

The book of Job, with its extended meditation on suffering, offers particular insights in this regard. By the end of his confrontation with God, Job himself arrives at a fresh understanding of the limits of his own vision. He recognizes anew his small and restricted place within the grand production of nature: a world that exhibits both comforting regularities and the rude shock of unexpected destruction (Job 42:3b). His sober conclusion comes after the divine speeches, in which the Creator humbles the protagonist with a battery of rhetorical questions about the nature of creation (Job 38-40). Such questions serve to underscore the relative powerlessness of human beings in the face of creation’s apparently unbounded character. The unavoidable implication is, of course, that only the sovereign Creator is capable of bringing to heel the natural world.

The appearance of COVID-19 should provoke us towards a similar change: a re-orientation of our relationship to the natural world, which reflects the sobriety of scriptural tradition. To be sure, the ancients were at the mercy of natural forces in a way that isn’t quite true for many of us today. But with the virus having undercut the modern aspiration of control over nature and her ways, the time is ripe for re-acquaintance with the biblical picture of a dynamic, sometimes unbridled creation – at once fit for human habitation and a place of lurking, unseen risk. Reflecting on the Joban experience, physicist (and practising Christian) Tim Reddish has observed that Scripture often conceives of the boundary between chaos and order in the natural world as an “unpredictable”, porous one: chaos has of course been assigned its place by a sovereign God, who corrals and even uses it. But chaos has not been eradicated.

Seen through the lens of a biblical theology of creation, the Coronavirus provides an object lesson in humility before the sometimes-dangerous freedom of nature, especially for modern people accustomed to its apparent domestication. Re-appropriating a biblical view of the natural world as something that continues to exhibit such independence may also lay the psychological and spiritual groundwork for a new preparedness, a new resilience, in the face ecological calamity. Those who can humbly acknowledge the enduring reality of an untamed creation – consistent with the truth of our own finitude and limitations – will be better equipped to withstand the maelstrom, even when it threatens to thoroughly strip everything away. This isn’t to counsel fatalism or passivity in the midst of disaster; human beings ought to do what they can to mitigate nature’s destructive power, and alleviate suffering wherever they find it. But if clinging to the narrative of complete human sovereignty over nature can lead to existential crisis when it revolts, perhaps the opposite attitude will – paradoxically – anchor us during such travails. In fact, the equanimity won through adoption of a biblical perspective undergirds precisely the kind of existential and moral strength needed if a person is to extend herself in love to others during times of disaster.

Scripture also challenges the idea that humanity somehow sits outside the natural order, bestriding it as an overlord. Of course, this claim is bound to raise some eyebrows: ever since Lynn White, Jr. argued in 1967 that the Judeo-Christian view of the natural world was at the root of the present ecological crisis, many people have assumed as much without question. It’s true that the Bible’s foundational creation stories posit both humanity’s uniqueness and its role over the rest of creation, acting as God’s steward and vice-regent to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Psalm 8). At least two points, however, must be borne in mind. First, the early chapters of Genesis envision, not the despoliation of nature as a result of human arrogance, but the natural world being harnessed and shaped so that it might flourish all the more. Second, we must also contend with the fact that to tend the earth is, according to Scripture, part of what it means to be made in God’s image (cf. Gen 2:15). Loving husbandry of the natural world is a reflection of God’s own creative character. Christians, moreover, remain convinced that this key vocation is refracted through the person of Jesus, who provides for us the supreme expression of the imago dei. His own life offers the true model for the relationship between human beings and the natural world, for it reveals the posture of humble service – not ruthless exploitation – lying at the heart of authentic humanity (e.g., John 13:1-17).

In any case, whilst Scripture envisions human beings as acting on God’s behalf to bring order to that which he has fashioned, it is under no illusions concerning the place his image-bearers occupy within the natural order. Man may have the breath of life flowing through him, but he is also of the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). We straddle the ontological “border” between the material and immaterial, but that does not change the fact that we are composed of the same physical “stuff” as the rest of creation. Indeed, humans share a certain kinship with the natural world, given our common “earthiness”. Scripture resolutely recognizes this: it acknowledges that humans remain denizens of creation, participating fully in an ecological order that sustains them (cf. Ps 103:14). As the legendary OT scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, Genesis 2:7 conceives of “the human person [as] fundamentally and elementally material in origin and composition, genuinely an ‘earth-creature’, subject to all the realities and limitations of materiality”. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on the same text, “the essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as body” (emphasis mine).

The book of Genesis sees humanity as a member of nature’s ensemble of creatures, sharing in the same qualities as non-human animals – and, of course, the same vulnerabilities to disease and death. In fact, it depicts the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation in almost covenantal terms, with a tight causal nexus existing between God’s image-bearers and the natural world. Humanity cannot escape the vagaries of that world, at least not entirely, and certainly not on this side of redemption. Theologian Terence Fretheim suggests that the cosmos is “communal” in nature; “its basic relatedness” means that “every creature will be touched by the movement of every other”. And in this present, discordant reality, those interactions include the lethal effects of a global pandemic, as a microscopic pathogen spreads decay and disorder simply by acting according to its nature. COVID-19, for all the misery it has wrought, has also exposed something important about our relationship with nature. Christian tradition brings that relationship into sharper focus – encouraging renewed respect for the natural boundaries that have been placed around us, as well as our own obligations as participating members of the natural world’s web of life.

Concluding thoughts

Several writers and commentators have termed the Coronavirus “apocalyptic”. In deploying this term, they do not mean to suggest that the end of world is at hand, or that we are soon destined for a cosmic conflagration. Rather, it has been used in its original sense, to refer to an “unveiling” or “revelation”. And so the contagion has proved, exposing many uncomfortable realities that lay just beneath the surface, and overturning previously settled narratives. The ones I have surveyed here are perhaps some of the most deeply-rooted in the modern psyche, having the benefit of centuries to consolidate themselves within Western culture. Nevertheless, a catastrophe like COVID-19, with its capacity to leave people reeling existentially, is enough to call them into question. But the dislocation many have experienced may ultimately bring some good in its wake – auguring a transformed, more wholesome, relationship between humanity and the rest of the nature, and encouraging a far more proportionate understanding of the place human beings occupy within the “robust…vitality” of the ecological system.

Moreover, the Christian tradition offers the resources needed to sustain a more humble, self-effacing engagement with the rest of the natural world, which even now acts as a check on the (illusory) idea of borderless human power. Indeed, that tradition happily acknowledges the persistent fact of humanity’s limitations – its conditioned existence, in other words – living in a pre-established order that does not always bend easily to our whims.

Christians, of course, are compelled to go further. The advent of COVID-19 may also stimulate a re-appropriation of the great fact underlying our true place within the natural world: the reality of divine sovereignty over creation. This has the effect of underscoring our own dependency as beings constituted by finite matter, who only exist as a consequence of God’s gracious sustenance. Far from being the unconditioned masters of nature, we rely, not simply on the panoply of the created order, but upon the One who sustains it. As the Apostle declared, “in him [i.e., God] we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). From a Christian perspective, the pathogen’s advent is a challenge to re-affirm, not the unrestrained attempts of human beings to exploit a passively-waiting environment, but the boundless God’s ruling hand over something that pulsates with his life and power. By deflating the modern ego, COVID-19 has, perhaps, created space for a return to a theologically-centred view of the natural world, in which human beings abide by the natural limits set for them.

Such a journey is both humbling and comforting. It is humbling for two, complementary reasons: first, it requires humans to accept their places within (and not above) a finely-balanced ecological network; but, second, it summons people to de-centre themselves, to abandon the anthropocentric proclivities of the modern age, and to focus on the Creator instead. But in that re-orientation lie the seeds of true comfort, for it encourages trust in Him whose providential control persists, even during the tumult of a global pandemic. Whether one turns to Genesis 1 to read of the Creator assigning places to the sun and the moon (which were worshiped as deities by many ancients), or Psalm 104, which extols God’s dominion over the things he has made, Scripture is unswaying in its declaration of his kingship. Whereas the story of human sovereignty over nature now lies in tatters, Christianity offers an alternative account: of the wise, loving, and ultimately redemptive power exhibited by the One who alone can rightfully claim this world for himself.

Christians, Muslims, and the Reference to God

Introduction

Do Christians and Muslims refer to the same God? Are they citing the same being? Or are the followers of Muhammed – as some Christians hold – rallying behind nothing more than an idol of their own making?

These are questions that arise (better: erupt) from time to time, often cohabiting with a raft of political issues concerning the contested place of Muslims in modern Western societies. Their intermingling means that one’s answers tend to be governed, not by considered analysis of the relevant data, but by tribal affiliation. The subservience of open enquiry doesn’t augur well for the successful pursuit of truth; as previous debates have demonstrated, such efforts are often hamstrung when pre-fabricated narratives or partisan scripts are substituted for genuine, critical reflection.

If truth exists at all in this debate, then it is likely to lie in the relatively austere domains of philosophy and theology. This doesn’t mean the questions are thereby rendered straightforward; even shorn of their inevitable political accretions, they remain far more vexing than many people recognize. Had I myself been asked these questions several years ago, I would have considered the answers absurdly self-evident: Christians and Muslims are most certainly not in contact with the same God, whether referentially or by means of (attempted) worship; above all, I would have argued that the doctrine of the Trinity presents an insuperable theological barrier to harmonisation.

The passage of time, however, has led to a certain mellowing. Whilst I hesitate to reject my earlier position entirely, I think the subject demands a response that navigates the relevant issues in a more discrete, nuanced – even tentative – manner. It is precisely this kind of approach that I shall adopt in the following post, as I engage in a somewhat recursive conversation with those who have applied themselves to the matter. Where partisan loyalties have frustrated past debates, philosophical and theological reflection can encourage precisely the kind of intellectual sobriety that is so often lacking.

One quick caveat before moving on. Throughout this essay, I will be focusing primarily on the concept of reference, as opposed to the richer, more layered activity associated with worship. I regard those as distinct (yet deeply related and overlapping) acts: simply referring to something is not necessarily the same, of course, as venerating it. Even so, worship logically requires the success of denotation, and is in fact a subset of that broader intentional category. Many people in these debates have simply jumped to the question of worship without first considering the prior question of reference. I think it important to prise them apart, in order to avoid unnecessary conflation and confusion. As such, I shall focus on the fundamental issue of reference; time permitting, I will reserve further comments on worship and veneration for a separate post.

Sense and reference

Let’s begin with a common point of discussion. In the course of past debates, people of a more philosophical bent have often reached for the semantic distinction between sense and reference as a way of understanding how Christians and Muslims might well be referring to the same God. First enunciated by the German philosopher, Gottlob Frege, it’s the idea that two or more people can refer to the same object, even if they do so in contrasting ways; the referent or entity in question may be the same, but the expressions used to “present” it linguistically may differ. A stock example is the way the planet Venus is described as “the morning star” and “the evening star”, depending on the time at which it is viewed. Or, to borrow an analogy from the world of comic books, Superman, Clark Kent, and Kal-El all refer to the same individual, despite differences in designation. Simply using contrasting expressions, therefore, doesn’t automatically entail that the subject of such expressions isn’t one and the same thing.

Proponents of the view that Christians and Muslims refer to the same God would say that something similar obtains here. Even if the followers of Christ and Muhammed describe God differently – “God” and “Allah”, respectively – it doesn’t necessarily follow that they aren’t at least referring to the same deity. As the Superman example demonstrates, it’s possible for descriptions of an object to differ in sense, without demanding a corresponding distinction in reference. A difference in linguistic expression is, in other words, logically compatible with sameness of referent. As the yea-sayers might argue, Muslims and Christians are talking fundamentally about the same being, despite certain terminological differences; “Allah” and “God” (or “Yahweh”) are, on this view, different designations for what is the one entity.

All this is true, so far as it goes. But as the philosopher, Bill Vallicella, observes, whilst a difference in sense is logically consistent with sameness of reference, it’s also consistent with substantial difference: Cassius Clay and Muhammed Ali are the same person; Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, by contrast, are not. Vallicella also notes, by way of his own example, that sufficiently large differences in sense can create a cumulative difference in reference. Say two people use “God” to describe their respective conceptualisations of the deity. The first person uses his chosen label to denote a transcendent, necessary being who created everything distinct from himself, and preserves the entire panoply of existent reality at every moment. The second person, by contrast, uses his preferred designation to refer to a contingent being who exists within the space-time universe, and who fashioned our world out of pre-existing matter – a kind of Platonic demiurge, as it were. As Vallicella rightly avers, a being cannot be both contingent and necessary; as such, the people in this analogy cannot be said to be referring to the same entity.

This wouldn’t, by itself, provide warrant for the sceptic (although I’m not suggesting that Vallicella is necessarily arguing in this direction). It leaves unsaid just what differences are required for a distinction in linguistic presentation to lead to a corresponding divergence of referents. In the example cited above, the differences are so great and so obvious – i.e., the respective natures of the entities in question are fundamentally incompatible – that one can be justified in saying that the two interlocutors part ways in their objects of reference. By contrast, whilst Christians and Muslims differ on some important aspects of their respective understandings of God/Allah, adherents to these religions espouse a basic monotheism that is similar in key respects (transcendence, sovereignty, eternality, immateriality, etc.). The analogy, therefore, may not have quite the same force if applied to the question at hand, precisely because the contingent-necessary/transcendent-immanent distinctions alluded to earlier do not obtain here (I’ll return to the issue of shared monotheism simpliciter, and whether it provides warrant for saying Christians and Muslims refer to the same God).

Nevertheless, I think Vallicella’s essential point is valid: the sense-reference distinction doesn’t actually get one very far. At best, it might compel someone to migrate from occupying a negative position on the question, to a form of agnosticism.

Assessing some common analogies

As the last analogy above demonstrates, it’s sometimes the case that two (or more) individuals can refer to what is putatively the same object, only to find that their respective beliefs diverge so widely that sameness of referent is simply impossible. But some argue that even where one person’s understanding conflicts with another’s, both parties may nonetheless enjoy a shared object of reference. The philosopher, Francis Beckwith, has argued in just such a fashion. He offers as an example a scenario in which two women, Lois Lane and Lana Lang, are both infatuated with Superman. Lois correctly believes Superman to be a native Kryptonian, whilst Lana erroneously thinks he is a native Kansan, born to his human parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent. Beckwith goes on to assert that even though Lois’ and Lana’s beliefs about Superman are incompatible, and even though Lana holds incorrect beliefs about the object of her affections, they nonetheless refer to one and the same individual.

A similar example (deployed by the philosopher, Edward Feser) concerns a sharply-dressed man drinking from a Martini glass at a soiree. One person, spying the man from across the room, incorrectly thinks he is drinking a Martini. A second person, however, rightly believes him to be drinking only water. However, it is still the case that both people are referring to the same gentleman, despite holding incompatible beliefs about him (i.e., the contents of his drink), and despite one person being wrong about certain of the man’s properties. Proponents go on to say that although Muslims hold what Christians regard as erroneous beliefs about God, they – like the person who thinks the dapper gent is drinking a Martini – are successfully referring to the same entity.

What to make of these analogies? Do they successfully establish the point that claimants wish to make? I have my doubts. I agree with Lydia McGrew that they are question-begging, for they assume what they are meant to prove. That is, the analogies rest on the presumption that Christians and Muslims are referring to the same God, and reason from there. Take Beckwith’s example first: without the prior supposition that Lana and Lois are both referring to the same man, the analogy loses its force. Within the context of the fictional world created by DC, both women are in touch with Superman, having become acquainted with him personally. We can therefore say that despite incompatible – and indeed, erroneous – beliefs, they are connected to the same person.  But the question as to whether Christians and Muslims are somehow in touch with the same deity is precisely what is at issue, being the axis upon which the entire debate turns.

Moreover, as readers, we occupy a privileged vantage point, which allows us to say that Lana and Lois are indeed referring to the same man. But the same does not apply in the case of God’s identity, for we are all ensconced within the epistemological limits of finite existence – such that the “bird’s-eye” view possible in Beckwith’s Superman analogy is entirely precluded here. The same kind of shared perceptual certainty doesn’t obtain in the case of Christians, Muslims, and God, largely because the ontological status of Superman (again, within the confines of the fictional narrative) is quite different from that of the transcendent Creator. As McGrew rightly notes, the analogy only shows that there are certain times when two people can have diametrically opposing views about an object, and yet still refer successfully to one and the same thing. It establishes nothing more than that.

The same problem afflicts Feser’s “dapper man” analogy. If you and I are looking at the same person at a party, then our external senses allow us to detect, or “lock onto”, a common physical object. This would be so, despite our conflicting beliefs regarding the contents of his Martini glass. Moreover, because of our shared perceptual “grasp” of the man in question, we are able to confirm that conclusion through other forms of publicly-available sense data (e.g., that he’s speaking to a woman in a red dress, that he has a white flower attached to his lapel, that he has a pencil moustache, and so on). But how, I ask, can we do this of God? He is not an object of the senses like the smartly-dressed man, just as he isn’t an object of the senses like Superman is in relation to Lois and Lana. As I observed a moment earlier, his ontological status means that he is not susceptible to perceptual detection; there are no shared sense data to which people can appeal in order to determine whether or not they are successfully referring to him. On the assumption that God exists, his nature is such that he utterly eludes our ability to perceive him with the senses. Whereas men of a certain sartorial cut are denizens of the material order, God is the very foundation of that order. Cognate with this status is his complete transcendence over physical reality, and thus his essential immateriality – qualities that explain why he is not susceptible to detection using one’s normal perceptual apparatus.

As Bill Vallicella observes, “we are not acquainted with God” (where knowledge by acquaintance is being used in a technical sense, to distinguish it from knowledge by description). In the absence of other forms of knowing – e.g., mystical experience of some kind – “we are”, he says, “thrown back upon our concepts of God”. And those concepts cannot be anchored in the same way that shared sense data can, particularly as some of the core aspects of this debate – the most prominent being God’s supposedly triune nature – are believed to be revealed truths. This isn’t to say that Muslims and Christians aren’t successfully referring to the same God; that would represent a certain hastiness in one’s logic. But it is to say that analogies like Feser’s fall short of establishing his case, precisely because of crucial disanalogies between well-dressed men and God.

Allusion to the Christian belief in God’s triunity brings me to another important difference between Feser’s analogy and the issue at hand. Whether a certain man at a party is drinking a Martini or water is of little importance where his essential nature is concerned. Feser himself would likely say that this remains an accidental property of the gentleman. As such, incompatible beliefs over the contents of his glass do not significantly impinge (if at all) on questions concerning his nature or identity. If the same man were drinking something else, or even nothing at all, he would still be the same man, and his nature – according to an Aristotelian like Feser – would be that of a rational animal.[1]

But the elements of Feser’s analogy seem to be unlike those of the current debate. For Christians, God’s triunity isn’t some kind of secondary or accidental property, like a Martini glass nursed at a party. Nor it is a metaphysical adjunct or addition to an already-existent monotheism – as if the divine nature could persist apart from its instantiation as a triunity of divine hypostases. On a Christian view, the Trinity is utterly essential to who God is, such that he does not exist separately from it. Remove his triunity (were that even possible), and you’re not simply left with a radically unitarian deity; metaphysically-speaking, you’re left instead with nothing at all.

In other words, the dispute isn’t over comparatively minor or non-essential properties; they have no bearing on who someone is (even if, under certain circumstances, they may aid identification). Rather, the question hangs on differences that go to the very heart of the divine nature. This might appear to raise the distinct possibility that Christians and Muslims aren’t merely quibbling over theological details; rather, they may well be referring to different things entirely when they use the linguistic token “God”. Of course, I am not quite saying that members of these religions certainly aren’t referring to the same God. But I am led to roughly the same conclusion that I was before: Feser’s analogy provides insufficient grounds to argue that they are.

The Trinity: an insurmountable obstacle?

I want to linger on the Trinity a little longer, for whether the doctrine prevents Muslims and Christians from referring to the same God invariably underlies competing positions. Driven by their uncompromising belief in Tawhid, or God’s unitary nature, Muslims utterly reject the idea of the Trinity as a lapse into polytheism. On the other side of the divide, a number of (usually conservative) Christian commentators are convinced that anyone who denies God’s triune being cannot legitimately be denoting the same deity as orthodox followers of Christ. Talk of sense and reference, or of analogies intended to suggest identity of denotation (despite diverging beliefs about the object in question) is ultimately irrelevant: God’s triunity, according to some, makes it obvious that Christians and Muslims are treading completely unrelated paths in their conceptions of God.

Commenting on the issue, Bruce McCormack, a theologian at Yale, sketched a possible case for why Christians and Muslims do not worship – or indeed, refer to – the same God, building that case on the bedrock of Trinitarian conceptions of God’s nature (note well that this isn’t McCormack’s personal opinion). In his essay,[2] McCormack rightly observes that on a Christian view, God is essentially triune. The concept of the Trinity cannot be arrived at simply by adding “three-ness” to a prior commitment to divine oneness. For the follower of Christ, triunity is woven into his very being. It isn’t a kind of “fourth” quality in which the members of the godhead participate (as three human beings might be said to “participate” in a common human nature distinct from any one of them). Again, the Christian God is constituted by his tri-personal nature. All of this is to say that anyone breezily claiming that Christians and Muslims do indeed refer to the same God needs to reckon with the possible implications of what Christians regard as God’s radical, thoroughgoing trinitarian character.

It might seem, then, that Muslims – who adhere to God’s absolute oneness – and Christians do not refer to the same God, given they hold antithetical doctrines about him. McCormack’s comments on what exactly it means for God to be triune appear simply to deepen that divide. Similarly, Bill Vallicella has objected that one being cannot satisfy both triunity and non-triunity – meaning that a Christian and a Muslim cannot, in his view, be directing their beliefs and intentional states towards the same entity. Whilst Vallicella may be more circumspect than others, he appears to be fairly settled in his view that Muslims fail to refer to any extralinguistic entity.

However, there are three reasons why I am not quite satisfied. In fact, they may even provide grounds for saying that Christians and Muslims, for all their key differences, ultimately do refer to the same God.

Metaphysics, logic, and God’s triunity

First, whilst God’s triune nature is for Christians an inescapable part of who he is, it’s also the case that one can make a logical (as opposed to metaphysical) distinction between this and his basic unity.[3] Indeed, the fact that many of the early Christians held to monarchical views of God suggests as much (to say nothing of contemporary Christians, who are likely to adhere to a de facto Monarchianism. Are they, too, referring to a different God?). What I mean is that despite the importance of the doctrine – and behind that, God’s essentially trinitarian being – it remains possible to logically distinguish God’s “three-ness” and his oneness. To put the point in a slightly different way, monotheism is logically prior to trinitarianism; one must first have a concept of God’s fundamental unity, uniqueness, transcendence, etc., before one can then conceive of the Trinity. If one can logically differentiate these two dimensions of God’s nature; and if his unity is the logical predicate for anything else that might be true of him; then it seems possible to be able to refer successfully to him simply by acknowledging the fundamentals of monotheism.

As such, it may be sufficient for Muslims to hold to basic monotheistic beliefs (God as a unity, transcendent, eternal, the creator of everything distinct from himself, etc.), since they alone might allow one to say that both the followers of Muhammed and Christ refer to the same deity. The former may deny the Trinity, to be sure; but because triune depictions of God are logically “contained” within broader, more general conceptions of monotheism – conceptions that are common to both religious systems – successful reference is perhaps possible, even if crucial Christian distinctives are rejected.

This is where Vallicella’s “contradiction” argument, alluded to above, perhaps falls short. Although it is true that no being can be both triune and non-triune, triunity and monotheism are not exhaustively opposed in the same way that other polarities are. A number cannot be both odd and even, for oddness logically banishes its opposite. Similarly, contingency and necessity, to which I referred earlier, are mutually exclusive. But whilst contingency excludes necessity (and visa-versa), triunity and monotheism don’t cancel each other out in the relevant way. Once again, trinitarian conceptions of God build on basic monotheism; they may be woefully incomplete on a Christian reading, but they don’t thereby preclude the possibility of additional theological constructions along trinitarian lines. On the other hand, there is simply no sense to be made of the notions that (e.g.) an odd number is built upon the basic idea of evenness, or that a being’s contingency might be grounded in necessity.

Distinguishing God in himself and our knowledge of him

The second observation bleeds into the first, having been suggested by the fact that one can logically distinguish between God’s unity (part of basic monotheism) and his trinitarian nature. Such distinctions allow a person to develop concepts regarding the former without determining the plausibility of the latter. There seems to be a logical difference, then, between God as he is and the way we might conceptualize him. Edward Feser asks us to consider a scenario whereby God is essentially triune, but never undertook any of the actions that Christians attribute to him (the election of Israel, the incarnation of Christ, the founding of the church, revealing himself as a trinity of divine persons, etc.). Feser rightly argues that all of this is metaphysically possible even though God would remain a trinity. People would only know God in a bare monotheistic sense, but the de-coupling of religious epistemology from God’s nature ad intra implies that this would not prevent them from successfully referring to him. It shows that whilst God is, of metaphysical necessity, triune (at least according to Christians), one can still conceive of him apart from that triunity; the Trinity may entail something vital about God’s being, but it does not entail that “we cannot conceptualize” him in non-trinitarian terms. To think otherwise, Feser notes, is to confuse epistemology and metaphysics.

The Jewish experience

My third and final point acts as something of a real-world proving ground for the above theoretical observations. It concerns the key question of Jewish understandings of God. As several commentators have observed, the experience of the Jewish people tends to undercut the claim that the Trinity ultimately separates Muslims and Christians in their references to God. For Jews, just as much as Muslims, deny that God is a trinity of persons. Those who are quick to say that Muslims refer to a different “God” as a result of their rejection of the doctrine are also likely to insist that this doesn’t present a barrier to successful reference in the case of Jews. But if both sets of religious believers adhere to a radically unitarian view of God, why is it only Muslims that are said to fail in their attempted references? Some have argued the “genetic” link between the Jewish religion and the sect that eventually became Christianity is enough to ensure identity of reference: because observant Jews follow Yahweh as depicted in the Old Testament, then they are referring to the God whom Christians believe revealed himself climactically in the person of Jesus Christ. Lydia McGrew makes this observation, and suggests that there is a fundamental “asymmetry” between Judaism and Islam at precisely this point: whilst the God in whom Jews believe chose the children of Abraham and established a covenant relationship with them, no such relationship exists between him and Muslims.

This is certainly true, but I’m not sure how germane it is to the debate. If it’s the case that a rejection of the Trinity means that one fails to refer to the same God as Christians, then I don’t know why Jews and Muslims ought to be considered differently – Abrahamic covenants notwithstanding. As far as I can see, either the Trinity is essential for reference, or it isn’t. If a Jewish person denies the Trinity, and acceptance of that doctrine is (as proponents hold) necessary for successful denotation, how does Yahweh’s historic pact with Abraham change such a state of affairs? Rejection of the Trinity, on this view, surely entails failure of reference, regardless of other considerations. I myself can’t help but think that the limiting principle of God’s triunity is being inconsistently applied.

Of course, McGrew does admit that in a sense, Jews and Christians “worship” (her word) different gods,[4] precisely because of differences concerning the Trinity. But she maintains that the historic link between Judaism and Christianity entails a certain commonality of reference. Now, Muslims traditionally believe that God acted in the way the Old Testament describes, just as Jews and Christians do. They also believe, of course, that God revealed himself climactically to Muhammed, which both Christians and Jews deny. McGrew says that this, along with a categorical rejection of the Trinity, is enough to sever any lingering connection they might have with the one, true God.

I am inclined to think that McGrew over-extends herself at this point. Again, if modern-day Jews can still successfully refer to God, despite denying what Christians see as his essential nature, why not Muslims? A more proportionate view of the situation might acknowledge the grave deficiencies contained in Muslim conceptions of God (in regards to both his actions and his nature), without thereby taking the further step of suggesting that followers of Muhammed fail to stand in referential relationship with the same God as Christians. Although the Trinity is, from a Christian point of view, essential to God’s being, there is still a distinction between mistaken – even “deeply mistaken” – beliefs about the one true God, and referring to another deity altogether.

Are overlapping beliefs relevant?

It’s true that some have argued that the kind of position I have just sketched inevitably leads to a diluted or “generic” form of monotheism. Bill Vallicella seems to suggest that the overlap between Christians and Muslims – something he cheerfully admits – is a mere abstraction, and doesn’t actually refer to the concrete, determinate deity in question. An analogy might help to flesh this idea out a little more. It’s possible for two people to refer to the abstract idea of the President of the United States via a description of his powers and constitutional responsibilities, all while failing to denote the same, concrete individual. There may be some generic overlap between their respective descriptions, even if the first person is actually referring to Abraham Lincoln, whilst the second person is referring to, say, Richard Nixon. In similar fashion, Christians and Muslims may well share some common assumptions regarding God’s nature, but divergences concerning his triunity (so the argument might go) entail nothing more than reference to an attenuated concept.

I don’t want to dismiss Vallicella’s objection entirely, but once again, I am drawn to the notion that the logical distinction between monotheism simpliciter and its trinitarian sub-species implies that one can successfully refer to God, even if he should fall short of a complete account of the deity. The analogy I have used draws on something of which there have been multiple instantiations, for there have been many presidents since the founding of the United States. Christians and Muslims, however, coincide in their belief that only one God exists to whom they both claim to refer.[5] In the case of American commanders-in-chief, it’s possible to distinguish between an abstracted notion of “President of the United States” and the particular men who have fulfilled that role. I don’t think the same is true here: unlike the office of the President and the distinct individuals who have occupied it, God’s “whatness” is, on a monotheistic view, identical with who he is. In fact, given the radical uniqueness Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) ascribe to God – which means he cannot be a “member” of a genus, or an instantiation of a general type – I think it well-nigh impossible to find a comparable analogy.

Despite significant differences concerning aspects of God’s nature, Christians and Muslims still maintain a series of shared beliefs: that the deity is utterly distinct from all else; that he is the transcendent, self-sustaining creator of everything; that he is the ultimate source for all things; and so forth. Whilst for Christians, such a depiction is in need of further refinement (given our trinitarianism), it’s accurate as far as it goes. And if it’s true that there is only one deity – i.e., only one metaphysically ultimate being underlying and sustaining all else – then it’s hard to see how Muslims could refer to an abstracted concept that fails to coincide with the concrete particular represented by the appellation “God”. Vallicella writes that the “overlap” between Christ followers and Muslims “is but an abstraction insufficient to determine an identifying reference to a concrete, wholly determinate, particular”. But I would argue that in the case of God, the common ground they occupy is sufficient – precisely because of the monotheistic base to which both religions hold. As Feser has argued, “if someone affirms” the key elements of a (classically) theistic view of God, “then there is at least a strong presumption in favour of the conclusion that he is referring to…the true God”.

Some concluding thoughts

Where does all of this leave me on the question of Muslims, Christians, and the reference to God? It’s perhaps clear that I have moved, ever so tentatively, to the conclusion that adherents from both religions ultimately refer to the same God – and this, despite wide disagreement on some important aspects of his nature and being. As a Christian, I regard the Islamic rejection of the Trinity as deeply erroneous; but notwithstanding the possible significance of God’s essential triunity – a point to which I am not unsympathetic – I think the followers of Muhammed hold to a theological conception that in many crucial respects coincides with a Christian understanding. I don’t think proponents of this view have always mounted the strongest of arguments, and the most common analogies offered fall well short of demonstrating commonality of reference. But on balance, I think that the arguments I have pursued here are probably sufficient to establish the claim that Christians and Muslims are referring to one and the same deity. I would therefore largely agree with the conclusion reached by Reformed theologians, Jeroen de Ridder and Rene van Wondenberg, in their Faith and Philosophy essay:

[The question] doesn’t allow a univocal answer. On the one hand, since belief in the same God requires roughly a certain commitment to the same characterization of God, Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not believe in the same God…On the other hand…the Reformed view can be taken to entail that the word “God” as used in the three religions refers to the same God and, differences notwithstanding, there is certainly striking partial overlap in their characterization of God and his nature.

I should also say that whilst I don’t ultimately share Bill Vallicella’s conclusion on the matter, I agree with him that an obvious answer either way is extremely difficult; apart from anything else, the fact that God is not an object of sense perception means that assessing claims of shared reference are far from straightforward. Moreover, Vallicella is surely correct when he says that people who think otherwise simply haven’t engaged in the arduous process of intellectual and philosophical reflection. It is largely a matter of weighing probabilities, as opposed to tight, logical certainty; of cautiously rendering judgment, based on sincere and genuine engagement with views both consistent and discordant. All participants would do well to bear such advice in mind.

[1] Of course, not all accidental properties are so unimportant where the question of successful reference is concerned. For example, skin colour could be seen as an accidental property, in that the amount of melanin a person possesses has no bearing on his essential humanity. But imagine if we were talking about a certain individual, someone I believed was white and you believed was black. In that instance, it’s harder to see how we could be referring to the same person.

[2] Unfortunately, McCormack’s essay no longer appears to be available online. My references in this blog post are taken from handwritten notes I made before his piece vanished. You’ll have to trust me that I have faithfully rendered his views! For excerpts and a summary of McCormack’s piece, see this entry at the Faith and Theology blogsite (now defunct).

[3] Drawing such distinctions between various aspects of God’s nature is, of course, different from saying that those aspects are metaphysically distinct (and therefore theoretically separable). This means that there is no conflict between what I said before, concerning the constitutional nature of God’s triunity, and what I argue in the present paragraph.

[4] Although McGrew discusses the issue in terms of worship, her TGC essay seems to imply that Christians and Muslims do not even refer to the same deity.

[5] This is different from Michael Rea’s “one God” argument that Christians and Muslims refer to, and even worship, the same being. If I understand Rea correctly, he suggests that because Christians and Muslims both maintain that there is one God, they are logically referring to the same entity. He writes: “Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God; but they agree on this much: there is exactly one God. This common point of agreement is logically equivalent to thesis that all Gods are the same God. In other words, everyone who worships a God worships the same God, no matter how different their views about God might be.”

This seems to me to be incorrect. Surely there are some views about God that should make us think that two people have failed to refer to the same being. For example, how can it be that a devotee of Baruch Spinoza (who essentially held to a form of pantheism) and a conservative Muslim are referring to one and the same entity when their beliefs are so radically different? Or, to use a slightly silly example, we might imagine someone who says that there is only one God and that he is Al Pacino. How is it the case, then, that the Pacino worshiper and an orthodox Christian are in touch with the same deity? One believes that a person of flesh and blood, who is material, in time, and subject to change is God; the other, however, believes in a God who is the creator of everything distinct from himself, the unsourced cause of all there is, timeless, self-sufficient, etc. These two conceptions of deity are fundamentally at odds, yet on Rea’s view, we’d have to say that both adherents are in referential relationship with the same God. I submit that Rea’s minimalist criterion is simply insufficient for what he wants to claim – and, moreover, an example of logical haste.

By contrast, my argument rests on the understanding that because Muslims and Christians affirm key, overlapping beliefs about God, and because they also insist that this God is one, unique, etc., then it’s difficult to see how they could be referring to different instantiations of the same category (i.e., “god-ness” or divinity). This is much more specific than Rea’s rather elastic argument, resting as it does on those distinguishing convictions that Muslims and Christians share.

Challenging the Secularist Narrative

In former times, secularism denoted the state’s neutrality in the face of competing worldviews and comprehensive claims about reality. Ideas could be freely trafficked in a pluralistic environment, whilst no one religion or creedal system could claim official establishment. Although people adhered to a minimum set of shared values – the better to preserve social and political harmony – all were permitted to enter the public square according to their own lights and their own convictions.

More recently, however, a new conception of secularism has arisen. Unlike its intellectual forebear, the contemporary model is neither neutral nor passive in regards to contrasting worldviews. Quite the contrary. In fact, it is largely built upon a fundamental antipathy towards what it sees as the unwarranted encroachments of mere “belief”. Much of this ire has been directed, of course, at religion. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse exemplify this view, whilst Australia is also home to its own tribe of new secularists. Via various means, proponents of this view devote themselves to a vision of the public square expunged of the apparently baleful effects of anything allegedly lacking scientific objectivity.

The new secular project rests on two, complementary claims: that certain value-systems – particularly those codified in religious traditions – are hobbled by a corrosive irrationality; and that secularists enjoy the benefit of an objective, unmediated view of reality. For the new secularists, there exists an irreconcilable division between these two realms; between a grounded, life-giving realism, and an enervating superstition. However, despite their increasingly widespread popularity, these assertions are, I think, quite unfounded.

Let’s examine the first claim – namely, that religion is irrational. Dawkins encapsulates this view well when he condemns (religious) faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”. For him and those of his ilk, religion is bereft of rational justification and evidentiary grounding. This isn’t merely the claim that this religious adherent is irrational or that doctrinal formulation is without foundation; it is, rather, the much stronger assertion that religion as such is rationally deficient – the product of delusion, wishful thinking or a stultified intellect. Unfortunately, it illegitimately flattens out the diversity of religious belief and religious experience, in both nature and origin. An impossibly broad claim, it ignores the rich intellectual traditions of some of the world’s major religions, and the sophisticated arguments that have been developed to substantiate such beliefs.

For instance, I myself am rather partial to Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for that most fundamental of religious questions, God’s existence. In his First Way, a type of cosmological argument, Thomas argues that the everyday objects our experience, and their causal interactions with each other, furnish a base from which a person might reason, via metaphysical principles, to a sustaining cause of the structures of reality. He saw that finite things are possessed of latent properties that can only be “actualised” (that is, brought from the realm of the potential to the realm of the actual) by external forces; change within an object is the result of those forces acting upon it, whatever they may be. To take a simple example, a red rubber ball left in the sun will eventually turn a lighter shade of pink; place it near a hot flame, and it will, over time, change into a puddle of viscous goo.

According to Aquinas, these apparently trivial changes are part of larger, and more complex, chains of causation. Each member within that chain has only secondary causal power, simultaneously depending on earlier members for whatever potency it exercises. Delving down into ever deeper layers of reality, the First Way takes one to its basic structures. Simultaneously, it also argues against an infinite regress – that is, an infinite ribbon of casual activity, stretching downwards ad infinitum. According to Thomas, it would be metaphysically “groundless”, having nothing upon which to become extant. And if so, then it must terminate in a fundamental cause, sustaining all else and actualising all secondary causes. Sitting at the foundational strata of reality means that it could not, in principle, be a part of it – as if it were merely some finite feature of our world. Rather, it would have to be the very ground of all being, the metaphysical basis upon which the world exists in the first place. And for Aquinas, it would have to correspond to what people traditionally know as God.

Of course, new secularists might retort that most religious folk don’t think this way, but rather construct their beliefs in a more unreflective manner. However, this fails to realize that many arguments for, say, God’s existence – no matter how intellectually demanding – actually build upon the quotidian experiences and intuitive impulses of ordinary people. Aquinas’ own explorations depend on empirical observation in order get off the ground. Other arguments of this kind are partly based on a person’s ordinary (yet reasonable) reflections concerning causal principles, a sense of the transcendent, a belief in the world’s rational intelligibility, and even its apparent contingency. As the theologian Keith Ward notes, belief in the kind of God Aquinas sought to substantiate plausibly fulfils many of these longings – “for God”, he writes, “is ultimate reason…[and] the only belief which gives reason a fundamental place in reality”. Such arguments may distil, challenge or stretch certain aspects of a layperson’s unfocused understanding of theism. Nonetheless, they are not fundamentally at odds, and imply that the basic drives people possess towards the divine may be quite consistent with rational theistic accounts.

New secularists might still contend that such arguments simply fail to supply evidence for God’s existence – and therefore, lack any rational warrant for religious belief. For them, a reasonable belief is largely synonymous with what is empirically demonstrable. But as the philosopher Edward Feser has perceptively argued, this criticism founders for the very reason that it adopts an a priori (i.e., non-empirical) assumption about what counts as “rational”, “evidence”, or “warranted belief”. The scientific enterprise is merely one avenue towards knowledge and truth; other methods of rational inquiry exist, including mathematics and philosophy, which do not rely fundamentally on empirical observation. Moreover, the very assumptions scientific study takes for granted – the existence of the external world, its rational intelligibility, the reality of causation, or the general reliability of one’s senses – suggest that such a project cannot even get off the ground without implicitly appealing beyond itself.

What, then, of the new secularists’ other assertion: that they alone, as people free from the encumbrances of bias (both religious and otherwise), enjoy an unadulterated understanding of reality? How should one respond, say, when a Neil de Grasse Tyson argues we need a new “country” – Rationalia – whose constitution stipulates that public policy should be stripped of all value-statements, and formed on the basis of pure (scientific) facticity?

One might point out that such an epistemological position is intrinsically impossible, for no one makes enquiries about the world in a vacuum. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out, human beings are inescapably bound by their finite vantage-points, and are invariably conditioned by prior plausibility structures that legitimise, reinforce or screen out certain patterns of thinking. Similarly, the sociologist and political theorist, Barrington Moore, Jr., wrote that,

…Human beings…do not react to an “objective” situation…There is always an intervening variable, a filter…between people and an “objective” [event], made up of all sorts of wants, expectations, and other ideas…”.

I’ve already noted that even those who prize empirical observation above all else must still begin with a received picture of the world. Moreover, secularists who tout the predominance of “facts,” and who ground their view of the world in an exclusive kind of empiricism, have unwittingly committed themselves to their own set of plausibility structures – in this case, presupposing that reality can only be captured by the methods and processes of modern science. The new secularist, just as much as the religious devotee, is inherently incapable of adopting a completely value-free position.

Additionally, facts by themselves can’t do all that much; they need to be strung together coherently, according to an overarching narrative or interpretive framework, if they are to mean anything beyond their own referents. The debate over abortion is a good example of this dilemma. Modern science might be able to determine in great detail when a foetus begins to develop vital organs, when it is able to feel pain, and so forth. But how can it tell us whether or not abortion is, under any circumstances, morally right? How can it determine when, if ever, a baby with developmental disabilities should be terminated? Even framing the questions in such terms is a category mistake: thanks to Hume’s observation that one cannot derive an ought from an is, it’s clear that simplistically trying to read prescriptive truths off descriptive data cannot be done.

Some, like Dawkins, think that one of the crucial questions regarding the morality of abortion is that of foetal suffering. Though important, such consequentialism is simply not the logical product of scientific enquiry. He proceeds to argue that the moment of birth forms a “natural Rubicon” between permissible and impermissible acts of killing. But again, how does the scientific enterprise lead to such a distinction? What essential difference is there between a child who has been in its mother’s womb for eight months, and a child just born? Dawkins’ line-drawing is arbitrary, having little to do with a pure, empirical appraisal of the situation. One might equally argue that conception marks the basic ontological transition from non-being to being, and is therefore the “natural Rubicon” one ought to use; indeed, everything subsequent to that epochal moment simply represents its unfolding. The point, however, is that these issues – the nature of personhood and the value one should ascribe to it – are fundamentally philosophical and metaphysical. Scientific enquiry alone cannot provide complete answers. Consequently, the secularist’s much-vaunted neutrality dissipates, and she once again finds herself in the same boat as the religious adherent – compelled, that is, to rely on a basic array of presuppositions to guide her ethical analyses and prescriptions.

***

As much as the new generation of secularists would have us believe their claims regarding religion, truth and reality, it is clear that those arguments are deeply unsound. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that attempts to squeeze religious and other value-laden convictions out of the public sphere do not proceed from innocent scientific or rational enquiry. Rather, those methods have been pressed into service to help prosecute an agenda possessing quite different origins. If this essay has succeeded in anything, then it has at least shown that the self-styled opponents of myth and superstition have been shrewdly peddling a few myths of their own.

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.

The God Beyond Compare

Perhaps I am a little slow, but this essay could be “old hat”, so to speak, for some readers. Still, it reflects my recent, meandering meditations upon a rather grandiose subject: God. One might even say they constitute a revelation, or at least a crystallization of latent thoughts. My conception of God has, I think, drawn closer (ever so slightly, of course) to the reality of who he is. It has taken a while for this truth to dawn; but, like the day’s first streaks of sunlight upon a dusty landscape, it has illuminated something that was previously shrouded in darkness and shadow. Of course, pure speculation cannot bring a person much closer to the truth of God. Still less can one possibly apprehend God in his totality, even given enough time. If that were true, then the object of one’s reflections could not possibly be called God. Indeed, if he can be likened to an ocean, then my recent revelations would nary fill one glass. We stare into the abyss of the divine, and our minds can only offer us a small lamp’s worth of illumination.

The above should be considered a caveat, for I will nevertheless attempt to share the meagre fruits of my reflections. When ruminating upon God, it is appropriate to begin with his being, or ontology. What is he in his nature? Clearly, he is quite unlike the material beings that populate this world. In fact, it is quite wrong-headed to think of him as a being at all – as if he were confined within the cosmic framework of the universe, just as his creatures are. It’s not simply that he is different in degree, or even in kind; much the same could be said when comparing humans and microbes. They are both created; God, on the other hand, is being uncreated and self-existent. He is not confined to any cosmic framework for the very simple reason that he is that framework (and more). To suggest otherwise would inadvertently constrain and domesticate him. If God is God, then he is so infinitely, absolutely, exclusively. If he can be called “a being”, sitting alongside other beings (only far more powerful, wise or good), then he is implicitly reduced to the level of finitude and contingency. Instead, the God of whom I speak is the transcendent One, beyond the constraints of time, space and all but the most blurred and opaque of human categories. He is wholly necessary, for there was never a time when he was not, just as there could never be an occasion in which he could not be. Between God’s ontology and that of his creation, there lies an unbridgeable chasm.

The contemporary Catholic philosopher, Edward Feser, puts it very well:

“…God…is not ‘a god’ among others, precisely because He isn’t an instance of any kind in the first place, not even a unique instance. He is beyond any genus. He is not ‘a being’ alongside other beings and doesn’t merely ‘have’ or participate in existence alongside all the other things that do. Rather, He just is ‘ipsum esse subsistens’, or Subsistent Being Itself”.

God, then, is not a mere being; he is, rather, absolute being (note the absence of any kind of preposition before “absolute”) in his own essence – the ground of all existence, the foundation of original and ongoing life. His existence is not like ours’ at all. He is simply existence itself. He does not participate in this phenomenon, for he is the self-existent One who simply is (cf. Ex. 3:14); and, of course, there was never a time when he acquired this attribute. He does not even “possess” it, in the way that we conventionally understand that term. Humans have life, but it remains a quality in need of constant support by the hospitality of propitious circumstances. When it comes to the affairs of men, all existence is qualified, contingent, finite. It requires something more foundational in order to be actual. Otherwise, non-existence reigns. God’s existence operates according to a different scheme entirely. We might say that his essence is existence (just as his essence is everything else that can truly be said of God. I shall return to this theme later). In like manner, it is a mistake to talk of God as being “real”, if by such a remark we inadvertently imply that it is conceivable for God to not be real. Better the idea that God is not simply real, but constitutes the overarching “structure” within which reality pulsates and emerges.

With this in mind, we ought not to think of God as somehow “sitting” above his creation, or even sitting outside it – as if cosmic geography somehow determined his relationship with his creation. Neither should we think of God as possessing the kinds of attributes that humans have, only more so. It is not simply the case that the divine qualities resemble human characteristics, but without limit. All conceptions of God that lean this way – without going any further – are desperately incomplete, for they have a propensity towards excessive anthropomorphism. That is, they take human instances of existence, or will, or intellect, or power, or morality (or whatever), and, treating those instances as the foundation for developing an understanding of God, simply multiply them in order to approximate the notion of divinity. Thus, God possesses power, only much more so than any other being; thus, he is wise like the greatest sage, only much more so. This could be recapitulated time and again. The point is that human examples of these qualities are taken as definitive. They are then tweaked in order to try and accommodate the vastly greater dimensions of God – all in an effort to clear a metaphysical gap that can only be bridged from one side.

In saying this, I am not arguing that employing anthropomorphisms is intrinsically wrong. It is quite clear, for example, that the biblical authors used everyday language and images as a way of trying to express the ultimately ineffable nature of God. Our finitude makes such concessions necessary. And, their legitimacy turns on the fact that, at some level, we can suggest a vague and imperfect likeness between humans and their Maker (think Genesis 1-2, for example). The problem lies in taking these images as either literal or exclusive depictions of God’s character – concretizing, and therefore limiting, his boundless qualities. The essence of his nature means that whatever quality we care to mention is, like the divine life I mentioned earlier, simply him. In other words, God does not merely possess his attributes in far greater quantities than his creatures; he simply is those qualities, in unbounded, unalloyed form. They constitute essential “elements” (an imperfect, though unavoidable, term) of his perfect being.

Let us take love as an example. “God is love”, as the Beloved wrote (1 Jn. 4:8).  It’s not simply the case that God loves or is loving. Those statements are true, so far as they go. However, the One whom Christians worship cannot be separated from the infinite love that characterizes him. His love is inseparable from who he is. He is the very definition of love, allowing for the reality of each contingent instance of compassion and good will we experience or exhibit. Unlike humans, who may acquire a loving disposition, or lose it, or allow it to grow cold – or even fail to develop one in the first place – God does not acquire or lose his attributes. They do not deepen over time, much less recede with the passing of the ages. Their breadth, just as much as their depth, stretch beyond both the confines of finite human thought and the limitless expanse of eternity itself. Whatever attributes we possess are faint shadows, muted echoes, of what is eternally intrinsic to the Godhead.

What humans have can only be the case because of what God is in himself. His bequests to us occur because those qualities have been, and are, eternally actual in the divine being. Moreover, each of us is a composition of parts, both natural and spiritual, having been formed by our Creator and further shaped by our environments. We develop, change and regress over time. The undulating nature of our lives is an inescapable part of who we are as finite beings, and our attributes find their source in divine artifice. By contrast, God’s infinitude, and his utter simplicity (meaning that he is not, unlike his creation, “composed” of anything) means that he and his attributes are eternally bound; there is no distinction, for he is one in himself. Whether love, or wisdom, or goodness, or strength – all these exist in perfect harmony with each other within the Godhead, for the unitary nature of his being makes any kind of distinction (other than for merely conceptual means) muddle-headed.

Let me delve into Scripture a little more in order to flesh out what I am trying to say. A moment ago, I alluded to Exodus 3:14. Anyone familiar with that portion of Scripture will remember that it concerns Moses’ first encounter with Yahweh, who met with the great man in order to call him to the office of Israel’s law-giver and liberator. When Moses asked God what he should say if the Israelites demanded to know who sent him, God simply replied, “I AM WHO I AM”. Later versions of this self-appellation simply render it, “I AM”. To say, “I am” without appendage is to declare with simple brevity complete and utter self-existence. God’s statement to Moses revealed his existential simplicity, and therefore, the stark contrast between the Creator and his creation. Unveiled was Yahweh’s eternal nature, sui generis. Neither made, nor composed, God simply is, completely untouched by the vissicitudes of time and circumstance, and yet in magisterial control of both. He has no origin and he has no cause, for he is the ultimate origin and cause of all that is. Whereas the existence of everything depends on him for the gift of actuality (for what else is it, but a gift?), God’s uncreated actuality is an eternal truth within which all other truths must sit.

Or take the prophet Isaiah. In 55:8, he speaks on behalf of God:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts // neither are your ways my ways…” // “As the heavens are higher than the earth, // so are my ways higher than your ways…”

Isaiah’s words reveal the utter transcendence of the mind of God. If one thinks of the heavens in relation to the earth, one knows that the latter can never reach the former. And so it is with the wisdom and will and ways of God. He is, by definition, “above” his creation, in that he has never been, and can never be, tamed or confined by it. In fact, the truth is the complete reverse. There exists a fundamental gap between God’s wisdom and our own – an infinite disjunction that we can never hope to cross, precisely because of the absolute uniqueness of the Godhead. It is a gap that has been complicated by the baleful effects of sin, no doubt. But our noetic limitations in relation to the divine are, fundamentally, metaphysical. This is not a comparison between two beings of differing levels of insight or intelligence. Divine knowledge and understanding exist and function upon their own, self-caused plane of reality.

What are the implications for believers? Can the average Christian draw anything useful from these apparently irrelevant musings – which appear to have little to do with the quotidian challenges of normal life? Firstly, and at the very least, one’s imagination should be irresistibly expanded. I’m not referring to one’s fictive powers, but rather the mind’s sanctified ability to receive a “picture” of the divine. Whilst so much of contemporary Christianity shamelessly downgrades the idea of God, I trust that the above conception can engender a certain loftiness in one’s thinking about matters divine and eternal. The church is only as good as its conception of God. Rather than the celestial magician, or the “big guy upstairs,” or even the implicitly carnal depictions of God as one’s lover [1], we ought to cleave to the awful majesty of the Godhead; the limitless, unbounded magnitude of the uncreated Creator; the unfathomable depths of the divine being, whose existence is the one necessary fact upon which all other facts (including that of our own existence) humbly rely. Even those who rightly eschew the simplistic character of the aforementioned images may themselves fall into the trap of excessive dependence on created categories to define the One who defies them all. If the understanding of God I have been trying to elucidate – transcendent, holy, wrapped in unapproachable light – fails to evoke within us silent awe, then I don’t know what could. Given that Christians formally acknowledge their utter dependency on him, a return to a true apprehension of God can only quicken and enrich that confession.

It behoves us, then, to exhibit a deep humility before the demonstration of such resplendence. Everything that humans have comes from God. For all our advancements, we are simply mimics; talented artisans who use what we have been given to harness and re-arrange the pre-existing elements of the created order. Even the most powerful of us are nothing but an ephemeral vapour, sourced in the mind of the Almighty. The relationship demands and entails complete dependence on the part of God’s creatures. That dependence, however, is well-rewarded. Whereas people are given over to corruption, apathy, or moral fatigue, God is not. He is the changeless One, whose moral perfections infinitely surpass the qualities of his creatures. Looking to the divine Sovereign for help and sustenance is the surest thing a person can do. Indeed, it is the surest thing a Christian can do, even as we live in a world that offers the illusion of self-sufficiency. It is true, then, that we rely entirely upon God’s nature for our survival and actuality, irrespective of a person’s acknowledgement of that truth. A.W. Tozer’s words are worth quoting at this point. In The Knowledge of the Holy, he said of man’s existence in relation to God:

“Man for all his genius is but an echo of the original voice, a reflection of the uncreated light. As a sunbeam perishes when cut off from the sun, so man apart from God would pass back into the void of nothingness from which he first leaped at the creative call. Not only man, but everything that exists came out of, and are dependent upon, the continuing creative impulse”.

This is surely a check on anthropocentric hubris. It is also an encouragement to those who, on bended knee, have decided to cleave to God as both the source and goal of life’s riches.

If humanity depends entirely on God, then it is equally true that God, being completely self-sufficient and self-existent, does not need humanity. My reflections thus far naturally entail a concession to the absolute otherness, the utter holiness, of the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Since God is the foundation of all reality – including all created reality – then attempting to define him apart from his gracious self-disclosure is an exercise fraught with risk. God’s being represents a deep challenge to the idolatrous notions that abound within the minds of men. Part of the folly of idolatry is that it attempts, either implicitly or by design, to reduce God to a possession of the material realm. Of course, it is possible to grasp at least something of the divine nature. But our metaphysical and harmatological [2] limitations make a pure apprehension of God impossible. At this point, Paul’s Letter to the Romans is instructive. Romans 1:21-25 details, in mytho-poetic terms, the futility of humans attempting to worship “created things rather than the Creator” (v.25), for the very reason that the objects of worship are, in the same way as those who worship them, mere artefacts of the divine will. Divine transcendence means that God can never be defined, much less bound, by the limits of material objects. How can one possibly grasp the untamed God, whose very existence frustrates our efforts to understand him by our own lights?

Of course, God’s absolute transcendence does not preclude his personhood, even if it does preclude overly personalistic accounts of his nature. For starters, God is not simply the cause, at one moment in time, of all that exists. He has not created this world in order to remain irrevocably distant from it. Rather, via his providential work, God continues to uphold all things. Not only “in the beginning”, but at every moment since, the Creator has been at work to sustain what he has made. As Paul put it, “he is” not only “before all things”, but “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). That in itself suggests a deep involvement, a richly textured engagement, with the created order.

However, one can be far more specific when celebrating the sovereign God’s simultaneous immanence. Immediately after speaking of the transcendence of the Lord’s thoughts and ways (see above), the prophet Isaiah proclaims:

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven // and do not return to it without watering the earth…” // “…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: // It will not return to me empty // but will accomplish what I desire // and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s word, or wisdom (the two concepts are normally synonymous in the Old Testament), should always be seen as an indelible manifestation of his character. Proverbs 8:22-36 personifies this eternally begotten attribute of the Godhead (Pr. 8:22-25). Thus, it is above and before creation in precisely the same way that God is. And yet, Isaiah could speak of God’s word proceeding forth from the eternal abyss to bring life to his world – wending its way through the created order, like a river sluicing a path through a desert, bringing life in its train. The transcendence of the divine nature is, at exactly the same time, the intimate word/wisdom that sustains, heals, enlivens and illuminates the material existence in which we dwell.

Old Testament seers and sages are not the only biblical figures that speak of the sovereign God’s immanence within creation. The New Testament also celebrates the bridge he has forged between his own, transcendent reality, and the comparatively lowly reality of the creation. The various manifestations of God’s wisdom – the means by which the world was fashioned; the law, given to Yahweh’s chosen people, meant to lead them in righteousness; and the healing, redemptive word offered up to a wayward nation by the Lord’s chosen agents – culminated in the radical and astonishing rupture of all expectations pertaining to divine-human relationships. John the Beloved speaks of it in terms that can only be called sublime:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-2, 14).

With prose that reaches beyond the veil of the material world, John grasps at the eternal Word, or wisdom, of God. His reference to the Word’s intimate identity with God “in the beginning” is an allusive nod to the Genesis creation narrative (Gen. 1:1). The Word was indeed God’s supervening agent as he fashioned his world. The poetics of Proverbs 8 wax lyrical about this epochal event. But the Beloved goes further, insisting that God’s Word/wisdom is not simply a principal or force; he is personal in the same way, and to the same (infinite) degree, that God is. More than that, the evangelist announces the advent of another epochal event. It is the glorious fact of the Word’s incarnation – his deep identity with the created world, such that he became a part of it.

The transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence found complete expression in the embodiment of his Word: Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, the bridge between divinity and humanity, whose very person brought into existence the reconciliation between those two natures. He “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Hebrews 1:3). But the reflection of that divine resplendence was “made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7), inhabiting mortal existence in the most intimate of ways. Paradoxically, the God who could never – and can never – be constrained by his creation, made the decision (the genesis of which occurred in eternity past) to immerse himself in its flow. Equally paradoxical is the unbounded power of the divine nature, whose gracious incarnation defies every category humans have to make sense of this world. I have spoken much about God’s fundamental difference from his creation; his absolute otherness, and the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that separates him from his creatures – even his image-bearers. Nevertheless, as Karl Barth wrote, “It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude, but includes his humanity” (emphasis original). God is largely incomprehensible on his own terms, to be sure. Whatever we can grasp of the divine apart from his own unveiling is a thin mist that barely covers our own ignorance. Still, God has performed the impossible in adopting our nature. He has drawn out the pure idea of humanness from within his own depths, and entered the contingency of the material world as the glorious ideal to which man, by the enabling power of the Creator, may aspire.

[1] Of course, I am not suggesting that God is not our lover in some sense. But his love is of an altogether greater variety than the love that exists between humans (this even applies to husbands and wives, although that love – more than any other kind – is best placed to provide an analogy). In addition, the statement to which this footnote is linked refers more to contemporary images of God as one’s “boyfriend”, “mate” or even the risible “homie”. These may be rather extreme examples, but their presence within the church means that somewhere along the way, we have lost that sense of God’s awesome power and limitless, inexhaustible magnitude. More to the point, they are only the most crude manifestations of a spiritual infestation that has corrupted the church’s previously high view of God.

[2] “Harmatological” basically means “pertaining to sin”.

Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is there Such Thing As Neutrality in Education? (Part Three)

In this third and final post, I shall discuss briefly the idea that Christian religious instruction should retain a place of primacy in schools, even as we acknowledge the importance of education regarding other religions.  

Everything I have said in the previous two posts may well be valid. But discussion regarding the true nature of secularism begs the question: should Christianity be given a privileged place in primary schools? If we accept that certain claims to truth, even though they may bear a religious hue, are still valid in a secular classroom, should there be room for more than one particular religious or spiritual worldview, especially since secularism was meant to be non-privileging in regards to religion? Some people are indeed arguing for a wider approach, and given our country’s increasing diversity, there’s something to be said for the teaching of other religions. And of course, some individuals who are challenging the exclusivity of Christian educators in schools are pressing for a more “inclusive approach,” rather than the complete erasure of religion from our educational institutions. Moreover, if a group of parents at a local school want the inclusion of another religion in the syllabus, they could be accommodated. Whilst I may not agree with the tenets of another religion, it is important in a religiously diverse world to possess at least a basic understanding of the much-cherished beliefs of people who may be your neighbours or your local doctor. It’s certainly not perfect, with a number of questions emerging (Which religions should be included? Which ignored? Is the value of a religion measured by its adherents? Should we include, say, witchcraft on the curriculum? Does this encourage a consumerist approach to religion?), but it may be an alternative.

In any case, there’s also something to be said for retaining an important place for the teaching of Christian truths in schools. Of course, I am a Christian, so some may accuse me of having a vested interest. But even on a purely socio-cultural level, the justification for maintaining this approach is present. To begin with, raw demographic data suggests that Christianity remains the major religion in Australia, by quite a wide margin. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives website, as of 2010, approximately 74% of the population identified as Christian. The next-largest religion, on a proportional basis, was Buddhism, which claimed 2.1% of the population.  The figures the Australian Bureau of Statistics cites are lower – 68% of the population described themselves as Christian in the last census, in 2001 (ABS Year Book, 2006). Of course, we have to take into account the fact that things are a little murky, since it is quite possible that less people in Australia now describe themselves as Christian. Further, the figures cited do not measure the level or depth of belief. How many, of the 68% of Australians who claimed to be Christian in 2001, were no more than nominal in their faith, or labelled themselves as such because they had been christened at birth? We’ll never know, but despite the problems inherent in these figures, they do point to the enduring openness to Christianity within Australian society. Indeed, they suggest that a large proportion of the country is amenable to the teachings of Christianity. Granted the permissibility of teaching religion in schools, it could be argued that the primacy of CRE reflects the demographic primacy of Christianity in society-at-large.

More salient than raw numbers, however, is the pervasive influence of Judeo-Christian thought and ethics on Australia’s social norms, legal tradition and political culture. As a Western country, Australia is the beneficiary of historical developments in Western culture that owe much to Judeo-Christian principles. Take the notion of human dignity – something that is taken for granted in contemporary society. Catholic philosopher Edward Feser argues that this notion is explicitly grounded in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humans as created in the image of God (“Godless Morality? Why Judeo-Christianity is Necessary for Human Rights,” Crisis, July/August, 2006). This idea, woven into the cultural, political and social fabric of the West, transformed all human individuals into beings with surpassing worth and inherent dignity. The metaphysical foundations of this view, originating in Judaism and developed by Christianity, “elevated human dignity to the greatest conceivable limit” (Feser, 2006). Judeo-Christian thought also bequeathed to Western culture the understanding that there is an objective moral order by which individuals – and entire societies – must live. Far from being an authoritarian imposition, this idea, when combined with insistence that all people are bearers of divinely-authored dignity, safeguarded the rights of the poor, the weak and the voiceless. Now, people may not assent to the metaphysical or theological foundations of these ideas, but it is hard to deny the practical outcomes. These include the development of human rights, governments constrained by law, political institutions oriented towards human flourishing and not personal gain – in short, many of the features of the Western world (Australia included) that people take for granted. If this is the case, there is little reason why Christian religious instruction, as a form of ethical tuition, should not have a place of primacy in schools. Like it or not, Judeo-Christian values are deeply woven into our culture, and to forcibly remove its primacy and its presence from educational establishments is to deprive children of the very ideas and values we cherish most.

This debate is not likely to subside any time soon. But I hope that I have offered a coherent view that upholds the legitimacy of (Christian) religious instruction in our schools.

Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is there Such Thing As Neutrality in Education? (Part Two)

In Part Two, I will be looking at the assumptions that lie beneath arguments against religious instruction. I believe that these assumptions are not impregnable, and can be critiqued.

Many of those who suggest (kindly or unkindly) that CRE has no place in our secular schools implicitly base that view on the assumption that one can make a clear distinction between the purely fact-based nature of secular education, and the evangelistic musings of religious folk who possess nothing more than faith to support their assertions about reality, human nature and their conception of the “good life”. The Herald Sun’s Susie O’Brien exemplified this assumption when she labelled CRE “indoctrination” (“Expel God from Classrooms,” 15th February, 2011). Or take this comment, left on a discussion page on the FIRIS (Fairness In Religion In Schools) website in response to an individual defending CRE:

“…CRE volunteers are unqualified, more likely to indoctrinate rather than educate, and confirms my strong belief that children should not be exposed to such biased influences.” (“Parents’ Stories” discussion page, May 20th, 2011, emphasis mine).

The use of the word “indoctrinate” and its cognates to describe religious education suggests that both individuals believe that religious instruction, by definition, is an attempt to brain wash young, malleable minds with a dogmatic and ideological belief system – in contrast to the simple teaching of reality and truth that sits at the heart of our education system.

But this is wrong, for couple of reasons. First, as I noted above, this view incorrectly assumes that secular education is a value-free enterprise, whilst religious instruction is nothing more than an effort to manipulate impressionable children with fanciful nonsense. This view needs to be challenged. The Enlightenment ideal of value-free knowledge has so far failed to materialize – largely because it does not exist; the ugly great ditch that once separated “cold hard facts” with unsubstantiated values has been found to be not so great after all. We have moved on from the naïve belief that an objective reality can be readily grasped, and that the facts are simply “there” to be uncovered. Don’t get me wrong; I believe in an objective reality, and I believe in the reality of “facts”. Moreover, I am not suggesting that because a claim to truth is often influenced by the pre-existing perspective of the claimant, we cannot rest on the well-founded belief that “truth” exists. But if post-modernism has shown us anything (and, despite its flaws and excesses, it can alert us to certain truths), pure, pristine knowledge is actually hard to come by. All truth claims – save for pure mathematics, perhaps – are shot through with bias and value judgments, and no one approaches reality from a neutral standpoint. Facts exist, but at some point, they need to be strung together into some kind of narrative.  And because all of us use interpretive grids – “narratives,” so to speak – to make sense of the discrete facts we receive, the question of value-free knowledge becomes significant.

The implications for education are plain. It is not the value-free project it is sometimes assumed to be, since current curriculums and syllabuses stem from a certain set of presuppositions about truth and the way that truth should be conveyed. Indeed, modern education is pregnant with certain assumptions regarding what is good for the individual and what knowledge is deemed to be valuable, which are every bit as value-laden as religious claims on these, and other, matters. Even something as simple and apparently straightforward as the teaching of reading can become the site for an ideological battle. Indeed, in the past few years, there has been a philosophical conflict between two methods of developing literacy in young children, which the columnist, Miranda Devine, has written about at length (for example, “Fox Versus Phonics,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 11th, 2005). The debate is largely one about method (the goal is not in dispute), but even here, we find at work certain assumptions about the mind, the process by which learning takes place, and even the apparent naturalness of language acquisition.

Thus, the way knowledge is grasped and understood has to reckon with issues of perspective, context and the sometimes-unnoticed effects of one’s own presuppositions. This is certainly true for the education system, and to suggest that it adheres to a strictly value-free process of teaching children, whilst religious educators are engaging in sheer indoctrination, motivated only by rigid dogma, misses this crucial truth. One might even argue that the very exclusion of religion from the classroom rests upon certain assumptions about what is good for a person: that spiritual values are irrelevant to one’s development and maturation; that a purely materialistic education (practically, at least) is all that is needed for the production of well-rounded human beings. These are no more demonstrable than the claim, made by Christianity, that the spiritual dimension of life is a crucial aspect of an individual’s makeup. Of course, the hard work has to be done to present Christian theology as an academically robust, intellectually stimulating field of endeavour [1]. But there is no reason that Christianity should be ruled out a priori by those who argue that it is, by definition, hopelessly compromised as a claim to truth. Nor is there any reason to make such a rigid distinction between the supposedly value-free nature of secular education and the inherently biased nature of Christian religious instruction.

In any case, even without the influence of religion in classrooms, children are still shaped by a certain set of values embedded within education – developed by experts, sanctioned by governments, and mediated through the work of teachers. This leads me to my second point, which concerns the very act of education, whether religious or secular. Education, of whatever stripe, is much more than simply relaying information, shorn of all context, to young minds. It is about shaping and socialising those minds so that they will be able to “fit” into prevailing cultural frameworks and adhere to those social norms deemed to be acceptable. Some might like to think that education is an exercise in the free exchange of information and knowledge, but the opposite is the case. Take these words from John Stuart Mill, a political philosopher from the 19th century, quoted in a recent report by the Centre for Independent Studies, a think-tank (“The Rise of Independent Schools”):

“General state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in government…in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind.”

We may quibble with some of the language (“despotism” may seem a trifle overblown), but the point is made. What is taught, what is not taught, and how the act of teaching takes place, all occur within a certain framework about how students should be shaped and moulded. Education is not a neutral activity; it aims to socialise children into the structures of a given society; and it seeks to develop personalities based on what those who have devised it believe is right and proper for human flourishing. Indeed, secular education aims to influence as much as any kind of religious instruction. Without the belief that this particular curriculum, or that particular educational narrative, is beneficial to the child, it’s hard to see why a teacher would enter the profession in the first place.

To be sure, it might be easy to find a base set of universal values to which everyone holds, and this is important for social harmony. But the range of truths to which all agree is, I suspect, rather narrow. Further, the reasons for holding to similar ethical views may be very different, which means that worldviews and presuppositions cannot be completely ignored. Thus, it becomes necessary to “flesh out” an educational curriculum, which inevitably stems from the values and opinions “espoused by the educational establishment, the school and its teachers” (Salomone, quoted in “The Rise in Independent Schools,” CIS). Now, it needs to be said that in suggesting all education is about influencing and intellectual moulding, I am not thereby encouraging Christian religious educators to go around trying to actively convert students, to which they have access through religious instruction classes. My point is to challenge the assumption that secular education (in apparent contrast with any mention of religiously-inspired beliefs) has nothing at all to do with trying to influence, persuade and shape. Rigid distinctions between religious instruction and secular education on this particular basis are therefore unwarranted.

Third, this kind of argument misreads the notion of secularism. Some who speak about the place of Christian religious instruction do so with the assumption that secularism means the complete banishment of religion from the public sphere. But, philosophically, historically and practically, this is incorrect. Secularism does not mean the erasure of religion from public life; that would in fact be inimical to the heart of true secularity. As I noted at the commencement of this essay, anyone advocating this position exposes an anti-religious authoritarianism. Our free and democratic society safeguards the public presence of religion, and allows for the public expression of religiosity. Now, I am not proposing that people who are concerned about religion’s presence in schools simply silence themselves. However, to base one’s concerns on threats to secularism is to misinterpret the nature of the concept. Secularism never meant religion’s invisibility. Rather, it meant that no one religion should be privileged by the state. Some may argue that this is precisely what is happening. I shall attempt to deal with that objection below. But, suffice it to say, the historical definition of secularism never embraced the notion that religiously inspired positions should be excluded from the marketplace of ideas. In any event, such attempt is fraught with practical difficulties, given that we all bring with us our own views of the world into public life. How is a person – a teacher, say – meant to ignore what is likely to be a deeply-felt set of beliefs when they go to work, all in an effort to ensure that religion has no effect on anything beyond that person’s inner life? And yet, this is the logical consequence for people who wish to lock religion away in the prayer closet. Those who have challenged CRE in schools based on this erroneous notion would do well to think through the far-reaching implications.

In the next (and final) post, I will offer some preliminary arguments regarding the continued primacy of Christian religious instruction.

[1] Those who argue against the presence – in any form – of Christianity in schools would do well to look at those figures, both past and present, who have provided intellectually robust accounts of Christian belief that can take their places in the public square. Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, or New Testament scholars such as N.T. Wright, James Dunn and Richard Bauckham provide compelling arguments for the existence of God and the reliability of the New Testament, respectively. Moreover, some of the West’s intellectual giants were believers in God: Augustine, whose works influenced not just Christian theology, but also various aspects of Western political discourse; St. Thomas Aquinas, philosopher and theologian, and possibly the greatest Aristotelian after Aristotle himself; and Isaac Newton, one of the most influential figures in the history of Western science. To equate religion with unfounded, unreflective dogma is to ignore embodied evidence to the contrary.

Religion in Schools? How Dare They! OR Is there Such a Thing as Neutrality in Schools (Part One)

In Part One, I shall look briefly at some of the arguments that are employed when some raise concerns about the place of religious instruction (particularly Christian religious instruction) in schools. In Parts Two and Three, I shall interrogate some the deeper assumptions and issues that often remain hidden in this kind of debate.

The past few months have seen a rising furore over the place of religion (especially Christianity, given its primacy) in schools, both in Victoria and elsewhere across Australia. First, it was school chaplaincy; now, religious education has become a target. I am not that old, so I don’t know if this kind of controversy has erupted in the past. That’s immaterial, since we are faced with a campaign that is, in some quarters at least, systematic and orchestrated. I am usually loath to suggest such a thing, but it’s difficult to conclude otherwise when reading particular newspapers (especially a certain Melbourne broadsheet that has moved ever-leftward over the past few years). How is a Christian meant to respond?

Troubled is perhaps one way to describe it. Not so much because of the debate itself, but because of what seems to lie behind it. There appears to be a concerted campaign in some quarters to remove any trace of Christianity – and in some cases, religion generally – from Australian schools, which is part of a wider effort to completely privatise religion. Some are more measured in their conclusions, arguing that if religion is to be taught, then each one should have equal “air-time”. Thus, challengers to Christian Religious Education (CRE) do not form a monolithic group. Nevertheless, an aggressive kind of secularism is at work, which is as narrow and as authoritarian as the most fundamentalist of religions (note that I said a “kind” of secularism. Secularism per se is not the culprit).

What I want to do here is concentrate on special religious education in schools, and in particular Christian education, whilst leaving the issue of school chaplains to one side for a moment. I may return to that particular bone of contention in a future article, and some of the points raised here may well be relevant there. But for now, I shall focus on CRE and the flack its main provider, Access Ministries, has been copping of late. Much has been said about the apparent indoctrination of children at the hands of theocratic predators (alright, so no one I know of has used the term “theocratic predators”, but you get my drift). Some worry that children are being fed a steady diet of fairy tales, shot through with a particular religious bias that is inimical to the standards of a good, secular education. Others are concerned that the teaching of religion in schools is inherently divisive, since those children who may not share the majority faith are often removed from class – thereby highlighting the differences already present.

As to the former concern, I should note that there are strict guidelines as to what is taught by Christian educators working through Access Ministries. In fact, I was speaking to one particular religious instructor recently, and he informed me that there are clear, government-enforced guidelines surrounding the exact nature and scope of the religious curriculum. Moreover, when instructors teach for their allotted thirty minutes (hardly a sign that our cherished goal of secular education is in mortal danger), the classroom teacher is present at all times. Thus, we have frameworks of accountability present at more than one level, which ensures that religious instructors do not cross the boundary between informing and proselytizing.

As to the latter worry, it’s difficult to judge just how valid it really is. I am sure there are some parents who are worried that their children are the targets of bullying or teasing because their absence from CRE classes has exposed them as different. There may well be such cases; I don’t know. I can only speak from experience – that of my own, and that of others. The danger of division, as far as I can remember from my primary school days, was somewhat remote. In fact, my closest friend was a Jehovah’s Witness, and each week, he would leave class whenever the local Anglican or Uniting minister would come down to teach us about Jesus. This was never a cause for division between he and I – one a member of the Watchtower Society, the other a member of the local Baptist church. Speaking to other people involved in CRE has confirmed to me that this concern – valid, perhaps, in a number of individual cases – has been overstated. Another person who has taught Christian religion at school said to me that many of the children would come up to her after the lesson and thank her for her time. Indeed, she developed quite a rapport with some of them. And even if some kind of division does occur, it often does so in such a way that favours the removed children – seen as fortunate to be missing class by their peers.

These are important aspects of an important debate. But they also lie at the surface of an issue that really focuses squarely on much deeper questions and implicit assumptions: the philosophical underpinnings of our education system; the nature of knowledge; the meaning of secularism; and the role of Christianity in the public square. Without wanting to denigrate the importance of the things I have already discussed, I prefer to get to the heart of the matter. So stay tuned.