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Aquinas Proves Atheists Are Closer to God Than They Think
| Mark Brumley | Ignatius Insight
Some time ago, when the hubbub of the New Atheists
commenced, philosopher of religion Brian Davies wrote a column that was
subtitled, presumably by The Times where
it appeared, "Aquinas proves atheists are closer to God than they
think." Davies' piece was not an exercise in woolly thinking, calculated
to cast the net of inclusivity as wide as possible by purporting to dissolve
the hard distinction between affirming God's existence and denying it. His
point was to ask what kind of God our atheist friends deny the existence of and
to ask whether that is the God whose existence someone such as St. Thomas
We might ask the same question. Atheists sometimes think of
God as a being who exists alongside other beings in the universe. In this view,
God may be thought of as the biggest and the best being in the universe, but he
is still a being like the rest of us, an interesting feature of all that
happens to be.
A Being outside All Others
If that is what you mean by God, argues Davies, then Thomas
would agree that such a God does not exist. God, Davies quotes Thomas as
saying, "is to be thought of as existing outside the realm of existents,
as a cause from which pours forth everything that exists in all its variant
forms." In other words, there is no such being as the God who is thought
to exist as just one more thing along side a can of beans or the planet
A complicating factor is the word exists. We think we
understand perfectly what that word means because everything we see around us
can be described by using that word. The magazine in which you are reading this
article exists, as does the roof over your head and the sky above. Likewise,
you exist. It seems such a straightforward thing to say. And of course in some
ways it is, when we're talking about everyday things. Yet things become
complicated—for us limited beings—when we take that little word
exists and apply it to God.
It may seem obvious to say that a Christian or even a
generic theist is someone who says, "God exists," and an atheist is
someone who says, "God does not exist." However, the traditional
Christian (even the mere theist) wants to say more things about God, things
that affect the use of the word exist as applied to God. Here is where Thomas
comes in. When he says, "God exists," he doesn't mean by exist
exactly the same thing that he means when he says, "Rome exists" or
"Jupiter exists" or even, "I exist."
There are, says Thomas, things that receive their existence,
that are dependent for their existence. I exist because my parents existed; I
received my existence from them. That mountain exists because the earth exists
and certain geological principles exist that go into the formation of
mountains. And so on.
Not everything, argues Thomas, can be a receiver of
existence. Something (or Someone) must exist in its (his) own right, and not
because of something else. Otherwise, there would be no existence to be passed
on by the all various receivers of existence we encounter in the world around
us. That something which (or Someone who) exists in its (his) own right and not
as dependent on another is God. He, says Thomas, simply is, with the fullness
of all that the word "is" can contain. This is why God is called
"the Supreme Being." Lesser beings are dependent for their existence
on others. Not so God.
I have just summarized one of Thomas's arguments for God's
existence. Whatever you make of it, my point here is to focus on the kind of
existence that Thomas says God has, not on Thomas's argument for God's
existence. God's kind of existence is uncaused and independent. That is why
Thomas can say that God "is to be thought of as existing outside the realm
of existents" (Commentary on Aristotle's Peri Hermeneias 1.14). That does not mean it is right to say,
"There is no God." If we use the word existent to refer to beings
that get their existence or are dependent for it on another or others, then it
is right to say that God is "outside the realm of existents." Indeed,
God, in this view, would be the cause of existence, the reason there is
something rather than nothing. Yes, there is a perfectly good sense in which we
must speak of God as "existing," but, as Thomas would quickly add,
God's existence is radically different from the existence of everything else.
Only God Truly Exists
Davies says we can look at the same truth from a different
angle. If we want to use the word exists for God's kind of existence, then
everything that is not God can be said to exist only in a qualified way. The
atheist, in such a scenario, is as wrong as he can be. For he says that God
does not exist, but if we use the word exist in the fullest possible sense of
the word, then only God exists. Other beings can be said to have
existence—they get their existence from something else. Only God fully
exists, only God is existence; that is, only God exists by nature. Only God is
not dependent on anything or anyone else for his existence. He simply is.
So if we want to talk about God using the word exists in the
way we use it of everything else, the daily objects of our experience, then we
can say, "God does not exist." That is, he does not exist as
dependent, as receiving his existence from somewhere else, the way everything
else does. If we want to take God's way of existing—uncaused,
independent, not received—as full existence, then we must say that
nothing but God exists, because everything else is caused, has existence as
dependent, and received, etc.
The atheist would be on to something when he says, "God
does not exist" if he meant by "exist" that God is a being or
object like all the beings and objects of our immediate experience in the
universe. That God does not exist. But the atheist is utterly off the mark when
he means that God does not exist in any way whatsoever. It is the atheist's
existence (and everybody else's) that comes in to question if we use the word
exist in its divine, deepest sense.
(This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of This Rock magazine.)
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Dawkins' Delusions | An interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P.
The Source of Certitude | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
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Brumley is President of Ignatius
Press and associate publisher of IgnatiusInsight.com.
A former staff apologist with Catholic Answers, Mark is the author of How
Not To Share Your Faith (Catholic Answers) and contributor to The
Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the
InsightScoop web log.
He has written articles for numerous periodicals and has appeared on FOX NEWS, ABC NEWS, EWTN, PBS's NewsHour, and other television and radio programs.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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