Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

The Dumb Ox, Faith and Reason

January 31, 2010

Last Wednesday was the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. I like Aquinas. Superficially it is easy to see why. He was a Dominican; he was a philosopher; and he offered sound advice for living:

Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of good wine

What’s not to love?

But I think what really appeals to me about Thomas is his steadfast refusal to accept any of the stark oppositions we are often presented with in religious thought: either grace or nature, either faith or reason. The idea that human beings are faced with a choice between faith and reason, in particular, is currently widespread and does a lot of damage to people, no matter which side of the false dichotomy they choose. On the one hand we have Dawkins, Hitchens et. al. telling us that anyone who thinks seriously about the universe and the place of human beings within it is bound, on pain of intellectual dishonesty, to be an atheist. On the other hand, I’m afraid there are plenty of theists who will concede far too much to the new atheism. There are various ways religious people can hand over the stewardship of rationality to atheism. The most obvious is fideism – I have no reason to believe in God, but I will do anyway, and this believing against reason is a positively good thing. A more subtle way is pseudo-mysticism, the best example of which I have to hand is Karen Armstrong’s presentation of what she takes to be a case against Dawkins. She accuses Dawkins (correctly, as far as it goes) of misunderstanding mainstream religious belief. She then goes on to laud an apophatic tradition including pseudo-Dionysius and Maimonides, albeit with insufficient attention to the philosophical presuppositions of that tradition. So, Armstrong tells us, as though it made any sense:

We could not even say that God ‘exists’, because our concept of existence is too limited.

This is wonderfully labour-saving. If we God-botherers aren’t actually supposed to believe that God exists, then we have no disagreement with Professor Dawkins. Game over – time for that bath and a glass of good wine. Alas, Armstrong doesn’t make any sense. I’ve no idea what a ‘limited’ concept of existence looks like. In fact I think that the above quote is just muddle; a fact which will quickly be recognised (and leapt upon gleefully) by Armstrong’s opponents. What is existence? Things exist if there are not none of them. There is nothing deep here. ‘Exists’ doesn’t mean something different when we use the word of God, as opposed to pomegranates, aardvarks, or prime numbers. That is because when I say that something exists I am not saying anything about it at all; I am stating nothing about its nature – rather I am saying that there is something (rather than nothing) to say something about. Now, the precise way I am putting this point is quite un-thomistic (it is drawing on the way existence has characteristically been thought about in analytic philosophy). But it supports what was essential to Thomas’ project at the beginning of the Summa Theologica. There are reasons to believing that God exists , but knowing that God exists is distinct from knowing what God is. In fact anything which could be the answer the questions which lead Thomas to claim the existence of ‘that which all call God’ must – so the argument goes – be completely beyond our ability to comprehend or conceptualise. Ultimately, then, there is mysticism aplenty in theistic belief. But, for Aquinas at least, it is mysticism to which we can be led by our rational faculties. And I like that.