One thing I’ve found interesting in my study of classical Christian theology, and more recent foray in various Christian apologetics, is how few people really understand the classical arguments for God…including Christians, but especially atheists.
As David Bentley Hart points out succinctly, God is not a god.
“As it happens, the god with whom most modern popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” [from Plato’s “Timaeus“]….Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo.
It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God. And the same is true of all the other new atheists as far as I can tell. (Hart, “Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss,” p. 36 *)
“Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question….by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe…So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary.” (ibid, p. 40)
This is important because most, if not all, of the attacks leveled by atheists are not actually against God as described in classical theism.
The New Atheists seem to be arguing against some Cartesian form of dualism or Gilbert Ryle’s “ghost in the machine,” not the robust classical metaphysics of philosophers and theologians going back to Plato and Aristotle, and which was given a more modern Christian definition under Thomas Aquinas (called “Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics”). It’s this deductive argument that seems to be the least understood, yet the most maligned.
In fact, I found an appalling representation of it on the Internet, even among some Christian apologists and philosophers. For instance, I’ve seen over and over again, that the Thomistic argument claims that “everything needs a cause.” This is not the claim at all. Aquinas claimed that everything that goes from potential to actualization (motion, actuality) has a cause, and that at the bottom of this is the first mover or Ground of Being, which we could call “God.”
As I mentioned in the last post, we’ve all inherited a 17th Century worldview that sees a mechanized universe, and even in Christian circles that saw God like a designer, William Paley’s watchmaker, which is deistic more than theistic. This is the demiurge that Dawkins and his ilk actually fight against.
Ancient philosophers and theologians understood God in the way Paul referenced when he spoke to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill:
28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ (Acts 17:28 NKJV *)
A better analogy that represents classical Christian theology would not be that of a watchmaker but of a musician playing music. As long as the musician is playing, the music continues to exist. As soon as the musician stops playing, the music stops existing. Likewise, if God stopped holding all thing together, the universe would cease to exist.
16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col.1:16-17 NASB *)
If you’re interested in a quick study on classical Christian theology, I would like to bring your attention to a YouTube playlist by Mathoma called, “A Defense of Classical Theology.” His is one of the few I’ve seen on the Internet who actually gets Thomistic theology correctly. According to Mathoma’s autobiography in the first clip, he was an atheist who studied philosophy and eventually became a Christian when he finally understood the argument.
Here’s part of the Thomistic Argument from Essence-Existence Distinction given in the video below:
- For the full formal argument and explanation, go here.
Notice that an ACT of existence (that a thing is) must be joined to essence (what a thing is). We cannot give ourselves existence. Furthermore, at the bottom of this causal chain there must be a Fundamental Member (see 6 and 7 above), and it cannot be like the others in which essence is distinct from existence (contingent). This is what is meant by Subsistent Existence Itself (the “I Am”). And since this is fundamental and not temporal, Big Bang cosmology is not relevant to the argument.
What classical theism argues for is that this Subsistence Existence Itself is what we call “God,” and this is how God actually defined Himself to Moses:
14 And God spoke to Moses, saying, I am THE BEING [ἐγώ εἰμί]; and he said, Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, THE BEING [ἐγώ εἰμί] has sent me to you.” (Exod.3:14 LXX, brackets added)
Which is exactly how Jesus defined Himself (see also Col.1:16-17 above):
58 Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM [ἐγώ εἰμί].” (John 8:58 NKJV, brackets added)
The diagram from the video below illustrates this categorical distinction:
The distinction made here is that the cosmos is in God, not some “maximally great” god in the cosmos. When we get this straight, we begin to talk about God instead of a god.
And this brings me to one of the many reasons why I believe that atheist’s ontology is incoherent (if they even have stated one). What they have is essentially a removal of the absolute cause of their continuing existence! The diagram below shows this incoherence.
Hopefully, you can see the ontological problem atheists have, and that they’re not actually arguing against God but against the gods of mythology…a god of the gaps, which is a category error. What’s ironic is that the ancient Aristotelian-Thomistic view is actually more compatible with quantum mechanics than the modern mechanistic materialist worldview (more on that another time).
I highly recommend you watch the whole playlist mentioned above, or at least watch this clip below, to help you properly understand what we mean by God. Especially if you’re a Christian because this is the foundation of classical Christian theology. Don’t accept poor representations of this argument. Of course, you could read Summa Theologica yourself but that may take a lot longer (3,500 pages) and it may be a bit harder to understand.