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How Dawkins got the wrong end of the stick about Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas was not proving the existence of God as you would a piece of furniture. He was testing whether the concept of God made philosophical sense

By on Tuesday, 3 April 2012

St Thomas Aquinas is depicted in a painting at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington (CNS photo)

St Thomas Aquinas is depicted in a painting at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington (CNS photo)

I was challenged by one of the commenters on the last post to point out one of the mistakes that Professor Dawkins makes in his book The God Delusion. Looking at the section on Aquinas, it is clear to me that Dawkins has largely misinterpreted what the saint is saying.

First (recalling from memory) Aquinas puts the question about the logical possibility of the existence of an all-good God co-existing with evil in the world, and concludes that as evil does exist, then an all-good God cannot exist. This of course was the great question that troubled St Augustine in his Manichean days, but the solution is an easy one, once one can grasp that God’s existence and the existence of evil are not the same thing. Indeed, evil is a privation of good, and so God can co-exist with evil, as evil does not “challenge” the fullness of God’s goodness.

Then Thomas goes on to ask “an Deus sit?” You can see the English translation here, but for the original Latin look here.

But what does “an Deus sit” mean? It literally translates as “If God be?” As opposed to “If God is?” sit is subjunctive, not indicative. So, I think this question is not “Does God exist?”, but more “Is it logically possible to think about God?” or even “Does the concept of God make philosophical sense, or is it nonsense?”

One thing is clear that though Aquinas uses the word demonstrabile, he does not, as far as I can see, use the word “proof”. And Fr Coplestone was most particular about this point – the five ways are ways, not proofs.

Think about it: God’s existence cannot be proved in the way the existence of a piece of furniture can be proved. If it could, then God would be shown to be an existing thing in the world, and thus he would not be God. God’s existence is not in the same category as the existence of existing things in the world. God’s being rather is the condition of possibility of the existence of all other beings in the world. But God himself is not part of, or in the world.

Aquinas surely understands this as he says at the end of each of the five ways that these lead to what people call God or understand to be God (“et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum… quam omnes Deum nominant”). They do not lead to God himself. For human understanding cannot comprehend God, who transcends all human understanding.

The mistake that Dawkins makes is that he does not understand that the word exist or is can be used analogically, and must be used analogically of God. His refusal to believe in God makes sense if by God you mean a character like Zeus or Mercury – they clearly do not exist. But God, understood as an absolute necessary being, the ground and precondition of all being, cannot be disproved in this manner.

I am not a philosopher, and only have my seminary training to go on, and I am pretty sure that what I have written here will outrage atheists, and cheese off believers in equal measure! I also know very little about Aquinas, being an Augustinian sort of person… but that is what I make of reading Dawkins.

  • Gypsycook

    It is not surprising that people who belong to a close-knit supportive “club” might feel happier and even healthier; but this is compensated for by their despair at never being quite sure that their faith is sound, and all the disagreements over it. My father died at 84, he was a Calvinist of the Dutch Reformed Church; he had faith, and he was miserable, and spent his last years immersed in the bible desperately trying to find definite answers to all his doubts.
    O and by the way, all studies of the power of prayer on medical health, to date have shown no effect greater than chance, and in one case, being prayed for made recovery time worse, compared with a control group. I have a link to it if you are interested.

  • Gypsycook

    Yes it is a comforting story.

  • Gypsycook

    “Spirituality” is a weasel word that just causes confusion. Am I spiritual?–I like music, singing, poetry, literature, contemplating Nature and the Universe, philosophizing, and following scientific accomplishments; but I am a rampant atheist, and do not believe in an immortal soul or spirit.
    So are you now more confused, -or less?

  • Jrioux

    No. There’s no philosophical reason to wonder why Thomas uses the subjunctive (you say maybe he wasn’t intending to prove that God exists—sorry, but that’s silly). ‘An’ takes the subjunctive in an indirect question. Look at I, 2, 2! His question there is whether one can “demonstrate” the existence of God (he concludes one can). “Demonstrat” is Thomas’ strongest term for proof. All due respect to Fr. Copleston, but Thomas is definitely offering five ways of proving that God exists. The humility you express at the end is due (you really do know very little about Aquinas), but go back and read Thomas himself before you do more harm.

  • William A P

    As aposed to a free religious society? cause that sounds like an oxymoron.