On God’s Responsibility for Atheism

In spite of themselves, atheists can help to remind us of an important truth about God, that is, that he radically transcends the universe. It is God’s very transcendence that makes atheism possible, or at least more likely. If God were an item in the universe open to empirical investigation, presumably, there would be far fewer atheists. You might say, then, that God is, in a sense, responsible for atheism. I am not saying, of course, that God wants people to be atheists, only that his “otherness” with respect to the world can be a condition favorable to the emergence of atheism. To put this in scholastic language: God’s transcendence is not the proper cause of atheism but an accidental cause of it.

If you will permit me to indulge in another paradox, I should also point out that one of the reasons for God’s transcendence—and, hence, for atheism—is also a reason why atheism is without an ultimate rational justification. What I have in mind here is creation. The relationship implied by creation is one reason that God transcends the world, but it is also because of creation that we can know that God exists, by reason at any rate (faith is a somewhat different story).

Now, creation can be understood in two different ways. Quite often when people talk about creation they mean that event described in the book of Genesis with the words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). This is an event that took place at some point in the past—exactly when, we don’t really know. Theologians sometimes refer to creation in this sense as creatio ab initio temporis—“creation at the beginning of time.”

But, traditionally speaking, creation has also been understood in another way. Creation is also just God’s giving the world its existence for as long as it exists. Thomas Aquinas, among others, uses the term “creation” in this sense (although he uses it in the previous sense too). Understood in this way, creation is not merely an event of the past but one of the present, of every present so long as there are presents. Creation is, thus, something continuous. And so theologians sometimes call this creatio continua or “continuous creation.” Obviously, it is something distinct in consideration from creatio ab initio temporis.

 

To bring about the universe, whether in the past or the present or at any time, God simply cannot be a part of the universe. This is so because nothing that does not already exist can cause itself to exist. Here is how Aquinas puts it: “There is no case in which something is its own efficient cause, nor is this possible; for to be so it would have to exist prior to itself, which is impossible.” Because nothing can cause its own existence, God cannot be any part of the universe that he causes to exist. As creator, in other words, God must totally transcend the universe.

Since God is in this way “absent” from the universe, it is no surprise that there are atheists. But it is also precisely because the universe depends on God for its existence—that is, precisely because it is created—that we can know that God exists.

The truth of this last claim may not be self-evident to everyone. But it would be impossible to present adequately the reasoning that supports it without embarking on a somewhat long, technical, and abstract metaphysical discussion, and this is probably not the forum for that. So, I will just summarize that reasoning briefly.

It goes something like this: There are obviously contingent beings since we experience things being destroyed or breaking down all the time—a vase falls and shatters on the floor, a tree is struck by lightning and snaps in two, a family member or friend dies. Now, any contingent being ultimately depends for its existence on an absolutely necessary being, a being that cannot fail to exist. Consequently, a necessary being exists (since contingent beings do). This being must be “pure being,” infinite, and the only one of its kind. All other beings, then, must depend for their existence on it and they must be finite. The necessary being we are talking about here is what we mean by “God” (that is, what those of us who understand God to be a creator mean by “God”). You can find argumentation along similar lines across a dozen or so questions in the prima pars of Aquinas’s Summa theologiae and I am borrowing heavily from this.

The universe that we know and explore through our senses is obviously a finite universe. We can only see things that have a definite shape and color. We can only hear definite vibrations of the air. We can only touch things with surfaces. Etc. All of this implies finitude. But the universe available to the senses is also the only universe that can be methodologically subject to the inquiries of modern natural science. We will not find God—not God as such—in this universe. And yet, as the above argument indicates, this universe is entirely contingent, that is, created, and, therefore, points to God as the ultimate cause of its existence.

The noted atheist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has long been interested in the question about the ultimate cause or reason for the universe’s existence. After recently joining Facebook, Hawking made this clear again in his first post:

I have always wondered what makes the universe exist. Time and space may forever be a mystery, but that has not stopped my pursuit. Our connections to one another have grown infinitely and now that I have the chance, I’m eager to share this journey with you. Be curious, I know I will forever be.

If Hawking is only looking for something in the universe to explain the universe’s existence—and that would appear to be the only place that physics and the other natural sciences could look—then he will be, indeed, forever curious since he will always be looking in the wrong place. Still, if he is going to get to God, Hawking is asking a question that could lead him there. He only has to realize (and this is a big “only”) that he has to go beyond natural science to find his answer.

But not all atheists are willing to ask Hawking’s question. In his famous BBC radio debate with Frederick Copleston in 1948 Bertrand Russell notoriously denied that there is any point to asking about the cause of the universe’s existence. “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all,” Russell told Copleston.

But in order to get the argument going that I made above, there is no need to ask about the cause of the universe as a whole. We only need to observe that some contingent thing or things exist, a fact that no reasonable, non-stubborn person could deny. If we thoroughly investigate the reason for the existence of these contingent things, we will come to see that a necessary being exists that is their cause, and only after that, much further on in the argument, will we see that the material universe as a whole—which we can assume is the universe that Russell is referring to—is contingent and requires a cause.

Atheists aside, I suspect that there are probably several objections from a Christian perspective that people might wish to raise against what I have said in this essay.

First, there are some Christian philosophers and theologians who hold that it is only by faith that we can know of the universe’s total dependence on God as creator. These are truths that reason cannot know on its own, or so they would argue. Now, if they mean that we cannot know by unaided reason that the world had a beginning in time (creatio ab initio temporis), then I agree and I think Aquinas has made a good case against this possibility. But if they mean that unaided reason cannot know about creation in the sense of creatio continua, then I believe they are quite mistaken. The argument I summarized above (which is substantially taken from Aquinas) does not rely in any formal way on faith.

Second, someone might object that God is present in the universe as the cause of its total existence. Well, it all depends on what is meant here by “present in.” If we mean that God is present in the universe as a part of it, then I disagree. This is impossible. If we mean that God is present in the universe by his existentially sustaining power, then I agree.

Third, it might be objected that in the Incarnation God does, indeed, become a part of what he causes and that this is true of the Church’s sacraments as well. Regarding the Incarnation, we should recall that, as the Council of Chalcedon teaches, Jesus’s divine nature and human nature, although they are united in him, are entirely “unmixed.” So, insofar as he is human, Jesus belongs to creation but insofar as he is God he continues radically to transcend it. The same can be said of the sacraments: the material aspect is part of creation while the divine aspect transcends it.

Fourth, someone might object that I have been talking mostly about the material universe and have left out the “spiritual universe” of human souls and angels. Admittedly, I have been talking mostly about the material universe. But if everything besides God depends on God for its existence—as I suggested in my argument—then that would include human souls and angels too. Thus, God also transcends the created spiritual universe.

Finally, people might wonder why I have not mentioned other features of the world that manifest God’s existence, such as the phenomena of change, beauty, or order. If I have not mentioned them, it is only because I have chosen to focus on other evidence. I agree that they are also ways to God.

But let me return to my original point. Creation both conceals God (making atheism possible) and reveals him (depriving atheism of ultimate rational justification). This paradox brings to mind the opening lines of Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Patmos”:

Near is
The god, and hard to grasp.
But where danger is
Grows the saving power also.

I am not aware that with these lines Hölderlin intended to refer to the same paradox that I do. In fact, I quite doubt that he did. Nevertheless, they sum up nicely—albeit allusively—what I wish to say. Because of his relationship to creation, God is both “near” and “hard to grasp” and so “where danger is, grows the saving power also.”

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Creation and the Expulsion from Paradise” painted by Giovanni Di Paolo in 1445.

Joseph G. Trabbic

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Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of Thomistica.net, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.

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