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Remissio Peccatorum in Thomas Aquinas’ Doctrine of Justification: Did Aquinas Hold a Forensic View of Justification?

Aquinas’ use of remissio peccatorum in his Aristotelian taxonomy of justification as the “remission of sins” has led some to conclude that ultimately he argues for a forensic understanding of justification.[1] This conclusion, however, is problematic on multiple grounds. Aquinas uses the term more like we use the term when referring to the remission of cancerous cells in the body through chemotherapy.

This is partly because justification prior to the Reformation was understood as the initial healing grace that converts the human soul to God rather than something that establishes a forensic status (much like the Reformation doctrines of regeneration and conversion).  Furthermore, for Aquinas, all language about God is analogical in nature because God’s true essence is so far beyond our comprehension that language is woefully inadequate.  The combination of these two facets in Aquinas lead him to interpret biblical and theological language of divine forgiveness in ways that transcend any one-to-one linguistic human analogy (where wrongs are simply forgotten or overlooked) and find their ultimate meaning in the ontological effects of God’s eternal love in time.  Correcting this common misunderstanding of Aquinas’ use of “forgiveness” will eventually lead us to a contextual analysis of an entire group of forensic terminology used in Aquinas.

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First, a forensic reading of Aquinas’ doctrine of justification does not reflect a familiarity with the historical context. Aquinas’ approach to the doctrine replicates the standard medieval subject matter, which focused on the processus iustificationis—the sequential ordering of all necessary components of the infusion of grace. The organizing principle is one of infusion. Virtually all medieval theologians took for granted that justifying grace was infused, whereas the controversies mostly surrounded the details of how best to logically divide and relate the various components of infused grace.[2] Remissio peccatorum was a standard component of justifying grace in the scholastic schema, but was not interpreted primarily or purely as forensic, as we will confirm from Aquinas’ own use of the language.[3]

Second, this view misses the sense given by Aquinas to iustitia. Although Aquinas lists legal justice as one use of iustitia, he forgoes this use entirely in favor of Aristotle’s metaphorical justice. None of the articles in this section on justification have as their focus or subject matter an extrinsic legal status that must be remedied or overlooked.[4]

Third, this reading dislodges the inward place or location given to remissio peccatorum in Aquinas’ processus iustificationis. Remissio peccatorum is the terminus of the human soul’s movement: the arrival of the soul to sin’s antipodal. This terminus of interior movement does not cause the remission of sins, but is the remission of sins by reason of interior justice being diametrical to interior sin. This interior exclusion of justice’s opposite is the negative aspect of the metaphysical state within the human soul caused by the iustitia infusa, not a forensic result within the mind or reckoning of God, which is neither the focus of the articles nor included as one of the requirements for justification.

Fourth, this interpretation conflicts with the dynamic understanding and interpretation of remissio peccatorum in Aquinas that can be seen in his varied expression when reasoning.[5] Aquinas varies his expression when discussing remission, pardon, the non-imputation of sin, and forgiveness as the taking away of sin, as the remission of guilt, and as the removal of offense within the human soul. The second article asks whether the infusion of grace is necessary for the remission of guilt, which is treated in the article as the remission of and taking away of, ontological sin. His respondeo and adversus in this question also illustrate how his reference point for the divine imputation, whereby God does not impute sin to the justified, is grounded ontologically. As Bruce D. Marshall has keenly argued, the reason divine imputation implies by its very meaning an inward reorientation of the soul is because divine imputation is never counterfactual, as in the reckoning of a guilty sinner as not guilty, but is a divine attribution of responsibility (praise or blame) to the guilty or praiseworthy agent, and thus implies a correlative merit of either reward or punishment. The interior effect implied by non-imputation is the infusion of justifying grace, which is in turn explained as the temporal effect of God’s atemporal love:

When God does not impute sin to a man, there is implied a certain effect in him to whom the sin is not imputed; for it proceeds from the Divine love, that sin is not imputed to a man by God.[6]

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Now the effect of the Divine love in us which is taken away by sin, is grace, whereby man is made worthy of eternal life, from which sin shuts him out. Hence we could not conceive the remission of guilt, without the infusion of grace.[7]

The influence of the Pauline discourse on sin in the opening of his epistle to the Romans (interpreted as the pretext for the apostle’s proposed solution in justification) and of St. Augustine’s theology of culpability can be seen in how Aquinas grounds guilt (culpa) in the ontology of sin (peccatum) rather than sin’s record.[8] The debt sin incurs, for example, is a mixed bag, some of which disappears at the moment of justification by the infusion of grace, but some of which remains because not all sin disappears for the justified.

If man turns inordinately to a mutable good, without turning from God, as happens in venial sins, he incurs a debt, not of eternal but of temporal punishment. Consequently when guilt is pardoned through grace, the soul ceases to be turned away from God, through being untied to God by grace: so that at the same time, the debt of punishment is taken away, albeit a debt of some temporal punishment may yet remain.[9]

Mortal sin is said to be pardoned from the very fact that, by means of grace, the aversion of the mind from God is taken away together with the debt of punishment: and yet the material element remains, viz. the inordinate turning to a created good, for which a debt of temporal punishment is due.[10]

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Now it has been said above (A. 4) that the guilt of mortal sin is pardoned through grace removing the aversion of the mind from God. Nevertheless when that which is on the part of the aversion has been taken away by grace, that which is on the part of the inordinate turning to a mutable good can remain, since this may happen to be without the other, as stated above (A. 4). Consequently, there is no reason why, after the guilt has been forgiven, the dispositions caused by preceding acts should not remain, which are called the remnants of sin. Yet they remain weakened and diminished, so as not to domineer over man, and they are after the manner of dispositions rather than of habits, like the fomes which remain after Baptism.[11]

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Forgiveness is not comprehensive in justification because the infusion of grace pardons or takes away the will’s habit of aversion from God (mortal sin), but not all sin arises from aversion (i.e. venial sin). Sin and guilt are bound up together in the ontology of the disordered soul; their remission, forgiveness, or non-imputation is bound up with their coextensive removal, not merely a removal of a legal record of sinful acts extrinsic to the justified.

Similar varied expressions and reasoning appear when Aquinas elsewhere explains remissio peccatorum as the removal of offense by the infusion of grace, for the offense is understood to consist in a turned will. Aquinas’ discussion of penance’s ability to remit sin uses “taken away,” “blotted out,” “remission” and “pardon” interchangeably when arguing that sin can only be pardoned through the genuine repentance (i.e. the virtue of penance) caused by the power of infused grace which is effected through Christ’s Passion.[12] The divine pardon in Aquinas requires the soul of the offender be at peace with the offended in justification, but God’s peace with the offender is eternal and unchanging. When the latter is manifested in time as infused grace, sin and guilt are removed instantly and simultaneously. Aquinas’ respondeo in article two is worth quoting at length, as it captures well the orientation in his language of forgiveness, pardon, and remission:

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It is impossible for a mortal actual sin to be pardoned without penance, if we speak of penance as a virtue. For, as sin is an offense against God, He pardons sin in the same way he pardons an offense committed against Him. Now an offense is directly opposed to grace, since one man is said to be offended with another, because he excludes him from his grace. Now, as stated in the Second Part (I-II, Q. 110, A. 1), the difference between the grace of God and the grace of man, is that the latter does not cause but presupposes true or apparent goodness in him who is graced, whereas the grace of God causes goodness in the man who is graced, because the good-will of God, which is denoted by the word grace, is the cause of all created good. Hence it is possible for a man to pardon an offense, for which he is offended with someone, without any change in the latter’s will; but it is impossible that God pardon a man for an offense, without his will being changed. Now the offense of mortal sin is due to man’s will being turned away from God, through being turned to some mutable good. Consequently, for the pardon of this offense against God, it is necessary for man’s will to be so changed as to turn to God and to renounce having turned to something else in the aforesaid manner, together with a purpose of amendment; all of which belongs to the nature of penance.[13]

God is said to be offended by virtue of his excluding the offender from grace, thus the infusion of grace by definition removes the offense. In short, “sin is taken away by grace removing the offense against God.”[14]

But how does the discussion of pardon through penance relate to justification? Aquinas’ opening articles on Penance establish in different ways that “mortal sin cannot be forgiven without true Penance, to which it belongs to renounce sin, by reason of its being against God, which is common to all mortal sins.”[15] Now as we have already seen, this renouncing is the same movement of the will caused by the infused grace of justification.[16] If the meanings of offense and sin are not identical (and my argument does not require this) their meaning is so difficult to disentangle they appear as the same substantive act of justification viewed in different anthropomorphic imagery, all amounting to a vital ontological change within the sinner’s soul by the infusion of grace, which takes its power from Christ’s passion. The pregnant silences add weight to this interpretation while making a Protestant forensic interpretation problematic, such as the absence of any questions on: (1) God’s reckoning of punishment towards Christ as the basis of forgiveness, (2) why the guilt of all future sins are not removed by justification and (3) why one’s debt of future punishment must be forgiven more than once and (4) why Aquinas would allow the removal of any particular sin after justification to be classified under the rubric of a non-technical non-Pauline sense of justification used in a broader sense if justification is the forensic acquittal which has already taken place for all sin in justification, etc. [17]

From Aquinas’ discussion above concerning Penance, we can add a fifth reason why a forensic interpretation of Aquinas’ doctrine of justification is problematic: It fails to fully calculate Aquinas’ doctrine of God, which drives him to reinterpret all theological language as anthropological accommodations aiding the understanding (forgiveness, pardon, debt, etc.) in ontological terms. The divine disposition never changes, which means whatever takes place in time—including the sinner’s justification—does not cause any change in God, only in the human person. It is impossible for God to literally be of one disposition prior to a person’s faith, then of a contrary disposition instantaneously once that person becomes just by grace: all such language in Aquinas represents the change or effect of the relationship between the temporal finite and the eternal infinite.[18] One might think Christ’s humanity could potentially offer wiggle room here, an exception in the divine Godhead since the human act of forgiveness on the part of the one forgiving need not imply a change in the human will of the offender from sin to justice, but Aquinas explicitly rejects this possibility.[19]

Sixth, and perhaps most important in confirming the above interpretations, this view of Aquinas’ doctrine of justification fails to properly synthesize Aquinas’s other definition of justification. Although Aquinas formally borrows the Aristotelian strategy of definition, he more consistently defines justification in non-forensic terms as a movement from internal sin to internal justice with no intention to switch “senses” of the word iustitia, having already forgone legal justice as the apostolic sense given to justification by Paul. This makes viewing the latter definition as his interpretation of the former natural and fitting.[20] Both definitions offer a terminus: remissio peccatorum in the first and iustitia infusa in the second. Understanding these as different ends in justification would require a strained interpretation, but understanding them as different aspects of the same end of justifying grace is logically and contextually sensitive and unproblematic. The soul’s movement in justification, by virtue of being a movement to justice, is also a movement away from non-justice. The substance of this end remains the same in either description. Although this can be referred to as a dual movement, this should not obscure Aquinas’ understanding of the movement’s singularity: the movement bears a dual relation to its respective objects because they are opposites, resulting in a dual relation of the terminus of the same.[21] In other words, the remission of sins in Aquinas should be seen much like a spiritual parallel to the remission of cancerous cells—it refers to the expulsion or termination of ontological sin and the guilt inherent therein. The definition of justification as the expulsion of sins rather than the infusion of justice in Aquinas can be seen as the result of Aquinas’ overall tendency to inherit his loci communes from the Christian Tradition while avoiding the redundancy of defining justification self-referentially by its root word—justice.

Finally, as McGrath points out, the processus iustificationis discussed by Medieval scholastic theologians was understood to refer to a distinct and irreducible package of grace in which the presence of any one of the elements logically entails the other elements and “therefore expressly includes” those correlated elements.[22] The remissio peccatorum is only the final element in a logical schema used to parse an instantaneous movement within the human soul. Thus, even if we were to mistake remissio peccatorum as merely God’s erasure of a sin record (an unperceptive reading as I have argued), any purely or primarily forensic reading of justification in Aquinas would still be a gross distortion of the substance of his doctrine, confused by lack of familiarity with the scholastic theological tradition that inspires the language of his formulations. The substance of the act of justification even upon this misreading of remissio cannot be reduced to its terminus, as this would exclude the middle term that logically comes between the infusio gratiae and this terminus.[23]

There is a purely forensic notion that can be reasoned from Aquinas’ doctrine of justification, although Aquinas does not include it in any of his articles on justification for reasons we will note below. The gift of justifying grace logically presupposes an eternal and deliberate forbearance of the penalty of mortal sin in the providence of God. As Marshall so deftly captures this in his article on the role of reckoning in Aquinas, he is worth quoting at length here:

Why does God cause this justice in the first place, the justice that actually heals the wound of sin, repairing sin’s interior damage and leaving nothing in us that merits the punishment of final separation from God? This doesn’t just happen, but is a deliberate divine action, and so presupposes a specific intention and disposition on God’s part. Essential to that disposition, it seems, is the non-imputation or non-reckoning of sins or faults. God forbears to count our sins against us, by imposing the penalty their guilt deserves, and instead restores the harmony and beauty of the creature by the utterly undeserved gift of sanctifying grace. The gift requires forbearance. God holds in check his right to punish the outrages we have committed against him, and instead treats us with patience and mercy.[24]

Marshall explores this aspect of grace under Aquinas’ rubric of “covering.” Its application is limited to the “stain” of specific acts of sin, not the sin disorder itself which causes the acts. As he further notes, the historical occurrence of such acts can no more be changed or erased than history itself can be altered or undone. It is important to note, in light of Marshall’s insight, that if the divine act of justifying regards a permutation, this act cannot be applied to facts about what happened in the past. However, the deliberate forbearance of God is related to this permutation in Aquinas as cause to effect.

Inasmuch as by the divine act whereby the guilty sinner is healed of her mortal sin wound and given the greatest good, Marshall argues that by this act God is effectively treating the unworthy sinner “as though [past acts of sin] had not been done.”[25] The divine covering as presented by Marshall is certainly the closest Aquinas’ theology of grace ever comes to affirming anything comparable to the Reformation views of justification. Marshall even argues that Aquinas’ view of grace in the divine covering approximates the view of Martin Luther because Aquinas views God as treating what is the case, as though it were not the case, but Marshall’s reason for the comparison may be misleading.[26] Technically this would be true only if we exclude the divine mercy from God’s ordering of providence, for the act of healing the cause of sinful acts presupposes them as a reason for the act: God is treating the acts of sin as though their cause needed to be expunged. Whether God punishes acts of sin in the executing of divine justice or heals their cause in the ordering of his mercy: in either case, God is not ignoring sinful acts committed as though they had never happened. Rather, God is treating them under different aspects of the divine providence. Although history cannot be changed, the divine act of justification changes what can, and at least part of the reason for the divine act lays in the very acts of sin committed. The divine act of justification stands in relation to what can be changed as the mover to the moved. This same act relates to what cannot be changed (the acts of sin committed) as a reason of movement.[27]

Thus even when we scrutinize Aquinas’ notion of covering and come to the brink of our quest to find a purely forensic notion comparable to strictly forensic Reformation renderings of sola fide, counterfactual interpretations are, in the end, only illusory. The anthropological language of God hiding his face, forgetting our sins, or covering them, all refer anthropologically to God’s will to order the acts of sin under one aspect of providence rather than another.[28] And what is more: the language of covering is wholly absent from Aquinas’ doctrine of justification proper in the Summa. It is neither one of the required elements nor a side discussion, as it belongs more properly to his doctrine of providence wherein he explores the eternal and unchanging divine wisdom in the mind of God. As I have already shown, grace is the effect of divine charity in time for Aquinas.[29] Justification therefore cannot be located in the divine providence, but only in the execution of divine providence, which Aquinas calls the divine government.

Two things pertain to providence—namely, the reason of order, which is called providence and disposition; and the execution of order, which is termed government. Of these, the first is eternal, and the second is temporal.[30]

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Every aspect of history fits under God’s order of providence by which he directs all things to an end.[31] Now predestination regards the ordering of some free agents to a particular end—namely, that of eternal life. Whereas humans are said to destine something by firmly planning it in the mind, so predestination “by reason of the antecedent nature it implies, can be attributed to a thing which does not actually exist” yet, and so has not only a future orientation but is firmly in the mind of God prior to the existence of anything outside of God.[32] This is why justification places something in the justified, but predestination does not place anything in the predestined, as infusion belongs rather to the execution of divine providence ex tempore [in time], whereas the predestination of such infusion is in the mind of God ab aeterno [before time].[33]

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[1] McGrath rightly points out that a forensic interpretation of justification in Aquinas is “a serious misunderstanding.” McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification, 3rd Edition (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 64. On the influence of Aristotelian physics within the Dominican school of theological speculation inherited by Aquinas in his doctrine of justification, see Ibid., 63-64. On this and other misguided reasons for taking Aquinas as a “proto-Protestant” see Francis Beckwith, “Doting Thomists: Evangelicals, Thomas Aquinas, and Justification,” Evangelical Quarterly 85 no. 3 (2013): 211-227.

[2] For an informed summary of the medieval theological context, see McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 55-207. It might be added, given McGrath’ summary, that if Aquinas held a forensic doctrine, so did most Medieval theologians, as Aquinas’ understanding of justification in terms of the remission of sins was apparently ubiquitous. Aquinas cannot be singled out in this regard as unique.

[3] Bruce Marshall, “Beatus Vir: Aquinas, Romans 4, and the Role of ‘Reckoning’ in Justification” in Reading Romans With St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Mathew Levering and Michael Dauphinais (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 219-231. As Marshall points out, language that has come to be seen by post-Reformation eyes as forensic Thomas (and others) had never understood as purely forensic, but actually interpreted these notions in transformational terms. For example, “for God to forgive our sins or not to impute them is for him to keep the damage they have caused from standing,” which damage is repaired by the infusion of grace. This way of reading biblical forensic language was well established by the medieval period. Ibid., 227.

[4] We will consider later whether a purely forensic element can be found in Aquinas’s thought, however peripheral it is to his choice articles on justification in the Summa.

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[5] For terminological clarity, see Marshall, “Beatus vir,” Reading Romans, 219 ff. I will be borrowing here from Marshall’s apt language which is the only source I know that captures Aquinas’ forgiveness and imputation language within a careful taxonomy of a nexus of kindred concepts such as guilt (culpa), stain (macula), sin (peccatum), evil (malum), reckoning (imputare or repatare), penalty (poena), etc. Marshall discusses, for example, how the kindred concepts such as “sin” and “guilt” by virtue of their interchangeability are practically equated in Aquinas, even though elsewhere he clarifies that each term covers a different aspect of a singular reality. He also shows how terms like “forgiveness” and “non-imputation” amount virtually to the infusion of grace as the repair of sin’s internal damage. My argument here is based on similar reasoning.

[6] ST I-II.113.2.ad.2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from the Summa are taken from the English translation, Summa Theologica, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. (1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981). To be as specific as possible, I have distinguished between Aquinas’s “On the Contrary” (the sed contra, herein abbreviated as sed.), his “I answer that” (the respondeo, herein abbreviated as resp.), and his answers to objections (the adversus, herein abbreviated as ad).

[7] ST I-II.113.2. resp.

[8] On Augustine’s doctrine of culpability, see Gerald Heistand, “Augustine and the Justification Debates: Appropriating Augustine’s Doctrine of Culpability,” Trinity Journal 28 no. 1 (2007): 115-139. In Aquinas, see for example how guilt is said to be capable of being “brought back to justice,” by which he means interior justice. ST III 86.4.resp. If by “guilt” he intended a record of sins and by justice he intended to refer to an exterior forensic justice, he would be arguing here that sin’s record can be converted to a just record, which would be intelligible. How a record of sin becomes a proper constitution of the soul, however, is so difficult to see that it demonstrates the absurdity that ensues when confusing Aquinas’ language of sin, guilt, and forgiveness as forensically oriented.

[9] ST III 86.4.resp.

[10] ST III.86.4.ad.1. Italics added.

[11] ST III.86.5.resp. Italics added; Italicized “fomes” original. Here we can also see that justification does not take away all sin so as to perfect the justified, but only takes away sin’s dominance over the will, or what Aquinas calls “mortal sin.” The justice in justification therefore is pivotal but not comprehensive.

[12] ST III.86.1.resp.

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[13] ST III.86.2.resp. Italics added.

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[14] ST III.86.3.resp.

[15] ST III.86.3.resp.

[16] In light of Aquinas’ interpretation of forensic language, although one might still say forensic elements exists in Aquinas’ soteriology in one sense, because they are interpreted ontologically as shown one could equally say forensic elements do not exist in the same. The sinner has a debt of punishment with respect to his future prior to justification, which Aquinas allows to be removed by justification. However, even in this case the debt of punishment is still interpreted ontologically and not legally, as Aquinas locates the debt in the ontological sin of the soul rather than on a legal record, so that when the ontological sin is removed no legal debt can possibly remain.

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[17] Aquinas inextricably attributes forgiveness of sins to the virtues of faith, penance, and charity. E.g. ST III.86.6.ad.1-3.

[18] “Two things pertain to providence—namely, the reason of order, which is called providence and disposition; and the execution of order, which is termed government. Of these, the first is eternal, and the second is temporal.” ST I.22.1.ad.2.

[19] He quotes the authority of Gregory of Nyssa on Christ’s pardon of the adulterous woman to justify his position: “He drew inwardly by grace, i.e. by penance, her whom He received outwardly by His mercy.” ST III.86.2.resp.

[20] My point here goes beyond McGrath’s point that elsewhere Aquinas defines justification in non-forensic terms. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 64-65. My argument is that the forensic concept of remissio peccatorum in Aquinas is ultimately interpreted primarily in non-forensic terms in such a way that both definitions refer to the same substantive act.

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[21] McGrath’s labeling of this movement as a “dual motion” is not incorrect, as “motion” here is singular. However, referring to the motion as a singular motion with a dual relation better captures the type of duality involved. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 65.

[22] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 64.

[23] Perhaps this point might be better appreciated by Protestants through pointing out that likewise, inasmuch as being declared righteous per se could be on the basis of infused or forensic righteousness, if a declaration were considered the terminus apart from its logical relationship to something else (such as the reasons for the declaration), this too would be inadequate as a sufficient summary of the forensic doctrines of justification in Protestant theologies.

[24] Marshall, “Beatus vir,” 228-229.

[25] Aquinas, Lectures on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Fabian Larcher, ed. Jeremy Holmes (unpublished), §338. Quoted from In ad Rom by Marshall, “Beatus vir,” 232.

[26] Marshal, “Beatus vir,” 232. Footnote 40.

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[27] “… the type of things ordered towards an end is, properly speaking, providence. For it is the chief part of prudence, to which two other parts are directed—namely, remembrance of the past, and understanding of the present; inasmuch as from the remembrance of what is past and the understanding of what is present, we gather how to provide for the future.” ST I.22.1.resp. Providence is eternal

[28] Aquinas’ reply to the objector in adverses 4 of Tertia Pars’ 88th article, quoted by Marshall, is a shorthand reply restating what Aquinas has already argued in the main article: When an act of mortal sin incurs a debt of eternal punishment for one who previously enjoyed the benefits of grace, this does not mean former acts of sin and the debt incurred by them have simply “returned.” The newly committed sins and the corresponding debt they incur and distinct from the specific acts of sin and their corresponding debt previously committed, for the latter were already “overlooked” (i.e. ordered to the divine mercy) in the first showing of grace. This first showing of grace is a temporal and therefore historical effect of God’s eternal love in time and therefore cannot be undone anymore than history can be undone: “what grace has once done, endures for ever.” ST III.88.1.ad.4. Quoted by Marshall, “Beatus Vir,” 236. Now in this context what is “covering” the stain of past sins if not the past forbearance shown by God in the first showing of grace? The function of covering here reaffirms the main logic in Aquinas’ respondeo and closely resembles the function of pardon and forgiveness in every showing of grace that removes mortal sin.

[29] The effect of eternal divine charity in time is nothing less than the effect of God’s essence on created objects, for “eternity is nothing less than God himself.” ST I.10.2.ad.3.

[30] ST I.22.1.ad.2.

[31] “The providence of God is nothing less than the type of the order of things towards an end.” ST I.22.2.resp.

[32] ST I.23.2.ad.2.

[33] Harm Goris, “Divine Foreknowledge, Providence, Predestination, and Human Freedom,” in The Theology of Thomas Aquinas, eds. Rik Van Nieuwenhove and Joseph Wawrykow (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 101. Goris notes that while Augustine, Boethius, and Anselm denied foreknowledge and foresight in God on the basis that God is timeless, Aquinas did not believe God’s timelessness excluded the use of such language by temporally situated creatures from whom there is a past, present, and future. Ibid., 103.

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Thomas Aquinas on Justification :: Summa Theologica

I have herein summarized and quoted from articles 1-10 of question 113 in the prima secunda of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica: “Of the Effects of Grace.”  I have organized my summaries more in tune with how Aquinas wrote them: 1) the sed contra (some authoritative statement Aquinas usually wishes to defend), 2) the respondeo (Thomas’s way of explaining things) and 3) adversus (Thomas’s responses to various objections).  I begin, however, with IN SUM (my summary of all ten articles of question 113).  All quotations from the Summa are taken from the English Translation, Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. 1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981.

 

Some questions to ask when reading: (1) Does Aquinas use the term “remission of sins” forensically to refer to their being forgiven, or does he use this language psychologically to refer to the expelling of the sin within the heart? (2) Where does forgiveness fit into his doctrine of justification?  (3) Why does Aquinas choose to tackle the questions he does?  Can we discern a larger project driving his agenda?  (4) How does Aquinas handle the tension between grace and free will?  (5) In Aquinas, why is justification by faith rather than charity?  (6) Are there any questionable assumptions made by Aquinas’ Aristotelian anthropology that have been corrected by science (besides the obvious point that science admits of no “soul” that transcends the physical/material)?  If so, could his theology of justification be enhanced by holding on to his overall doctrine but updating where necessary?  (7) When Aquinas disagrees with objections to his position, is he ultimately disagreeing with them or finding a way to affirm the truth in their objection without it undermining his position?  In other words, what posture does Aquinas seem to take towards the objections?


 

Summa Theologica

IN SUM :: Justification  is the movement of a sinner from a state of interior injustice known as sin to a state of interior justice that expels such sin, caused instantaneously when the grace of God is infused and causes the sinner to accept grace by their free will and freely despise sin and turn from loving it and towards God and loving God.  The justice brought about by this grace in the interior of a human soul is such that the human intellect or reason is directed toward God to apprehend God as last end, and directs the human will to submit to the human intellect and therefore love God as last end or ultimate good.  Justification is by faith because the will only loves what it first apprehends as a fitting object of love by the intellect or reason, thus faith has a structural priority over charity (love for God) inasmuch as the intellect has a structural priority over the will.  Though justification is brought about by faith and is the sinner’s first movement toward God inasmuch as faith is the first effect of grace due to its structural priority, it more especially concerns or consists in charity because justice is especially concerned with the good, and the good is especially the object of the will, and charity is the will’s proper act (love) elevated and perfected.

 

ST I-II.113.1 :: The justification of the ungodly is the remission of sins.

sed contra :: The remission of sins is justification.

respondeo :: Just as making hot implies a movement towards heat, so justification implies a movement towards justice and includes a rectitude of order.  Justification as a virtue implies a making right of man’s act towards his neighbor.  Justification as legal justice implies a making right of man’s act in relation to the common good.  But justification takes its name from the rectitude of order it implies in the interior disposition of the person who is made just.  More specifically, the inferior or lower powers of the person’s soul are made subject to the superior or highest powers of the person’s soul, while the higher powers are in turn made subject to God.  Aristotle called this relationship between the higher and lower powers metaphorical justice.

Since Adam was created with original justice, his justice was simply generated, but what the Apostle Paul has in mind by “the justification of the ungodly” is the kind of justice that is brought about in a person by a movement from one contrary to another—namely, from an injustice in the interior of a person’s soul to justice in that same soul.  Since movements get their name not from their starting point (whence), but from the direction or termination of the movement (whereto), “this transmutation whereby the remission of sins from a the state of ungodliness to the state of justice borrows its name from its term whereto, and is called justification of the ungodly.”

adversus 1 :: Some might argue that sin is opposed to all virtues, not just justice.  Therefore the remission of sins in general is not the same as justification.  But I counter that all sin implies the disorder of the human mind—that is, it’s not being subject to God.  For this reason, the removal of any sin is called the justification of the ungodly.

adversus 2 :: Some might argue still as follows: everything ought to be named after what is predominate in it, as Aristotle argues (De Anima ii. text. 49).  The remission of sins is brought about chiefly by faith according to Acts xv. 9 and by charity according to Proverbs x.12).  Hence justification should be named after faith and charity rather than justice.  But I counter this argument as follows: faith and charity imply that the human mind is directed to God by the intellect (faith) and will (charity), but because justice implies a rightness of order in general the transmutation is named justification rather than charitification or faithification.

adversus 3 :: It could be said that the remission of sins is one and same with being called. A person called is afar off, and those afar off from God are so by sin.  Yet one is called prior to being justified if we go by Romans 8:30.  However, I would counter that being called refers to God’s help in exciting and moving our mind to give up sin, but God’s motion is not the remission of sins, but it’s cause.  God’s moving and exciting our mind to give up sin must be distinguished from it’s effect, which is our giving up of sin.  The former is the cause of their remission, while the latter is their remission.

 

ST I-II.113.2 :: The infusion of grace is required for the remission of guilt—that is, for the justification of the ungodly.

sed contra :: An infusion of grace is required for the remission of sins, for we are justified freely by grace.

respondeo :: Sin creates an offense to God, and offenses are only removed when the person who has been offended is at peace with the soul of the person who offended.  Therefore the remission of sins implies that God must be at peace with the one who sinned.  “This peace consists in the love whereby God loves us.”  As part of the divine actuality God’s love is eternal and unchangeable, but it’s effect on human persons can be interrupted inasmuch as we fall short of it through sin.  The effect of divine love in us (that can be interrupted by sin) is grace, and it is by grace that a person is made worthy of eternal life, and by sin that a person is made unworthy of eternal life.  Hence we could not conceive of the remission of guilt apart from the infusion of grace.

adversus 1 :: Now it might be argued that persons can be moved from one contrary without being led to another if the contraries are not immediate, and the state of guilt and grace are not immediate, for there is a middle state—namely, the state of innocence where a person is in neither state.  Hence a person can be pardoned his guilt without being brought to a state of grace.  But I counter that although there is a middle state imaginable where we would neither be hated by God nor moved to a state of grace, but simply pardoned of our wrongs, such a middle state would only be conceivable in a state of innocence, for once a person sins this creates an offense, and pardoning an offense requires more than neutrality, but a special good will.  God’s special good will is called grace.  Thus, although a person before sinning may be in a state without guilt and also without grace, once sin is introduced and pardon is necessary to restore peace, the remission of guilt requires the infusion of grace.

adversus 2 :: One might argue that the remission of guilt consists in the Divine imputation whereby God does not impute our sin to us.  However, such imputation requires the divine act of God’s love which implies a certain effect of grace (as we have established in Q 110.1).  Thus, not imputing sin implies a certain effect in the person whose sins are not held against her.  In other words, the divine imputation only proceeds from the same Divine love that is grace.

adversus 3 :: One might argue that sins which are contraries allow for sins to be remitted without grace, as a person guilty of wastefulness is thereby remitted of the sin of miserliness.  However, these sins may be contrary to one another in the ways they turn from God, but they are alike inasmuch as they both turn from God, wherein their sinfulness lies.  Furthermore, without grace the guilt of sin remains even if the act of it passes away.

 

ST I-II.113.3 :: A movement of free-will is required for the justification of the ungodly.

sed contra :: It is written that “every one that hath heard of the Father, and hath learned, cometh to Me,” but learning implies assent to the teacher, hence no one comes to the Father (by justifying grace) without a movement of free will.

respondeo :: Justification happens when God moves a person to justice, but God always moves everything in its own manner, according to its nature and not against it.  It is human nature to have free will, thus when God moves a person to justice this cannot be without a movement of the free will.  “But he so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time He moves the free-will to accept the gift of grace, in such as are capable of being moved thus” (that is, not infants or those in a comma).

adversus 1 :: Infants are not capable of the movement of free will, nor are madmen and mentally disabled who have never had a movement of their free will.  They are an exception and are justified by the infusion of their souls through a sacrament apart from a movement of their own free will.  In the case of someone who had use of their free will but lost it through sickness or sleep, they can only be justified if they intended to make use of the sacrament of Baptism or any other sacrament before they lost the use of their free will, otherwise the sacraments will not help them obtain justifying grace.

adversus 2 :: Some might argue that Solomon was moved to wisdom in his sleep, yet the movement of the free will does not occur during sleep.  Hence the gift of sanctifying grace could also be given apart from the movement of free will.  But this is wrong on multiple levels.  In the first instance, Solomon wasn’t given the gift of wisdom during his sleep, but it was rather announced to him in his sleep based on a pervious desire, or else it was “the sleep of prophecy” wherein the will is able to move.  Secondly, the gift of wisdom perfects the intellect which precedes the will, whereas the gift of justifying grace has especially to do with ordaining a person to the good, and the good is especially the object of the will.

adversus 3 :: One might argue that grace is preserved without a movement of the will, and this preservation is by the same cause that brings grace about in the first place.  Hence it can be brought about or infused apart from a movement of the will.  However, the preservation of grace does not require a transmutation of the soul, but only a continuation of the divine influx that caused the transmutation.  The infusion of grace in justification, however, does require a transmutation of the soul and therefore a proper movement of that soul is required in order for it to be moved according to its own manner, which involves the movement of the will.

 

ST I-II.113.4 :: A movement of faith is required for the justification of the ungodly.

sed contra :: It is written “Being justified therefore by faith, let us have peace with God.”

respondeo :: A movement of the free will is required for the justification of the ungodly because in justification a person’s mind/soul is moved by God by turning it to himself.  Now the first turning to God is by faith, hence a movement of faith is required for the justification of the ungodly.

adversus 1 :: Now one might argue that faith is no more required for justification than any of the other virtues, since Scripture also teaches that fear drives out sin (Ecc 1.27), charity causes the forgiveness of sins (Luke 7.47), humility causes grace (James 4.6), and mercy purges away sin (Prov 15.27).  However, the movement of faith is not perfect unless it is quickened by charity, hence the infusion of faith is always accompanied by the infusion also of charity—they are infused together.  The free will is moved to God by being subject to Him, hence the acts of fear and humility also concur.  When mercy follows justification, it counteracts sin by satisfying for it.  When mercy precedes justification it prepares for it inasmuch as the merciful obtain mercy.  Mercy can thus both precede justification and concur with other virtues towards justification inasmuch as it is included in the love of our neighbor.

adversus 2 :: One might say that knowledge of God is required for justification, and this can be obtained through natural knowledge or the gift of wisdom and therefore faith is not necessary for justification.  But natural knowledge does not turn a person to God as the object of beatitude or the cause of justification, hence such knowledge does not suffice for justification.  The gift of wisdom on the other hand presupposes faith.

adversus 3 :: Some might say that because there are many articles of faith it is unreasonable to think a person must think upon all of them when he is first justified, since such thought would require a long delay of time.  However, the Apostle says “to him that believes in Him that justifies the ungodly his faith is reputed to justice, according to the purpose of the grace of God.”  This makes it clear that faith is required in order to believe that God justifies man through the mystery of Christ.

 

ST I-II.113.5 :: The justification of the ungodly requires a movement of the free will concerning sin.

sed contra :: It is written “I will confess against myself my injustice to the Lord; and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sin.”

respondeo :: Justification of the ungodly is a certain movement whereby the human mind is moved by God from the state of sin to the state of justice, and this requires an act of the free will to regard both states.  Just as in local movement a body is related to the place it moves from as well as the place it moves to, so the human mind whilst being justified must by an act of the free will both withdraw from sin and draw near to justice.  If we understand how the will moves as Augustine did, this requires a despising of sin enough to move the will away from it, and a desire for justice enough to move the will toward it.

adversus 1 :: Now some might argue that charity is enough to take away sin, yet charity’s object is clearly not sin.  Likewise, therefore, no movement of the free will regarding sin is required.  However, one and the same virtue is responsible for the will’s movement to seek one thing and avoid it’s contrary.  Thus charity is responsible for both loving God and detesting the sin whereby the soul is separated from God.

adversus 2 :: Now scripture teaches that the one moving forward shouldn’t look back (Philippians 3.13-14), and whoever is striving after righteousness has his sins behind him.  Therefore, some conclude that this means no movement of the free will regarding sin is required for justification.  However, to return to the things behind in such a case would be to return to loving them.  The movement of the will required by justification is the opposite.  In fact, the one putting his sins behind him ought to recall his former sins to detest them, for this is the same as to flee from them.

adversus 3 :: Still some will say that expecting a half pardon from God is irreverent, and if a man considers his sins in justification it would need to be all of them, not just some.  But this doesn’t seem right, for it would require such a great effort to recall all of one’s sins and even then the sins that have been forgotten could not be forgiven.  Hence they conclude that no movement of the free will can be required for justification.  Now previous to justificationa person must detest each sin that one remembers, and from this the soul will continue this detestation to all sins in general, for it puts that person in a contrite frame of mind regarding sin such that were each sin to be recalled, they too would be detested.  This movement of the free will away from sin co-operates in one’s justification.

 

ST I-II.113.6 :: The remission of sins ought to be reckoned amongst the things required for justification.

sed contra ::  The end must be kept in mind when determining what is required for a thing, for the end is the chief part of everything and the remission of sins is the end of justification.

respondeo :: Four things are required for justification: 1) the infusion of grace, 2) the movement of the free will towards God by faith, 3) the movement of the free will towards sin, and 4) the remission of sins.  This all flows from what justification is—namely, a movement whereby the soul is moved by God from a state of sin to a state of justice.  In any scenario where one thing is being moved by another, three things are required: 1) the motion of the mover (in justification this would be the divine motion in the infusion of grace), 2) the movement of the moved (in justification this would be a departure from the term whence and an approach to the term whereto), and 3) the consummation of the movement, or the attainment of the end (the attainment of the end in justification is implied in the remission of sins, for in this the justification of the ungodly is completed).

adversus 1 :: One might argue that the the substance of a thing shouldn’t be called a “requirement” of that thing, and since the remission of sins is justification, it shouldn’t be considered also a “requirement” of justification.  But the only reason justification is considered to consist in “the remission of sins” is because a movement gets its name or species from its end or term, yet other things are required in order to reach the term.

adversus 2 :: Others might argue that since the infusion of grace is the same thing as the remission of sins just as the lighting of a room dispels it’s darkness, these are not two separate things, but the same.  Therefore the remission of sins shouldn’t be considered as a requirement for justification once the infusion of grace has already been listed.  But this only holds true when considering the substance of the act of infusion, for by the same act God both bestows grace and remits sin.  When considering the infusion of grace on the part of the objects, however, they differ by the difference between guilt, which is taken away, and grace, which is infused.

adversus 3 :: Still some will argue that an effect shouldn’t be enumerated together with its cause when things like this happen simultaneously.  The remission of sin is caused by the infusion of grace which moves the free will towards grace and away from sin simultaneously because it is by faith on the one hand, and contrition on the other, whereby sin if forgiven.  Therefore the remission of sins shouldn’t be enumerated and divided from its cause in this case as two different requirements for justification.  However, this argument misjudges the enumeration I have laid out, which is an enumeration not of a genus into its species, but a division of the things required for the completion of a thing.  In such enumerations, it is appropriate to have what precedes and what follows, since some of the principles and parts of a composite thing may precede, and some may follow.

 

ST I-II.113.7 :: The justification of the ungodly takes place in an Instant, not successively.

sed contra :: The justification of the ungodly is caused by the justifying grace of the Holy Spirit, who comes to people’s minds suddenly according to Acts 2:2: “and suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a mighty wind coming.”  The gloss on this verse notes that the Holy Spirit “knows no tardy efforts,” therefore, the justification of the ungodly is not successive, but instantaneous.

respondeo :: “The entire justification of the ungodly consists as to its origin in the infusion of grace.  For it is by grace that free-will is moved and sin is remitted.  Now the infusion of grace takes place in an instant and without succession.  The only thing keeping a form from being impressed upon a subject is that subjects not being disposed to it, but a subject predisposed already has nothing hindering from receiving a form.  We have already established that God needs no disposition to infuse grace other than the one he Himself has made—and this sufficient disposition can be gradual or sudden.  Natural agents cannot dispose a matter suddenly if the matter is resistant or has some disproportion with the power of the agent, but the stronger the agent the more speedily that agent can dispose matter for a form.  Since God’s power is infinite, it can dispose instantly anything whatsoever to its form, and much more the free will of human persons, where the movement is by nature instantaneous.  For this reason, the justification of the ungodly by God takes place in an instant.

adversus 1 :: Some might argue that since choice requires deliberation of counsel, which implies a reasoning process, this implies succession.  But this type of consideration is not the substance of justification, but a way to justification.

adversus 2 :: One might make the argument that free will’s movement requires actual consideration, but it’s impossible to consider many things actually and at once.  But I counter that nothing prevents two things being understood as one, so long as the two things considered are two sides of the same coin and are therefore somehow one, as when we understand the subject and predicate as one affirmation, or as when a person moves away from one place and towards another place at the same time all as one movement.  Thus in the justification of the ungodly a person’s free will detests sin and turns to God simultaneously in one movement.

adversus 3 :: Still some might make the case that a form that can be greater or less is received successively by its subject, as blackness and whiteness.  Grace may be greater or less, therefore, the infusion of grace is not received suddenly by its subject but successively.  But this is flawed reasoning, for the reason a form is not received instantly in the matter is not that it can inhere more or less, otherwise light would not suddenly illuminate.  The reason form inheres gradually is owing to the disposition of the matter or subject as we have seen.

adversus 4 :: It could be argued that the free will’s movement co-operates and is meritorious, hence it must proceed from grace, without which there can be no merit.  But a thing receives its form before operating by this form.  Hence grace must be infused first before the free will can move towards God and away from sin.  Hence justification cannot be all at once.  However, I counter that in the same instant a form can be acquired and begin to operate, as when fire is received it also moves upward in the same instant.

adversus 5 :: Finally, some argue that if grace be infused this implies an instant when it first dwells in the soul.  Likewise, for sin to be forgiven, there must be a last instant that man is in sin.  If it’s the same instant, opposites would be in the same instant simultaneously—inhering grace and inhering sin would be included in the same instant.  But this argument fails to see that the succession of opposites in the same subject in time are different than those that are above time.  Affections and intellectual concepts are not measured by continuous time, but by discrete time.  In these, there is a last instant in which the preceding is, and a first instant in which the subsequent is, but there need by no time in between since there is no continuity of time.  The human mind, which is justified, is, in itself, above time even though it is subject to time accidentally [inasmuch as it understands with continuity and time with respect to phantasms].  We must rather say that there is no last instant in which sin inheres, but a last time, whereas there is a first instant that grace inheres in which sin, which inhered in all previous time, no longer inheres.

 

ST I-II.113.8 :: The infusion of grace is naturally the first of the things required for the justification of the ungodly.

sed contra :: The cause is naturally prior to its effect, and the infusion of grace is naturally the cause of whatever is required for the justification of the ungodly.  Therefore, it is naturally prior to it.

respondeo :: The four things required for the justification of the ungodly are all simultaneous in time rather than successive, as we have established.  But in the order of nature, one is prior to another logically.  Thus the first is the infusion of grace, the second, the free-will’s movement towards God, the third, the free will’s movement away from sin, and the fourth, the remission of sins.  This is because in every movement the motion of the mover is naturally first (this would be the infusion of grace), the disposition of the matter or the movement of the moved is second (this would be the free will’s movement towards God).  The end or term of the movement of the moved is last (this would be the free will’s movement away from sin).  Since sin is detested because it is against God, the movement towards God is prior to the movement away from sin.  The remission of sins is last inasmuch as it is caused by the end or term of the movement.

adversus 1 :: Some argue that we withdraw from evil before drawing near to the good per Psalm xxxiii.15 “turn away from evil, and do good.”  Thus the remission of sins is naturally prior to the infusion of grace.  But I counter that withdraw from a term and approach to another can be understood in more than one way.  From the perspective of the thing moved, the withdraw of a term naturally precedes the approach to a term because in the subject of movement the opposite which is put away is prior to the opposite attained by the movement.  On the part of the agent, however, it’s the other way around since the form pre-existing in the agent acts to remove the opposite form, as the sun by its light acts for the removal of darkness, and illumination is thus logically prior to the removal of darkness even though on the part of the atmosphere being freed from darkness is prior to illumination—even though both are simultaneous in time.  Since the remission of sin is about the God who justifies, the infusion of grace is considered prior to being freed from sin, but if we look at it from the perspective of the justified, being freed from sin is prior to the obtaining of justifying grace.  In other words, the whence of justification is sin; the term whereto is justice.  Grace causes both the forgiveness of sin and the obtaining of justice.

adversus 2 :: Others argue that the disposition naturally precedes the form to which it disposes and the free will’s movement disposes for the reception of grace.  Therefore, it naturally precedes the infusion of grace.  And this is true from the perspective of the moved, for the disposition of the subject precedes the reception of the form in the order of nature.  However, the disposition of the subject follows the action of the agent that disposes.  The free will’s movement, then, precedes the reception of grace in the order of nature, and follows the infusion of grace.  [NOTE: disposing grace vs. infusing grace refer to the same grace from different perspectives here—but Aquinas does not distinguish it’s effects by giving them different ends or names]

adversus 3 ::  Sill one might make the case that since sin hinders the soul from freely tending to God, and such hinderance must be removed before the soul can freely move towards God, the remission of sins and the free will’s movement against sin must be considered naturally prior to the infusion of grace.  But I counter that Aristotle has pointed out that the soul’s movements toward the speculative principles or the practical end comes first, even though in exterior movements the removal of hindrances are prior the attainment of the end.  Likewise the free-will’s movement is a movement of the soul, so in the order of nature it moves towards God as to its end prior to removing impediments of sin.

 

ST I-II.113.9 :: The justification of the ungodly is God’s greatest work.

sed contra :: Ps cxliv.9 says “his tender mercies are over all his works” and in a collect it is said “O God, Who dost show forth Thine all-mightiness most by pardoning and having mercy.”  And Augustine said “for a just man to be made from a sinner, is greater than to create heaven and earth.”

respondeo :: This can be seen in a number of ways.  From the perspective of the mode of action in which creation is the greater work since God creates something from nothing, or on the part of what is made, in which case the justification of the ungodly is greater since it results in eternal good and a share in the Godhead, whereas the universe’s good terminates at the good of mutable nature.  This is why Augustine says “heaven and earth shall pass away, but the justification of the ungodly shall endure.”  Keep in mind the word “great” also can be seen in more than one way.  In absolute quantity glorification is greater than the gift of grace that sanctifies the ungodly.  In proportionate quantity the gift of grace that justifies the ungodly is greater than the gift of glorification that justifies the just because the gift of justification so far exceeds the worthiness of the subject who deserves punishment instead.  Those who are glorified on the other hand, by the fact of their justification are worthy of the gift of glorification.

adversus 1 :: It might be argued that by justification we only obtain the grace of a foreigner or traveller, but glorification causes us to obtain heavenly grace and is therefore greater.  But this objection has been answered already, as this looks at the question in terms of what is made rather than mode of action, and also in absolute quantity rather than proportionate quantify.

adversus 2 :: It could also be argued with good reason that justification of the ungodly is ordained only to the good of one person, but the creation of heaven and earth benefit the universe and is therefore greater.  But this applies only if we consider both in the same genus since the good of the universe is greeter than the good of one.  The good of grace in the one justified, however, is greater than the good of nature in the whole universe.

adversus 3 :: It could be argued with good reason that to create something from nothing is greater, for when God did this there was nothing to co-operate with the agent as in justification.  Since in justification God creates something from something, and there is co-operation, but in creation God creates something from nothing, creation is a greater work than justification.  But as we have already established, this considers only the manner of acting as the criterion for being greater, not what is made.  If what is made be considered the criterion, the justification of the ungodly is greater, as we have established.

 

ST I-II113.10 :: Justification is not a miraculous work.

sed contra :: Miraculous works are beyond natural power, but Augustine makes clear that to be capable of faith and charity belongs to the nature of humans, but to have faith and charity belongs to the grace of the faithful. Therefore the justification if the ungodly is not miraculous.

respondeo :: Three things are usually found in miraculous works: 1) the active power is divine and the cause therefore hidden, in which case justification can be considered miraculous, 2) the form introduced to the matter is beyond natural power of that matter (as in the resurrection of the dead), in which case justification is not a miraculous work since the soul is capable of, and fit for, grace having been made in the image of God, and 3) something that departs from the usual cause and effect relationship, such as when a sick person beyond the wonted course of healing by nature or medicine is yet suddenly well, and in this matter justification is sometimes miraculous and sometimes not.  “For the common and wonted course of justification is that God moves the soul interiorly and that person is converted to God, first by an imperfect conversion, that it may afterwards become perfect; because charity begun merits increase, and when increased merits perfection, as Augustine says.”  But sometimes God moves persons to perfect justice all at once, as he did with the apostle Paul, and in which case it was accompanied by miraculous external prostrate.  Thus Paul’s conversion is celebrated in the church as miraculous.

adversus 1 :: Some might argue that miraculous works are greater than non miraculous works, and since justification is greater than even miraculous works, as Augustin makes clear, therefore justification must be a miraculous work.  But although certain miraculous works are less than the justification of the ungodly in terms of the good that is caused by the work of justification, yet certain miraculous works are beyond the wonted order of such effects, and thus have more of the nature of a miracle than justification does.

adversus 2 :: It could be argued that the movement of the will in the soul works like the inclinations in nature.  When God moves natural things against their natural inclination, it is considered a miracle.  Since the will of the ungodly is bent on evil, God’s moving it to good, as happens in justification, should be considered miraculous.  But I would counter by arguing that for a natural thing to be moved against its inclination is not necessarily a miraculous work, otherwise it would be a miracle for a stone to be thrown upwards.  It could only be a miracle if this takes place beyond the order of the natural proper cause (like using a feather to spring a heavy rock upwards in the air).  However, only God can justify the ungodly just as much as only heat could warm up cold water, so even in this regard justification of the ungodly cannot be seen as miraculous.

adversus 3 :: One might say that justice is a gift from God just like wisdom is, and it is miraculous for someone to obtain wisdom suddenly without study.  Therefore, it is also miraculous for God to justify the ungodly.  Wisdom is attained naturally through talent and study, so it is miraculous when this is attained apart from such order.  But a person does not naturally acquire justifying grace by his own action ever, so these two works cannot be compared as if they were exactly the same.

Does Atheist Julian Baggini Consider the Strongest Counter Evidence? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

I have so far offered mostly praise and appreciation for Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  In my last post I offered my first critical remarks of the book.  I argued that atheism is negative by its modern definition, even though Baggini argues that atheism is positive.  This was more-or-less a quibbling over terms.  In this post, however, I will be offering my most critical remarks about the book by exploring its most crucial oversights.
Julian Baggini__Atheism_A Very Short Introduction
The Burden of Making Sweeping Claims

Whenever making general claims that a position has no good arguments or supporting evidence, one must be willing to consider the strongest possible evidence and arguments for such a position as defended by its most able proponents, not just cherry pick the weaker evidence and less careful arguments made by rash or inept proponents. The best way to make a rationally persuasive case against a position is to first accurately represent the strongest arguments for that position before deconstructing them.   This is always risky, since it could turn the audience–especially if they fail to keep reading the subsequent critique.  It seems counter-intuitive, but the first step to attacking or debunking a view is to first argue in favor of it—that is, to do one’s best to take on the mindset of its most able proponents and state the strongest possible case for their position.  This (by the way) is also risky for the one making the arguments against it (not just for the audience they are trying to persuade) since often when one goes to such great lengths to fairly represent one’s interlocutor, not only can one’s critique be more transparently assessed by judging whether any part of the argument hinges on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation, but it has the potential to alleviate ignorance, misunderstandings, and (the best part) dogmatism.  It’s always easier to make a case against a view one has not studied very carefully from its most able proponents.  All too often the exchanges between those holding contrary positions are more like lobbed grenades or dumb bombs than accurate sniper fire or smart bombs.

An expositional prelude of the kind I am advocating for here demands patience, good-will, virtue, and a lot of time, but it adds maximum credibility to the subsequent critique.  Such a strategy also has the greatest potential to convince the very audience that isn’t already persuaded because it assures them first that their views have been well understood.  It’s the best method for meeting the preconditions for genuine dialogue and exchange.  If you can explain your philosophical/theological opponents view or argument in detail as well or better than even they can, your arguments against it are much more likely to be both appreciated and respected by the target audience you wish to engage and persuade.  Sometimes it seems as if the goal of those who argue against other positions is not to persuade at all, but to shore up the confidence of those who already agree, which seems to imply a bit of insecurity.

Unfortunately, most people who go to the trouble of arguing against a position have a strong incentive to not make the counter view sound as persuasive as it could possibly sound in the hands of its most able defenders.  Instead, distortions of a position and how it’s argued for are the norm—-even among academicians.  Straw-man fallacies are often unintentional: the result of a blind spot or a disconnect in perspectives.  Throw into this a lot of ignorance and rhetoric and you have a recipe for dogmatism and unproductive polemics.

Does Baggini Consider the Strongest Counter Evidence?

Thankfully Baggini is well educated and appears to do a decent job throughout most of his book in achieving a fair representation of the views he’s arguing against, but there are some serious oversights in the book.  For example, when he considers the “counter-evidence” on the question of life after death, he mentions only 1) the testimony of mediums, 2) supposed appearances of ghosts, and 3) near-death experiences. Then he concludes “there really isn’t any stronger evidence” (19).  Just mentioning the types of counter evidence, Baggini figures, is enough to make his case. He doesn’t care to unpack the supposed ghosts sightings or analyze the testimony of mediums. He doesn’t take these types of evidence very seriously.

Unfortunately, it just happens to be that the cornerstone of Christian apologetics does not fit any of these “counter-evidence” categories he lists, but bases its argument on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Christian scholars have often put together rather impressive historical arguments that would appear to construe the known evidence in such a way that the resurrection hypothesis best fits the historical data. This does not mean the hypothesis is true or that critiques of such historical arguments are not available, but it remains the strongest type of evidence (historical) for the Christian position, yet Baggini fails to even consider it. [NOTE: Christian’s do not believe Jesus was a “ghost” so the second item on his list does not cover this type of argument.]  In fact, nowhere in his book does he ever tackle what is treated by Christians as the strongest evidence for their position, yet the overall argument of the book is that only the “weaker” types of counter-evidence can be found against naturalism, making this oversight problematic for his entire strategy. If one says only weak arguments can be found for a position, one had better consider what the most able proponents who hold that position think are the strongest arguments for it.  (I could also bring up Intelligent Design theory which I would consider as far better of an argument than the testimony of mediums, supposed appearances of ghosts, and near-death experiences, but I’m going to stick with the resurrection hypothesis here since I’m not as familiar with the ID literature).

For example, on this topic one would have to offer good counter arguments to the arguments of respected scholars like Larry W. Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and N.T. Wright to name a few.  These are scholars who are respected by collegues in their secular fields of historical work, not just the Christian community.  Since Baggini is not a historian but a philosopher, his best counter argument move for this would be to appeal to other historians who have expert critiques for these arguments. His argument would only be as good as the historical experts he would be forced to rely on, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on how soundly the arguments of the likes of Bauckham and Hurtado have been represented and critiqued in those sources.  To be truly on top of things, one would also want to see what counter-arguments have been made by these authors to their critics.  All too often defenders of a position respond: “I’ve already answered that objection in chapter X of my book.”  If nobody is taking the time to carefully read where their opponents have already answered their objections, no real dialogue or fruitful exchange can even get off the ground.

If you are thinking, “That sounds like a ton of work,” your right, but when making a sweeping claim that no good arguments exist for a position, this is the type of “homework” that would make such a claim credible—especially to those who are familiar with the best proponents of such a position. To put it another way, Christians who are steeped in the historical literature of the scholars I mentioned (or others with the same pedigree) would find it easy to dismiss Baggini’s claim that no good arguments exist for life after death, since the arguments they stand on don’t even seem to be on Baggini’s radar. And this just so happens to be the case with Christianity.

Does Baggini Fairly Represent Opposing Arguments?

This is not the only place Baggini appears to lack a familiarity with the strongest counterpositions. Another major oversight in his book can be found in his representation of the idea that divine authority or divine law is somehow required to “uphold” ethics.  How he understands the position he argues against can be seen in the summary statement of his position at the beginning of the chapter:

Morality is more than possible without God, it is entirely independent of him. That means atheists are not only more than capable of leading moral lives, they may even be able to lead more moral lives than religious believers who confuse divine law and punishment with right and wrong. (37)

The rest of the chapter mainly establishes that (1) people have to always make their own subjective decisions on what moral codes to adopt or not adopt and (2) atheists have plenty of resources to draw from for ethics and can even be more ethical than religious believers.  [NOTE: The best part of this chapter is his engagement with the Euthyphro Dilemma where he considers a common counter-argument to his critique.]

As to (1), Baggini is mistaken that the “inescapability of personal choice” means that “the atheist and the believer are therefore in the same boat” (41, 43).  It’s true that personal choice is inevitable, but I’ve never met a theist who argued that divine law and personal choice were incompatible.  The theist perspective is about better aligning one’s subjective decisions with the objective moral code. The theists argue that in the atheist scenario there is no possibility for an ultimately objective moral standard or code, so one’s personal choices about what morality to adopt have no potential to ever be objectively right or wrong.  With religious morality it is possible in theory (even if not in practice) for the theist to attain to a subjective adoption of what is objectively right. “Objective” in this sense transcends any type of objectivity that is possible with an atheist morality, for the divine moral code transcends national and cultural morality. It also transcends the evolution of practiced morality across time. Baggini thinks that establishing that subjective decisions are inevitable when it comes to morality somehow makes the type of objective morality claimed by theists impossible, but this does not follow, since if the theist perspective is true, the subjective attainment of an objective moral code is at least possible. Various religions supposedly provide the “true” path to attaining such objective morality. That’s what makes them very different from any type of morality possible in an atheist worldview.

As for (2) Baggini appears to miss the thrust of the argument made in the most respected Christian literature, which isn’t that atheists cannot be moral or ethical in practice.  I’ve never heard or read any such claims in even the least sophisticated of religious literature.  The argument put forth is that without a divine moral code in theory one cannot ground their morality or ethics objectively in a way that transcends one’s personal preference, culture or time. In fact, part of the theistic argument’s bite is supposed to come from the fact that atheists actually do adhere to and expect others to treat as objective certain moral principles. As the argument goes, atheists therefore are a walking contradiction because they have no philosophical grounds for saying anything is objectively right or wrong, but only right or wrong for them or perhaps for a particular group of people at a particular time in the evolution of the human species.  They have no right or grounds to judge the moral actions of others.  One may be able to ground atheist morality so that it is not restricted to only oneself by appeal to evolution, which opens up the possibility for a certain moral code to (in theory) hold for a tribe or group of people at a particular time in the evolution of human history, but this still grounds morality in subjective and changing circumstances.

Murder and rape of humans, for example (as the argument goes), cannot be objectively wrong in the atheist perspective. In theory, at some point in the development of human history a unanimous consensus could potentially accept it as wrong, but this would only be a limited and fragile consensus based on the changing circumstances of an ever-evolving species. One might try to argue based on Aristotelean teleology, for example, that murder and rape of humans is a counter productive practice to the ultimate telos of human happiness as we now know it, but what makes people happy could change from person to person, and culture to culture, and generation to generation. Furthermore, is happiness really the ultimate telos for humans anyway? Can one know simply based on the fact that all humans want to be happy? If a desire for happiness is currently an inescapable part of human nature, this does not mean it’s the only inescapable part of human nature or the most important one.  Furthermore, we must remember that because of evolution human nature is always in flux.  It has changed in the past, it’s changing now, and it will change in the future. Basing morality in human nature appears to fallaciously ground what ought to be on what is the case. In the Aristotelian morality described by Baggini, one bases what he or she ought to do on what humans appear to inescapably desire. We are still a long way from the type of objective morality possible within a theist view, especially one where God writes these moral codes on stone tablets to make them clear as in Judaism or Christianity.

One of the bonuses of this book comes from the fact that although Baggini is familiar with streams of philosophical and theological literature, he makes a decision to leave out footnotes (for the most part) “to avoid scholastic sterility.” This works to his advantage for most of the book. However, when one fails to follow this “strict academic” guideline, one’s writing becomes vulnerable to the flaws that remind us why it’s such a “strict academic” guideline. His arguments portray a lack of familiarity and misunderstanding with the most able proponents of the counter-evidence to his position. Reading and carefully citing these proponents would’ve been a better move here for Baggini, and would lessen one of the most regrettable gaps in academia—the one where people speak past each other when they hold disparate views on a topic. Closing the gap requires not only good will (which I believe Baggini has) but also a copious amount of reading in books written by those who hold views directly opposed to the one you seek to defend. This is why the road is very, very rarely traveled.

Is Atheism Really a Positive Worldview? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

I have so far offered almost nothing but praise and appreciation for Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  I have carefully summarized his definition of, and case for, atheism.  As promised, I have begun now to offer my evaluations of his book.  In my last post I argued that theists should be able to appreciate the kind of atheism Baggini presents in this book, whether they disagree with him or not.  In this post I will begin to specify some areas of his arguments that I found unconvincing.
Julian Baggini__Atheism_A Very Short Introduction
Is Atheism Really a Positive Worldview?
Disclaimer: I am using “worldview” in most generic of ways here.  If you don’t think atheism should be categorized as a “worldview” (as some give reason for) then replace the word with “position” and it will not change the intention of my post.
As I’ve already mentioned, I appreciate Baggini’s move to reclaim atheism in terms of naturalism rather than as an “anti-God” position.  However, his argument is not that natrualism is a positive worldview.  Rather, his argument is that atheism is a positive worldview.  But then he admits that the very definition of atheism is fundamentally negative: “the belief that there is no God or gods” (3).  If this is the definition of atheism, such a definition is hardly congenial to Baggini’s argument.  If he wants atheism to no longer be seen as an essentially negative worldview, it seems the definition would need to be fundamentally altered to mean something like “the belief that nature encompasses all of what is real,” which is something like the current definition for naturalism.  Such an alternative definition would imply that anything supernatural is not real (gods, God, angels, demons, ghosts, transcendental worlds, etc.), but this aspect of the position would only be a negative by-product or implication of a more positive central affirmation.  Furthermore, even when considering its implicitly negative aspect, the denial of the existence of God or gods in particular would be a further consequence following from the denial of all things supernatural in general.  This would successfully place the denial of God or gods at least two steps removed from the central affirmation, removing the acute anti-God flavor from the very definition of the term.  The problem is this: Baggini’s argument is not that atheism should be redefined positively.  He is arguing that atheism (as it is currently defined) already is a positive worldview in spite of his own admission that atheism is negative by its very definition.
This is also the problem with his counter to the argument that atheism is essentially negative.  He claims such an argument is committing the etymological fallacy.  The etymological fallacy is when someone infers something about the current meaning of a word not by its modern usage, but by its historical derivation.  This would be like saying that the English word nice comes from the Latin nescius which actually means “ignorant,” therefore to say something is nice is to say it’s ignorant.  The origins of the grammatical form of a word may give clues to its current usage and meaning, but not necessarily.  If one assumes the current usage or meaning must be based on the words historical derivation (or if a compound word like “hourseplay” by simply combining the current meanings of the two words) this is a fallacy of reasoning.  But saying that atheism is negative by its modern definition (not by any semantic derivations) is not a fallacy.  To know whether atheism is fundamentally a negative position, one need look no further than today’s Webster’s Dictionary.   For this reason his strategy for reclaiming the word or position of atheism as something essentially positive seems futile for the further reason that it’s based on a dubious understanding of the etymological fallacy.
I could agree that the worldviews of atheists can be positive (consisting in a diversity of affirmations that are more important for the atheist than his or her denial of the existence of God or gods), but I’m afraid atheism per se is negative by definition.  Furthermore, even if for Baggini this negative component (the denial of the existence of God or gods) is not what defines his personal worldview, it is easy to conceive that there would be plenty of atheists for whom this denial would be of central importance.   Theists can have negative worldviews while atheists have positive ones, and vice versa.  But when we ask the question “Is such and such a worldview positive or negative?” we must limit such an inquiry to what is essential or necessary to atheism, not what could or could not be the case with those who hold it.  Although Baggini admits there is no a priori link between atheism and a positive or negative worldview, he nevertheless insists that atheism consists in “numerous beliefs about the world” not just the denial of the existence of a God or gods (11, 8).  This kind of language betrays his own prior admission and takes atheism beyond its proper sphere, confusing what positive beliefs atheists can potentially hold with what atheism per se actually consists in.
In my next post I will continue with an evaluation of Baggini’s overall argument, and point out what I believe is the most important oversight of his book.

Can A Theist Appreciate Baggini’s Atheism? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

In the year 2013, all my posts have been a summary of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  I have carefully summarized his definition of, and case for, atheism.  As promised, I will now offer my evaluation of his book.  It is my contention that theists (and those committed to any religious faith tradition) should be able to appreciate the kind of atheism Baggini presents in this book, whether they disagree with him or not.

Julian Baggini__Atheism_A Very Short Introduction

Baggini’s approach to atheism is a breath of fresh air that should assure religious believers that not all atheism is as hostile to Christianity as Rickard Dawkins’ brand of militant atheism.  Set against such recent aggressive anti-religious developments in atheism, Baggini’s book is exemplary for fair treatment, right attitude, and more charitable posturing overall.  This is the most important aspect of his book and it fits with his chief purpose for writing the book—namely, to provide an introduction to atheism that is “not simply about rubbishing religious belief” (7).  I therefore sympathize greatly with his attempt to redefine atheism as naturalism so it can be viewed more broadly rather than being so narrowly and negatively construed as anti-God.  Baggini has summarized well the historical treatments of others who have (rightly I think) tied atheism to naturalism and recognized how the social context of the Enlightenment redefined atheism as anti-religous at a time when all religious beliefs were becoming more and more open to public critique after a long period of the ideologically oppressive political policies of medieval Christendom.  I can agree with Baggini that it is narrow-minded to reduce a naturalist’s worldview down to its negative component of atheism (the denial of the existence of God or gods), just as I would think that it is narrow minded for a Muslim to consider a Christian anti-Muhhamad.  Such reductionist labeling can feed into prejudices and hinder mutual respect and productive dialogue.  On the other hand, as I will explore later, I don’t necessarily think the argument Baggini advances in order to accomplish his redefinition of the word “atheism” is sound (but more about that later).

Several insights from Baggini’s treatment of atheism stand out as exceptionally helpful or persuasive, so here I offer some examples.

Are There Good Grounds to Distrust Interpretations of Religious Experience? 

First, he helpfully starts out by defining what he thinks a good case for something will consist of: evidence and argument.  When trying to make a good case or argument for the truth of something, it is not fair, he argues, to give what he calls “anecdotal evidence” (or what we might call “private evidence”) more weight than the type of evidence that can be publicly verified since “human beings are not very good at interpreting their experiences” (14).  It seems that Christian evangelicals committed to an exclusivist worldview would have to agree here, since if this version of Christianity is true (and Jesus is the “only way”) this means all the other religions of the world who base their belief in religious experiences have grossly misinterpreted them.  For example, what should a Christian say to a Muslim who claims God revealed to his heart that Islam was the true religion when he fasted and prayed for a week straight?  What if this Muslim also says that God has assured him that the Koran (and not the Christian Bible) is the Word of God?  It seems to me that evangelicals who hold to exclusivists positions ideologically (i.e. that only Christianity is true and all other religions false) have no choice but to admit with Baggini that human beings in general are not good at interpreting their experiences—especially religious experiences.  How can Muslims be so skeptical about the religious experiences of Christians (or vice versa), but be so confident in their own?

Does Science Make Belief in the Immortality of the Soul Problematic?

Second, I have to agree with Baggini that the correlation of brain activity with consciousness is problematic for belief in human souls that retain consciousness apart from brain activity.  If the human soul, for example, is supposed to be the core-most part of human nature, processing and retaining the deepest memories and feelings of the human person even after death apart from the firing of neurons in the brain, then why is Alzheimer’s disease so prevalent?  All science shows a dependency of consciousness on brain activity, but if human persons remain fully conscious after death via the soul why does the soul seem unable to retain memories for those with Alzheimer’s disease?  Here it seems that views of consciousness after death are problematic in light of the dependency relationship established by science between consciousness and brain activity.  This area of science is forcing some evangelicals, for example, to rethink their interpretation of biblical language about souls to accommodate the scientific data.  I stop short of agreeing with Baggini that the strongest evidence for consciousness after death is the “testimony of mediums, supposed appearances of ghosts, and near-death experiences,” but more on that later (19).

It seems impossible to contest that the traditional Christian anthropology of body-soul dualism is problematic because it requires one to believe that “non-material thinking souls exist along side brains and somehow interact with them, and that, further, the dependency of consciousness on brain activity miraculously disappears at death, when the soul lives on without the body” (30).  And yet even as Baggini makes this argument, he does not overstep the evidence by arguing that it is irrational to believe in life after death, that there is no evidence at all for it, or that it is not possible that science could be surprised in the future by discovering something new that could shed new light on this question and overturn what is now overwhelming evidence for the morality of human consciousness.  Rather, he argues more modestly that while there is this possibility and some evidence for life after death, nevertheless compared with the stronger evidence for human mortality, evidence for immortality of human souls is much weaker.

I cannot recall ever reading such a carefully fair handed way of putting this secular argument where Baggini appears to be conceding in every place he can think to concede to the other side.  His example in this should be followed by religious philosophers and naturalist philosophers alike.  This is what makes Baggini’s atheism different: as a matter of principle, he always leaves room for his own views to be wrong (or “defeasible” if you like the philosophical term he chooses).  “There is no way either can be so sure they are right,” he concludes (24).  Absolute certainty is not possible, but Baggini is content to hold that his view has much stronger evidence.

Is Induction a Superior to Religious Experience? 

Third, when one compares the cohesive developments of scientific understanding with the diversity of religious belief in the world, I must admit with Baggini, the scientific understanding seems to have more continuity globally than does religious understanding.  Although certainly there are disagreements and different schools of thought in science, there is nothing like the full blown comprehensive, fundamental, and irreconcilable contradictions that exist between different religious traditions in the world.  In fact, people from radically different religious traditions often find themselves able to work harmoniously side by side in the field of science so long their methodology for inquiry is restricted to “evidence and argument.”  They can put their religious differences aside taking for granted the same scientifically established truths on which they base their further scientific inquiries.  It seems reasonable to suppose that such cohesion in the discipline of science is largely owing to the chief method of inquiry: induction (28).  Approaching the world with the question “What is the best explanation for the observable phenomenon of the world and the universe?” is very different than how most people go about choosing or deciding on a religious commitment (at least in modern times), which more often has to do with making sense of one’s own personal experiences of the world rather than global or universal phenomenon in general (which would need to include the personal and social experiences of people in general—including those of other religious commitments).

Few people (if any) decide on a religious commitment only after a substantial logical inquiry into which worldviews make the most sense of phenomenon in general, taking the time to investigate and compare the claims of the worlds major religious traditions against the critiques of skeptics and then to also compare these with the most philosophically careful secular, agnostic, and naturalistic accounts of the world and universe.  Religious commitments are almost always made without any such rigorous intellectual interest; they are usually on the basis of deep personal and/or social experience.  That is not to say that scientists never have social or personal biases that motivate them to choose a secular or naturalist worldview over against a religious one, for it is inevitably the case that experience has a potentially (if not necessarily) determinative role to play in shaping the motives and perspectives of everyone.  If we wanted to get technical, I suppose one’s motive to be “logical” could itself be construed as the result of personal or social experience in a number of ways.  For example, it could be argued that human nature is hard-wired to be logical (some more than others) and that personal experience can shape how central of a role this innate desire plays in determining one’s desires or actions.

Nevertheless, on the whole the testimony of religious believers is explicitly based on personal experience while the influence of such personal and social experiences usually are negligible or peripheral in the self-understanding of atheists and scientists committed to naturalism or else they are mentioned only in connection with how such experiences helped them see that religion does not make the best logical or scientific sense of phenomenon.  The ostensible aim of people like Baggini is to be as rational as possible and restrict their beliefs to what best explains all or most of the evidence.  Such is rarely the self-understanding of religious believers.  Christians, for example, may make this the goal of their apologetic discipline which seeks to defend Christian beliefs against critics, but such is rarely (if ever) the stated goal of their decision to commit their lives to follow Christ; such a telos is also not the stated goal of Christianity.

As best as I can tell, reconciling one’s faith with logic and science is something a religious believer can (and in some religious traditions should) explore, but such reconciliation is never (and in most religions never should be) the ground of their religious faith commitments.  In the discipline of apologetics reason is restricted to defending what faith is already committed to, whereas for the naturalist reason’s role is much more comprehensive, central, and ideologically and teleologically fundamental.  It should not be surprising, therefore, to find that two scientists from different parts of the world who may be in different fields of scientific study, or two naturalists (whether scientists or philosophers or otherwise) would have world views more similar to one another than two religious believers each committed to a different religion.  We all have our psychological reasons for being motivated to either be religious or not be religious, but the aim to be logical or obtain “the best explanation” plays a much more controlling role in the psyche of some than in others, and it would be helpful (and humble) if religious believers could admit this.

Religious believers, whose self-understanding of their own purpose in the world is usually part of a grandiose religious and sacred telos (e.g. to glorify God, do the will of Allah, to be one with a transcendent reality, to achieve Nirvana, to “save” the world) are probably tempted to see the atheist telos of merely ensuring that they be as rational as possible as quite petty in comparison.  Athiests are probably tempted to think of the religious telos as irrational and delusional.  To Baggini’s credit, while he believes Atheism is more rational, he explicitly denies that religious believers are irrational or delusional (he avoids this kind of language and criticizes other atheists for using it).  Religious believers should return the respect and humility of Baggini by avoiding the temptation to think of the Atheist telos as being petty or prideful, and respect that they are trying their best to live in conformity with their own human nature, which is hard-wired to reason and be rational.

Is Atheism a Better Explanation for Religious Pluralism?

Fourth, not unrelated to this, I sympathize to some degree when Baggini argues that atheism has the best explanatory power when it comes to the existence of divergent religious beliefs, holding that the easiest explanation for such religious pluralism is one that views religions as creative human constructions.  Admittedly, the attempts of each religious tradition to explain the existence of other religious traditions is highly problematic.  It seems to force religious traditions to either hold that the other major religious traditions are wrong and only one happened to get it right (a view that requires a convoluted explanation for why this sort of a thing happened), or else so downplay the importance of these differences that the distinctive truth claims of each tradition are either lost or so generic that they are stripped of any strong supernatural metaphysical claims.  When such metaphysical claims are tossed aside one is left with bare-bone ethical claims like: “we should love our neighbor” or “community should be valued above all”).

It should not be missed, however, that in viewing all these religions as mere human constructions, one must hold that any substantial arguments seeking to establish supernatural phenomenon (especially the historical claim about the resurrection of Jesus made by scholars of respectable standing within a secular discipline) must be weighed carefully (something Baggini does not explore in his summary treatment).  Furthermore, if there were a religious theory that accommodated all scientific inquiry yet at the same time generically validated in some significant way religious experience (while viewing their particular cultural expressions as less important), this too would have to be weighed carefully.  And here I am wondering, of course, what Baggini would make of the well known pluralist hypothesis of the recently deceased analytic philosopher John Hick.  The subtle nuances of Hick’s pluralist hypothesis avoid claims that all religions are different paths to the same truth and accepts as a starting point the contradictory claims of the world’s major religious traditions, views that Baggini rightly excludes as untenable.  What if such a theory had an equal ability to accommodate scientific knowledge but without the problem of having to dismiss religious experience as illusory?  Would such a theory have more explanatory power than the naturalist worldview?

I suspect that Baggini would here value the rule of simplicity above all, and argue this rule is more important than the problem of dismissing as entirely illusory the global phenomenon of religious experience.  But then we must ask: Is that really the simplest explanation of this phenomenon—that the majority of persons are shaped by illusory experiences whereas naturalists are the only ones who get it right?  Baggini does not seem to be at all bothered by this position which could be seen as also problematic.  Could Hick’s hypothesis (taken in its most generic form) be considered as having greater explanatory power?  Could it be less problematic to view such globally ubiquitous religious experiences as indicating a higher reality not to be confused with a personal deity or deities but nevertheless uncongenial to the scope of normal human perception that explains why religious experiences are so common and transformative?  Sure such an explanation is not necessary since one can always hold religious views are entirely delusory.  But could such an explanation make more sense of the global phenomenon of religious experience and be less problematic?  I doubt Baggini would think so, but when he argues that the only alternative to his view is to view one religion as being true while all other religions are false, he doesn’t exactly construe the options as generously as he could.  Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that religious pluralism makes the most common forms of religious commitments, which are usually to a particular Religious Tradition rather than a philosophical hypothesis, problematic.

Fifth, I agree with Baggini that it is misleading when religious believers argue that atheists must have “faith” since they cannot prove their atheism because (as Baggini points out) “proof” in this sense is not attainable for the “vast majority of most beliefs” (31).  It is a question of interest to what extent the notion of “faith” in the worlds religious traditions values or encourages belief that is not based on evidence or reasoned argument.  For example, in both the Bible and the Christian Tradition this way of viewing faith seems to be a part of the religious perspective: Abraham’s faith was exemplary precisely because he believed the unbelievable (i.e. that which seemed to go against reason): that he would be the father of many descendants even though he and his wife were of a ripe old age and as of yet had no children.  The famous Christian theologian and preacher John Chrysostom defined faith’s key element as believing God’s revelation without needing any human arguments to establish it.  “Faith” is probably being misused when it describes believing in something that one has good evidence and reason to believe but lacks indisputable “proof” (like believing that the sun will rise tomorrow, that frozen sidewalks outside will be slippery today, that other people you know have minds and are not cleverly constructed robots that imitate human behavior and cognition).  It seems right to reserve the word “faith” in the common vernacular to refer to belief in God, miracles, transcendent realities and deities in the absence of the “ordinary support of evidence or argument” and therefore either go beyond reason or [at least seem to go] against it (33).  The field of apologetics in the Christian worldview that seeks defend Christian faith need not be taken to presuppose that one must have good evidence and argument before one accepts faith, but can be seen rather as more of a defense mechanism against attacks of skeptics who claim that Christian faith is irrational, as Baggini understands it (93).

The author’s respect for religious belief in spite of his strong conviction that it’s wrong continues throughout the book, never letting up.  He admits that many intelligent people are religious; faith cannot be simply dismissed as foolish superstition (92).  He cites Christian philosopher Peter Vardy who points out that Aquinas would not have thought of his arguments for the existence of God so much as “stand alone” proofs but as attempts to reconcile faith and reason by showing faith is not contrary to the evidence.  Whether it is the best fit for the evidence may be considered quite another question.  Few skeptics (or religious believers for that matter) recognize this subtle distinction, but Baggini seems attentive to it out of respect and courtesy.  If we compare this attitude to dogmatic religious apologists who often accuse all atheists of being foolishly irrational and deviously suppressing their knowledge of God so they can indulge in sin and rebellion against God’s authority, we can appreciate all the more how Baggini’s tone and posture is in many ways more virtuous than those who would sharply disagree with him.  His insight that those seeking and using arguments that support faith often are already convinced that they know for certain their faith is true based on their religious experience is accurate and helps put debates in their proper perspective.  I must concur that “arguments don’t provide the reasons why people become religious” (93).  But occasionally I have heard of skeptics of Christianity who are engaged or challenged by apologists and as a result of the exchange they eventually come also to believe, thinking that their reasons for not believing were mistaken.  Several considerations, however, prevent me from concluding this necessarily makes an exception to this claim.  First, what stops such a person from simply withholding judgement until they have examined all world religions carefully and weighted them against one another to see which one is the most coherent with itself and all that we know about the world and universe?  Second, Christian apologists who specialize in attempting to make a case for their faith will argue that someone’s decision to become a Christian is never (and never should be) based merely on intellectual reasons alone, but must be the result of some deeper motive in the recesses of the human soul or heart.  Third, those who I have heard give testimony about having been skeptical about Christianity but of having became open to it through logic or reason end up interpreting this experience as more than just a decision to choose what seemed like the most rational choice among worldview options, but also inevitably look back on this conversion as something they were moved by a supernatural power to do.  I would argue that the controlling psychological principle in play when someone makes a religious commitment is never a purely intellectual interest in being as rational as possible and choosing what makes the best sense of the most evidence.  How one would describe this principle that moves people to religious conviction will depend on the assumptions they bring to such an interpretation.

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In this post I have focused on areas where I found Baggini to be exemplary and his thoughts insightful and helpful.  In my next post I will begin to focus on my critical remarks concerning some of the details of Baggini’s book.

Concluding Remarks :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

Is Atheism the same as Humanism?  If not, what is the difference?  Who are the major atheist thinkers of history and what are some of the different approaches or lines of inquiry for studying atheism further?  In our summary of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism, we have already covered how to better define atheism, explored his summary of the case for atheism, examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can be integrated into an atheist worldview, looked at how Baggini uses history to advance his case for atheism, summarized how Baggini critiques some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God and why he thinks such arguments and counter arguments are not decisive for either theism or atheism.  Now we will summarize his final remarks before offering an evaluation of his book. 

ImageChapter 7: Conclusion

Baggini closes his book by offering other lines of inquiry for those interested.  For example, he did not have time to explore the peculiar contributions and thoughts of the great thinkers (Hume, Nietzsche, Freud, etc.).  He avoided discussing “the more sophisticated defenses of theistic belief” (Plantinga and Cupitt) because he wanted a less antagonistic approach (108).  The science vs. religion issue is “a little tired” and is discussed many times over, but there are threats to religious belief from science Baggini did not have time to cover (109).  Another area of discussion not treated in this introduction is the claim made by many that religious belief is nonsensical or incoherent (claims brought to public attention by A.J. Ayer).  Staying faithful to his overarching concerns, he does not think such an approach (claiming religious beliefs are “gibberish rather than just false”) is the best way “to engage with religious believers” (109).

Humanism

Baggini admits that the label Humanism (which he defines as “simply atheists who believe in living purposeful and moral lives”) fits his “positive atheism” but would rather stick with the term “atheism” for purposes of clarity.  There are self-proclaimed “Christian humanists” and some atheists avoid the label “humanist” because they think being a member of a humanist organization is a “quasi-religious” endeavor.  Furthermore, there are anthropocentric ideologies that have been associated with humanism, but many atheists (like Baggini) don’t have any interest in glorifying homo sapiens as the superior species.  For these reasons Baggini prefers the word “atheist” over “Humanist” but will admit to being a humanist (with a lower case h).

Final Words

Although “in many ways, the whole purpose of the book has been to dispel this image” of atheism as sinister, the author claims atheism’s true dark side concerns the “scary” thought that no benevolent Father is out there watching over us who is unquestionably good.  This maturity of perspective is the loss of a child-like innocence and false sense of security.  Atheism accepts the harsher realities of life for what they are and does not “seek to shield us from the truth by myth and superstition” (111).

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In our next post I will offer my own evaluation of Baggini’s book as a whole.  This will include both criticism and laudatory remarks.  I will attempt to answer questions like: Does Baggini do justice to the rational defense for theism?  Do his arguments for why an atheist worldview can fit comfortably with ethics and meaning work?  Is Baggini’s less dogmatic atheism a better alternative to what he calls “militant” atheism?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of his approach?

Against Religion? :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

What about arguments for the existence of God?  Are they sound? Is the faith of religious believers actually based on such rational arguments?  In our summary of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism, we have already covered how to better define atheism, explored his summary of the case for atheism, examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can be integrated into an atheist worldview, and looked at how Baggini uses history to advance his case for atheism.  In this post, we will see how he critiques traditional arguments for the existence of God in untraditional fashion, placing emphasis on how one should keep the role of all such philosophical arguments in proper perspective.  Religious beliefs, he argues, come more from personal conviction, not from rational argument.

Atheism__A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini__image

Chapter 6: Against Religion?

Although this chapter is devoted to a suggestive critique of arguments for God’s existence, Baggini tactfully prefaces his critique by arguing that mere disagreement with religion does not make atheism “anti-religious.”  Unfortunately, argues Baggini, atheism has a negative brand as “anti-religious,” and religion is treated with more respect than atheism.

For example, he laments how a radio program in the UK called “Thought of the Day” allows religious figures a platform to speak to the culture where this same platform is denied to the prominent atheist associations and societies in the UK who have campaigned to allow non-religious viewpoints to also be given a slot (e.g. the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society and the Rationalist Press Association).  Atheists are justified in feeling wronged and perceiving a prejudice in policy when such public forums exclude atheism from being given a platform to speak to matters of ethics and life-guidance.  But perhaps even more irritating is the fact that when these atheist-friendly organizations protested, it was sadly seen as an attack against religion, confirming and perpetuating the general prejudice against atheism.

Atheists are necessarily anti-religious in one sense only: they believe that religions are false.  But in this sense of the word ‘anti’ most Muslims are anti-Christian, most Christians anti-Jewish, most Protestants anti-Roman Catholic, and so on. … To set any group up as ‘anti’ another suggests more than disagreement, it suggests hostility, and atheists are no more required to be hostile to the religious than Jews are required to be hostile to Hindus. (92). 

With this warning in place, Baggini is now prepared to suggestively critique some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God.

Providing Perspective to the Role of Arguments

I mentioned that Baggini only offers a suggestive critique, but he also deliberately downplays the importance of such critiques, arguing that “evidence and arguments are neither here nor there – it is personal conviction that really counts” (93).  In the end, people do not become religious because arguments provide the grounds for their faith.  People become religious for personal reasons, but afterwards want to argue that such beliefs are rational—to show that being religious doesn’t entail throwing reason out the window.  Religious arguments are not so much to “prove” God exists as they are to merely show that religious belief isn’t nonsense.  So Baggini thinks religious arguments for God’s existence are designed to show that religious belief, although not required strictly by the “evidence” and reason, are at least consistent with them.

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument goes something like this: everything must have a cause, especially the universe with all its complexity, and God is the best hypothesis to explain its existence.  It fails because it ends up hypothesizing an entity that undermines the reasons for the argument in the first place.  God is considered to be uncaused and even more complex than the universe.  If God can exist without a cause greater than himself, why can’t something less complex exist without a cause greater than itself?  “Either the principles that inform the argument stand or they don’t.  If they stand, then God requires a cause and the causal chain goes back ad infinitum.  If they don’t, then there is no need to hypothesize God” (95).

Furthermore, even if such an argument were allowed to work without God having a cause, we still don’t arrive at anything like any of the particular personal God’s of religions, but merely with an uncaused cause.  Typical religiously heavy notions of God therefore could be seen as rational possibilities, but by no means necessary from the evidence.  But that’s only if we are generously entertain the otherwise flawed reasoning that really shouldn’t be allowed to stand.

This type of argument is also problematic inasmuch as it fits the “God of the gaps” method of arguing for God—a method whereby something that we can’t explain yet with science allows a place for God to fill in the gap in our understanding.  But Baggini argues that “such a God is fast running out of place for believers to hide him” (95).

The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument utilizes the analogy of a watch.  The evidence of a watch naturally leads one to suppose there is a watchmaker because it’s an intricate mechanism that appears to be designed for a particular purpose.  But, Baggini argues, the analogy fails because the universe is not like a watch.  We know from experience watches are created by humans, we have no similar knowledge of the origins of the universe.  Furthermore, we know from science that the appearance of design in the world can be sufficiently explained by evolution.

In any case, it’s “anthropocentric” to think the creator of the universe is an ethically perfect omnideluxe version of ourselves (omnipresent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, etc.).  “Why shouldn’t it be something more abstract, not recognizable as the traditional God of religion at all?” (96).  As with the cosmological argument, Baggini concludes “it is not contrary to reason and evidence to believe that there is an intelligent mind behind all this.  But that is not to say there are positive reasons to believe that there is.  Those reasons are still elusive” (97).

What Then Justifies Belief?

Baggini gives these arguments “short shrift” because he’s sure that religious believers did not adopt their faith on the basis of them, but on the basis of inner conviction.

As Russell Stannard said, for the believer, it is as though they know God exists and no further arguments are required.  The leading Christian philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga calls this faith, understood as ‘a special source of knowledge, knowledge that can’t be arrived at by way of reason alone’.  … If this is indeed the ground of religious belief, then it is disingenuous for believers to put forward arguments to support their beliefs.  Similarly, it is futile for atheists to attack the religious with arguments undermining these reasons for belief if they are not genuine reasons for belief at all. … I personally have little interest in trying to destroy these convictions, except when the holding of them leads to unpleasant and bigoted actions and proclamations, as can be the case with fundamentalist believers of all religions.  (98-99).

We have to recognize, however, that reliance on inner conviction rather than rational argument is a “risky” strategy.  This is because we must acknowledge that reliance on personal inner conviction leads to a multiplicity of religious faiths, not one in particular.  Trusting one’s inner conviction has led to Muslim beliefs, Christian beliefs, Buddhist beliefs, etc.  The fact that the same grounds of faith can be used to justify different and incompatible religions is a sufficient reason to discredit such grounds as a proper method for arriving at religious belief.

Militant Atheism

Not only does Baggini argue that atheism is not “anti-religious” and has carefully downlpayed his critiques of theistic arguments for the existence of God, he also wants to critique what he calls militant atheism, which he defines as “atheism which is actively hostile to religion” in general (not just fundamentalist religions).  Such atheism is characterized by its position that all religion is nonsense and by its desire to “wipe out all forms of religious belief” (101).

The problem in making this charge stick, however, is that the disagreement between believers and atheists if often precisely about the proper limits of rationality and evidence in belief.  The believer sees the atheists’ refusal to believe in anything that is not established by the ordinary standards of argument and evidence as too narrow.  …  The upshot of this line of argument is that religion may be irrational by certain standards, but then so much for those standards. (101-02)

The Problem of Evil

In addition to positive arguments for the existence of God, there are also classical defenses for the so-called “problem of evil.”  This problem is easy enough to understand: God is all powerful and all loving, so why should evil and suffering exist?  Either God’s not powerful enough to stop it, or else he is not good enough to want to stop it.  But, as Baggini points out, the classical defense is this: “God can stop it and wants to stop it but doesn’t because it is better for us in the long run that such suffering exists.”  The author emphasizes again, however, as with all apologetics, “the argument only serve[s] the needs of the believer” already committed to their faith in a good and all powerful God (103).

But crucially, many religious believers would be prepared to live with the inexplicability of evil if they could not find a decent theodicy.  For many believers, the existence of God is like the existence of time – they believe it exists even if its existence seems to generate logical paradoxes.  For the atheist, the problem of evil demands an answer, and an inability to provide a good one adds to the case against God’s existence.  For the believer, a solution would be nice, but is not necessary.  For militant atheists, this is evidence that religious believers have effectively opted out of the usual standards of truth or falsity.  Their refusal to be bothered by seeming contradictions shows that they are essentially irrational in their beliefs. (104). 

Dogmatism vs. The Quiet Voice of Reason

Baggini sympathizes with the militant atheist position but refrains from joining its ranks as a matter his principle to always avoid dogmatism.  “Because there are no standards for judging these questions shared by atheists and believers, I think that simply asserting that one’s own standards must be right is dogmatic” (104).

Furthermore, the militant atheist position usually ends up arguing that religion should be wiped off the map because it’s harmful for one of the following reasons:  1) believing what is false is always harmful, 2) it’s life-denying rather than life-affirming by the way it encourages people to deny their this-worldly desires for a future world or afterlife, 3) religion’s benign effects cannot be separated neatly from its harmful ones.  To this the author responds: 1) if we are hostile to every belief we considered false “the world would be a terrible place” full of dogmatism, 2) not all religious belief fit’s the “life-denying” characterization and many religious people seem to lead quite full and happy lives in this world, and 3) this argument could apply to all beliefs that have both moderate and extreme forms, delegitimizing beliefs that even atheists like Baggini value (104-106).

Being open-minded in one’s rational inquiry includes not being dogmatic the way militant atheism requires.  We cannot see reason and argument as weapons to bash religion or else we become, ourselves, fundamentalists in our own right, argues Baggini.

The best we can do therefore is to show believers who may think that they have rational grounds for their belief that they are wrong.  We can force them to choose, in other words, between taking the risk of faith and restricting their use of reason to apologetics, or giving up their religious belief altogether.  I think that relatively few will take the second path.  But as more do so, and religious convictions become less and less likely to be passed on by parents, educators , and the Church, so the force of reason may generally hold more sway.  Religion will recede not by atheists shouting condemnation, but by the quiet voice of reason slowly making itself heard. (107).

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In the next post, I will summarize his concluding thoughts about different lines of further inquiry into atheism and why he prefers the words “positive atheism” rather than Humanism.

Atheism in History :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

In our summary of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism, we have already covered how to better define atheism, explored his summary of the case for atheism, and even examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can be integrated into an atheist worldview.  In this post, we will see how Baggini uses history to advance his case for atheism.

When and why did Atheism emerge in Western history?  To what extent is atheism to blame for the terrors of 20th-century totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Italy, and Spain?  The answer to this first question will bolster the case for atheism, and the answer to the second will weaken objections to it.  Thus our author sets out in this chapter to continue to build his case for atheism by using history.

ImageChapter 5: Atheism in History

Atheism’s origins can be traced back as far as Ancient Greece, especially when we fully appreciate the connection between naturalism and atheism (see post “”).  If we can think of atheism as a positive belief that only the natural world exists (as opposed to some other world distinct from it like a non-natural or supernatural world), James Thrower’s argument in his book Western Atheism is on target.  Thrower argues that to understand the origins of atheism one must understand the origins of naturalism, which starts with the pre-Socratic Milesian philosophers of the 6th century BCE—Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes—who rejected mythological explanations in favor of naturalistic ones.

Baggini also believes “this therefore also marked the point where science began,” although we must make a distinction between this type of science and the more mature and rigorous experimental science we do today.  We might even make the distinction, as does Baggini, between a broader shift towards replacing mythology with rational explanation in general, and the replacement of mythology with science in particular.  Although science grows out of rational explanation, in both cases myth is replaced by rationality.  Rationality includes the use of historical evidence to explain the past as opposed to religious myth, and shouldn’t be confused with the more specific and ambitious movement of 17th century Rationalism-with-a-capital-R.  Atheism can be defined positively as naturalism, and because “naturalism follows from rationalism,” this makes rationalism fundamental to the origins of atheism (77).

A rational account is broadly one which confines itself to reasons, evidence and arguments that are open to scrutiny, assessment, acceptance or rejection, on the basis of principles and facts which are available to all.  An optimally rational account is one in which we don’t have to plug any gaps with speculation, opinion, or any other ungrounded beliefs. (76)

It would be inaccurate to say that atheists only believe in the existence of what can be rationally explained, as is often argued by those who say atheism is overly committed to reason.  There may be good reasons to believe something exists, even if how it exists cannot be fully explained—like consciousness for example.  But when it comes to entities like ghosts, we neither have any good reasons to suppose they exist, nor can we rationally explain how they exist.  At the very least we must have good reasons for supposing something exists to “believe” in it, even if how it exists cannot yet be rationally explained (77).  The alternative to this is to swing the door wide open to let in countless “irrational absurdities” (77).

Atheism is tied to rationalism, but it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that it emerged explicitly as an “avowed belief system” (78).  This is where David Berman’s history of atheism comes in handy, who argues that Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770) was the “first unequivocally professed atheist in the Western Tradition” (78).  This is when the task to “present and promulgate a godless world view as an alternative to the religious one” began (79).  The author is careful to admit that a certain naiveté attended the period of Enlightenment concerning the power of reason.  Nevertheless this shift in authority certainly could be viewed as what helped atheism establish itself as an avowed belief system over against a religious one.  Atheism could be considered as “the fruit of the progression to Enlightenment values” (79).

We may have lost some of the Enlightenment’s optimism in the power of reason, but we would certainly not like to go back to a society based on superstition.  And although some may think that we have gone too far in our disrespect of authority, few seriously believe that we should go back to a time when office was inherited, when only the male middle classes were politically enfranchised, or when leading clerics wielded strong political power.  So despite its faults, the Enlightenment has to be seen by any reasonable person as an important stage in the progression of Western society, and its core ideals have triumphed. … Atheism takes the Enlightenment rejection of superstition, hierarchy, and rationally ungrounded authority to what many would see as its logical conclusion.  It certainly fits atheism’s self-image to say that, once we were prepared to look religion in the eye under the cool light of reason, its untruth became self-evident (79).

The author does not claim to have an “air-tight” case here, but says at the very least the emergence of modern atheism during the same historical period as the Enlightenment is difficult to be seen as purely coincidental, and can plausibly be seen as related.  This also helps explain why atheism has come to be defined negatively—the emergence of modern atheism took place in the context of a shift away from religious authority.

The rest of Baggini’s chapter is devoted to basically arguing that atheism per se is not to blame for the atrocities of 20th century totalitarianism.  For example, the most important of these regimes was Nazi Germany, yet in no way was Germany a “straightforwardly atheist state” (84).  Furthermore, the Catholic Church signed a concordat with the Nazi government in 1933 and “the collusion between the Protestant churches and the Nazi régime was even closer, helped by anti-Semitic tradition in German Protestantism” (84).  The fact that pastors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer were radicals in the church for opposing this collusion is an indication that such opposition was not the norm among Protestant churches.  Therefore, the historical fact of such pastors is not reason enough, argues Baggini, for Christians to celebrate.

Although Soviet communism was tied to atheism, it was tied more closely to the philosophy of Karl Marx.  “Communism,” argues Baggini, “is just one atheist belief, and certainly not the most popular one” (87).  The active oppression of religion enacted by Soviet communism was even against the philosophy of Marx since Marx himself believed the way to rid the world of religion was to create a state in which it’s comforts and consolations were no longer needed (87).  Furthermore, the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church overtly backed Stalin in very specific military initiatives according to historian Michael Bordeaux—such as the suppression of the Hungarian uprising (1956), the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961), and the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979).

In closing the author warns against militant or fundamentalist atheism that seeks to abolish religion by force as a “dangerous” position—just as dangerous as any other form of fundamentalism.  Baggini therefore prefers atheism to be expressed in a secular state rather than an atheist state.

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In our next post, we will examine why Baggini thinks that showing flaws in the traditional arguments for the existence of God doesn’t usually convince theists to give up their beliefs.

Atheist Purpose and Meaning :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

We have examined how to better define atheism and the rational case for atheism according to author Julian Baggini.  In our last post, I summarized Julian Baggini’s own summary of atheist ethics.  In this post, I’m exploring his atheist perspective on meaning and purpose as presented in chapter 4 of his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  What is the meaning of life?  How can atheists still believe in meaning and purpose when they have rejected the idea that our meaning and purpose come from God?  Does an atheist worldview actually offer even more meaning than a theist worldview for the present life, as opposed to the after-life?  He answers these types of questions in this chapter.

ImageChapter 4: Meaning and Purpose

Baggini has already argued that theists tend to take for granted that God and morality are a bundle offer when in reality this easy marriage should be called into question.  Likewise, God, meaning, and purpose are often yoked together with a similar line of reasoning.  Without God theists have argued there would be no purpose or meaning for anything.  As he puts it, “Buy into religion and meaning comes with it free.  Opt out of religion, however, and you lose meaning” (57).  Without God meaning and purpose are problematic, so it is argued.  But what if meaning were also problematic for theists?  This is the line of argument taken by Baggini.  Life’s true meaning, according to Baggini, is not pre-packaged together with religion; the wedding of the two is not unproblematic.

Meaning Imposed on Us vs. Meaning Created by Us

First the author wants to make a distinction between imposed purpose and existential purpose, or, if we choose to word it differently, between a purpose in the intent of a designer, and a purpose significant to the consciousness of the thing designed.  If humans were bred by Nation X for the purpose of being slaves, we could say objectively that they were created with a purpose—to do work for Nation X.  But this would be somebody else’s purpose, which may or may not be significant to the consciousness of the slave, which could be called existential purpose.

In short, a purpose or meaning given to a creature by its creator just isn’t necessarily the kind of purpose or meaning that we are looking for in life when we wonder what the point of living is for us.  If the only point in living is to serve somebody else’s purposes then we cease to be valuable beings in our own right and we merely become tools for others, like paper knives or cloned workers.  This is why a belief in a creator God does not automatically provide life with a meaning. (59)

Adopting Imposed Meaning vs. Creating One’s Own

Of course one could possibly be content with being a slave to someone else’s purpose and adopt that existentially for herself so that it becomes not just a purpose for somebody else, but for her also.  Baggini compares this to a cast system where a certain class of people genuinely thinks it’s their purpose to work for the aristocracy and the upper class.  This certainly puts a dark spin on the otherwise glowing boast of theists who claim to have a “higher” purpose.

Another possibility is to trust that God’s purpose is for us, and not just something we do for him.  Although this is a “perfectly coherent position,” Baggini still has a critical critique:

This is a perfectly coherent position but as with much else in religion it has to be recognized that it requires the religious to take something on complete blind trust, or, as they prefer to put it, on faith.  To adopt this position is to admit that the religious actually don’t have any clue what the meaning or purpose of life is, but that they simply trust God has one for them.  And there is still the troubling doubt that a meaning that is given to us by others isn’t necessarily the kind of meaning which makes life meaningful for us. … So God or no God, if life is to be really meaningful it must be so in a way which speaks to our own projects, needs, or desires and not just the purposes of whatever or whoever created us” (61). 

This argument also works against evolution providing “real” meaning either, admits Baggini, because evolution tells us we are here basically to replicate DNA.  So now the question becomes—is it possible to think of meaning or purpose apart from such frameworks?  Sure, argues Baggini.  Creating life goals for oneself is one way.  Even most religious people don’t think their own personal life goals were handed down to them by God but as something they have drawn up for themselves.  In this way, we can be the authors of our own meaning.  Baggini now offers bonus counseling to those setting goals for themselves: be careful not to be too goal oriented in case you don’t meet your goals or in case when you do achieve them, you might be tempted to think you no longer have a purpose.  There is a problem, then, with tying meaning too close to goal achievement, so we must realize that it’s the journey that is also meaningful, not just the achievement of the goal.

Life as It’s Own Answer to the Question of Meaning

There is an endless series of “Why?” questions that can be asked of any action to discover why any given action is worthwhile.  Why should we do chores like going to the grocery store?  Because we need food to live, and we enjoy eating.  But then you could ask “Why is living or enjoying something worthwhile?”  If you were to ask “Why should I do what I enjoy?” you have missed the point according to Baggini.  If you get to where you ask this type of question, “you have not really understood what it means to enjoy doing something” because “to enjoy doing something is itself a good enough reason to do it” as long as you don’t hurt others (62-63).  Our purpose, argues Baggini, must therefore be bound together with some activity or enjoyment that is valuable in itself and not just for some further aim or goal.  Ideally then, our goals will be enjoyable to achieve, so that the process itself is enjoyable, and of such a nature that once achieved, “leads to something which is of enduring value to us” (65).  To illustrate Baggini asks whether it really makes sense to ask something like “Why would I want to work at a job that was enjoyable with likeable coworkers, and then come home to a family I love and fill my leisure time doing things I enjoy most?”  This question just doesn’t make sense.

In a way, then, life is its own answer to the question of meaning.  This means atheists can claim more meaning for life than religious people who see this life as merely some preparation for the next life, per Baggini.  For religious people, this life isn’t what’s really valuable.  “It’s like a coin which can be exchanged for a good that really does count: the after-life” (66).  But this only pushed the question back a life—what makes the after-life meaningful in itself but not this life?  Again, Baggini argues, we are forced to just trust on blind faith that “an answer will be forthcoming” (66).

Before wrapping the chapter up, Baggini argues that Hedonism doesn’t work because pleasure is transitory by definition and we desire something enduring, and that death makes life more meaningful, not less meaningful, for atheists because eternity in the next life would actually be detrimental to meaning and purpose for this life.  “Why bother trying to do anything, such as improve your golf swing, if you’ve always got time to do it later?”  Finally, in closing, Baggini points out that many atheists live very meaningful lives and are writers, thinkers, or artists.  He offers the Czech Republic as evidence against the idea that atheists cannot live meaningful lives—40% of its population is atheist and yet if you visit the country you are not overcome by “a wave of meaninglessness” (72).  “The greatest proof that something is possible is to show that it actually exists” (72).

In our next post, we will look at Atheism in history, and why Julian Baggini thinks that many who use historical evidence against atheism are misled, and how the diverse evidence of history provides, at best, a warning against all forms of fundamentalism–including militant atheism.

Atheist Ethics :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

We have looked at how to better define atheism and the rational case for atheism.  In this post I will summarize Julian Baggini’s own summary of atheist ethics, presented in chapter 3 of his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), 119 pp.  Where does morality come from?  How can people who don’t believe in God believe there are moral codes everyone should obey?  Does morality automatically make perfect sense in a theistic framework?  He answers these types of questions in this chapter.

What is Atheism?

Chapter 3: Atheist Ethics

Many people believe that in order for morality to be possible, one must have a lawgiver and a judge who either punishes or rewards, but Baggini says this confuses law and morality—laws can be either moral or immoral.  The big question is this: Where does morality come from?  The author makes his case against the theist view of morality by breathing fresh air into the Euthypryo dilemma from the Socratic dialogues: Does God (or the gods) choose what is good because it is good, or is the good good because God (or the gods) choose it?  If we answer this question by arguing that God just is goodness (God and good are the same thing), the Euthypryo dilemma only needs to be restated differently:

Is God good because to be good just is to be whatever God is; or is God good because God has all the properties of goodness?  If we choose the former answer we again find that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be, even if God were a sadist.  So we must choose the second option … this means the properties of goodness can be specified independently of God and so the idea of goodness does not in any way depend upon the existence of God. (39)

In other words, “God cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary” (39).  Furthermore, being moral due to fear of punishment or self-interest in reward only taints (if not ruins) the concept of morality, giving the atheist “more moral merit” than the theist (40).  But doesn’t this leave us all with our own “privatized moralities”?  Yes, answers Baggini, but to ask the question this way (as an objection) misses the point that we all inevitably have our own privatized moralities anyway because “individual choice is an inescapable part of morality whether one believes in God or not” (41).  There is no way to avoid making private decisions about what is morally right or wrong even in the theistic framework for morality, for two reasons: 1) one must make the privatized decision in the first place to follow the moral law of a religion—a decision which could later be changed or abandoned, 2) even while one has adopted a moral code of a particular religion, one still is forced to either accept these laws or reject them.  More to the point: since “listening to the advice of their holy men (it is usually men)” religious persons have been led to “suicide bombing, bigotry, and other moral wrongs, it should be obvious that” adopting a religious morality “does not absolve one of moral responsibility” (43).  In the end, we must all “in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves” even if we are religious and have decided to follow the moral path laid out by that religion (46).

No Easy Answers for Grounding Morality 

Baggini finds the whole question “Why should I be moral?” strange.  There are no easy answers.  A non-moral answer to the question only undermines morality—for example, that we should be moral because we will be happier if we do or punished if we don’t.  Again, if we act moral out of self-interest, Baggini thinks we undermine morality because “morality is about acting in the best interest of others and oneself” (44).  If we give a moral answer “because we ought to do what is right” our reason becomes circular.  We shouldn’t expect an easy answer or source for morality that every rational person should recognize because no such answer exists.

At the root of morality is empathy and concern for the welfare of others that is, for most, a part of human instinct.  It’s not a logical impulse that leads us to morality, but a psychological one.  Yet if we accept it, we have a foundation for morality and the richness of Western philosophy provides a diversity of approaches for working this out.

Building a Godless Ethic

Aristotelian ethics helps us think about morality in terms of our desire for happiness and helps us see strategies for instilling virtues (although Baggini criticizes this model because he thinks any morality based on self-interest is problematic).  Nevertheless when we simply think of what we need in order for life to go well, morality comes into play.  Living well, however, and self-interest do not always coincide, so we need to draw from other sources of philosophy.

Utilitarianism can be another source: we think in terms of what causes pleasure and pain, then we evaluate our actions based on their consequences (both for ourselves and others).  So long as we agree that pain is bad, morality comes into play.  “Bad consequences thus provide reasons not to do certain actions and good consequences provide reasons to do others” (52).  This adds another “pillar upon which to build a godless morality” (52).

Another pillar is Kant’s categorical imperative: asking “what would happen if everyone behaved that way?”  This helps us think about the moral merit of an action apart from self-interest, which helps us avoid being hypocritical.  It’s obvious that Baggini favors this pillar above the others, for he already has shown his hand that he believes it is essential to morality to avoid self-interest.  “Some form of universalizability is both an essential feature of moral rules and a natural part of moral reasoning” (54).  What is good or bad for us should be considered good or bad also for all others in similar circumstances.

In the end, Baggini admits he has not provided any sort of logical proof that atheists ought to behave morally, but he is not bothered by this because he thinks theists have no such logical proof either.  It’s a myth, he argues, that morality just comes along with the package if you are a theist.  “Being good is a challenge for everyone, atheist or non-atheist” (56).

Can an Atheist Believe in Meaning or Purpose? 

In our next post, we will explore meaning and purpose within an atheist worldview.  Once I have summarized all of the major points in each chapter, I will offer my own personal assessment of Julian Baggini’s account of atheism.

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