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Natural Theology and Atheism
Metaphysics and Unbelief
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
Natural Theology offers us a systematic philosophical way of breaking down this particular verse from Sacred Scripture. Specifically, the Natural Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas proves God definitively exists from examining “what has been made.” St. Thomas Aquinas is able to look at creation and discover necessary relationships that lead us backward towards an absolutely simple, infinite, eternal, God. The key here is in understanding that Aquinas’ proof is not merely an argument for belief in God’s existence, it’s actually a proof that demonstrates He does in fact exist, excluding according to reason, not faith: atheism. There are limits to Natural Theology, in as much as it cannot prove what God reveals about Himself beyond what St. Paul calls an “unknown God.” Yet, this system helps the theologian keep himself or herself accountable to a science of reason. Furthermore, Natural Theology also excludes religious views, according to reason, such as Polytheism. Therefore, when an atheist contrives the argument “that there are many beliefs, and all are arbitrary, so why pick any one?” we find ourselves able to dialogue at least partly by excluding certain beliefs according to reason.
For instance, if, hypothetically the gods did exist, Aquinas would point out their own contingency, revealing that they as such were not really eternal beings, and required some fundamental cause. Thus, the term god and God would become equivocal, and we might be closer to the truth as St. Paul seems to suggest, if we are rather speaking of demons.
The problem is this: Natural Theology requires a background in scholasticism to understand. That is, one would likely have to be trained in the Ancient Philosophers in order to read Aristotle’s Physics, and ultimately his Metaphysics. Finally, one would then have to venture into St. Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on both of these and culminate one’s study at his book “On Being and Essence.” Asking an atheist to devote himself to these readings would involve a great deal of work, commitment, and open-mindedness. Sometimes it’s hard enough to find Christians with such qualities to study their faith, even if it’s not experienced in a formally educated system.
All of this makes me wonder about the possibility of reexamining Catholic Pedagogical approaches, which reintroduce logic, physics, metaphysics, and natural theology. While much of this is briefly taught to those preparing for ordination, in St. Thomas Aquinas’ time, it was normative for people to be immersed in such traditional thinking.
The point remains in my view - very few atheists seem to be able to dialogue with this system, and I believe it is often the case, because it requires too much work to really understand properly. David Hume, for instance thought he took down “Natural Religion” in his dialogue, yet was entirely silent on the matter of Thomism, which is according to Vatican I, the perennial tradition of philosophy for Catholics. Most Atheists and non-believers tend to misrepresent this tradition, likely not on purpose, but rather because it requires dedication and work to understand.
“Let it first be agreed without qualification that if one does admit the principle ‘Every being has a cause’, then the refutation is inescapable and devastating. But the very ease of this refutation, if nothing else, should have aroused some suspicions in the minds of its users, one would have thought, as to whether their supposed opponents were actually using this principle. And it is in itself a highly suspicious fact that no one among the many in this Hume-Russel tradition whom I have read ever quotes any specific theistic philosopher who does make use of it. So constant is this pattern in fact, that I am willing to wager that this family trait is found also in those I have not yet run across.” (W. Norris Clarke, Creative Retrieval of St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 55)
The Thomistic Institute has done a great job at making St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching more accessible, and I believe it is a gateway for people to return to the fundamentals of the intellectual tradition. Without this tradition, we have mere sentimentality and the “spirit of the age” influencing our views. God has given the Church not merely good-will but Wisdom to direct our will towards what is Ultimately Good.