God, Jerry Coyne and the unread David B. Hart

David B. Hart’s The Experience of God must be an impressive book. It must be, because even without having read it, atheist Jerry A. Coyne has begun to attack it. He assures us he has ordered a copy (and will no doubt subject it to a scornful review); but he is so keen to refute Hart he has already devoted two internet pieces to the unread volume: “Best Arguments for God’s Existence” and “Unequivocal evidence for God?

As readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy know, I have read Hart’s Experience of God (for some quaint reason I thought it best to read it before reviewing it), and as I reported, it is indeed an impressive work. Does Hart present an irrefutable case for classical theism? Of course not. But he has shown why so many criticisms of theism miss their target: they treat God as a god, i.e., as an entity whose existence can be empirically verified through scientific observation and measurement. The classical Christian tradition knows that God is not such an entity. Precisely because God is the transcendent cause and sustainer of the universe, one just cannot go around looking for him, as one might search for a black hole, subatomic particle, or a unicorn. No scientific experiment will either prove or disprove his existence. This untestability infuriates Coyne. If an alleged explanation for the universe cannot be disproven, he asserts, it is rationally useless as an explanation. But informed theists do not pretend to offer a scientific explanation for the universe. That would be to confuse scientific cosmology and metaphysics (see my series “God in Science“).

A couple of days ago I came across a similar argument on a Facebook philosophy forum. The concept of “God” is meaningless, the critic averred, because its referent cannot be demonstrated nor its nature defined. Whatever theists think they are talking about when they invoke God, they are actually just talking nonsense. Like Coyne, this Facebook critic is scandalized by the divine transcendence. If God surpasses all of our philosophical and scientific categories, then of course he cannot exist and therefore theists must of course be talking gibberish.

Can the existence of God be philosophically proven? I honestly do not know. There are days I wish I could appeal to an irrefutable argument to sustain my flagging faith. St Gregory of Nazianzus appears to have believed that we can know through reason that a divine Creator exists, and St Thomas Aquinas believed that he had offered five philosophical proofs that demonstrated that existence. Back in 1975 I became a theist on the basis of a philosophical argument: specifically, the reliability of our sensory and cognitive faculties can only be guaranteed if they are the products of divine design (see Richard Taylor, Metaphysics). I have no idea now whether the argument I found so persuasive almost forty years ago is sound or not. Even if I could be persuaded that it is, I’m not sure how much help it would be to me today. Arguments of this sort may help one to open one’s mind and heart to the holy transcendence, but once the journey of faith is begun, one needs the stronger meat of prayer, sacrament, and repentance. I find myself in agreement with Paul Evdokimov when he writes: “The insufficiency of the proofs of God’s existence is explained by a fundamental fact: God alone is the criterion of his truth, God alone is the argument of his being” (Ages of the Spiritual Life, p. 53). We believe on the basis of the totality of our experience of reality and the life of grace. I do not see how we can escape the necessity of faith.

But neither do I wish to dogmatically deny the possibility of rationally demonstrating the existence of a divine Creator. Before I went to seminary, my rector, Fr James Daughtry, introduced me to the writings of Eric Lionel Mascall. Mascall argues that the Five Ways of Aquinas are invitations to contemplate reality in its inner depths:

As I see it, the ultimate function of the Five Ways is to make it plain, by calling attention to five outstanding features of finite being, what the fundamental characteristic of finite being is. And that fundamental characteristic is a radical inability to account for its own existence. In other words, finite being is being in which essence and existence are really distinct; in which, therefore, existence is not self-maintained but is received from without and, in the last resort, is received from a being whose existence is not received but is self-inherent. The Five Ways are therefore not so much five different demonstrations of the existence of God as five different methods of manifesting the radical dependence of finite being upon God, of declaring, in Dom Pontifex’s phrase, that the very essence of finite being is to be effect-implying cause. … The Five Ways are not really five different methods of proving the existence of God, but five different aids to the apprehension of God and the creature in the cosmological relation; they exhibit the cosmological relation under five different aspects. (Existence and Analogy, pp. 71, 79; also see chapter 7 of Mascall’s The Openness of Being).

Mascall’s interpretation of the Five Ways accords with my experience of faith. When in moments of wonder or despair we say to ourselves, “Surely this is not all there is, surely there must be a Creator,” we are apprehending God and the world in the “cosmological relation”; that is to say, we are experiencing the transcendent Deity as present in the radical contingency of the universe. Coyne and others may decry the intuitive, even phantastical, mode of this apprehension; but no matter how high they turn up the polemical volume, their declamations cannot eradicate the fundamental rationality of this very human experience.

Herbert McCabe interprets the Five Ways in a similar but different way: “God” is the answer to the fundamental questions raised by existence:

Aquinas’s Five Ways, as I read them, are sketches for five arguments to show that a certain kind of question about our world and ourselves is valid: ‘Why the world, instead of nothing at all?’ This is a question, in Aquinas’s jargon, about the esse of things, their being over against nothing, not just their being over against some alternative or over against potentiality. Aquinas wishes to say two things: (1) that here we have a valid question, and (2) that we do not know how to answer it; or (1) God exists and (2) God is an incomprehensible mystery. (God Matters, p. 40)

Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? What is the ultimate purpose of my life? What does it all mean? The atheist may deny the legitimacy of these questions, and yet they are questions that human beings continue to raise in their contemplation of existence. To say that each is a valid question (i.e., that it has an answer) is, writes McCabe, “to say that God exists; for what we mean by ‘God’ is just whatever answers the question” (p. 41).

I well understand the lure of atheism.  I lived in it when I was younger and I still hear its siren call.  But ultimately atheism is a dreary philosophy that leads only to nihilism, ugliness, absurdity, and the will to power.

But what if the atheist ultimately turns out to be right?  Sheldon Vanauken asked this question of C. S. Lewis during his own search for God. Lewis replied:

But supposing one believed and was wrong after all? Why, then you would have paid the universe a compliment it doesn’t deserve. Your error would even so be more interesting and important than the reality. And yet how could that be? How could an idiotic universe have produced creatures whose mere dreams are so much stronger, better, subtler than itself?

So what if we cannot provide an airtight, irrefutable argument for the existence of God. Neither philosophy nor science can disprove his existence. Jerry Coyne & Company can huff and puff until they are blue in the face; but we need not allow them to intimidate or ridicule us into denial of God. The alternative they offer is vapid and banal by comparison. As the old saying goes, you pays your money and takes your chances. In the end I would rather live by faith than by absurdity.

This entry was posted in Herbert McCabe & Friends, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to God, Jerry Coyne and the unread David B. Hart

  1. It’s just nonsensical turtle arguments. I’m certain you’re aware of the turtle. Some group claimed the Earth was on the back of a turtle. But what was that turtle on? The back of another turtle. And so and so forth.


  2. Apologies about my non-sequitor comment. My dad always references that argument in debates like these despite the fact that he’s a strong theist (thinks atheists are dumb as well). He uses it to refute any mystical idea whatsoever (like the existence of a soul, Mary as theotokos, etc.). I just looked it up. I had no idea he was taking the argument completely out of context and that it’s status in the metaphysical realm is essentially…non-existent especially due to the fact that metaphysicist philosophers specifically aren’t asserting a non-stop, endless, metaphysical realm.


  3. whitefrozen says:

    Never mind that Hart says half a dozen times that he’s not arguing for God’s existence. I read the Coyne articles – baffling. Mascall is correct – the arguments aren’t proofs, in the sense of, ha! I proved it! You can’t disagree!


  4. Pingback: Can God’s Existence Be Proven? | newenglandsun

  5. brian says:

    I think in common parlance it’s better to call them arguments for the plausibility of God’s existence. In that context, they ought not to be controversial. They will be, however, because a certain strain of rationalist atheist is dumb as a rock — no offense to rocks.

    In his recent polemic, Against Religion, Christos Yannaras differentiates between Christianity as an ontological mode of existence and a kind of deformed Christianity subsumed by man’s endemic egocentric religiosity. In this context, it seems to me that he denigrates all rational attempts to elucidate God’s existence as an illicit grasping after certitude, something he equates with an individualist will-to-power as opposed to a communal experience of trust. Honestly, I like Yannaras quite a bit, but surely his polemic goes way too far. Few would espouse the view that an articulation of the reasonableness of belief in God or of the metaphysical necessity of God is sufficient for a properly human appreciation of the divine. I suppose that’s all a digression, but I thought of it in contemplating all this.

    Hart simply writes too well and thinks too well, so he infuriates those who disagree with him. They launch into all kinds of reactive emotivism which they will disguise under the pose of lucid argument. Of course, one could engage him rationally, but that just isn’t happening much.


  6. Patrick says:

    Fr. Aiden, Have you looked at Denys Turner’s book Faith, Reason and the existence of God? It makes many of the same points as Mascall and Hart (and without the bombast that in my mind somewhat detracts from the latter’s argument). Turner is very effective in showing what the Five Ways were and were not intended to do.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Patrick, I have not yet read Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, though I have read Turner’s book on Aquinas, in which he touches on the proofs. I confess that at the time I read it, I didn’t pay much attention to that section, perhaps because the topic was not of interest to me at the time (and tell the truth, it really isn’t that much of interest at the present). But thank you for the recommendation.

      Would you mind summarizing Turner’s argument for us, pointing out where he differs from McCabe, Mascall, and Hart. Thanks!


      • Patrick says:

        Fr Aidan (sorry for the misspelling earlier),
        I wish I could summarize the argument for you, but it’s been a while since I read the book. As I recall, Turner says the five ways are a means of identifying the God we worship rather than proofs of existence.


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    My thanks for Damien for pointing out to me that my link to Hart’s book in fact linked to the FB page for the SciFi show Helix. I assure everyone that it was not a Freudian slip. I do not believe that belief in God is akin to retrovirus outbreak. 😉 (But I am hooked on the TV show.)


Comments are closed.