The Practice of Prayer

There is a condition of looking for something without knowing what we are looking for, or even that we are looking for anything at all. Augustine called it restlessness. Jesus described it as a thing that we would ask for if we knew to ask for it. It is a thirst for living water that will quench all thirst. All religions give witness to this act of reaching out. Jesus taught us to reach out by calling upon God in prayer. Prayer is not just one act among many. It works directly on that essential thirst that can only be satisfied in God.

With this episode I’d like to talk about some things I’ve been studying about prayer. This may be one of the most practical topics I’ve ever gotten into since it’s essentially about a practice, something that you do. We can talk about it and reflect on it, which is what I’ll be doing here. But prayer is ultimately a spiritual practice. Theology can certainly be theoretical and intellectual. And that’s something that I really like about it. But I always try to remember something that Evagrius Ponticus (345 – 399) said about theology: “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

I try to live my life in imitation of Christ and one thing that stands out to me in the scriptures is that Jesus prayed. And I think this is very significant. In his book Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI said:

“Again and again the Gospels note that Jesus withdrew ‘to the mountain’ to spend nights in prayer ‘alone’ with his Father. These short passages are fundamental for our understanding of Jesus; they lift the veil of mystery just a little; they give us a glimpse into Jesus’ filial existence, into the source from which his action and teaching and suffering sprang. This ‘praying’ of Jesus is the Son conversing with the Father; Jesus’ human consciousness and will, his human soul, is taken up into that exchange, and in this way human ‘praying’ is able to become a participation in this filial communion with the Father.” (7)

As is typical with Benedict, he packs a lot into very condensed passages. Three points stand out to me here about Jesus’ practice of prayer.

1. It is fundamental for our understanding of him.

2. It is the source from which his action and teaching and suffering sprang.

3. Our prayer is a way of participating in the communion that Jesus has with the Father.

That prayer was something fundamental to Jesus’ behavior and identity was apparently something that his disciples noticed as well. On one occasion after he returned from prayer they asked him to instruct them.

“And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.” (John 11:1, KJV)

And we have many examples in the Gospels of Jesus teaching about prayer and how to pray, especially in Luke.

As I’ve reflected on prayer I keep sensing its great importance. It’s such a simple thing. And we even tend to dismiss it as insignificant. Like many things, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is politicized and maybe that’s an apt indicator of our attitudes about prayer, that it’s something empty and ineffectual. And it’s certainly true that prayer can be empty and vain. Jesus even said as much (Matthew 6:5-8). But I actually believe that sincere prayer, far from being empty and ineffectual, is actually the most important thing that we can do. If we want to change the world, starting especially with changing ourselves, we must pray.

Prayer touches on the fundamental issues of who we are and what we exist for. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) said to God in his Confessions, “You have made us for Yourself.” Why do we exist? We exist for God. That’s not what most of us think. We may think we exist for any number of other things, or nothing at all. We could say, as Jesus said to Martha, that we “are worried and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41, NKJV). Ultimately all of these things, all our desires, interests, projects, and concerns are imperfect reflections of the most fundamental and innate desire for our creator and sustainer. But we often don’t know that that’s what we’re looking for, or even that we’re looking for anything at all.

Each of us is, in many ways, the Samaritan woman at the well to whom Jesus said:

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” (John 4:10, NKJV)

What an interesting hypothetical. You would be asking for something. You’re not asking for it now. But you would ask for it if you knew about it. It’s this fascinating situation where we’re looking for something without knowing what we are looking for or even that we are looking for anything at all.

I think this is an apt description of the human condition generally. There’s this kind of generalized discontent and incompleteness to our existence. Augustine called it restlessness.

“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” 

I think a scripturally appropriate term would be thirst. Jesus described the object of this thirst as “living water”:

“Whoever drinks of this water [meaning literal, physical water] will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14, NKJV)

This living water is both our source and purpose. It’s the culmination of all our longing but we know, both from scripture and just from experience, that the challenges of finding it are significant. Paul said we seek in the hope that we might grope for and find the Unknown God, even “though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27, NKJV)  Paul also acknowledged that prayer itself is difficult: “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26, NKJV)

In my conversations with fellow Christians we’ve shared this experience that prayer can be difficult. We don’t feel like we’re doing it right or that we’re making that spiritual connection with God. That’s a common experience and has been from the beginning. But we have help. Paul said:

“Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26, NKJV)

It seems appropriate and perfect to me that the Spirit would intercede for our nondescript, generalized restlessness for the Unknown God with unutterable groanings. Even if we don’t know what we’re looking for or that we’re looking for anything at all the Spirit can intercede and act on this most vague longing with groanings which cannot be uttered.

Something that I’ve found helpful in the practice of prayer is making use of the different forms of prayer from the Christian tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies three major expressions of the life of prayer in the Christian tradition (2699, 2721):

Vocal Prayer


Contemplative Prayer

I find that one or the other of these three expressions of prayer is often most suitable at certain times. I think that sometimes we find prayer difficult because we only know of one form. And even though that one form may be very suitable in many situations it might not be most suitable in others. I’ve found it helpful to weave these three forms together in my practice of prayer.

I tend to think of these three expressions of prayer as sitting on a spectrum of expressibility and expressive content. Vocal prayer is most characterized by expressible content in the sentences that we speak. Contemplative prayer mostly transcends anything that can be expressed in words. And meditation, centering mostly in the words scripture and the life of Christ, sits between vocal prayer and contemplative prayer in its degree of expressibility.

The first major expression of prayer in the Christian tradition is vocal prayer. There are a couple things that strike me about Jesus’s teachings about vocal prayer. And I think they’re related. The first is that in our petitions we must have faith. The second is that we should be relentless in our petitions. I think those two things are related. And they strike me because I don’t feel like I live in an age and culture where we really believe in miracles, especially not to a degree that we would pursue them relentlessly in our prayers. Part of that may be our secularism. And part of it may be a concern that relentlessness would be irreverently presumptuous. But Jesus seemed to have precious little concern about presumptuousness. Consider the following parable:

“Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, Get justice for me from my adversary. And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. Then the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8, NKJV)

Jesus was insistent that God is the most disposed to grant petitions for those who seek after them.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:7-12, NKJV)

I’m struck by the directness and complete lack of qualification in these teachings. But if you’re like me you have doubts that it can really be so straightforward. Why? Because we’ve all had the experience that Jesus’s disciples had, where we pursued a miracle that didn’t come:

“Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, Why could we not cast it [the demon] out? So Jesus said to them, Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:19-21, NKJV)

We’ve all had this experience. We pray for something and we don’t get it. I’ve even considered this an important spiritual developmental step, moving from a more naive conception of God to one that’s more sophisticated, where we can appreciate the various reasons that our petitions in prayer might not be granted. But I’m coming around to question that. I wonder if we’re too quick in our sophistication to enable underdeveloped faith.

This is why I think prayer, far from being vain and ineffectual, is the most important thing we can do. We need, as individuals and as societies and nations, things that we cannot produce on our own. We need God to intervene. There are societies and sub-cultures where these things do happen, where people expect, pursue, and receive miracles. God knows how to give good gifts to his children.

The second major expression of prayer in Christian tradition is meditation. Meditation might not be something we popularly associate with Christianity but it’s definitely part of the tradition. It’s often facilitated by texts of scripture and devotional writings. Also visual arts like icons. Lectio divina is one venerable practice of reading scripture for the special purpose of focusing and meditating on it in prayer. I often use one of the Psalms for this purpose. Events from the life of Christ are also very powerful. 

The Rosary is a classic example of a practice of prayer that is focused on events from the life of Christ. Each cycle of the Rosary goes through five “Mysteries” from the life of Christ.

The Joyful Mysteries are:

  • The Annunciation
  • The Visitation
  • The Nativity
  • The Presentation in the Temple
  • The Finding in the Temple

The Sorrowful Mysteries are

  • The Agony in the Garden
  • The Scourging at the Pillar
  • The Crowning with Thorns
  • The Carrying of the Cross
  • The Crucifixion and Death

The Glorious Mysteries are

  • The Resurrection
  • The Ascension
  • The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  • The Assumption
  • The Coronation of Mary

The Luminous Mysteries are

  • The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan
  • The Wedding Feast at Cana
  • Jesus’ Proclamation of the Coming of the Kingdom of God
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Institution of the Eucharist

We can read the accounts of these events in scripture and learn about their contents. But in meditative prayer we can go deeper into them to be moved and edified by them. As an example, concerning the mystery of the Carrying of the Cross, Bishop Robert Barron remarked that, “Carrying the cross must become the very structure of the Christian life.” This idea has had a profound impact on me as I’ve meditated on it.

Something I enjoy about scripture is that it’s very intellectually challenging and stimulating. And interdisciplinary. It involves topics of history, philosophy, and linguistics. I think that’s wonderful. But I think there’s sometimes a temptation to compete over who can be the most knowledgeable about the content of scripture. I don’t think that serves the purposes of scripture at all. In The Imitation of Christ Thomas à Kempis (1380 – 1471) warned: “If you wish to derive profit from your reading of Scripture, do it with humility, simplicity, and faith; at no time use it to gain a reputation for being one who is learned.” (Book I, Chapter V) Rather, Thomas said: “Let it then be our main concern to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ.” (Book I, Chapter I)

In addition to meditation of the life of Christ I cannot speak highly enough about the edifying influence of the Psalms. I’ve said at times, and I still think it’s true, that the fastest way to learn about the narrative arc of the Old Testament is to read 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. And of course those four books are books of holy scripture, so well worth reading. But I think now that the most direct path into the spiritual world of the Old Testament is in the Psalms. I admit that I didn’t always appreciate them and couldn’t get into them. Maybe I wasn’t ready for them. But I really appreciate them now. Sometimes if I find it difficult to get into prayer the Psalms are a great way to get started, to get into the right frame of mind.

To paraphrase Ecclesiastes (3:1), there is a Psalm for every season.

Psalms of joy:

“O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.” (Psalm 119:97, KJV)

“How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119: 103, KJV)

“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 119:103, KJV)

“Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.” (Psalm 150:6, KJV)

Psalms of grief and frustration:

“How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” (Psalm 13:1, KJV)

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

And Psalms of reflection:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:3-4, KJV)

“One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:1, KJV)

In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI said: “The Psalms are words that the Holy Spirit has given to men; they are God’s Spirit become word.” (131) Speaking about the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer he remarks that certain formulaic prayers like these can help us to get started in prayer and in approaching God.

“Our prayer can and should be a wholly personal prayer. But we also constantly need to make use of those prayers that express in words the encounter with God experienced both by the Church as a whole and by individual members of the Church… In the formulaic prayers that arose first from the faith of Israel and then from the faith of praying members of the Church, we get to know God and ourselves as well. They are a ‘school of prayer’ that transforms and opens up our life… Normally, thought precedes word; it seems to formulate the word. But praying the Psalms and liturgical prayer in general is exactly the other way around: The word, the voice, goes ahead of us, and our mind must adapt to it. For on our own we human beings do not ‘know how to pray as we ought’ (Rom 8:26) – we  are too far removed from God, he is too mysterious and too great for us. And so God has come to our aid: He himself provides the words of our prayer and teaches us to pray. Through the prayers that come from him, he enables us to set out toward him; by praying together with the brothers and sisters he has given us, we gradually come to know him and draw closer to him.” (130-131)

The third major expression of prayer in the Christian tradition is contemplative prayer. This is the form of prayer that I think of as being the furthest on the spectrum away from expressibility and expressive content. In the Eastern Christian tradition it’s sometimes called “hesychasm”, derived from the Greek hesychia (ἡσυχία), meaning “stillness, rest, quiet, or silence”. Another descriptive term is “apophatic”, from the Greek apophēmi (ἀπόφημι), meaning “to deny”, which is characterized by negative content rather than positive content. I sometimes think of it as empty space into which the Spirit can freely enter. 

Perhaps appropriately some of the greatest spiritual writers in this tradition are anonymous (or pseudonymous). One lived sometime in the 5th or 6th century, writing under the pseudonym Dionysius, whose major work was On The Divine Names. Another was an English writer living sometime in the 14th century, whose major work was The Cloud of Unknowing.

Contemplative prayer is the most unexpressible form of prayer, but it often still involves single words or phases, similar to a mantra in Indian religious traditions. In The Cloud of Unknowing the author instructs that we should use one word of just one syllable in which to enfold our intent:

“If you like, you can have this reaching out, wrapped up and enfolded in a single word. So as to have a better grasp of it, take just a little word, of one syllable rather than of two; for the shorter it is the better it is in agreement with this exercise of the spirit. Such a one is the word ‘God’ or the word ‘love.’ Choose which one you prefer, or any other according to your liking – the word of one syllable that you like the best. Fasten this word to your heart, so that whatever happens it will never go away. This word is to be your shield and your spear, whether you are riding in peace or in war. With this word you are to beat upon this cloud and this darkness about you. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting.” (Chapter VII, James Walsh edition)

Other contemplatives haven’t necessarily restricted themselves to one word alone but have also used phrases. The most notable example, especially in Eastern Christianity, is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is this:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The scriptural roots of this prayer are in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14.

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (NKJV)

Paul, in his first letter to the Thassolonians, counseled to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Jesus Prayer is traditionally thought to be a prayer that a person can eventually learn to pray continually at every moment. In the 19th century Russian text, The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim learns to pray without ceasing by incorporating the Jesus Prayer into his very breath.

“Begin bringing the whole prayer of Jesus into and out of your heart in time with your breathing, as the Fathers taught. Thus, as you draw your breath in, say, or imagine yourself saying, ‘Lord Jesus Christ,’ and as you breathe again, ‘have mercy on me.’ Do this as often and as much as you can, and in a short space of time you will feel a slight and not unpleasant pain in your heart, followed by a warmth. Thus by God’s help you will get the joy of self-acting inward prayer of the heart.”

I have found the Jesus Prayer to be the most powerful prayer for my practice of contemplation.

The Cloud of Unknowing invites what I interpret to be an inversion in perspective and attitude toward the experience of unknowing. Usually we want to know things but when we approach God in his infinity we find ourselves unable to comprehend him because he exceeds our comprehension. But this very experience of unknowability is itself a form of knowledge. It is in this cloud of unknowing that we must dwell.

“This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do, and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason, and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection. So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness. So if you labour at it with all your attention as I bid you, I trust, in his mercy, that you will reach this point.” (Chapter III)

In scripture the cloud is often where we find and hear the voice of God.

“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud.” (Matthew 17:5, NKJV)

“Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain.” (Exodus 24:16-18, NKJV)

The cloud is not an easy place to be. It requires practice and conditioning. As the author says, “So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can”.

The author also counsels that such contemplation is the one act that it is not possible to pursue to excess.

“If you ask me the further question, how you are to apply discretion in this exercise, I answer and say, ‘none at all!’ In all your other activities you are to have discretion, in eating and drinking, in sleeping, and in protecting your body from the extremes of heat and cold, in the length of time you give to prayer or reading or to conversation with your fellow-Christians. In all these things you are to observe moderation, avoiding excess and defect. But in this exercise there is no question of moderation; I would prefer that you should never leave off as long as you live.” (Chapter 41)

Not only is excess of contemplation not a possibility or a problem. Unrestrained indulgence in contemplation also rightly orders the soul in regards to all other things, such that they are not taken to excess, but in proper measure.

“Now perhaps you will ask how you shall observe prudence in eating and sleeping and everything else. My answer to this is brief enough: ‘Understand it as best you can.’ Work at this exercise without ceasing and without moderation, and you will know where to begin and to end all your other activities with great discretion. I cannot believe that a soul who perseveres in this exercise night and day without moderation should ever make a mistake in any of his external activities.” (Chapter 42)

Why might this be? The Catechism says, “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus.” (2715) With a gaze fixed on Christ all other things become rightly ordered and proportioned. As Jesus said:

“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33, KJV)

I think this coheres with what I said earlier about how I believe prayer is the most important thing we can do. Because prayer, especially prayer of contemplation focuses our gaze singly on Christ. Jesus said to Martha: “You are worried and troubled about many things.” (Luke 10:41, NKJV) That’s all of us. The Greek word merimnao (μεριμνάω), to be anxious, is a word I always pay close attention to in the New Testament when I see it. It occurs a number of times in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6: me merimnate (μὴ μεριμνᾶτε), do not worry. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on… For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:25; 32-33, NKJV) As Jesus said to Martha: “One thing is needed.” (Luke 10:42, NKJV) That one thing is the gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus in prayer.

A Brief History of Secular Thought

A brief history of secular thought from the Enlightenment to the present, looking at how it has been shaped by culture and events. We start in the Enlightenment with Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, David Hume, and Thomas Paine. Moving into the nineteenth century we look at literary influences like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Carlyle, then social critics like Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx. Charles Darwin takes a central position in the nineteenth century, followed by expositors like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. And we conclude the nineteenth century with Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God. We start the twentieth century with Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell and look at satirical writers at the turn of the century like like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. We conclude the twentieth century with Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan and start off the twenty-first century with the New Atheists.

I’ve titled this episode “A Brief History of Secular Thought”, which is kind of funny because it’s one of the longest episodes I’ve done. But it’s brief relative to the potential scope of the subject matter. For example, Charles Taylor’s book on the subject, A Secular Age, is 896 pages. Tyler Roberts’ Teaching Company course, Skeptics and Believers, is 18.5 hours in length. So by comparison the following will be a brief history of secular thought.

Why study secular thought? Well for one thing it’s just interesting. But it’s also important for both secular and religious people to be familiar with it in order to understand the history of the ideas that they hold and respond to. One of the thinkers discussed in what follows, Friedrich Nietzsche, would employ in his philosophy what he called a “genealogy” of ideas. This kind of genealogy explores the history of certain ideas in order to see how they have been dependent on events and cultural conditions of that history. Genealogy reveals how ideas are not absolute but rather contingent; they have a history and could have developed differently than they did. In what follows one of the aims is to situate and contextualize secular thought.

In Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age he introduced a number of terms and concepts that he used to study the development of secular thought. One of these concepts is the “subtraction story”. James K.A. Smith, in his commentary on Taylor’s book, defined subtraction stories as: “Accounts that explain ‘the secular’ as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition.” (How (Not) To Be Secular) In a subtraction story secular thought is decontextualized and we lose sight of its contingency as a cultural construct. In Taylor’s words subtraction stories are:

“Stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process—modernity or secularity—is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside.” (A Secular Age, 21)

A subtraction story of the secular might be something of this form: Humans used to have all kinds of superstitious beliefs because we didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand how things really work. But with the rise of modern science we don’t need those superstitions anymore. We used to use religion to help us cope with the hardships of life. But our increased scientific knowledge has brought about technology that has made us wealthier and healthier in ways that religion never could. Now we can cast religion aside and see things as they really are and always were.

As an alternative to this Taylor spends his book arguing that the secular is constructed. It’s a cultural construct shaped by a contingent history of development.

“Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.” (ibid. 21)

By looking at secular thought as a cultural construct I think we’re doing something much more interesting than just a simple deconstruction or takedown of it. Sort of in the way people say that atheism is just another religion, which always strikes me as a bit of an unintentional self-own; I don’t like to use “religion” as a pejorative because I think religion is a good thing. I don’t think that seeing secular thought as a construct rather than in terms of a subtraction story discredits it. Instead I think it gives a fuller and more accurate picture of it. If secular thought as we have it today has been shaped by the contingent events of history we can go back through history and see those decisive points where the ideas we take for granted today started to develop. We can certainly do the same with religious thought, which is basically historical theology, and that is also a valuable exercise.

In what follows I’d like to discuss some of the major figures who shaped the development of secular thought. Two important questions leading into that are: (1) where to start and (2) who to include? Christopher Hitchens edited a volume called The Portable Atheist with writings from many such key figures. And I think his list was pretty good. His first selection is from Lucretius (99 BC – 55 BC). That’s definitely a solid pick but I’m going to narrow my focus to modernity, starting with the Enlightenment. On who to include I’ve focused on: (1) people who are generally considered important in this kind of history, (2) people whose ideas are still in the air today, even if we don’t always name them, and (3) people who were highly influential and popular in their day, who were bestsellers. I think this last point is important because cultural construction of a worldview, or what Taylor calls a “social imaginary”, is about more than just who can make the most logical or academically respectable argument. It’s also about influence. Who were people talking about in parlors and taverns? Today, who are people discussing in book clubs and on social media? Those are the people who are major culture shapers, regardless of their credentials.

It will help to do a quick overview first to see where all of this is going. So here’s a brief summary of the trajectory. Our starting point will be in the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment. Any starting point is arbitrary and there were definitely developments that led into this period. For example, there were important ideas from people like Spinoza, Bacon, and Hobbes. So it’s worth mentioning them in passing. Starting in the eighteenth century Voltaire and Denis Diderot were two important intellectuals, or philosophes, with a secularizing influence in France. In the English-speaking world important Enlightenment figures included David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine is especially interesting because he had transnational influence in America, Great Britain, and France. All these men were quite characteristic of the eighteenth century. They tended to embrace deism which, while still technically theist, was moving far from orthodox Christian theism.

In the nineteenth century important intellectual and cultural developments included Romanticism, higher Biblical criticism, Hegelianism, socialism, and evolution. All of these had secularizing influences. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a poet and essayist who went beyond deism and promoted atheism in the strongest sense, both explicitly and figuratively, in his writing. Many nineteenth century thinkers like Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche also embraced this strong form of atheism. Others like Thomas Carlyle represented and wrote for many in the nineteenth century who continued to hold on to some form of symbolic and experiential theism, even to Christianity if sufficiently reinterpreted. Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx each gave accounts for religious belief grounded in naturalistic explanations. Naturalism then gained considerable support with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Other thinkers following Darwin often referred to his work in support of their own ideas. Two prominent examples of this were Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. Spencer not only promoted and popularized Darwin’s theories but also integrated them into a more comprehensive and total philosophy of progress that dominated the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. Friedrich Nietzsche took some of the boldest and most irreverent positions on atheism and Christianity, declaring the death of God and criticizing Christian morality itself.

In the early twentieth century secular thought and intellectual life more generally was dominated by the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Like Feuerbach and Marx, Freud developed fully naturalistic theories for the origins of religious belief. Freud’s psychoanalytic thought would be foundational in the development of continental philosophy. Around the same time another line of thought was developing in analytic philosophy, led by Bertrand Russell. Russell was a prolific writer and influential both among his technical and academic colleagues as well in the wider public. Public opinion was also heavily influenced by novelists and journalists like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. Where scientists and philosophers undermined religious foundations literary figures like Twain and Mencken were able to make it look ridiculous, perhaps an even more significant accomplishment. In the later twentieth century some of the most influential secular thinkers were scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

At the start of the twenty-first century the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought new attention to the dangers of religious fundamentalism and sparked a strong response among a group of writers known as the New Atheists. These included Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.

That’s the overview. Now let’s go through all that again in more detail.

Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon, and Paine were all men of the Enlightenment. All were critical of religion. But none was an atheist either, at least not in his own self understanding. They were Deists and proponents of “natural religion”. This natural religion is theistic but in a deistic conception God is remote and doesn’t intervene in human affairs with miracles and revelations. A deistic God is very different from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They admired Jesus, or at least Jesus as they understood him. Jesus was an ancient teacher of natural religion but his teachings had been overlaid with superstitious doctrinal accretions that became Christianity, something quite different from the real Jesus of history. An evocative illustration of this idea is Thomas Jefferson’s editing of the Bible in which he kept Jesus’ ethical teachings but cut out the miracles that later followers ascribed to him.

The stage had been set for the Enlightenment by many events including the Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion, like the great Thirty Years War. Religion, in the eyes of many, was becoming more of a problem than an unquestioned way of life. Another cataclysmic event that rocked Europe was the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Europe reacted viscerally to the devastation of this earthquake and traditional religious answers started to be unsatisfying. Philosopher Susan Neiman in her book Evil In Modern Thought argued that the Lisbon Earthquake was a foundational event in modern thought upon which many of the great developments of the next century would build. It was the kind of event after which nothing could ever be the same again, like the Holocaust in the twentieth, but maybe even more so in Neiman’s view.

Well reasoned religious explanations were not lacking. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had developed an argument justifying God in light of the natural and human evils. Leibniz, one of the inventors of calculus and with a mind honed to think in terms of functions and optimizations, reasoned that the world that actually exists is the world that, out of all possible worlds, has the greatest amount of good over evil: the best of all possible worlds. Any other world that lacked some particular evil that we might want not to exist would, for various reasons unknown to us but known to God, have lower net good overall. And we’ve all probably read enough stories and seen enough movies to imagine how that might work, where something bad is later seen to have been somehow instrumental to the greater good in the long run. It’s a clever argument. But after Lisbon a lot of people weren’t convinced.

One man who was especially not convinced was Voltaire. Voltaire was a master of the pen and wildly popular. In Voltaire’s hand Leibniz became the foolish character Pangloss in the novel Candide. In the face of war, rape, murder, natural disasters, and other forms of suffering and injustice Pangloss always insists that such things happen for a reason, unlike the title character Candide who comes to see that the world often really is just cruel and arbitrary. For deists like Voltaire God is not expected to intervene in harsh realities of the world. God is more of a mathematician and physicist who sets things up with their initial conditions and then just lets the system evolve. If the system happens to have disasters like the Lisbon Earthquake, those aren’t part of any meaningful plan. They’re just meaningless outputs of the system.

Revelation had no place in natural theology. Instead the best way to understand God would be through the sciences. This was an age of massive scholarly studies. Denis Diderot launched his Encyclopédie, a great encyclopedia of all knowledge. Edward Gibbon produced his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And Hume produced his Treatise of Human Nature and later the more refined and digestible Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The great thinkers of the Enlightenment were daring to know, to use the words of another Enlightenment thinker, Immanuel Kant. They were amassing knowledge in all fields.

Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall covered the history of Rome from 180 AD with Marcus Aurelius to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. Gibbon’s project was to identify the cause of Rome’s decline and fall. And he proposed as an explanation that Rome had fallen because of Christianity. This was actually an argument that many pagans had made at the time of the fall of the Western empire in the 400s AD, which prompted Augustine of Hippo to write his City of God as a response. But unlike Augustine’s pagan opponents who attributed Rome’s misfortunes to abandonment by their gods Gibbon’s explanation was naturalistic and quite characteristic of modern history. Christianity had led to the decline of the Roman Empire because it weakened the traditional Roman social order and values. Christianity interrupted or ended important Roman economic institutions like slavery and trade. Roman soldiers lost their martial virtues and became more preoccupied with religious matters. And preoccupation with religious matters diverted Rome’s citizens from other intellectual and cultural pursuits. As with the Roman historian Tacitus writing about the Germanic barbarians, we might see in Gibbons’ writings about the Romans a critique of the society of his own day. If Christianity caused the decline and fall of Rome how might it be holding us back in our day?

Where Gibbon concerned himself with history David Hume worked in the space of ideas. Hume is one of my favorite philosophers and I really recommend reading his work, especially his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I think most of the problems of the philosophy of science that we’re still grappling with all go back to Hume, in particular his problem of induction. He was the kind of thinker who would pause over the things we take for granted and ask, “Now how do we really know that?” And then after leaving us all sufficiently perplexed he’d go play a game of backgammon and not worry about it for several hours. On religion Hume was maybe the closest to an atheist among this group of Enlightenment thinkers since he criticized even the idea the universe had been set in motion at all by an intelligent being. His most important work on the subject is his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Here, in the mouths of his fictional characters, Hume pokes fun at the notion of a deistic God of supernatural intelligence, proposing instead some much less attractive possibilities.

“This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.”

This is all delightfully sacrilegious and though Hume was naturally criticized by many people he also faced no real consequences and his wit and irreverence were no doubt celebrated by many other Enlightenment readers.

No treatment of the Enlightenment is complete in my opinion without touching on one of its most popular and towering figures across the Atlantic: the American pamphleteer Thomas Paine. His Common Sense is still read by school children today and was immensely influential among the American colonists. Just listen to these classic lines:

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.”

Paine was a hero not only to Americans but also to the French, having the distinction of being an influential pamphleteer in two great revolutions. Paine’s The Rights of Man was exceptionally popular among the French.

Relevant to our topic here, another of Paine’s great works was The Age of Reason. It’s something of a deist manifesto. It’s favorable to natural religion and a deistic understanding of God but very critical of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some key passages:

“Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet; as if the way to God was not open to every man alike… No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it… When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so, the commandments carrying no internal evidence of divinity with them. They contain some good moral precepts such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver or a legislator could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention.”

This is very direct and bold stuff. And it’s characteristic of the Enlightenment or Age of Reason as Paine called it.

As we move into the eighteenth century the spirit of age starts to look different. On the one hand there was a reaction to the heady rationalism of the Enlightenment, a response that came to be known as Romanticism. And in some ways this constituted a return to spirituality of a sort. But it was very different from that of orthodox Christianity. Something more pantheistic like Hegel’s Geist, a spirit or mind present in the events of history. But secularism also started to become more blatant and atheistic.

Percy Bysshe Shelly was an interesting combination of the Romantic poet and blatant atheist. He was kicked out of Oxford after writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism”. No deism here anymore. Shelly, one of the greatest poets in history, said that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (A Defense of Poetry) This is an important theme that I’d like to stress and return to in this episode. I think Shelly was right on the money. Philosophers are maybe more acknowledged. But we sometimes forget about the influence of the poets, artists, comedians, and other entertainers. They have a lot of influence on how we think. Probably more than the academics. I think Shelly is also a good example of an important trend in the development of secular thought, and that is the self-image of a secular person. For Shelly to be an atheist was to be among an elite group of people who were more reflective and intelligent than most others. Consider the following passage from his essay “A Refutation of Deism”:

“That the frequency of a belief in God (for it is not universal) should be any argument in its

favour, none to whom the innumerable mistakes of men are familiar, will assert. It is among

men of genius and science that Atheism alone is found, but among these alone is cherished an

hostility to those errors, with which the illiterate and vulgar are infected. How small is the proportion of those who really believe in God, to the thousands who are prevented by their occupations from ever bestowing a serious thought upon the subject.”

Shelly has plenty of arguments in the essay but I think this passage, while not one of the arguments, is actually more effective than any of them.

Not everyone was as radical and celebratory as Shelley. Another literary figure significant in the development of secular thought was the essayist Thomas Carlyle. Charles Taylor, in his book chapter on nineteenth-century trajectories, used Carlyle as a representative for much of the social imaginary of that century. Taylor characterized the nineteenth century as one of a “cross-pressure” between the unviability of religion on the one hand and the seemingly unbearable emptiness of the void it left behind. People could not believe but neither could they bear the implications of unbelief.

“Thus for many whatever in the traditional faith went beyond or contradicted the notion of impersonal order was no longer believable; but at the same time, their sense of the weaknesses, ugliness, or evils of their age forbade them to accept the more reductive, scientistic or Utilitarian modes of order.” (A Secular Age, 377-378)

And to explore this he chose to look at Carlyle:

“A good reason for looking at the advance of unbelief in these terms is the influence and impact of Carlyle… In the 1830s and 40s, he was immensely popular. When I speak here of a vector of the advance of unbelief, I mean that Carlyle’s solution to cross-pressures which he was responding to provided the bridge by which many members of the elite public could distance themselves from their ancestral faith.”

“In giving Carlyle such a central role, I am deviating from what is often seen as the standard story of the Victorians’ loss of faith. Somewhat oversimplifying, this is thought to have been caused by the impact of Darwinian evolution, which is held so directly to have refuted the Bible. This created an agonizing conflict for many people of devout religious upbringing, which was in the end resolved by many, often with a poignant sense of loss, by the abandonment of their faith. There is some truth in this story, especially about the agonizing, and sense of loss (which seems to have been felt by Darwin himself). But it leaves out something crucial: that evolutionary theory didn’t emerge in a world where almost everyone still took the Bible story simply and literally; that among other things, this world was already strongly marked by the ideas of impersonal order, not to speak of the dark abyss of time; and that an influential formulation had already been given to the displacement of Christianity by a cosmic vision of impersonal order, that of Carlyle.” (ibid)

Carlyle himself said, “This is not a Religious age,” (Signs of the Times) but he was hardly pleased with that fact:

“To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility; it was one huge, dead, im-measureable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb. O the vast, Gloomy, solitary Golgotha, and Mill of Death.” (Sartor Resartus)

The machine was an important idea for Carlyle, one he saw as the biggest threat. He said in “Signs of the Times”:

“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age.”

Carlyle bemoaned this fact but believed that most of his contemporaries viewed it with indifference.

“The singular conclusions at which Hume, setting out from their admitted premises, was arriving, brought this school into being; they let loose Instinct, as an undiscriminating ban-dog, to guard them against these conclusions; — they tugged lustily at the logical chain by which Hume was so coldly towing them and the world into bottomless abysses of Atheism and Fatalism. But the chain somehow snapped between them; and the issue has been that nobody now cares about either.” (Signs of the Times)

Nevertheless the influence and popularity of his writings would suggest that this was not entirely true and that he was giving voice to a general reaction that was anything but indifferent. Rather the toppling of traditional religion was a huge problem that needed to be solved. For Carlyle this looked something like an impersonal order. There was a need to “embody the divine Spirit of that Religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls, otherwise too like perishing, may live”. (Sartor Resartus) In Taylor’s view this kind of “not purely human spiritual force” had two important effects. One was to serve as a bridge by which people could “be both against Christianity and for it”. The other was to accustom people to start thinking in terms of impersonal order rather than personal order. Carlyle was not alone in this even if he is representative. Hegel would certainly be another important proponent of this notion, albeit in more complicated terms that were not so clearly impersonal.

The notion of impersonal general order is important because the nineteenth century gave rise to three major intellectual systems of impersonal order: Hegel’s Geist, Marx’s dialectical materialism, and Darwin’s evolution by natural selection. Secular thought in the nineteenth century moved away from deism but it did not jump straight to positivism; that idea from Auguste Comte would have to wait until the next century. Reality still had order and, significantly, direction. But it was impersonal.

I made an episode a couple years ago about how Hegel is much bigger and more interesting than the compressed picture we get through Marx. His Phenomenology of Geist is, in my interpretation, an epic-scale general study on how the mind comes to understand things. Nevertheless for present purposes of the history of secular thought it makes some sense to do violence to his work and view it through Marxism. The idea of Hegel’s that was most relevant to Marx was his theory of history which, far from being just one damned thing after another, was a rational progression. History and ideas develop together in a rational way such that, “What is real is rational, and what is rational is real.” Marx took this notion but then stood Hegel on his head so to speak. Whereas for Hegel the progress of history took place through ideas, for Marx history was emphatically material and especially economic. He took the notion of a dialectic – which would normally be something like a conversation, a dialogue, an exchange of ideas – and made it operate in economics. Later Marxists called this “dialectical materialism”.

For Marx economics was what really mattered. Everything else was “superstructure”. In Marx’s model society was composed of two major parts: base and superstructure. The base was all the modes of production and the superstructure was everything else like law, politics, art, philosophy, and religion. As he laid out in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness… The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

Note Marx’s comment that “one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself”. This is an extremely important idea and something we will also see in Nietzsche and Freud. Paul Ricoeur proposed that these three engaged in a “hermeneutic of suspicion”. This is a way of analyzing how the reasons that you think you have for believing something may not be your real reasons for it. For Marx if you are religious the reasons you have for being religious are not the reasons that you think they are. You are not religious for spiritual reasons but for economic reasons. The economic reasons for religion are, most importantly, the desperate conditions of poverty. Marx explained this in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

“The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism… Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

“The opium of the people” is probably Marx’s most famous statement about religion. And it’s a good symbol summarizing his thoughts on the subject. Why do people need such an opium? Because of the suffering produced by their economic conditions. Religion gives an illusory reprieve but it doesn’t resolve the underlying conditions, which are economic. Religion is a problem for Marx precisely because it masks the underlying conditions. It needs to be swept away so that people can see their economic problems clearly and then act on them

Marx critiqued the ideas of many of contemporaries, taking resources from their ideas where he found use for them and pointing out where he thought they did not go far enough. One such thinker was Ludwig Feuerbach. I also did an episode on Feuerbach and his fascinating book The Essence of Christianity. One of Marx’s significant works is his brief Theses on Feuerbach, with eleven theses on Feuerbach’s thought. The eleventh and most important of these theses is: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx and Feuerbach were both atheists and so Marx essentially agreed with that aspect of Feuerbach’s work. But he criticized Feuerbach for extending his analysis of Christianity only to its ideas rather than to its underlying material causes and for neglecting to promote any kind of action or response to it.

Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity is fascinating for all the reasons Marx disagreed with it. When reading Feuerbach I get the sense that he was someone who really understood Christianity well and thought seriously about it, even while rejecting it. Topics he addresses in his book include: sacred immanence, providence, metaethics, spiritual existence, the elevation of anthropology to theology, religious process, God the Father as understanding, Trinity as relation and self-consciousness, Christ as mediator, the Son as Word, the Son as Love, and the Incarnation as manifestation of God in man. These are all great theological topics but Marx wanted nothing of all that since these are matters of ideas rather than material realities. But there was one idea from Feuerbach that stood out and would have the most significance in the development of secular thought and this was Feuerbach’s concept of projection. This is the idea that humans project their own attributes onto God, basically creating God in their own image. He wrote:

“Man cannot get beyond his true nature. He may indeed by means of the imagination conceive individuals of another so-called higher kind, but he can never get loose from his species, his nature; the conditions of being, the positive final predicates which he gives to these other individuals, are always determinations or qualities drawn from his own nature—qualities in which he in truth only images and projects himself.”

We take the human attributes that we most admire and project them onto this being that we call God. Feuerbach finds this problematic and calls for people to stop doing it and instead to re-internalize the qualities that we project onto God and find them in ourselves. For one thing projection diminishes our self-regard: “To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing.” And Feuerbach also thinks that our projected regard for God is completely misplaced: “All those dispositions which ought to be devoted to life, to man— all the best powers of humanity, are lavished on the being who wants nothing.”

There are two important ideas here in Feuerbach. The first is a secular account of the origin of God. And this is the process of projection, creating God in our image. The second is more of an ethical stance, that we ought not to be distracted by concern for supernatural matters in Heaven from the important issues of material and social realities. We should be thinking more about making the world a better place rather than thinking about God.

All this set the stage and prepared the intellectual environment for the most important of the three major intellectual systems of impersonal order: Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s work is principally scientific but that’s not the main aspect to look at for present purposes. For the subject of the development of secular thought the main issue is the intellectual implications of evolution by natural selection. What sorts of secondary ideas developed from the scientific work? Darwin himself was non-religious and his own scientific work did contribute to that. He wrote in a letter to Asa Gray:

“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I [should] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.”

Part of Darwin’s development of the theory included the study of Thomas Malthus, an economist who had observed that while population increases geometrically, food production increases only arithmetically (or at least it did at that time). The dismal conclusion from this is that there would always be unavoidable periodic famine and population reduction through starvation. With limited resources populations are necessarily limited. Some members of the population will survive and others will perish. And this brings up an important question: is the question of who will survive and who will perish random or are there factors that make the survival of some individuals more likely than others? And Darwin determined that it would not be random; that certain traits would be comparatively advantageous to survival. Thus natural selection depends on two important facts: (1) populations being limited and (2) diversity of traits within a species. 

The most careful expositors of Darwinian theory are diligent to remember that the process of natural selection is completely non-directional. Species are not evolving toward anything, to become stronger, faster, or more intelligent. Those things may happen but it’s not because of any teleology. There’s no right or wrong direction for evolution to go. And humans are no more evolved than bacteria. That’s when we’re being careful. But we’re often not. And it’s been very common in the wake of Darwin’s Origin of Species to think of evolution in terms of progress. And this was the mindset that dominated the intellectual environment of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Two of the most important expositors of Darwin and evolution were Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. Thomas Huxley was a biologist who was a very public debater on behalf of Darwin’s theory. He came to be known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”. His debating opponents included prominent religious figures, like bishops and archbishops. One of his most famous debates was with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. In the course of the debate Wilberforce asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey to which Huxley responded that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Herbert Spencer was a philosopher, scientist, and social reformer and one of the most famous intellectuals of the nineteenth century. Spencer took the science of Darwinism into new areas of social theory and politics. It was Herbert Spencer who first used the phrase “survival of the fittest”. This idea came to be understood not only as a description of natural processes but as a prescription for how things ought to be. Spencer had a comprehensive, “synthetic” philosophy that incorporated science and sociology into one great system. Characteristic of this synthesis were progress and perfection. He saw things progressing toward “the perfect man in the perfect society”. In his book Social Statics he advocated for laissez-faire policies and a kind of Larmarkian evolutionary idea that only by placing humans in strenuous laissez-faire conditions would they be able to adapt to those conditions and eventually reduce the need for government:

The philosophy of progress was extremely compelling and fashionable in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It seemed that man truly had the means to bend nature and direct his own destiny. One manifestation of this was a view known as “Social Darwinism”, though it should be noted that neither Darwin nor Spencer called themselves social Darwinists. Social Darwinism was the idea that humanity could be improved through free competition and survival of the fittest. In particular it rejected the idea that charity and assistance to the impoverished are virtuous. Under social Darwinism such charity is actually harmful because it preserves habits and traits that prevent humanity from progressing. Instead the survival and growth of inferior persons and populations should not be enabled. They should be allowed to die out and diminish according to the natural course of things. Social Darwinism and Spencer’s writings were especially popular in the United States. This was also the age of large-scale colonization, which expanded the ideas of survival of the fittest to nations and races. Eugenics also naturally followed from all this as another project for the improvement of humanity.

In late nineteenth century and early twentieth century social Darwinism, imperialism, and eugenics were all intellectually respectable and reputable ideas. Eugenics especially was considered consummately scientific and progressive. Because of certain contingent historical circumstances and events these ideas happened to be associated with secular thought. Richard Hofstadter commented in his book Social Darwinism in American Thought about the unusual secular character of this kind of conservatism in America:

“Social Darwinism was certainly one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation. But it lacked many of the signal characteristics of conservatism as it is usually found. A conservatism that appealed more to the secularist than the pious mentality, it was a conservatism almost without religion.” (Hofstadter, 7)

This association wasn’t absolute but there was a pattern. Things changed dramatically following World War II and these ideas quickly fell out of favor. Secular thought persisted and continued to develop, shedding its former associations with social Darwinism, imperialism, and eugenics. So the association of these ideas with secular thought was certainly nonessential. It was contingent and ultimately dispensable.

We can see an example of this older association in the 1914 textbook Civic Biology, written by George William Hunter. This was a widely used biology textbook in the early twentieth century and was the one famously used by John Scopes to teach evolution, for which he was prosecuted in the 1925 Scopes trial. Civic Biology divided humans up into five races and taught that “it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection.” It included the following passages:

“Parasitism and its Cost to Society. – Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.”

“The Remedy. – If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with some success in this country.” (Civic Biology, 263)

I don’t share these troubling passages to propose that evolution and secularism are of necessity linked to these kinds of views. Quite the opposite actually. They were associated at the time but these sorts of views have fallen out of favor even as secular thought persists, demonstrating that they are most certainly not inseparable. The Scopes trial was a watershed event in the development of public opinion toward evolution. That effect persisted even as the other troubling views in the text of Civic Biology were abandoned.

Another atheistic perspective in the later part of the nineteenth century was that of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s contributions to the development of secular thought take a few forms. Most famously he proclaimed that “God is dead”. But in the context of his writing this proclamation was more cautionary than celebratory. Nietzsche was absolutely an atheist. But he didn’t expect that the death of God was unproblematic. The “God is dead” line comes from the following passage in The Gay Science:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’”

“’How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’”

“Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet.’”

You can get a sense here of Nietzsche’s wonderful writing style, which is both entertaining and provocative. The first thing I’d like to point out with this passage is the character of the crowd. They already didn’t believe in God. You can imagine this is how Nietzsche sees Europe. By saying “God is dead” Nietzsche wasn’t saying anything new. The people of Europe already no longer believed in God. The madman wasn’t announcing the fact that God was dead. What he was trying to get across to the people was that they had not yet comprehended what that meant. That the earth had been unchained from its sun. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about a certain stage along the development of secular thought. There’s the propositional assent to atheism. But that doesn’t necessarily include a full comprehension of what that means existentially. And Nietzsche is often considered one of the early precursors to twentieth century existentialism.

What else do we get from Nietzsche? He also has a very interesting critique of Christian morality. In his book On the Genealogy of Morality he characterizes Jewish and Christian morality as “slave morality”. In an older form of morality before Judaism and Christianity, among the aristocrats, the most important value distinctions were “good” and “bad”. Strength, power, and excellence were good. Weakness and failure were bad. In this aristocratic understanding of value, people who were weak and failures were not evil, they were just not the kinds of people you would want to be. You would want to be strong and successful. But eventually the weak were able to create a morality that reversed things. In a perversion of healthy values domination and strength came to be understood not just as bad but evil. And a person should feel guilty for them. It was better to be meek and humble. And here we see how Christian morality would figure into Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. Christianity corrupted value by making excellence, what was actually good, seem evil. Furthermore Christianity esteemed attributes of human failure. As with Feuerbach we might say that Nietzsche got Christianity pretty much right. David Bentley Hart remarked that Nietzsche “had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was… on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased.” (Atheist Delusions, 6)

Along with Marx and Freud, Paul Ricoeur saw in Nietzsche a certain hermeneutic of suspicion and included him among the three great “masters of suspicion”. Nietzsche challenged conventional accounts of morality through his process of “genealogy”. Michel Foucault would later apply this kind of “genealogy” to ideas in the twentieth century. One of the effects of such a genealogy is to expose, similarly to other hermeneutics of suspicion, that the reasons you think you have for thinking a certain way are not the real reasons. A genealogy contextualizes our ideas in the process of history and exposes how they are contingent and might have been otherwise. And so they are not as self-evident and products of pure reasoning as we might have supposed.

The third of Ricoeur’s masters of suspicion was Sigmund Freud. And with Freud we move into the twentieth century. Freud’s hermeneutic of suspicion occurs in psychoanalysis in which a patient (or any person) has behaviors, fears, desires, or other impulses for reasons hidden to that person. They are hidden in the unconscious mind and need to be retrieved by the psychoanalyst to be properly treated. So again, the reasons you think you have for your ideas are not the real reasons for them. Freud’s psychology addressed the unconscious roots of many tendencies and impulses, including religious impulses. Freud addressed religion in his books: Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, and The Future of an Illusion.

In Totem and Taboo Freud theorized about the origins of religion in its most primitive social setting, in what he called the “primal horde”. Freud understood his own work as scientific and he based his theories on work of the anthropologists of his day, particularly studies indigenous Australians. He saw his own work as continuous with Darwin. A totem for Freud was a symbolic object or animal that is revered by a group. He understood the totem to be representative of the group’s primal father figure.

“Psychoanalysis has revealed to us that the totem animal is really a substitute for the father, and this really explains the contradiction that it is usually forbidden to kill the totem animal, that the killing of it results in a holiday and that the animal is killed and yet mourned. The ambivalent emotional attitude which to-day still marks the father complex in our children and so often continues into adult life also extended to the father substitute of the totem animal. But if we associate the translation of the totem as given by psychoanalysis, with the totem feast and the Darwinian hypothesis about the primal state of human society, a deeper understanding becomes possible and a hypothesis is offered which may seem fantastic but which has the advantage of establishing an unexpected unity among a series of hitherto separated phenomena.”

One thing to point out here, important to all of Freud’s works, is the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus Complex is a complex of emotions associated with a boy’s sexual desire for his mother and resentment toward his father. Oedipus, in Greek mythology and tragedy, killed his own father and married his mother. Hence the name. This is the “ambivalent emotional attitude which to-day still marks the father complex… extended to the father substitute of the totem animal.” Freud then asserted the following origin story of such a totem that would have taken place, perhaps in multiple occasions and places, among a primordial horde ruled over by an authoritarian father father figure:

“There is only a violent, jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away the growing sons… One day the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and thus put an end to the father horde. Together they dared and accomplished what would have remained impossible for them singly… Of course these cannibalistic savages ate their victim. This violent primal father had surely been the envied and feared model for each of the brothers. Now they accomplished their identification with him by devouring him and each acquired a part of his strength. The totem feast, which is perhaps mankind’s first celebration, would be the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion.”

The sons killed and ate their father and took the females, their mothers; acts of murder, cannibalism, and incest. But after this act of patricide they felt intense guilt which worked itself out in the forms of rituals and taboos. Religion for Freud is itself a neurosis and he sees religious rituals as the same in essence as nervous tics and other compulsive habits associated with neurotic disorders. And in Freud’s psychology these are generally associated with some kind of repressed guilt or trauma. He sees religion as basically a large, group manifestation of the same thing. This primordial horde would have developed the trappings of religion as a way to deal with their simultaneous triumph and guilt:

“In order to find these results acceptable, quite aside from our supposition, we need only assume that the group of brothers banded together were dominated by the same contradictory feelings towards the father which we can demonstrate as the content of ambivalence of the father complex in all our children and in neurotics. They hated the father who stood so powerfully in the way of their sexual demands and their desire for power, but they also loved and admired him. After they had satisfied their hate by his removal and had carried out their wish for identification with him, the suppressed tender impulses had to assert themselves. This took place in the form of remorse, a sense of guilt was formed which coincided here with the remorse generally felt. The dead now became stronger than the living had been, even as we observe it to-day in the destinies of men. What the fathers’ presence had formerly prevented they themselves now prohibited in the psychic situation of ‘subsequent obedience’, which we know so well from psychoanalysis. They undid their deed by declaring that the killing of the father substitute, the totem, was not allowed, and renounced the fruits of their deed by denying themselves the liberated women. Thus they created the two fundamental taboos of totemism out of the sense of guilt of the son, and for this very reason these had to correspond with the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex. Whoever disobeyed became guilty of the two only crimes which troubled primitive society.”

Thus murder and incest became taboo and the primal father figure a totem, an object of worship.

Freud follows a similar path in Moses and Monotheism but this time with reference specifically to Israelite religion. Freud asserted that Moses was actually an Egyptian, originally a devotee of the Egyptian monotheistic religious experiment of Akhenaten. Moses led a revolt and liberated a band of fellow rebels whom he led out of Egypt. Moses was their political and religious leader but his religious rule was so demanding that the group revolted and killed him. So here we have another father figure as in Totem and Taboo and another instance of the Oedipus complex. The people felt remorse for what they had done and developed a system of belief in which Moses was the founder of their religion.

For us today Freud’s supposedly “historical” accounts seem rather fanciful. I don’t think anyone believes them even if Freud did. But what remains relevant are not the details but the overall interpretation of religion as neurosis and an instance of some kind of Oedipus complex. Today we might refer instead to something like religious scrupulosity. We still understand people to have motivations for religious practice and ritual that are rooted in psychologically unhealthy sources.

In The Future of an Illusion Freud looks forward to how religion might develop into the future as humanity becomes more advanced and, as he sees it, outgrows its need for religion. As in his subsequent book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud recognized that the aggregation of human beings, with all our destructive impulses, into the close quarters of a society requires repression of those impulses, which is also a source of frustration or discontent. Frustrating but necessary. For premodern, primitive humanity religion serves an important function, helping us deal with the discontent and guilt of social life by providing the illusion of a strong and loving protector and father figure. The father figure in The Future of an Illusion is much more exclusively positive than in his other two books on religion. The father is an object of love. We crave the comfort and security that a father could provide in childhood. The illusion of religion is that our wish for this father figure is actually true. Although Freud understands religion to have played an important role in humanity’s pre-modern immaturity he thinks that it is time to grow out of it.

“Our knowledge of the historical worth of certain religious doctrines increases our respect for them, but does not invalidate our proposal that they should cease to be put forward as the reasons for the precepts of civilization. On the contrary! Those historical residues have helped us to view religious teachings, as it were, as neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytic treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect.”

I think this is an idea that persists in secular thought. We don’t necessarily disparage our ancestors for their religious beliefs. Of course they needed them and didn’t know any better. But in our scientific and technological age we ought to move beyond religion.

Two important intellectual trends in the twentieth century were in continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. Freud’s influence has continued more in continental philosophy than in his own field of psychology. Prominent Freudians include Jacque Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler. One of the founders of analytic philosophy was Bertrand Russell. Where Freud worked in the unobservable phenomena of the mind and relied on the narrative accounts of dreams and culture the analytic school valued empiricism and precision. One early form of this was Russell’s logical atomism, which aimed to break concepts down into their most basic components for the purposes of analysis.

Bertrand Russell was one of the most important and prolific philosophers of the early twentieth century and he wrote on a number of subjects, including religion. Through logical atomism he sought to eliminate ambiguity and the potential for obfuscation. Naturally when it came to religion Russell found its scriptures, doctrines, and rituals nonsensical. Later analytic philosophers like A.J. Ayer in the school of logical positivism would similarly call them “meaningless”. Like Freud, Russell believed that religion was something humanity had outgrown:

“We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men.”

This passage is from the conclusion of Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian. In the same text he argued against the merit of Jesus as a moral exemplar. To us today some of the most compelling arguments from this essay are likely the moral ones. For example, many have advanced a similar argument as the following:

“You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised Churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world… There are a great many ways in which at the present moment the Church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering. And of course, as we know, it is in its major part an opponent still of progress and of improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all. ‘What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy.’”

There are of course arguments against Russell’s point here but it certainly carries force. It also resonates with some of the most prominent religious-secular conflicts of the twenty-first century in which progressive secular values and traditional Christian values really are just contradictory, as with issues of abortion, sexuality, and gender.

One of Russell’s most famous illustrations is his teapot analogy. This comes from his article “Is There a God?” In this article Russell makes the case that the philosophic burden of proof rests on religious people who are making empirically unfalsifiable claims. He writes:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

This analogy has been highly influential and the basic idea has taken on other forms. For example a common version today is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sometimes seen as a car decal. The Flying Spaghetti Monster originated from a satirical open letter in 2005 demanding that science classrooms give equal time to the Flying Spaghetti Monster alongside intelligent design and evolution. Russell’s Teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster play an important role in the development of secular thought, which is to make religious belief seem ridiculous.

Making things look ridiculous has a celebrated history and there are a couple American examples worth mentioning from this time period in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century: Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.

The novelist Mark Twain was especially well known for his wit, satire, and irreverent sense of humor. He had a number of memorable one-liners. For example: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” 

The most important example of a critique of religion in his fiction is in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck is deciding whether or not to turn in his traveling companion Jim, who is also a runaway slave. What’s important to the story is that Huck thinks that he’s supposed to turn in a runaway slave and that it’s what God wants him to do. (He wasn’t aware that Deuteronomy 23:15 says exactly the opposite). In fact Huck thinks that he’ll go to Hell if he doesn’t do it. So in his mind all the weight of religious authority is pushing him to betray his friend. But in an act of heroic defiance he refuses to do so and says, “All right then, I’ll go to hell”.

Twain also wrote essays criticizing religion. In his essay “Fables of Man” he invited readers to think how they would feel if anyone other than God created the world in the way that it is. He used the example the fly, if anyone other than God were to create a pest like the fly:

“Let us try to think the unthinkable: let us try to imagine a Man of a sort willing to invent the fly; that is to say, a man destitute of feeling; a man willing to wantonly torture and harass and persecute myriads of creatures who had never done him any harm and could not if they wanted to, and–the majority of them–poor dumb things not even aware of his existence. In a word, let us try to imagine a man with so singular and so lumbering a code of morals as this: that it is fair and right to send afflictions upon the just–upon the unoffending as well as upon the offending, without discrimination.”

Twain’s problem here with the state of nature is quite similar to Darwin’s problem with the Ichneumonidæ feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars. In Europe and Elsewhere he pointed out many instances in which the Bible has been the cause of evil and how humans have only progressed morally in cases where they have rejected it. He says:

“The Christian Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes… The stock in the store was made up of about equal portions of baleful and debilitating poisons, and healing and comforting medicines; but the practice of the time confined the physician to the use of the former; by consequence, he could only damage his patient, and that is what he did.”

Twain admits that there is much in the Bible that is good. But people seem to know the difference between the good and the bad independently of the Bible. In fact, people are able to discern the difference between the good and the bad that is in the Bible. And happily, it has been by and large only the bad parts, so Twain believed, that people rejected as they have progressed morally:

“Is it not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.”

Twain accused the churches of following rather than leading moral progress, usually after some period of opposing it. But then have the audacity to take credit for it:

“In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slaves, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers… So unassailable was her position that in all the centuries she had no word to say against human slavery. Yet now at last, in our immediate day, we hear a Pope saying slave trading is wrong, and we see him sending an expedition to Africa to stop it. The texts remain: it is the practice that has changed. Why? Because the world has corrected the Bible. The Church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession–and take the credit of the correction. As she will presently do in this instance.”

I include Twain in this history of secular thought precisely because he was not a philosopher or an academic but, like Shelley, an unacknowledged legislator who shaped the character of a nation through literature. Another man I’d include in this class is H.L. Mencken, a wildly popular journalist, essayist, and critic. Mencken had an acerbic wit that would be pitiful to fall victim to. Like Twain, he was also a master of turns of phrase. One of my favorites is: “Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.” Another classic, this one on the subject of religion is: “Puritanism – The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (A Mencken Chrestomathy, 624) 

In his essay “Memorial Service” Mencken paid mocking memorial to the numerous gods of ages past who are no longer worshiped:

“Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And who of Huitzilopochtli? In one year – and it is no more than five hundred years ago – 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest.” 

Mencken then gave a long list of two columns with many other such deceased gods and concluded:

“Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion: you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest dignity – gods of civilized peoples – worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.”

Richard Dawkins would later make a similar point to Mencken that, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” (The God Delusion)

One event of particular importance where Mencken played a role was the Scopes Trial of 1925. As mentioned earlier, John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in school. It was arguably the trial of the century, a total media spectacle, and very public. In a sense there were two courts: the actual legal court and, more significantly, the court of public opinion. In the actual court of law Scopes was convicted for violating the law. But in the court of public opinion creationism suffered a disastrous defeat. And Mencken, writing at the time for the Baltimore Sun, played no small role in that. He delighted in lampooning the southern Christian fundamentalists of this Tennessee town. He famously quipped: “Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a fundamentalist anywhere in the United States.” He was especially merciless in his accounts of the prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan.

The Scopes trial reinforced an important perceived division between religion and science. One was legitimized at the expense of the other. And many of the scientists who were most well-known to the public reinforced this idea. In the later twentieth century two important publications that brought the latest developments of physics and cosmology to household libraries and television screens were Carl Sagan’s 1980 television series Cosmos and Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time. Sagan and Hawking were both scientists at the top of their fields but they were also public figures and household names. The combination of their legitimate expertise and communications skills meant that their opinions carried weight, not just in their scientific fields but in many subjects, including their views on religion.

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was a major bestseller, especially for a science book. When I was a kid a number of my friends and I had that book on our shelves. Hawking was a major role model. Religion didn’t feature heavily in that book other than the comment, “What need for a creator?” In the 2011 television series Curiosity he expressed quite genially that “We are each free to believe what we want” but also acknowledged, “It is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.” Like Freud, he thought that belief in God made sense for premodern peoples but that it was something we can now move beyond: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.” Hawking suffered from a slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease and death was a constant prospect for him. Remaking on this he said in a 2011 interview with The Guardian: “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first… I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Although he was upfront and open about his atheism it was not a major topic for Hawking.

It was more of a topic for Sagan. Sagan was especially interested in critical thinking and the harms that follow from believing things without justification. Not just religion but all sorts of popular pseudoscience. This was the topic of his book The Demon-Haunted World, in which he assembled what he called a “baloney detection kit”. In that book Sagan adapted Russell’s teapot with his own story of a dragon in the garage. Someone tries to convince you that there’s a dragon in the garage but when you go to look at it you don’t see it. So they say it’s an invisible dragon. So you might spread flour on the floor to see its footprints. But the dragon floats in the air. What about an infrared camera to see the invisible fire? But the fire is heatless. Every proposal has some reason for why it will not work. Sagan concludes: “Now what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.”

Sagan was also invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford lectures in 1985 in Glasgow. The lectures were later published as The Varieties of Scientific Experience. The Gifford lectures are annual lectures on the topic of science and religion and this is Sagan’s most comprehensive treatment of the subject. Sagan’s lectures were very respectful but also pulled no punches. While reviewing a number of arguments for the existence of God he said the following on arguments from religious experiences:

“People have religious experiences. No question about it. They have them worldwide, and there are some interesting similarities in the religious experiences that are had worldwide. They are powerful, emotionally extremely convincing, and they often lead to people reforming their lives and doing good works, although the opposite also happens. Now, what about this? Well, I do not mean in any way to object to or deride religious experiences. But the question is, can any such experience provide other than anecdotal evidence of the existence of God or gods?… Large numbers of people can have experiences that can be profound and moving and still not correspond to anything like an exact sense of external reality… Every culture has things of this sort. That doesn’t mean that they all exist; it doesn’t mean that any of them exist.”

On the argument from design he made the following remark, quite similar to Hume’s:

“Why in any case is it necessary for God to intervene in human history, in human affairs, as almost every religion assumes happens? That God or the gods come down and tell humans, ‘No, don’t do that, do this, don’t forget this, don’t pray in this way, don’t worship anybody else, mutilate children as follow.’ Why is there such a long list of things that God tells people to do? Why didn’t God do it right in the first place? You start out the universe, you can do anything. You can see all the future consequences of your present action. You want a certain desired end. Why don’t you arrange it in the beginning? The intervention of God in human affairs speaks of incompetence.”

Although Hawking and Sagan were prominent faces of atheism at the end of the twentieth century neither made atheism a primary focus of their public engagement. This would not be the case for the new public faces of irreligion at the start of the twenty-first century. One of the most significant events in the development of secular thought in recent times was the catastrophic terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 perpetrated by Islamist extremists. The religious motivations for this attack provoked a strong secular response that came to be known as New Atheism. Four members of this movement were known as the “The Four Horsemen”: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. With the possible exception of Dennett the atheism of The Four Horsemen was front and center to their public engagement.

Sam Harris began writing The End of Faith shortly after the September 11th attacks. His other major book on the topic of religion was Letter to a Christian Nation. The September 11th attacks were an occasion to point out the violence that religious fundamentalism can provoke and is just one example in a long list of historical cases of such religiously inspired violence and atrocities. Harris made particular note of the complicity of religious moderates in all this. Far from excusing moderates or recommending a conversion from fundamentalism to more moderate forms of religion Harris argued that religious moderates, by taking certain texts and beliefs selectively or metaphorically, grant legitimacy to those texts and beliefs and enable those who take them literally and to extremist ends. Harris also criticized religion generally as fundamentally irrational and lacking in evidence. Science is a much more solid basis for our understanding of reality and even for moral decision making, as he argued in The Moral Landscape.

Biologist Richard Dawkins was already a popular writer on the topic of evolutionary biology prior to the New Atheist movement, having written books like The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Ancestor’s Tale. As a writer on evolutionary biology his books naturally addressed creationism and intelligent design ideas, especially in books like The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. But he really became a major face for New Atheism with the 2006 publication of The God Delusion. The God Delusion was a major bestseller and attracted widespread response and discussion. In it Dawkins explained why, in his view, there is almost certainly no God. He included arguments from his field in evolutionary biology but also discussed religious violence and intolerance.

Christopher Hitchens was a prolific journalist and essayist, a staunch free-speech advocate, and opponent of religion. Hitchens called himself not only an atheist but an “antitheist”. He not only did not believe in God but thought that it would be a horrible thing if God actually did exist. He compared a universe with God to a cosmic North Korea. His major book on the topic and contribution to the New Atheist movement was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens said that religion was “the main source of hatred in the world”. In the book he criticized Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also Eastern religions like Buddhism. As with Mencken, to be on the receiving end of Hitchens’s attacks was brutal. Some of his targets were predictable, like Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. More surprising was his excoriating criticism of Mother Teresa.

Daniel Dennett was also numbered among the Four Horsemen but of the four he was probably the least like the others. Dennett is one world’s most prominent philosophers in the philosophy of mind. He’s certainly an atheist but it’s not as front and center to his work. In his book-length contribution to the New Atheist movement, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, he even called for world religions to be taught in school. Dennett is perhaps best known for his philosophical work on qualia: individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. In Consciousness Explained he develops a number of arguments to demonstrate how the way our minds work must be quite different from the way it seems to us. Dennett’s philosophy of mind, given its subject, naturally impinges on religious ideas of the soul. In Breaking the Spell Dennett proposed that religion should be thought of as a natural phenomenon and studied by scientists just as any other natural phenomenon.

Dennett and Dawkins have made frequent reference to each other’s work. Dennett has made philosophical use of Dawkins’s concept of memes, as developed in The Selfish Gene and Dawkins has praised Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in particular his metaphor of skyhooks and cranes. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is perhaps the most interesting and detailed study on the philosophical implications of Darwin’s work. Dennett refers to the concept of natural selection as a kind of “universal acid” that eats through everything it touches. He uses the metaphor of a skyhook for any kind of apparent intelligent design that seems to be suspended from the heavens, but that in fact is held up by a crane or series of cranes, and anchored securely to the ground. The core of Darwin’s dangerous idea, according to Dennett, is the algorithm; an automatic process that requires no intelligent direction. Dennett then shows instances where Darwinian algorithms dissolve apparent skyhooks in biology, mind, meaning, mathematics, and morality.

I remember that New Atheism was in full bloom when I was in my twenties. It also coincided with the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which enabled its diffusion. It seems to have tapered off somewhat since then for whatever reason. All of the Four Horsemen get a mention in this survey because, being quite recent, their influence on the development of secular thought still persists. My guess is that in a similar survey fifty years from now Dennett will be the only one discussed even though he was probably the least prominent of the New Atheists in its heyday. But I’d say his ideas are the most uniquely interesting and instrumentally useful in the service of secular thought.

So what do we make of all this? In going through this brief history I haven’t stopped to challenge any of these thinkers and their ideas. I’ve tried to present their ideas fairly and doing that properly means making it apparent why these ideas have been appealing and persuasive. That’s challenging because I don’t find their ideas personally persuasive. But I do find them interesting and important.

This is admittedly something of an exercise in genealogy, in the style of Nietzsche and Foucault, to show how secular ideas are not absolute but contingent, how they have been dependent on historical events and trends, and how things could have been otherwise. For example, secular thought today is usually aligned with progressive ideals of antiracism, protection of people with disabilities, and the interests of sexual minorities. But before World War II and the Nuremberg Trials the most secular and scientifically-educated people in society were moving in quite a different direction. I think Charles Taylor is correct that secular thought as we have it today is not merely what is left over when we chip away religion. Secular thought is a construct that has been created over time by people and events.

In a certain sense something being a social construct doesn’t really matter. Technology is a construct or a collection of very many constructs. But our devices still work. The scientific principles underlying our technologies are also constructs. And they still work. So does it matter? I think it does. Thomas Kuhn, with his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did some excellent work situating and contextualizing scientific developments, showing how they also come about in very circuitous paths with many discarded theories that were once the best theories available. It’s good to know about all that when we think about the future of science and technology. It will likely go in some very unpredicted directions.

Still, with religion and secular thought there are some big either-or questions. Does God exist or not? Was Jesus resurrected or not? At the end of the day between Christians and atheists someone is right and someone is wrong. A genealogy of secular thought doesn’t resolve such questions. But one thing it can do is reveal how certain perspectives can seem more or less compelling because of contingent historical developments. In other words, if certain religious positions seem more problematic and certain secular positions seem stronger than they otherwise would, that’s useful to understand. It helps us to think what is usually unthought. Charles Taylor borrows the term “unthought” from Foucault to refer to all the presuppositions underlying our understanding of religion and secularization that we aren’t even aware that we hold. By bringing the unthought into our conscious thought we should be able to think about things more comprehensively and reflectively.

With this in mind consider two issues that are seemingly problematic for religion: science and religion and the problem of evil.

In Western modernity Judaism and Christianity have been thought to be in conflict with the sciences. And the sciences are so manifestly successful that religion would be at a clear disadvantage. At best, religion could hold to some kind of “God of the gaps” whose domain progressively shrinks as science explains away more and more religious ideas. Natural phenomena like earthquakes and lightning no longer need divine explanations. And our creation myths don’t stand up to geological and fossil evidence. But is this apparent conflict essential or accidental? It’s quite fascinating and often surprising to read premodern Jewish and Christian texts. The authors of the Talmud and the Early Church Fathers were not at all unfamiliar with the internal tensions of the sacred texts or of passages that they could not take literally. They were quite aware of them and wrote extensively about them. Philo of Alexandria (Jewish) and Origen of Alexandria (Christian) are two of the most famous expositors of allegorical interpretation in antiquity. Additionally, in modernity where we make a sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural, with God operating as something separate from nature, in the Middle Ages educated Christians like Thomas Aquinas understood that distinction to be much less absolute. In their understanding the supernatural always already infuses the natural world, as has been written about by Fergus Kerr (After Aquinas, 2002) and Tyler Roberts (Skeptics and Believers, 2009). Both the premodern comfort with allegorical interpretation and the metaphysical understanding of the natural being infused with the supernatural would make the relationship between science and religion look quite different than the relationship that developed between the two in modernity. David Bentley Hart has even suggested that: “In the ancient or mediaeval worlds, the idea of the evolution of species would not necessarily have posed a very great intellectual challenge for the educated classes, at least not on religious grounds… It would not have been drastically difficult for philosophers or theologians to come to see such evolution as the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.” (The Experience God, 62) It was by no means inevitable or necessary that the developments of geology and evolutionary biology would come into conflict with religious beliefs. It just happened to work out that way given the particular intellectual and religious milieux of the time. That’s useful to think about, both for secular and religious people. As Christians we would do well to familiarize ourselves with early thinkers in our tradition to find perspectives that are surprisingly much more unproblematically accommodating to modern science.

The problem of evil is an even more interesting one I think. And if Susan Neiman is correct this is the most salient issue in modernity and for the whole human condition really. How are we to come to terms with God if his creation has so much evil and suffering? The Lisbon Earthquake and the Holocaust are the two major examples of disruptive disasters in modernity. With the problem of evil I actually don’t think there’s ever been any historical period where such disasters would be religiously unproblematic. Disasters of a certain scale and degree always induce religious disruption and crisis. But what’s interesting is that in the case of Judaism especially, and in Christianity by extension, response to this kind of disruption is actually part of the religion. One of the most important events in the Bible is the conquest of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Judeans by the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This dramatically transformed the Judeans as a people. Judaism took another dramatic turn again after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, leading to what would become Rabbinic Judaism. And the Holocaust itself induced major reflection and changes in Judaism, as in the work of people like Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Elie Weisel, Irving Greenberg, and Eugene Borowitz. The Hebrew Bible also contains responses and laments to the problems of evil. Most obvious is the Book of Job. Much of the Bible’s Wisdom literature as found in Job, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, is testament to the troubled yet creative religious response to suffering. It doesn’t seem like there’s any expectation from God in scripture that we are to be unmoved and untroubled by the evil present in his creation.

Both secular thought and the religions of Judaism and Christianity are part of history and Western heritage. It’s valuable to be familiar with all of it. The history of all these traditions could have taken different paths. But regardless, the traditions as we have them make up who we are and how we think.

The World Comes From Reason and This Reason Is a Person

A reflection on the idea that “The world comes from reason, and this reason is a Person.” (Joseph Ratzinger). The intelligibility of the world and the personal nature of the Logos.

I was recently reading Introduction to Christianity, written in 1968 by Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. One line from the introduction really stood out to me:

“The world comes from reason, and this reason is a Person.”

I think this may be the most perfect and succinct expression of what I believe. Most of the topics that interest me could be traced back to this sentence. It contains two important ideas:

1. The world is rational.

2. The world’s rationality comes from God.

That the world is rational is consistent with scientific realism, which is the view that the world described by science is real. It’s a view that I think, or at least hope, most people would agree with. Its connection to the second idea – that the world’s rationality comes from God – is not obvious. Many people believe that the world described by science is real without believing in God. Or believe in God and that the world described by science is real without connecting these two ideas. But I think these two ideas are necessarily linked. The reason the world is rational is because its rationality is God’s rationality.

Another thing I like about this statement is that it can be understood in a few ways, all of which I agree with. And the different interpretations have to do with different meanings of “come from” and “reason”, at least in this English translation of Ratzinger’s statement. That the world “comes from” reason we can understand to mean that God creat-ed (past tense) the world and that God is continually creat-ing (present tense) and sustaining the world. By “reason” we can understand “reason” as the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments and “reason” as a cause, explanation, or justification. Both work. So we get these four interpretations and their combinations:

“The world comes from reason”

1. At the point in time when the world came into existence it came from reason.

2. The world continues to exist in the way that it does from reason.

“And this reason is a Person”

1. Reason, as such, is a Person.

2. A Person is the reason, or cause, for the world existing.

Before digging further into this let’s look at a longer version of the quote from Ratzinger:

“The God who is logos guarantees the intelligibility of the world, the intelligibility of our existence, the aptitude of reason to know God and the reasonableness of God, even though his understanding infinitely surpasses ours and to us may so often appear to be darkness. The world comes from reason, and this reason is a Person, is Love–this is what our biblical faith tells us about God.”

The intelligibility of the world is fundamentally connected to scientific realism because it’s really what makes science possible. What are some ways in which the world is intelligible scientifically? Here are four:

1. When controlled experiments have predictable and repeatable results.

2. When the results of controlled experiments have predictable and repeatable distributions.

3. When variables in controlled experiments vary in proportion to other variables.

4. When previously unknown laws can be derived from previously known laws and confirmed by experiment. 

I include predictable and repeatable distributions because the results of experiments very often are distributions. This can either be because of variations in conditions that we can’t completely account for or because the aspect of nature itself that is being measured actually is a distribution in essence. In the first case the reason for the distribution is a limitation on our knowledge, something epistemological. In the second case the distribution is actually a property in nature itself in its essence or being, something ontological. In either case there is regularity and predictability. Even if the individual data points are not predictable their distributions are. And I think that still counts.

These four kinds of intelligibility are all basic to scientific practice. In an unintelligible world science would not be possible.

I think the novelist Cixin Liu portrayed this well in The Three Body Problem. In that novel aliens are interfering with the results of particle collider experiments to keep humans from making any progress in their scientific knowledge. One scientist describes it to a colleague using an analogy with billiard balls, a classic case of predictable physics:

“Imagine another set of results. The first time, the white ball drove the black ball into the pocket. The second time, the black ball bounced away. The third time, the black ball flew onto the ceiling. The fourth time, the black ball shot around the room like a frightened sparrow, finally taking refuge in your jacket pocket. The fifth time, the black ball flew away at nearly the speed of light, breaking the edge of the pool table, shooting through the wall, and leaving Earth and the Solar System.” (The Three Body Problem, 70)

Of course science would be impossible in that kind of world. And really we wouldn’t even get as far as attempting science because the existence of physical life depends on the regularity of matter, cellular structures, and biochemical reactions. A truly unintelligible world is difficult to imagine because it’s not the kind of world we could live in. It would be a lot like the formlessness and void, the tohu va-bohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ) in Genesis 1:2, before God imposed order on it.

In science we are in the business of characterizing the world’s regularities. That there are such regularities in the first place we appropriately take for granted. Why and how these regularities are there in the first place is not a scientific question but a philosophical, and specifically metaphysical question. Though we can certainly be interested in that question as scientists as well. It seems like the kind of question that would not be answerable from inside the system. As a comparison, computer programs and video games also have regularities. But these come from their developers. The program has a programmer who is not part of the program. The original regularity and structure of the system comes from the outside. I understand the regularity and structure of the real world to come about in a similar way.

If the world comes from reason then what would it mean for this reason to be a person? Both that the world comes from reason and that this reason is a person are statements of faith. But there are also reasons to believe them that support that faith. That reason is a person has both philosophical and scriptural support. 

First on the philosophical support. In a previous episode I looked at the argument from eternal truths, an argument for the existence of God. In Edward Feser’s version of the argument he considers three possible versions of realism: Platonic realism, Aristotelian realism, and Scholastic realism. He describes these three possibilities in this way:

Platonic realism: abstract objects exist in a “third realm” distinct from either the material world or any intellect. 

Aristotelian realism: abstract objects exist only in human or other contingently existing intellects. 

Scholastic realism: abstract objects exist not only in contingently existing intellects but also in at least one necessarily existing intellect.

These options have some similarity to three options I’ve proposed as possible explanations for the rationality of the world:

1. The rationality of the world is independent of any intelligent beings.

2. The rationality of the world is a conditional property, conditional on there being intelligent beings in the world.

3. The rationality of the world is the rationality of a mind that grounds the world.

I think the idea of the world’s rationality being a conditional property is the most immediately plausible and straightforward, even though I think it is ultimately inadequate. It would be something of the form:

1. IF there are intelligent beings in reality.

2. AND IF any existing intelligent beings obtain some degree of accurate understanding of reality.

3. THEN such intelligent beings will find reality to be intelligible and rational.

I think that happens to be true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t explain or give grounding for the world’s intelligibility, why it is that way in the first place.

Edward Feser establishes scholastic realism, the view that abstract objects exist in at least one necessarily existing intellect, by a process of elimination; eliminating Platonic realism and Aristotelian realism for what he sees as insuperable objections. I won’t go into the insuperable objections to Platonic realism and Aristotelian realism here but just refer those interested to Feser’s text, and move on now to the scriptural foundation for seeing reason as a person.

First, what is the alternative to a personal nature? It would be an impersonal nature. For example, in the times of classical Greece and the Roman Empire the stoics and other educated people understood the world to be governed by logos (λόγος).  Heraclitus (535 – 475 BC) said all things come to pass in accordance with the logos (γινομένων γὰρ πάντων κατὰ τὸν λόγον, ginomenon gar panton kata ton logon). The Stoics had a concept of logos spermatikos (λόγος σπερματικός), understood as the generative principle of the world that creates all things. Very similar to Ratzinger’s statement that the world comes from reason. But an important difference was that the Greeks and Romans did not understand the logos to be personal, but impersonal; law without a lawgiver. What then are we to understand from the following Biblical passage?:

“In the beginning was the Word (Λόγος), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3, KJV)

From this passage alone, in the prologue to John’s gospel, we might still understand the Logos to be an impersonal, generative power. Both share a common principle that it is by the Logos that all things are made. But the Gospel writer then makes clear that this Logos is not impersonal at all and actually became, of all things, a human being:

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14, KJV)

The Logos was made flesh, the man Jesus of Nazareth. This Incarnation allowed other human beings to see and know God. Up to that point man had seen no form in God, as had been made reiterated to the Israelites in the Torah:

“Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16, NKJV)

John acknowledges that this had been the case. But with the Incarnation of Jesus things change.

“And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, KJV)

“No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (John 1:18, KJV)

Jesus then could rightfully say:

“He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9, KJV)

Not that they are the same person. That would be a misunderstanding of the Trinity, “confounding the persons”. But in Jesus of Nazareth human beings could see God in the flesh, as a fellow human being and as a person.

As a person God has a mind, a will, self-consciousness, and awareness. What’s more God has all these things in greater and in more perfect measure than we do. We are created in God’s image. So these personal attributes as we find them in ourselves are patterned after their more perfect form in God’s personal attributes.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) described this well in his Summa Theologiae:

“‘Person’ signifies what is most perfect in all nature—that is, a subsistent individual of a rational nature. Hence, since everything that is perfect must be attributed to God, forasmuch as His essence contains every perfection, this name ‘person’ is fittingly applied to God; not, however, as it is applied to creatures, but in a more excellent way; as other names also, which, while giving them to creatures, we attribute to God… Although the word ‘person’ is not found applied to God in Scripture, either in the Old or New Testament, nevertheless what the word signifies is found to be affirmed of God in many places of Scripture; as that He is the supreme self-subsisting being, and the most perfectly intelligent being.” (Summa Theologiae 1.29.3)

What’s the upshot of that? Here’s how I think about it. Do we really matter? We certainly matter to each other. But we’re not always fair to each other. And we’re not in control of the world so we’re limited in how much we can actually do for each other. If the world comes from an impersonal source that source is indifferent to us. Whether we live or die, thrive or suffer. But if the world comes from a person we can matter to him. And the witness of scripture is that we do. We matter to God and God is powerful over all other forces. Paul’s message in Romans 8:31-39 is spot on:

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The Existence of God: Argument from Eternal Truths

I think that there are certain ideas – like in mathematics and logic – that are necessarily true in a way that is separate from space, time, and material things. Such ideas must exist in a way that is very different from material things. We could suppose that these ideas are products of our minds; and there does seem to be something mental about them. But these ideas also seem to have real effects in the material world. All matter in the universe behaves in consistently mathematical ways that don’t depend on our minds. Still, I think we’re right to understand these ideas as mental. They just have to be features of a very different kind of mind, a mind that is eternal and that has effects on all the matter in the universe.

Theology, as the study of God and the things of God, naturally takes the existence of God as a first principle. When studying other theological topics like God’s nature, humanity, and salvation we take God’s existence for granted. And in our own religious development many of us concern ourselves with these other topics before concerning ourselves with the existence of God. Especially in times when belief in God was more universal, people probably worried more about salvation from their sins and how to get right with God, whose existence they took for granted. Still, in systematic theology, where we’re considering the logical relations between ideas it makes sense to start with God’s existence.

Why do people believe in God? I’ve actually asked a lot of people why they believe in God and in most cases the people I’ve talked to don’t believe in God for intellectual reasons. Some have had spiritual experiences that lead them to believe. Some are led to believe because they take seriously the issues of life’s purpose, death, pain, and the need for meaning; what I call existential issues. I think those are good reasons to believe in God. I share those reasons. But I think in my own life intellectual reasons have actually come first, with spiritual and existential reasons coming after. Maybe that’s unusual but that’s just how it’s happened. So that’s what I want to focus on presently; not because intellectual reasons are the most important, but because they’re the most natural for me. And because they lay out the first principles for the rest of systematic theology as a rational structure.

Intellectual reasons for believing in God are expressed most formally as arguments. Arguments here in the technical sense, not in the sense of being ornery and quarrelsome. An argument is a group of statements put together to show that certain statements provide reasons to believe another statement. These different statements are premises and conclusions. An argument is put together to show how certain premises provide reasons to believe a certain conclusion. There are many arguments for the existence of God. By the nature of what an argument is then this means that there are reasons to believe in God. It doesn’t mean that they are automatically good reasons, but there are reasons.

Valid deductive arguments are understood to follow absolutely from their premises. If an argument is deductively valid the conclusion cannot fail to follow from its premises. If the premises are true the conclusion must be true. This means then that a lot of discussion about arguments focuses on the premises. There are definitely deductively valid arguments for the existence of God. But it’s obviously still possible to reject these arguments, not because the conclusions don’t follow from the premises – they do – but because not everyone accepts the premises of the arguments. There’s no argument for the existence of God that seals the deal and convinces everyone. But there are arguments that I find convincing.

The most prominent arguments for the existence of God are:

– The Cosmological Argument

– The Teleological Argument

– The Moral Argument

– The Ontological Argument

I think the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments are all very good arguments and I find them convincing. I’m not sure about the ontological argument. I think it’s either untenable or absolutely brilliant. But I don’t grasp it well enough to know yet. Regardless, I’m actually not going to talk about any of these arguments any more right now because they aren’t the most compelling for me personally. Instead I want to focus presently on an argument that I personally find the most compelling and interesting:

– The Argument from Eternal Truths

This argument is not as well known and it’s not an easy argument to understand. So I’d like to present it in stages of increasing detail, starting with a short version of just a few sentences and moving toward a longer, more formal version. It was actually the short version that I’ve put the most effort into. For one thing, with the longer, more formal versions I’ve relied on the work of others. And even though I understood their expressions of the argument and found them persuasive I didn’t find them succinct enough to share with people. It can be quite difficult to refine longer arguments into short statements. It necessarily eliminates supporting details and you have to just let that go.

My own version is not an argument in the technical sense but an informal explanation. Here’s the short version:

I think that there are certain ideas that are true in a way that is separate from space, time, and material things. We could suppose that these ideas are products of our minds; and there does seem to be something mental about them. But they would have to be features of a very different kind of mind, a mind that is eternal and that has effects on all the matter in the universe.

That’s the gist, as best as I can think to put it this briefly. That is, informally, an explanation for why I believe in God intellectually. Three key components here to point out:

1. Ideas

2. Mind

3. Eternity

The ideas in question here are things like mathematical truths, logical truths, laws of physics and chemistry; things that are true anywhere and everywhere, all the time. Here’s a slightly longer version of the above statement that adds some of this detail:

I think that there are certain ideas – like in mathematics and logic – that are necessarily true in a way that is separate from space, time, and material things. Such ideas must exist in a way that is very different from material things. We could suppose that these ideas are products of our minds; and there does seem to be something mental about them. But these ideas also seem to have real effects in the material world. All matter in the universe behaves in consistently mathematical ways that don’t depend on our minds. Still, I think we’re right to understand these ideas as mental. They just have to be features of a very different kind of mind, a mind that is eternal and that has effects on all the matter in the universe.

I think I find this kind of explanation compelling because of my background working in chemistry and materials science. I spend a lot of time thinking about matter and the way it behaves, the patterns in the behavior of matter. So I’m especially inclined to think about what governs matter. Versions of the argument from eternal truths that I’ll talk about subsequently focus on different aspects but I think they get at much the same core principles.

The classical statement of the argument from eternal truths comes from Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) in his book On Free Choice of the Will. In Book II he gives the argument from eternal truths in the form of a dialogue with a character named Evodius. He uses mathematics as an example of eternal truths:

“The intelligible structure [ratio] and truth of number is present to all reasoning beings. Everyone who calculates tries to apprehend it with his own reason and intelligence.” (

And he stresses that such truths are eternal, i.e. valid at all times:

“I do not know how long anything I touch with the bodily senses will last, for example when I sense the Earth or the sky or any physical objects in them. But seven and three are ten not only at the moment, but always; it never was and never will be the case that seven and three are not ten. I therefore declared that this incorruptible numerical truth is common to me and to any reasoning being.” (

Later he proposes three options:

“Then, in regard to this truth we have long been talking about and in which we recognize so many things: Do you think it is (a) more excellent than our mind is, (b) equal to our minds, or even (c) inferior?” (

The option that these truths are inferior to our minds would be the idea that they are wholly products or our creation. This would be a very strong form of social constructionism. Augustine doesn’t accept this option:

“When anyone says that eternal things are more valuable than temporal things, or seven and three are ten, no one says that it ought to be so; he simply knows that it is so. He is not an inspector making corrections but merely a discoverer taking delight.” (

The second option is that truths are equal to our minds. This is a weaker form of social constructionism and I think is more commonly held. Truths aren’t just arbitrary but they’re still essentially dependent on our minds. Truths are products of our mind’s ways of constructing a mental picture of the world, of our mental “categories”. But Augustine objects to this on account of our mind’s changeability:

“Now if (b) were the case, that this truth is equal to our minds, then it would itself be changeable. For our minds sometimes see more of the truth and sometimes less. And for this reason, they acknowledge themselves to be changeable. The truth, remaining in itself, neither increases when we see more of it nor decreases when we see less, but instead it is intact and uncorrupted, bringing joy with its light to those who turn towards it and punishing with blindness those who turn away from it.” (

Another way he might have said this is that three and seven would make ten even if no one in the world believed it, or even if there were no people at all. There are certainly arguments to the contrary, some of which will be addressed later, but I think this conforms pretty well to the way most people think about truth.

Another example would be truths of advanced mathematics, which are much more complicated and the question of whether they were true before they were discovered or only became true when they were first expressed. Roger Penrose refers to the example of the Mandelbrot set:

“The particular swirls of the Mandelbrot set… did not attain their existence at the moment that they were first seen on a computer screen or printout. Nor did they come about when the general idea behind the Mandelbrot set was first humanly put forth… Those designs were already ‘in existence’ since the beginning of time, in the potential timeless sense that they would necessarily be revealed precisely in the form that we perceive them today, no matter at what time or in what location some perceiving being might have chosen to examine them.” (Penose, The Road to Reality, 17)

Augustine thought similarly and from this he concluded that the truths must be more excellent than our minds:

“Consequently, if the truth is neither inferior nor equal, it follows that it is superior and more excellent. Now I had promised you, if you recall, that I would show you that there is something more exalted than our mind and reason. Here you have it: the truth itself!” (

Augustine then identifies that which is superior to our minds and reason as God. This is the classical formulation of the argument from eternal forms. I think it does a good job of laying out all the essential ideas. Some of the more modern versions that follow I think improve on it and make the argument more formal.

One modern version of the argument is given by Lorraine Juliano Keller in her 2018 paper “The Argument from Intentionality (or Aboutness): Propositions Supernaturalized”. In that paper she gives a few versions of the argument. First she gives this informal expression of the “rough idea”:

“Truth involves representation–something is true only if it represents reality as being a certain way, and reality is that way. But representation is a function of minds. So, truth is mind-dependent. Yet there are truths that transcend the human mind, e.g. eternal truths. So, there must be a supreme mind with the representational capacity to “think” these transcendent truths. Therefore, a supreme mind (viz., God) exists.” (Dougherty, Wallis, Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project, 11)

One important thing to point out here is how Keller juxtaposes two ideas that are in tension and then synthesizes them together. The two ideas are:

1. Truth is a product of mind

2. Truths are independent of our minds

The second idea, that truths are independent of our minds, is one I very much want to endorse. But the first idea, that truth is a product of mind also seems right. As I said in my own explanation, there does seem to be something mental about true ideas. Keller links truth with representation. What does that mean? I think Richard Rorty gave a good explanation of this:

“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.” (Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity)

I don’t agree with Rorty’s statement in its entirety but I think there’s a lot here that he does get right and it supports Keller’s point about truth involving representation. Rorty says that, “Where there are no sentences there is no truth.” Let’s grant that. He also says that, “sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.” Here’s where I disagree. And I think this difference is key. Recall the two key ideas I picked out in Keller’s statement above:

1. Truth is a product of mind

2. Truths are independent of our minds

Are these two ideas contradictory? No, actually. They’re in tension certainly. And Rorty picks up on that. But note that Rorty points to human languages and human creations. But things change significantly if we do not so restrict ourselves. We can say both that (1) truth is a product of mind but also that (2) truths are independent of our minds, of human minds. We can do that if we also consider other minds, or another mind. The mind of God.

With all that in mind let’s now look at her formal expression of the argument:

1. Propositions represent essentially [Premise]

2. Only agents represent fundamentally [Premise]

3. So propositions depend for their existence on agents. [from 1,2]

4. There are propositions that no finite agent entertains (transcendent propositions).

5. The representation of transcendent propositions is independent of the representation of finite agents. [from 4]

6. So, transcendent propositions cannot depend on finite agents. [from 3,5]

7. Therefore, there’s an infinite agent.

Hopefully this is clear enough in light of all the foregoing. The argument starts with the nature of propositions and the nature of representation. Propositions are representational in nature, like Rorty insisted. And only agents can represent. Nevertheless there are propositions that no humans are representing: talking about or thinking about. So who is thinking these propositions? Rorty denies that such propositions would exist at all. But I’m rejecting that idea. If propositions exist even when no human being is thinking them someone else has to be thinking them. Furthermore these propositions are transcendent and eternal. They can only exist in that way if they are thought by an infinite thinking agent.

I think this is a good argument. There are two main ways to get around it.

1. Deny that propositions represent essentially

2. Deny that there are transcendent propositions, propositions that no finite agent entertains

I’ll address the first denial in the next argument from Edward Feser. Alternatives to this premise include Platonism and Aristotelianism.

The second denial is a very big topic that I won’t go into here in detail. But I’ll touch on it. It’s a debate about universals, a debate going back to at least the Middle Ages in Europe and in other forms before that. The two major positions are realism and nominalism. With the example of mathematics two positions are mathematical realism and mathematical anti-realism, the basic question there being whether mathematical truths are things we discover or create.

I’m a mathematical realist but there are some important clarifications necessary to make this positions sufficiently sophisticated. The issue that complicates things is that there are many different mathematical systems we can work in and they have different rules. For example in Euclidean geometry parallel lines never converge or diverge. But we can change the rules to make different geometries to allow parallel lines to converge (elliptic geometry) or diverge (hyperbolic geometry). That sure makes it seem like we are free to invent mathematics in any way we like. But is that the case? No, I don’t think so. Because in whatever geometry we choose we are still constrained by the conditions of that geometry.

I think Alex Kontorovich put it well when he said: “The questions that are being asked are an invention. The answers are a discovery.” Having said that, I think it’s also important that any questions we ask be well-formed. For example, you can’t just ask the question, “Is it green?” and expect for there to be a right answer without specifying what “it” is. But as you set conditions to your system it shapes its structure for certain right and wrong answers that are not arbitrary.

As another example of this principle, I’m reading an excellent book that just came out this year (2022) by Eugenia Cheng called The Joy of Abstraction. It’s a book about a general theory of mathematical structures called category theory. I highly recommend it. Early in the book she addresses the issue of whether a proposition like “2+2=4” is absolutely true. She gives the example of modular arithmetic in which this may or may not be true. For example in modulus 3 2+2=1. Or another, more practical every-day example, in modulus 12 (like with a clock) 5+9=2 (5 PM plus 9 hours is 2 AM). So, she maintains, mathematics is different in different contexts:

“Mathematical objects behave very differently in different contexts; thus they have no fixed characteristics, just different characteristics in different contexts. The truth is not absolute but is contextual, and so we should always be clear about the context we’re considering… Pedantically one might declare that the ‘truth-in-context’ is then absolute, but I think this amounts to saying that truth is relative to context. Your preferred wording is a matter of choice, but I have made my choice because I think it is important to focus our attention on the context in which we are working, and not regard anything as fixed.” (Cheng, 44)

I have no disagreement with that; other than being called “pedantic”, but that’s OK. I’ll take that allowance that our preferred wording is a matter of choice. And I actually think that for purposes of category theory Cheng’s preference makes sense. But for my present purposes I prefer the other option, that “truth-in-context” is absolute.

That’s all I’ll say for now about realism for universals. It’s a big topic. But those are some of my reasons for thinking the way I do around it. And I think they’re reasonable.

The last version of the argument from eternal truths I want to share is from Edward Feser in his 2017 book Five Proofs of the Existence of God. His third proof he calls the “the Augustinian Proof”, as a nod to Augustine’s exposition of it in On Free Choice of the Will. Feser summarizes it in this way:

“It begins by arguing that universals (redness, humanness, triangularity, etc.), propositions, possibilities, and other abstract objects are in some sense real, but rejects Plato’s conception of such objects as existing in a “third realm” distinct from any mind and distinct from the world of particular things. The only possible ultimate ground of these objects, the argument concludes, is a divine intellect—the mind of God.” (Feser, 13)

It’s the same general set of ideas and structure as we’ve seen in the other versions. In his chapter on this proof he gives a formal version of the argument in 29 statements. I like this argument because it’s very thorough. But it’s also very long so it is harder to follow. But I think having looked at the earlier versions of the argument it will help. Let’s go ahead and go through all 29 statements of Feser’s argument and then comment on certain parts of it.

1. There are three possible accounts of abstract objects such as universals, propositions, numbers and other mathematical objects, and possible worlds: realism, nominalism, and conceptualism. 

2. There are decisive arguments in favor of realism. 

3. There are insuperable objections against nominalism. 

4. There are insuperable objections against conceptualism. 

5. So, some version of realism is true. 

6. There are three possible versions of realism: Platonic realism, Aristotelian realism, and Scholastic realism. 

7. If Platonic realism is true, then abstract objects exist in a “third realm” distinct from either the material world or any intellect. 

8. If Aristotelian realism is true, then abstract objects exist only in human or other contingently existing intellects. 

9. If Scholastic realism is true, then abstract objects exist not only in contingently existing intellects but also in at least one necessarily existing intellect. 

10. There are insuperable objections against the claim that abstract objects exist in a “third realm” distinct from either the material world or any intellect. 

11. So, Platonic realism is not true. 

12. There are insuperable objections against the claim that abstract objects exist only in human or other contingently existing intellects. 

13. So, Aristotelian realism is not true. 

14. So, Scholastic realism is true. 

15. So, abstract objects exist not only in contingently existing intellects but also in at least one necessarily existing intellect. 

16. Abstract objects such as universals, propositions, numbers and other mathematical objects, and possible worlds are all logically related to one another in such a way that they form an interlocking system of ideas. 

17. The reasons for concluding that at least some abstract objects exist in a necessarily existing intellect also entail that this interlocking system of ideas must exist in a necessarily existing intellect. 

18. So, this interlocking system of ideas exists in at least one necessarily existing intellect. 

19. A necessarily existing intellect would be purely actual. 

20. There cannot be more than one thing that is purely actual. 

21. So, there cannot be more than one necessarily existing intellect. 

22. An intellect in which the interlocking system of ideas in question existed would be conceptually omniscient. 

23. So, the one necessarily existing intellect is conceptually omniscient. 

24. If this one necessarily existing intellect were not also omniscient in the stronger sense that it knows all contingent truths, then it would have unrealized potential and thus not be purely actual. 

25. So, it is also omniscient in this stronger sense. 

26. What is purely actual must also be omnipotent, fully good, immutable, immaterial, incorporeal, and eternal. 

27. So, there is exactly one necessarily existing intellect, which is purely actual, omniscient, omnipotent, fully good, immutable, immaterial, incorporeal, and eternal. 

28. But for there to be such a thing is just what it is for God to exist. 

29. So, God exists.

See Feser, pages 109 – 110

The first part of the argument concerns the nature of eternal truths, what he calls abstract objects. How to account for them? And he proposes three options: realism, nominalism, and conceptualism. We’ve talked about this before and why I think realism is the best option. Realism is the view that abstract objects “are real, and neither reducible to anything material nor sheer constructs of the human mind”. Nominalism “denies that abstract objects are real”. Conceptualism “allows that they are real but insists that they are wholly constructed by the human mind”. (90)

Feser gives 10 arguments in favor of realism, which I won’t go over here but just list. You can either read about them further in his book or just look them up online. His 10 arguments in favor of realism are:

– The “one over many” argument

– The argument from geometry

– The argument from mathematics in general

– The argument from the nature of propositions

– The argument from science

– The argument from the nature of possible worlds

– The vicious regress problem

– The “words are universals too” problem

– The argument from the objectivity of concepts and knowledge

– The argument from the incoherence of psychologism

Some of these have already been touched on. I’ll just say a little more about the argument from science because I find that one especially interesting personally. Feser says:

“Scientific laws and classifications, being general or universal in their application, necessarily make reference to universals; and science is in the business of discovering objective, mind-independent facts. Hence, to accept the results of science is to accept that there are universals that do not depend for their existence on the human mind. Science also makes use of mathematical formulations, and since (as noted above) mathematics concerns a realm of abstract objects, to accept the results of science thus commits one to accepting that there are such abstract objects.” (92)

I touched on this earlier talking about how eternal truths seem to have real effects in the material world, that all matter in the universe behaves in consistently mathematical ways, that don’t depend on our minds. Eugene Wigner called this “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. Though I would call it the remarkable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences, because I don’t think it’s unreasonable, rather, divine reason is precisely what is behind it.

After having argued for realism about universals in the next part of the argument Feser touches on the nature of such universals. In what way do these universals exist? He proposes three options: Platonic realism, Aristotelian realism, and Scholastic realism.

Under Platonic realism abstract objects don’t exist in the material world nor in the human mind “but in a ‘third realm’ that is neither material nor mental” (97). 

“This is the famous realm of Platonic Forms, entities which exist outside time and space and which the things of our experience merely imperfectly ‘resemble’ or ‘participate’ in.” (97)

In many ways I consider myself a Platonist. Or at least, I think there’s a lot that Platonism gets right. But I don’t go quite all the way with Platonism for various reasons. One of these reasons is that I’ve been persuaded that abstract objects are mental in a way that Platonic Forms are not. 

Feser mentions three problems with Platonism. First, the Forms seem to be causally inert. Since one of the reasons for thinking that realism is true in the first place is the remarkable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences this would be a problem, because things that are causally inert can hardly be effective. The second problem is the “Third Man” argument, which I won’t go into but has to do with an infinite regress of meta-forms. The third problem is that it’s not clear with the notion of material objects resembling the Forms that an object is more a genuine instance of itself than an image of it would be, for example a human person a more genuine person than a statue of a human. For more detail on all this just see his book.

Under Aristotelian realism universals do not exist in a “third realm” of Forms but in particular objects. The universals are features that we abstract from concrete individual objects. The universals really do exist but are instantiated in individual objects, rather than in a “third realm” of Forms. Feser describes it this way:

“The universals are abstracted from these [particular objects] extramental things by the mind, rather than being the free creations of the mind. Aristotelian realists emphasize that abstraction is essentially a mental process, so that abstract objects are essentially tied to the mind. Hence, though animality, triangularity, redness, humanness, and so forth do exist in mind-independent reality, they do not exist there as abstract objects, but only as tied to concrete particular individuals. And though animality, triangularity, redness, humanness, and so forth can nevertheless exist as abstract objects, they do not so exist in mind-independent reality. There is no third Platonic alternative way for universals to exist—namely, as both abstract and mind-independent at the same time.” (100)

The problems with Aristotelian realism that Feser points out concern its dependence on the material world. What if the material world didn’t exist at all. This would seem to be an at-least-possible counterfactual. How would Aristotelian realism obtain in that case? How would a material world or human minds come into existence? There wouldn’t seem to be any grounding for that possibility since Aristotelian realism would require something material already present to ground it. Other counterfactuals present problems. There are plenty of things that could have existed but haven’t come into existence. Daniel Dennett has talked about the “Library of Mendel”, a theoretical library containing all possible genomes (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). There would seem to be an infinite number of potential organisms that have never come into material existence. But if these potential organisms have never actually come into existence there couldn’t be any place for their forms to be physically instantiated in Aristotelian realism. But it doesn’t seem like they are any less logically possible for that fact. Finally, there would seem to be propositions “that would be true whether or not the material world or any human mind existed.” (101) But if the material world didn’t exist there would be no grounding for these propositions in Aristotelian realism. Same for necessary truths of mathematics and logic. So Feser rejects Aristoelian realism.

The remaining option to account for realism is Scholastic realism. Feser describes it this way:

“This brings us, at last, to Scholastic realism, which is essentially Aristotelian in spirit, but gives at least a nod to Platonic realism. Like Aristotelian realism, Scholastic realism affirms that universals exist only either in the things that instantiate them, or in intellects which entertain them. It agrees that there is no Platonic “third realm” independent both of the material world and of all intellects. However, the Scholastic realist agrees with the Platonist that there must be some realm distinct both from the material world and from human and other finite intellects. In particular—and endorsing a thesis famously associated with Saint Augustine—it holds that universals, propositions, mathematical and logical truths, and necessities and possibilities exist in an infinite, eternal, divine intellect. If some form of realism must be true, then, but Platonic realism and Aristotelian realism are in various ways inadequate, then the only remaining version, Scholastic realism, must be correct. And since Scholastic realism entails that there is an infinite divine intellect, then there really must be such an intellect. In other words, God exists.” (102)

The remaining fifteen statements in Feser’s argument follow from Scholastic realism, working out the attributes that this necessarily existing intellect must have. For example, that there can only be one such intellect and that he must be omniscient and omnipotent. I think these three are related in a rather interesting way.

One reason for holding realism to be true in the first place is the observation that matter behaves according to patterns of eternal truths, for example the mathematical forms of the laws of physics. For this to occur it’s not sufficient just that these eternal truths be thought. These thoughts must also have causal power. The mind that thinks these eternal truths must also be causing them to have the effects that they have in the material world. One way of talking about this causality is in terms of actuality and potentiality.

Fair warning: the next couple minutes might be a little hard to follow because it gets into some technical jargon from classical and medieval philosophy. If it’s too much just hold tight for a few minutes.

Actuality and potentiality are ideas from Aristotle that also feature prominently in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Potentiality is any possibility that a thing has. Actuality is what causes a thing’s potentiality to be realized. In Aristotle’s philosophy these concepts equipped him to give an account for change and rebut arguments against the possibility of change by philosophers like Parmendies. Change is “the actualization of a potential” (Feser, 18). Everything in the universe has multiple ways that they can be. At any given moment things are a certain way. But they can be otherwise. They have unrealized potentiality. In order for a thing to change and realize different potentialities something must cause that change. What causes these changes are actualities.

One statement in Feser’s argument is that a necessary being is purely actual. Why must that be? This is important and it connects the related attributes of oneness, omniscience, and omnipotence. A necessary being is one who cannot fail to exist. He has always existed and always will exist. Furthermore, he was never created in the first place. He is the one who creates but is himself uncreated. In the terms just described earlier, he has no potentiality that is actualized by something else. He is not brought into existence by anything else. He is what actualizes the potentialities of everything else. Lacking any potentiality he is pure actuality.

Another statement in Feser’s argument is that there cannot be more than one thing that is purely actual. Why is that? There are a number of reasons. One reason is that the sum of all knowledge consists of an interlocking system of ideas that is indivisible. More on that shortly. Another reason is the following:

“In order for there to be more than one purely actual actualizer, there would have to be some differentiating feature that one such actualizer has that the other lack. But there could be such a differentiating feature only if a purely actual actualizer had some unactualized potential, which being purely actual, it does not have. So, there can be no such differentiating feature, and thus no way for there to be more than one purely actual actualizer.” (36)

So the unity, the oneness of the necessarily existing intellect follows from its pure actuality.

Another statement in Feser’s argument is that what is purely actual must be omnipotent. I think it’s actually pretty straightforward to see that actuality entails power. Actuality is what brings about change; actualizing potentialities. The necessarily existing intellect is purely actual and the only thing that is purely actual. Everything else has potentiality that must be actualized by something else. Eventually this all ties back to the one purely actual necessarily existing intellect. As Feser states:

“To have power entails being able to actualize potentials. Any potential that is actualized is either actualized by the purely actual actualizer or by a series of actualizers which terminates in the purely actual actualizer. So, all power derives from the purely actual actualizer. But to be that from which all power derives is to be omnipotent. So, the purely actual actualizer is omnipotent.” (37)

Finally omniscience. This is closely connected to the fact that there is only one necessarily existing intellect. Recall that it is in the mind of this one necessarily existing intellect that abstract objects such as universals, propositions, numbers and other mathematical objects, and possible worlds reside. Since there is only one necessarily existing intellect it’s not as if “such-and-such possible worlds, necessary truths, universals, and so forth exist in necessarily existing intellect A, and another group of possible worlds, necessary truths, universals, and so forth exist in necessarily existing intellect B.” (104) This wouldn’t really work anyway by virtue of the nature of abstract objects. Abstract objects “are not independent of one another in a way that would allow their ultimate ground to lie in distinct necessarily existing minds. Rather, they form an interlocking system.” (104) It all exists in only one necessarily existing intellect. This one knows all these things, all universals, propositions, numbers and other mathematical objects, and possible worlds. The one necessarily existing intellect knows all these things.

This knowledge is certainly unfathomably vast. Is there anything that it doesn’t include? Is there anything that this one intellect would not know? He knows all universals, propositions, numbers and other mathematical objects, and possible worlds. But what about contingent truths, like the fact that I went to the grocery store at 8 PM this evening? Here too actuality is key. On this Feser states the following:

“It would also have to know all truths, including contingent ones. For if it knew less than all of them, then it would have an unactualized potential–the potential to know the truths that it does not in fact know–and thus fail to be purely actual. So, it must be omniscient in an unqualified sense.” (106)

So we have one intellect who is both omniscient and omnipotent. It’s a long argument and it takes some effort to stick with it, work all the way through it, and really understand each step in the argument. But I think it’s worth it. It’s a good argument and the most detailed of the ones presented here.

People come at arguments with different inclinations to find different premises more or less plausible. I don’t expect that if I find a certain argument persuasive that everyone will find it persuasive, because they may not come to it as open to the premises of the argument as I am. And it’s certainly the case with me and arguments that I don’t find persuasive. An argument that one person finds persuasive I may not find persuasive at all because the premises don’t seem as plausible to me. And if we want to pursue the argument further we have to dig deeper into the premises. And so it goes.

In my case I really do find these arguments from eternal truths quite persuasive. I think it’s natural to suspect arguments for the existence of God to be motivated reasoning. We already believe in God for non-rational reasons so let’s try to come up with some rational explanation to make a case for what we already believe. First thing to say there is that I actually don’t think such rational reconstruction is illegitimate anyway. We believe a lot of correct things first for non-rational reasons and then only work out the rational justification for it after the fact. That’s perfectly fine. But also in my case I actually do just happen to find this to be the most plausible account for the way things are. Not just about God, but about everything, especially in the sciences. 

The deeper I look into the nature of things the more I see reality not as mere matter but as intellectually structured. As Joseph Ratzinger put it: “The intellectual structure that being possesses and that we can re-think is the expression of a creative premeditation, to which they owe their existence.” (Introduction to Christianity, 152) When everywhere I look I find more and more rational, intellectual structure, what else can I think? I’m practically compelled and driven to these conclusions.

We’ve gone over a lot here so having passed through all this I’d like to finish by returning to the simplified, shorter expressions of the ideas involved here. I’ll share the summaries of Feser and Keller and then finish with my own.


“It begins by arguing that universals (redness, humanness, triangularity, etc.), propositions, possibilities, and other abstract objects are in some sense real, but rejects Plato’s conception of such objects as existing in a “third realm” distinct from any mind and distinct from the world of particular things. The only possible ultimate ground of these objects, the argument concludes, is a divine intellect—the mind of God.” (Feser, 13)


“Truth involves representation–something is true only if it represents reality as being a certain way, and reality is that way. But representation is a function of minds. So, truth is mind-dependent. Yet there are truths that transcend the human mind, e.g. eternal truths. So, there must be a supreme mind with the representational capacity to ‘think’ these transcendent truths. Therefore, a supreme mind (viz., God) exists.” (Dougherty, Wallis, Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project, 11)

And mine:

I think that there are certain ideas – like in mathematics and logic – that are necessarily true in a way that is separate from space, time, and material things. Such ideas must exist in a way that is very different from material things. We could suppose that these ideas are products of our minds; and there does seem to be something mental about them. But these ideas also seem to have real effects in the material world. All matter in the universe behaves in consistently mathematical ways that don’t depend on our minds. Still, I think we’re right to understand these ideas as mental. They just have to be features of a very different kind of mind, a mind that is eternal and that has effects on all the matter in the universe.