Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Logic of Faith

by A.J. Grunthaler
In the 21st century, it seems as though the belief in a supreme being is destined to become a quaint and slightly silly artifact of a bygone age. In an age where technology and science have become so advanced, we think that we can simply do away with antiquated ideas like God and religion, because it seems as though we now have all the answers to life’s most perplexing questions—who we are, where we come from, and where we are ultimately going. But the more advanced we become as a species, the more we realize that the ultimate answers to our deepest questions are as elusive as ever.

What we’ve discovered is that it is easy to kill off God. It’s much more difficult, I’m afraid, to replace the idea of God with some other concept that can provide us with the kind of ultimate meaning and value that all human beings desire. In a world devoid of a Supreme Being, we are simply one species among the many that inhabit this planet of ours (our brains, after all, may be larger than that of a chimpanzee or baboon, but not by all that much). And without God, our lives become little more than the same kind of struggle for brute survival that we witness among all other life forms in the animal world. In such a world, to dominate others for ones own gain and to maximize ones own pleasure and wealth, even at the cost of the happiness and well-being of others, becomes the sole point of human existence. Peace, cooperation, and the pursuit of justice are merely values promoted by the weak and foolish—those who lack the fortitude, the courage, or the intelligence to triumph over their fellow human beings.

In a God-emptied world, our role models really should be those who are able to put aside antiquated notions about morality that stem from religious ideas and do what is necessary to insure their own long-term prosperity—successful gangsters, wily dictators, corrupt politicians, and dishonest businessmen. These are individuals who understand (to use the language of Dostoyevsky) that, if God is dead, then anything is permitted. In fact, if there is no God, then it makes no sense at all to be concerned with others, since our fellow human beings are nothing more than competitors for the increasingly dwindling resources that make life on planet Earth worth living. A gangster or dictator gets this fact completely; a naïve and foolish proponent of justice and morality, not at all. In the end, the gangster or dictator triumphs and the man or woman of faith ends up in the garbage bin of human history.

Gangster-logic, as I said, makes perfect sense in the God-emptied world. But I think that it’s somewhat premature of us to announce the death of God. Even in the 21st century, there are some fairly good reasons to believe that God exists. In the 14th century, the great Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas came up with five ways to prove the existence of God, and I think that these ways hold up as well today as they did in the Middle Ages. Aquinas’ “proofs” for God’s existence basically hinge on the idea that nothing comes from nothing. If there’s no first cause of existence, then there’s no reason for contingent beings like ourselves to be here at all. In a universe of infinite possibilities, the fact that self-conscious, rational beings like ourselves would come into existence purely by chance is an extremely unlikely possibility at best. We have absolutely no evidence, after all, that other intelligent forms of life exist anywhere else in the universe. So the very fact that we exist at all, as Thomas Aquinas understood, seems to indicate the existence of some Higher Being that is the first cause of our existence.

While I think that Aquinas’ arguments make a good case for the existence of a First Cause that is itself uncaused or a Prime Mover that is unmovable, I think that it takes a second leap of faith to infer that this being is the God we read about in the Old and New Testaments—one that has entered human history and cares deeply about our collective and personal destinies. After all, a Supreme Being could be the god of the Deists—one who creates the universe and everything in it and then steps out of the picture completely.
That the First Cause is also the God who loves humanity as a father loves his children—with a constant, abiding, and unassailable love—must remain a matter of faith for most human beings. But our faith in this regard can be bolstered by the long line of saints and mystics in all the great religious traditions who have been blessed with the beatific vision and who have encountered God as Pure Love and Supreme Goodness. And the bliss, joy, and happiness that these great spiritual exemplars have experienced as a result of their God-encounters should be a consolation for the rest of us who strive to achieve what those men and women have achieved, despite having to live out our lives in a world that keeps telling us that God is dead and faith is for fools.

Logic tells us that God exists; faith assures us that He loves us and has a plan for our lives. This is the reason why it makes more sense to strive be more like Mother Teresa than like Donald Trump. If the First Cause of our being is also the God who views us as his beloved children and who has a plan for our salvation, we defy Him and His plan at our own peril. Such defiance means that we have missed the whole point of our human lives. What could be more tragic than that?

And this is precisely why gangster logic is really not very logical at all. In the end, the logic of faith remains the best way to ensure happiness and peace in this life as well as in the next.
A.J. Grunthaler is a formers classics instructor and the  author of The Art of Persuasion (SophiaOmnis Press, 2012).


  1. Greetings A.J. Grunthaler, I have to respectfully disagree that God and religion are over. If God is dead, he’s taking an unconscionably long time a-dying. We are a god soaked culture and that’s not about to change anytime soon. Where we disagree even more deeply is the evaluation of that fact.

    It is not a question of whether or not it is difficult to replace the concept of God with a better secular concept. The legions of the faithful see no need to do so and the atheists think that nostalgia for the concept is just wishful thinking and doing without it is simply not a choice.

    Now I have to point out that your understanding of biological evolution is misguided. It wasn’t Darwin but Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase “the survival of the fittest.” The notion that the fittest is the strongest and most vicious is mistaken. In fact, the carnivore is quite vulnerable to extinction since it is limited to a single source of food and it takes a great deal of skill to bring down highly evasive prey. A broken toe, claw, incisor or feather is enough to doom a carnivore. The carnivores have the shortest species life of all animals. The bovine has a global range, and survives well because it’s an herbivore and breeds prolifically.

    Spencer made the colossal mistake of applying his crumby biology to the human society in a mythology called Social Darwinism. Claiming that the most aggressive and compassionless creatures dominate the biome, it follows that the human species will also socially evolve when the strongest, most aggressive groups of people dominate the weaker and inferior. Compassion is counterproductive to the Social Darwinist.

    There is no reason on earth why the human community, once it has evolved sufficient intelligence, must follow its natural inclinations. Besides, there is ample evidence of compassion and cooperation among non-human primates. The great American Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce posited the evolution of agapaic love as a survival strategy for species including Homo sapiens. In his book The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod set out to prove that in aggregate, cooperators end up with higher standards of living than defectors. This is evident even on the level of bacteria.

  2. I find it amusing that you believe that you think that atheist would ignore the collective wisdom of humanity and would resort to some primitive law of the jungle, where nature is red in tooth and claw. Why wouldn’t an atheist enjoy a society devoted to compassion, cooperation and justice? If atheistic societies would devolve to some Hobbesian chaos and criminality, why isn’t this happening in nations such as Denmark, Sweden or the Netherlands where the majority of their populations are largely indifferent to religion and attendance at religious services is way down? There are really low levels of crime in these countries, high socio-economic status and high levels of contentment according to recent polls. Where is the gangster-logic in those peaceful, productive and law-abiding but low religious nations?

    You think that Thomas Aquinas makes a good case for the existence of a First, uncaused, immovable mover. You don’t mention that Immanuel Kant in the 19th century made the quite plausible suggestion that the universe is eternal and had no beginning in time. This he said was just as reasonable as the notion that the universe had a beginning in time. He also made clear that the resolution of these equally plausible alternatives could never be demonstrated or proven using the major sources of knowledge, viz. reason and experience. There is no way we could experience the beginning of time and neither view is more reasonable or logical than the other. So your endorsement of Aquinas’ arguments just shows a personal bias. However, you do admit that it is one thing to talk about a First Mover and another to identify that with the god of Abraham and Isaiah. That god has a family and suffers from multiple personality disorder. As you say, that god has twisted and distorted the personalities of countless distraught, impressionable and credulous people throughout the history of the West. They have been enthralled by the adventures of that god as invented by mainly illiterate and ignorant Bedouins thousands of years ago. And even today, multitudes of the faithful try to make sense of heavenly kings, lambs and good shepherds as they listen to Christian radio while stuck in traffic of the Triborough Bridge on their way to a cubicle in a high rise office building: all because the ancient writings are said to be inspired. Why is it that revelations always seem to take place in the privacy of the mind of an isolated individual? Why is it that some of these individuals are considered schizophrenics or frauds and others are prophets? Wouldn’t it be much more credible if a whole bunch of people received the revelation at the same time in various parts of the world?

    Faith is nothing but obstinacy. Suppose I said to you: I believe there are no gods. I believe this with all my heart and mind. If you would just open yourself to this belief and hold it firmly and dwell in it, you too will see the inner truth of it. Now if that strikes you as ridiculous, then consider how ridiculous you sound when you say that religion and belief in gods should be accepted as a matter of faith.

  3. You end by claiming that logic tells us that a god exists but neither you nor logic has or is able to do that. The only logical argument for god’s existence is Anselm’s Ontological argument where he states that the very idea of god (a being than which there is no greater) contains or implies the existence of god. The idea of a perfect being must contain the perfection of existence and thus god is not only an idea but an existing being as well. Again, Immanuel Kant points out that existence is not a quality. Any modern logician will attest that one is illogical to assume that there are instances of a general category. General categories can be completely empty, e.g. the category of round squares. Logic, like mathematics is useful when applied to the real world, but on its own, logic, like mathematics, is about nothing.

    If you truly want to be like Mother Teresa you should become an atheist. Reference any good biography of her and you will find out that she doubted her faith utterly and grimly to the end.

    Since you make such a weak case for faith, religious morality and the existence of god, you are impelled at the end of your argument to resort to the age-old tactic of scaring your readership. You deny god at your peril, you thunder. The smell of sulfur and brimstone wafts up. The organ intones the Dies Irae. Please spare us the melodrama, A. J. Grunthaler. Threatening people doesn’t make your case any more truthful. Perhaps you could introduce the rack and the thumbscrew to frighten more innocent children into belief in a celestial being who loves you by condemning you to an eternity of excruciating pain in an endless fire. Talk about gangster-logic.

  4. Dear Fred:

    You certainly raised some interesting points in your critique of my piece. I won't respond to all the points that you've made because I'm too busy right now contemplating the majesty of the First Cause of all things. I'll focus on your objection to my belief that gangster-logic is the consequence of the death of God in the 20th century.

    You're probably right that the denial of any idea of God wouldn't necessarily result in people all becoming thugs and gangsters. But what we have seen--in the United States at least--is that once people have rejected the social mores that stem from religious belief, they are very likely to turn to a Randian-type libertarianism as an alternative. As a progressive Catholic who was educated—and radicalized, I would add—by Jesuits at Marquette in the 1970s, I see Catholic social thought as an intelligent, coherent, and moral system for organizing a political community. That approach, however, only makes sense in the framework of a universe created by a supremely just and loving God who expects us to live in a God-like way.

    If there is no God, then, in my mind at least, it makes sense to adopt a libertarian approach to life. My own happiness and the happiness of those I love would have to be considered paramount. The needs and wants of others—and in particular those who are not connected to me by ties of loyalty or affection—would be irrelevant.

    I look forward one day to hearing your own vision for a completely secularized political order. Until then, I’ll stick with my own Catholic world view and do the best I can to live up to the lofty ideas contained within it.

    Pax et Bonum, my friend!

    1. First of all A.J., I do not consider you my friend. I do not know you and you do not know me. I hold no animosity towards you; but friendship requires a great deal more than just participating in a blog.

      You claim that your morality would not make sense without the existence of a god. So much the worse for your morality. I think of divine command moralities as primitive ones. If I refrain from pilfering some stranger's purse because some powerful authority tells me not to do it, then I am really acting out of a selfish fear of punishment or of disfavor from the authority. What else would I be willing to do if I thought my god had commanded it?... Run a jumbo jet through an office tower? How much more sophisticated my morality would be if I refrained from stealing because in my opinion it violated the stranger's right to his own property, or that stealing in general produces an atmosphere that was not conducive to social happiness or that for all I knew the stranger's money was needed to feed his family. How much more adult my morality would be if I was not motivated by fear of punishment here or after death or by the fear of a loss of reward here or hereafter, or even by the fear of displeasing the father figure in the sky.

    2. It is difficult to argue with someone who changes his position without indicating that that is what you are doing. Actually, it would have been gratifying if you had conceded that at least part of your thesis was flawed. You now say that atheists are not gangsters. We are however, at least in the U.S., libertarians. You haven't a shred of evidence for this false claim. There are atheist libertarians like Ayn Rand and there are Christian libertarians like Rand Paul and Paul Ryan. You may claim that Catholicism and libertarianism are incompatible; but characters like Paul Ryan have no apparent difficulty identifying themselves as both. The problem I have with libertarians is that they are minimal state liberals and, as a progressive, I believe we cannot have equal opportunity and equal well-being (which is a prime source of happiness) without active state liberalism. There are important facilities which the private sector cannot or will not provide. A free enterprise economy is massively productive, but it has the side-effects of inequality, poverty and injustice; so capitalism needs to be regulated by a democratic government. The "live and let die" mentality of the libertarian stinks of Social Darwinism and the notion that the downtrodden are authors of their own misery. There is no reason on earth why atheists would not feel compassion for all of humanity, and not just of their own selves and close loved ones. Atheists live in the same world as theists and the phenomena they witness are exactly the same. It is simply calumny to suggest that atheists are cold and indifferent to the suffering of their fellow human beings. It's not libertarianism that the majority of atheists gravitate to, but rather humanism. Atheist organizations to which I belong contribute more to charity than religious groups. Nations that are low in religiosity and practice (e.g. Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands) have higher rates of foreign aid as a percentage of GDP than the United States. Why should Christians really care about the starving, sick and impoverished if their god is taking care of them and will reward the poor for their suffering with pie in the sky? No, it is the atheist humanists who cannot afford to take a moral holiday while their deprived planet-mates are suffering. No self-respecting libertarian is going to sully his pursuit of happiness with compassion for strangers. At least they feel no obligation to do so. However, atheists cannot escape the facts that if the harsh conditions of the natural world are to be ameliorated and the injustices foisted upon the disadvantaged by the established are to be avenged, then we are utterly alone in that effort, and it is our complete responsibility.

    3. A.J. you say you follow Catholic social teachings because you have been indoctrinated to do so. The result is something you call Progressive Catholicism. To me this is somewhat akin to saying that one has become a progressive Nazi. "Oh yes, there was that little holocaust thing, but no Neo-Nazi today would advocate anything like that today." Catholicism is in my view, one of the most reactionary forces in the world today. It opposes LGBT rights; it opposes women's reproductive rights; in the midst of a global AIDS crisis and a population still growing beyond the earth's capacity, it opposes contraception; it is a largely misogynist organization with its top offices reserved for males; it has an awful history of genocide and holy war; it censors dissent from within and without; it resisted democratic and representational forms of government when they were first struggling to emerge; it promotes a type of perfectionism that is psychologically damaging to the scrupulous; and it has and is still causing untold psychological damage on countless children who were and are threatened by hellfire and eternal suffering. Forgive me if I sound disrespectful, but I defy you to deny these well-known facts about your religion. How your apparent enthraldom with the First Cause leads you to associate with and to exculpate such an organization defies me.

  5. Although I tend to agree with Fred that religious belief is bogus, I object to this whole idiotic discussion on the grounds of its total uselessness. Why are we wasting our time obsessing about whether a fictitious being in heaven exists? We could just as easily be debating the existence of Zeus, Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny.

    Every moment we spend talking about religion is a moment that we are not spending talking about the REAL problems that we face as a species(global warming, income inequality, the denigration of the world's ecosystems). This is exactly what fucking right-wingers and moronic evangelicals want us to be doing. We prattle about nonsense and the world gets sicker and sicker.

    Religion is simply a tool used by the ruling elite to distract us from taking on the corporate power structure. And all your god-talk is simply perpetuating the problem.

    1. Look Alex, if you don't want to waste your time arguing with theists, then don't bother. However, behind your back, the theists are taking over your government and they've got our children under their tutelage. We live in a god-soaked culture and Christianists are right there at our elbow. For too long, however, out of a mistaken notion of tolerance, atheists have been silent when the silliest nonsense about reality is promulgated. The real-world problems you mentioned are being explained away by some religionists who think that a god should handle them. I choose to engage.

  6. As a recovering theist--and now a much happier follower of the path of the Buddha--I have mixed feelings about this discussion, because I agree with different aspects of what everyone has said:

    1) I think that in some respects Alex is right that organized religion often serves to perpetuate the status quo and serves as a prop for unjust social structures (like the corporatocracy we call the United States).

    2) Fred is also correct when he argues that basically the existence of a Supreme Being cannot be proved through rational arguments and that there are other viable (i.e., secular) alternatives to a religious worldview.

    3) But, along with A.J., I refuse to engage in the wholesale condemnation of theism, because some of the most moral, just, compassionate--and indeed, rational--people that I know are committed theists. In my mind, the worldview of someone like Bishop Romero, Cardinal Bernadin, or the Daniel Berrigan is consistent and morally laudable. Like Alex, however, I have very different feelings about the reactionary forms of Christianity that seem to be so very popular in our own country.

    As it says in an often profound work, "by their fruits you shall know them." In my mind, if a mode of religious belief leads people to become more just, peaceful, compassionate, and tolerant, then I would argue that that form of belief is valid. Of course, I would also argue that Vipassana--the oldest form of Buddhist practice--best fits this profile, but other forms of religious belief certainly do as well.


  7. Greetings all --

    This has been an interesting discussion; please allow me to throw out some random thoughts.

    1) I find classic philosophical arguments, both pro and con, somewhat pointless in the wake of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason." The gist of his case is, I think, that because arguments for God's existence transcend the field of possible human experience, any proof either "for" or "against" will have a specific counter-proof that cancels it out. In other words, theorizing of any kind, whether armchair or scientific, about God's existence, is going to go nowhere. You can be a rational and reasonable (not the same thing) human being and believe in God or disbelieve in God, because it is beyond the pale of logical PROOF. It may or may not be REASONABLE to believe in god, but it is NOT rationally compelling, and neither is disbelief compelling. Which is why I find Richard Dawkins so odd, and his "proof for God's nonexistence" so unconvincing. As unconvincing as Anselm's Ontological Argument, and for the same reason.

    2) The problems start, I think, with theists UNDERSTANDING of the God they affirm. Thomas Aquinas was quite clear that the God affirmed in the Five Ways (which never were, I think, intended to be strict PROOFS) was beyond all human understanding. The Thomistic "analogy of Being" makes it very clear that when we even speak of God's infinite attributes (power, goodness, knowledge,)do so by analogy with secular concepts -- but God is not really like that, at least not in any way we can understand. So Aquinas is VERY clear that God is genuinely ineffable. My problem is that, to paraphrase Richard Rorty, believers have spent a lot of time trying to "eff the ineffable", as if the mysterious God was as commonplace as a really nice next door neighbor. Aquinas' God is far closer to Tillich's "Ground of Being" than most believers, certainly the Protestant fundamentalists who govern America's religious discourse, would feel comfortable with.

  8. ) If you can understand the "core" of religion as gesturing toward this ineffable "mystery of being", you can make a case for it. But again, Kant would be quick to say there are other cases to be made as well. Buddhism (which does not have any interest in "effing the ineffable"). Secular mysticism. It is interesting that Heidegger and Wittgenstein were both clearly atheists, but wound up affirming something like a secularized sense of wonder that anything at all exists. Is this REALLY just religion? Is it "spiritual as opposed to religious"? Does it matter?

    4) Mr. Grunthaler's main point -- that in the absence of a religious ethos, such as Catholic Social Theory (of which, being educated by the Jesuits at Fordham, who also radicalized ME, I have tremendous respect)we devolve into disciples of Herbert Spencer or Ayn Rand. (Thirty years ago the "if there is no God everything is permitted" villains would have been utopian totalitarians such as Pol Pot, but things change, and Ayn Rand suffices as a villain who is as vile as she was stupid.) But despite the rhetorical effectiveness of Dostoevsky's phrase, is this REALLY true? As Mike above put it (whom I know: hi Mike!), "by your fruits shall you know them". The casual indifference with which the US razed Iraq's entire infrastructure, and cared little or nothing about the misery and deaths they caused, has much to do with a kind of Christian Nationalism so common in the USA. And if you exclaim, "but this is not REAL Christianity!" I would tend to agree, but again, does it matter? Neither the religous or the godless have a monopoly on massacre and atrocity.

    5) Richard Rorty -- a philosopher who I miss tremendously, despite his bull-in-a-china-shop methods -- once claimed to be a "freeloading atheist." That is: he saw nothing amiss with taking from the monotheistic religion the ideals of social justice, kindness, an aversion to cruelty of any kind, etc.,while dropping the theology. Does he have a right to do that? Maybe. Aristotle had an account of virtues of character that perfect rather than undermine our humanity -- if we posess them, we flourish as humans. We need not stick to Aristotle's own table of virtues to see his point: we can and should change the list, and why not "steal" from the monotheistic traditions? Can we make a completely secular case that, say, the character of a Desmond Tutu or Thomas Merton is more admirable than, say, Lloyd Blankfein the stock mogul or Ann Coulter the boor? I leave that up for further discussion. But I will say this: It is FAR more difficult to make the case that an Ayn Randian hero could meet this Aristotelian Challenge than, say, Martin Luther King or Dorothy Day..... -- MJQ

  9. So that's what it comes down to? All those centuries of pogroms, holy wars, persecutions, heresy trials and executions, excommunications, interdicts and forced conversions...a gesturing toward the ineffable? I too stand in awe of the universe. It's overwhelmingly grand and sublime. But I don't see a face behind the clouds. Some disembodied unevolved mind like no other mind in our experience. Isn't that an extraordinary claim as a fill-in for the "mystery of being?" Shouldn't extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence in its favor?

    As for myself, I can think of dozens of experiments that would point me in the direction of theistic belief...collective revelation, efficacy of prayers of petition, friends or relatives returning from the dead, humans born with extraordinary powers, etc. But this isn't happening. The fact that millions of years of evolution in which whole species have lived, suffered and gone extinct makes me wonder what all that gratuitous suffering was all about. In fact the existence of gratuitous natural evil counts as evidence for me of the implausibility of the existence of a god. It's comforting that the history of eons of animal and human suffering wasn't about anything. It just was.

  10. Having muddled myself through philosophical waters with regard to the relevance of God, I find the argument that logic tells us that God exists, is in vain, even more so the idea that reason tells us that the universe is inherently moral, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. The history of philosophy provides little help in trying to prove that, at the most some consolation for having tried it. I feel that if one is compelled to entertain thoughts about an afterlife or a supreme being, the same principle holds as in design: less is more. The main thing to eliminate from the equation is the human attempt to deal with a latent discontentment with life by projecting that beyond an uncrossable, unattainable boundary. That's simply a waste of energies. Once arrived at a place of emptiness and silence one has not thrown reason overboard but rather the cacophony of human prejudices of what should or should not be. What a vain idea that man can know God, even entertain one single sensible idea about that!

  11. If God is uncaused then He/She would not be able to cause. So you then come to the question of what caused God. However to prove that God is real or not is impossible. A concern for others does not have to be based on a belief in a God. Humans thrive when there is cooperation.

  12. Fascinating points by all involved! As a believer in the scientific method, I tend these days to go towards what can be proven. I try to remain neutral and see what can be observed. So far, based on recorded history, human evolution proceeds at a certain slow pace, while concepts of the "higher mind", arrives ahead of what can be properly studied. If the idea of God emerges then some say that is all the proof they need. "Because I can think of it, it exists." Belief can be shrouded by a shield requiring no proof just faith, which goes against a scientific approach. The freedom of these ideas to be pursued and argued about, is a great right to have. But ultimately, it proves to be a source of conflict. Because a line is drawn by the deep believers on either side. Absolutes lead to rigidity, and that leads to conflict. If we were truly enlightened and not beholden to the primitive origins of things, then true discussion could begin. Unfortunately I've found that a high price comes from the collision of these two sides-- a lot of death and destruction and a stagnation of progress has occurred and is recurring worse than ever today. If religious elements could be extracted away, and pure intellectual arguments (for either the existence of God or not) could be discussed-- without the elements of eternal damnation or accusations related to backward thinking-- then progress might be achieved. In the end, we could agree to disagree peacefully, and stop chasing our tails. Perhaps if atheists and the religious became evenly matched by the number of people subscribing to each side, then a more balanced society could emerge. Sadly, it might just destroy this society even faster.