The Thomist ground of religion

St. Thomas did more than anyone to show the reasonableness of the Faith, and yet his argument that religion is natural (and I here really mean religion, not some shorthand for Christianity) is that man simply cries out to something greater than himself when he is beset by his weakness and need. I’m reminded of a PBS drama that showed a group of Jews at a concentration camp arguing about the existence of God, and by the end of the show everyone had proven that God did not and could not exist. In the last moment of the show, when they are led away to be killed, one of them asks “so what do we do now?” and another, with calm assurance, says “Now? Now we pray.”

Science, learning, and sophisticated argumentation all require leisure. St. Thomas himself benefited from the prosperity of the 13th century. The sophisticated disputes among philosophers: rational theism vs. atheism; empirical science vs. metaphysics; mechanism or naturalism vs. the possibility of spiritual existence, etc. all presuppose the prosperity of leisure. We contemporary persons enjoy a tremendous amount of such prosperity and we have churned out debates, books, and even whole schools of thought by the thousand. But all this is happening away from the experiential and existential ground from which religious practice arises. Science and sophisticated argument arise from our leisure; religion from our necessity. Religion  does not arise on the level where we are seeking evidence, weighing claims, reflectively and dispassionately looking at a abstracted experience. This does not make it irrational or subjective or a matter of wish fulfillment – these are dangers that can afflict any discourse, even leisured discourse. Religion is no less objective or rational than hunger or sexual desire, though it is not natural in exactly the same way as they are. Religion is natural more in the way that forming families is natural:  it typifies all nations and at all times, but in such a way that it can be wiped out for some amount of time through large populations.

This is not to say that the leisured argument of atheism or theodicy is worthless, but if religion is a weed, an atheist’s success or the failure of theodicy would only pluck off a leaf.

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3 Comments

  1. The 27th Comrade said,

    July 25, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Religion does not arise on the level where we are seeking evidence, weighing claims, reflectively and dispassionately looking at a abstracted experience.

    Sad thing, then, that all the defenders of the great oxymoron that goes roughly as “faith is reasonable” are all pretending that faith rises on the level where we are seeking evidence, weighing claims, reflectively and dispassionately looking at an abstracted experience.

    I really detest that one moment we are all chanting that faith is reasonable—“St. Thomas did more than anyone to show the reasonableness of the Faith”—and then turn around and contradict ourselves.
    Or are we saying that reason is not reasonable, when it does not chime with faith? Are we fideists? (It is rather rich of us to, at this point, say that the modern atheists are the ones who do not understand what “reason” means. No: they do, and they are right—religion is, ultimately, not subject to, or compliant with, reason—and we agree with them!)

    What I like about what you wrote—“Religion is no less objective or rational than hunger or sexual desire, though it is not natural in exactly the same way as they are. Religion is natural more in the way that the desire to form a family is natural: it typifies all nations and at all times …”—is that it concedes that religion is not (and, in my opinion, should not) be justified by reason; it is just “natural”. If reason doesn’t play along, reason is wrong. If reason should somehow be opposed to sating hunger (see Gödel’s death), wanting to stay alive (see Socrates’ death), wanting to have sex (see whose death?), or wanting to start a family (see the modern West’s lower classes’ death), wanting to worship God, then reason is wrong.

    People should be more-comfortable with throwing themselves into religion simply because they bellyfeel the whole business, since (they should maintain), if some philosophy, some mode of reason, some reason is against it, then (that) reason is wrong. As St. Paul put it: Let God be true, and every man a liar. (Certainly not the stuff of St. Thomas … but then, I have my preferences.)

    • July 26, 2010 at 6:04 am

      One can get a consensus across the atheist/ theist divide that religion arises naturally, but our contemporary view of natural desires is odd and conflicted. Sometimes we think to call a desire natural is the same as to justify it: to say “I was born this way” is presumed to justify that it is acceptable to be this way. Other times, we assume that “to be born this way” proves that “this way” is the irrational by-product of selection or some other set of blind factors, like the latest theories on how religious desires arose. In this case, a desire is certainly not taken to be justified because it is innate or natural.

      Now there is nothing odd in some natural desires making sense and others being superfluous, just as some natural organs are necessary or beneficial and others are superfluous (wisdom teeth, gall bladders, appendix, junk DNA) but the normal way to explain these things is to point to how they were once necessary and “true”- but it’s hard to see how religion is the sort of thing that can only be really true at one point in history and not at another. A more ironic take on the matter might note that it’s pretty convenient that nature just happens to justify a desire when it jibes with the modern doctrine of total autonomy, but is taken to be irrational when it doesn’t.

      • The 27th Comrade said,

        July 28, 2010 at 1:34 pm

        One can get a consensus across the atheist/ theist divide that religion arises naturally …

        Not with the New Atheists; for them, the problem is epistemic. We, who believe in Our Father Who Art in Heaven, are being “irrational, unscientific, believing without evidence”. All these things fall squarely in “practice due to epistemic wrongitude”. That is why they pit “science” and “rationality” against “religion”, rather that pitting against it “the feline tendency towards Nietzscheanism”, or some other non-human nature.

        For them, believing in God is a problem that arises from epistemology. See such stuff, for example. “Can you provide evidence for your beliefs?” And so on and so forth. If anything, they tend to be quite accommodating of the nature that leads to religion (having defanged it by recasting its describing it in terms of evolutionary biology—kin signalling, membership cost, in-group-out-group clustering—and the faulty brain that is the result of unguided evolution, and so on).

        Still, this epistemological criterion is what Aquinas seeks to fulfil. Perhaps he manages. (I think he does.) But the problem is that, after we have waved his Ways about, we turn around and say nothing like the Ways should be available for our God. I, for one, take the latter line. I think that something like Søren Kierkegaard still walks about amongst us, and his name is “The 27th Comrade.”

        … some natural organs are necessary or beneficial and others are superfluous (wisdom teeth, gall bladders, appendix, junk DNA) …

        I see these memos were not distributed well. The many impressive lists that we had (and were reared and raised on) of “vestigial organs” are all collapsed to barely a thing today. How foolish of us to claim uselessness where we should be noting ignorance! Who has mapped out the future of the cells, to claim uselessness? How can Job be such an old story, yet such a modern story?
        Wisdom teeth are useful if you are exposed to much chewing (especially pre-puberty), and the jaws grow accordingly to fit more molars. They are not any less-useful than leg hair on a modern (trousered) man.
        I don’t know about the gall bladder, but is it even thinkable that it has no purpose? I’ve never seen it listed on any “vestigiality” lists; not even this one.
        The appendix is an immunity gland, and it houses bacteria to treat food before it goes to places in the gut where bacteria cannot thrive.
        Junk DNA? See here and here.


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