Negation of God belief

If scholastic thought got the description of negations right, then describing atheism as mere non-presence of belief in God is probably unsustainable, even if, as a theist, I find it more agreeable than what I think the atheist has to say.

Scholasticism divides negative statements into privations and negations. Both are non-being but privation adds to negation that the absence is of something due or fitting to a subject. Privation is not mere absense but absence making a subject in someway worse. So a blind pig neither has vision or a steering wheel, but his blindness is a privation while not having a steering wheel is mere negation.

It would be an odd atheism that saw absence of God belief as a privation. Even allowing for the 19th Century style atheist that mourns his loss of faith, it would be odd if he viewed atheism as leaving him worse off overall. At the end of the day, he has to view any loss from atheism as justified by a greater dedication to, say, throwing off childish consolations, living in accord with evidence, abandoning outdated cosmology, following the truth of history or science or psychology wherever it leads, or perhaps just living in accord with the default settings of human belief.

One common default setting is for all sides to be unsure about whether belief in God makes all persons better off or not. The I’m-okay-you’re-okay settings of modern dialogue, both for atheists and theists, usually bracket the question whether atheism is good or bad. If we call this bracketing of the question “agnosticism” then we have both theist and atheist agnostics, e.g. one is an agnostic theist if he believes in God but doesn’t necessarily believe that those who don’t are worse off for it; and one is an agnostic atheist if he doesn’t believe in God but also doesn’t think that theism is a privation of some due human perfection. This irenic agnosticism is particularly appropriate to postwar sensibilities, and it’s benefits should be familiar to everyone. For all that, it’s unsustainable and ultimately destructive. Amicable doubt might give the same short-term effects as compassion, mercy, tolerance and charity for those in error, but both have their limits beyond which we have to enforce a public consensus about whether belief in God is good or bad.

Assume we all understand what a public consensus about “God is good” would look like; a public consensus that “God is bad” would look like a widespread belief that religion was divisive, backward, anti-LGBT, destructive of masculine virtue, and/or that faith lacks the universal appeal of reason or science or the ethno-state. So taken, “theism” or “religion” are in reality privations, even if this is not how they are signified, and atheism is positive and virtuous in reality, even if it is signified as by negation.*

So the belief that atheism is mere negation is probably too fixated on its mode of signification, and it points to an unstable agnosticism that both theists and atheists will have to resolve somehow. Anyone can see the “a” in atheist signifies the belief as a negation, but the whole question is whether atheism is in reality a virtue or a privation.


*So, for example, in Christianity immaterial is signified as a negation of matter but in reality it is a positive reality better than the material, i.e. the spiritual. So too with other positive perfections signified as negations: immobile, non-temporal (eternal), etc.

Aristotelian logic and external world skepticism

Say your argument for external world skepticism is this Cartesianish one:

If that thing in my experience right now is a dream, it is not real

Possibly, I am dreaming now

So possibly, that thing in my experience right now is not real.

Descartes’s answer to the question proved less successful than his doubt, and this is regrettable, as he solved the question by making God integral to the act of perception, and being followed in this my the idealist tradition. But I suspect the Aristotelian tradition would dismiss the argument as the fallacy of secundum quid and simpliciter. As Thomas puts it, when the antecedent of a conditional speaks of X as known or represented, then X is only true in the consequent if taken in this manner. For example, if I say

When Bemiji is on a map, Bemiji is a small dot

Though the conditional and both its parts are true the consequent can’t be taken out of context and treated as true simply speaking, since, so taken, Bemiji is not a small dot but a city in central Minnesota with 15,000 persons. The consequent is only true secundum quid, or with the qualification it gets by the antecedent. Don’t confuse the fact that modus ponens concludes to the consequent alone with the consequent being true simpliciter.

So if, in our original Cartesianish argument we had an antecedent that took an object of experience qua known (i.e. dreamed) then, in the consequent, we have to speak of those objects as they are in thought as opposed to speaking of how they are in reality.

Said another way, the original argument amounts to this:

To the extent that the objects of experience are taken qua known, they are not taken qua real.

Possibly they can be taken entirely as known.

So possibly they need not be taken as real.

But, in Aristotelian terms, all the logic of the conditional demands is that that everything taken in one mode is not taken in another, but this is the very reason why we can’t just replace the mode of being with the mode of thought. The mode of being can be spoken of as “non-thought” but this is to speak about it under a qualification and not simpliciter.

Moral violence and liberal regimes

It’s characteristically and perhaps even definitively liberal to ground civil authority on consent, even though such authority is characteristically and probably definitively the power to force someone morally against his consent. Authority morally coerces and so is morally violent, whereas liberal thought tends to see moral violence as contradictory, with one absolutely essential exception, sc. the revolutionary violence that removes the given and traditional structural violence of kings, the Church, bourgeois, anti-revolutionary wreckers, oppressive Jews, white racists, etc. Thus, after one eliminates this oppressive superstructure, he loses justification for moral violence and so loses authority. After all, we’re all equal now! This is arguably the whole idea of liberalism: once one eliminates the inherently violent superstructure, then moral violence or the just power to coerce against consent no longer has justification, and citizens live entirely according to their nature as, well, those who can never be morally forced by another against their consent.

So while the liberal tradition has a thrilling and obvious justification for violence done to create or establish a regime, it struggles to account for what place just coercion has within it. The existence of liberal governments with police and courts, for example, is a puzzle, and as these organizations are nothing but law enforcement the puzzle spills over into the notion of law itself. Writing a law, after all, is pretty clear evidence that one has coercive power – but why? Isn’t liberal control ipso facto proof that the structures of oppression were eliminated?

Liberal authority, therefore, involves an odd but familiar insistence that ruling liberals, despite all appearances, aren’t the ones in power but are just as oppressed under real power as the little guy. The liberal is firmly convinced of himself when he tells all the little people We’re on your side. One day, the liberal ruler thinks to himself, we’ll have the real power and coercive violence will be unnecessary. One last push! Almost there!

But the violence of the liberal regime isn’t tentative or apologetic, for the kings, priests, bourgeois, Jews, wreckers, and white supremacists are not one’s misguided or mistaken brethren, or if they are their mistake is so inveterate and beyond cure. Politics is about who can live together, and when our commitments to justice and goodness become divergent enough this common life is no longer possible. Every theory has to accept its limitations in assimilating divergent views about the good, but the difficulty in the liberal theory is how authority, understood as moral coercion contrary to one’s consent, has a place within a just regime.

The secret recipe for being

To see the knowledge of good and evil as the desire for the formula for good and evil or the recipe for good and evil. 

Lusting after the recipe for an In-N-Out burger is nothing but wanting to know something that the franchise knows and they keep from me, and I want to know it so I can make the burgers for myself as opposed to having to receive them from others.

As it turns out, God isn’t keeping the trade secret from us because he’s guarding his franchise but because the recipe for good and evil is simply the recipe for being as such, and creation is unalienable from God. In this sense, the prohibition against eating from the tree is our existence as creatures, whereas the serpent presents it as an arbitrary limitation of the trade secrets of the franchise, or perhaps not even that – he just points to the thrill at having the secret recipe or formula for creation.

The fall requires we mistakenly assume a difference between the recipe of creation and God, i.e. that we could have the knowledge without having God. But in fact the knowledge just is God, and so our wanting the knowledge is not wanting some impersonal formula but God himself. When Stephen Hawking describes the culmination of physics as to know the mind of God he seems to think that it would be a sort of recipe that God has and we don’t (yet), but the actual fulfillment of physics, and the desire we have to see it accomplished, is not a desire for just one more book on the shelf but for piety and holiness.

Seen from another angle, it’s not that the fall is mistakenly dividing the secret of being and God but that it tacitly assumes their identity, but in a perverse way. The recipe is God, and we possess it, so we are the gods of God! The fall in this sense is motivated by a desire for human dignity. The dignity involves a clear absurdity of super-divine status, but it’s hard to keep the absurdity in mind when the possibility of knowing the recipe seems like it’s right there for the taking.

When real goods conflict with the best

If God wills some to be damned, some natural and praiseworthy human desires are contrary to the divine will, e.g. someone’s desire that his loved ones avoid pain. David Bentley Hart says this proves damnation impossible since it requires removing natural and praiseworthy desires in some blessed souls, and removing such a deeply seated natural desires is comparable to a lobotomy. 

Thomas also thinks that damnation requires that there can be laudable and praiseworthy human desires contrary to the divine will, say, the love of a mother for a damned child. In ST I-II q. 19 a. 10 he compares these desires to the wife of a justly condemned man who is really praiseworthy in desiring her husband to live, even if ex hypothesi this is contrary to willing the common good of the regime. In responding to the eschatological consequences this has to the possible damnation of ourselves or our loved ones, Thomas states

 God does not will the damnation of a man, considered precisely as damnation, nor a man’s death, considered precisely as death, because, “He wills all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4); but He wills such things under the aspect of justice. Wherefore in regard to such things it suffices for man to will the upholding of God’s justice and of the natural order.

One would love to be in the room to see Hart read Thomas quote 1 Tim. 2:4 as a supporting text in a theory of damnation, but the sense seems to be that just as the wife can will her criminal-husband to live and still will to be a citizen in the regime that justly condemned him, so also our desire for the salvation of those who end up damned is sufficiently conformed to the divine will so long as we also will to continue participating in the divine justice that is integral to the providential order. Not every desire contrary to the common good destroys our desire to continue participating in that common good. 

Responding to the same question in De veritate 23 a. 8 Thomas divides the desires of the blessed from the desires of viators, and claims that praiseworthy desires contrary to the divine will exist in the latter  but not the former. He attributes the difference to viators enjoying only an imperfect contemplation of the divine essence, so that it is not the rule of all their affections. More interestingly is Thomas’s response to the extremely strong objection (ibid obj. 2) concerning what, say, Judas should do if God were to reveal that Judas would be damned: 

If such a revelation were to be made, it ought to be understood not as a prophetic foreknowledge of predestination, but as a threat understood as presupposing one’s merits. 

But granting for the sake of argument that it were prophetic foreknowledge…[since] God’s will to condemn does not come from himself (ex parte sua) but from ourselves, to will one’s damnation in an unqualified sense (absolute) would not be to conform his will to God but to the will of the sinner. 

Culpability and the fourth wall

Thesis: Even if we assume that God entirely authors each of the tremendous moral evils in the universe he is still not culpable for doing so. The argument is by analogy.

Assume Turpidos is a character in a movie who thinks Wickedor into being and supports him in being while Wickedor freely commits all sorts of evils. Now assume Larry is the author who wrote this awful B-script. So both Turpidos and Larry think someone into existence who freely does evil, but Turpidos is culpable for Wickedor’s actions while Larry is not. Culpability doesn’t cross the fourth wall. If it could, authoring a wicked character would be a wicked act.

The objection is obvious: duh, Larry’s world is fictional and God’s is real. In God’s there is real suffering whereas in Larry’s there isn’t.

Response: This misses the whole force of the analogy by assuming that there is some common domain called “reality” shared by God and creation. If one calls God real then the world is non-real,* just as if one chooses to call where George Lucas lives “reality” then the Star Wars universe is not real. If, of course, one stipulated per impossibile that George Lucas’s thoughts became just as real as he was, then he would certainly be morally culpable, but his sharing a common domain of univocally named “reality” would be essential to his moral culpability. Again, this was the whole force of the analogy: Turpidos is really bad in a way that Larry is not, not because Wickedor’s actions were real (they weren’t) but because he shares a common domain with Wickedor that Larry doesn’t.


*The analogous use of real divides between a sense simpliciter and secundum quid. In the sentence we assume real is said simpliciter. 

Nominal belief

Christ transforms the heart by grace through a (partially) visible membership in a corporate body and in accord with a set of credal beliefs. This allows for the possibility of nominal belief, where one can belong to the corporate body of the Church and pronounce one’s belief in the creed without an ongoing process of transforming the heart or growth in the interior life.

Nominal belief has its full actuality in a social-interactive process. A paradigmatic example would be the phone survey: someone from Pew calls you up and asks if you are religious and you say “yes.” The “yes” however is almost entirely performative, as the surveys themselves tell us that in a vast number of cases the yeses live no differently from the nos. We’re safe in assuming that the nos were not transformed interiorly by the truth of the Gospel, but a good number of yeses are simply using a different word in spite of the same interior reality.

By the interior life I understand one’s lived sense of what makes or could make him happy. Taken in this sense the interior life is fundamentally a trust that is faith in X when we impute to X the ability to make us happy, and hope when we’re confident that X will deliver. As the evidence comes in that we are right, we respond more and more to X with love, by both losing ourselves in it and defining our identity by it. Christianity proposes as X (a) an experience of the love of the Father with the sacramental presence of the Son by the interior transformation of the Holy Spirit, though this often simplifies to a trust that one is loved by God through all situations of lived experience, just as Christ testified to the love of the Father even during his show trial, torture, and execution. Leaving aside other religious opinions for the moment, the alternatives to (a) are (b) believing one simply can’t be happy, or (c) our only shot at it comes from trusting our skills, wealth, family and friends, natural endowments, job, social capital, or control of institutional power. (c) is what Christianity calls the flesh or the exterior man or the world, and it sees it as intrinsically ordered to (b.) Nominal Christianity is an interior life dedicated to (b) or (c) on top of which one builds a set of social responses like “yes” to cues like “do you believe in God?”

On this axis of description, there is probably little difference between most Christians and most non-Christians. I’ve been a practicing the faith every day of my life, but e.g. I’ve rarely thought in the face of my anxiety that it was pointless since I was personally loved by an omnipotent Father and forbidden by Christ from worrying. So taken, what difference was there between my interior life and a non-believer’s? If I built a set of responses to social interactions that were different from his, how significant is that? One could build a pull-string doll to do the same.

The real is what could make us happy or the fact that there is no such thing, so for most persons most of the time only one’s self is real. There are times when other realities break through, and each brings with it the sense of the sacred, radiant and inviolable. Erotic love commonly does this, and it can be developed into something better, but we all know it’s unjust to task another person with the burden of making us happy, even if only by their presence. Demanding that erotic love bear the whole weight of the sacred and inviolable inevitably collapses into either the love of ourselves or the continual desire to start the erotic moment from its beginning, which of course means casing one aside to start over with another. Try comparing that to one’s belief that the erotic is sacred! Once one recognizes the limitations of eros, it disenchants our usually half-conscious thought that consumerism or entertainment could be real in the sense described.

Causing act of sin but not sin

Thomas is clear that God does not cause sin but he does cause the act of sin.

God could cause something qua privation, or perhaps even qua privation in the will, but causing sin means causing the privation of order to the divine goodness, and God necessarily wills his own goodness. In this sense, if per impossibile God willed nothing necessarily then he could cause human sin.

Does this argument prove too much? What’s wrong with taking its premises and arguing

All that God wills has an actual order to his will.

God wills the act of our will.

So all our acts of will have an actual order to the divine will, and thus are not sins.

Many would simply say the second premise is false. I think it is formally true but the conclusion does not follow.

To say God wills the act of our will means formally that he makes an act to arise from its principle. But abuse differs from use in that it does not arise from its principle, e.g. one uses his mechanical knowledge if he fixes a car, but to sabotage a car is an abuse of the knowledge, not because it is immoral to sabotage cars (sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t) but because sabotage is not an act of mechanical knowledge as such. This is why curricula for training car mechanics do not include units on sabotage, and why taking a class in such a practice it would not make one a mechanic. Insofar as God wills the act of our will, that act arises from the will as from its proper principle, and so is a use and not an abuse of the will. Sin, however, is an abuse of the will, and so the second premise does not reach the conclusion since it speaks of the use and not the abuse of the will.

Tolerance of evil

As with the loftier virtues of mercy and forbearance, the object of tolerance is evil. Calls for tolerance that aren’t for the tolerance of evil are often just the passive aggressive or wormtongue-y insistence that someone – like one’s opponents – should doubt their beliefs.

Tolerance is spoken of less now than in the mid-’90s, but it is part of a larger neighborhood of ideas like dialogue, mutual understanding, welcoming, etc. Here also some of the highest virtues that we need to develop precisely in relation to evil are usually undermined and put to sleep by a muddle-headedness that stupidly thinks that if anyone has a clear and firm belief that Joe is evil he has to start acting like a raging jackass to Joe. This is, in fact, the flipside of severing tolerance, dialogue or even calls for ideological diversity from a recognition of the evils of others: it requires that as soon as we have moral clarity about someone being evil our only possible responses are ridicule, snark, any refusal of a shared life, and even the possible justification of violence.

The falls of Plato’s middle regimes

The fall from timocracy to oligarchy to democracy in Republic is driven by those left out of the common good. The timocracy seeks empire, military glory and conquest, but this entirely leaves off noble and intelligent women. This resentment at being left out makes them turn to seeking the proper good of their own men and the spoils of conquest and empire, and so we turn from a regime dedicated to the at least common good of imperium sine fine to one dedicated to the proper good of money. But to succeed at making money requires a good deal of intelligence and conscientiousness, often assisted by familial connections and plain good luck, which leaves out the vast demos composed of the unintelligent and less motivated persons with few family connections or lots of hard luck. Plato also draws attention to the oligarchs’ systematic exploitation of the demos through credit and loan schemes. A revolution of the demos overthrows the meritocratic regime for the smart, motivated and lucky and replaces it with one that insists in its resentment that no one is better than anyone else. Everyone is equal.

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