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Being, Miracles, and God: Answering a Reasonable Atheist


In the course of a discussion on my personal blog about the existence of God and of the miraculous, an unbelieving reader (who strikes me as open to reasonable discussion) wrote me to say:

"All I’m saying is that people everywhere demonstrate a powerful desire to believe that there is intervention in the material universe from outside the material universe."

Except that’s not true.  Lots of people also demonstrate a powerful desire to believe there is no intervention in the material universe.  Even many people who believe in some sort of God do this, because they are deists.

The notion that the existence of God provides nothing but unalloyed consolation—and does not also give reason to have deep fear—entirely overlooks the doctrine of judgment in this life and of hell in the next.  It’s just as easy and plausible to say that atheism is the wish fulfillment fantasy.  It’s also just as useless in getting at the question of whether God exists.  Instead of cheap psychoanalysis of philosophical opponents, I think the smarter approach is to look at the philosophical arguments for the existence of God.

"The problem is, even with that open mind, one still has to continue living a life based on some assumptions about the nature of the universe. Do you stake everything on the possibility it was a god, or do you not? The gaps have to be filled with something."

Actually, here’s the funny thing.  Although Catholic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas (and I) certainly accept the reality of miracles, Thomas doesn’t argue for the existence of God from the gaps.  He doesn’t say, “Here’s some exception to the course of nature (like the Resurrection) or some natural process I can’t explain, therefore God.”  He doesn’t argue for the existence of God from the exceptions to the rules.  Instead, he argues from the Rules.  In short, Thomas doesn’t say, “I don’t know how lightning works, so God.”  He says, “Why are there rules?  Why is there anything?  How is it that reality is intelligible at all?”

Notably, Paul does the same thing.  He doesn't say, "I can't explain the Resurrection, so there must be a God."  He argues for the existence of God just as Thomas does, from the ordinary course of nature, not from the extraordinary exceptions of miracles or inexplicable natural phenomena.  Just like Thomas and the Church, Paul doesn't appeal to amazing esoteric events vouchsafed to the few who see Lazarus raised, but to the many who saw him born.  It is daily bread and the underlying laws of time, space, matter and energy that hold it in being—not multiplied loaves and fishes—that Paul says cannot explain itself.  And it is our refusal to consider that which Paul regards as blameworthy, not for mystics who close their eyes to the Miracles of the Sun, but for ordinary people close their eyes to the implications of broad daylight:

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." (Romans 1:18-20)

The temptation of our age is to say, “Sure.  We can’t answer those questions yet.  But with sufficient advances in science we will someday.”

But no conceivable advance in science will ever answer the questions, “Why are there rules?  Why is there anything?  How is it that reality is intelligible at all?” Those questions are, by their very nature, not “scientific” questions.  Science (as moderns mean it) is the measurement of the metric properties of time, space, matter and energy.  All such science presupposes a metaphysic that is essentially theistic.  That is, it begins with the assumption that the universe has rules intelligible to our minds. You can no more “scientifically” get behind those rules to their source than you can prove that there is no such thing as proof.

But, of course, when you start talking a universe that is fundamentally ordered by rules and of our mysterious power to intellect (read between the lines) of those rules, you inexorably start talking as though the universe is the creation of Mind.  Thomas says, “Yes, because it and we are the product of Mind.”  If you don’t make that presupposition, you can’t do science at all since there is no reason—there can be no reason—to suppose that the universe and your mind correspond to Reason.

Some people think they can get around that by positing a multiverse in which our universe is part of some larger universe that give it its rules and being.  But, of course, that just pushes the question back: Why is there a multiverse? Why is there anything?  And why is the Everything we see contingent and dependent on something else?  How do beings that are always totally contingent (dependent on something else) come into existence?

Sooner or later that points us back to something that is not merely a being but is Being itself: something that simply Is. All created contingent beings participate in and are sustained by the God who is Being.  As Mike Flynn has pointed out, if such self-existent Being could talk, it would say, "I AM."  And by a strange coincidence, that is exactly how the God of some seriously philosophically-unsophisticated semitic Bronze Age shepherds introduced himself to them in Exodus 3.

Now, such a God can, if he chooses, operate outside the normal laws of nature he has created.  And the evidence does, indeed, suggest that he has done so at times.  But Thomas does not look to such evidence to demonstrate God’s existence.  On the contrary, Thomas takes a remarkably evolutionary view of creation:

"Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship."

—Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268

In that, he is following Augustine who also sees creation, not as a series of deus ex machina interferences in nature from a God who tinkers, but as a continuous unfolding of properties invested in nature from the start:

"It is therefore causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth.  In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in times to come."  [Emph. added]

On the literal meanings of Genesis, Book V Ch. 4:11

So there are really two questions here.  The first—Does God exist?—can be and has been answered by natural reason and does not require special revelation or faith.  Aristotle was able to work it out and lots of others have done so apart from the Christian revelation.

The question of whether that God does miracles is separate and requires faith and openness to revelation.  Like all points of supernatural revelation, it cannot be proven, but all arguments against it can be disproven.
Originally posted at National Catholic Register. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: USML)

Mark Shea

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Mark Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. He has written more than ten books including his most recent works, The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Re-Discovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) and The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ (Servant, 2012). Many of Mark's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Mark currently lives in Washington State with his wife, Janet, and their sons. Follow Mark through his blog, Catholic and Enjoying It!

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