Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

SECTION 4. -- The Moral Proof.

Thesis V. -- Mankind has at all times believed in the existence of an intelligent nature superior to the material world and to man. This universal belief can only be explained as the result of the real existence of such a nature. But to grant this much is to grant implicitly the existence of a personal God.

47. When we have convinced ourselves by a train of reasoning that some proposition is true, we are always anxious to know if our conclusion is identical with that of other minds. Our own minds may have been the victims of some lurking fallacy, but it is less likely that other minds should have been simultaneously deceived in the same manner. Thus we gain confidence when we find them to be in agreement with us, and our confidence becomes very great indeed when these other minds are in immense number and belong to various classes of persons acting independently of one another. It is natural therefore that now that we have completed our proofs of the existence of God drawn from intrinsic evidence, we should go on to inquire how far the Divine existence is universally recognized, and that we should claim the result of the inquiry as a signal corroboration of our position.

We claim more, however, than this in the present argument. We claim to find in this universal recognition which we assert, not only a corroboration of what has preceded, but an argument of absolute value in itself. We claim that a fact like this of the consent of nations in the recognition of God must be deemed the voice of universal reason yielding to the compelling evidence of truth. The cause must be adequate to the effect. A universal effect must imply an equally universal cause. But truth alone is such a cause. Error is always partial, local, temporary; truth alone is everywhere the same.

48. This is the outline of the argument we now advance. Its force will become more manifest when we have examined into its details.

First, about the fact. From the ancient writers, pagan as well as Christian, many well known passages have been collected in which this universal recognition of a Divine government of the world is attested. Thus Plutarch says: "If you go round the world, you may find cities without walls, or literature, or kings, or houses, or wealth, or money, without gymnasia, or theatres. But no one ever saw a city without temples and gods, one which does not have recourse to prayers, or oaths, or oracles, which does not offer sacrifice to obtain blessings or celebrate rites to avert evil."{41} And Cicero has declared that "there is no nation so wild and fierce, as not to know that it must have a God, although it may not know what sort of a God it should be."{42} From among Christian witnesses we may take Clement of Alexandria, who tells us that "all nations, whether they dwell in the East or on the remotest shores of the West, in the North or the South, have one and the same rudimentary apprehension of Him by whom this government (of the world) has been established."{43}

One is prone nowadays to suspect passages like these of resting too little on solid information, too much on the inferences and generalizations of oratory. Still they have their value, and attest to us the results of such actual experience as came within the reach of former generations. They have a right also to be taken together with the results of modern inquiry which, if they are found to agree with them, they can complete. And they do agree with the discoveries of the most recent times. There are few tribes of the earth which have not been scrutinized by the active-minded explorers of the present century, and scrutinized on the whole with scientific care and skill. Out of the entire number thus examined it is just possible that a few are altogether without religious ideas. Sir John Lubbock has maintained that there are such. But it is a task of no small difficulty to elicit from savages a true account of their religious beliefs. They are shy in the presence of the white man, and they have also often a superstitious fear of mentioning the names of their gods. Thus it becomes likely that even this small residuum is not really as atheistic as it has been alleged to be. This is the judgment of one who is in the front rank of anthropologists, and is clear from any suspicions of undue partiality in favour of the religion of theists. Mr. Tylor writes:

"The assertion that rude non-religious tribes have been known in actual existence, though in theory possible, and perhaps in fact true, does not at present rest on that sufficient proof which for an exceptional state of things we are entitled to demand. . . . So far as I can judge from the immense mass of accessible evidence, we have to admit that the belief in spiritual beings appears among all low races with whom we have attained to thoroughly intimate acquaintance."{44}

That the facts brought forward by Sir John Lubbock to prove the contrary, are not really to the point, has been clearly shown by Gustav Roskoff.{45} The conclusion at which he arrives is, that "hitherto no tribe has been found to be without any traces of religious sentiments." In this he is fully borne out both by the distinguished German ethnologist, Oskar Peschel,{46} who denies categorically that any tribe has been met with without religious ideas, and also by F. v. Heliwald, in his Natural History of Man.{47}

49. Even if there were a few races altogether without religion it would not touch our argument. Our object is to ascertain the voice of nature, and of rational nature. It is only to be expected that we shall find its tones affected by an admixture of the tones of error in degraded races, and that the extent of the confusion should follow the degrees of degradation.

Here, however, the very natural objection will occur to the reader's mind: Do we not find an opposing voice at the other end of the scale of civilization? Do not those who deem themselves and are perhaps deemed by the mass of men to represent the acme of intellectual culture, proclaim themselves to be conscientiously agnostic in reference to this important doctrine? That there are these apparent exceptions to the general law must of course be admitted. But we must not allow our adversaries to assume too much. Undoubtedly there is an increasingly large number of persons who profess themselves to be agnostics. Still only a small portion of these can be regarded as persons of special culture: and if there are some such, it must not be forgotten that there are many more of equal culture who are earnest theists. The fact thus alleged against us when reduced to its proper proportions becomes this. In the present age there are many agnostics who declare that they do not see grounds for admitting the Divine existence, and some among them are in the front rank among the thinkers of the day. After all, this is a fact not peculiar to the present age. It can be paralleled by similar instances in the last century, and it can be paralleled also by similar instances among the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. Even the reasonings on which modern agnostics rely are substantially the same with those which we find in the writings of these ancient atheists.

If any one, certainly Professor Huxley must know, whether the scientific progress of our age has really created new and formidable difficulties against Natural Theology. Yet he says: "There is a great deal of talk and not a little lamentation about the so-called religious difficulties which physical science has created. In theological science, as a matter of fact, it has created none. Not a solitary problem presents itself to the philosophical Theist at the present day which has not existed from the time that philosophers began to think out the logical grounds and the logical consequences of Theism."{48}

50. Thus we are able to state as generally true the fact with which we have to deal. The acknowledgment of a superior and invisible intelligence governing the visible universe is common to all ages and all regions, to civilized and uncivilized tribes alike. We find a disposition on the part of some few philosophers to dispute the validity of the belief; but nevertheless the belief has proved to be persistent and indestructible in the mass of mankind. It is this persistency among the mass of men, retained even in the teeth of sceptical opposition, on which our argument is based.

Now for the interpretation of this important fact. How comes it that minds are so accordant in their inference that the nature and movements of the visible world imply the existence of an invisible over-ruling spirit? There must be motives acting on the mind to induce it to draw this conclusion: and the motives must have been the same everywhere, since the effect, the inference, is the same everywhere. If the inference is of the character which we have investigated in the previous theses, and if this inference is true; if it is true that the universe bears upon its face the characteristic marks of an effect, and an effect presupposes a proportionate cause, if the universe bears upon its face the marks of design and purpose, and the only proportionate cause of design and purpose is a cause endowed with intelligence, then the world-wide recognition of such an intelligent ruler of the world is fully justified and explained. And that this is the true explanation we may establish by way of elimination. What other explanation is there in the field? Bayle in the seventeenth century undertook to suggest other possible causes. He named the following:

(1) Ignorance of natural causes. Men observed the marvellous course of nature in the midst of which they lived, and, unable as yet to detect the physical causes from which they actually spring, attributed them to the action of invisible beings which they anthropomorphically invested with form and qualities resembling their own.

(2) Fear excited by the stupendous forces of nature, by the flash of the lightning, the roll of the thunder, the fury of the waves, and the shock of the earthquake.

Primus in orbe deos fecit timor ardua coeli
Fulmina dum caderent.

(3) The fraud of the ruling classes, of priests and kings, who played upon these natural predispositions of the people by stamping them with the seal of their own superior authority: so doing because they perceived that the tendency of the beliefs was to exalt their own character as priests and kings by causing them to be regarded as the Divine representatives and as the mediators through whose instrumentality alone the Divine anger could be appeased.

Of these three reasons only the first is radical and need be considered. Given a belief in the existence of a Divine ruler, fear would naturally ensue, and where the idea of God was mingled with error, as it undoubtedly has been among barbarous nations, this fear would take an unreasonable form. But fear alone could not create a belief in God. In like manner, given belief in the existence of God formed on other grounds, the natural consequence would be a conviction that earthly rulers are His representatives holding authority under Him, and this conviction might lend itself to the interested motives of unworthy rulers where the people were sufficiently untutored to credit such fraudulent representatives.

What then is to be said of the first alleged cause of the belief in question? And be it noticed, that this self-same cause which is said to have originated the belief in God in past ages, is alleged to be sustaining it now among the ignorant theists, who, according to our modern men of progress, shut their eyes to the enlightenment of modern thought. You discover final causes, is the charge against us, and you then infer from them the existence of an architect of the universe, because you fail to see that the existing physical causes are quite able of themselves to evolve the complicated system which we call the world.

This charge, however, is a little out of date now. Those who used confidently to make it are beginning to realize what was seen by their adversaries all along, namely, that the appeal to physical causes and even to a long course of evolution under their action only results in pushing back the need of a designer to an earlier stage, and indeed makes the need itself the more imperative. However, this is a point that has already been sufficiently considered. All that we are at present concerned to notice is, that if failure to regard physical causes as containing within themselves an adequate explanation of the cosmos has been the motive which has engendered this universal recognition of the Divine existence, the failure is not one which can be confidently appealed to as discrediting the recognition. We are merely reduced to this, that whereas a certain argument seems to modern agnostics unsound and to modern theists sound, the general consent of mankind is on the side of the theists, not of the agnostics. And this is just what the theist appeals to as constituting an independent argument in his favour. How explain, he says, this persistent general belief without seeing in it the voice of rational nature ratifying the truth of the conclusion and the validity of the inference?

51. Of course it must not be supposed that we deny that here and there some among the thinkers of former ages have erred, just as barbarous tribes even may err now, in attributing to the immediate action of the Divinity results of which the immediate cause was the action of some physical agent. Errors in assigning wrong causes to physical facts have no doubt been committed repeatedly, and have been corrected by our superior information. Herein, in fact, we see, from the opposite side, an illustration of the value of our principle that persistent universal belief is an evidence of truth. The errors in question proved themselves to be errors by dropping out with the march of discovery. They have proved not to be universal and persistent. But these crude notions of immediate Divine action in the movement of the storm or the flash of the lightning, are not what we are appealing to. The question is not why some men multiplied their gods, or attributed to them this action or that; but why mankind in general have agreed in thinking that the world as a whole presupposes the existence of an intelligent governor, and why this belief has shown itself, and continues to show itself to be as persistent in the face of all attacks made upon it by the agnostic thought of the various ages, as the other beliefs have shown themselves to be yielding and transitory. Error, we know, cannot live for ever. It is always in danger of destruction, because its foundations are insecure. Truth, on the other hand, though it may lie for a time obscured, must persist, because its foundation is on the rock of evidence.

52. It will help to render the force of our argument more distinct, if we bear in mind the difference between what were once happily called by Cardinal Newman" Implicit and Explicit Reason." To reason, that is to say, to be intellectually moved by certain premisses to the adoption of the conclusion towards which they point, is one thing. To give an accurate account of the nature of the premisses grasped by the mind, is quite another. To quote the Cardinal's words:

"Let a person only call to mind the clear impression he has about matters of every-day occurrence, that this man is bent on a certain object, or that man was displeased, or another suspicious: or that one is happy and another unhappy; and how much depends in such impressions on manner, voice, accent, words uttered, silence instead of words, and all the many subtle symptoms which are felt by the mind, but cannot be contemplated; and let him consider how very poor an account he is able to give of his impression, if he avows it and is called upon to justify it."{49}

The illustration is taken from one class of inference, but is applicable to others. To give an accurate account of one's reasoning is a faculty confined mainly to those who possess the art of reflection and analysis, born of the discipline of philosophical training. To reason correctly is a faculty much more widely found. It is noticeable that most men reason correctly concerning practical matters which come within their special sphere of interest and experience. All men who are in their right senses reason correctly concerning those matters which are of fundamental importance for the conduct of life. And thus it comes to pass that in a certain sense untrained minds are given to reason more correctly than philosophers. The latter, although enjoying the power to analyze their reasonings into its elements, do not always enjoy this power to perfection. Accordingly they set down the premisses inaccurately, and then, finding them insufficient to bear the weight of the inference, discard as unsound conclusions which are really valid. Meanwhile the untrained mind, undistracted by any such false notions, pursues its natural course, and arrives with certainty at the true conclusion. Here, then, we have the justification of the stress we have been laying on the appeal to the persistent universal consent of mankind in recognizing the existence of a superior intelligence. The appeal is from the mind caught in philosophical mazes through its inability to grasp with sufficient accuracy the true premisses on which the arguments for God's existence rest; and it is to minds free from this distracting influence which by their concord in such number, variety, and persistency, prove themselves to be dominated by the evidence of truth.

53. In the last clause of the thesis we are proving, we assert that to admit this universal recognition of a superior intelligence governing the universe is implicitly to admit the existence of a personal God. The word "implicitly" must be carefully noticed. The argument from universal recognition is often misapprehended, because it is understood to aspire to more than it really does. Cicero, long ago, said, in words already cited: "No nation is so wild and fierce as not to perceive that there must be a God, although ignorant what kind of God it must be." The two questions, whether God exists, and what is the true nature of God, are to be distinguished. As to the latter, the grossest and most absurd of notions have prevailed, and it might be urged against us that if we desire to take the beliefs of the mass of mankind as in itself an evidence of truth, we ought in consistency to take their gross and absurd notions as an integral part of the belief. What right have we to pick and choose? What right have we to cite as valuable witnesses the polytheists and even the fetish worshippers, and at the same time disregard as valueless their belief in polytheism and fetichism? However, the answer is reasonable enough. The element of persistent universality on which we lay stress is to be found in the belief in the existence of a supreme intelligence. But as soon as men went beyond this, and sought to conceive to themselves the form and manner of this overruling intelligence, they fell into error, and their error is revealed as such by its want of universality and its want of persistency. The forms which mythology has assumed among the various tribes may resemble one another in certain general characteristics, because even erroneous thought is an attempt to understand realities, and must be governed to a certain extent by what it sees; still, on the whole, the mythologies are characterized by their dissimilitude: they are racy of the soil where they spring up.

We are content, then, to appeal to the consent of mankind for the rudimentary conception of a governing intelligence (or intelligences) overruling the world. But we contend that in this rudimentary conception is contained implicitly the doctrine of a personal God. To show that this is the true inference from the premisses is not the task of the present thesis. It has been partly demonstrated already, and remains to be more completely demonstrated in the theses yet to come.

Such is the Moral proof, grounded upon the belief of the human race in the existence of God. It is not absolutely conclusive, except when taken in conjunction with the argument of the First Cause. That argument shows perfectly the existence of a personal God; yet it gains much in practical value, when accompanied by the other two (the argument from general consent and the argument from Design), which appeal more directly to ordinary understandings. To confirm our conclusion now indirectly, by evincing the untenableness of the opposite, we will point out some of the practical consequences that flow from agnosticism.

{41} Adv. Coloten Epicureum.

{42} De Leg. I. c. 8.

{43} Strom. Lib V. n. 260.

{44} Primitive Culture, Vol. I. pp. 378 and 384.

{45} Gustav Roskoff's words are as follows: "Es ist bisher noch kein Volksstamm ohne jede Spur von Religiösität betroffen worden." (Das Religionswesen der rohesten Naturvölker. p. 178, Leipzig, 1880.)

{46} "Stellen wir uns die Frage, ob irgendwo auf Erden ein Volksstamm ohne religiöse Anregungen und Vorstellungen jemals angetroffen worden sei, so darf sie entschieden verneint werden." (Oskar Peachel, Völkerkunde, p. 260. Fifth Edit. Leipzig, 1881.)

{47} "Mit Fug und Recht darf man von einer Religion der Wilden sprechen; deun bisjetzt sind noch keine vollständig religionslosen Völkerstämme gefunden worden." (F. v. Hellwald, Naturgeschichte des Menschen, p. 95. Stuttgart. 1883.)

{48} Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, by F. Darwin, Vol. II. c. v. p. 203.

{49} Sermons before the University of Oxford, p. 274. Third Edit.

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