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

SECTION 5. -- Logical consequences of Agnosticism.

Thesis VI. -- The logical consequences of Sceptical Atheism or Agnosticism in the practical order show clearly that the position of the agnostic is opposed to reason.

54. The word atheist suggests the idea of a man living without regard for God. If he does so, because he thinks that there is no sufficient reason for believing in God's existence, he may be called a theoretical atheist; if on the other hand, he admits that existence, but disregards the law of God in regulating his free actions, he will then be called a practical atheist. In this place we have not to treat of the consequences of practical atheism except in so far as they are included in those connected with atheism maintained as a theory. Confining ourselves to the theoretical atheists, we have again to distinguish dogmatic and sceptical atheism. A dogmatic atheist is one who asserts without doubt, "There is no God;" whereas a sceptical atheist, commonly called an agnostic, maintains only that we can know nothing definite about the First Cause of things.

If the logical consequences of Sceptical Atheism are disastrous, those of Dogmatic Atheism will not be less disastrous, though they can hardly be more. We may, however, limit our attention to the consequences of the former only. Dogmatic Atheism is not very common now-a-days, at least among men of culture. Agnostics, we know, are wont to protest very strongly against the designation of atheists being applied to them, and the protest, whether reasonable or not, proves at least this much, that in their estimation the intellectual position of one who should claim to have demonstrated the non-existence of God is altogether irrational. Under these circumstances it is not necessary to consider the practical consequences of Dogmatic Atheism, but only those of Agnosticism. This we call Sceptical Atheism, since the name is one that is founded on truth and required by symmetry. The objection that may be raised to it by agnostics may become less if they will observe that the name atheist taken by itself has been defined to mean one who acts as if there were no God. Agnostics can hardly deny that they do this. "Worship of the silent sort" has indeed been pronounced fitting before the "altar of the Unknowable." But is such an evanescent homage, whether it be fitting or not, really sufficient?

We assert then, in the present thesis, that the logical consequences of sceptical atheism in the practical order are so opposed to reason as to involve a condemnation of its tenets. There are pessimists in the world, and their number is said to be increasing with the spread of "modern thought." But although these may be cited as valuable witnesses to the force of the argument about to be advanced, the thesis is not addressed to them. It is rather addressed to those who cannot think that Nature is a fraud or a pest, but believe its course to be stamped with the promise of a true hope.

In proof of our thesis, we will first invite attention to the moral paradox in which the agnostic finds himself entangled, or rather would find himself entangled if only he would reflect sufficiently. Few agnostics would deny that, if the Christian assumption were correct and the existence of such a God as Christians believe in were an ascertained truth, it would follow at once that He must desire the worship of loving reverence. Just as it is inconceivable that, if two persons hold towards each other the physical relationship of father and son, the father should not desire to enter into the moral relationship of intercourse with his son and have it reciprocated by loving and reverent affection and obedience, so also, if there is a personal God from whom man, has received his being, faculties, and all else that he can call his, it is inconceivable that God should not desire to enter into moral relationship with him and receive a loving and obedient service and worship. The conception of a God who, at some past moment, made the world, set it spinning like a top, and then ceased to care about it, has always been rejected by the larger part of civilized nations, and at the present day has fallen into discredit. If, therefore, God desires this worship, man ought to render it, and in the case of his not rendering it, the requirements of natural equity are violated and an indignity is offered to God.

So much as this will be generally conceded to us by agnostics. They do not challenge the inference as to conduct and worship which Christians draw from Christian premisses. They only challenge the premisses, that is, the certainty of the existence of God. They do not go so far as positively to deny the existence of God. They merely contend that it is uncertain. But in declaring it to be uncertain most of them go farther, and admit with Darwin that it is more probable than the opposite opinion. That is to say, it is probable that there exists a God desirous of receiving love and worship from His creatures, and therefore reciprocally probable that it is man's sacred duty to render it to Him. This the agnostic, by the very fact that he protests against being called an atheist, is bound to admit, and yet because he professes himself unable to go farther and convert the probability into a certainty, he cannot render the worship. Such is the moral paradox to which the agnostic is reduced.

And the paradox will be felt the greater if the agnostic will observe that, on his own principles, the hypothesis of the existence of an intelligent ruler of the world is not only probable, but even the most probable theory to account for the facts. When he forgets his philosophy, and as a man of science, that is, of physical science, adopts the attitude of the pure realist, he professes himself agnostic on the ground that Evolution in its extremest form may account for that order reigning through Nature which is the theist's foundation-stone. Now, Evolution thus conceived, however it may be dressed up in modern fashions, is in essence nothing but the old theory of the fortuitous concourse of atoms: the theory that, given eternal atoms and eternal motion, eventually order will result from their interaction, since order is self-sustaining and chaos is not. Although in answer to this we have given clear reasons to show that neither the theory of chance nor that of evolution can account for the orderly arrangements of the universe (§§ 42-46); nevertheless let us grant again, for the sake of argument, that either of the two is a conceivable explanation of the genesis of the cosmos. Can it possibly be claimed as relatively probable, or anything but relatively most improbable when set in competition with the rival theory of a personal Designer?

If the agnostic puts on his philosophic cloak and becomes a transfigured realist with Mr. Spencer, the existence of an "Infinite" is admitted, and all denied is the lawfulness, in face of the relativity of knowledge, of attributing to the Unknown Cause of the universe any attributes derived from the consideration of the things of this world, man not excluded. The protest made against the practice of assigning them to Him is made on the ground that they are likely to be altogether beneath Him: that is to say -- if logically explained -- on the likelihood that He may possess attributes which may go so far beyond even the most noble qualities of the human mind, that the latter are nothing but a dim and comparatively insignificant image of a First Mind, and that human personality is but a dim and comparatively insignificant image of the Personality of the First Cause. In other words, that the great "Unknowable" is supereminently a person.

If the agnostic declines to be in any sense a realist, and shuts himself up in some form of pure idealism, we will not attempt to press him with the statement of the present thesis. The idealist is guilty of inconsistency in his every act of intercourse with the outer world. With such a burden of inconsistencies upon him, and all so easily borne, we cannot expect him to shrink from one more. But we may say this, that for realists the hypothesis of the existence of a personal God ought to count as the most probable of the theories in the field, and thus the moral paradox which has been described as arising out of the agnostic position becomes the more acute.

55. Such is the logical consequence of agnosticism as regards the duties more properly called religious. Its logical effects on the observance of the moral law in general are also fatal. We maintain that in the great mass of mankind, were agnosticism ever universally accepted, its effects, moral and social, would be most pernicious. Individuals of the average human type cannot lose the belief in an all-seeing and infinitely holy and just God without being exposed to commit many crimes, which they would not have committed if they had persevered in that belief. If God does not exist, no one is able to point out any sufficient principle of morality, which he can prove that man is absolutely bound to abide by. Of course certain actions will be more becoming than others, because more suited to rational nature. If a man is a man of good taste he will so far forth abide by these actions and abstain from their opposites. But suppose he does not care to be a man of taste, what is to oblige him to it? On that supposition, no one has a right to blame his fellow-man for enjoying life as he thinks fit. What is man, if you take God away? What else but a machine made of matter, held together by material forces? What shall oblige me to have more respect for that machine called man, than for another called ox or sheep or monkey, which anatomy proves to be constructed on quite a similar plan and to be made of the same organic elements? Why is it a greater crime to destroy a man-machine than to destroy a monkey-machine? Unless there is an immaterial Divine Spirit, there cannot possibly be an immaterial human soul, and if there is not an immaterial human soul, our so-called freedom of will is an illusion. But if our freedom is an illusion, moral responsibility is an empty name, and if that is an empty name, nobody is to be blamed, however erroneous may be the misdeeds by which, in the opinion of men, he sins against the dignity, as it is called, of man. These and the like are the practical lessons which logically follow from agnosticism. How can they be put into practice without giving free rein to the most revolting vices in the mass of men?

Again, if agnosticism with these moral consequences, which objectively are implied in it, were universally prevalent, all social relations would sooner or later be in hopeless confusion. The good order of a commonwealth rests above all upon a healthy family life. Where domestic relations, domestic authority, domestic virtues are not respected, civil relations will constitute a very frail machinery: civil authority will only rest upon changeable party-passions; civil virtues will degenerate into hypocritical egotism. But if in the family God is not acknowledged, if His fear does not check the impetuosity of vicious cravings, the most sacred bonds of family life will soon be broken. A nation of agnostics soon would suffer from so many evils that, to quote the saying of the Roman historian, Sallust, "neither the evils nor their remedies would be bearable." If such a nation did continue to exist for awhile, if agnostic philosophers succeeded in stemming the deluge of universal disorder by the moral principles of utilitarians and altruists, the reason could only be this, that human nature is too good to suffer a universal application of the moral principles which strict logic would recommend as the consistent outcome of the agnostic theory. To sum up, Agnosticism is a hypothesis which in its logical consequences leads to the destruction of the most fundamental principles of reason, and to the moral and social ruin of mankind. Therefore it must be out of harmony with human reason, it must be altogether untrue and unreasonable.

No doubt it will be objected to this reasoning, that agnostics are numerous now-a-days, and are found to be as respectable as Christians in their moral conduct. If by agnostics are meant select individuals of that body, mainly persons in comfortable circumstances, no imputation on their moral conduct is intended. Their probity is quite recognized, and is consistent with our argument: although it must be admitted that agnosticism has yet to show that it can scale the moral heights on which Christian heroism is so much at home. The question is as to logical consequences: and these must be sought, not in individuals, but in masses. Moreover, a sufficiency of time must be allowed for the tendencies to work out their natural results. If agnosticism and Christianity are compared in their effects on the masses of men, already the baneful tendency of the former is disclosing itself in a growing corruption of morals wherever it prevails.

This, we may infer, is only the beginning. Centuries of recognition of the Christian sanctions of the moral law have bequeathed a strong hereditary bias in favour of morality which will hold out for awhile against the adverse forces. But this bias must abate, if the world continues to drift away from the only sound form of theism, which is Christianity. Mr. Spencer, we know, anticipates a blissful age when the feeling of moral constraint, of the "ought," will die of atrophy, because the path of right and the path of pleasure will, under the influence of more suitable education, have been made to coincide. We can only say that the present outlook, if we go by observation, not by questionable a priori inferences, offers no anticipations of any such eventual coincidence.

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