The late atheist Christopher Hitchens once articulated the view that God is an “unalterable celestial dictator” and this is not an uncommon argument to hear even to this day. The problem is that this assessment gives rise to two separate errors, which will be set out and then shown why they fail to prove the alleged tyranny.
The first is simply an error in logical reasoning. To see this error, it helps to understand a definition of atheism. According to the American Atheists website, atheism is “a lack of belief in gods.”
Accepting this definition, the error committed becomes clear. As an atheist, Mr. Hitchens asserted that God both does not exist and that He is a dictator. This error is so blatant that one need not be an expert in logic to recognize the problem. Specifically, this argument violates the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time. Here, it must be that God cannot both lack existential import and be a dictator at the same time.
The second part of Mr. Hitchens’ argument is much more subtle and enthymematic. This argument claims that the existence of God is a hindrance to human freedom and dignity. This premise assumes a disjunctive, either/or dilemma. The assumption is predicated upon the belief that the will of God imposes itself upon, and thereby diminishes human freedom.
To understand the nature of this argument, I will need to define what it is to be human and what is the nature of freedom. If I use the time-honored definition provided to us by Aristotle, a man may be defined as a rational animal. Rationality, as it refers to mankind, is the ability to, among other things, use language and engage in abstract reasoning. Specifically, it refers to the ability of humans to understand universals or the essences of things. For example, we can know that man is mortal without ever witnessing the death of every person. We know this because we know that it is within the nature of a man to die.
Now, if man is indeed rational it must mean that the world in which man lives is intelligible, for as Aristotle noted, nothing nature does is in vain and man’s ability to understand must mean that there is something to be known. If this is not true, if man is not rational or the universe not intelligible, epistemology becomes impossible as does science. This epistemological truth relates directly to what Aristotle called a final cause, that is, what man naturally tends toward or becomes. If man is capable of understanding truth, specifically objective truth, it must be because objective truth exists. Therefore, I conclude that man is a rational animal, capable of engaging in abstract reasoning. Furthermore, it must be that an object of man’s rationality is that which is objectively true. Here, it may be useful to define objective truth. Objective truth means conforming the mind to reality. That is to say, that the validity of objective truth is not contingent upon any subject. For example, in the realm of ethics, the murdering of an innocent person has always been wrong, regardless of the individual committing the act, the circumstance, or the time.
Of human nature, I must also first settle upon a definition. It may be said that human nature is a set of traits or characteristics that are common to all humans at all times. These traits are not produced, but rather discovered. While culture and time may alter how that nature is manifested, the nature of the human animal is innate and fixed. Now, it is true that all animals possess a nature. What differentiates human nature from those of the lower animals is related to the rationality of man and his ability to rise above his instincts. It is because of this ability that man may be said to be a moral creature. We do not excoriate a mother bear for killing one of its young who, for whatever reason, will not likely be able to survive on its own. We do, however, find reprehensible a human mother who murders her child because he is disabled. It is because of this ability to rise above base instinct that man is a moral agent and, as such, subject to judgment. That is to say that it is only because man is a moral agent that positive law (man-made law) is even possible. For even positive law presupposes certain moral absolutes, like the prohibition of murder. This presupposition is predicated on natural law. However, natural law itself must presuppose a lawgiver, that is to say, a construct which is the basis for objective morality.
Here I must add another definition, that of natural law. The definition of natural law is mankind’s ability to participate in the eternal law, which is the mind of God. Natural law is the mind of God made manifest to mankind. As an aside, I will state that the eternal law is the mind of God as understood by God Himself. All of this is to suggest that man’s intellect is so construed as to understand and accept objective laws and truths. Since a being tends towards the good and since man is able to discern a good over and above transit goods, man’s nature must drive him to seek the ultimate good. It is only in this ultimate good that man’s nature is completely fulfilled. Since freedom is inclusive of that which is good, the fulfillment of man’s nature must include freedom. As for freedom, it may be defined as the ability of an agent to act without being hindered. Accepting this definition, it may be said that freedom does not exist in a vacuum, but is meant to be placed within the context of the nature of the agent who is free to act.
Now the nature of all beings is to tend toward the good. This good may be divided into proximate goods and ultimate good. Since man’s nature is able to comprehend the ultimate good as its final cause, it must be this good, this ultimate good that is the completion of man’s nature. The ultimate good must be that which is not sought for any other purposes, but rather that which is good in itself. Since the ultimate good is not sought for anything other than its intrinsic value, it cannot be material, for that which is material is used only in relation to something else. Therefore, the ultimate good must be immaterial. Further, that which is immaterial is not within the realm of time, nor can it be created. For any good that is created can only be caused by a greater good. We may conclude, then by determining that the ultimate good must be that which is immaterial and uncaused. We may further infer that that which is immaterial and uncaused is also eternal. This is so because that which is immaterial is not composed of parts, for it is in the decay or destruction of parts of the whole that cause death, that is, the separation of the form (or soul) from the matter (or body). Here I follow both Aristotle and Aquinas.
Finally, since a good that is innate can only be a product of an intellect, possessed of a will, I state that the ultimate good is that which is intellectual, immaterial, and eternal. It is this that we call God. In connecting these premises, I suggest that it is only in communion with God, it is only in the beatific vision, that man’s nature is completed and fulfilled. As was said above, this fulfillment must also include man being truly free. Here a distinction is made between natural law, which is meant to free man, and positive or man-made laws, which is designed to regulate man’s base instincts.
Therefore, I conclude that God not only exists, but is not the dictator of atheistic views. Rather, man finds his true freedom and fulfillment in communion with God.
By Brother Thomas of New York, Traditian Order
The Disputatio Debate Series is a category of articles at the Traditian Order setting forward philosophical arguments on behalf of Catholic tradition. Debate or comments are encouraged in the Comments box below.