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Introducing Atheists to God

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The philosophical proofs of Gods' existence are a helpful first step

The first battleground for any evangelizer is the question of God’s existence. There’s no sense discussing transubstantiation, the Virgin Birth or the infallibility of the pope with a committed atheist. With the rise of the “new atheists” like Oxford dons Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, the great God debate rages across the Internet as never before.

Believers are quick to rush out the five proofs of God’s existence, which have been in circulation for centuries. St. Thomas Aquinas was the first to formulate them together in one place, and every theology student learns them as a kind of first step. Very briefly Aquinas’ five proofs are

  1. The Argument from Motion: Since things move, something makes them move and therefore there must be a first mover.
  2. The Argument from Efficient Causes: Things that exist have a cause. There must be a being who is the source of making things happen.
  3. The Argument from Possibility and Necessity: All things are contingent. They depend on something that came before them. The end point is the Being who came before all things and is not contingent.
  4. The Argument from Gradation of Being: Some things are better than others. Because there is a gradation of goodness there must be an end point of all perfection. This Perfect Being we call God.
  5. The Argument from Design: All things have a purpose and a proper goal. The final perfect end point for all things is the Divine Being.

Additional philosophical arguments are the Kalam argument, which says all things that have a beginning must have a source of that beginning, and Anselm’s Ontological Proof which proposes that there must be a being so great, that one can imagine nothing greater. The most complete list of proofs for God’s existence are provided by philosopher Peter Kreeft at this site.

While philosophical arguments for God’s existence are still in play, most atheists dismiss them as no more than philosophical sleight of hand. They argue that Aquinas’s medieval worldview was rooted in the philosophical understandings of Aristotle and that the assumptions on which his arguments are based have been undermined in the modern age. However, beneath their rejection of the arguments for God’s existence is usually a very basic misunderstanding of what Catholics believe about God.

Almost always atheists engage in the arguments burdened by an underlying misunderstanding about God. They will say something like, “None of that proves that there is an old guy on the other side of the clouds twiddling with the knobs of creation.” Their conception of God is determined by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting. They think that because we refer to “Our Father in Heaven” that when Christians argue for the existence of God they must be arguing for a celestial Santa Claus. If that’s what Catholics are arguing for, then atheists are correct to dismiss their intellectual attempts to prove the existence of some kind of Colonel Sanders in the sky.

Evangelizers should make it clear that the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are not complete explanations of the Catholic understanding and image of God. The philosophical arguments say nothing about God’s attributes and behaviors. Arguments for God’s existence do not prove Catholic theology, the authority of the sacred Scriptures, the historicity of the Bible stories or the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Therefore, before any argument about the existence of God begins, one must agree what is actually being discussed. While Catholics do believe many things about God and his work in the world, the philosophical arguments only connect with the most basic question: whether or not God exists. That’s all. It is vital to explain that the discussion has nothing to do with grandfatherly figures with long white beards looking stern and leaning over the clouds to perform the occasional miracle.

We might talk about God in human images like “Father,” “King” or “Creator,” but at the foundation we refer to God as “Ipsum Esse Subsistens” or “the One Who Is Being Itself.” What God Is and that God Is are identical. God exists essentially. He is existentially essential. As Being Himself there is no difference between God’s essence and His existence. This might sound like philosophical mumbo jumbo, but it is important in the debate about God’s existence to realize that the philosophical proofs are not about Zeus-like sky beings but instead point to this simple fact: that God is not only the source of all that exists. He is the energy and life of existence itself.

In the Old Testament this essential existent being was revealed to Moses at the incident of the burning bush at which God revealed his name to be “I AM.” In the New Testament St. Paul expands the idea and says, “In him all things live and move and have their being.”

The philosophical proofs for God’s existence work as just that: philosophical proofs. They do not bring one to the fullness of Catholic beliefs about God, but they can help people to the first step: the acceptance of a Being who is one with existence itself, and even if the atheist still does not believe in God, at least he has a better understanding of the Catholics understanding of God.

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