Aquinas for Atheists

St Thomas AquinasWe have the advantage of thinking after Emil Durkheim, who understood that religion is epiphenomenal to society: a mystification of society in order to reinforce the strictures and system that are necessary for a livable order. The pragmatic rules are prior to the mythology that seeks to give them an extra, supernatural warrant in order to scare those who are too stupid to see that everyone must hold up his end of the thing, or too selfish to care.

The fear of death is no doubt one of the main reasons for being religious. But another of the things we fear is social chaos. That is the entropy which soon threatens us with death. We want safety and security in this life and the (imagined) next. We want to ensure the social compact which put an end to the War of All against All. How? Religion/society threatened those who were too stupid or selfish with extra warrants. “Okay, smart guy! It’s not just that crime doesn’t pay. It’s also a question of God sending you to an unremitting hell after death! We may not be able to catch and convict you, but God will!”

But if we recognize all this, isn’t the jig up? Doesn’t it work only as long as we believe in the divine origin of morality and the divine enforcement of it? No. Thomas Aquinas explained how, even if God created humanity and decreed its laws, the latter stem pragmatically from the former. Because God made humans social animals, as Aristotle saw, a stable social system defined by laws (e.g., against stealing, murder, rape, defrauding, breach of contract) is needful. These God did not arbitrarily decree (as if he’d ordered: “Thou shalt walk upon thy hands every other Monday from 2-4:30 PM.”) but rather derived from the natural good of the creatures he had made. Even God dealt with morality inductively and even situationally—as Aquinas had learned from Aristotle.

The things that are right will vary with the individual and his situation. We must pursue the Golden Mean. Should we dive into the freezing river to rescue Little Nell? For Schwarzenegger it would not even be challenging. We should blame him if he had not dived in. For some pencil-neck like Barney Fife, it would be foolhardy and not praiseworthy. For the average man, it would be a genuine risk requiring courage, worth the effort since there is a real chance it might work. So the content of virtue varies with the individual; there is no “one size fits all” stipulation.

Indeed, all of prescribed moral behavior is to be based upon Natural Law, the rules of optimum functionality. How do things (society) work best? Where this principle goes astray is when one retains a false inference of Aristotle’s, namely that each bodily organ has but a single intended function so that to use it otherwise is wrong. For instance, the reproductive system. The erectile tissue seems to have been retained by evolution because it encourages sexual activity which adds to the species. If it weren’t for the function of reproduction, no erectile tissue. True enough. But does that mean it is immoral and perverse to make non-reproductive use of erectile tissue? Aquinas said yes: it is wrong to “misuse” sex for simply having fun with the one you love, as wrong as it would be to use your bare hands for a hammer. I reject this, of course, because non-procreative sex does no harm. To think it does is an error but does not discredit the Aquinas-Aristotle approach in general, just a poor application of it.

Thus, even for Aquinas, though the atheist, the secularist, may fail to see the ultimate divine origin of society and humanity, he can easily enough discern what is necessary for us to live peacefully together. There will be gray areas, but the theist admits he has many of those too, where neither reason nor revelation speaks clearly (as any Christian discussion of medical ethics will make abundantly clear).

The atheist cannot deter people with supernatural threats, but then they seem not to deter many believers anyway! In Tillich’s terms, the theist and the atheist may share generally or exactly the same laws and mores, but the former holds them theonomously, recognizing that the law of the Creator governing him is authentically the law of his own being,

I think this is what Leibniz intended when he said that, though we are in every respect determined, this means just the opposite of being forced against our will. Even our will itself is the product of forces over which we had no control. So we have our will and desires from a source outside ourselves (whether blind factors like DNA and environment or a personal Designer), but it is genuinely our will, and we rejoice to embrace it. Schleiermacher and Tillich would say that theonomy is the state of recognizing that we ourselves are not the source of our own selves, our will, and inclination, the acknowledgement of “absolute dependence.” On the other hand, “autonomy” would be simply the absence or neglect of that sense of dependence. “I am the master of my fate.” Well, on one level, yes. You have been dealt a particular hand of cards, and it is up to you to decide how to play them. Looking even more closely, we might find that our choices as to how to play them is already established by subtle traits pre-programmed into us, but at least we will be doing our “duty to self,” finding it satisfying, not an alien compulsion, as with someone under the gun: “Dance!”

We will not regard our inherited inclinations as a heteronomous command from an alien authority. The atheist can see the same moral system as believer but from the standpoint of autonomy. And that is good enough. Aquinas freely admitted that unaided reason could discern the requirements for the good life, and that Aristotle had.

What the theist has (he supposes) that the atheist lacks (and it may not be much of a lack after all) is a Kantian categorical imperative, a transcendent obligation to keep the moral law, his duty to his divine creator.

Is there a categorical imperative? No, but I want to keep the category, even though, or especially because, it is an empty one. That way we will remain aware of what our morality is not. We must remember the strictly hypothetical, prudential, conditional character of our duties and choices. I get this from Nietzsche, who said that there is no Truth, nothing in the Truth category. But if we eliminate the “Truth” category we will be tempted to forget the difference and to assume our fictions are the Truth. No! They are only fictions, and we mustn’t forget that. If we do, the result will be just what you are bemoaning: philosophers forgetting that they are merely framing hypotheses and coming to imagine they are absolute dogmas.

For the atheist, a pragmatist, the obligation is but a hypothetical imperative: Assuming you want to achieve A, then this is the best route to get there. But then maybe you want B. No one’s telling you which destination is best. The atheist seems to have no absolute duty to do the (strategically) best thing. He will not have “sinned” against anyone if he takes the longer route with less scenery. Precisely because there is no absolute duty hanging over him that would carry an absolute penalty for flouting it. The atheist can think freely and not cower in terror of flunking the theology exam right after he dies, and going to Hell.

Most atheists would likely say the “merely” hypothetical imperative is sufficient. Virtually everybody will feel it is in their best interests to adopt the purely pragmatic Social Compact: minimum regulations to safeguard our freedom to do our own thing. If I want to live in such a society, am I not obliged to heed the rules?

One might respond, yes, but only pragmatically. If you rejected social norms, as obviously many do, you might be jailed or killed by the majority who are acting not according to some transcendent moral authority but in the self-interest of the majority who (unlike the ACLU) don’t want things to unravel. It is a sense of fairness.

But then is that very sense of fairness to which we feel unconditionally obliged not also an advantageous fiction used to build the kind of society most of us want: a safe and free one? Yes, again, it is “merely” pragmatic, hypothetical. But so what? The question we have to ask is: Is it stable? Will such thinking secure the society everyone wants to live in?

Admittedly, issues like adultery, fornication, contraception, abortion, and capital punishment achieve far less agreement in practice. Are these acts always wrong or only if it has certain consequences? I think I see two issues here. First, these questions are genuinely ambiguous, demonstrating how our imposition of moral categories is to some degree arbitrary, since life is messier than textbook definitions. Yet it is only by using these definitions as Cartesian coordinates that we can understand the difficulties at all. Right and wrong do not inhere in the universe but are rather guidelines for human life based on how life seems to work best for most. Second, the ambiguity stems from the impossibility of anticipating all possible cases. Cases in which there seems to be no genuine ambiguity are those in which it seems impossible to imagine a scenario when the act would have beneficial effects for all involved: rape would be a prime example. We cannot envision a situation in which it would not degrade the rapist and violate the rapist’s victim.

social contract cartoon

One might even argue that to believe in a transcendent moral source of authority in God could open the door to chaos. Just look at the Shi’ite fanatic who thinks Allah has summoned him to set aside generally applicable moral rules such as that against killing the innocent. 

Divine Voluntarism is the flip side, or the hidden face, of moral Nihilism. When Origen said, “God knows who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews!” he meant that no man knows, no one knows who wrote it. Likewise, to say, “Only God can give moral guidance” is to despair of finding moral guidance from mortals. But in fact, we invent morality rather than discovering it. And this fiction, again, slips over into our “Truth” category, with terrible results.

Yes, the universal sovereign is the conscience of the individual. And a conscience is inevitably social, formed by mutual obligation between friends, customers, and the other partners in explicit or implicit contracts one has all over the place. Even the solitary conscience, the final court of appeal, need not atomize us or make us into individual atolls, but takes into account a broader social reference.

Again, justice is not inherent in the universe but rather is a grid we impose upon it, a game we have decided to play, and sometimes the rules are inevitably a bit arbitrary.

So says Zarathustra.

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5 Responses to Aquinas for Atheists

  1. jm2833530 says:

    Congratulations on an excellent essay that succinctly covers an amazing amount of ground, much appreciated!

  2. davidoliversmith says:


    Would rape be morally acceptable if after a world destroying cataclysm there were only two people left on earth and the woman was frigid, so that in order to restart the human race the man was required to rape her? This of course does not mean the act would be devoid of degradation and violation.


  3. JimWorkman says:


    I definitely agree with jm2833530. An excellent essay that states it quite well. All that remains is to expand it into 100 IQ language to make it more assessable to the general public. What we have here is a book written on a mustard seed.


  4. One day after a Super Bowl blowout
    RMP, good morning & hope you are doing well. Fine article and my only rejoinder/offering is that the reason the God-concept is so appreciated is because he doesn’t deteriorate like we do (hunched-over at keyboard, knees-cracking, eyesight-slowly-failing). I’m guessing that the Ancient of Days looked old to begin with?
    Keep up the good work and if you’re ever in Leander stop by for a meal and try to explain why I do the things I do to my mama for me… hardcore Nietzsche-stuff.
    ps. Did you mean for the posting font to be bold-ish? Just saying

  5. Tony says:

    The “morals” subject keeps coming up because it links to the unknowable subject of right and wrong. I don’t believe there are any objective absolute morals. What we call morals are temporal loose arrangements that serve and meet are current environmental, community, and interpretational needs. It is the zeitgeist at work. Slavery was fine then, but immoral now. Homosexuality immoral then, but accepted as part of the human condition now. A lot of Christians will claim that morals are absolute and God-given, but all “morals” are shades of grey and easily adjustable to new needs and realities. Killing babies may be “immoral”, but if I could time travel and smother little Adolf Hitler in his crib and save 50 million WW2 victims – I’ll do it in a second.
    The religious concept “Free Choice” is closely related to morals. Like a “good God”, free choice is a fantasy. People violate our agreed on concepts of morals all the time. There is no inherit evil intent – although it very much appears that way. What drives peoples behaviour is a combination of their biology and environment (particularly early upbringing). Within those two formative constraints they have little or no “free choice”. Coming back to Adolf – he and his follower never considered themselves “evildoers” (al la Dubya). In fact, they considered themselves as righteous defenders against the evils of Jewish Bolshevism.
    But, what I really came to this blog for, was information on RMP’s Colossal Apostle book which I just finished. Before reading the book I thought I had figured the Jesus story all out. Now, I’m confused again. Are the Gospels concerning Jesus of Nazareth 2nd century post Marcion products from the early orthodox church created to address Pauline Gnosticism/Marcionism while promoting the resurrection? I know the book deals with Paul, but how do we (or can we?) date Mark, Matthew and John in this context? A time line would be nice….

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