Blog, Media

The Existence of God

The question of the existence of God is one that is part and parcel of contemporary society’s general interest in religion. All religious traditions consider the issue of some divine being, even those which reject the existence of a divine figure precisely because their religious outlook is formed on the basis of the lack of a divinity. The three main Western monotheisms affirm the existence of a single divine being which is the cause of the existence of all things. Nevertheless, there are important differences amongst these monotheisms on how to conceive of the divine being.

Given the close association of belief in the existence of God with religious belief more generally, it is often assumed in non-specialist discussions that belief in the existence of God is an article of faith and thus held on the basis of faith. Hence, belief in God is often taken to be on the same level as faith in the doctrines derived from revealed scripture, so that if we can reject scripture we can reject the existence of God. But if we look at some representative thinkers of Western monotheism, we see that for them the existence of God is not something that one holds on the basis of faith, but that one can have a rigid demonstration of God’s existence on the basis of natural reason. Indeed, St Thomas Aquinas, a representative Catholic theologian, argues in Summa Theologiae, Ia, qu. 2, art. 2 that the existence of God is not an article of faith but a preamble to the other articles of faith. This is to say, one must believe in God before one has faith, and that one’s faith builds upon belief in God. Hence, belief in God is not a part of faith, but precedes faith, and so is not held by faith. So how does one come by this belief?

Before proceeding it will be useful to distinguish some terminology. Often the terms ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ are used interchangeably when in fact they are distinct. One can have all sorts of beliefs, and they can be justified either on the basis of reason or on the basis of faith. So I believe that the earth is spherical because I have read the justifications of that outlook and I have seen pictures of the earth from space; this is a belief which is justified by natural reason. I believe that the floor beneath me will not collapse all of a sudden, not because I have investigated the integrity of the building materials or its design, but because it has remained solid for a substantial period of time and I have no reason to think it will not hold good in the future. This is a belief held by faith, since a number of factors come together to bring about my assent to that belief without direct confirmation. So belief is a kind of mental content, and one can assent to a belief either on the basis of natural reason providing a proof or on the basis of faith. Notice here that faith is not the attitude of believing without thinking; since in the belief that the floor will not collapse beneath me, it is hardly the case that I believe it without thinking, because if challenged as to why I believe this I could go on to give various reasons. But crucially the reasons do not directly amount to proof and so do not command the assent that demonstration by natural reason commands.

Turning then to belief in God, I have noted that in Western monotheism it was not held to be something justified by faith, and indeed we have seen one representative thinker who held that it is a belief that must be in place prior to faith. We can go through a number of important thinkers who all offered demonstrations for the existence of a divine being, to name a view from various religious traditions: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Scotus, Moses Maimonides, Avicenna (Ibn-Sina), Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Plantinga, Lonergan. These figures cover diverse religious traditions: Pagan, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, and range from the ancient world to the twentieth century. Their demonstrations of God are well known and well documented in specialist circles and contemporary commentators on religious issues really ought to be familiar with their thinking if they are to comment on issues pertaining to the existence of God with any sort of authority (even if they wish to reject all such demonstrations of God’s existence).

But why have thinkers throughout the ages thought that the existence of God can be demonstrated and that it is not an article of faith like the Trinity or the Incarnation?

I think that what has impressed so many thinkers is the sheer existence of things; the fact that things are but may as well not have been has stimulated many to consider whether or not what accounts for the existence of things can be just another of those things which may as well not be. This observation has often led thinkers to progress on a form of complex reasoning by which they conclude that the very existence of things is not something explicable by appeal to any one thing whose existence is such that it may as well not have been, but must be located in something whose existence is such that it cannot not be, i.e. something that is simply pure existence itself and not an entity participating for now in existence. This insight into things is something I think is to be found in some form in the major representatives of Western monotheism and it is brought to perfection in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas (I defend the viability of one of his proofs in my book Aquinas’s Way to God: The Proof in De Ente et Essentia).

My point here is not to go into the depths of specialist philosophical reasoning (I have done that elsewhere); rather, I wish to highlight that the question of the existence of God is not simply one of personal faith and so to be side-lined to some private realm. The existence of God has some heavyweight reasoning behind it, and such reasoning is natural, that is to say, it makes no appeal to revelation or private experiences; it simply appeals to realities and concepts such as the existence of things, causality, causal relations etc that any rational person can understand. This then entails that not only ought the existence of God be taken more seriously in the public sphere and not dismissed as a private belief, but that those who wish to dismiss belief in the existence of God as something irrational will have to deal with the very rational and indeed reasonable argumentation of the thinkers mentioned above. At the very least this should generate a worthwhile public discussion wherein views can be exchanged and engaged with on the issue without theists being dismissed as irrational, backwards, idiotic, and without atheists being dismissed as irreligious, sinful, evil.

Dr Gaven Kerr

Blog, News

Mary McAleese Criticises Infant Baptism

Mary McAleese has recently condemned the practice of infant baptism in the Catholic Church claiming it to be like a form of conscription. She recognises the spiritual significance of baptism viz the removal of original sin, but dismisses the importance of that for the child as simply ‘spiritual’ focussing instead on how through baptism the child becomes Catholic, and that this is a kind of tragedy since the child cannot make a decision on the issue: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/infant-baptism-is-enforced-membership-of-the-catholic-church-says-mary-mcaleese-1.3540706?mode=amp&__twitter_impression=true.

But let us consider Mrs McAleese’s position here. Infant baptism is a regular occurrence amongst many Christian congregations, and indeed for the Catholic Church it has been the practice for Centuries.

Why is it so common?

It is common precisely because of those realities that Mrs McAleese dismisses as spiritual. As Christians we believe that all people suffer from original sin. This is not because of something we have done, but because of something our ancestors did such that a blessing was denied them and thus denied us as well (just as if one’s ancestors made poor financial decisions that lost them their riches with the result that today one cannot enjoy the riches one’s ancestors would have passed on). Baptism is the sacrament by which original sin is removed and the recipient can enjoy God’s grace and proceed to enjoy the other sacraments of the Church. Quite simply, baptism is the first sacrament by which the child enters onto the path of salvation. It is certainly correct that the newborn cannot make a conscious decision to be baptised. But all of a newborn’s decisions are made for it by its parents, e.g. what food to eat, where to live, what to wear; indeed as the child grows, parents continue to make these decisions, even with respect to what school the child should go. Baptism is another one of those decisions that a parent makes for a child precisely because the parent has the child’s best interests at heart. Now a child can grow up and reject salvation; and that is the nature of free will. But given that we want to give our children the best kind of start, we have them baptised so that they can make the best start with salvation.

Of course, it is understandable that if one is not a Christian or dismisses spiritual realities, then none of this will make sense. But that is not a disagreement over whether or not children should be baptised, that’s a dismissal of Christianity tout court. In any case, Mrs McAleese certainly claims to be Christian, and so presumably she understands the inherent good in salvation and hence in infant baptism. One wonders then why she would dismiss it merely as something spiritual, as if the primary focus of the Christian life were on anything other than our being united with God after death. Baptism is the sacrament by which that can occur, so it seems strange that Mrs McAleese would think that a bad thing for our children.

Dr Gaven Kerr

Blog

Is Abortion Healthcare?

Often in the discussion over abortion it is argued that denying women abortion is a denial of healthcare. Hence, any laws which prevent access to abortion and any conscience rights for medical staff in places where abortion is freely available are taken to be realities that are contrary to providing healthcare for women. But we must interrogate this notion.

There are certain cases wherein pregnancy so severely impacts a woman’s health that her life is in danger, for instance an ectopic pregnancy. In such cases, the direct intention by which the medical staff act to care for the mother is to bring her to a state of health given a threat to her life. The direct intention is not to end the life of the child, since if by some sophisticated medical technology the child could survive the treatment that treatment would not be a failure simply for that; it would only be a failure if the mother’s health were not restored. In such circumstances it is clear that the health of the mother is the concern, and the termination of the pregnancy is an unintended consequence of the action. However, it is not clear how abortion as the direct and intentional killing of the unborn is healthcare. This is because, when acting to end the life of the child, the action is not directed at the health of the mother but at the termination of the child. Hence if the child were to survive such a procedure it would be a failure, in which case we have a situation quite contrary to the healthcare case.

Given what we have said, abortion as the direct and intentional killing of the child cannot be categorised as healthcare, precisely because such an action (i) does not target the mother’s health but the child’s life and (ii) the death of the child is essential to a successful abortion whereas it is not essential to the restoration of the mother’s health – though of course the child can die as an unintended circumstance of an action to restore health, but this doesn’t have to happen (and with greater medical sophistication one hopes that at some point in the future it will not happen). Therefore, without a clear articulation why one would think abortion is healthcare, it’s designation as such cannot be justified.

Dr Gaven Kerr

Media

Press Release on Supreme Court Ruling

The Iona Institute NI welcomes the decision of the Supreme Court in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Review Case published today.

Iona NI spokeswoman Tracy Harkin states

‘This formal ruling today by the supreme court, the highest legal opinion of the land, re-affirms Northern Ireland’s pro-life laws. As the ruling indicates, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission did not have standing to bring this case and as a result no formal determination of incompatibility of our pro-life laws with human rights was made. Once again we see affirmed that there is no human right to an abortion’.

‘We welcome the fact that this ruling makes clear that it is not for the courts to change our pro-life laws, but for legislators, whether at Stormont or Westminster; and we find it not a little ironic that in the same week that this ruling is released we had the emergency debate at Westminster where the government re-affirmed the fact that abortion is a devolved issue for NI’.

Tracy continues

‘We are thankful for the resilient defence of life that the majority of our local representatives across the political spectrum continue to exhibit. Our pro-life laws have saved 100,000 lives; lives that matter and that are worth something and which we value in our society. The pro-life movement in NI will continue to advocate for support and services that value the life, health, and dignity of both mother and unborn child in even the most difficult circumstances’.

‘We acknowledge the opinions of the judges that, personally speaking, they do believe there to be an incompatibility between our laws and human rights; but we welcome and praise their integrity that they did not let such personal opinions affect their legal judgement in this case. We would now encourage the NIHRC to focus its attention on the pressing human rights issues that affect our society, such as human trafficking and slavery, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and the abuses of human rights that occur for those stricken by severe poverty or who are on the margins of society’.

Ends.

For more information please contact Tracy Harkin 07531149891 or ionainstituteni@gmail.com