by John Kish, The Catholic University of America
“Why would anyone believe in God? It’s just a stupid crutch for people who can’t face reality.” Those words hung in the air on a warm September evening, as my friends and I walked back home from a long day of eighth grade classes. The oldest kid in the group, Cole, was running a stick across the neighbor’s fence as he continued to voice his thoughts. “I just don’t get how people still buy it. The only reason Christians still exist is because their parents are so strict and force them to be brainwashed by private schools. I feel bad for you, John. You had it pretty rough with a family like that.” I shrugged my shoulders, not knowing what to say. I was the black sheep of the group, being the only one to come from a private (and worse, Catholic) elementary school. The other boys murmured assent, and a grinning jokester named Thomas decided to seize the moment. “Hey, at least he’s at a public school now. No more getting molested by priests.”
As Christians in the modern world, it’s a difficult but unavoidable task to face the problem of reconciling our beliefs with society. Because religion is seen as irrational and God as unprovable, there are two errors that occur in the way that we think and talk about our faith. The first is rationalism. In a word, it’s the belief of atheists and agnostics who say that it’s unreasonable to believe in a God- after all, there’s no scientific experiment that can prove His existence. Like many people in the affluent DC suburb that I grew up in, rationalists believe that God’s existence is just a fairytale made up in order to justify corrupt and perverse structures of authority. On the other hand, encountered in more fundamentalist Christian communities, is fideism. Fideism is actually the tacit acceptance of rationalism – because belief in God has been considered to be “replaced” by science, fundamentalists simply bite the bullet and reject science in favor of blind faith. These two views are different sides of the same coin- that belief in God is irrational and cannot be justified.
But this is a false view of reality. In fact, the Catholic Church firmly holds that belief in God can be justified through reason. This is the domain of natural theology, which tries to understand God through contemplating the things of our existence. Indeed, countless intelligent men across history, from scientists to philosophers, became and remained Christians thanks to the logical strength and cogent arguments of natural theology. Consider the example of Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest who first developed the Big Bang theory in the 1920s. Another example is G.K. Chesterton, the famous English writer who converted to Catholicism despite living in the golden period of scientific and modernist optimism. Both of these men were exceptionally brilliant, and spent their lives surrounded by a secular European elite that had long abandoned the faith. Perhaps there’s something more to the idea of rational belief than we give credit for.
Natural theology in the modern day, however, has been denied its fair share of both serious engagement and attention. This can come from prominent pundits like the New Atheists, a group of public speakers, writers, and thinkers that claim to “debunk religious fallacies once and for all.” Men like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (whose brother Peter Hitchens ironically remains a public figure of conservative Anglicanism) have made profitable careers through debating Christian arguments and apologists. However, the New Atheists excel more at attacking straw men than genuine defenses of faith – more on that later.
This injustice is also enabled by many Catholic high schools (like mine) that brush over any real chance to intellectually challenge their students in the faith. While I could write a whole other paper on the state of modern Catholic education, the lamentable reality is that too many schools fail to truly engage with students on WHY they believe what they believe. It’s simply accepted with a relativistic shrug that people will believe what they want to, and that truth has very little to do with it. This has left us with a generation of impoverished students, struggling to answer one of the most important questions in our lives – that of the existence of God.
I’ve wrestled with this question for a very long time. Growing up as a conservative Catholic in the suburbs of a secular and liberal DC meant that I was always part of a small minority (just not in the way that gets me into an Ivy League school). As a teenager, I was constantly torn between the faith of my family and the worldview that my friends and schoolmates grew up with; a dismissive and caustic attitude that saw faith as ridiculous and God as an excuse for the abuses of power frequently associated with organized religion. For the longest time, I was always sabotaged by a little voice in my head: that my classmates were right, that my family was wrong, and that I had been played for a fool.
That dynamic of struggle between two worldviews created the sparks that began my intellectual journey. As I entered high school, I found myself spending hours on the internet listening to conversations, debates, and speeches between Atheists and Christians. I relished in the back and forth, the logical arguments, the clash of minds that was driven by a desire for the truth. I craved the (unfashionable) idea that something was true, and that it didn’t depend on our background, preferences, or social status in order to be true. However, things began to grow stale. I encountered the same talking points, over and over, with neither side conceding or pushing a point to its logical conclusion. It felt less like a search for the truth and more like a verbal cage match to satisfy one’s ego. Did any of this matter, when no one was willing to change their mind? Do our beliefs depend on reality or is it all a pointless game to defend our own ultimately irrational positions? This disillusionment felt despairing, and I didn’t know how to find a way through it.
As I entered college, however, things began to look up. Coming into contact with classical works such as Plato’s Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics pointed me toward new perspectives and ways to think about our reality. And it was during this renewal of intellectual formation that I found out about Edward Feser. Feser has been described by the National Review as “one of the best contemporary writers on philosophy”, and it’s a well-earned title. He’s written a great amount, having authored books, articles, and blog posts on some of the most difficult subjects that humans can attempt to know. And he excels in quality as well as quantity. Feser’s clear and rigorous thinking alongside his rare ability to explain complex subjects well means that his writings are consistently worth their weight in gold.
I received a copy of his book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, as a gift during my freshman year of college. I read a little bit of it at the time, but then got carried away by the all-encompassing student life of work, sports, and being with friends. When quarantine began, however, I decided to finish what I had started.
Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God is the best introduction to, and defense of, natural theology written for the modern reader. Feser’s book lays out arguments for God’s existence from the standpoint of five great thinkers in history: Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Gottfried Leibniz. Each argument is meant to provide a watertight way of logically moving from something in ordinary life (such as the reality of change or of composite things) to the conclusion that God must exist. Furthermore, Feser proves with each argument how this God in question MUST have the divine characteristics that Christians claim. This is to say, that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Despite the fact that God can be approached from 5 different arguments, Feser painstakingly proves that each argument must point toward the same exact being. The God of Aristotle’s argument is the same God of Leibniz’s argument.
Alongside its logical rigor and intellectual strength, the Five Proofs stands apart from other works thanks to its accessibility. Unlike many obscure, convoluted, and jargon-filled works from previous eras, the Five Proofs goes to great lengths to make natural theology approachable. Feser’s arguments build upon well-crafted introductions to various philosophical concepts, such as potentiality and actuality. Like the best of teachers, he gives you the tools you need to truly engage with his reasoning. This is not to say, however, that the Five Proofs is a simple or easy work. It is not. Even as a philosophy major, it took me a good deal of time to grasp each concept, work everything out, and truly understand what Feser was saying. This is a book best read in small pieces, done slowly and with care.
Just as nobody is below the arguments of Feser’s work, nobody is above it either. Feser’s mastery of scientific and philosophical knowledge allows him to address potential rebuttals from the likes of Richard Dawkins as well as quantum physicists. As Feser demonstrably shows, the assumptions of natural theology are not in conflict with science – on the contrary, scientific inquiry actually requires the metaphysical principles that the Five Proofs appeal to.
Feser’s book is exactly what is needed to cause a sea-change in debates about the existence of God. Intellectually honest atheists and agnostics need to read this book- not because it says they’re wrong and that theists are right, but because the arguments within are the best place to begin having truly productive conversations. The endless wheel-spinning of previous debates between theists and atheists has got to end, and Feser’s Five Proofs is exactly the tool for the job. Likewise, faithful theists of all stripes need to read this book. Rather than triumphantly resting in our own self-satisfaction, theists need to understand WHY the debates on God got caught up in the first place. The rise of the New Atheists was only possible, despite good intentions, due to the failure of too many faithful Christian schools to give their students the classical education they need and deserve.
Five Proofs of the Existence of God begins with Feser’s most important and most fleshed-out argument: the Aristotelian approach. This chapter is the one of the largest in the book, and for good reason. In order to understand Aristotle’s argument (and eventually the arguments to follow), there are various concepts that must be explained from the beginning. To be honest, three of the other four arguments essentially follow the same line of reasoning as Aristotle’s proof. With the exception of St. Augustine’s approach, understanding the bulk of the Aristotelian argument will have you well on your way to getting through the rest of the book. Feser takes his time carefully here, introducing each philosophical tool with clear connections to ordinary life, and then connecting each tool to the argument’s logic as a whole. Once every piece of the puzzle has been put together, he sums up the chapter with a “formal proof” – a technical restatement that uses sound syllogisms to show exactly what he is saying. In this way, people with all levels of familiarity with philosophical reasoning can appreciate the content of the argument at hand. I’ll make a brief summary of the Aristotelian argument, but this synopsis will, of necessity, gloss over many important clarifications that Feser makes throughout the chapter.
The Aristotelian argument begins with a simple observation: change occurs. A cup of coffee cools on a classroom desk, and leaves fall to the ground. The existence of change is very real (and Feser will establish why arguments to the contrary don’t make sense). By understanding that things change, we are introduced to the ideas of potentiality and actuality. Change is an example of something actualizing a potential; the coffee cup has the potential to be colder than it currently is, and it actually becomes lukewarm as it drops in temperature. This reality has an important implication; all change requires a cause in order to move from being potentially real to being actually real. A cup of coffee doesn’t cool itself; it’s only through the cold air in the classroom that the cup can really lose its heat.
In understanding this process of things being changed, we grasp what philosophers call a “causal series.” The coffee cup cools down because the air conditioning was turned on, which was made possible because I flipped on the switch to activate it, which was further caused by my desire to escape the summer heat, so on and so forth. What I’ve just described is known as a linear causal series; where one thing occurs after another and each “link” in the chain has its own power to cause the next link. I may have turned on the A/C, but it still has power to cool down the room without me doing anything.
Alongside a linear causal series, there is something more fundamental to understanding the actualization of potential: a hierarchical causal series. As opposed to the previous example, a hierarchical causal chain is dependent on a constant and unchanging first link. Think again about the coffee cup resting on a desk. The cup is held up by the desk, which is held up by the floor, which is held up (eventually) by the earth itself. Without the first member in that series (the earth), it doesn’t matter how many desks or floors are underneath the cup. It won’t be stable, and it will have no ability to stay in place. In other words, the earth actualizes the potential of the cup to be where it is. The “hierarchy” in the hierarchical causal series means that everything depends on the supporting first link, the cornerstone of the entire setup. And hierarchical causes are NOT dependent on time. The desk holding up the cup doesn’t just wait until a floor is placed under it – every link depends on the first cause to remain where it is.
With all of this in mind, we arrive at an important question: how is the coffee cup even here? That is to say, what actualizes the potential of the coffee cup’s existence? The linear causes are obvious; it was made in a factory, using materials that were mined from the earth, etc. But that doesn’t really answer the question. What keeps the cup from simply not existing? Something must be actualizing the potential of this cup to exist, and to continue existing, at any moment in time. The cup can only exist because of the atoms that make it up, which can only exist because of the subatomic particles that make them up, and so on. All of the links in this chain have to be held up by something that isn’t dependent on another cause. The desk and the floor holding up the cup are useless without firm and solid earth beneath them; just so, the atoms and subatomic particles are unable to keep the cup in existence on their own. So, we must conclude that the actualized potential of existing things requires a hierarchical series. The buck has to stop somewhere.
When we acknowledge that a hierarchical causal series is dependent on an all-important first cause, we arrive at the Aristotelian notion of the unmoved mover. Something must exist that, by definition, actualizes potentials without needing to be actualized. Something must be able to keep that coffee cup in existence, without needing something else to keep it in existence. And this unmoved mover, Feser concludes, must be God.
This is only a brief overview of the Aristotelian argument, and there are definitely objections that could be made. Doesn’t the earth rely on the laws of gravity to keep it in place? Wouldn’t it then imply that God relies on scientific laws in order to exist? This is a good question, and one that I personally struggled with. To save time and give the author his fair due, I’ll say this: read the book. Feser answers all of these objections and more, clearly demonstrating how the first cause must necessarily be independent from any other causes. The objection of “What caused God?” is cleanly resolved alongside the various misunderstandings that it relies upon.
After carefully laying out a given argument for why God must exist, Feser continues with precision to elaborate on how, following the premises already covered, God must also exist with the traits that theists attribute to him. He covers a great deal of qualities, including but not limited to: unity, simplicity, immutability, immateriality, eternity, necessity, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, will, love, and incomprehensibility. He even manages to sneak in a defense of why God is rightly referred to as being male. And to top it all off, he firmly establishes how all of the five arguments must point to the same qualities. Despite their differences in starting points, each and every proof arrives at the same conclusion.
After all of the explanations and demonstrations required to argue for the necessity of a God, Feser includes a third section to each chapter — rebutting potential objections. It’s this section that, to my mind, takes the Five Proofs from being a great apologetic work to being a masterful one. It would be enough of a challenge to simply articulate a coherent argument for God, and more so to show how said argument leads to the divine attributes, but Feser manages to take it one step further. Addressing objections from fields as separate and complex as Humean causal theory and quantum physics, there is no challenger left standing to doubt each proof’s premises, logic, or conclusions. If you read through a given argument and find yourself confused, don’t worry. More often than not, Feser will raise your objection in a better way than you could yourself — just to knock it down with that much more force.
The rebuttal section is arguably the best part of the book. In it, Feser stands above the crowd as he directly confronts the flawed reasoning of objectors such as the New Atheists. He meticulously presents the common arguments found in atheistic literature from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to Bertrand Russell’s famous Why I am Not a Christian. The main problem with these works, Feser notes, is their consistent misrepresentation of theistic arguments. For example, the concept of the unmoved mover is unfairly portrayed as relying on the principle that “all things have a cause.” Atheists then conclude that either God Himself must have a cause, or that the universe caused itself without Him. But as the Aristotelian proof shows, this is a strawman argument. The real premise is that everything that moves from potential to actual requires a cause, which God as the unmoved mover is not subject to. Feser’s clarification of this and many other points shows the stunning failure of too many modern thinkers to truly engage with natural theology, further proving its value and importance for education.
Five Proofs of the Existence of God is not an easy book. Even as a philosophy nerd, I struggled often to read and reread lines that flew over my head. But while the work may be tough to chew on, it’s worth every bite. It doesn’t matter if you think philosophy is useless or you’re a philosophy professor, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a die-hard atheist or a true-believer Christian. Reading Five Proofs of the Existence of God will leave you with your perspective lifted and your mind changed for the better.
I’ve found during my time so far in college that students have a life-changing opportunity- to spend four years devoted to the highest things that true education has to offer. This is an opportunity that none of my ancestors had; they were farmers and peasants that could only dream of this kind of life. At the same time, it’s an opportunity that won’t come by again; entering into the “real world” after school means that we’ll have less time to encounter the greatest ideas and works in history. This is the chance to push yourself, to take on challenges that will reward you for the rest of your life. I believe that reading Five Proofs of the Existence of God is indeed one of those rewarding challenges.
I’ll continue to search and explore, making the most of this amazing journey that God has gifted to me. I’m confident that I’ll find more treasures like this book. For now, though, the choice to read is up to you. Take the leap.