As I explained not so long ago, I go through seasons as a blogger, and as a thinker. A topos which is coming back to the fore, after a hiatus, is my study of Summa contra gentiles (SCG) by St. Thomas Aquinas. I started a blog a couple years devoted precisely to that study, but marriage, kids, and settling in the USA after almost a decade away kind of got in the way. Amidst the embers, I have (finally!) nearly completed Curtis Chang’s Engaging Unbelief, which discusses Aquinas’s apologetical strategy in SCG (as well as St. Augustine’s equally ambitious strategy in Civitate Dei–one more book I have yet to read!). I bought Chang’s book in my last year of college and, true to form, have not gotten around to reading it straight through until now. Even so, Chang’s book was a kind of talisman for me, and played a subtly providential role in drawing me to Taiwan and into the Catholic Church.
In any event, for this reason and for that, I’ve been drawn back into SCG and I wanted to share an interesting connection between some of its contents and Crude’s recent, very shrewd portrayal of an apologetical strategy for “mere theism.” Crude’s basic point is that, even if we give the atheist his objection that “something had to create God,” this still defeats atheism. A background axiom for Crude is that he’s a theist before a Catholic, which is to say that even if his particularly Christian beliefs were defeated, he’d still have every assurance of the truth of theism simpliciter. I agree, though I also have trouble fathoming what being a mere theist would even be like. Honestly, while I might not go “full rebel” if I lost hope in Christ, I would not find any compelling reasons to live a particularly moral life just because I knew Theos existed.
But I digress.
Aside from the “who created God?” objection, which Crude’s approach parries, another objection he parries is the “evil God” objection, made popular by Stephen Law. Crude’s approach is an admittedly kamikaze approach, as far as one’s particular religious commitments go, but it gets the job done. Meanwhile, as I argued in the discussion about Law’s “evil God” objection at Dr. Feser’s blog, I believe there are strong metaphysical reasons why Law’s argument is incoherent. Even though Crude’s approach is willing to tolerate the concept of an evil God in order that such a god would falsify atheism, I think such tolerance is a bridge too far. I’m fairly certain that Crude would agree, insisting that his “mere theism” approach is primarily a rhetorical strategy meant to short-circuit or circumvent the prevalent confusion on the part of atheists that atheism is vindicated until they are rationally convinced of the whole Christian theology of God. This atheistic gambit is not only logically defective but also disingenuous; as often as you hear that the arguments for the Christian God [ahem…] are as good as those for Zeus, Odin, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc., you’re hearing a refusal to acknowledge the fact that establishing the existence of Zeus or Odin would disprove atheism as handily as would proof of the Christian God.
So much, then, for the kamikaze approach to mere theism. What does Aquinas have to say about the putative existence of an “evil god”?
In book I, chapter 39, Aquinas argues that “there cannot be evil in God” (in Deo non potest esse malum). Atheists like Law must face the fact that, if the words are to retain any sense, “God” simply cannot be “evil”. As my comments in the thread at Feser’s blog aimed to show, despite how much he mocks “the privation theoy of evil,” Law himself cannot escape its logic: his entire argument requires that the world ought to appear less evil if it is to be taken as evidence of a good God. Even though he spurns the idea that evil is a privation of good, his account of an evil world is parasitic on a good ideal; this is no surprise, though, since all evil is parasitic on good (SCG I, 11). Based on the conclusions of several preceding chapters, Aquinas contends that “God is goodness, and not simply good [Deus autem est bonitas, non solum bonus]. There cannot, therefore, be any non-goodness in Him. Thus, there cannot possibly be evil in God.” He adds that
“since God is His own being, nothing can be said of Him by participation…. If, then, evil is said of God, it will not be said by participation, but essentially. But evil cannot be so said of anything as to be its essence, for it would lose its being, which is a good (Sic autem malum de nullo dici potest ut sit essentia alicuius: ei enim esse deficeret, quod bonum est)….”
This exposes one of the other key defects of Law’s notion of an evil God: insofar as that “god” would be the cause of all lesser evils, it would be the most evil thing, but the more evil a thing is, the less substantial, the less existent it is, and thus the less potent it is. If Law wants to take seriously the theological terms which he’s trying to hoist by their own petard, he would have to agree that a maximally evil god is not only ontologically incoherent, but also the worst possible candidate for being The Creator of All (though I am anticipating the upcoming argument). God could not be essentially evil, and thus could not be the exemplary evil which grounds the evil of all created things. As we already knew, Law is just blowing smoke.
There is a related argument against an evil God which Aquinas adduces, in book III, chapter 15, although it is basically just the summation of the prior fourteen chapters: “There cannot be any highest evil which would be the first source of all evils” (patet quod non potest esse aliquod summum malum, quod sit omnium malorum principium). Aquinas explains:
This is the case because, first of all, The highest evil ought to be quite dissociated from any good; just as the highest good is that which is completely separate from evil. Now, no evil can exist in complete separation from the good, for we have shown that evil is based upon the good. Therefore, the highest evil is nothing.” Besides, that which is a first principle is not caused by anything. But every evil is caused by a good, as we have shown. Therefore, evil is not a first principle.
I think Aquinas’s arguments speak for themselves, so I will spare you my glosses. However, to bring things full circle, I think it would not harm Crude’s “mere theism” apologetic to embed the axiom that, whatever form the God takes which falsifies atheism, it would be a good God.
While it is rhetorically effective to corner the atheist who secretly just wants to beat on Christianity with the veritable ineluctability of theism, I think there needs to be at least a minimum perimeter outside of which theism no longer makes any sense. One such fence post, I propose, is that theism can countenance no “evil god.”
But maybe I’m wrong.