Aquinas and the alleged "presumption of atheism"


Did Thomas Aquinas say that we should all have a presumption of atheism?

I have in front of me a coursebook in philosophy of religion from the University of Otago. I won’t name the author, who teaches a summer school on this subject. I will say, however, that he is someone who in my personal experience has always been very cordial and fair in discussion. In making the allegation that Thomas Aquinas accepted the presumption of atheism (and so perhaps theists today should as well), this fairness crumbled more than a little. 

Near the beginning of the book, the author starts out with the question of where we should start in the discussion of theism. He claims that we should start out with “the presumption of atheism.” He draws on Anton Flew’s phraseology and endorses his conclusion, but I am not imputing the following claims about Aquinas to Flew as I have not yet read Flew’s paper “the presumption of atheism.” The presumption of atheism is the answer to the author’s question as to which position should “win by default.” That position, he says, is atheism – or rather it is the “negative atheism” once held by Antony Flew, which by his own admission is more like agnosticism, i.e. a lack of positive belief in any god or gods. In other words, just start by neither believing that God exists, or that God does not exist, and only affirm one of those options later if evidence is presented.

A presumption is only a starting point, and not a conclusion. But look at what comes next. The author, claiming Flew as his source, argues that Aquinas endorsed the presumption of atheism. He quotes the following from Thomas Aquinas. Note that the first few words in bold are not included in the quote in the coursebook:

Objection 2: Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

He quotes this because he is claiming that Aquinas, like the author, accepted the “presumption of atheism,” as a starting point. The author immediately says:

The metaphysics underlying Aquinas’s view is not ours, but the policy he is adopting [note: The author says that the above position is the one that Aquinas himself adopts] is identical with the presumption of atheism. Flew’s point seems to be that if one of the greatest Christian theologians were happy to make this his starting point, why should the theist of our own day demur?

But Aquinas’ very next words are: “ON THE CONTRARY,” and he then directly rebuts the objections he has just hypothetically posed, explaining why they fail and he does not accept them:

Reply to Objection 2: Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

In fairness, the author did note on the previous page that Aquinas uses the method of posing arguments by first posing their denial, and then by arguing against that denial, but what are we to make of the above claim about Aquinas making the presumption of atheism his “starting point”? He does no such thing (not here at least), as he explicitly rejected the very same objection that this lecturer is drawing our attention to. He starts out, not by telling the reader what the starting point is, but by outlining some objections that fail. He puts the objection that we do not need to appeal to God out there, rejects it, and then we have our author telling the reader that Aquinas used this objection, the posing of the presumption of atheism, as his starting point. In my humble estimate, it doesn’t bode well for what follows, given that the claim appears in a section of the course headed “preliminary issues.” Teachers should place truth on a pedestal, fearful above (nearly) all else of being perceived as anything less than fully honest.

Glenn Peoples

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2 thoughts on “Aquinas and the alleged "presumption of atheism"

  1. I think he failed to note Aquinas’ style used in his Suma. It appears that he overlook that Aquinas raise objections and answer them. I do not see how he could have miss that if he read his Summa.

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