Thus, all practical agnostics live their life as though God was not relevant to them; they live as atheists. This is in spite of the fact that many of the same people identify themselves as spiritual – that is to say, they possess a desire for the divine. This leads them to the conclusion that what they believe is their own personal decision and thus they are able to justify any act or truth based upon a spiritual sentiment – which is the highest law of belief.
Both positions are in direct contradiction with the belief that man is able to rationally choose to believe in God and lead to the conclusion that the belief in God is based merely upon an intrinsic need to believe in God. It is against this common strain of belief that an argument will be developed. To begin, it will be necessary to examine the underlying principles of modernism. Following this, an examination of the consequences of these principles will be developed. Finally, a response will be given to the modernist’s principles.
In short, the position that will be defended is that modernism fails to sufficiently understand the desire for God on its own principles, and that the desire for the divine signifies that the belief in God is rational.
The Modernist begins with a relatively simple proposition when doing theological reflection: that man cannot know with certainty whether God exists. Though simple in form, this proposition’s effects are far-reaching and have vast consequences. In order to understand this proposition’s effects it will be necessary to examine the philosophic underpinnings of such a belief.
This theological proposition is underpinned by the Kantian philosophy that man cannot know anything except the phenomena that he senses. Knowledge in this sense refers to that which is held with certainty. In this philosophy since man does not sense essences, there can be no knowledge of the things in their essence (secundum esse, noumena but rather only knowledge of the things as they appear (phenomena).
Further, if something is not sensible or has no sensible phenomena it cannot be known whatsoever. Since, by definition, God is above the realm of the senses and he has no sensible phenomena – it follows that he cannot be known by man. There can be neither knowledge that God exists, nor knowledge about God if he does exist. Thus, not only is man prohibited from knowledge of God, but he is also inhibited from knowledge about God.
However in the face of this admission – that man is unable to know even about God – the agnostic modernist believes that man desires God imminently by his own nature. The modernist names this desire for God ‘a religious sentiment’. It is clear that, in this aspect both the Catholic and the Modernist can agree – at least in principle, though not in conclusion.
Newman argues that man has within himself a “great internal teacher of religion…[which is] Conscience.”1 Further the Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to say that “the desire for God is written in the human heart, … only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for”2 Both the church and the modernist acknowledge that man has a deep desire for God; however, the latter because of his underlying agnosticism believes that this desire is absolutely insatiable – at least in this life – because man cannot come to know that God exists much less anything about his essence in this life. In the end his agnosticism would prevent him from engaging this desire on a rational level, but rather relegate this desire to his animal nature.
Thus in the agnostic point of view man is left as a mystery to himself consisting of a deep-seated paradox: he desires to know God but he cannot. What then are we to make of this paradox in which man desires something that he cannot know? How does the modernist then explain the existence of multitude of religions in all cultures throughout the world?
It is from this paradox that the agnosticism which is claimed devolves into practical atheism. Faith becomes simply a manifestation of the religious “sentiment which originates from a need of the divine.” The objects of faith are thus utterly personal, immanent, subjective, mutable, and creations of man’s own will. There is for the Modernist an understanding “that no fact can ante-date the need which produced it [therefore] …the fact must be posterior to the need” which produced it.3 Man’s concept of God is a creation of our own faculties and an emanation from our own vital needs. This means that even if there is a God, he is certainly not the God who is worshipped in religious services or who is the object of prayer.
Consequently, faith becomes at best a wager and at worst a lie, which we tell ourselves in order to cope with the reality that we cannot know with certainty that God exists. For the practical and educated man it takes the form of a wager, in the case of the uneducated man it is an accepted lie. In the case of the educated man, since, there is no way for us to know whether there is a God, much less the morality pleasing to such a God, we are forced to wager. If there is a God, and if we have happened to come across the correct religion, and if we have practiced it well, then we can expect to be rewarded eternally.
On the other hand, if there is a God and if we choose not to follow his commands or do not know them, we can expect to be damned eternally. If there is no God, there will be neither reward nor punishment. We make our wager through how we live our life. An agnostic however is unable to determine assertively how he should live his life because he does not admit the possibility of knowing God; therefore, in this paralysis he chooses to live as one who believes in the last possibility. It is for this reason he is a practical atheist.The modernist believes then that, religion simply develops as an outward manifestation of these immanent sentiments. It occurs when two or more people have the same feeling or sentiment towards or against something; who have, in short, accepted the same lie that they know some truth about the divine. Religion is for the modernist, the modern day equivalent of the noble lie of Plato’s Republic, told to the citizens to keep them placated.4 Religion and faith are useful to culture because they provide a pacifier to quiet the incessant, insatiable, and immanent need for the divine5 for those who cannot cope with the reality as the agnostic sees it: that man is utterly alone and cut off from true knowledge of the divine. Moreover there is no such thing as unchangeable truth especially about religious doctrine because the doctrine is only secondary to the primary immanent desires of man.
Those who are able to rise above this and recognize this lie or the paralysis of the wager are led to an even more miserable state if they continue to hold to their underlying principles, for then they are left with the present day apathetic agnosticism. This even more deadly agnosticism consists of an attitude of apathy in man which does not even seek to find the truth insofar as he is able. Since he denies that absolute truth is possible, begins to dismiss even the immanent need that he finds within himself.
They are those who claim that they will not wager, which is of course a wager in itself. When they do this they deny their own nature as rational creatures. This is the unfortunate state of many men today whether by their own volition or because circumstances have been led to this conclusion: that God is not relevant. Nietzsche rightly anticipates this understanding of the irrelevance of God in in his infamous passage about the man with a lantern. His meaning in this context is clear: We have killed the God we have created unto ourselves and thus “God is dead”6 We have every right to destroy God because we ourselves are his creators.
On the other hand the Church sees this desire as indicative (as a sign) of the reality of God. We will now attempt to understand this claim. First, it seems that all desires have a proper end, or an object that will fulfill the desire. Thus, when a man is thirsty his desire is for something which will quench his thirst. This is true even when the subject who desires is unaware of the proper object of his desire because of a lack of knowledge or other imperfection.
For example when an infant cries it only knows that there is some discomfort, some imbalance be it hunger, thirst, or fright, which is disturbing its homeostasis – it does not see these imbalances as a desire for food, drink, or the comfort of its mother. However, it is clear that the proper objects of infant’s desire do in fact exist apart from them being desired by the infant.
Second, it will be helpful to clarify the causal relationship between that which is desired and that which desires. We must examine whether (1) the desire within the subject causes the object of desire to be, or (2) the object of desire causes the desire within the one who desires, or (3) whether there is some other relationship between the subject and the object.
In the first alternative, any and every desire’s object must lie outside the subject who desires it else he would not desire it but already have it. Because desire implies a deprivation of some object to have the object would mean that there would be no deprivation. But subjects cannot cause what they do not have in actuality. Therefore, the object of desire cannot be imminently caused by the one who desires.
Of coarse man may create the conditions necessary to fulfill his desires by taking some action, for example, bringing food to the mouth when one is hungry. In this case he is an instrumental efficient cause of the desire’s fulfillment, but he cannot be the formal, material, or final cause of the desire’s fulfillment since this would mean that the thing desired was already within him. Desires therefore are not the causes of their objects of fulfillment.
The second alternative is closer to the reality, yet is still lacking in some way. If the object of desire were to absolutely cause the desire within the one that desires then we could not desire what we do not already know exists. For example, a man could not be thirsty if he had never encountered something that satiates his thirst. But as mentioned above, it seems we have some desires from our earliest stages.Further, animals have sensual desires which are not known to them but are acted upon. Further, there would be no end to our desires if this were absolutely the case. It would seem that the object might be considered the material cause of the desire insofar as it is has the potentiality to be desirable. There is a precondition of the object desired that it be desirable. Thus we can claim, at least, that not all objects are the efficient, formal, or final causes of their being desired.
Therefore, since it seems that all subjects act towards the object of their desires, in that they are moved towards them while at the same time neither they nor the object of desire is the cause of their desires formally, or finally. To explain the formal and final causality of desires requires that there is something that is both desirable in itself and a cause of desire. Only that which is lacking in no perfection could have such capability.
Thus God is necessary of himself as both the final cause of our desires and the object of our desire. Further because we can know our desires, we can know God as existing outside and above those desires, and thus knowledge of God is not impossible but in reality fully present to us.
Thus, agnosticism believes that the cause of belief in God is fueled by the need for God. Moreover, since we can know nothing of God, we worship not the true God (if one does indeed exist) but a God we have created unto ourselves. We worship not the Lord of the Universe but in reality our own creation.
We concede that the modernists are correct in understanding that man has a desire for God, however, we draw the conclusion that far from making us worship a false god created unto ourselves that this is in fact a sign of the existence of God who is both the final cause of all desires and infinitely desirable. Thus it is rational to believe in God.