by Anthony Kenny

There are three reasons to believe that our freedom is before God: 1) We know from logic and reason that God exists. 2) Miraculous historical events show God has communicated Himself to mankind. 3) When people explain why they don’t believe in God, they generally give bad reasons.

The third reason is also why we can tell our children to believe in God as if there was no question about it. Children should be told about irrational people, like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, only when they need to know. These Big Bad Wolves were educated in a tradition created by the Enlightenment and have always assumed that religion is not true. They are crackpots with whom it is impossible to have a rational conversation.

Anthony Kenny, however, was educated by the Roman Catholic Church. He was a priest before he became a professor of philosophy and a nonbeliever. Is it possible to have a rational conversation with him? Does he give better reasons for not believing than the Big Bad Wolves?

The truth of the neo-Darwinian evolution of human beings is an article of faith in the Enlightenment religion, and the biggest difference between them and Professor Kenny can be found in his chapter titled “Human Beings.” The following quote from Kenny casts doubt on the absolute truth of evolution. If human beings have something animals do not have at all, humans could not have evolved from animals:

What is peculiar to our species is the capacity for thought and behavior of the complicated and symbolic kinds that constitute the linguistic, social, moral, economic, scientific, cultural and other characteristic activities of human beings in society. The mind is a capacity, not an activity: it is the capacity to acquire intellectual abilities of which the most important is the mastery of language. The will, in contrast with animal desire, is the capacity to pursue goals that only language-users can formulate. (p. 69)

I am not sure I understand the distinction between “capacity” and “activity.” Whatever he means, his comments no more shed light on the question “What is a human being?” than saying human beings are rational animals. The indefinability of the mind and mystery of a human being is why humans are embodied spirits or spirited bodies, at least to people with whom a rational conversation is possible. This does not necessarily mean human beings did not evolve from animals because it is possible that animals possess the potential of having intellects and wills. It is also possible that human beings possess spiritual souls and animals do not, making the evolution of human beings impossible. Regardless of these possibilities, people who deny that human beings are embodied spirits are obsessively and irrationally in love with the methodology of science. Kenny does not say that human beings are embodied spirits in so many words, but he comes close:

Human beings and their brains are physical objects; their minds are not, because they are capacities. This does not mean they are spirits. A round peg’s ability to fit into a round hole is not a physical object like the round peg itself, but no one will suggest that is it is a spirit. It is not any adherence to dualism, but a simple concern for conceptual clarity, that makes me insist that a mind is not a physical object and does not have a length and a breadth. (p. 71)

In this chapter, Kenny takes the trouble to refute Cartesian dualism—the idea that human beings are pure spirits and ride their bodies like CEOs ride their desks. Cartesian dualism is often criticized by materialists and atheists when they discuss religion because it is a straw man. Kenny believes in the mystery, indefinability, and spirituality of man, but downplays his views, in order, I suppose, to make the book marketable. Marketing is the delivery of goods and services to the consumer and effective marketing requires a decision about the product’s market position.

We can also learn about religion from Kenny, something that never happens when you read the writings of those who feel mankind would be better off without religion. The following quote is from the chapter titled “Religion”:

In my view, faith is not a virtue, but a vice, unless certain conditions are fulfilled. One is that the existence of God can be rationally established without appeal to faith. Accepting something as a matter of faith is taking God’s word for its truth: but one cannot take God’s word for it that He exists. (p. 59)

Kenny has concluded that the existence of God cannot be proven. The most logically rigorous proof is the cosmological argument, which is based on the metaphysical concepts of being and causality. In effect, Kenny is saying the cosmological argument is refutable. Since the Roman Catholic Church teaches that we can prove God exists, this would mean there is a non-theological and non-biblical argument against the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to infallibility.

Kenny’s uncle was the editor of the English Jerusalem Bible and a teacher at the seminary Kenny went to in Liverpool. When he graduated at the age of 18, he enrolled at his uncle’s alma mater, the Gregorian University in Rome. He rubbed shoulders with Hans Küng, and was taught by Bernard Lonergan and Frederick Copleston, to repeat some names he mentions in his autobiography (The Path From Rome, Oxford University Press, 1986). When he was ordained he took the anti-modernist oath, but declined to take it again for his doctorate. In the following quote he explains why:

In the 1950s, candidates for a doctorate in Papal universities had to swear to a document called the anti-modernist oath, which contained the statement that it was possible to prove the existence of God. Though I had submitted a dissertation and passed the examinations, I was unwilling to proceed to the degree because I did not wish to take this oath. If God’s existence could be known, I very much doubted whether it would be known by way of proof. Since then I have studied arguments for the existence of God presented by many philosophers, and I have not yet found a convincing one. (p. 31)

Maybe Kenny thinks you can’t prove God exists because you can’t prove that the universe makes sense and can be understood. This is a valid objection, notwithstanding the success we have had in science by making the assumption of the intelligibility of the universe. However, we can use this objection to refute atheists who claim they are being rational and believe the universe is not absurd.

In the chapter titled “Why I Am Not an Atheist,” Kenny discusses three cosmological changes or transformations: the development of language in human beings, the origin of life, and the big bang. Since there is no good natural explanation for these changes, he argues, you can’t exclude the possibility of a supernatural explanation. Concerning the origin of language he says:

If we reflect on the social and conventional nature of language, we find something odd in the idea that language may have evolved because of the advantages possessed by language users over non-language users. It seems as absurd as the idea that banks may have evolved because those born with an innate cheque-writing ability were better off than those born without it. (p. 25)

This is why common sense and intuition leads non-philosophers to be theists and not atheists. Since human beings are embodied spirits, the existence of humans cannot be explained by the biology of reproduction and evolution. A supernatural being must have created human beings. Kenny argues in favor of a third option known as agnosticism.

The Lonely Crowd is a landmark sociological analysis that identifies the personality types called inner-directed and outer-directed. Atheists are obviously inner-directed types because they don’t care what other people think. Agnostics are outer-directed types, and feel more comfortable saying they don’t know whether or not God exists since so many people believe in God and believe their purpose in life is to serve God. I think this is why some people are atheists and others are agnostics.

Concerning the origin of the universe Kenny says:

The most fundamental reason in favor of postulating an extra-cosmic agency of any kind is surely the need to explain the origin of the universe itself… It is not the existence of the universe that calls for explanation, but its coming into existence. (p. 28)

Kenny is referring to the big bang, which was an extremely dense fireball of elementary particles that began our universe. Kenny agrees with the following metaphysical proposition: A being which begins to exist at some point in time needs a cause. If you assume that the big bang was a change from nothingness to a being or many beings, then the existence of an “extra-cosmic” agency can be inferred. However, if the big bang was preceded by a vacuum, this inference is not necessary since a vacuum may not be nothingness. A vacuum may be a real being or beings, not a mental being or an idea. A vacuum may have as much status in being as a photon or elementary particle.

A physicists will not find the idea that a vacuum exists strange because it was once thought that a vacuum consisted of a sea of negative energy electrons and that a positron was a hole in this sea. A physicists is also aware of the reality of kinetic energy which can be transformed into as many electron-positron pairs as you want as long as E = mc2.

His third argument against atheism comes from the origin of life itself, which cannot be explained by natural selection:

This is not to say that neo-Darwinians do not offer explanations of the origin of life; of course they do, but they are explanations of a radically different kind. All such explanations try to explain life as produced by the chance interaction of non-living materials and forces subject to purely physical laws. (p. 26)

A metaphysical approach is to rank the cosmological transformations in order of the magnitude of the change in the properties of the different modes of being. The following is my personal ranking:

•animals to human beings

•large molecules to single-celled organisms

•vacuum to big bang

•single-celled organisms to animals

•elementary particles to atoms

Concerning the smallest change, modern field theory enables physicists to derive the properties of atoms from the properties of elementary particles. However, the theories are only approximations and are not entirely satisfactory for a number of reasons.

In the two-part chapter titled “Why I Am Not a Theist,” Kenny reviews the proofs of God’s existence offered by various philosophers and claims to refute them. Kenny fails to mention the idea that a finite being needs a cause but an infinite being does not, which is why an infinite being must exist. This is the crux of the cosmological argument.

A refutation of the cosmological argument that does not consider the contingency of a finite being and the self-sufficiency of an infinite being is not a refutation at all. The cosmological proof, as I can now call it, can be analyzed further with the metaphysical concepts of essence and existence. I’ll begin an explanation of these ideas with a quote from Kenny:

For what is meant by “necessary being”? Surely, a being in whom essence involves existence, that is to say, a being whose existence can be established by the ontological argument. (p. 37)

To me the ontological argument—God exists because the concept of God exists?— makes no sense. However, it does make sense to say that God is a necessary or self-sufficient being. That God’s essence “involves” God’s existence is not sure or clear at all. According to Thomas Aquinas (1225 to 1274), a finite being is a metaphysical composition of two correlative metaphysical principles: essence and existence. The essence is not added on to the existence, but acts to limit the existence of the finite being.

This analysis explains why finite beings are different from one another and gives a reason why finite beings need a cause. Finite beings need a cause because they are compositions and could not have composed themselves. Finite beings need a cause, also, because they could not have limited themselves. This analysis also means that an infinite being is a being which does not have an essence. An infinite being is a pure act of existence. “I am who am” is the way God explained it to Moses in Exodus.

Continuing the above quote above from “Religion”:

Another is that the historical events that are claimed to constitute the divine revelation must be independently established as historically certain—as having the same certainty, say, as that Charles I was beheaded in London, or that Cicero was once consul in Rome. The events that are pointed to as founding charters for the world’s great religions can surely not claim this degree of certainty. (p. 60)

The historical event that is the “founding charter” of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection is an historical event that can’t be explained in terms of any other historical event because of its impact on history itself. Nonbelievers consider the Resurrection to be a religious experience that the followers of Jesus had. The faith response of Christians to the Resurrection is to believe that Jesus entered into a new life with God and that if you follow Jesus the same thing can happen to you. Believers in non-Christian religions are responding in faith to the Resurrection too because they are aware of it and hope for salvation.

Kenny acknowledges the historical accuracy of the New Testament:

I do not share the extreme scepticism of many scholars, including Christian scholars, about the historical value of the Gospels. For instance, that Jesus at his last meal took bread and wine and said something like “this is my body, this is my blood” seems to me to be as likely to be true as anything that is narrated in the records of the early Roman Empire. With regard to the Acts of the Apostles, I have long been amused to note that Catholic biblical scholars often appear less ready to accept them as broadly historical than are atheists colleagues in ancient history departments. (p. 58)

What happened to the two benchmarks of historical accuracy: the beheading of Charles I and the consulship of Cicero? What is the point of benchmarks if you don’t use them? What religious historical events does Kenny have in mind when he says they are not certain? Is he thinking of miracles performed by Moses and recorded in Exodus?

I went to a college run by Jesuits in the early 1960s. During a theology class one day, apropos of nothing while writing on the chalkboard, the theology professor turned to the class and said, “Does anyone here seriously believe Lazarus rose from the dead? It is just a story.” Did Kenny lose his faith and I didn’t lose mine because I had better theology teachers?

Why doesn’t Kenny just admit that he lost his faith? Why does he give us this hogwash about Charles I and Cicero? My guess is that the market for an honest book about religion by a nonbeliever is pretty small. There is a market for anti-religion books and pro-religion books, but who wants to buy a book by an ex-priest saying I wish I could believe?