Why Does Every Atheist Misunderstand Your Arguments for God’s Existence?

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Why Richard Dawkins’ Attempt to Refute Thomas Aquinas’ Five Proofs for God’s Existence Fails

By Matt Fradd

Richard Dawkins, in his 2006 best-selling book The God Delusion, responds to St. Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God in the Summa Theologica and makes the bold claim that these proofs are “easily […] exposed as vacuous.”[1] Before I show why he does not refute Thomas’s arguments, I need to point out two problems with Dawkins’s general approach.

First, Dawkins seems unaware (or at least fails to mention) that these five proofs are summaries that Thomas expands upon in his other works.[2] They were not meant to be comprehensive cases for the existence of God that address every possible objection against them. Instead, they conform to the Summa Theologica’s mission to treat, “whatever belongs to the Christian religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners.”[3] This is a common mistake made by both theists and atheists and, as Thomistic scholar Edward Feser says,

Aquinas never intended [these five proofs] to stand alone, and would probably have reacted with horror if told that future generations of students would be studying them in isolation, removed from their immediate contact in the Summa Theologica and the larger content of his work as a whole.[4]

Dawkins’s failure to understand the context of Thomas’s arguments, including the foundational metaphysics in the Summa they rely upon, compounds Dawkins second misstep. Throughout his entire argument Dawkins never directly quotes Thomas. Instead, he just summarizes what he thinks Thomas’s argument is and, as a result, he attacks a straw man or a weakened version of Thomas’s arguments.

Even though Dawkins is an accomplished biologist, he just isn’t a skilled philosopher and that’s a severe handicap when confronting a philosophical issue like the existence of God. In his review of The God Delusion the renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes, “You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.”[5]

Now, let’s examine each of Thomas’s Five Ways in order to understand how Dawkins arguments end up receiving such a bad grade.

The First Three Proofs

Dawkins’s response to Thomas’s first three proofs begins with the claim that, “[they] are just different ways of saying the same thing.”[6] It is true each proof ends with the conclusion that God as the ultimate cause of the world exists, but they do not reach this conclusion in the same way.

The first one, or the argument from motion, proceeds from the Aristotelian analysis of change as the actualization of a potentiality. It shows that only a reality that is pure act can explain the chain of motion we observe in the universe.  The second proof proceeds from the existence of efficient causes and shows that an only an “uncaused cause” can explain this chain of causation in the universe. The third proof argues from the existence beings that can fail to exist and shows that only a necessary being could be keeping all of these contingent things in existence.

Rather than engage each proof based on its analysis of motion, causation or contingency Dawkins merely says all these proofs, “rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it” which he claims is dubious and arbitrary.[7] He thinks that something like a “Big Bang singularity” is a more parsimonious explanation for the beginning of the universe and that makes God an unnecessary conclusion.[8] However, aside from the problem with making a finite and contingent part of physics the ultimate explanation of reality, Thomas is not claiming to prove from reason alone that God created the universe from nothing in the finite past.

According to Thomistic philosopher Ralph McInerny, “[Aquinas] spends a good deal of time showing that there is nothing internally inconsistent in talking of a created eternal world.”[9] Dawkins evidently does not realize this and so he completely misunderstands each of these proofs. He says of the first proof “Something had to make the first move, and that something we call God” of the second, “This [causal chain] has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God” and of the third, “There must have been a time when no physical things existed, but, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence and that something we call God.”[10]

But all of this is precisely what Thomas is not arguing.

Thomas claims that even if these causal chains or contingent realities existed eternally into the past there must still be a final or ultimate cause that explains not just the past existence of those things, but even their current existence, which is something a “Big Bang singularity” cannot do. In order to grasp this point it is necessary to distinguish between two different kinds of causal series: accidentally ordered series and essentially ordered series.

Types of Causation

An accidentally ordered series of causes is one in which one independent object interacts with another independent object and causes it to move or change, similar to a series of dominos falling one after another. These changes take place over a period of time, whether short or long. Dye, for example, is applied to hair, and after a few minutes it changes color. A man drinks several beers and is eventually drunk. What all these changes have in common is that the past parts of the series do not directly affect the future parts. You can throw away the hair dye bottle and the cans of beer, but you’ll still be a drunk person with blue hair.

An essentially ordered series of causes, on the other hand, occurs when the motion or change in the series is dependent on every past member in the series. For example, imagine Thomas Aquinas’s great works are sitting on a table. These books can be positioned as they are because there is a table underneath them. The table, in turn, is able to hold the books because the floor supports it. But the floor rests on a foundation that lies on the earth and so on and so on. Everything in the series is essential to the end result: or the book sitting on the table. If you took away the table, the book would not be sitting on it. If the house no longer had a foundation, then the floor, the table, and even the books would ultimately collapse.

Another example would be a series of gears. In an accidentally ordered series, like a set of dominoes, the previous members of the series could be removed or destroyed and not effect the motion in the latter part of the series. But in an essentially ordered series like a set of gears, any tampering with a previous member stops the whole series from changing. If you remove any of the past gears in the series, every other gear will stop turning as well.

Examining a hierarchical series helps us to see God as the First Mover. When we consider a series of causes that all exist at the same time, we immediately recognize that something holds the series together. The earth holds the foundation of the house, but, who holds the earth? “Gravity,” we might answer. But, what keeps gravity in existence? Eventually, in every hierarchical series, we trace all the causes back to a first cause, a power that supports and holds everything together in existence, or what Thomas calls God.

We know Thomas is describing an essentially ordered causal series because of the examples he uses. For example, in his explanation of the argument from causality he says that, “subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.”[11]

An infinitely long series cannot explain the motion of the staff because adding members to the series, even an infinite number of them, does not explain why there is any motion in the first place. As Garrigou Lagrange once quipped, “To do away with a supreme cause is to claim that, as someone has said, ‘a brush will paint by itself provided it has a very long handle.’”[12]

The Fourth Proof

In the fourth proof, the argument from degrees of being, Thomas argues from the idea that there is a great chain of being in which creatures become more perfect. For example: rocks, then animals, then man, then angels, and so forth. But if this chain is to be meaningful, there must be a perfect being, or what we call God. A modern understanding of this argument would ask if “goodness” is a real attribute or just a label we arbitrarily assign. If it is real, then to what objective standard does it correspond?

Of course, some people will ask, “How do we know there is an objective ‘better?” Aren’t all our value judgments subjective?” to which the philosophers Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli have a witty reply, “The very asking of this question answers it. For the questioner would not have asked it unless he or she thought it really better to do so than not.”[13] So if the increasing degrees of goodness are real, then what’s the standard we use to show that they are real? Logically we must have a standard that includes perfection itself but Dawkins, not understanding this line of reasoning, simply responds:

That’s an argument? You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like and derive and equivalently fatuous conclusion.[14]

Dawkins’s refutation fails because he misunderstands Thomas’s concept of perfection and how it only relates to having more or less being. Imperfections, or evils in the world, come from a lack of being. We have gas in our intestines, for example, because we lack the proper food or bodily abilities that make digestion happen without waste. But the chain also goes in the other direction. A better being would be one without gas, and then one that needs no food, and then one that is not encumbered by a body. In fact, a being that is not limited by space or time itself would be superior to all these material beings. Kreeft and Tacelli summarize Thomas’s conclusion this way:

If these degrees of perfection pertain to being and being is caused in finite creatures, then there must exist a ‘best,’ a source and real standard of all perfections that we belong to us as beings. This absolutely perfect being—the “Being of all beings,” ‘the Perfection of all perfections’ – is God.[15]

The Fifth Proof

Thomas begins his fifth proof by talking about things that lack intelligence but which routinely act for an end that is good. The Latin text that is often translated as ‘designedly’ in the fifth way is ex intentione, which, in other passages, Thomas identifies with the natural inclinations of non-intelligent things.[16] Since these things lack intelligence they cannot choose to act towards a good end anymore than an arrow can send itself to the bulls-eye of a target. But because they routinely act in that way, we can rule out chance as the explanation. The only other explanation that makes sense is that natural things act this way because of a natural inclination they have, and an intelligent cause, or God, must give them this inclination.

Dawkins mistakenly thinks that the theory of evolution has made Thomas’ fifth proof obsolete saying, “there has probably never been a more devastating rout of popular belief by clever reasoning than Charles Darwin’s destruction of the argument from design.”[17] But Thomas is not arguing that really complex beings need an explanation for why they are so complex (evolution can explain that). Rather, Thomas wants to know why unintelligent causes reliably move towards intelligible ends

This applies not just to living things but also to non-living things. For example, electrons, by nature, are attracted to protons. If electrons did not have this natural inclination, then none of the elements on the periodic table would form, which means none of the physical life forms we experience—including ourselves—would exist anywhere in the physical universe.

So, not only is evolution an insufficient response to Thomas’ fifth proof, evolution would not even be possible if the building blocks of the universe did not have the right kinds of natural inclinations that only God could provide. As Leo Elders concludes in his work The Philosophical Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, “The terminus of the Fifth Way is God’s intellect as the author of the order in the world and so it implicitly refers to the supernatural order which surpasses whatever man may conceive.”[18]

Divine Attributes

Dawkins also thinks that he can undermine Thomas’s proofs by claiming they are non-sequiturs, or that the conclusion of God’s existence does not follow from the premises in the arguments. He writes:

Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no need to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins, and reading innermost thoughts.[19]

First, Thomas’s arguments do not prove every truth about God that Christians believe, but that is not their purpose. Philosopher Andrew Younan makes an excellent point, “Aquinas is NOT saying [. . .] ‘some things move; they are moved by others; this cannot go on to infinity; therefore Baby Jesus will hear your prayers and heal your grandmother.’”[20]

This objection is on par with someone replying to Dawkins’s arguments for evolution by saying, “Even if we allow the dubious luxury of a common ancestor, that does not explain how life first began on earth or how the universe began to exist from nothing.” Just as Dawkins would say that the theory of evolution was not meant to explain all the mysteries of the universe, Thomas would say his proofs were not meant to prove all the mysteries of God’s nature. Instead, they were only intended to prove the existence of the God of classical monotheism, or the infinite, eternal act of being itself.

In fact, Thomas does argue elsewhere for the divine attributes that Dawkins accuses theists of taking for granted. In fact, on the very next page of the Summa Thomas asks if the first cause of the universe has a body and if he is composed of matter and form. Thomas then uses logical arguments to show the cause of all existence must be Omnipotent (see ST I, Q. 25); Omniscient, (see ST I, Q. 14); all-good (see ST I, Q. 6); and possess creativity of design (this begins to be addressed in Thomas’ fifth proof). Later in the Summa Thomas shows from divine revelation that God listens to prayers (see ST II-II, Q. 83); forgives sins (see ST III, Q. 86) and if God is omniscient then he can obviously, “read innermost thoughts.”

That Dawkins seems to not know this should make us wonder whether he read Thomas in the first place or just a summary of Thomas’s proofs from a secondary source. The Summa Theologica is a systematically constructed argument for the truth of the Christian faith that begins with God’s existence and works its way up to the person of Christ and the role of the Church. Like a majestic skyscraper it is built with tremendous precision from its foundational questions (e.g. Does God exist? What can we know about God?) all the way up to the heights of Christian revelation (e.g. What is the Trinity? Did God change in when he became man?).

Complaining that the five proofs do not reveal everything about God is like complaining that the foundation of a building doesn’t reveal who took the last coke in the vending machine on the observation deck. Concerning the divine attributes Dawkins also says:

Incidentally it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence and mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.[21]

But it is precisely because God is perfect in knowledge and power that he cannot change his mind. Only by failing to understand these attributes can Dawkins make a case for their contradicting each other.

Omnipotence refers to the ability to make any potential reality an actual one. This does not apply to impossible states of affairs that can never become actual like square-circles, married bachelors, or imperfect perfect beings, like a God who changes his mind. When a person changes his mind it is usually because: 1) he learns of a better way of accomplishing X than he had previously not known about, or 2) he is prevented from accomplishing X due to something out of his control, and so he does Y instead.

The first example cannot apply to an omniscient being since God already knows all things and therefore he does not need to learn anything. The second example also cannot apply to God since nothing is outside of his omnipotent grasp of reality. If someone objects that since God cannot learn he is not all-powerful, the objector fails to understand that learning implies a deficiency in knowledge and, because God is perfect, he has no deficiencies of any kind.

Answering Dawkins with Thomas

So we’ve seen that Dawkins has not undermined the evidence for the existence God in his supposed refutations of St. Thomas’s Five Ways. But there is something else Dawkins has failed to do in The God Delusion. In what he calls his “central argument” Dawkins says that the popular design argument for God actually refutes God’s existence because if the universe’s complexity requires God to explain it, then God’s complexity would require an explanation to explain him. He writes,

A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape.”[22]

But Thomas tells us that God is not complex. In fact, the reason God is the ultimate explanation of the universe is because he is not composed of anything. If he were, then the reason God is composed in one way and not another would indeed require an explanation. Instead, God just is infinite, undivided being. God needs no explanation for his existence because he just is existence itself, pure and simple. Asking why he exists is like asking why fire is hot: it’s because that is the nature of the thing itself. Now, Dawkins seems to be aware of this reply because he says:

“A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right. Worse (from the point of view of simplicity), other corners of God’s giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being.”[23]

But once again, Dawkins imagines that God is just huge, immaterial person like a cosmic genie. He’s an omnipotent being with an impressive mind that has successive thoughts God keeps track of just like you or I do in our minds. But God is not an infinite person. God does not belong to any genus or kind of being because he simply is being. I admit this is hard to understand but so is any concept in philosophy or science, like quarks or Big bang singularities, that attempt to be a final or ultimate explanation. But unlike those finite, temporal realities, God’s immaterial and eternal nature are capable of being self-explaining (or what philosopher’s call the property of aseity). The atheistic philosopher Erik Wielenberg even says that:

“The central weakness of Dawkins’s Gambit, then, is that it is aimed primarily at proving the nonexistence of a being that is unlike the God of traditional monotheism in some important ways . . . In light of this, I must side with those critics of The God Delusion who have judged Dawkins’s Gambit to be a failure.”[24]

Divine simplicity also answers other objections that atheists like Dawkins love to bring up. For example, when Christians say God is the ultimate standard for morality or that God explains the existence of moral truths, atheists like to invoke the so-called Euthyphro dilemma (named after one of Plato’s dialogues where it first appeared). For our purposes this is the dilemma: is something wrong because God says so, or does God say so because it’s wrong. If it’s wrong because God says so, then God could say rape and murder were right but that seems crazy. But if God says it’s wrong because it is wrong, then morality is independent of God who should be sovereign over all.

The answer to the dilemma is that an action is wrong because it contradicts what Thomas calls the eternal law and this comes from the mind of God. God is not an omnipotent tyrant who could command any old thing. Since God is simple his power is identical to his knowledge, which is identical to his goodness. According to Thomas, “in God, power and essence, will and intellect, wisdom and justice, are one and the same. Whence, there can be nothing in the divine power which cannot also be in His just will or in His wise intellect.”[25]

The Real Vacuity

So what have we learned?

First, Dawkins “central argument” against God doesn’t work because it’s not even addressing the strongest, most logical conception of God that is believed by theists like St. Thomas Aquinas. His objections to the theistic arguments in favor of God also suffer from similar misunderstandings and logical gaps.

Dawkins erroneously believes the first three proofs merely assume that God brought the universe into existence of nothing. As a result, he fails to rebut how they prove God is the ultimate foundation of a chain of essential ordered causes. Dawkins also misunderstands the Fourth Way and thinks it has to do with any dimension of comparison and not a comparison of being and its relation to perfection. Finally, Dawkins thinks the Fifth Way is about complexity and not the regularity we perceive in nature that can only be explained by a designer of the universe.

Therefore, we should conclude that Dawkins’ attempted refutation of Thomas’s five proofs are, in Dawkins words, “easily exposed as vacuous.”


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 100.
[2] See Summa Contra Gentiles, I, chapter 13.
[3] Summa Theologica, preface
[4] Edward Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2009), 62-63.
[5] Alvin Plantinga, “The Dawkins Confusion” Books and Culture March/April 2007 http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2007/marapr/1.21.html
[6] Dawkins, God Delusion, 101.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ralph McInerny, ed. Thomas Aquinas: Selected writings (London: Penguin Classics, 1998), 711.
[10] Dawkins, God Delusion, 101.
[11] ST, I, q. 2, a. 3
[12] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. God: His Existence and Nature Vol. 1 (New York: Herder Book Co., 1934) 265.
[13] Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994) 54.
[14] Dawkins, God Delusion, 101.
[15] Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994) 55.
[16] “an agent does not move except out of intention for an end (ex intentione finis).” ST, I-II, q, 1, a. 2.
[17] Dawkins, God Delusion, 103.
[18] Elders, 133
[19] Dawkins, God Delusion, 101.
[20] Andrew Younan, Thoughtful Theism (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2017) 34.
[21] Dawkins, God Delusion, 101.
[22] Ibid, 112.
[23] Ibid, 149.
[24] Erik Wielenberg. “Dawkins’s Gambit, Hume’s Aroma, and God’s Simplicity,” Philosophia Christi, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2009.
[25] ST, I, q. 25, a. 5










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