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The crushing burden of proof

1 May 2004

12:00 AM

1 May 2004

12:00 AM

The Unknown God: Agnostic Essays Anthony Kenny

Continuum, pp.222, 14.99

Anthony Kenny does not believe in the existence of God, but his disbelief is qualified and complex. He does not believe that the existence of God can be proved through something like the five Thomist ‘proofs’: they depend too much on ‘outdated Aristotelian cosmology’. Further, he thinks that the traditional attributes of God such as omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence are incompatible. He implies that there is also a traditional attribution to God of (total?) ineffability and this, too, damages proof of existence.

I don’t quite understand his emphasis on the un-utterability of God. It’s true there is a strand of ineffability-thinking in the Church, but there are even stronger strands of Revelation. It’s through a glass darkly we see, we are not totally blind. Indeed one of Christ’s chief claimed identities is The Light. The qualification to the disbelief is about the limits of a ‘literal’ description of God. While for Kenny there is no such thing as the God of scholastic or rationalist philosophy, he says he is interested in the possibility of interpreting religious discourse in a poetic rather than a scientific mode.

This talk of reason, science, proof and the role of language is enough to show that Kenny’s disbelief is not any old dis- belief. It is not that of an existentialist French Sartre or German Nietzsche, still less any postmodern Continental deconstructionist. It’s a rather English Oxbridge disbelief and curiously 1950s. It is what happened when a convert to a certain sort of analytic philosophy applied it to Thomism. The discussion in The Unknown God has a very dated feel. Since the 1950s lots more people have started not believing, though not, it would appear, for any of the reasons discussed by Kenny or for that matter Sartre.


I read The Unknown God in Holy Week. And it’s clear that Kenny does not disbelieve in God in the way that God Himself did and did not believe in God. Christ on the Cross is tempted with atheism. In the moment known as dereliction, He, who has to suffer all the worst that man can suffer, has the sense that God has gone from Him and is not there, hence his words from the 22nd Psalm, ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ He succeeds in holding on to His faith but I have never heard it suggested that He did so by anything like the Thomist proofs. More likely candidates are grace, will, love, and the continued experience of a past relationship with His Father. These rational but unphilosophical means seem pretty much how those who manage to maintain their belief in God today do so too, especially if we add the effect of being in a believing community. These and others are what Newman meant by antecedent considerations — to be fair, also discussed in one of Kenny’s chapters.

Agnosticism turns out, then, to be a pretty varied business; almost as many sects as religion. Kenny provides a typology of rationalist-analytical agnosticisms and atheisms. To these should be added the Continental ones, then those of the many who don’t care, then the sort which result from an unsuccessful operation of love, will, grace etc. Why this sort and not that? Why is Kenny drawn to his own sort of disbelief? Largely, he himself suggests, because of his past both as a Catholic priest and as someone deeply attracted to analytic philosophy and especially Wittgenstein. Even this attraction here is muted.

One might have expected a philosopher really interested in language to present an analysis of the sort of statement a creed is, a comparison of belief statements about God with ones about other matters, a husband’s love, the reliability of one’s own memory or life on Mars or, again, an analysis of the difference between belief statements designed to express belief and those, like so many creeds and the anti-modernist oath Kenny could not swear, which are designed to disavow belief in some contrary, heretical or hostile belief. Also, Kenny seems to imply that there is a radical disjuncture between knowing God literally and knowing Him poetically. But at least some language philosophers would hold that the various ‘poetic’ qualities are ineradicable qualities of natural language, that is everyday language not that of maths or symbolic logic, and that any discussion of God or anything else cannot escape them. It is ‘literal’ description, not God, that is the illusion.

The reader must judge Kenny’s argument for himself. I think it is wrong and irrelevant to most believers and disbelievers but it is engaging, very well written and it makes you think. That alone is worth the price, for what it makes you think about is the most important question there can be. While the disbelief that moves so many people in 2004 is very different from that which has moved Kenny since he left the Church so many years ago, belief and disbelief are far less argued now than then. Both believers and especially disbelievers have it too easy today. Thank you, Anthony Kenny, for making life a little more uncomfortable for both.


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