Apologetics in the Atomic Age

Ronald Knox FAITH Magazine November – December 2012

More extracts from a 1945 Sheed and Ward book "God and the Atom" written shortly after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. For the previous instalment see our September 2006 issue. We start with one paragraph from the previous instalment, which sets the scene.


I suspect that the atom will be the totem of irreligion tomorrow, as the amoeba was yesterday. Meanwhile we have to reckon not only with the attacks of our enemies, but with the inadequate apologies of faint-hearted friends. There will be an intensified demand for the kind of apologetic which gives up the notion of religious certainty, and attempt to rally the sporting spirit of our compatriots in favour of a balance of probabilities. There will be fresh attempts to dissociate natural theology altogether from our experience of the natural world around us, to concentrate more and more on precarious arguments derived from the exigencies and the instincts of human nature itself. Meanwhile the seminary-trained theologians, with all the wisdom of centuries at his finger-tips, will more thanever find himself talking a strange language, more than ever at cross-purposes with the shibboleths of an Atomic Age. So it will go on, I suppose, till we find someone with enough courage, enough learning, enough public standing to undertake the synthesis; there is a battle royal, long overdue, which still has to be fought out at the level of academic debate (p13).

Entities, the schoolmen said - and in that at least they were surely right - should not be unnecessarily multiplied. And we are tempted to feel that there is something uneconomic about having three separate interpretations of the external world and juggling with all three simultaneously; the solid world of common sense, the world of the metaphysician, all docketed and labelled like an album with pressed flowers in it, and the world of the physicist, rotating, coruscating, ebullient with paradox. How (we are tempted to wonder) does an angelic intelligence see our lump of coal? Not lump-wise, we may be sure of that; such a view could only present itself to our terrestrial slowness of wit. But does the angel see a bunch of accidents inhering in a substance, or a stream of whirlingelectrons, or both, or something yet other, beyond all these? The profane reader must not be impatient with me for bringing angels upon the scene, as if I were trying to beg the question of theology. We are simply concerned to answer the age-long riddle, what is real reality really like? And the new guess of the physicists, far from settling the problem once for all, proves a fresh source of bewilderment. We cannot believe it is the whole explanation; it is too full of dots and dashes for that. Yet it cannot be a pure chimera of the intellect; there is, Hiroshima knows, a dreadful reality about it. How are we to integrate our world-view, with this double astigmatism obscuring it?

Meanwhile, none of us likes to be old-fashioned. It is the newest song - Homer assured us of it, centuries ago, that ever sounds most gratefully in men's ears. There is something dated, surely, about this talk of natures, and forms, and essences; our minds misgive us lest they should be a mere ornament, not a weapon of our thought, comparable to those brightly polished warming pans that hang, unused, on the walls of an old inn that has been "done up" - at best, like an old stoup now used for an ash tray. After all, if we had been living in the thirteenth century, we should have found the philosopher in his cell and the alchemist in his hideout talking the same language, using the same terms, "nature", "form" and "essence", with the same meaning. St Albert, pegging away at his botany,and St Thomas, discussing whether or not the angels could be divided into species, were fast allies, and lived by a common culture; their modern representatives move in different orbits. In an age that has an itch for modernity, difficult not to feel that our philosophia perennis, however much wear may be left in it, has had the nap rubbed off it by time.

... And this, even when we are imparting to one another the immemorial objections, the immemorial come-backs, in the privacy of our own lecture rooms. Worse still, when we must go out into the open and discuss the fallacy of the infinite regress before the shifting crowd that eddies round Marble Arch. For, after all, a man may not unreasonably want to be assured that God exists before he will consult Church or Bible to find out more about Him. And the main proofs of His existence given in our text-books are still the proofs which St Thomas gave us; a few more defensive earth-works have been thrown up, but the position is still the same.

We are expected to prove God's existence by pointing to the natural world and inferring from it, without the possibility of error, the presence in the background of a supernatural Coefficient; or rather, Efficient. (pp37-39).

To argue by inference from effect to Cause, from the passive object to the active Subject of change, from transitory, contingent being to a Being who is necessary and eternal, from nature's striving after perfection to a Perfection which is ultimate, from the order observable in creation to a creative Mind-all that (I shall be told) is to approach the great Riddle from one side, and that the most difficult. Meanwhile, as we all know, other proofs have been offered, and seem to many minds, in our day at least, more cogent.

There is the ontological proof, in its various forms, in its various forms. As stated by St Anselm, it is content to ask how God, who is ex hypothesi perfect, could lack so important a perfection as that of existence. With Descartes and his followers, it asked rather how we are to trust any of our own mental processes, if our infinite intelligences are not underwritten by an Intelligence which is infinite. Kant brought us back to the argument from conscience; we had the inner assurance of being at issue with the dictates of a Will, surely not less personal than our own. For the Hegelians, there must be an Absolute, to transcend the complete gulf that lies between subject and object in our experience. Today, the argument from the "numinous" is in fashion; the very fact that we have aninstinct of worship, that we feel a sense of awe (rightly or wrongly) about such and such a place, or name, or department of life, is our best guarantee that a supernatural world exists; this sense of awe is not to be confused with any other sensation.

I should be the last to find fault with these other methods of approach. To many, they will appeal as more direct, more intimate, perhaps more profound. But they are, it must be confessed, the afterthoughts of the introvert. For the generality of men the world of the outer experience is the real world. I remember, long ago, the late Archbishop of Canterbury describing to me his attempts to argue a working-man out of his materialism on Hegelian principles; all he got was "Ow, don't talk like that; you make me feel quite funny." What is most familiar to us is not what is nearest to us, but what we can hold at arm's length. And, although the five classical proofs may seem abstract and arid in these days, when we have grown unaccustomed to the language of metaphysics, they are neverthelessa reasoned statement of the conviction most men either hold, or wish they could hold; namely that things seen are the work of an invisible Creator. That is, after all, the faith on which their childhood's confidence was grounded. "I will consider the heaven, the work of thy fingers .... Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow" - it was these elementary considerations that were proposed to us when, in the first dawn of doubt, we asked why we could not see God up in the air. Alternative arguments, however valid, always produce the vague suspicion that they are by-passing a difficulty. If God did not create heaven and earth, the fact of his existence is not particularly impressive. If he did, why could he not write his pinxit at the corner of the canvas, instead of leaving theattribution of the work to be a matter of inference? (pp99-101).

Of such things, the layman writes with difficulty. It gives him a sense of irreverence, to be treating of such high matters with uncircumcised lips; he would fain be a scientist, so as to gain a juster appreciation, even according to our human measure, of the splendid craftsmanship in which God revealed himself. He must take off the shoes from his feet; he stands on holy ground. Our age is in need of a great philosopher; one who can thread his way, step by step, through the intricate labyrinth of reasoning into which scientists have been led, eyes riveted to earth, by the desire to improve our human lot, the desire to destroy life, or mere common curiosity; one who can keep his mind, at the same time, open to the metaphysical implications of all he learns, and at last put the wholecorpus of our knowledge together in one grand synthesis. He must be able to gaze through the telescope, to peer through the microscope, with a mind unaverted from that great Source of all being who is our Beginning and our last End. He must be at once Thomist and Atomist; until that reconciliation is attempted, the pulpit and the laboratory will be forever at cross-purposes.

... Be that as it may, the Atomic Age will have, no less than ourselves, windows that open on eternity. The true lesson of the five proofs, as of all other proofs devised to establish the fact of God's existence, is that we see his face looking down at us from the end of every avenue of our thought; there is no escaping from it.

All our metaphysics, play with word-counters and reshuffle our concepts as we will, must necessarily take us back to God. The doubts, the hesitations, come only when human knowledge is suffering from growing pains, when we have not yet sorted out our ideas and integrated, for the hundredth time, our world picture. Of that inevitability our own heartsickness is the best proof. "Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest me" [The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson] (pp110-14).

... The world's debate, after all, is bound up with the contrast between mind and matter; the notion of a Creative Mind is not so difficult for the scientist to come by, when he feels that he, if he puts his mind to it, could destroy matter - or at least introduce into the material of our planet an element of incalculable confusion....

Let them destroy or devastate the planet... It is doubtful if a world that has forgotten God, as ours has, can deserve or even desire a better fate. We always told them that their dream of a wiser and happier age was doomed to disappointment; now perhaps they will see that we were right. That (I say) is a possible attitude ... The partisans of Utopia have long been dinning it into our ears that Science is the beacon-light which points the way to universal happiness, that we should be scarcely human if we were not tempted, for once to get our own back.

But it may be doubted whether this type of Christian schadenfreude is the best we can do. When you have lost your way and are asking for directions, few things are more annoying than to be given, by some local Good Samaritan, an exact account of where you went wrong. Our contemporaries, and posterity if there is any, will be more grateful to a Christianity which can offer them some message of encouragement (pp115-118).

Faith Magazine

November - December 2012