Locke on the obviousness of God’s existence

I’ve been reading Locke and found this in his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding.

It is as certain that there is a God, as that the opposite angles made by the intersection of two straight lines are equal. There was never any rational creature that set himself sincerely to examine the truth of these propositions that could fail to assent to them; though yet it be past doubt that there are many men, who, having not applied their thoughts that way, are ignorant both of the one and the other.

This little passage stopped me in my tracks. How to process such an outlandish claim? In the portion of the Essay leading up to this passage, Locke has established himself as an honest and fastidious critic of received opinions — scrupulous almost to a fault, almost to the point of tedious nitpicking — and then he comes out with this!

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Could it be that Locke didn’t really believe what he wrote here, that he included this conspicuous but insincere nod to orthodoxy merely for purposes of self-protection? That seems rather out of character for Locke, but the possibility cannot be ruled out. His belief in God was clearly sincere (the rest of his oeuvre puts this beyond dispute), but he may have deliberately exaggerated his level of certainty. I’ve known many religious people to do that, including my own past self. Locke lived in intolerant times, perhaps even more intolerant than our own, and perhaps the generally unorthodox character of his thought made it advisable for him to make it clear that absolutely never no way not in a million years could he ever be considered an atheist.

Why go so far, though? People don’t normally use such comically extreme wording when they’re merely bowing to goodthink. Have you ever heard anyone compare one of our contemporary shibboleths of intellectual respectability (evolution, global warming, the Holocaust, racial and gender equality, etc.) to a theorem in geometry? The ringleaders of the American Revolution did famously call human equality “self-evident,” and Richard Dawkins did coin the unfortunate word “theorum” in order to express just how certainly true Darwinian theory is, but these are just figures of speech. If pressed on the point, I’m sure (well, fairly sure) that Jefferson, who was both an extremely intelligent man and a slave-owner, would have conceded that human equality is not quite self-evident the way Euclid is self-evident. Locke, on the other hand, spells out exactly what he means — and does so, moreover, in a context (an Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, not a political manifesto) in which casual exaggeration would have been most out of place.

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I can only conclude that Locke meant what he wrote — that it was his considered opinion, after making a meticulous study of the nature and grounds of human understanding, that all atheists are either (a) people who have never really applied their thoughts to the question of God’s existence or (b) irrational the way someone who denies basic mathematical truths is irrational.

I’m in the first category, at least when it comes to “God” as most theologians understand that term. As I continue my project of examining various arguments for God’s existence, I hope to uncover just what it is that Locke found so convincing. (I’m still working on the next in the series. These arguments are so interconnected with every other area of philosophy that evaluating them always turns out to be more complicated than it looks. As the Salman Rushdie character says, “To understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.”)

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2 Comments

Filed under God, Philosophy

2 responses to “Locke on the obviousness of God’s existence

  1. It is indeed a striking passage.

    I think what it perhaps demonstrates is that if someone has a coherent metaphysics which (for instance) regards reality as real, then ‘god’ is an inevitable consequence.

    The non-obviousness of ‘god’ to moderns is perhaps a consequence of our intractably confused metaphysics, in which we persist in believing that ‘relativism’ is a potentially valid opinion.

    I have never read Locke, nor even tried to read him, because he seemed to be one of the architects of modern confusion. From the above passage he may well have been one of the typically ‘transitional’ geniuses of modernity – someone who was himself solidly grounded in traditional ideas but pointed at modernity.

  2. Pingback: Locke’s proof that God exists « Bugs to fearen babes withall

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