From Thomism to Enlightenment Deism/Atheism

Did you know Aquinas' kissing cousin is David Hume? Allow me to explain...

Did you know Aquinas’ kissing cousin is David Hume? Allow me to explain…

How would Thomism possibly lead to Enlightenment Deism/Atheism?

By: Jay

In my twenties, I was completely invested in the fortified religio-philosophical system known as Thomism.  Catholicism was a massive castle of argumentation that was impenetrable to any skeptical challenger that might bombard the system with (what I assumed were) futile attacks.  I recall reading Umberto Eco in his dissertation on Aquinas’ aesthetics commenting that he, too, was once an ardent Thomist until he came to the conclusion that the system just didn’t work.  At that time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would come to that conclusion.  How could something so vast and, as a my friend James Kelley said, “elegant,” be fundamentally flawed? That was some ten years or so ago, and in that span of time, Thomism was completely dismantled.

The path to that dismantling is not the subject of this article, but it is worth noting that I was someone totally invested in it, just as in my earlier years, I was totally invested in Protestantism.  This has been the source of a lot of criticism for me from those who have observed my journey, but I could care less. Any change of view or new path I have taken was taken out of sincere interest in the truth or falsity of the worldview itself, regardless of the consequences of adopting those positions. And I suspect I’ll always be that way.  From my perspective, wouldn’t you rather examine the opposing position to see if it holds water?  What other option is there (assuming one has chosen a lifestyle which allows for such religio-philosophical investigations – a conscious choice I made)?

That said, the point of this article is simply to clarify some points on a recent debate I had with a friend concerning the major reasons that Thomism, as a system, is fundamentally flawed.  In fact, I want to go even further and show how the Thomistic schema is precisely what led to the Enlightenment and the subsequent deism and atheism of the West.  What’s in question here is not Augustine or Aquinas’ motivations or psychology, anymore than I care what Calvin’s motivations were.  What’s in question here is the actual published position of Aquinas (and Augustine by extension), in terms of whether it had an instrumental influence on the Enlightenment and the trek Western philosophy took into modernism and the endless word-sludge we see in philosophy today.  It is my contention that this is correct: the lesser known Eastern critique is right in making the strong claim that Thomism is a pivotal step in the Western trek from what might be termed a revelational epistemology to Enlightenment empiricism, scientism, deism and atheism.

This article is going to assume knowledge of Thomism on the part of the reader, too, since those interested in an abundance of footnotes and citations can easily search the archives for numerous articles full of citations.  Here, we are just going to speak about the system’s golden chain of internal “Dumb Ox” logic.  This also doesn’t mean that I think the Eastern view is itself free from all problems or difficulties, but rather that it provides a strong enough critique that I doubt I would ever be reconciled to Thomism again, as much as I would never be brought back to Protestantism.  Indeed, it is quite evident to me (and has been for the last several years unchallenged) that Thomism, for whatever good points might be salvaged from it, is so fundamentally flawed that it actually propelled the West down its path of downward spiraling dissolution.

The key issue to look at in order to understand this problem in Thomism is God’s relation to, and action in, the world.  Aquinas starts with the assumption of divine simplicity meaning that God is what God has, and God is what God does.  God is actus purus, or pure act, with no potentiality.  His essence is utterly simple, such that anything predicated of God is only distinguished logically.  That means the distinctions made between attributes are only distinctions suited to human finite cognition, and not actual distinctions in reality.  Thus, God’s act of creating might be distinguished from His justice or foreknowledge in the human mind, but in actuality, those acts, attributes and predicates are strictly identical to the divine essence, or ousia, in reality.  This is a fundamental law in Thomism, as well as in Augustine, and should be without question to those who are studied Thomists.  This is abundantly clear in both Summas, as well as in other works like De Veritate.

How, then, does a Being that is so constituted operate in a world of flux and temporality?  Aquinas’ answer is dominated by the idea of the analogia entis: we know God by His created effects in the world.  This is why causality plays such a large role in his theology.  God is not only the First Cause, following Aristotle, but also the providential sovereign over history and temporal causality within history, too.  God’s foreknowledge is His justice and love, and all history is in the process of its summation in the grand telos of all things returning to their source, the First Cause, in the beatific vision of eternity where his renewed rational creation will see all things in that singular, supremely simple divine essence.  That is an accurate, general statement about the totality of the Thomistic system, but what emerges is a serious problem: how does a deity so defined actually act in this world?

For Augustine, Thomas’ chief theological mentor, God acted through created effects such that even the apparently direct actions were still created effects.  Or, to be more accurate, created special effects: in De Trinitate, Augustine stipulated that the manifestations of the Angel of the Lord could only have been temporary angelic holograms.  They could not have been the Logos (despite what other patristic writers had said).  This conclusion was reached because it was impossible for the divine to manifest directly in time and space, since that would mean God was no longer simple.  Any being located in a certain place at a certain time was a being composed or parts, and therefore not absolutely simple.  For Aquinas this law holds as well, inasmuch as the analogia entis is a central component of his superstructure: God is only known by analogy to created things because we have no access to the divine ousia in this life.  God grants illumination, to be sure, but those gifts He gives are still a created effect of supernatural grace.  Knowledge of God and participation in divine life are theologically precluded from any direct divine experience until the beatific vision.  That is not to say that God can’t speak to men or convey blessings, but these are still, for us, created effects.

To be fair to Aquinas and Augustine, they do speak of “divine life,” “deification,” etc., but how this is possible in both theologians is often very hairy.  Sometimes it sounds as if believers are participating in the divine essence, and other times the impossibility of such an idea precludes them from really making sense.  The Roman divisions of grace into all the “categories” like prevenient, sanctifying, supernatural, etc., are often marshaled as explanations, but none of these serve to answer the problem at hand: how do we participate in this divine life if there is no access to the divine ousia in this life?  Indeed, when Christ was resurrected in classical Christian theology, what was the divine light shown radiating from Him?  The answer of the East is quite different from the answer of the West.  For the West, the light is a created effect, while for the East, it is the divine energy itself.  The question of Tabor really serves to solidify these two positions, since the question of the “deification” of the flesh of Christ is the same issue as the deification of the believer.

Likewise, for Aquinas, revelation of God can only be had through created effects because of his empirical approach to theology.   Since he accepts the basically Aristotelian approach to the human psyche, man’s knowledge, even of God, comes through sense experience.  Since the human mind, even in its obtaining of natural knowledge, does so by abstracting a universal concept from the phantasm presented to the mind through sense experience, the same problem as above arises for epistemology due to where Thomas locates the universal.  Universal concepts are located in the divine Mind, which, as you can now see, is also the divine essence.  In classical and medieval philosophy, this is called exemplarism.  It means that the ideas behind things, often functioning as the essence of a thing, are ultimately contained in the Mind of God.

For Aquinas and Augustine, exemplarism is true, and the exemplars, or forms of things, are located in God.  Thus, for Aquinas, even the knowledge men have naturally is had through empirical experience that ultimately draws upon a universal concept located in God.  But a dilemma emerges: how is the human mind supposed to abstract the universal in its little mirror in the human mind, when it has no access to the divine directly?  The only way this can work is if there is some bridge between the phantasm and the actual concept in the divine Mind.  But even if its said to be a faint mirror of the “real” concept in the divine mind, it wouldn’t matter, since the definition of divine simplicity has already precluded distinctions in the divine Mind (because it is the divine essence).   In other words, the problem is moved back a step, since no mind in this life has access to the beatific vision. For Thomas’ scheme to work, he needs access in this life to the divine directly in some form or fashion.  But remember: his working definition of simplicity absolutely precludes such a direct, revelational experience of divinity itself.  All that can be known of God in this life are His created effects in the world which in a faint way are supposed to show us some analogy of His essence.  This is also why Maximos the Confessor identifies the logoi (his version of exemplars) as divine energies, not the divine essence.

Another problem this view has is that the analogia entis sets up God as somehow operating on a continuum of being where, because Aquinas interprets ‘I Am that I Am” as oddly meaning “I am Pure Being,” that therefore God’s being is like all other being.  This is the basis of the analogia entis, wherein the assumption is made that things “be,” and God “bes,” so there is some kind of faint analogy of “being” that can be grasped between created being and divine being.  However, the same pesky problem emerges again with the question of absolute divine simplicity.  How can there be any similarity in the “being” of created, temporal being and uncreated, eternal “being”?  There is no similarity at all.

Indeed, apophatic theology, which Aquinas professes to hold to, dictates that the infinite and uncreated is only understood by negation – by what it is not.  “But wait,” you retort, “that means we cannot know God, since there is no analogical predication. Aquinas rejects univocal and equivocal predication of God, opting for analogical predication.  See, it’s the happy medium!”  Mr. Thomist, you’ve missed the point.  Aquinas has not solved his dilemma, but compounded it, by making the divine essence somehow analogical to created being (which is idolatry).  It’s the divine energy that is known, not God’s essence.  The divine essence is utterly impossible to know or fathom, precisely because the created mind will always be finite. No man or angel could ever take on omniscience or omnipresence or omnipotence.

So what presents itself is a two-fold path Thomism can take with all these working assumptions.  It can 1) say that the divine is confined to its realm, only interacting in this world through created effects and created grace and various created causes, but this path would mean the fundamentals of Christianity are no longer possible.  The divine Person of Christ could not really deify flesh, the sacraments are just conduits of more “created grace,” and  human knowledge this life is never really a divine illumination, or 2) it can make the divine essence become something to be shared in by created being, in which case pantheism would ensue.  Either path is a dead-end, and either path is necessitated because of the rejection of the essence/energy distinction and the inflexible, rigid Neo-platonic definition of what simplicity is.  I want to stress that it is the same problem throughout these examples because it’s constantly the question of how to relate Thomas’ idea of an absolutely simple being of Pure Act to a created world of flux and time.

Once this framework is grasped, it now becomes clear how this might lead to Enlightenment skepticism, deism, rationalism, and atheism.  If all that is ever known of God are created effects in this life, or if God is placed on a continuum of “being” where the divine essence is likened to created being, then it makes no sense to believe in this God, especially when the starting point for theology is empirical.  How could empirical sense-data ever give any “evidence” for a being that, even according to Thomas’ definition of divine simplicity, bears no real relation to created being?  The absolutely simple divine essence itself has no cause, and is not itself caused or a cause, so what use is the analogia entis in saying it’s a “First Cause”?  It’s a meaningless phrase, as it tells us nothing and still never bridges the impenetrable gap of Thomistic simplicity.  What use is it to say that human knowledge is grounded in the untouchable exemplar in the divine essence?  Again, it’s worthless and tells us nothing – indeed, it’s impossible on this systems’ own grounds!  Those who have read Palamas’ argumentation with Barlaam the Calabrian will immediately be familiar with the similarities of argumentation.  In fact, it is precisely these points that Palamas makes to Barlaam that lead him to prophetically conclude that the track of the person who adopted this would be atheism, logically carried out.  Regardless of one’s view of eastern theology, Palamas was prescient when it came to where western theology would go.

The path to Enlightenment skepticism, deism. rationalism and scientism is directly from the empirical theology that even preceded Aquinas in thinkers like Abelard, and was contemporary with Aquinas in people like Ockham.  Though Thomas was not a nominalist, he accepted the same epistemic starting point of the nominalists, namely, empiricism, and empirical based theology, that, again, derives from the analogia entis.  Nominalism is absurd, and certainly worse than Aquinas in many respects, but insofar as they shared the same empirical starting point as Aquinas, they were more consistent.  If God is banished from being directly present in the world through His immanent energies, all that is left is a material world of causation with an unknown deity locked within itself.  That position is deism, and deism quickly leads to atheism.  If sense-data is the only source of human knowledge, and sense-data is therefore the source of knowledge of God,. none of these created causal effects amounts to real knowledge of the divine itself.  The divine is never accessed or experienced at all, just a series of created causes. And that, my readers, is the view of David Hume – that is how Thomism leads to Enlightenment atheism.

For further reading, I recommend Dr. Sherrard’s criticism along the lines above of Teilhard de Chardin – another shining example of the end result of empirical Roman theology.

28 thoughts on “From Thomism to Enlightenment Deism/Atheism

  1. I am reading a book called “Religion of the Heart” that shows how the “affective” piety of Jansenism is, oddly enough, close to Molinism, German Pietism, and the “Sacred Heart” phenomenon. What is the basis of their similarity? Their re-affirmation of Augustinian teachings on the will as being “affective.” One ironic detail: When the Jansenists were attacked by Dominicans, the Jansenists simply quoted other prominent Dominicans’ Augustinian statements back to them; quoted them against themselves. It does show that there is some tension amongst Catholics when a group gets too Augustinian; but it also reveals that there is nowhere to go but “all the way” to Jansenism if you are consistently Augustinian…

  2. Jay I always think the Catholic and Protestant churches shoot themselves in the foot by at once believing in God whilst insisting the only mediator between God and the people can be the church. In other words for the people there can be no revelation. The atheists have a field day with this because they can brand the church “belief” and “superstition”. If the church wants to win the argument why not embrace revelation as opposed to belief? To me the church and atheists are two sides of the same coin – no revelation for anyone. I’m especially puzzled by this because Loyola and various Christian mystics promoted revelation not belief.

    • There has to be a direct perception of God or else we are led to the failed theology of Thomism and created causality. This means God is immediately present to the Nous that seeks God. This wouldn’t necessarily preclude organized religion, but if Maximos’ view of the logoi is right, clearly God is immanently present. Dr Sherrard has good essays on this.

      • I agree there must be direct perception but when we talk of intellect the situation is not straight forward. There is overt intellect and there is intuition. Personally I consider the overt intellect to be a kind of usurper that militates against direct perception. The intuition is another matter as it is grounded at a deeper level of perception. The church is in a losing battle with atheism precisely because it has abandoned the idea of personal development. Why are people leaving the church and increasingly interested in religions like Buddhism? It’s because Buddhism offers them something to get their teeth into whereas present day Christianity is a bit dull and formulaic. Bring back the Christian mystics.

        Thanks for the link. I agree that there is no separation between the material world and man and God because they are all emanations of a divine cause. Heaven can be found here on earth but heaven is a state of being. I also don’t see any contradiction between the idea that the world is illusion and God. What is matter anyway when we get down to it. Can matter as a solid substance actually exist? The problem with considering matter as an actual object somehow separate from underlying reality is that the laws of physics would have to be incorporated in individual objects. But clearly the laws of physics belong to reality not to matter alone. The problem with materialism is that it actually posits the idea that material objects are self contained universes even though this is flatly contradicted by it’s own empirical science (think quantum mechanics). The material world must be a projection from the centre of creation.

  3. Great commentary. Thank you. In my ignorant world of childlike simplicity, God is infinite. Therefore, everything in existence is God including humans, rocks and especially dogs, regardless the energy form manifested. To suggest A is not A or that any form of physical or spiritual reality is not God, or is apart from God is to deny creative intelligence, which is in itself a denial of reality.

  4. “Universal concepts are located in the divine Mind, which, as you can now see, is also the divine essence. In classical and medieval philosophy, this is called exemplarism. It means that the ideas behind things, often functioning as the essence of a thing, are ultimately contained in the Mind of God.”

    Does exemplarism logically then lead to pantheism since everything is contained in the mind of God–to include persons and things? If not, why not? Thank you.

    Is there room for a non-ADS triadology in protestantism? It seems not–though I suppose protestants can sort of do as they please, theologically speaking anyway.

    Good essay. I will be rereading it again soon.

  5. If this is Daniel Jones, I’m sure you know the responses to all this. Protestantism might be able to escape ADS since it has no consistent Dogma or Tradition, but it’s pretty standard commitment to sola scriptura is bound up with analogia fidei, the Protestant version of the analogia entis. It, too, suffers from the same issues, as Romanides explains here:

    http://www.oodegr.com/english/filosofia/analog1.htm

    http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/frjr_notes1.aspx

    • No, this is not Daniel Jones. I am asking honest questions that I have been mulling over for some time–particularly the pantheism question. Thank you for the links to the Fr. Romanides articles. I appreciate the time you take to write these essays–they are informative and concise.

      • Jay did not respond, but I’ll take a crack at it. It is the “idea” that is in the Mind of God. The material reflection is another matter. In Christian theology, God is always separate from creation. Somehow, Platonism crept into the thought of Aquinas and Augustine. But as far as I’m concerned, these two simply muddle perfectly good Gospel teaching, and the teaching of the apostles and St Paul.

  6. People can still know truths about God through abstraction because we are made in the image of God. in the Thomistic system we cannot know God directly because we do not apprehend His essence, but we can still know logical truths about Him by examining truths in the world and then understanding what the cause of those truths must therefore be.

  7. There is a problem in your critique of Thomism as being “exemplarist”. He does not believe that all universals or properties are to be found in the mind of God. It is pretty obvious that the property of “being a computer” is contingent and is limited to the instantiations of it in the material world. St Thomas never wrote anywhere that contingent properties are ultimately found in the mind of God. Nor did Plato, nor St Augustine. The only properties that God would have that could be called “universal” would be the five transcendentals. Even so, they would not be in God’s mind rather they are to be found in God and all things participate in them to one degree or another. You seem to lack a bit of understanding of St Thomas’ doctrine of participation which is necessary to understand the concept of analogia entis. The great book by Fr Tomas Tyn OP ‘Metafisica della sostanza’ clarifies this a bit more but it is Italian only. We do not only participate of Grace in God through the sacraments, etc. but our very being is a participation of the Divine Esse.

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  12. While I cannot agree with your views on Neoplatonism and only partially with those on Augustine, your assesement and criticism of Thomism is spot on and the same as my own: my major criticism of Thomism is that it denies that the human soul can come, in a certain measure, to be transformed so as to know and participate in Divine Wisdom and Being , even during this very life. This is the cornerstone of the Platonic Church Fathers and Theologians and the Contemplative Saints and Masters of all time (down to Elizabeth of the Trinity). You acutely observe that the Thomistic texts are at the most disturbingly ambiguious about this – and Garrigou-Lagrange needed to juggle for 1000 pages to reconcile Aquinas and Saint John of the Cross. I would like to mention that you should not approach the golden radiance of Classical and Alexandrian Philosophy through the foggy lens of Thomism or Scholasticism ! Read the texts in the original – the potential deification of man is everywhere, there is no cutting off and separation and unknowability.
    I am a practicing Roman Catholic and a non-Thomist (and in fact in many respects an anti-Thomist), and admirer of the Platonic and Neoplatonic Fathers and of Ontologism. You mentioned your acquaintance with Catholic Traditionalism, so you are probably familiar with their pet 19th-century Catholicism as well as their arguments against Vatican II. I wish to find in Vatican II a positive purification of the Roman Church from her historical crimes and errors that potentially would allow a return to the pure essence of Gospel, the Church Fathers and the first seven Ecumenical Councils. This would means a return to Platonic and Neoplatonic Christianity and an overthrow of Thomism and Tridentine and 19th-century Catholicism – in fact the whole shape and state of the Chruch crafted specifically by the Dominicans and the Jesuits. The traditionalists could argue from Trent and the 19th-Century Encyclicals that I am not a Catholic and indeed that the post-Vatican II Church is not Catholic. The Vatican II Popes and Hierarchy do not seem to be able to produce any clear and cogent counter-argument to the Traditionalists except an appeal to Obedience and Unity, or at worse a Newman-type evolutionary relativistic (Marxist-like) Living Magisterium which is an insult to reason and morality. A most glaring example is the following: since the institution of the New Testament the Jews were pronouced damned and the Old Covenant Abolished… until 1965; but now we pray on Good Friday that the Jews should remain faithful to their Convenant. What I wish is for the Church to make a clear official doctrinal statement that THE CHURCH WAS WRONG IN THE PAST ABOUT THE JEWS and therefore THE CHURCH IS LIABLE TO ERROR AND THE PAPAL ENCYCLICALS AND MAGISTERIUM ARE NOT INFALLIBLE. But were not many Church Fathers such as Chrysostom also very explicit about Extra Ecclesia Nulla Salvus and the collective guilt of the Jews ? And also where would the supreme authority be then ? Of course , with Orthodoxy, we could answer: in Scripture and the Fathers (Tradition). I decided not to put such controversial considerations in my main blog, which is mainly philosophical.
    I liked your posts that illustrated how the clumbsy sophisms of the New Atheists do not stand up to a serious philosophical and logical analysis – and in particular your tracing their roots in Hume and Carnap. I have included links to these posts on my blog.
    However I think the real problem here is not bad logic and bad philosophy (and bad higiene) but bad science and in particular bad biology. Current materialistc biology does not make use of the elaborate geometrical-dynamical models necessary for grasping the global hierarchical structure of living organism (and its harmonious >>integration<< with its environment) and the vast array of data that irrefutably confirms the necessary existence of a spectrum of new fields and forces (analogous to the discovery of the electomagnetic, weak and strong fields) that determine and regulate living beings. In the light of these facts, Darwinism is puerile rubbage that belongs in the historical dustbin of materialist mythology (with Frankenstein and the robots of La Mettrie) , having as much relevance to biological science as Ptolomean astronomy to modern Physics.

      • I have been reading some of your very well written and interesting articles on ADS and the E/E distinction (which, I am sure your are aware, is in a reality a return to the most fundamental of all philosophical questions inaugurated by Plato’s Parmenides), which means on the question of Thomism, and also, so it would seem, the whole Neoplatonic and Augustinian tradition in Western Theology. One thing that is clear is how tightly knit together are philosophy (psychology, epistemology, metaphysics) and systems of dogmatic theology – using all these terms all in a general “scholastic” sense. From the dawn of the Middle Ages until the 1860’s there was always a great variety of differentiated philosophical and theological traditions, schools and systems – attached to different religious orders – that could equally claim the right to be called “Catholic” and rooted in the Fathers and Classical Philosophy. The Church’s authority and position was supposedly generally never one to take sides in philosophical or theological debates and controversies between different orders and schools, except when fundamental dogmas of the faith are involved, which in turn had to be grounded on Scripture and the Unanimous consent of the Fathers. Such brilliant, profoundly non-Thomistic philosophers and theologians as Cusa, Descartes, Malebranche and Fénelon (which reflourished as Ontologism in the 19th-century until the Jesuit-Neothomist coup of 1879) can also trace their roots to aspects of Augustine – but it is true, their most outstanding works where placed on the Index, as was nearly the case of Saint John of the Cross.
        The fact that after the preliminary attacks of the 1860’s in 1879 Papal Power and Authority (in particular Leo XIII, Pius IX and Piux X, Doctoris Angelici: “the principles of philosophy laid down by St. Thomas Aquinas are to be religiously and inviolably observed, because they are the means of acquiring such a knowledge of creation as is most congruent with the Faith”) was used to exclusively, extravagantly and brutally promote, exalt and impose in all domains the particular quasi-empricist PHILOSOPHY and theology of the Dominican Aquinas to the exclusion, contempt and elimination of all others schools and systems, and the very Church Father Augustine, is a complete unfounded abuse and overstepping of the legitime role and power of the Papacy and not consistent with traditional Catholic Doctrine or Practice, and indeed quite philosophically laughable. Also the fact that Vatican II abrogated the Neothomist inquistion shows how infallibly short such infallible pontifications are! But what really happen behind the scenes was that the corrupt Jesuits after they had instigated this Neothomism (a Jesuit by the name Kleutgen wrote the 1879 Aeterni Patris), which was Plan A, proceeded to Plan B, which was the Theilhardian -Marxist-Liberation Theology Vatican II ideology.
        So I do not think that being highly critical of Aquinas is sufficient grounds to leave Rome ! Have you read
        Malebranche, Fénelon’s (Treatise on the Existence of God (only exists in French)), Ubaghs, Hugonin, Gerdil, and D’Envieu, all great figures in Ontologism – a system of theological idealism in which we know all thing directly by the examplars in God, which are diverse modes of the Infinite. Also have your read the original works of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila – in particular the positive way she describes the intimate union fo the soul with God which seems very hard to square with any “created Grace” or “intellectual visions”. Ontologism also has some connection to counter-enlightment and counter-revolutionary figures such as De Maistre.

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    Thank you! I’m researching for a paper, and knew you would have some good stuff. This is what I was thinking on the matter. My thesis is comparing Dostoyevsky’s “necessity of God/to believe in God view or else there is depravity” to Aquinas’ need to syllogistically prove God exists.

    Dostoyevsky uses the metaphor of the Jesuit to represent the whole Western rationalistic theology. For him it is casuistry. A Catholic told me that there need not be depravity without a belief in God because of the natural law. My thesis however is that the depravity of man without a confession of God is self-evident, and that the issue, in the mind of Dostoyevsky, is not whether God exists, but that He exists, and to not believe in Him is to be depraved. But with the Western concept of natural law, you can be just as good, or just about, without believing. Granted, there is a natural law, but it is an exaggerated concept in the West, which, as you know, led to humanism, and what has followed.

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