Natural Theology: Promise and Peril

Joshua Smith
19 min readApr 17, 2019

There are several ways in which one may detail the history and development of ideas. Lately, I have been particularly frustrated by reading and hearing immense confusions about the emergence of classical liberalism and libertarianism. Libertarianism alone is often attacked on foolish and either deceptive or ill-informed grounds. This is particularly egregious when it comes from people who are in a position to know better than to make spurious charges. One often sees these ill-conceived attacks from pre-Vatican II Catholics (or TradCats as it is sometimes abbreviated), but just as often Protestants and “progressive” far-left atheists get in their shots as well.

What exactly are these spurious charges you may wonder. Here are some examples of the typical strawman tactics, which are loaded with logical fallacies: 1. Libertarianism is a pathological ethos that causes people to violate ordinary moral norms, 2. Libertarianism is of extremely recent creation or invention, it is only at most 400 years old, it is “made up”, 3. Libertarianism makes people egoistic, egotistical, selfish, self-centered, and debased or debauched, 4. Libertarianism is hyper-individualistic and makes people hermetically-sealed off atomistic types who have no care or concern or need for anyone else, 5. Libertarianism rejects all forms of authority, religion, etc., 6. Libertarianism makes people greedy and they worship “capitalism” (capitalism here is clearly meant by misguided critics to mean rapacious, unethical businesses that intentionally rip off customers, abuse their employees, intentionally starve populations to death, and just generally destroy lives, the planet, pollute our air, water, bodies, and so on).

In order to bolster their position, critics will often disparage the all-too-human and all-too-flawed Ayn Rand (for being rude, for running a cult, for smoking, for taking social security in old age, and the like) or by listing a litany of shamefully stupid things various libertarians have said or done. Fair enough. However, there are innumerable poor practitioners of any system of thought. That is part of what being human means: aiming high, coming up short, but continuing to try nevertheless.

I could address each of these charges, complaints, and critiques in turn, but instead will only draw out a few threads related to the first critique. In order to do so, I have opted to create a kind of sprawling recounting and non-linear examination of the deep roots of only a couple of components which developed within Natural Theology and connect to Natural Law theory. On the face of it these may strike one initially as unrelated, but that is incorrect and this article will begin tracing out why that is so. I could easily do far more than this by showing a vast array of ways to support libertarianism’s most basic doctrine or theory known as the non-aggression axiom or non-aggression principle (NAP). The NAP simply clarifies what many of us already know from simple common sense. In fact, it is a codification of what virtually everyone already teaches to their children and expects from others: don’t hit other people and don’t steal their stuff. Plain and simple. In fact, it would be easy to do this by demonstrating it directly from the Holy Scripture of the Bible (either Old or New Testament), or by reference to Roman jurists and legal theorists, but in this piece I will harken back to the times of the classical ancient Greeks. For it is there that we may begin with Theologia Naturalis.

First, it is important to note here that part of the motivation for this is that there is an emergent movement questioning the overblown praise of Enlightenment ideals. I agree with the notion that nothing about the Enlightenment is sacred. It should not be off limits from critique. It is also important to realize that these are not post-modernist style critiques which devolve into nihilism, relativism, or philosophical skepticism. Rather these are critiques of what I like to call the idolatry of the Enlightenment or what author and researcher Jay Dyer refers to as “the cult of Reason”.

Many of the cultural products and achievements born out of the Enlightenment have bestowed wonders beyond imagination just a few hundred years ago. From concepts involving the free market (not rapacious and bloodthirsty or money-grubbing “capitalism” per the pejorative view), to incredible advances in medicine, astronomy, chemistry, and physics. However, there have been tremendous losses as well. Vastly increased destructive powers for war (nuclear weapons should be sufficient to get this point, biological warfare capabilities, chemical warfare, and a spiritual deadness that runs all throughout Western culture’s obsessions with hollow consumerism, voyeurism, reality TV nonsense, and incessant preoccupation with personal slights. It is not at all a contradiction to be pleased by progress and to simultaneously lament the mounting psychic and spiritual costs.

Despite (or more likely because of) the relative material excess and luxuries being generated all around us, just as an example a “poor” person today can affordably obtain a mobile device that allows them access to virtually limitless information which many people in the past would have gladly traded their very soul (Doctor Faustus), it is becoming increasingly clear that the extremes in our society are examples of it fraying at the edges. The amount of daily hysteria and rush to judgment is simply uncanny. Much of it is the direct outcome of mass media blending corporate relationships with political relationships, our mandatory public education system, and hyper-politicized university life.

What this hyped-up hysteria is generating is an ongoing process of polarization and radicalization. Groups are awakening to problems that they never even realized could take place, things they never would have considered for an instant, but are now beginning to seem to be a realistic problem. There are too many instances of these issues to even begin listing them.

A Dark or Toxic Enlightenment?

Some have even began to call for a “Dark Enlightenment” or a “New Dark Age”, archaeo-futurism, anarcho-primitivism, a return to pre-Christian European paganism, or for the return of monarchies in order to displace the degeneracy that seems to attend democracies. For example, when they look at the Western world today, what they see is: decadence, dishonor, a certain slackness of being directly born out of Enlightenment concepts which brought about democracies, the aforementioned horrors of “capitalism”, the mounds of dead bodies piled up by communism and socialism, the banishment of Christianity specifically to a purely private domain that should never be allowed to be exercised outside of this private sphere, the rise of bland secularism, the emasculation of men, the derogation of boys, and many more things beyond.

As a result, there is a move towards re-traditionalizing the West by embracing “trad” lifestyles relating to the family, an embracing of pre-Vatican II Catholicism (trad Catholics), and many atheists, agnostics, and former Protestants becoming Orthodox Christians. Essentially what this amounts to is an increasing number of people are desperately searching to get off of what they see as a runaway train that is transporting at high speeds tanks filled with toxic modernity and post-modernity. This has been covered in great detail recently by Dr. Steve Turley. Although I am not seeing much evidence so far of people wanting to literally head for the hills and live in the woods like the Unabomber or taking up Thoreau’s Walden lifestyle (which truth be told even Thoreau wasn’t actually doing despite his claims, but that is another story), or saying “Good night, John Boy” ala The Waltons.

We must be frank here: modernity and post-modernity are creating increasing numbers of discontents. There are no signs of it slowing and I fully expect these movements to increase exponentially.

Although it may seem as if I am off the rails, I warned you above that this would be sprawling and non-linear.

I can set the scene for a path from Natural Theology to the NAP to demonstrate to these critics and others that libertarianism per se is not simply some oddball offshoot of the decadent aspects of Enlightenment ideology. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that the particular tact I am taking in this piece will not likely be convincing to practitioners of Orthodox Christianity. For a variety of reasons, that would require a different set of argumentative techniques just as it would require yet another approach in order to appeal to the concerns of idolaters of the Enlightenment or the cult of Reason. This should, however, potentially be impactful for Catholics, Protestants, some agnostics, and perhaps even some atheists. In tandem, I will also show that there are at least three pre-Enlightenment strands of thought in the West that support the central principle of libertarianism.

This can work in a variety of ways because some historians of science have found aspects of an original locus of what we call modern science during the era of Thales of Miletus and drawn out of arguments for the existence of God. As the approach and argument emerged, thinkers were counseled to study the natural world for evidence and signs of creation or design (but not in the modern sense of creationism or intelligent design as those involve a different milieu of concepts).

At the crux of some of the many tensions of modernity, is the false dichotomy that has developed between religion and science. There is a modernist insistence that asserts religion and science or reason and faith have been locked into an internecine, eternal conflict. This claim is of very recent manufacture (note here I am not committing the error that critics of libertarianism are committing by saying that since libertarianism is recent, that means it is false or unreliable, rather I pointing out this historical fact because it proves that there has not been an eternal combat between religion and science). Indeed, this argument only came about explicitly in the late 1800s and took on great prominence in the early 1900s. It is simply taken as a matter of faith today among those laboring under the sway of scientism and belief in a technological utopia.

So how is it that we should understand Natural Theology? I would begin by saying that it is a process of reasoning to the existence of God or a “god” rooted in observations of the natural world and, for the most part, leaving out appeals to one’s own spiritual experiences, holy texts, or the presuppositional or transcendental arguments. However, for some, they would additionally want to appeal to revelation or a movement stirred by God within them. That aspect is ancillary to my primary argument in this article, yet excising scripture and revelation is, as I will get to later, the weak link for any and all Natural Theology arguments.

This type of reasoning often makes reference to empirical evidence drawn from Nature. That is to say without reference to the supernatural or to the Divine. This approach can be quite appealing to those interested in theistic apologetics, but it suffers from some important weaknesses. The first is that this is a merely theistic approach. Natural Theology, at least in this specific sense, prototypically refers to the “god” of the philosophers or even the “god” of the deists much later. The god of the philosophers was a demiurge. A demiurge was said to be a sort of Great Architect (similar to the “god” of the Freemasonry) or Grand Artificer who formed or made the world, which was later transformed into a Divine Watchmaker among the deists. This god, however, was merely an extraordinarily powerful designer which is a far cry from a true creator God ex nihilo.

That is to say that this Grand Artificer/Great Architect was thought by the philosophers to have merely arranged or rearranged pre-existent matter (prima materia), which is infinitely removed from an eternally existing God who then creates all matter, all energy, time, and so forth. This is also what made the god of the deists so easily dismissed as an unnecessary hypothesis, sliced away and discarded by the law of parsimony (otherwise known as Ockham’s razor, which is not really a law but primarily a good suggestion yet that is again another story entirely). It is also from this weak god that one can trace the developments of humanism and unitarianism as aspects of slow-moving secularizing trends.

Furthermore, if one follows the philosopher’s and deistic version of god, today one is likely to think god is essentially a highly-advance Artificial Intelligence or a sort of super-programmer. This modern mythos of AI or simulationalism as our “reality” suggests we are all living inside some kind of hologram, a Matrix, or other artificially-manipulated reality. In other words, on this account reality isn’t real at all. Remember this the next time you hear someone say, “There is a glitch in the code of the Matrix” or that some odd event is certain proof that we are living in “the simulation”.

Among the earliest pieces of evidence for this style of argument, we can look to Plato’s Timaeus and the Laws. In these, Plato sets out arguments for a deity that arranged the stars and the motions of all things. Since this style of argument was later taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas, he is sometimes (I think perhaps mistakenly) accused of only generating an apologetic for the god of the philosophers rather than the true creator God of the Bible who is simultaneously personal and mysterious. What is also important to note here is that Natural Theology is just one component of a more complex apologetics which classically also includes: the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, and later the ontological argument.

It is notable that these divisions of apologetics are commonly understood by Christian philosophers and theologians. These are often employed by Catholics, especially those tied to the traditions of Aquinas and back to Aristotle. These commonly appeal to the “unmoved first-mover” or “uncaused first cause” and so on. Some of these are also employed by creationists and by intelligent design theorists, who by the way, are actually often quite different groups who have heated disagreements over radically differing views. A modified version called the Kalam Cosmological Argument has been developed to a fine degree by Dr. William Lane Craig and other Christian apologists. As a point of clarification, the term “apologetics”, does not mean to get down on one’s knees in front of the secular world and apologize for religion or Christianity. Rather the terms refers to the defense of the faith wherein one makes arguments that demonstrate the existence of God and often switches the usual direction of the burden of proof from the theist to the atheist.

As Natural Theology developed over time, various naturalists (here I do not refer to purely materialistic naturalism which came about later) and natural historians would analyze and study animals, plants, and so on as ways of both honoring and knowing God through his works. Science, in other words, was at that time perfectly amenable with belief or faith. Reason, as Aquinas had argued, can and will lead us to know God when directed in proper fashion.

In some ways, these ancient and Medieval arguments culminated in the works of William Paley who is most known for his divine watchmaker analogy. However, it is just here that I want to point out a danger that rested within Natural Theology from the beginning. By this I mean it was always vulnerable to the process of secularization, which had been ongoing for hundreds of years by the time Paley arrived on the scene (read The Secular Revolution edited by Dr. Christian Smith, no known relation). The majestic power of God was piece by piece slowly being chipped away, watered-down, pulled as if by some force back towards a mere Grand Architect rather than the creator of a rationally-ordered intelligible universe ex nihilo. Their is a vast chasm between a true creator and a mere divine programmer who arranges matter or designs laws of the universe like gravity, electro-magnetic, strong and weak nuclear forces, thermodynamics, and so on…but then just checks out, sits back and drinks mai tais is a programmer or ‘god’ just begging to be eliminated.

During this time, there is also the concomitant development of other important concepts and movements. For example, alongside naturalists and natural history, there was the notion of the Book of Nature, and the emergence of natural philosophy. Also, the ancient Greek belief in cyclical time was slowly being excised.

The Book of Nature or Librum Naturae formulated the idea that Nature is a book to be “read” in order to develop deep understanding and knowledge of existence. Furthermore, this reading could lead one to be able to grasp various aspects of revelation through natural processes. Additionally, there emerged the so-called two book understanding wherein one would read both the natural world and revealed scripture in light of one another. This pattern was suggested by St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and many other early church fathers.

As I mentioned above, natural history or Historia Naturalis and the naturalists were busily cataloging, chronicling, and attempting to categorize the natural world by creating compendia and encyclopedic works to classify plants and animals. Natural philosophy was born out of this type of work but focused primarily on chemistry and physics-type questions. But moving back to classical times, there was a tendency among the ancients to imbue the spiritual or immaterial realm with great meaning, yet later as materialism moved to the fore, all of reality was drained of Soul or Spirit or any type of non-material concerns. Among the ancients, there was thought to be a link referred to as the correspondences “As above, so below” or “from the macrocosm to the microcosm”, which did not simply refer to the celestial realm or heavens and stars above being linked to the Earth, but rather there were additional links from the immaterial to the material. These connections were often seen as moral connections as well.

Therefore when this physical-soul link was lost, there were numerous implications for ethics and morality. As the meaning and value of God (or even god) was lost or destroyed over time, Nietszche declared what many already knew but were afraid to say, “God is dead.” The emergent materialist scientists had already decided the god of the deists was not needed in order to explain the physical world — “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la” as stated by the French thinker Pierre-Simon Laplace (“I had no need of that hypothesis”) referring to god in relation to his work in response to a question from Napoleon referring to his work.

Throughout the history of Natural Theology and the concepts of the Book of Nature, and double truth, there is a constant tension not between religion and science but between Plato and Aristotle. This is the divide between the Ideal realm of the Forms and the empirical Real, the divide between theoria and praxis/theory and practice, the realm of thought-mind-ideas vs sensate experience, and the abstract vs the practical or pragmatic. These divides define much of the history of Western thought. There are a number of additional key features that must also be considered related to dualism, Manichaeism, and gnosticism wherein the material world is seen as one of flux and change — a corrupted and irreperably fallen domain, utterly tainted by decay, death, sin, and evil. Aspects of these dualities passed into Christian theology through St. Augustine who was influenced by both Plato and Aristotle but was always more Platonist than Aristotelian (whereas Aquinas was also influenced by both Plato and Aristotle but was more Aristotelian). This Platonism and dualism was deeply ingrained in Augustine because he had spent many years as a Manichean. Some Christian thinkers deny these past influences, however I think the bar is set quite high for them to demonstrate that claim.

Nevertheless, the created world was commonly thought to be imbued with encoded messages or meaning from the hand, mind (nous), or word (logos) of God. Thus, the Book of Nature was imbued with value and remained lesser than sacred textual revelation. Eventually, natural science developed further out of the roots of natural philosophy and was turned by secularizing trends into the conflict model that we are usually told today always existed. This modernist assumption truly is an invented notion and it led to a fracturing of the previously stable interrelationship between religion and science.

The general outline one sees is a move to Materialism (in metaphysics) and subsets of materialism such as Mechanism or the Mechanistic worldview to organicism.

At this point, I estimate the reader to be wondering: Wait, didn’t this begin by saying something about libertarianism too? Indeed. However, I hope you also recall that I mentioned the views about the connections seen between the Godhead and the moral realm, the immaterial and the material. Along with the view that what exists is a rationally-ordered, intelligible universe, this reality was taken to be objective and open to investigation by all rational observers. Since this ordered reality can be known, it is suffused with systemic regularities, and among them, it was commonly held, these should also apply to the moral and legal realms. Furthermore, since these natural regularities exist, laws applicable to human behavior and interactions must also exist and, in principle, be discoverable.

Now, the false picture commonly presented by critics is that these ideas just burst onto the scene unprecedented from the pens of Tom Paine, JS Mill, and John Locke. However, the truth is vastly more complicated. Especially since Locke, Mill, Paine, and many others were pulling together threads of ideas and arguments reaching back much further in Western thought. So it was thought that rules or laws regarding the nature of humans were also aspects of the natural world. Classical natural law theory can be traced back to Aquinas and, predictably, aspects of it all the way back to Aristotle. Moral and legal guidelines were thought to be inherent universal since God would not abandon those never exposed to Christianity. Thus the natural law is open to all rational enquirers. This had multiple and divergent paths over time, some emphasizing the moral aspects, and others the legal applications. Additionally, since man is both the rational animal and a social animal, this necessitates moral investigation and law as a correlative aspect. This is also directly linked to ancients conceptions regarding uniform principles of what was called natural justice.

Elements of all of these threads were passed into the Roman world through stoicism. And it was Cicero who was responsible for much of this work to elaborate upon it and the attempts to universalize the application of justice. This entire tradition is contrary to positive law theory, which is one of the dominant but flawed theories today — traceable back to the Sophists.

Indeed one can find in Aquinas four types of laws which contain and define everything from the natural world, Natural Theology, natural history, and natural philosophy (philosophia naturalis) that I have mentioned thus far: 1. The Eternal Law over the universe (primarily the hard sciences), 2. Natural Law over all creatures with both reason and free will, 3. Human Law or what we would call positive law which is merely created by humans, 4 Divine Law found by divine revelation and leading to salvation. By implication, natural law is tied to unstated but pre-existing natural rights (conceiving of “rights” as restrictions or refraints upon the actions of each person in regard to other persons). These are the inalienable natural rights, given by God and later formulated as ‘life, liberty, and property’. Inherent in all of this are the notions of self-ownership (for who else has free will?), property (thou shalt not steal…what else?), indeed the fact that in both the Greek and Christian traditions each individual was seen as an ensouled-being, this created a clear and distinct separation from other cultures with more collectivist traditions.

What this means is that either tradition undermines the false claims regarding the individualist elements of libertarianism. Furthermore, this is a separate tradition and not a necessary aspect of libertarian theory. Factually, it is indisputable that each human is a discreet unit, the mere fact that we happen to also depend upon a familial network of social relations or communities in no way dismantles a natural law or natural rights approach. Additionally, these were drawn out of related ethical theories often linked to natural philosophy as in the systematic study of nature and thus humans as a special subset of nature.

Needless to say, I believe it is gravely mistaken to merely trace rights theory to the disastrous Hobbes rather than through the far deeper and more complex traditions that I have only begun to set out here by linking it back to origins in Natural Theology among the Greeks and various strains of Christianity-inspired theorizing which overlapped and interlinked with the Greek traditions. Consequently it is key here to understand that “nature” or “natural” implied a host of attendant notions: universal application (far before Kant’s explicit formulation), conceptual independence from any specific society or cultural context, race, ethnicity, sex, class, and so forth which possesses our academies today as they labor under pure sophistry and rank subjectivism in many of the humanities and social sciences.

I hope that now the reader is beginning to recognize that both classical liberal and libertarian presuppositions related to rights theories are easily defensible and supportable, de minima, from three distinct traditions: Christian Theology, Natural Theology, and Natural Law Theory. Appeals to or critiques of Hobbes, Locke, Paine, hyper-atomistic individualism, are all rendered moot and unnecessary. In fact, there are numerous others ways separate from anything I’ve mentioned thus far which leads one to arrive at either the NAP or libertarian principles: consequentialist, deontological (my personal preference), utilitarian, and many more. Much of this will be addressed in a book I am currently working on and hope to have out this year. Indeed, one could go further by demonstrating the intellectual links to the Scholastics, the Italian Catholic cities during the 1300s, and the Spanish Salamanca school of thought which links the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle through to Aquinas and forward all in the pre-Enlightenment era.

Again, I must emphasize that this is only a very general introduction to a much more in-depth explanation and review of Natural Theology and its interconnections with later theories of natural justice, natural law, and a tradition that can lead to a pre-Enlightenment defense of key aspects of thought which support components of libertarian theory. Here I have not even made appeals certain critical Catholic principles such as that of subsidiarity, nor the Protestant notion of the spheres of sovereignty, or differentiated responsibility as they are beyond the scope of the natural law approach.

The over-wrought critiques of individualism is so far off base that it should be plain to see it for the nonsense that it is but collectivists from socialists to communists to communalists go to this well over and over again.

The only consideration of overriding import here is to ask when is the use of force of just? It is simply stunning that people can understand this perfectly in their everyday personal interactions, they can understand it when it comes to their own circle of family and friends, but when it comes to the State suddenly magic overcomes them and they think force is justified whenever they disagree with something other people do. This is true of both the political right and left. It is the one thing that unites both parties: the desire to wield the one ring of power in order to compel compliance from others.

One final note here for good measure since this is yet another point of major confusion and repeated misrepresentation, using a pre-Enlightenment Natural Theology to natural justice or natural law approach in order to delimit the sphere where force my be appropriately used is in no way an argument in favor of libertinism nor vice. Far too many try to impugn arguments for freedom as arguments for just doing anything one can think of without limit. This is simply irrational and absurd. One must be free in order to fully exercise free will, to be accountable, to be responsible for one’s choices and actions, and this in no way necessitates one engaging in evil or vile acts. On the contrary, so long as one understands that there is an even higher freedom, which is the freedom granted by choosing against vice or evil (as Augustine pointed out), for not doing so is to enslave oneself to vice or evil.

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Joshua Smith

Defender of family, freedom, and history. Concerned observer of our world.