Etsi Deus Non Daretur

I’ve run into this Latin phrase a couple of times in the last couple of days, words that are translated most simply as “even if God were not given”, perhaps more colloquially as “even if God were not a given” (with the philosophical/legalistic tenor it was meant to have, I think, as formulated by Grotius), but not “as if God does not exist”, which would more properly be etsi deus non esset. And perhaps these are all distinctions without a difference, if not deference.

At any rate, the latest appearance is in an article by Michael Novak in National Review Online. Let me emphasize that I think this is a fine piece of writing, but the whole debate … is something of which I’m getting very, very tired. Here’s the evidence:

… proving a negative has long been thought to be, if not impossible, at least unreliable. Necessarily, then, atheism is a belief, not a fact. It may be a belief with (as atheists think) a very high degree of probability, even though we theists judge it to have a low degree of probability. By contrast, agnosticism seems to be a more tenable commitment than atheism. Problem is, in action one must act as if God does not exist (etsi deus non daretur), or as if He does. In action one must make a commitment that one cannot quite make on purely intellectual grounds. It is by our deeds that we show what we most deeply believe.

My immediate response to this fine piece of writing is no longer, “Yeah! Go, team!”, but “How long, Lord; how long?” Then I pause and read that last line over again.

And I am suddenly very, very afraid.


  1. makes my brain hurt after a day of words, sorry. Plus also me and God are currently divorced. Not sure when/if we’ll remarry. Also not sure how that fits into the atheist/agnostic/theist schema, but whatever…

    The best NRO quote of all time, one I’ve held close to my heart ever since, is this:

    “Like many writers, I think too slowly for live combat.”

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Divorced? Seriously? Not even just legally separated? What happened?

    And God is the type of ex that will just keep coming around, so you end up having to get a restraining order.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    It’s worse than that, actually, since God’s the one you have to go to for the restraining order. It’s like being married to a bad cop, who has no problem completely messing up your life.

    AGIT: That is a great quote; do you remember who wrote it?

  4. Oh, bother. Well, *personally,* I think when people break things, they have to clean up the mess afterwards, too. Not saying I’m not open to a little romancing, either, but no more of that sort of thing is coming from ME. You know, sometimes God is just such a stupid GUY. As if a bunch of flowers every now and then would be such a bad thing?

    Can’t remember who wrote that quote. My software came with an extremely faulty footnoting feature…

  5. Rufus McCain says
  6. Exactly.

  7. I don’t see that you have to act as if God does or doesn’t exist.

    Whether or not God exists, shouldn’t one behave morally, if only on rational grounds? And how many of those who do believe in God renounce any chance of earthly happiness in the sure belief they’ll be rewarded in heaven – very, very few.

    Agnosticism seems to me to be the only position worth taking. And, even if you do believe in God, well .. Jesus?

  8. Quin Finnegan says


    I don’t quite see Novak’s point on needing to act as if God did or did not exist, either. Still, it might be the basis of an interesting experiment (beyond a Thought Experiment). As you’re doing things throughout the day, ask yourself if you’re acting as if God exists or does not exist. While you’re eating breakfast – does God exist or does God not exist? While you’re at work – does God exist or does God not exist? While you’re on the computer – does God exist or does God not exist?

    Or maybe just save it for a few big events in your life. If you’re getting married – does God exist, or does God not exist? While you’re burying family or friends – does God exist or does God not exist? While you’re dying – does God exist or does God not exist?

    Maybe you’ll keep coming up with no answer. Maybe it will always be the same answer. I have no idea, of course, but I’d be interested in what you do come up with.

    Or maybe you’ll decide you just don’t know, or that you can’t know. That’s the agnosticism, which I would say isn’t just a more tenable position, but a default position. It’s not a position you really need to take. In other words, it isn’t “worth” much, if anything. It comes so cheap. In my view, we are all more or less agnostic, which is to say: “α-/a-“, “without”; “γνώσις/gnōsis”, “knowledge” – in this case, particularly concerning God.

    Yes, whether or not God exists, one should behave morally, and yes, I suppose on rational grounds as much as possible. In my experience the question of what is moral behavior comes up sooner or later, as does the question of what constitutes rational grounds. That may not be everybody’s experience – it seems as if that isn’t your experience.

    Regarding the question of how many of those who do believe in God renounce any chance of earthly happiness in the sure belief they’ll be rewarded in heaven – I would go further than you and say none. Absolutely none.

    I’m not sure I understand your last question, “And, even if you do believe in God, well .. Jesus?”

    Do you mean, “even if you do believe in God, do you seriously believe Jesus is God?”

    What do you think?

  9. Patmos Pete says

    Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

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