Leading atheists are unimpressed. “If God created the universe,” Sam Harris writes, “what created God?” His sentiments are echoed by several atheist writers: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg. They raise the problem of infinite regress. Yes, there has to be a chain of causation, but why does it have to stop with God? Why can’t it go on forever? Dawkins makes the further point that only a complex God could have created such a complex universe, and we cannot account for one form of unexplained complexity (the universe) by pointing to an even greater form of unexplained complexity (God). Consequently Dawkins concludes that “the theist answer has utterly failed” and he sees “no alternative but to dismiss it.”

The real force of Aquinas’s argument, however, is not that every series must have a beginning but that every series, in order to have being or existence, must depend on something outside the series. It is no rebuttal to say that as everything must have a cause, who caused God? Aquinas’s argument does not use the premise that everything needs a cause, only that everything that exists in the universe needs a cause. The movement and contingency of the world cannot be without some ultimate explanation. Since God is by definition outside the universe, He is not part of the series. Therefore the rules of the series, including the rules of causation, would not logically apply to Him.

Think of God as the author of a novel. The events in the narrative have a certain coherence and logic. Something that occurs in the beginning of the story causes a crisis for one of the characters in the middle of the story. Raskolnikov’s actions in Crime and Punishment cause the death of the old woman. But the author is the cause of the story on an entirely different level. The rules of causation that apply within the novel do not apply to its creator. It makes sense to ask of a character that suddenly appears, “Where did he come from? How do you account for him?” It makes no sense in this context, however, to ask, “Where did this fellow Dostoevsky come from? How do you account for him?” The author is outside the narrative, and his act of creation cannot be understood as an episode within it. From this discussion it should be evident that Harris and Dawkins have not even come close to answering Aquinas’s argument.