Animadversions on Atheism

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Atheism is all the rage. Like Platonism in Renaissance Italy, it has become a lovely intellectual fashion embraced by all the snobs. Especially obnoxious is something called the New Atheism which seeks to draw God under the umbrella of science. Prominent among the new atheists is biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has proclaimed that God does not exist and that theism is a delusion.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an atheist as “one who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.” Atheism is distinct from agnosticism. The agnostic professes no belief in God but does not deny the possibility of God’s existence.

The dictionary is of less help when it comes to defining God. God may be an entity, “the Creator and Ruler of the universe,” or an impersonal principle, “the supreme or ultimate reality.” There are as many definitions of God as there are religions. Cicero tells us that the opinions of men on this subject are “various and different.” For the purpose of this essay, I follow Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) in defining God as a Being, a reality, or an abstract spiritual principle of “which nothing greater can be conceived.” As a transcendent spiritual reality, God, by Its very definition, must be beyond human comprehension, although not entirely beyond human apprehension. I am aware, for example, of the existence of many fields of higher study in mathematics and physics that I barely comprehend. I do not have to fully understand these subjects to be aware that they exist.

I have said nothing of my own belief in this matter. I write not to profess or proselytize, but to critique and argue, to explore and learn. The person who can point out my mistakes “shall carry off the palm, not as an enemy, but as a friend.” I have no need to believe–it is better to understand than to believe. I confess only an affection for Pyrrhonian skepticism, the philosophical position that nothing can be known for certain. But certainly many things may be known with degrees of probability.

There is nothing new about either monotheism or atheism. Monotheism may have been known in Egypt and Babylonia as early as 1500 BC. The first of the Greek philosophers to reject polytheism and propose a type of monotheism was reportedly Xenophanes (c. 570-475 BC). Empedocles (c. 492-432 BC) described God as “only mind, sacred and ineffable mind, flashing through the whole universe with swift thoughts.” For Aristotle (384-322 BC), “the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality.”

There are scattered reports of atheists among the ancient Greeks. Methodological naturalism arose among the presocratic Ionians and Hippocratic physicians in the 5th and 6th centuries BC. Epicureans were atomists and materialists who rejected teleology in nature. Epicurus (341-270 BC) professed a belief in the gods, but his deities were abstract spiritual beings that never interacted with, or took an interest in, the affairs of human beings. It is a just inference to conclude that antiquity held many atheists who nursed their convictions in secret to avoid prosecution for impiety.

In Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius (3rd cent. AD) informs us that Theodorus (c. 340-250 BC) “utterly discarded all previous opinions about the gods.” In the 5th century BC, the poet Diagoras had to flee Athens to avoid prosecution on charges of atheism. Both Diagoras and Theodorus are also mentioned by Cicero (106-43 BC) as examples of philosophers who did not believe in the gods. From the scanty evidence it is not clear if Diagoras and Theodorus were atheists in the modern sense, or merely skeptics who mocked the popular polytheistic conception of anthropomorphic gods.

Western Civilization has become increasingly more secular for the last thousand years. The process began when Christian theologians in Europe were seduced by Greek logic. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) sought to construct an argument for the existence of God that was based entirely on logic. Anselm’s approach was cemented by Thomas Aquinas, and Scholasticism became the predominant intellectual school in Europe for the next few centuries. Both Anselm and Aquinas claimed to place faith before reason. But in using reason to justify faith, they unwittingly acquiesced to the superiority of reason.

In 1543, Copernicus’ Revolutions, a technical work in astronomy, began the process of unraveling the unity of the medieval European world by removing the Earth from the center of the cosmos. Many of the icons of the Scientific Revolution were devout Christians and fervent theists. Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton all viewed experimental philosophy as entirely consistent with, and complementary to, Christianity. But the Scientific Revolution replaced revelation by observation and reason. Consideration of final purposes was excluded from experimental philosophy. The epistemological revolution was completed during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Newtonian physics explained the mechanical universe through the impersonal action of natural law. But scientists and philosophers still needed God to explain the origin of life. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, we find Richard Kirwan, the President of the Royal Irish Academy, maintaining that “geology graduates into religion.” In 1829, the Royal Society of England undertook the publication of the Bridgewater Treatises, works that were commissioned to illustrate “the power, wisdom, and goodness of God.”

In 1859 Darwin published Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory was proposed to explain the evolution of life, but was subsequently invoked to implicitly explain the origin of life. After Darwin, God was no longer necessary to answer scientific questions. By the end of the nineteenth century God had been expelled from the sciences. On April 8, 1966, Time Magazine published the infamous red-and-black cover that posed the question, “Is God Dead?” The secularization of Western society was not yet complete, but certainly substantial.

The atheist views this historical process as the inevitable triumph of human progress. “Science,” Carl Sagan assured us, is a “candle in the dark” that dispels the “demon-haunted world.” Religion and theism are to be extinguished the same way that the diseases of polio and smallpox were conquered. God is just another superstition that must be eradicated to further the march of human progress. “Imagine,” the songwriter says, a world with no religion. Then we will all live happily together in a peaceful communistic utopia.

To the atheist, religion, especially the Christian religion, is the spawning ground of horrors and atrocities. The Witch Mania and the Spanish Inquisition were perpetrated under the guise of Christianity. Before the Reformation, the Catholic Church and papacy were dens of iniquity and hypocrisy. In 1501, Pope Alexander VI presided over the infamous Banquet of the Chestnuts at which fifty naked prostitutes danced. After the Reformation, men had other men burned to death over disagreements on minor and obscure points of religious doctrine. Not only did Catholics fight with Protestants, the Protestant sects fought with each other. In 1553 John Calvin had Michael Servetus arrested and executed. Johannes Kepler was refused the sacrament of communion because he would not accept the Doctrine of Ubiquity. And there is much truth in the traditional view that religion and science are antagonistic systems of knowledge. Rational philosophy and the sciences were expelled from Islamic civilization in the twelfth century by religious fundamentalists.

I acknowledge the preceding, but because something has been at times abused or corrupted does not convince me that it should be altogether discarded. Intolerance is not so much the product of religion as it is the normal human condition. Religion, like science, can be both used and abused. Science tells us how to make both antibiotics and mustard gas. The science of chemistry informs the manufacture of explosives. Explosive chemicals can be fruitfully applied in mining and civil engineering, but they can also be used to murder. Science is inherently amoral. Perhaps we object more strenuously when religion is abused because religion has pretensions to moral authority.

The sciences complement our technologies and satisfy our intellectual curiosity. But science does not inform morality or tell us how to build and order human civilizations. Impressed by Isaac Newton’s physics, John Locke expressed the hope that morality could be made into an exact science. But like much Enlightenment rhetoric, Locke’s hope has proven to be chimerical. We have social sciences such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology. But these are not exact sciences. The extent to which they provide us with reliable information is constrained by inherent limitations. It is difficult to accurately and unambiguously define and measure psychological variables, or to have sufficient control as to separate the effects of multiple compounding variables. Controlled experiments with human beings usually cannot be conducted for ethical reasons. And the sciences can only tell us how people do act, not how they should act.

There is no science that addresses final causes or existential questions. It is religion that does these things. If atrocities have been perpetrated under the cloak of religion, it nonetheless must be admitted that religion and theism have had beneficial influences. What we call Western Civilization today is largely the result of grafting Christian charity onto Greek rationalism. Christianity provided the notion that all men are brothers. This is the ethic of a global-scale civilization. Christianity was instrumental in uniting the diverse tribes and cultures of Europe. It fostered unity, the growth of nations and commerce. Francis Bacon asserted that the progress of the sciences required mass cooperation. It therefore seems undeniable that Christianity and other religions have synergistically promoted scientific activity to the extent that they have encouraged people to get along peacefully.

We need both science and religion. Since Homo erectus walked the Earth, humanity has been defined by its use of technology. We are not the only animal that uses knowledge and tools to manipulate the natural environment, but we do so to such an exaggerated degree that it virtually defines us as a species. And we are a social animal that lives in groups. “Man,” Aristotle says, “is by nature a political animal.” Religion tells us what to do with our knowledge and technologies. It establishes rules of order, informs what is “right” and what is “wrong.” People are not born with the values that promote culture and civilization on a high level. Ethics and morality must be deliberately inculcated. Absent moral indoctrination, people revert to their animalistic instincts.

As a skeptic, I am sympathetic with agnosticism. But I skeptical of atheism. The atheist claims there is no God. How can he be so sure? One wonders if the motivation of the average atheist is anything more than base self-interest. After all, we live in the age of entitlement. Everyone is entitled to everything, free from all the constraints imposed by religion and morality. The death of God surely makes us judges in our own cases.

Many of the arguments advanced by atheists are puerile. Most common is the invocation of the straw-man fallacy. This is the well-known intellectual fallacy wherein one distorts a proposition into an absurd straw man that is easily knocked down.

In Medieval European art, God was invariably depicted as an old man with a white beard who lives in the clouds. The most infamous example of this was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. I am not aware of any better way to portray God in a painting. But is there anyone older than three who believes that God is an elderly gentleman who lives in the clouds? A common type of atheist is the eighteen-year-old college student who is shocked to discover what he should have figured out by the age of twelve: there is no anthropomorphic God. The eager youth, in his ignorance and vanity, immediately concludes that all conceptions of God are null and void. This, he declares to the world with the same impassioned fervor as a religious fanatic. One is reminded of Macaulay’s description of Thomas Aikenhead, the unfortunate youth who was hung for atheism in 1697. “He fancied that he had lighted upon a mine of wisdom which had been hidden from the rest of mankind, and, with the conceit from which half-educated lads of quick parts are seldom free, proclaimed his discoveries.”

I might be inclined to take atheists more seriously if they exhibited any familiarity with either theology or philosophy. Since the Dialogues of Plato were composed in the 4th century BC, philosophers have constructed a number of classical arguments for the existence of God. These include the Cosmological Argument, the Design Argument, and the Ontological Argument. There are problems with all of these arguments. The Design Argument, for example, never really recovered from the criticisms made by David Hume in his posthumous book Dialogues on Natural Religion (1779). Centuries of consideration have more-or-less caused philosophers to conclude that there is no argument based on reason or observation that can do more than suggest the existence of God. As early as the eleventh century AD, the Islamic philosopher al-Ghazali (1058-1111) showed that no logical argument could prove the existence of God. Nevertheless, one might reasonably expect a professed atheist to have done their homework. But it is more commonly the case that they have never heard of the pertinent arguments, much less thought about them.

The most common argument for atheism is that there is no evidence for the existence of God. One is initially taken aback by such a striking assertion. Is it really true that there is “no” evidence for the existence of God? None? Is it not striking that theism has been nearly universal, from the dawn of recorded history throughout most if not all human civilizations? That religion has been the greatest force in human history? That religion builds and transforms human civilizations, informs culture, morality, and law? Although not impossible, it would be surprising to find that all of the preceding had been constructed on a foundation for which there is no evidence.

When an atheist asserts that there is “no evidence” for the existence of God, they mean no evidence of the type they deem acceptable. That is, scientific evidence. Evidence based on observation and reason, capable of repeated corroboration. They rather expect to find God under a microscope, or observe Heaven through a telescope, or take photographs of God when It descends from the clouds in a chariot drawn by winged horses. They demand that God supply evidence on human terms. They demand natural evidence for the supernatural.

Ants live in ant hills and underground burrows. They furiously scurry around, carrying particles of dirt, excavating tunnels and generally keeping busy on all the business that pertains to the kingdom of ants. One ant tells another of the planet Jupiter. Whereupon he is met by the indignant protest that there is no evidence for such a thing. No ant has ever observed it. The only things that exist are those things immediately perceptible to the eyes and brain of an ant. The ant, like all creatures, is unable to fathom the depths of his ignorance. It never occurs to him that his failure to perceive a thing greater than himself might originate in his own frail and limited nature. It is truly impossible to be aware of what we are not aware of. We may only hope to be cognizant that there must be much of which we are ignorant.

There is evidence for the existence of God, but it is not scientific evidence based on the epistemologies of reason and observation. The touchstone of theism is revelation. Revelation is “the disclosure or communication of knowledge by divine or supernatural means.” It is the basis of religion, at least the Abrahamic faiths. When Saul was on the road to Damascus and fell off his horse, he tell us “I was taken up to heaven for a visit…and heard things so astounding that they are beyond a man’s power to describe or put in words.” The consequences of this incident were profound. Saul, the persecutor of the Christians, immediately converted to Christianity and became Paul, the person responsible for transforming Christianity from a Jewish sect into a new universal religion. Christianity is now the world’s largest religion and the single most important historical influence on Western Civilization.

On his “night of fire” the mathematician Blaise Pascal experienced a direct apprehension of God. God, Pascal wrote, “can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.” Saint Teresa of Avila described her ecstatic revelation as a pain “so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied with nothing less than God.”

To al-Ghazali, revelation was the highest epistemology. It was above science. Knowledge of God was obtained only by “transport, ecstasy, and the transformation of the moral being.” al-Ghazali concluded that when a rationalist rejects what they have not experienced, it is merely “a proof of their profound ignorance.”

The atheist who demands scientific evidence for God’s existence has made the same mistake as the Biblical Fundamentalist who claims the Earth is only 6000 years old. The fundamentalist applies the epistemological criterion of revelation to answer a natural question that should be addressed by scientific means. In Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615) Galileo explained “in the discussion of natural problems, we ought not to begin at the authority of places of scripture; but at sensible experiments and necessary demonstrations.” But the question of God’s existence is not a natural one. God, by definition, is supernatural. The only possible way It can be apprehended is through inspiration. To paraphrase Galileo, “in the discussion of supernatural problems, we ought not to begin with natural experiments.”

The atheist who demands to stuff God in a box where It can be studied and observed has made the metaphysical assumption that only the natural world revealed to him by his senses exists. This assumption cannot be verified or tested. Science is nested within metaphysics. Like other systems of knowledge it begins with implicit assumptions. Even geometry rests upon unprovable axioms. The atheist has only asserted what needs to be demonstrated. It is no triumph to trumpet a lack of material evidence for the immaterial. Galileo summed it up nicely. “A great ineptitude exists on the part of those who would have it that God made the universe more in proportion to the small capacity of their reason than to His immense, His infinite, power.”

And whence parsimony? Why do scientists still endorse Ockam’s Razor? Atheistic scientists nurse a secret hypocrisy. They endorse simplicity because they implicitly hold the teleological conviction that God constructed the cosmos with beauty. Physicist Paul Dirac (1902-1984) professed “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.”

Like folly, human vanity is inexhaustible. In Genesis, it is claimed that man was made in the image of God. But if God is dead, human reason has become the light of the universe. In his insufferable vanity, Man has made himself into the image of God. The roles have been reversed, but the hubris remains.

George Sarton noted that works of art provide us with “an intuitive, synthetic, and immediate knowledge” of the “deepest aspirations” of a civilization. If the death of God has illuminated our hearts and minds, why is it that our fine arts are degraded beyond recognition? Our buildings are not as beautiful as the Gothic Cathedrals of the thirteenth century. Modern painters make monochrome paintings and call them art. Are these works equal to those of the Renaissance? Are our sculptures the equal of Michelangelo’s David? If Christian Europe before the Scientific Revolution was such a dark and ignorant age, how is it that such superlative art was made?

If God, by definition, is a spiritual principle beyond human comprehension, how can anyone be sure that It does not exist? Atheism is not only logically indefensible, but unintelligible.

David Deming [send him mail] is associate professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma. His book, Black & White: Politically Incorrect Essays on Politics, Culture, Science, Religion, Energy and Environment, is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

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