Animadversions on Atheism
by David Deming
by David Deming: Why
I Deny Global Warming
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
© 2011 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
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