Entries in "History of Western Atheism"

September 06, 2007

The history of western atheism-5: The religious climate in Darwin's time

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was aware of all the religious debates swirling around him as a young man, although they did not seem to divert him from his passionate pursuit of collecting beetles. In the early to mid-1800's, England was in a reaction against the radicalism and turmoil following the French revolution of 1789 which had dethroned the religious hierarchy there. The Tories (which later became the Conservative Party) were strong supporters of the authority of the King and the Anglican Church and traditional Biblical teachings of the special creation. They were ascendant over the Whigs (which later became the Liberal Party), who wanted "extended suffrage, open competition, religious emancipation (allowing Dissenters, Jews, and Catholics to hold office) and the abolition of slavery." (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 24).

In such a Tory-dominated climate, evolution-related ideas such as that the mind and consciousness were not separate entities and that the body was purely a creation of the brain were strongly frowned upon because they raised disturbing questions such as "[I]f life was not a supernatural gift, if the mind was not some incorporeal entity, what became of the soul? With no soul, no after-life, no punishment or reward, where was the deterrent against immorality? What would stop the downtrodden masses from rising up to redress their grievances?" (Desmond and Moore, p. 38, my italics). We thus see that advocacy or religion and the suppression of atheism has always been a key element in the strategy of those who want to preserve power in the hands of the elite few.

What is interesting is that during this time there was widespread "antitheism," the active opposition to theism. The working classes perceived the established Anglican Church in England, which (like the Roman Catholic Church in France) lived in luxury, as an oppressor and were calling for its abolition.

Science entered into this discussion because the idea that species were immutable had been used to support the hereditary power of the elites. The idea that god had specially created species once for all time was used to imply that social classes were also fixed and ordained by god, and that to challenge them was to challenge god's plan.

The rising popularity of the idea of the transmutation of species proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1774-1829), and the spread of other radical ideas from European mainland, were undermining this idea and fuelling atheistic ideas, along with generating calls for a radical restructuring of society in England and the dethroning of the Anglican Church from its privileged position.

At that time blasphemy was a crime because Christianity was part of the law of the land. The Anglican Church was wealthy because they could impose taxes in the form of tithes on the population, just like the Catholic Church did in France. While the Whigs were for reform and greater democracy, they too were wary of letting the masses get too much power, preferring to have reform-minded elites run things. They feared that loosening the faith of illiterate workers would lessen their ability "to bear up against the pressure of misery and misfortune." (Desmond and Moore, p. 70)

The theologian William Paley (whose famous book Natural Theology (1802) has the famous watchmaker analogy so beloved of intelligent design creationists and reincarnated by them as Mount Rushmore) was very frank about the social function served by religion in keeping the masses from complaining about injustice. He said that "Christian revelation. . . established the existence of 'a future state of reward and retribution.' And retribution in the next life is eminently useful for regulating human conduct in this one. Without the threat of eternal torture, men 'want a motive' to do their duty, and 'their rules want authority.' Promise them future rewards, on the other hand, and a perennial problem is solved: the unequal and 'promiscuous distribution' of power and wealth. The swilling masses will put up with their hardships and degrading 'stations' once they accept that any injustice will be rectified hereafter." (Desmond and Moore, p. 78)

Thus religion served the purpose it still serves today, to help preserve injustice by making the victims accepting of the status quo because they are fearful of divine retribution if they do otherwise. It persuades people to accept injustice and their current exploitation by promising them non-existent rewards that will supposedly receive in the non-existent life after death.

It was in this religious and political climate that Darwin proposed his dangerous idea. He was someone who sought respectability and avoided controversy. It was not in his nature to be a rebel and risk vilification by the Church and the bourgeoisie society in which he was so comfortably ensconced. He knew that his model of how species evolved would cause a stir and he risked being accused of blasphemy.

But at the same time, he was scientifically ambitious and knew that what he was proposing was a grand new idea that would increase his already considerable standing among the scientific peers who understood it and were not blinded by religious dogma. So he developed his theory in secret, sharing his ideas with just a few trusted colleagues, collecting vast amounts of evidence so that when he was finally prodded to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859 by the sudden appearance of Alfred Wallace's similar theory, his work was on a solid empirical foundation that withstood critics' attacks.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

POST SCRIPT: Supply Side Jesus

An alternative Biblical story.

September 05, 2007

The history of western atheism-4: Atheism spreads to the masses

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In his BBC4 TV documentary A Rough History of Atheism, Jonathan Miller points out that by the end of the 18th century, while skepticism of god and religion was gaining ground among the intellectuals and the elites, and was probably secretly quite widespread, the spread of atheism to the working classes was opposed (even by these enlightened people) because the elites feared that it would destroy the basis of their power. It was fine to discuss atheistic ideas around their dinner tables as long as the servants were not present. As James Mills said to his son, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, "There is no god but it's a family secret."

Religion has also consistently been used as a tool of oppression, from the colonization by Europe of Asia and Africa and South America, to its use during slavery. It was consistently used to divert the energies of the enslaved people away from organizing to fight for their rights and freedom and directed to accepting their lot as god's will and hoping for rewards in heaven. The idea that being rich and powerful is a sign of god's favor is a valuable tool to maintain that status quo.

A belief in the divine right of kings and nobility has always served as a powerful means of social control and a deterrent to democratic ideals, and this had been recognized for a long time. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) said, "A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of an evil treatment from a ruler they consider god fearing and pious. On the other hand they less easily move against him believing that he has the gods on his side." As Voltaire said, "As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites." Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledged the value of religion as a means of social control when he said "Religion is excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet", echoing Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) who said: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."

The cynical view that advocates that religion should be fostered by political leaders even if they do not themselves believe in it, is an attitude still maintained by some Straussian neoconservatives today.

As long as atheism stayed within the rarefied world of the elites and intellectuals, it did not pose a danger to social order. It is only when atheist views threaten to spread to the general public that it is viewed with concern. What we see currently in America may be a replaying of this historical pattern. The recent success of books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and the resulting public discussions of atheism that they have provoked have caused a similar disquiet.

For example, "common" people like Tom Paine were considered dangerous when they advocated atheist views, especially since his pamphleteering was reaching ordinary people. Actually, Paine is more properly be described as a deist but his stinging arguments that both Christianity and the Bible were false and many Christian doctrines immoral were enough for him to be labeled an atheist.

France in the 18th century was a fertile breeding ground for atheistic ideas because of the corrupt relationship of the Catholic Church with the French nobility. They both lived luxurious and extravagant lifestyles based on forced taxes exacted on peasants and workers. This led to a great deal of resentment and cynicism against religion and the ruling classes, factors involved in the events leading up to the revolution of 1789.

Atheism became more widespread when it started to permeate popular literature because novels reach a much wider and more middle and low-brow audience than philosophical treatises.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was clearly influenced by Baron D'Holbach and in his most famous book Madame Bovary had one of his characters, the pharmacist Homais, say the following: "I can't believe in an old boy of a God who takes walks in his garden with a cane in his hand, who puts his friends in the belly of whales, dies uttering a cry, and rises again at the end of three days; things absurd in themselves, and completely opposed, moreover, to all physical laws, which proves to us, by the way, that priests have always wallowed in ignorance, in which they would be glad to engulf the people with them." Later on, Homais debates the local priest and urges him to read Voltaire and D'Holbach. It should be not surprising that Flaubert was criticized for his writings, on the grounds of immorality and impiety.

Another French writer Emile Zola (1840-1902) is quoted as saying: "Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest."

These ideas spread across the channel to England and influenced the climate in which Charles Darwin worked, as I will discuss in the next posting.

August 31, 2007

The history of western atheism-3: The first published atheist

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In his BBC4 TV series A Rough History of Atheism Jonathan Miller awards the honor of being the first published atheist to France's Paul Henri Thiery, Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789). As the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on him says:

His most popular book, Système de la nature (1770) ("The System of Nature"), published under the name of J.B. Mirabaud, caustically derided religion and espoused an atheistic, deterministic Materialism: causality became simply relationships of motion, man became a machine devoid of free will, and religion was excoriated as harmful and untrue. In Le Christianisme dévoilé (1761; "Christianity Unveiled"), published under the name of a deceased friend, N.A. Boulanger, he attacked Christianity as contrary to reason and nature.

It is said that the Baron's salon was a congenial meeting place for all manner of freethinkers, including Benjamin Franklin during his stay in France, but some of his guests were so alarmed at the inflammatory nature of the speculations that occurred that they stopped coming. Even a nobleman like D'Holbach had to be cautious about his views, as atheism was grounds for persecution and even execution, so his works on these subjects were published pseudonymously.

When you read the Baron's views, one can understand his caution. Here is a sample of his writings, which are bracingly direct and modern:

  • If we go back to the beginning we shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them, and that custom, respect and tyranny support them in order to make the blindness of men serve its own interests.
  • If the ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, the knowledge of nature is calculated to destroy them.
  • All religions are ancient monuments to superstitions, ignorance, ferocity; and modern religions are only ancient follies rejuvenated.
  • All children are atheists -- they have no idea of God.
  • What has been said of [God] is either unintelligible or perfectly contradictory; and for this reason must appear impossible to every man of common sense.
  • The Jehovah of the Jews is a suspicious tyrant, who breathes nothing but blood, murder, and carnage, and who demands that they should nourish him with the vapours of animals. The Jupiter of the Pagans is a lascivious monster. The Moloch of the Phoenicians is a cannibal. The pure mind of the Christians resolved, in order to appease his fury, to crucify his own son. The savage god of the Mexicans cannot be satisfied without thousands of mortals which are immolated to his sanguinary appetite.
  • Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.
  • Tolerance and freedom of thought are the veritable antidotes to religious fanaticism.
  • Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.

Pretty strong stuff, especially for the 18th century, and one can understand why the good Baron was wary of saying these things under his own name. But there is nothing in the above list that any modern atheist would disagree with.

Baron D'Holbach's writings are said to have been extremely influential, perhaps because they said so directly what had been thought secretly for so long in the minds of many thoughtful people. It is very likely that his works were well known to Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles Darwin's grandfather, who was himself a radical freethinker and who had published his own Lamarckian theory of evolution in the book Zoonomia which was published around 1795.

Although Charles Darwin started out as a religious person and was contemplating becoming an Anglican clergyman early on, there is little doubt that the disbelief of his father and grandfather and brother were factors in his later move away from religion. He knew them to be good and decent people and the thought that they would be punished and suffer torments simply because of their disbelief was impossible for him to accept. As he wrote in his autobiography (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 246):

I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

The philosopher Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) said that "The notion that faith in Christ is to be rewarded by an eternity of bliss, while a dependence upon reason, observation, and experience merits everlasting pain, is too absurd for refutation, and can be relieved only by that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance, called "faith."" Darwin would probably have sympathized with the statement although, being someone who avoided social controversy, he probably would not have stated it so strongly.

It is interesting to see the interweaving of threads of ideas of religion and science and atheism in those times. Was it the atheist writings of people like D'Holmbach that opened up the creative window for Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, and other scientists, freeing them from the constraints of having their science strictly conform to religious dogma? It is hard to say. But the more liberal climate definitely would have helped.

Next in this series: Atheism shifts from the intellectuals to the masses.

August 29, 2007

The history of western atheism-2: The beginnings of modern atheism

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) may have unwittingly been the trigger for the revival of freethinking during the Enlightenment. Although he always asserted his own fidelity to the teachings of the church, the clarity of his thinking about the mind-body relationship exposed some of the fundamental problems and contradictions that inevitably accompany religious beliefs.

Belief in god has always required a kind of dualistic 'two different worlds and two different kinds of matter' way of thinking, but usually left unexamined the thorny questions of how the two interacted. Descartes' exposition on this duality and his attempts to find a way by which the world and matter of god interacted with the world and matter of people exposed the difficulties with dualism, problems which plague thoughtful believers to this day as they try to reconcile a scientific perspective with religious faith.

Jonathan Miller in Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief suggests that the first modern philosopher to seriously challenge the basis of the existing religious orthodoxies was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He advocated 'monism', the idea that only one kind of stuff exists, and that stuff is what we see as matter. This ruled out dualism, especially other kinds of non-material entities like the soul and god. Although Hobbes's book Leviathan (1651) advocated a strict materialism of both human nature and knowledge, he was not really an atheist and might better be classified as one of the first modern deists, someone who allows for the existence of some prime mover who set the universe in motion but then does not interfere subsequently.

The official climate in Hobbes' time was still strongly discouraging of any forms of skepticism and people had to be cautious about going against these norms of belief. Perhaps as a result of the alarm caused to the supporters of religion by the spread of the kind of views expressed by Hobbes, in 1694 the British parliament had a long debate and passed a bill that advocated the death penalty for blasphemy if anyone should deny divinity. Early drafts of the bill even included atheism as grounds for execution, although that was not included in the final law that was passed. But it gives us a sense of the degree of public opprobrium that one risked if one espoused any form of heterodoxy.

One can see the strong appeal of deism for freethinkers in those times. Deism allowed people to formally genuflect to god and maintain a stance of official belief in god while allowing the free reign of their intellect in all other matters, especially science, since in the deist framework god was never invoked to explain anything other than the original creation of the universe and its subsequent laws and maintained a strict hands-off policy after that. Since atheism could be grounds for persecution and punishment and even execution, it seems reasonable to suppose that many deists of those days may well have been closeted atheists.

The fact that many of the prominent leaders of the American revolution (such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe) were deists and had no trouble advocating the constitutional separation of church and state makes sense in the light of this historical context. They were rebelling against the restrictive entanglements of religion with government back in England, while trying to be not too far ahead of their own populace in terms of religion. After all, there have always been influential religious zealots in America, some who even went to the extent of seeking out and executing witches, and it would not have been not politically expedient to disavow god altogether. Still, it is quite amazing how sophisticated in such matters the American political leadership of that time was, compared to the present day when leaders publicly express a bizarre belief that god is actually in personal contact with them, and some even do not accept the theory of evolution.

While Hobbes with his theory of monism laid the philosophical basis for modern atheism, Miller argues that he cannot be truly identified as the first atheist. Neither could philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) who followed in Hobbes' footsteps. But both were definitely anti-religious and flirted publicly with atheism and it would not be surprising if they were privately so, since both dropped hints that they suspected that most people were a lot less pious than they publicly let on.

David Hume, writing in his The Natural History of Religion chapter XII (1757), suspected that there was a great deal of hypocritical piety among his contemporaries:

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men's conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

One gets the impression that while the people of Hume's time may not have publicly expressed disbelief, there were a lot of knowing winks and nudges exchanged when public piety was encountered.

I think that Hume is describing many people today as well.

Next in this series: The first published atheist.

POST SCRIPT: After Fredo

The Department of Justice, like the IRS, can function effectively only if perceived as above partisan politics. This is because unlike most other government agencies, they can wield great power over individuals and so any action they take has to be seen as not serving a partisan agenda.

Alfredo Gonzales instigated and presided over the almost complete politicization of the Justice Department, making it serve as an extension of the White House, and his welcome departure is being accompanied by calls that he be replaced by someone who will restore some semblance of independence and integrity to that institution.

I am not sanguine that this will happen and am not sure why people have such high hopes. The Bush administration has had a consistent track record of appointing as partisan a political hack as they can get away with to all positions. Right now, the only constraint on its excesses is that the Democrats have to approve the nominee, but I fully expect that the nominee will be someone who they think they can just squeak by the approval process.

This is one of those predictions where I hope I am wrong.

August 27, 2007

The history of western atheism-1: The ancient origins

In the BBC4 TV program Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, host Jonathan Miller states flatly right at the beginning, "This series is about the disappearance of something – religious faith. . . The history of the growing conviction that god does not exist."

(The full three hour, three-part series can be seen starting at the beginning here. The price you pay for it being on YouTube is that each hour is chopped up into six ten-minute segments in order to meet the time restrictions. But the video and sound quality are excellent.)

Miller did a nice job of summarizing the rise and fall and rise again of freethinking. Strictly speaking, his is a survey of atheism just in the western world. In the eastern world of two millennia ago, the widespread acceptance of Confucianism, which placed very little emphasis on a god, and Buddhism, which required no belief in god, suggests that atheism was not perceived as negatively as in the west.

The Miller documentary is structured quite traditionally. It is long on voice-over narration by Miller as he walks through various imposing historical churches, museums, and other buildings and gazes upwards at portraits and statues of the people he is talking about, interspersed with interviews with scholars. It is Miller talking to the viewer in an informal, chatty way, interweaving the history of disbelief with his own journey to a comfortable atheism. But what it lacks in drama and glitz, it more than makes up in the low-key, understated charm that is characteristic of good BBC documentaries. The second and third hours are especially good as the pace picks up.

Miller points out that many of the early Greeks philosophers were freethinkers, highly skeptical of the idea of a god. It is interesting that in those very early days, the Greeks had a much more sophisticated view of god and religion than we have even now, and the program provides many wonderful quotes about religion and god as evidence.

Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, the ultimate contradiction that believers in god face: How to explain the existence of evil.

Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

These questions are usually avoided by religious people by invoking ignorance, the 'mysterious ways clause', that says that god has reasons for allowing evil to occur which we are unable to comprehend, although it is not clear how they know that god does not want them to understand. But as the French philosopher Voltaire once said, "The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning."

Lucretius (circa 99-55 BCE) proposed a theory of the origins of religion and articulates an early formulation of naturalism: "Fear is the mother of all gods. Nature does all things spontaneously by herself without their meddling."

Cicero (106-43 BCE) points out that it is obvious that there is no god and that much public piety is hypocritical and based on fear. "In this subject of the nature of the gods, the first question is do the gods exist or do they not? It is difficult, you will say, to deny that they exist. I would agree, if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly. But in a private discussion of this kind, it is perfectly easy to do so."

Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) argues that belief in god is a fraud perpetrated on the public in order to sustain a ruling class: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."

It is interesting that even though the climate for freethinking was better in the time of the early Greeks, Cicero's quote illustrates that people who were skeptical about the existence of god still had to be discreet for fear of repercussions, something that has continued to this day, explaining why so many atheists still are fearful about proclaiming their disbelief publicly.

The conversion to Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine (280-337 CE) led to the rise of Christianity being the favored religion of the Roman Empire and the beneficiary of state patronage. It also resulted in forcing freethinkers to lay low in society, and the suppression of those early Greek writings that supported atheism. Heretics were persecuted and this practice became institutionalized with the various forms of the Inquisition by the church beginning around the 12th century. Recall that most 'heretics' were not atheists, but religious people who had views different from that of Catholic orthodoxy. This effectively led to the forcing of specific religious beliefs on people, requiring public affirmations of religious orthodoxy, a practice that has remained in force to this day as we see with politicians routinely spouting pieties.

The arrival of the renaissance around 1500 CE signaled a new time. The birth of the new sciences with Copernicus and Galileo and Newton was coupled with the rise of Arab scholars who had preserved and now resurrected those early Greek skeptical writings. All this led to a flowering of new kinds of thinking. But those early days of modern science did not by themselves lead to a rise of disbelief or atheism. After all, those well-known scientists were all pious people, not skeptics. They simply felt that it was inconceivable that science would reveal anything that was incompatible with god's work in the world so they did not seem to suffer any personal anxieties of disbelief about where their research would lead. They felt that any seeming contradiction between scientific knowledge and the Bible had to be due to a misinterpretation of the Bible. So they were far more sophisticated than current day Biblical literalists who lay the blame for the same conflicts at the feet of faulty science, not religious texts.

When Galileo was asked by the church to explain the conflict between his views and the Bible, he said, quite reasonably, that the church had no choice but to agree with whatever knowledge science was producing. He said it would be "a terrible detriment for the souls if people found themselves convinced by proof of something that it was made a sin to believe." (Almost Like a Whale, Steve Jones, 1999, p. 26) Of course, the Catholic Church did not heed his views, putting him under house arrest, and it is amazing that it was only as late as 1984 that they officially apologized for their treatment of him.

So even during the period called the 'enlightenment' (roughly 1500-1800 CE), there continued to be a climate where freethinking was discouraged, with severe penalties for blasphemy. The Inquisition was also gaining strength around this time, forcing freethinkers to suppress public disavowals of god or even of Christian orthodoxy. In this climate, the re-emergence of skeptical beliefs necessarily had to be very cautious and incremental.

Next in this series: The beginnings of modern atheism.

POST SCRIPT: Question: What is a non sequitur?

Miss Teen USA 2007 finalist provides an illustration.