God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.
Mar 4, 2013. The new atheism espoused by hot-selling authors – Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens being the most prominent – has become a major media and internet success.
Maya Bohnhoff provides an overview of some important new atheist beliefs in a series of blogs on Common Ground (IQ1, IQ2, IQ3, IQ4, IQ5, IQ6, and IQ7). There she outlines the views of Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and a protegé of Richard Dawkins, as presented in an Intelligence Squared Debate “Science Refutes God” recently aired on National Public Radio.
At the core of Krauss’s atheism are three beliefs: One is that science, logic, rationality, evidence, reason, and empirical methodology refute the existence of God. The second is that belief in God is based on vague hopes, fears, and irrational delusions. And the third is that science tells us that there is no purpose to reality. Krauss holds – as do many new atheists – that science not only proves that God doesn’t exist, but that it replaces belief in God and religious faith.
In her analysis, Bohnhoff concludes that Krauss fails to provide evidence or logical support for his beliefs,and that he doesn’t explain how they would in any way be benefit to humanity. Yet, he clearly views his beliefs as logical and true, as presumably do those in the audience who were swayed to vote in his support.
Why does Krauss – and why do so many in his audience – believe as he does?
The short answer is that Krauss’s atheism represents an old and well-entrenched perspective of Western thought that has enjoyed widespread support for more than 250 years and is frequently accepted unquestioningly. Krauss didn’t need to provide proof. People already believe it to be true.
The Preamble to Atheism
In our series of blogs about the Enlightenment vision of science and religion, we have explored many of the intellectual developments in western Europe that underlie our modern secular understanding of religion. What we saw was that a marriage of science, religion, and philosophy – Newtonianism and Cartesianism foremost – proved extraordinarily attractive to thinkers, intellectuals, theologians, and rulers throughout 17th and early 18th century Europe.
What happened next was that the religious part of that marriage started to thin away. Descartes’ idea that rational thought, if it saw things clearly, was powerful enough to acquire certainty about divine truths first came to the fore. It led to the view that philosophy and clear philosophical thinking could lead to an understanding of both physical and spiritual reality. It wasn’t too long before thinkers like Spinoza starting claiming to have insight into both the nature of the world and the nature of God, and his insights conflicted nearly completely with the precepts of the revealed religions known at the time (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).
Secondly, the idea of a “natural religion” started to take hold, especially after the spectacular successes of Newton’s physics and theology. His was the view that humanity could find proofs of the existence of God through the power of scientific and rational investigation. It included a way of thinking, perhaps unique to western Europeans, that originally there was a purely natural religion embraced by the ancients, and that the modern revealed religions were a falling away from that natural religion.
These views came together in what we now call deism, beliefs that the revealed truths of revelation and of the Bible were of secondary importance. And deism promoted the corrosive view that religious practice and religious institutions were an invention by various priesthoods and elites intent on power, control, and influence. Deism – and its attitude towards revealed religion and religious institutions – acquired remarkable sway as a result of the extraordinary religious wars and sectarian struggles of the day, struggles that resulted in widespread carnage and social fragmentation as religious and political elites fought – oftentimes murderously and viciously – over political and spiritual ends. What educated thinkers saw clearly was a game of high-stakes political gamesmanship pursued by means of warfare and persecution where religion, priests, and ideologies served as a kind of football.
What these same thinkers also saw was the collapse of the authority of the Bible as the word of God, as scholar after scholar showed it to be an assemblage of stories penned by various and diverse priestly scribes. No longer could the Old Testament be thought of – at least by educated people – as written by Moses. And the New Testament was starting to be seen as written long after the Jesus had walked the earth – and as composed of various gospels that contradicted each other.
By 1800 or shortly thereafter, widely read thinkers like Pierre Bayle had written so entertainingly, so truthfully, and so skeptically about the iconic religious figures of the past that large segments of fashionable and educated society were willing to ignore institutionalized religion’s claims.
After discarding belief in the validity of revealed religion, the next step was discarding the belief in the existence of God – atheism (also see atheism and atheism in the age of the enlightenment in Wikipedia). At first, atheism was discussed furtively due to the social stigma attached to it. Then, it increasingly came out into the open, eventually to be widely embraced in the French Revolution.
The Treatise of the Three Impostors (Traité sur les trois imposteurs) was the furtive publication that seems to have kicked things off. Probably published in the Netherlands around 1710, it was rigorously suppressed. The Enlightenment scholar Margaret Jacobs tells the story:
There, as far as current scholarship can tell, relatively obscure deists and pantheists – Rousset de Missy included – had written The Treatise. The charge that the founders of the three great world religions had been imposters stood out as the most outrageous ever made by advocates of the Enlightenment. …
The book incurred so much hostility from the authorities that most copies just disappeared. Only in 1985 at the library of the University of California in Los Angeles did a scholar, Silvia Berti, discover the first printed copy ever known to have survived the censors.
It was not accidental that Jean Rousset de Missy, the young refugee turning iconoclastic radical and Freemason, had a major hand in organizing, if not partially writing and guiding the Three Imposters into print. Decades after that escapade he would help to lead a revolution in 1747-48 in The Netherlands. The anger against organized religions that he and his work symbolized could also take deeply political directions.
By 1750, however, respectable French and German high society could talk about atheism privately, although public acknowledgement of lack of belief in God was still not allowed. And although they didn’t publish it in their own name, two of the greatest thinkers of the French enlightenment were atheists. One was Denis Didirot, editor and guiding light (along with D’Alambert) of the enormously influential Encyclopédie. The other was the wealthy Baron D’Holbach, author of some 400 articles in the Encyclopedie, a scandalous attack on Christianity called Christianity Unveiled , and a radical, controversial, and influential treatise on materialism and atheism called The System of Nature. D’Holbach also hosted of one of most important and influential Parisian salons.
Next week, we explore the thinking of Diderot and Holbach.
This is the 17th in a series of blogs on the Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.