Books on Science and Religion #31: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 2

Books on Science and Religion #31: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 2

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 18, 2015

atheists the origin of the speciesLast week, we posted the first part of a several part review of an excellent and informative book called Atheists: The Origin of the Species. Written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos, it is a must-read book if you want to be knowledgeable about atheism.

The issue of atheism – or more precisely, the aggressive, self-confident rejection of religion in the name of progress and of science – resonates very personally for me.

Purpose, Science, and Belief – A Personal Journey

I grew up on a college campus in New Mexico near Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia Laboratories, and Trinity Site where the atomic age was born. (The first atomic bomb was exploded thirty five miles from my childhood bedroom window.) I also grew up in a world of science that was very aware of advanced nuclear weaponry and that had an educated and sophisticated rejection of religion. We didn’t call it atheism. To us it was agnosticism – atheism was for zealots – and it was part of the mental furniture of the time. Religion seemed wholly doubtful – a refuge for the uneducated, or at best a tradition from the past.

trinity site
Trinity Site

But I could find no purpose in a world that seemed fixated on war and military technology. And how could I do physics – which I loved – if it was to be used for weapon-building? What was the purpose I could live for?

After becoming a Baha’i and realizing that work in the spirit of service was worship, I was able to go back to school and start a career. Unfortunately for me, belief in God wasn’t easy. Could I – or should I – believe in God if science said that it wasn’t valid to do so?

Years later, and after a lot of study, it became more than abundantly apparent to me – as it has become clear to many other scientists and academics – that it simply wasn’t true that science was opposed to religious belief. It was a lie – or at best an idée fixe.

But it was a lie that had several different consequences. On one hand, it was a lie that supported and inspired the worst and most barbarous episodes of our world’s history – governments killing their own people, European colonial domination and exploitation of much of the globe, a corrosive and murderous racism paired with a cruelly unforgiving social Darwinism, wars of destruction where civilian populations were a primary target, and extraordinary tyrannies. As Atheists: The Origin of the Species puts it, “atheist societies populated with new men (and the occasional new woman) in Russian, China, Albania, North Korea and elsewhere ended up humiliating, enslaving and killing on a scale that made previous religious wars look like a playground scuffle.”

On the other hand, this great lie unleashed some of the greatest and most creative minds of the last two hundred and fifty years to new heights of creativity – creating world-transforming new sciences, new technologies, new and radically more powerful medical systems, new forms of government, widespread literacy, and powerful forms of social activity. The scientists and academics I grew up had some good reasons for their pride – yes, extraordinary and great things were done – and their antipathies to religion – yes, much of it was old and superstitious, dominated by antiquated structures of governance from the past, and yes, sometimes barbarous and out-of-date.


But even the good old-fashioned, positive, scientific-mind-set type of atheism – one which had inspired a great creative burst of growth and vitality – was necessarily followed by aging and arteriosclerosis. The analysis and criticisms that it so frequently brought to bear on the religions of the world were, obviously, equally relevant to atheism, agnosticism, materialism, and scientism.

And that is the story that we are exploring here.

Atheism in the Enlightenment

In part 1 of this review, we talked about the beginnings of modern atheism in Renaissance and Reformation Europe. We now continue by examining the beliefs of Enlightenment thinkers such as the atheist Jean Meslier’s, the philosophe and encyclopidest Denis Diderot (1713-1784), the atheist Baron D’holbach (1723 -1789), and the materialist Helvetius (1715-1771). These thinkers were extremely critical of religion, indeed fanatically so, but at the same time they could be extraordinarily gifted as productive thinkers, philosophers, and writers.

Almost all of the views that we associate with modern atheism were built up by them. D’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770) and Good (or Common) Sense, or Natural Ideas vs. Supernatural Ideas, for example, is a sourcebook of almost the whole corpus of the ideas of New Atheism, albeit one that is 250 years old and developed in the context of a decaying royalist France.

baron_dholbachMeslier’s Memoires, published and promoted by Voltaire, set the style for these thinkers:

‘Know, my dear friends that everything that is happening in the world concerning the cult and the adoration of gods, is nothing but error, abuse, illusion, mendacity, and betrayal’. On one side, the priests terrify their flock into political obedience on pain of eternal damnation. On the other, princes enforce religious order, give priests ‘good appointments and good revenues, and maintain them in the vain function of their false ministry’. Trapped between them, bullied, terrified, docile, the people suffered.

Like Kant, these French philosophes were extremely anti-Semitic. In many ways, their anti-Semitism informed their opinion of Christianity:

Meslier’s hatred of Israel was strong … The Hebrews were a ‘vile and miserable little people’, circumcision ‘despicable and ridiculous.’ His attack on the New Testament was hardly more moderate. Jesus … came more to mislead than to save men. His call for self-renunciation was no more than a grotesque form of self-mortification. The crucifixion was ‘guilt sacrifice … in its most revolting, barbaric form’, little better than ‘gruesome paganism’.

The benefit promised from Christ’s sacrifice was entirely illusory. At least the people of Israel received substantive promises from God, albeit false ones. Christians had, and continued to content themselves with, ‘imaginary goods, imaginary victories, an imaginary redeemer, and by consequence a redemption that is itself only imaginary’. Christ’s disciples were common and ignorant men’.

As an antidote, Meslier promoted libertinism, utilitarianism, materialism, anarchism, and an early form Marxism, but he lacked the sophistication of thinkers that were to follow in his footsteps.

EncyclopedieThe extraordinarily productive Denis Diderot, an accomplished writer, an anti-Christian, and an early proponent of materialism, was the editor of the hugely influential 17-volume, 18,000-page, 20-million word Encyclopedia, writing many of the 70,000 or so of its articles. Through means frequently devious, Diderot promoted his “subversive” skepticism:

For example, Christianity, the relevant entry informs the reader, ‘may be considered in its relation either to sublime and revealed truths, or to political interests’, which it immediately goes on to explain as meaning either ‘the felicities of the other life, or to the happiness that it may procure in this one’. Calvinists, we are told, borrowed a portion of their errors from the heretics who preceded them, to which they added new ones.

A factual and respectful entry on the Bible is followed by short entries on the Arabic, Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Ethiopian, Gothic, Greek, Latin, Muscovite, Oriental, Persian and Syriac Bibles. The entry on Priests is self-consciously vague, explaining that it refers ‘to all those who fulfill the functions of religious cults established by the different peoples of the world’. This then enables a discussion of corrupt priests, who ‘knew how to turn the good opinion they had fostered in the mind of their fellow men to their advantage’, the examples given being of pagan priests, the impression given a broader one.

Almost as prolific as Diderot – and with the added benefit of extraordinary wealth – was Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron D’Holbach), the most uncompromising atheist of his time. He hated religion in general and Christianity specifically:

D’holbach wrote some of the most uncompromising tracts of the radical Enlightenment. They were written, copied, printed and distributed under strictest secrecy. People discovered with them could be, and sometimes were, pilloried, flogged and branded. … The context helps explain their tone of relentless, angry mockery and sarcasm.

According to D’holbach, religion was simply the result of superstition and ignorance, accepted through custom alone, and defenceless against serious thought. Faith is the opposite to reason, repeatedly described as a form of blindness (blind submission, blind belief, blind trust, blind commitment, etc.), demanding the abandonment of common sense and submission to corrupt ecclesiastical authorities. Faith demeaned and degraded. Man-made gods, which were merely personifications of nature, and religions altered them according their needs. This not only stupefied people but justified horrendous and/or irrational practices such as circumcision, ritual cleansing, eating prohibitions and baptism. …

D’holbach’s take on the Old Testament drew heavily on Meslier. The biblical Jews were a nation of thieves, brigands and bandits, stupid and superstitious, ignorant and intolerant, unreasoning and unhappy, the mockery of other nations and for good reason. Their institutions enslaved them, their God was cannibalistic … Jesus [was] a vile craftsman, a skillful phony, an Egyptian magician, not merely a God for the poor but a poor God. … Christianity was little more than a schismatic Jewish sect, sharing all the faults of its parent, but adding viscous factionalism, life-denying Platonism and strange pagan customs into the mix.

helvetiusD’holbach popularized the idea that religion is evil. Spencer argues that “D’Holbach’s attack was, at heart, an ethical one. Christianity’s defective morality, he contended, was based on its defective, cruel, capricious, ferocious, bloodthirsty God.” God was “simply wicked” and his followers were “morally retarded.”

God, according to D’holbach and his circle, should be replaced by nature:

Man was a purely physical creature, his life constructed via his senses. His good was to be found in self-love and the pursuit of happiness, and only those things useful in the goal of achieving happiness were of value. …  ‘public utility… [became] the principle on which all human virtues are founded, and the basis of all legislations’. Humans were naturally sociable and naturally good. They needed no supernatural intervention to encourage virtue. On the contrary, it was precisely supernatural intervention that distorted natural virtue.

Goodness would be the default position were it not for the ignorance and superstition bred by religion. … humans were predisposed ‘to love one another … [and] live in peace’, tendencies destroyed by belief in the tyrannous God of Christianity.

Atheism alone could liberate mankind for the happiness that was naturally his.

Although D’holbach views are frequently laughably naive, especially in light of evolutionary thinking, they were a prod to a creativity whose consequences – sometimes barbarous in the extreme, sometimes exemplary – are widespread today.

First, many in D`holbach’s circle believed, progress “required the death of religion.” Next “there was a need for good government.” Finally, there was a need for good education, including the need to take children away from religious educators and their parents (Spencer writes that: “The need to remove children from religious educators [even, when necessary, their parents] would become a recurring theme in atheist rhetoric over the next 250 years.” Helvetius, one of the proponents of this view, was labeled by Isaiah Berlin as “as one of his six enemies of human liberty”.)

Associated with these views were perspectives that held that men and women were just “natural machines” lacking free will.  According to Hevetius,”beliefs and motives were irrelevant.”  D’Holbach saw free-will as “a theological con-trick, necessary for the heaven, hell and the gross system of bribery and threat they supported but indefensible otherwise. Human thought and action were in principle explicable through the study of the brain, nervous system and senses within, and the forces of education, custom and government from without.”

Some Thoughts

Much of what is modern is recognizable in nascent form in the thinking of these Enlightenment atheists. Their rejection of religion and the forms of government associated with it – they saw royal rule as a big part of the problem – forced thinking about the proper forms that government should take. Their thinking about the restructuring of education had similar consequence lead to the modern education system. So the atheistic rejection of both religion and government was, in many ways, an extraordinary event that preceded a revolution in human affairs that was brought about in large part by ideas sparked by atheist thought.

But, the extraordinary naivety of the atheists about human nature – their utter inability to recognize that the excesses that they saw in religion were, as we would say now, hardwired into us by evolution and are destined to show up by default whenever spiritual development is neglected – is painfully obvious in retrospect. And an understanding of the damage caused by materialistic moralities – the idea that pleasure and utility are the end all, be all of life – was beyond their ken. Particularly corrosive was their abuse of science – taking highly speculative and unwarranted assumptions and treating them as if they were scientific fact. And the idea that their highly idiosyncratic and cynically self-serving interpretations of religion was anything other than speculative and uninformed opinion casts them in a very poor light.  Basically, it betrays them as strangers to objectivity with regards to important aspects of human social, political, and spiritual practice.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism called Atheists: The Origin of the Species written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos.  It looks like there is much more to be explored!


This is the 31st in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. 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 in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


Share    Send article as PDF   

5 thoughts on “Books on Science and Religion #31: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 2

  1. I guess they experienced the worst of religion, all the centuries of persecution of unbelievers and even believers in alternate forms of Christianity than the one approved by the state. So no wonder they turned to atheism. They did not experience the much more moderate Christianity that is prevalent today. Or the much more moderate Judaism that we see today in Reform and Conservative Judaism.

    1. I experienced some of the worst of religion, too, Tom. I was repeatedly told by a close childhood friend that I was going to Hell because I worshipped in a Protestant church. I watched my mother humiliated in front of her girl scout troop by Catholic moms who insisted she had led their daughters to sin against God by taking them into the basement of our “heathen church” where heretical Sunday school classes were taught. I read copiously about the Crusades, and other allegedly religious actions. I listened in church while a guest pastor assured the congregation that a devoted, loving, pious woman he’d met in Morocco who was by his own admission everything the Savior would have loved, was going to Hell because she was a Muslim. Wasn’t that a shame? he asked us.

      Oddly, I didn’t find it necessary to dump God out of hand. I undertook to explore the idea that there was truth buried beneath the dogma and a transcendent reality underlying the faith of Christ. There was. And it wasn’t that hidden. It only took a little effort on my part to seek out the real Christ—where else but in the pages of the Gospels. And that led to me realizing that the dogma I’d been taught had to be wrung from those same pages in torturous leaps of logic that defied the laws of physics.

      In the process of rediscovering Christ, I also discovered that Krishna and Buddha and even the ancient Egyptian Prophets, were propounding the same essentials of One God, a succession of Messengers sent to a single human family.

      So, one can react to these things in different ways. I’m intrigued by the fact that Christopher Hitchens and I had very similar childhood experiences that led to entirely different philosophies about life and religion. Perhaps that is because Christ and His example were real to me and I had loved Him my whole life and felt I owed it to Him and to God to put some effort into trying to machete my way through the chaos of modern sectarian doctrines in search of the real Christianity.

      Jesus does say, very clearly that: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ — Matthew 7:7-21

      In other words, Christians will be judged by their fruits. If they fail to do the will of God (i.e. obey the commandment to love), then they will produce poor fruits. That’s justice. To judge Christ by their poor fruits is irrational.

      1. While I agree that being told that unbelievers go to heaven, is a sad part of much of Christianity, that is not worst, it is not like the many centuries of persecution, when people outside the state church risked imprisonment, torture, or even the death penalty. But I agree it can feel hurtful anyway. The worst such occurrence happened at my mom’s funeral. She was agnostic, but since my father was Catholic, we had invited a Catholic priest to do the funeral sermon. At the sermon he announced that those who don’t believe in Christ are going to hell. So he was in effect sending my mom to hell. That was horrible to hear, just when we were mourning her death so much. And also it surprised me, since it did not even fit the modern Catholic doctrine, which teaches that while salvation is easiest to achieve in the Catholic church, people can be saved even who die still non-Catholic, even non-Christian, as long as the sincerely seek God, and try to do what they think such God might want. Currently Catholic doctrine considers Protestants as separated brethren, not really heretics. Most Protestant water baptisms are considered valid baptisms by the Catholic church, and causing the individual to become born again when baptized. So I am surprised that the Catholics you met were so condemnatory. As Protestants, you were supposed to be separated brethren to them.
        The current pope Francis even said recently something like that even some atheists are saved.
        I wonder what Egyptian prophets do you consider as having preached monotheism. After all, the ancient Egyptian religion was monotheist, except during the reign of one pharaoh, who established monotheism, but after he died, polytheism was again established in Egypt.

        1. Oops, sorry, I left out the y in ‘they’ where I meant to write “as long as they sincerely seek God”.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.