Books on Science and Religion #32: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 3

Books on Science and Religion #32: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 3

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 25, 2015

Atheists: the origin of the speciesIn the previous two weeks (here and here) we looked at the history of atheism as described in the excellent and informative Atheists: The Origin of the Species, written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos.

Given the relevance and importance of the book and the topic, we are moving slowly through the wealth of material in the book. Today we examine the influence of two influential British non-believers, David Hume (1711 – 1776) and Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). Their views still inform modern discussions of religion.

But before doing so, I would like to bring in a perspective from the Baha’i Faith.

Progressive Revelation and The Rise of Atheism

The Baha’i Faith holds that religion is progressive.

The great founders of religion – Moses, Krishna, the Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Baha’u’llah – each bring guidance that builds on what has come before and that responds both to the needs of the time and the readiness of the people to whom their guidance is addressed.

The effect of their teachings are dynamic and organic, involving growth, maturity, fruition, and decay. In the stage of decay, religion, like a tree without sap, retains its structure and form, but the life-bestowing vitality no longer flows and its leaves and fruits are no longer forthcoming.

But each religion promises its return and revitalization. A new teacher comes – a new Manifestation of God appears – and instigates a new cycle of progress and advance. The Manifestations are the main impetus for spiritual progress. They are the bringers of spiritual springtimes, and the great religions – and much of the world’s great cultures – coalesce around their guidance and thought.

According to the Baha’i writings:

The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society. (Shoghi Effendi)

The advancement and progress of religion is not always a pretty thing. `Abdu’l-Baha (1844 – 1921), the head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921, used the analogy of the four seasons:

Hiroshige BridgeThe spiritual world is like unto the phenomenal world. They are the exact counterpart of each other. … When we look upon the phenomenal world, we perceive that it is divided into four seasons; one is the season of spring, another the season of summer, another autumn and then these three seasons are followed by winter …

When Christ appeared in this world, it was like the vernal bounty; the outpouring descended; the effulgences of the Merciful encircled all things; the human world found new life. Even the physical world partook of it. The divine perfections were upraised; souls were trained in the school of heaven so that all grades of human existence received life and light.

But this spring was followed by summer, fall, and then winter:

Then by degrees these fragrances of heaven were discontinued; the season of winter came upon the world; the beauties of spring vanished; the excellences and perfections passed away; the lights and quickening were no longer evident; the phenomenal world and its materialities conquered everything; the spiritualities of life were lost; the world of existence became life unto a lifeless body; there was no trace of the spring left.

The decline and failure of religion that precipitated the rise of atheism and decline of religious vitality in Europe, from this perspective, are a natural part of the progress of religion. Like a phoenix, religion dies and is reborn. The winter of disbelief precedes the springtime of renewal.

British Atheism in the Enlightenment

Last week, we looked at the atheism and the antireligious doctrines of philosophes of the French enlightenment. Some of them, like d’Holbach, castigated religion – especially Judaism – at considerable length and with considerable fanaticism. The French enlightenment – often regarded as moderate, reasonable, life-enhancing, democratic and an agent of positive change – was, as it is clear to see, shot through with an irrational, uninformed, prejudiced, and immoderate thread of thought targeted at religion and those who embraced it.

The British in the 18th century had their unbelievers, but they were neither bitter nor fanatic like their French counterparts. And although they were severely critical of Christianity, they seem to have fallen short of the French model. One of them, David Hume (1711 – 1776), is widely considered to be one of the greatest modern philosophers. And the other, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), is considered to one of the greatest of Britain’s historians and, like Hume, one of the greatest stylists of the English language (for example, he was the favored exemplar for Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957.) But they don’t seem to have totally rejected religion.

david-hume-philosopher-high-resolution-portraitDavid Hume

Hume, writes Spencer, was the “first great hero of British atheism.” Although hostile to Christianity to his deathbed, it seems that he wasn’t an atheist. Apparently he was what would later be called agnostic, much as my parents and their generation saw themselves. Despite that, he shared many of the opinions of the French philosophes:

He wrote against enthusiasm and its ‘raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy’. He wrote against superstition, its genesis in ‘weakness, fear, melancholy, [and] ignorance’, and its manifestation in ‘ceremonies, observances, mortifications, [and] sacrifices’. He wrote against clergy, dedicating a lengthy footnote to the hypocrisy of the clergy in his essay ‘Of National Characters’. He wrote against supernatural agency as a factor within human history.

But whereas the French philosophes wrote with an obvious prejudice and an extraordinary relish for confusing opinion for fact, Hume was sophisticated in argument and a thinker who remains deeply and widely influential. As a result, he was – and still is – widely effective in undermining arguments for religion. For example, he argues against miracles as a proof of Christianity’s validity:

Hume’s central argument was ‘that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish’. The quality of the testimony was crucial and, in Hume’s opinion, no example from history passed muster. No miracle was attested ‘by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning … [and] of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind’, as to be prove credible.

This was a high hurdle for a religion such as Christianity, that was not only ‘first attended with miracles’, but ‘even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one’. … Faith was fine, so long as you were prepared to take leave of your sense.

Like the French philosophes, “at the heart of his anti-Christianity there burned a moral critique, an indignation at the hypocrisy of the pious.” But, Spencer argues, Hume, the great skeptic, was skeptical of metaphysics as well, and “never entirely convinced by atheistic arguments”:

Philosophical reasoning was important – Hume spent many years engaged in it – but it could not offer the secure metaphysical or moral foundations that some claimed for it. Habit, experience and custom, not reason, governed humans’ understanding of the world, themselves and the way they should live. ‘Since morals … have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason’. Such scepticism would not allow him simply to replace theology with philosophy, revelation with reason, or religion with science in the way that many in D’Holbach’s coterie did.

Edward GibbonAnd when Hume was charged with heresy, he was defended by his British friends, among them many clergy, in a 18th century Britain that possessed a spirit of religious moderation.

Edward Gibbon

Like Hume, Gibbon was comfortably well off. And like Hume, he was a historian, writing the famously influential The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Wikipedia describes it as “known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion”.

Like some of influential social Darwinists (and Nietzsche) in the the 19th century, Gibbon believed that the ethical and moral values of Christianity weakened the competitive spirit:

Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, “manly” military lifestyle. In addition, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for a larger purpose. He also believed that Christianity’s comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit.

Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers and British citizens of the age steeped in institutional anti-Catholicism, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious Dark Age. It was not until his own era, the “Age of Reason,” with its emphasis on rational thought, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress.

Of course, much of what he believed has fallen prey to subsequent scholarship. But, in many ways, such as his use of source materials, subsequent scholarship built on his methodologies. And Gibbon was one of the first to study the progress of religion, including its decline and fall: “It was philosophic history of this nature, in which cause and effect were demonstrably determined by human agency, or accident, rather than divine providence or intent that animated Gibbon’s masterwork.”

According to Spencer;

Christianity for Gibbon became a historical phenomenon to be studied like any other, which he did, to wide public consternation, in Chapters 15 and 16 of The Decline. Gibbon undermined the authority of the miracles and beliefs through which Christianity had spread in a way that sounded much like the traditional Protestant attack on Catholicism: ‘The sublime and simple theology of the primitive Christians was gradually corrupted; and the Monarchy of heaven, already clouded by metaphysical subtleties, was degraded by the introduction of a popular mythology, which tended to restore the reign of polytheism’.

Like the philosophes, Gibbon was happy to offer his opinions as the truth, and to cynically deploy wit, irony, ridicule and innuendo. Except that he was better at it than the philosophes, and a good historian that could provide a convincing historical framework for his views. And because he recognized that the fall of civil institutions, government, and civilizations was not simply due to the evils of religion (the favored view of French ‘rational’ philosophes), he was ultimately more convincing. And, of course, Gibbon was British – more pragmatic and less prone to infatuation with metaphysical ‘certainties’.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism and the book Atheists: The Origin of the Species.


This is the 32nd 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.

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