Books on Science and Religion #36: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 4

Books on Science and Religion #36: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 4

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 speciesAfter a three week hiatus, we return to the excellent and informative Atheists: The Origin of the Species, written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos. We pick up where we left off – at the beginning of the 19th century. This means that we are covering territory we have covered before, namely in our look at Richard Olsen’s excellent history of science and scientism in the 18th century as reviewed in Books on Science and Religion #10, Books on Science and Religion #11, Books on Science and Religion #12, Books on Science and Religion #13, and Books on Science and Religion #14.

Early 19th Century Atheism in France

The French revolution is often thought of as the triumph of enlightenment atheist thought: it disenfranchised the Catholic church for several decades and cost several thousand Catholic clergy their lives. But it wasn’t atheism that emerge as the big victor, it was reason. Reason, rather than atheism, was the battle-flag of the French revolution.

When the revolutionary leader Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, president of the Paris Commune, publicly voiced his doubts about the existence of God, he was tried for impiety and guillotined. His crime? “Seeking to destroy all morality, efface any idea of the divine, and founding the government of France on the principles of atheism”. For the revolutionaries, or at least some of them, atheism “could be judged as much of a threat to morality by those who worshipped Reason as by those who worshipped God.”

After the revolution and Napoleonic wars had run their course, atheism continued to be held in disrepute and Catholicism was restored with many of its previous prerogatives. Those looking for alternatives responded by creating a wide range of movements that had much of the look and feel of Catholic religiosity – minus Christ, of course. Here is Spencer’s description:

The nineteenth century became the great age of credulity in France, with a relentless fascination for non-Christian and often non-theistic religious beliefs and phenomena. Neo-Platonists, gnostics, cabbalists, mystics, Rosicrucians, Swedenborgians, illuminists, freemasons, Essenes and spiritualists multiplied, as did interest in eastern religions, and a fascination with table-turning, automatic writing, seances, magic, the paranormal, phrenology, thaumaturgy, mesmerism, somnambulism, chiromancy and cartomancy, to name only the saner phenomena.

Rising above these were great systems in which God, or at very least the Christian God, was replaced by humanity, or morality, or science, or progress, or some other ethereal absolute …

220px-Claude_Henri_de_Saint-SimonScience, and to a lesser extent, philosophy, loomed large in these new and influential systems of thought. And science – or more accurately, scientism and faith in science – took on the trappings of religion. Here is Spencer again:

Crucial to these systems was a dogmatic belief in science and its ability to save. The doctrine of scientific infallibility may not have been as dogmatic as its papal counterpart, but it was nonetheless an article of faith sincerely held by many intelligent men. Positivism – the idea that experimental science was the only way to truth and that all knowledge must therefore be scientific knowledge – gripped the imagination, carrying with it the conviction that all religious and metaphysical claims were nonsense, an idea that would reach its hubristic conclusion early the following century. …

Atheistic religions grew around scientific idolatry and its material utopianism, evolving beyond God and offering the potential for new humanity that had previously been confined, in the Christian story, to another world.

Saint-Simon famously described a process by which knowledge progressed through three stages – religious, metaphysical and finally scientific. As science came to the fore, ethics would become a science and conflict would be eliminated, he promised. Recognizing the dryness of reason, Saint-Simon proposed a new religion that “replaced deity with humanity, clergy with scientific faith with scientific knowledge, and proposed a social reorganization centred on a cult of Newton.” Auguste Comte, his student, the founder of positivism, and the founder of sociology, went further:

Positivists should pray three times a day, once to each of his household goddesses: mother, wife and daughter.

That wasn’t enough:

… He set out a new calendar, with months named after great men like Aristotle and Archimedes, and new festivals, celebrating fundamental social relations. He specified the duties of various, ranked, positivist clergy, their stipends rising in neat mathematical progression. He ordered new hymns, celebrating holy Humanity …

Despite this, even Comte thought atheism distasteful. It was, he thought, a “metaphysical doctrine, unverifiable by scientific means and therefore untenable.”

immanuel-kant19th Century German Atheism

Kant’s thinking dominated German philosophical thinking at the beginning of the 19th century. Kant held that certain knowledge of God was not possible, but that belief in God was not only justified, but morally necessary:

Kant saw in God the highest good and although he argued moral duties were not dependent on God’s commands but were in fact based and justified by the moral law, he also contended that it was only the existence of God that allowed humans to retain the belief that the highest good was possible. Because humans are frail and finite creatures, and virtue and happiness are not necessarily connected in this world, belief in this reality of the highest good is necessary in order to encourage and supplement our limited and fallible moral endeavours. In this way, morality leads inevitably to religion.

Atheism, for Kant, had four problems:

  1. First, atheism deprives the atheist of incentives to morality.
  2. Second, atheism leads to despair.
  3. Third, atheism erodes virtue and leads to vice, and
  4. Finally, the atheist has a pernicious influence on his society.

This view survived Hegel, who dominated German philosophy in the first decades of the 19th century. But it didn’t survive in thinking of several of Hegel’s followers, including the influential Ludwig Feuerbach and the radical Karl Marx.

Building on Hegel’s dialectic view of the spirit as evolving, Feuerbach came to see religion as simply an idea. And God

was a creation of the human imagination and needs, and although this was hardly a new observation, Feuerbach elaborated upon it in detail, applying it systematically and specifically to Christianity. God, he argued, was the infinite projection of man’s finite nature. Frustrated by his inability to realize his needs and hopes and dreams on earth, mankind projected them onto the canvas of eternity, inventing a higher being through whom they would all, one day, be fulfilled. God was human wish-fulfilment, ‘the manifested inward nature, the expressed self of man, – religion the solemn unveiling of his intimate thoughts, the revelation of his innermost thoughts, the open confession of his love secrets’.

Religion alienated man from the world, he believed. Religion created false ideas about the nature of reality, thus preventing a real understanding of our world.

marx340aIt was Karl Marx – whose “skills as a wordsmith and polemicist were unparalleled” who took Feuerbach’s philosophical argument and turned it into a world-dominating social and political perspective. And it is here, so to speak, that atheism started to do real damage – tens of thousands of people dead in the French revolution was child’s play compared to the damage Marx’s doctrines were to create.

According to Spenser:

At the heart of his criticism was the idea of alienation, common among the Young Hegelians. Society was alienated, men stratified into competing classes, mankind estranged from his true nature. God and religion were human inventions, created to compensate for this intolerable reality. Although not necessarily the cause of alienation, religion had become its keystone by legitimizing and consecrating it, ameliorating its worst excesses and ascribing to it an entirely illusory permanence. … In a society cured of alienation, no one will want religion. It would disappear naturally. Yet, because it had become the load-bearing pillar of social evil it still needed demolition.

This seemingly mild description had teeth. Marx believed that the “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.” In other words, religious people will have to die so that others will be happy:

Because he could place belief in God within a system, he could do away with the vague demands for education or good government which had been the philosophes’ best (and often only) solution. Marx’s atheism was harder-edged, and had no time for amelioration or accommodation. ‘Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat,’ he famously wrote in the Communist Manifesto. Economic alienation was at the heart of religion, so economic revolution, which would necessarily be violent, would be its demise.

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 36th 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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