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Aug 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.

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