Was god killed by theology’s friendly fire?

When I talk with people and tell them that science and any religion that has supernatural elements are incompatible, I will often get the response that this cannot be true since so many scientists were (and some still are) religious. In particular, names of scientific icons like Galileo and Newton are dropped as devoutly religious people whose research revealed how the world works and who saw the hand of god as the creator of that marvelous feat of engineering. If such scientific luminaries could be religious, what right had scientific basement dwellers like me to say that the science and religion were incompatible?

The fact that individual scientists may be religious is, of course, not an argument for the compatibility of science and religion but merely a demonstration that a human mind is capable of holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. But that is not relevant to this post so will not be pursued here.

Instead I want to examine a suggestion that it was the very religiousness of Galileo and Newton (and Kepler) that later led to the rise of atheism. This idea was brought to my attention in a discussion I had recently with a Catholic theologian who suggested a book that he thought I might find interesting. It is Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism by Michael J. Buckley, a Jesuit theologian. I have not read the book as yet (but am planning to) but did read two long reviews. The first review by David Rohr provides a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book’s contents while the second by Joel Daniels and Thurman Willison more directly addresses the arguments in the book. I will give my initial response based on the information in the reviews and come back to the topic once I have read the book itself.

Buckley apparently argues that the spectacular success of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton in explaining the cosmos, and their firm belief that this provided convincing proof of god’s existence, captured the imagination of theologians who began arguing even more generally that god’s existence could be inferred by observations of the natural world. Just as the harmony of the stars and planets showed god’s hand in creating them and getting them going with just the right motion, so too did the world of biology with its living organisms seemingly so perfectly designed for their environments. Look everywhere and you see the handiwork of god. What more proof would one need?

As reviewers Daniels and Willison say:

[Buckley] locates the beginning of atheism as we know it in the early modern period, a latent toxin hidden in the scientific presuppositions enthusiastically embraced by theologians beginning in the 17th century, ideas that would reveal their fatal contradictions only when it was too late. In fact, a central assertion of Denying and Disclosing God is that it was not an antagonistic interaction between the post-Aristotelian sciences and traditional religion that begat modern atheism. Quite the opposite: it was the overly-welcoming resignation of theology to science, a squandering of theology’s rich and abundant birthright, that gave rise to what we know as modern atheism. The victims, in this case, were the perpetrators.

Of course, it wasn’t the scientific developments themselves that led to modern atheism, but the particular worldviews that became associated with them; “events become ideas,” Buckley writes, and the idea of scientific foundationalism that came from the Newtonian settlement, after being quickly embraced by 17th-century apologists, ironically led to their eventual defeat, hoisted with their own petard. By running into the arms of scientific naturalism, and accepting its standards as the only suitable criteria for the generation of meaning, religion first lost its independent standing, and then any standing at all.

This is the core hypothesis of the book: atheism came about from the conscious abandonment, by religious people, of millennia of religious thought, culture, and practice, in favor of jumping on the promising bandwagon of biology and astronomy: “The infinite mystery that was God had in effect become a corollary of a particular configuration of the solar system or of the human body” (36). “Natural theology” had become merely an appendage of physics, and one that could easily be lopped off when it became troublesome. By adopting inference from design, Lessius, Mather, and others disqualified from consideration exactly that lived experience that gives religion its richness. In the story of the birth of atheism in the modern world, the well-meaning natural theologians are implicated just as much as Diderot and d’Holbach.

Buckley succeeds in bringing to life the personalities and ideas of early modernity through brief character studies and accounts of philosophical controversies. By the end of the story of western atheism that he so masterfully tells, it’s hard not to feel sorry for those earnest natural theologians, who thought they had discovered the Holy Grail of evidence in the motion of the stars and the mechanics of the universe; finally, they were able to offer conclusive, scientific proof of the ancient faith. Their intentions were good and their piety sincere, but Buckley shows that, ironically, they, not the scientists, are the parents of today’s atheist Europeans. Alas, the Holy Grail turned out to be laced with poison, and by the time they realized it, the natural theologians had drunk too deeply.

It is an interesting thesis: that it was the embrace of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton and the adoption of ‘natural theology’ by 17th century theologians as the most promising framework for arguing for the existence of god (and so-called ‘intelligent design’ is the latest manifestation of that way of thinking) inevitably led to a ‘god of the gaps’ mode of religious justification and to a rising atheism as the gaps grew inevitably smaller. Theology had inadvertently planted an invasive species in its garden that quickly eliminated all the plants that had hitherto served its needs.

One topic that I will need to explore in the book is the nature of “theology’s rich and abundant birthright”, its “lived experience”, and its “millennia of religious thought, culture, and practice” that the reviews allude to that theologians had squandered in favor of the fool’s gold of natural theology. Were those any better as reasons for believing in a god? What did they consist of and can they be retrieved at this late stage when religion finds itself fighting a rearguard action to avoid elimination?

Stay tuned.


  1. says

    … it was the embrace of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton and the adoption of ‘natural theology’ by 17th century theologians as the most promising framework for arguing for the existence of god…inevitably led to a ‘god of the gaps’…

    What other option was there? Flat-out denial of the validity of rational enquiry? That wasn’t working then, and it’s not doing anyone much good now. All “theology” did was concede a battle they knew they were already losing. That’s not the same as “friendly fire.”

    One topic that I will need to explore in the book is the nature of “theology’s rich and abundant birthright”…


  2. mobius says

    Thank you for your perspective on this, and I am looking forward to your continued discussion once you have finished the book.

    @Raging Bee #1

    What other option was there? Flat-out denial of the validity of rational enquiry?

    Well, that seems to work for Ken Ham.

  3. Rod says

    Another thing: Newton, Gallileo et al were shrewd enough to know that denying the mere existance of God was a death sentence back in their day.
    It wasn’t until pretty much the 19th century that a scientist could advocate a godless universe without fear of imprisonment or death. Someplaces that is still the case today.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Their intentions were good and their piety sincere, but … they, not the scientists, are the parents of today’s atheist Europeans.

    Note also that William of Ockham and Thomas Bayes were clergymen, who would surely be mortally appalled to see what conclusions we draw today with the logics they propounded centuries ago.

  5. jamessweet says

    So, I think it is an interesting perspective, but I think he may be overcomplicating: While it is true that it was the religious establishment’s pursuit of science that eventually closed the gaps on god, who else was there to go pursuing the science? In many ways, the church was the only game in town when it came to funding the pursuit of knowledge — so in many ways it was inevitable that the spread of scientific knowledge would come from within the church.

    What is refreshing about it, I will admit, is that it’s a theologian admitting that the biggest threat to God is the success of scientific naturalism and the accompanying shrinking of the gaps available to a theistic god, rather than explicitly atheistic philosophy. Not that the latter isn’t important, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding: Without empiricism, it would be tremendously tedious to pit the best purely logical argument for god’s existence vs. the best purely logical argument against, and determine which one made the most sense. There are so many opportunities for hidden assumptions and flawed reasoning to sneak in undetected. Luckily, we don’t need to rely on the philosophy, which can be difficult to the point of intractability; instead we can just look at the data and say, “Nope, no god here.”

  6. MNb says

    I’m a bit puzzled. I thought it was common knowledge that Copernicus, Kepler, Galilei and Newton sincerely studied physics with the idea of finding the truth about god via a second way – that revelation and scientific research were complementary indeed. It was around 1800 CE that scientists began to realize that they didn’t need god at all to understand what they observed. That’s why I think questions like “were there fundamentalists before 1800” anachronistic. What’s more, this makes clear that and why religion is losing – more and more people get access to scientific knowledge and understanding. Perhaps it’s possible to combine the two in a consistent way – in this respect I’m an agnost – but why would we try? Before 1800 CE it was different, but anno 2012, what positive does religion offer? Positive in the meaning of understanding, of course. That it can satisfy certain emotional needs is another topic.

  7. baal says

    So far as I’ve read the writings of early modern scientists or about their views, I always felt that they were doing a bit of nudge nudge wink wink about god belief. Intellectually, I think I should allow that the mystery of the cosmos and other science showing god’s hand was a sincere attempt at proof of the divine and may have been for some of them. As you can see from folks like Matt Dillahunty & Dan Finke’s de-conversion stories, search for actual truth and being right will sort of drag one kicking and screaming out of the clutches of religion and god belief.

    I strongly suspect that once you understand enough science, your brain realizes that religious thought and belief prevents you from correctly modeling reality. Once that happens, with minimal introspection, you conclude that you don’t believe or that you take the other approach and bifurcate your thinking. Science gets science and religion gets religion and the two are both in the same brain but fairly distinct thought sets.

    I see the mental bifucation issue happen in other contexts as well – particularly with regard to ideologically driven thought (the “-ists of -isms”) in the same position as religion.

  8. wholething says

    The first poison pill may have been the application of Greek logic to support the assumed truth of religion. When the 17th century brought new tools like telescopes and calculus, religion was still only prepared for naked human observation and thought.

  9. grumpyoldfart says

    Another reason for the rise of atheism … The church lost its political power.

    Atheists had to keep a low profile when the church had the power to hang blasphemers, burn heretics, and impose a fine on anyone who failed to attend services. Once that nonsense was stopped, the atheists were able to stand up and be counted.

    I notice the book is written by a Jesuit. Those clowns are the masters of spin and anything they say should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, over at the Catholic Education Resource Center, the Church is currently rewriting the history of the Inquisition, saying that its “roles and procedures were not in themselves unjust” and “Torture was only used in a small minority of cases”.


  10. lanir says

    A couple thoughts flitted through my mind while reading this.

    – When you’re being whupped on, owning some failure (even if it’s a stretch) and saying the other guy wasn’t really beating you, your side just screwed up is a technique to minimize the opposition even as they’re winning and desperately reclaim relevance.

    – “…theology’s rich and abundant birthright…” Well that line is total BS. It’s the common authoritarian fallacy where a tradition is used as not only it’s own justification, but as proof that other bad ideas are justified too.


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