Review – At the Origins of Modern Atheism by Michael Buckley

Michael Buckley’s landmark intellectual history, At the Origins of Modern Atheism, proves that one can combine meticulous analysis and profound insight with a straightforward thesis. An overarching theme of the work is that atheism is produced by the (perceived or real) internal contradictions of theism, and thus takes its shape in response to theistic claims. In order to understand atheism, then, one must examine the theism it denies. Atheism is distinct in the modern period, because only in the modern period are there atheists. In the ancient and medieval worlds, atheism was a hypothetical position or a polemical insult; in the modern world, there is a group of people who recognize themselves as atheists and are proud to be labeled so.

True to his premise, Buckley traces the peculiar character of modern Western atheism to the choices made by theistic philosophers in the early modern era. At the turn of the 17th century, Leonard Lessius, a Flemish Jesuit, wrote De providentia numinis (On Divine Providence) to combat atheism. Yet his attacks are not against any modern atheist (they are apparently too shrewd to announce their unbelief openly) but against the classical figures associated with atheistic belief.  As Lessius’ “atheists” are drawn from classical antiquity, so are his refuting arguments. This approach makes atheism primarily a philosophical, not a religious issue.  Another Jesuit, Marin Mersenne, likewise sought to combat present atheism along classical lines. He too excuses faith, but designs an argument for god upon ancient Epicurean and Neoplatonic lines. In the distinction between faith and reason, the battle against atheism is conducted by reason in the method of philosophy. Jesus and traditional theology scarcely appear, and will continue to play only a token role through the Enlightenment.

The two most pivotal intellectual figures of the early modern period are René Descartes, the founder of a Universal Mathematics, and Isaac Newton, the founder of a Universal Mechanics. Both were theists, and both insisted that the existence of god could be defended by reason alone. Rather, reason is the only justifiable foundation for theistic belief. Yet, the two offer different approaches. Descartes’s skepticism argues not from the world to god but from god to the world. God is necessary as the guarantor of human reason, and then as the connection between the mind and the external world. Since we must be indubitably sure of god’s existence, and since indubitable knowledge must be gained by the geometrical method, there is no place (or need) for revelation or personal experience to establish god’s existence.

Newton, however, takes the physical world for granted, and seeks an explanation of its predictability and order. God appears as a necessary postulate for the Newtonian universe to function as it should. Absolute time and absolute space must be necessary effects of god’s existence. He must be the one who formed great astronomical masses and determined the correct distance of the planets from the sun to ensure stable orbits. Further, Newton’s calculations revealed that the universe is not quite self-sustaining; god must periodically wind the clock to keep it from getting too out of time.

Some theologians jumped on the chance to develop the Cartesian or Newtonian philosophies into even more rigorous proofs. Nicholas Malebranche, a French priest, pressed Cartesian dualism to the limit. Since mind and body are separate substances, all sensation must be due to the direct intervention of god. The soul and god are more closely united than the soul and the body. Our idea of god is the idea of the infinite, which is not really an idea at all but the direct presence of god in the human consciousness. Samuel Clarke, an English philosopher of unorthodox Christianity, sought a Newtonian path to god. He argued from the non-necessity of matter to a necessary being. Then, “necessity requires immensity and immensity requires omnipresence” (184). Likewise, an examination of intelligence in the world leads us to an intelligent cause.

Thus, the stage is set for the atheism of Denis Diderot. Diderot did not begin an atheist, and in fact earlier in his life wrote proofs from design and order for the existence of god. However, during his research into the intellectual formation of the blind, Diderot uncovered the dark side of the argument from order. Order is not the only characteristic of the universe; there is also disorder. If god is invoked to explain order, what can explain the disorder? Dualism was not an acceptable answer for Diderot or any other early modern philosopher. Instead, Diderot sought a single principle capable of explaining both: matter. If matter is to be the explanatory principle, however, it cannot be as Newton suggest, mere inert bulk to which motion is added extrinsically. Rather, following Democritus’ atomic theory, matter must be imbued with its own motion and potentiality. As a seed contains within itself the entire organism which will follow, so all matter contains within itself its own dynamic principles, eternally in motion. Life can thus come from non-life through recombination, and the intelligible world can be understood as a higher echelon of development in matter.

Baron Paul Henri d’Holbach extended Diderot’s line of argumentation and systematized an atheist polemic against theistic belief in his groundbreaking work, Le Système de la nature ou des loix du monde physique et du monde moral (The System of Nature or the Laws of the Physical World and the Moral World). From the title one gleans d’Holbach’s proposition: nature, sufficiently examined and systematized, suffices to explain both physics and morals. The supernatural is reduced entirely to the natural. “Motion as a result or inherent attribute of matter gives natural philosophy its own enclosed world, its own principle, and eliminates the natural theologies of either the religious believer or the deist. Matter carries the attributes of god. It is the necessary being. It is contradictory, inconceivable, to imagine a moment when it did not exist. And since motion is a necessary property of matter, it is coeval with matter” (282).

As Diderot had explained both order and disorder by a single principle, d’Holbach explained both atheism and religious belief by the single principle of nature. At the heart of human motivation is a single principle, self-conservation. Pain and fear—and the corresponding impulse to avoid them—explain every human action, invention, and belief. Some people handle their pain and fear by philosophic investigation, allowing them more control over them environment. Others turn to religious hypotheses, soothing themselves by thinking that the deities can be rendered propitious by a certain type of living. In d’Holbach’s reading, religious belief is caused by ignorance of nature, so he predicted that advancing scientific progress was destined to destroy religion. The common argument for god by appeal to universal human worship is refuted by pointing out the great variety of beliefs between cultures. There is no single concept of god underlying all of them.

At the end of the Enlightenment, the grounds for both theism and atheism had shifted. Kant’s critique had rendered Cartesian rationalism impotent. Laplace’s corrected Newtonian equations left no need for god to interfere with the operation of the cosmos. Schleiermacher’s existential defense of religion changed the grounds of the debate; atheism, as is its habit, adapted and followed suit. Theistic arguments continue to be formed and deconstructed.

Among the lessons Buckley draws from his investigation, two stand out for special consideration:

“The Christian god cannot have a more fundamental witness than Jesus Christ, even antecedent to the commitments of faith; Christian theology cannot abstract from Christology in order to shift the challenge for this foundational warrant onto philosophy. Within the context of a Christology and a Pneumatology of both communal and personal religious experience, one can locate and give its own philosophical integrity to metaphysics, but Christology and Pneumatology are fundamental. If one abrogates this evidence, one abrogates this god” (361).

“If an antimony is posed between nature or human nature and god, the glory of one in conflict with the glory of the other, this alienation will eventually be resolved in favor of the natural and the human. Any implicit, unspoken enmity between god and creation will issue in atheism” (363).

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on January 26, 2012 at 2:37 pm  Comments (1)  
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Narratives of Theological Decline

Recently, I’ve been researching the various ways in which theologians and philosophers have articulated the misery of our current theological condition and the reasons for it. Now, I’m not necessarily agreeing that our age is at the bottom of a theological ravine, but the conception is popular in the literature. I’m fairly new to the field, so this post is a sketch of the big picture as I’ve pieced it together so far. I welcome any comments or corrections.

One of the most common narratives at the moment is  “Enlightenment as bad guy.” In these accounts, the Enlightenment is a sweeping current of intellectual ideals that produce revolt against traditional authority and religion in a push toward a new era —a free and secularized world. Christians who adopt this interpretation (Francis Shaeffer) view the Enlightenment as the great vomit of Satan, whereas secularists operating within this same understanding (Peter Gay) applaud the Enlightenment as the beginning of a better age unchained from a superstitious past. Narratives of theological decline that focus heavily on the Enlightenment leave me wanting. First of all, there is great dispute in the academic literature on a number of points: J. Pocock has argued for a number of different Enlightenments that varied in their attitude toward religion, Jonathan Clark has suggested dismissing the term “Enlightenment” altogether, and Jonathan Sheehan has advocated an understanding of the Enlightenment as the creation of novel cultural structures rather than as a unified philosophical program. In short, the Enlightenment as bad guy approach may not even accurately reflect the history of the 18th century, and if it does, it may not offer sufficient intellectual explanatory power. This view is popular with orthodox Protestants, though, because they tend to see the mid-17th century as the peak of theology. It’s tempting, then, to date Christendom’s undoing shortly thereafter.

Another popular approach, particularly within Catholic circles, is “Nominalism as bad guy.” Etienne Gilson, 20th century heavyweight champion of medieval philosophy, most fully articulated this view. Similar thoughts have been expressed by Richard Weaver and Michael Gillespie. Anyone with neo-Platonic or Aristotelian sympathies may gravitate toward this approach. In Gilson’s narrative, theology and philosophy both reached their zenith in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. His synthesis of reason and revelation is the monument of the Middle Ages. After him came Duns Scotus, William Ockham, and the nominalists. These progressively focused attention, not on reality as structured by God, but on reality as a projection of man’s thoughts. There was a corresponding turn from heaven to earth and from reason to either rationalism or irrationalism. Without the Thomistic synthesis (a pulling together), the modern conception of reality is necessarily fragmented. The many aspects of life – personal, political, social, ecclesial – no longer know how to relate to each other or if they even should. The Nominalism as bad guy theory, though, is not without its critics. Right around the turn of the 21st century, Heiko Oberman attempted to the common negative evaluation of nominalism upside down. Instead, he presented it as the full bloom of medieval philosophy. A few scholars, such as Alister McGrath and Steven Ozment, seem to have appropriated his work in their own articulations of late medievalism. Many Protestants have been less than thrilled with Gilson’s thesis since it is so positive toward Aquinas and implies (explicitly states?) that Protestantism is a result of a theological and philosophical decline.

One last and perhaps most intriguing narrative is “Greek philosophy as bad guy” in the form expressed by Colin Gunton (there are others). Gunton’s narrative is provocative in that it finds the seeds of dissolution much earlier than the other narratives. According to Gunton, Greek philosophy conceived of God as a monad, a largely impersonal being. Christian philosophers relying on Neo-Platonism syncretized the biblical (Hebrew) concept of God with the Greek concept. The result is that much of Christian theology illegitimately privileges the unity of God over his plurality. The mainstream tradition fails as well in attempting the knowledge of God through a priori philosophical categories rather than through his discrete acts of revelation, particularly the incarnation. Negative theology overshadowed positive constructions of God and tended to produce a picture of God in opposition to creation. In The One, the Three, and the Many Gunton expounds how this improper view of God was expanded by nominalism (note the similarities to Gilson) and radicalized by modern philosophers (Enlightenment as bad guy), resulting in the virtual exclusion of God from the world. Gunton’s narrative may be compatible with the others, although he would treat as symptoms what they take as the root problems. On the other hand, such a far-ranging critique of Christian theology is audacious and not to be adopted quickly. In addition, I wonder if there really is such a stark contrast between Greek and Hebrew concepts of God and if Gunton has not himself fallen victim to this age’s preference for the dynamic and concrete over the static and abstract.

I’m sure there are more narratives out there; these are the ones I’ve run into the most. (If I could have remembered what David Wells said, I would have included him; I think his big thing is secularization, so probably close to the Enlightenment narrative.) I’m also fairly ambivalent about all of them. I don’t have nearly enough familiarity with the subject to make informed evaluations, but I find the issue both intriguing and important.

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 10:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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