The Necessity of Atheism (Brooks)/Chapter XVIII

The Necessity of Atheism (Brooks) by David Marshall Brooks

But the powers of man, so far as experience and analogy can guide us, are unlimited; nor are we possessed of any evidence which authorizes us to assign even an imaginary boundary at which the human intellect will, of necessity, be brought to a stand. Buckle.

There has been an effort made in certain religious publications to imply that there is a dearth of thought and thinkers beyond the pale of theism. The subsequent examination of the theological beliefs of great minds will show that there has never been a lack of brilliant thinkers who have not sought truth apart from the dominant faith of their age. It was Socrates, I believe, who first asked if it was not a base superstition that mere numbers will give wisdom. Granting this truth, it certainly cannot be claimed that the philosophers of any time constituted a majority of any population, nor that the philosopher, as such, was not greatly in advance of the mental status of the populace of his particular age. It would seem appropriate to briefly comment on the opinions of the philosophers, both ancient and modern, concerning their views on "man's giant shadow, hailed divine."

In former ages, philosophy was the handmaiden of theology. From the time of Socrates and Plato, and throughout the medieval ages, the foremost task of the philosopher seemed to be to attempt the proof of the existence and nature of God, and the immortality of the soul. The leading thinkers of the seventeenth century, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, and Malebranche, liberated philosophy from its bondage to theology. The criticism of Kant of the philosophical foundations of belief destroyed the "theological proofs," and modern thinkers now spend little time on the question of the existence and nature of God and the soul.

Modern philosophy has been completely secularized, and it is a rare occasion to find a philosopher dwelling on the problems of God and immortality. This question in philosophy, as in all other branches of thought, is utterly irrelevant and at present there is less insistence on God and more on the world, man, morals, and the conditions of social life.

It cannot be denied that we are under a heavy obligation intellectually to the Greek philosophers. And it may be that the fruitful efforts of those minds were largely due to their unhampered intellectual freedom. They had no "holy books" and few authorities to check their free speculation and hence these Greek thinkers furnish the first instance of intellectual freedom, from which arose their intelligent criticism and speculation. "They discovered skepticism in the higher and proper significance of the word, and this was their supreme contribution to human thought." (James Harvey Robinson: "The Mind In The Making.")

We know the teachings of Socrates only through his disciple Plato, as Socrates wrote nothing himself. From this source we gather that Socrates firmly upheld the right and necessity of free thought. He was mainly a moralist and reformer, and attempted to prove the existence of God by finding evidence of design in nature. He rejected the crude religious ideas of his nation, was opposed to anthropomorphism, but considered it his duty to conform publicly to this belief. In his old age, he was charged wtih rejecting the gods of the state, and was sentenced to death.

The philosophy of Plato has given rise to diverse interpretations and there are those who, on reading the Dialogues, believe that it is not amiss to state that in certain utterances there is ground to hold that Plato argued for the pragmatic value of a belief in God and personal immortality; that he does not stress the truth of the matter, but argues mainly for the benefit which the State derives from the belief; that such theistic beliefs cannot be demonstrated, and may well be but a craving and a hope, yet it will be of no harm to believe. He inferred the existence of God from what he considered the intelligence and design manifested in natural objects. Mainly, however, Plato's theism was founded upon his doctrine of a universe of ideas, and as no one today holds that ideas are self-existing realities, the foundation of, his theism is destroyed. James Harvey Robinson, in his "Mind in The Making," discusses the influence of Plato, and remarks, "Plato made terms with the welter of things, but sought relief in the conception of supernal models, eternal in the heavens, after which all things were imperfectly fashioned. He confessed that he could not bear to accept a world which was like a leaky pot or a man running at the nose. In short, he ascribed the highest form of existence to ideals and abstractions. This was a new and sophisticated republication of savage animism. It invited lesser minds than his to indulge in all sorts of noble vagueness and impertinent jargon which continue to curse our popular discussions of human affairs. He consecrated one of the chief foibles of the human mind, and elevated it to a religion."

The philosophy of Aristotle is commonly known to be the reverse of Plato's. Plato started with universals, the very existence of which was a matter of faith, and from these he descended to particulars. Aristotle, on the other hand, argued from particulars to universals, and this inductive method was the true beginning of science. The accumulated knowledge of his age did not furnish him facts enough upon which to build and he had to resort to speculation. It does not detract from the stupendous achievement of this man that the clergy of the Middle Ages, in control of the few isolated centers of learning, looked upon the philosophy of Aristotle as final and considered his works as semi-sacred, and in their immersion in un-reason and unreality, exalted as immutable and infallible the absurdities in the speculations of a mind limited to the knowledge of centuries before theirs.

In the attempt to explain plant and animal life, Aristotle formulated the theory that a special form of animating principle was involved. The "élan vital" of Bergson and the theory of Joad are modern reiterations of this conception. Aristotle is not quite consistent when he attempts to give us his theistic beliefs. At times God is, for him, a mysterious spirit that never does anything and has not any desire or will. Elsewhere, he conceives God as pure energy; a prime mover unmoved. Certain modern physicists still cling to this Aristotelian god. This conception of a deity was far from the beliefs of his age, and it is not strange that Aristotle was charged with impiety and with having taught that prayer and sacrifice were of no avail. He fled from Athens and shortly afterwards died in exile.

These three supreme Greek thinkers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, have not contributed a single argument for the existence of a supreme being which is now not discredited. Socrates relied on the now outmoded argument from design; and only in a greatly modified form are the arguments of Plato and Aristotle accepted by modern theists. Holding such heretical views in an age when history wa.s a frail fabric of legends, and the scientific explanation of nature in its extreme infancy, what would their views be today?

In the consideration of the Greek thinkers of lesser importance one finds that they were continually storming against the religious conceptions of the populace. The philosophers were ever unpopular with the credulous. "Damon and Anaxagoras were banished; Aspasia was impeached for blasphemy and the tears of Pericles alone saved her; Socrates was put to death; Plato was obliged to reserve pure reason for a chosen few, and to adulterate it with revelation for the generality of his disciples; Aristotle fled from Athens for his life, and became the tutor of Alexander." (Winwood Reade: "The Martyrdom of Man.")

Anaxagoras, the friend and master of Pericles, Euripides, and Socrates, was accused by the superstitious Athenians of atheism and impiety to the gods. He was condemned to death and barely escaped this fate through the influence of Pericles; which resulted in the accusation of atheism against Pericles. Euripides was accused of heresy, and Aeschylus was condemned to be stoned to death for blasphemy and was saved from this fate by his brother Aminias. The philosophy of Parmenides was distinctly pantheistic, and Pythagoras, who attempted to purify the religion of the Greeks and free it from its absurdities and superstitions, was exiled for his scepticism.

Democritus, a materialist and atheist of 2500 years ago, formulated a mechanical view of phenomena in accordance with which everything that happens is due to physical impacts. "Such a materialism was a great liberation from superstition; and had it survived in its integrity, the path of European wisdom would have been vastly different from what it was. What the path would have been, we are beginning to see to-day, for since the nineteenth century we have been treading it more or less consistently but by no means so gallantly and courageously as Democritus." (G. Boas: "The Adventures of Human Thought.")

Democritus and the Epicureans strove to deliver men from their two chief apprehensions: the fear of the gods, and the fear of death; and in so doing rejected the religious beliefs and substituted a rational and scientific conception of the universe.

It was Xenophanes, the Voltaire of Greece, who brought to the atttention of his countrymen the discovery that man created the gods in his own image. He attacked the conceptions of the Greek deities with these words, "Mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form … Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds … The Ethiopians make then: gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair."

Considering Greek philosophy in its entirety, we see that it was naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic, and rationalistic rather than mystical. These gifted men saw no clear indication for the existence of a supreme being; very few of them speak of the deity in the role of Providence and fewer still believed in personal immortality.

Professor Boas, in contrasting Asiatic mythology with Greek philosophy, remarks: "The Asiatic myths assumed the existence of beings beyond the world, not subject to mundane laws, who made and controlled the course of events. There was no reason why they should have made a world. They seemed to be living as divine a life without it as with it. The question was one which persisted in Asiatic thought, and when Christianity became dominant in Europe, much of its theologians' time was spent in answering it. The only plausible answer then was that God made the world because He felt like it. For no reason could be given sufficiently compelling to sway the will of the Omnipotent. But such an answer was unsatisfactory to the Greek. In his philosophy all this is changed. No god steps out of the machine to initiate cosmic history. The First Cause is a physical substance, some material thing, which operates by the laws of its own nature. Its every movement is theoretically open to the scrutiny of reason. And hence, a scientific rather than a religious answer can be given to every question."

At the beginning of the Christian era, the cultured Romans were stoics or epicureans. The poet Lucretius was an epicurean who regarded the belief in the gods as a product of the terrors of primitive man and recommended that the mind should be emancipated from the fear of the gods and argued against the immortality of the soul. Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius were stoics. Cicero insinuates that the gods are only poetical creations, that the popular doctrine of punishment in a world to come is only an idle fable, and is uncertain whether the soul is immortal. Seneca wrote against the religion of his country, and the philosophy of cultured Romans of the time of the physician Galen tended towards atheism.

The prime factor of Greek philosophy was the insistence on intelligence and knowledge, and by these means it reached its pinnacle of reasoning. The blight that exterminated all scientific progress, with the fall of the Roman Empire, carried with it the neglect of the Greek thinkers. Similar to the retrogression of scientific thought, traced in former chapters, is the corresponding retrogression in philosophic thought. In place of the free inquiry of the Greeks we see arising the theology of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Augustine, and finally that of St. Thomas Aquinas. At the time of St. Augustine most of the cultural Greek writings had disappeared in western Europe. The greatest store of Greek thought was in the hands of the Arab scholars and led to a marked scepticism, as we see manifested in the writings of the Spanish Moors.

It is significant that during the "age of faith" in Europe no philosopher of merit arose, and the only philosophy permitted was the puerile Scholastic-Aristotelic. This scholastic philosophy, hemmed in between metaphysics and theology, sought to reconcile Plato, Plotinus, and Aristotle with the needs of orthodoxy, and split hairs over subtle essences and entities. Francis Bacon impeaches, in this manner, the medieval philosophers: "Having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors, as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books."

The sole preoccupation of medieval philosophy seemed to be conjectures as to what would happen to man after death, and the entire system of thought was based on authority. The medieval philosopher turned in disdain from the arduous path of investigation of actual phenomena and confidently believed that he could find truth by easy reliance upon revelation and the elaboration of dogmas. A few brave minds rebelled against this unnatural imprisonment of the intellect, with the usual consequences. Peter Abelard was condemned for his scepticism at a council at Sens in 1140; the philosophy of John Scotus Erigena was condemned for its pantheistic ideas a council at Sens in 1225; and the pantheistic views of Bruno had much to do with his martyrdom in the year 1600.

Montaigne, the pioneer of modern scepticism, gave voice to his repugnance for dogmas in his brilliant Essays, in which he stated that all religious opinions are the result of custom; and that he doubted if, out of the immense number of religious opinions, there were any means of ascertaining which were accurate. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes were the inaugurators of a school of thought which is characterized by its practical spirit; and while these men professed theistic beliefs, their systems of thought had done much, when applied and amplified by their followers, to undermine that belief. These men furnished the source of a later agnosticism.

Thomas Hobbes agreed with Bacon and Galileo that all knowledge starts from experience, and, carrying out the inductive method of Bacon, he produced his "Leviathan" in 1651. It was promptly attacked by the clergy of every country in Europe. Hobbes says of the immortality of the soul, "It is a belief grounded upon other men's sayings that they knew it supernaturally; or that they knew those who knew them, that knew others that knew it supernaturally."

Locke concerned himself with a philosophic inquiry into the nature of the mind itself, and was looked upon as a destroyer of the faith. Descartes based his philosophy on the rejection of authority in favor of human reason for which his works were honored by being placed on the Index in 1663. Hume, with the publication of the highly heretical "Treatise on Human Nature," threw consternation into the ranks of the theists. His theory of knowledge played havoc with the old arguments for belief in God and immortality of the soul. His works were widely read and were instrumental in leading to the philosophical agnosticism of the nineteenth century.

Spinoza's religious views seemed in his time little short of atheism and brought him the hostility of both Jews and Christians, to which was added the excommunication from the synagogue. In his philosophy God and nature are equivalent terms and it is pantheistic only in the sense that if man is to have a god at all, nature must be that god, and whatever man considers godlike must be found in nature. Spinoza recognizes no supernatural realm and denies the survival of personal memory. Professor G. Boas, in his "Adventures of Human Thought," discusses the attitude of public opinion of the time of Spinoza. "He was the arch-atheist, the materialist, the subverter of all that was held most dear by the reigning powers. It was only after the French Revolution that he came into his own when certain Germans, captivated by Neo-Platonism, emphasized the pantheistic element in him. But by then Christianity had ceased to be a dominant intellectual force and had become what it is today, a folk belief." In the "Tractus Theplogico-Politicus," Spinoza states: "When people declare, as all are ready to do, that the Bible is the Word of God teaching men true blessedness and the way of salvation, they evidently do not mean what they say, for the masses take no pains at all to live according to Scripture, and we see most people endeavoring to hawk about their own commentaries as the word of God, and giving their best efforts, under the guise of religion, to compelling others to think as they do. We generally see, I say, theologians anxious to learn how to wring their inventions and sayings out of the sacred text, and to fortify them with divine authority."

In France, Pierre Bayle cleverly satirized the absurdity of dogma, and La Mettrie, an army physician, was exiled for the publication of his "Man a Machine." He insisted that if atheism were generally accepted society would be happier. His views were taken up and expanded by such atheists as Helvetius, d'Holbach, d'Alembert, and Diderot, who taught that morality should be founded on sociology and not on theology. The publication of their Encyclopaedia incurred the fierce opposition of the Church. Of Voltaire's anti-clericism little need be said, except to recall our debt to his victory over ecclesiasticism and superstition. His assertion that "a fanaticism composed of superstition and ignorance has been the sickness of all the centuries," still holds too great an extent of truth. His denial of miracles, the supernatural efficacy of prayer, and the immortality of the soul earned for him the undying enmity of the clergy. Condorcet, another deist, was the successor of Voltaire in the Encyclopaedic warfare.

The "Critique of Pure Reason" of Kant demolished the ontological and the cosmological arguments for the existence of God and showed the weakness in the teleological argument. He demonstrated that all the current arguments for God and immortality; the entire basis of rational proof of religious beliefs; were invalid. The theists protested vehemently, and showed their superiority by calling their dogs "Immanuel Kant." In his "Critique of Practical Reason," however, he went on to restore the credit of religion through the moral sense, the "Categorical Imperative," and, as certain commentators have stated, after having excluded God from the cosmos, he attempted to find Him again in ethics. Holding that the moral sense is innate and not derived from experience, he reduced the truth of religion to moral faith. Kant believed that he found a divine command in his own conscience; but the science of ethics now gives a natural account of moral laws and sentiments. The study of the evolution of our moral ideas has, today, destroyed Kant's theory of an innate and absolute moral sense.

When Franklin showed the nature of lightning, the voice of God was displaced from that of thunder. The sciences of ethics and psychology, like modern Franklins, show plainly that conscience is no more the voice of God than is thunder. Schopenhauer, commenting on Kantian theology, offers the suggestion that Kant was really a sceptic, but became frightened when he contemplated what he thought would happen to public morals if belief were to be denied to the masses. Nietzsche speaks of Kant: "With the aid of his concept of 'Practical Reason.’ he produced a special kind of reason, for use on occasions when reason cannot function: namely, when the sublime command, "Thou shalt,' resounds." In his old age Kant became more bold, and perhaps voiced his true views, for we find that in "Religion Within the Limits of Pure Reason," he is actively antagonistic to ecclesiasticism, so much so that, for publishing this work, he was censured by the Prussian king, who wrote, "Our highest person has been greatly displeased to observe how you misuse your philosophy to undermine and destroy many of the most important and fundamental doctrines of the Holy Scriptures and of Christianity." Indeed, many a man approaching Kant with a firm theistic belief finds his belief somewhat shaken by Kantian logic.

Schopenhauer's "Will" has nothing in common with the God-idea as commonly held, and he was bitterly anti-theistic. In: a dialogue entitled "Religion," he places these words in the mouth of his character Philalethes: "A certain amount of general ignorance is the condition of all religions, the element in which alone they can exist. And as soon as astronomy, natural science, geology, history, the knowledge of countries and peoples, have spread their light broadcast, and philosophy finally is permitted to say a word, every faith founded on miracles and revelation must disappear; and philosophy takes its place."

Hegel's deification of thought or reason left no room for personal immortality, and his query, "Do you expect a tip for having nursed your ailing mother, and refrained from poisoning your brother?" is well known. A vague conception of a deity whose existence can be proved, if it can be proved at all, only by the abstruse arguments of a Hegel is not a god of practical service to the theists.

Schelling was pantheistic, and Feuerbach played havoc with the philosophic evidence for God and immortality and treated all religions as a dream and an illusion.

Herbert Spencer, James Mill, J. S. Mill, and Huxley popularized the agnostic standpoint. Spencer in his "First Principles" argues in this manner: "Those who cannot conceive of a self-existent Universe, and therefore assume a creator as the source of the Universe, take for granted that they can conceive a self-existent creator. The mystery which they recognize in this great fact surrounding them on every side, they transfer to an alleged source of this great fact, and then suppose that they have solved the mystery. But they delude themselves. Self-existence. is inconceivable; and this holds true whatever be the nature of the object of which it is predicated. Whoever agrees that the atheistic hypothesis is untenable because it involves the impossible idea of self-existence, must perforce admit that the theistic hypothesis is untenable if it contains the same impossible idea. ... If religion and science are to be reconciled, the basis of reconciliation must be this deepest, widest, and most certain of all facts, that the Power which the Universe manifests to us is inscrutable."

Nietzsche, the great liberator of modern thought, vigorously opposed religious morality, the influence of Christianity, and all religious beliefs. "When the natural consequences of an action," he wrote, "are no longer looked upon as natural, but are considered to be produced by the phantasms of superstition, by 'God,' 'Ghosts,' and 'Souls,' and appear as 'moral' consequences, as rewards, punishments, guidance and revelation, then the whole basis of knowledge is destroyed; and the greatest possible crime against humanity has been committed."

William James, claimed as a supporter of religion, argues that our inner experience makes us cognizant of a spiritual world. The advance of psychological research does not deal kindly with this contention, and such works as Leuba's "Psychology of Religious Mysticism" give a rational explanation of the mystic state. Moreover, James did not give his support to monotheism. "That vast literature of proofs of God's existence," he stated, "drawn from the order of nature, which a century ago seemed so overwhelmingly convincing, today does little more than gather dust in the libraries, for the simple reason that our generation has ceased "to believe in the kind of God it argued for. Whatever sort of God may be, we know today that he is nevermore that mere external inventor of 'contrivances' intended to make manifest his 'glory' in which our great-grandfathers took such satisfaction."

James claimed to be a pluralist in the sense that there are several or many spiritual beings above us, and his writings lead one to believe that he was not convinced that man, as a distinct personality, survives the grave.

Royce rejected all the current arguments for God and immortality and argues for the mysticism of internal experience. Eucken offers no support to theologians; and Bergson does not seem to express a clear belief in a personal god or personal immortality.

Coming to the more popular of contemporary philosophers one finds that, just as the Greek philosophers reasoned outside the pale of the then held beliefs which were theistic, so do these modern philosophers reach conclusions that are outside the pale of organized religion of today. George Santayana is a materialist and sceptic who, in his "Reason in Religion," reveals his scepticism and frowns upon personal immortality. "It is pathetic," he comments, "to observe how lowly are the motives that religion, even the highest, attributes to the deity, and from what a hard-pressed and bitter existence they have been drawn. To be given the best morsel, to be remembered, to be praised, to tie obeyed blindly and punctiliously, these have been thought points of honor with the gods, for which they would dispense favors and punishments on the most exhorbitant scale. The idea that religion contains a literal, not a symbolic, representation of truth and life is simply an impossible idea. Whoever entertains it has not "come within the region of profitable philosophizing on that subject."

Bertrand Russell, considered by some the keenest philosophical mind of the present age, is an agnostic who maintains "The objections to religion are of two sorts, intellectual and moral. The intellectual objection is that there is no reason to suppose any religion true; the moral objection is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are now, and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow."

The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce is an atheist who states that philosophy removes from religion all reason for existing. C. E. M. Joad is a young English philosopher who repeatedly predicts the disappearance in the near future of the present forms of theistic beliefs. M. C. Otto holds to "An affirmative faith in the non-existence of God." William P. Montague discards all organized religions for a "Promethean Religion." John Dewey is a naturalistic philosopher who will have nothing to do with supernatural causation and insists that all things be explained by their place and function in the environment. His philosophy is permeated with the secular ideal of control of the external world.

What consolation does organized religion receive from the views of such modern philosophers as Russell, Alexander, Joad, Croce, Santayana, Dewey, Otto, Montague, Sellars, and the Randalls? The views of an intellectual incompetent, such as Bryan was, are spread widecast, but few know the extent of the scepticism of Edison, Luther Burbank, Albert Einstein, Paul Ehrlich, Ernst Haeckel, Robert Koch, Fridjof Nansen, and Swante Arrhenius. What consolation can the theists derive from the religious views of Shelley, Swinburne, Meredith, Buchanan, Keats, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, and Anatole France?

In the not far distant past deism and pantheism served as a polite subterfuge for atheism. There is a growing tendency in this present age to dress one's atheistic belief in an evening suit, and for the sake of social approbation call such a belief "religious humanism." A quotation from the Associated Press, appearing recently in one of our magazines, states the need for this "new religion" as being the inadequacy of the religious forms and ideas of our fathers, and the new creed to be:

"Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

"Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.

"The distinction between the sacred and secular can no longer be maintained.

"Religious humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of a man's life, and seeks its development and fulfilment in the here and now.

"In place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer, the humanist finds his religious emotions exprest in a heightened sense t>f personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.

"There will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural. Man will learn to face the crises of life in terms of his knowledge of their naturalness and probability. Reasonable and manly attitudes will be fostered by education and supported custom.

"We assume that humanism will take the path of social and mental hygiene, and discourage sentimental and unreal hopes and wishful thinking.

"The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which the people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.

"The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes, in religious thoughts throughout the modern world. Science and economic change have disrupted the old beliefs.

"Religions the world over are under the necessity of coming to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience."

Professors John Dewey, E. A. Burtt, and Roy Wood Sellars are among the signers of this statement. It is an excellent and comprehensive statement, but one is left wondering why the name "religious humanism"? It is difficult to become enthusiastic when one realizes that these men take to themselves the thunder of the atheists of the past, and under the misnomer, "religious," place before the public what all atheists of the past ages have been preaching.

It is most gratifying to perceive that such distinguished men as signed this statement are frank enough to admit the extent of the religious revolution, and determined enough to take a hand in the clearing away of the debris that clutters the crumbling of all religious creeds. Yet it is only fair to point out that this statement contains nothing that would not be recognized by those intrepid atheists of the past, and little more than they urged in their time. I refer to those brilliant French atheists La Mettrie, Helvetius, d'Holbach, d'Alembert, and Diderot.