The Necessity of Atheism

August 9, 2010

Shelley’s 1813 text contains a couple of obvious statements that most theist apologists pretend not to or simply fail to understand and then dishonestly attempt to turn against atheists.

The first is, “the onus probandi rests on the theist.” Nice and straightforward. For this reason it is absurd to assert that atheism is a faith position.

The second, “The consistent Newtonian is necessarily an atheist.” Beautiful concision. Accommodationists take note.

There’s also a marvelous quote from Bacon.
Lord Bacon says that atheism leaves to man reason, philosophy, natural piety, laws, reputation, and everything that can serve to conduct him to virtue; but superstition destroys all these, and erects itself into a tyranny over the understandings of men: hence atheism never disturbs the government, but renders man more clear-sighted, since he sees nothing beyond the boundaries of the present life. – Bacon’s Moral Essays.

This deals succinctly with the silly notion that virtue depends on belief in God.

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12 Responses to “The Necessity of Atheism”

  1. Jay Thomas said

    What neither Shelley or Bacon address is religion’s utility in terror management. Nonbeing is a horrific thing for many people to contemplate. For people not able to come to terms with the finitude of their own existence I think religion can offer a great deal of comfort.

  2. ukdonjp said

    Thanks for your comment, J.

    That’s an enduring notion, but is it true? Those who adopt a thoroughgoing naturalistic worldview lament death rather than fear it. The stoic viewpoint has always been persuasive to me; we came from nothingness (or stardust if you prefer) and return to nothingness. True terror is to believe in an afterlife, so far from being a solution to terror of death, theism is a cause of that terror.

    On a less abstract note, Gregory Paul’s statistical analysis suggests that fear of death is not a cause of greater religiosity.

  3. Jay Thomas said

    I am enjoying your blog Don!

    I tend to believe that our response to the prospect of ceasing to be depends on a number of things, many of them outside of our control. Personal temperament, intelligence, aptitude for and interest in abstract questions, level of introspection and so on. For yourself it may be that stoicism offers a better answer to this issue than religiosity would. Since neither of us are able to believe in an afterlife even if we wanted to it seems something of a futile question.

    I am not being a relativist here or disputing the nonexistence of God. All I am saying is that a great many people have drawn comfort from the notion of a final balancing of moral scales, from the idea of being reunited with lost family members in an afterlife, from the idea of the universe operating under the eye of a benevolent creator who has a plan even if we can’t always comprehend it.

    That such ideas don’t stand up to any kind of rigorous scrutiny is neither here nor there. A great many people don’t require them to. Speaking personally I can certainly understand their seductiveness and appeal.

    What about the case of a person of modest intelligence and with little taste for abstractions who is faced with the loss of a loved one? Do you believe that the belief in an afterlife is of no value to that person?

    I think afterlife beliefs and religious beliefs in general have existed in many different times and places and I think that they have often helped people.

    I don’t dispute the immense harm that religion has caused but I think the balance sheet may be less onesided than you suggest.

  4. ukdonjp said

    J, I’m heading off to Italy in a few hours so it may be a while before i can reply. It’s good to have you commenting.

    One thing, though – you are extrapolating and imagining what my views are; for example, in your final paragraph you suggest a viewpoint i haven’t expressed anywhere … i’ve not said anything about the balance of harm and benefit of theism.

  5. Hi Don and Jay,

    Interesting comments about “terror”. Machiavelli (whose “empiricism” Bacon admired) is interested in the notion of foundational terror: “In the beginning there was terror” and admired the Romans for their religiosity and for the way in which it made them “virtuous”.

    But terror of death or of the consequences of death is only one side of the coin. For the Christian there is also faith and hope and a longing to “be with Christ, which is far better”, or an assurance that “to live is Christ, to die is gain”.

    That aside, I think our biggest enemies are the fear of the pains of death and the fear of fear itself (to borrow from Montaigne)…

    Don, I have a lot of time for the Stoics too, the Stoics, the Sceptics and the Epicurians!

    As for Bacon, he would distinguish between atheism, superstition and “true” religion, about which he has much to say, so I’d say that his point is NOT a simple atheism/superstition dichotomy as you seem to suggest.

    As for Shelley’s comments about Newton, I think he has a point. We are now living, of course, in a post-Newtonian age, which is why “Newtonian atheism” is as out of date as “Ptolomaic Popery”.

    Anyway I’m guessing that you’ve returned from your holidays by now. Hope you had a good time and if so, I’m looking forward to seeing you and hearing about it…

  6. To clarify my comment about Machiavelli and “terror” see:

    http://www.english-renaissance.com/tag/leo-strauss/

    I am quoting Leo Strauss’ Thoughts on Machiavelli.

  7. ukdonjp said

    Jay, you talk of the human needs that religion meets and has met over the millennia. Broadly speaking, who could disagree? It is undoubtedly this that accounts for the endurance of such preposterous ideas, ideas that were preposterous at least 2,500 years ago, and gain extraordinarily acute levels of preposterousness here in the 21st century.

    Two points, though:-
    1. To what extent does theism answer needs and to what extent does it manufacture them? I made the point above with regard to terror of death. The notion of hell has utility in engendering and nurturing death terror in happy service of the predations of priests. This is egregious psychological abuse and should dissuade anyone from praising the illusory consolations of religion.
    I think we have to be careful when approaching these issues. Theism is a very young religious tradition. Our species has been around for at least 100,000 years. Anthropologists inform us that some peoples have no notion of an afterlife. Many complacently scoff at the notion that humanity can do away with theism – such people have no understanding of our biological history.

    2. You wrote, “What about the case of a person of modest intelligence and with little taste for abstractions who is faced with the loss of a loved one? Do you believe that the belief in an afterlife is of no value to that person?”

    Worse, i regard such beliefs as having extremely negative value. Your scenario is narrow and sentimental; you have to put that belief into the context of a life lived. Untold millions have sacrificed joy in the only life they had in anticipation of a life they were deluded to believe was coming.

    Living in falsehood blights life.

  8. ukdonjp said

    David, you wrote “As for Bacon, he would distinguish between atheism, superstition and “true” religion, about which he has much to say”. Perhaps you could point me to where he says it most concisely and/or persuasively …
    [Of course, the thought arises unbidden: how does he “know” it is “true” religion!]

  9. I’m assuming that you mean by “persuasively” that I should find an extract from Bacon that persuades us not of the “truth” of his position but that he argued the point as I suggested.

    The place to look is in his “Meditationes Sacrae”, in the section titled “Of Heresies”, which follows immediately after the section “Of Atheism”, which concludes with the famous statement:

    “Lastly, this I dare affirm in knowledge of nature, that a little natural philosophy, and the first entrance into it, doth dispose the opinion to atheism; but on the other side, much natural philosophy and wading deep into it, will bring about men’s minds to religion; wherefore atheism every way seems to be combined with folly and ignorance, seeing nothing can be more justly alloted to be the saying of fools than this, ‘There is no God.'”

    Here, then is the quotation we need in the “Of Heresies” section, and since the remit is an impatient brevity, I have chopped off its head and tail:

    “…therefore true religion seated in the mean betwixt superstition, with superstitious heresies on one side, and atheism with profane heresies on the other…”

    The influence of Aristotle survives even as the method is being administered the Order of the Boot.

  10. ukdonjp said

    What you’ve quoted is mere assertion quite devoid of argument. I’d rather read what comes before the “therefore”.

  11. Well, that is the place where “he says it” concisely, which is what I thought you wanted me to demonstrate. I thought by “persuasively” you wanted to be persuaded that he said it, not to be persuaded of what he was saying.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=ieO2NjBGmewC&printsec=frontcover&dq=meditationes+sacrae+bacon&hl=en&ei=PtuhTJHxD4efcZjIqbIB&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

  12. ukdonjp said

    I’ll check it out.
    Is “droll” the word for what you just wrote?

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