Decoupling Atheism from Intellectual Progress

It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

…Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

Who wrote the above?

Was it written by a young undergraduate who is proud of his newly-found atheism? An internet “freethinker” who lets his readers know that He is Smart because of his clever refutation of Christianity? A Southern Baptist who hates his parents?

The above two objections were written by St. Thomas Aquinas, and in fact come very close to the beginning of his Summa Theologica. The good doctor is, of course, setting up two classical objections to the existence of God as a proposition against which he can argue in the spirit of the medieval disputatio. The disputatio itself was the chief tool of investigation in the medieval university and came out of the belief that truth emerged through debate.

When reading the web-sites of overly enthusiastic atheists, though, one usually reads one of these two objections laid out with breathless triumphalism as the young teenager writes, “Ha ha! I have successfully disproven the existence of God because I am so smart. In two thousand years no one has ever thought of this objection, or if they did, they were suppressed by The Church.”1 Oddly enough, though, here we see such an objection to the existence of God being raised by a good son of the Church. Funny that.

Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong has made it his life’s purpose to preach to all who will listen that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead. His friend Carl Sagan, who should have known better, explains to us that perhaps if one lived in a cosmos as small as that believed in by pre-modern people, then you might be able to believe in a God looking down on and overseeing human affairs. But of course now, goes the thinking, that we know how vast the universe is and how insignificant we are in comparison to the rest of it, it is obvious that there is not a God who cares about what goes on in a tiny little speck of the cosmos that is, in comparison to the big picture, infinitessimally small.

Strangely, though, in the early 500’s, Boethius wrote that

As you have heard from the demonstrations of the astronomers, in comparison to the vastness of the heavens, it is agreed that the whole extent of the earth has the value of a mere point; that is to say, were the earth to be compared to the vastness of the heavenly sphere, it would be judged to have no volume at all. Further…only about one-fourth of this so miniscule spot in the universe is the portion inhabited by animate creatures known to us…So–do all of you who are hemmed in and bounded by this infinitesimal point as it were on a point make calculations about publicizing your reputations…that your glory may be abundant and monumental when it is compressed within such miniscule and circumscribed limits?

This is not an obscure work either. The selection comes from 7.3-7 in The Consolation of Philosophy, which was one of the most copied, read, and translated texts of the Middle Ages. What can it mean that medieval clerics knew of the vast size of the universe and yet believed in a personal God?

What about the origin of the universe itself? In the late thirteenth century, cutting edge (Aristotelian) physics demostrated that the universe was without beginning or end. Of course, the Bible stated that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning. This caused no small amount of consternation to the Christian faithful, and Boethius of Dacia (not the previously mentioned Boethius) came under a great deal of suspicion for allegedly teaching that there was a “dual truth,” i.e., the truth of things shown by scientific investigation, and the truth shown in the revelation of the holy scriptures. As it happens, he did not exactly believe in a double truth, but it is easy to understand how his On the Eternity of the World could be misunderstood as such.

The burning question of the day was how to reconcile the truths apparent from the natural world with those revealed in scripture. No satisfactory conclusion was ever reached, and the problem was, when discussed, discussed in rather hypothetical terms (“If it is given that the world is eternal, then…” and the like). Indeed, it is rather peculiar that, in an age in which the science of the time seemed to demonstrate the eternity of the world, people believed that it nevertheless had a creator, while in our age, in which a much more advanced science shows that the universe had a beginning, fewer people (proportionally to population of course) believe in a creator. Why is this the case?

I submit that unbelief has very little to do with scientific/intellectual progress and a great deal to do with fashion. The traditional arguments against a good God’s existence did not suddenly become stronger with the Enlightenment; such arguments did, though, become more fashionable. “Reason” did not suddenly come into existence in the late eighteenth century (Will Durant to the contrary), and any medieval student whose undergraduate education began with the Posterior Analytics would take a great deal of offense if he were told such.

When Charles Darwin and his successors pinpointed the best possible model for the origin and formation of life, the intelligentsia had already by and large given up on the Christian faith. Those who already disbelieved used evolution as proof that there was no creator; some of those who still believed decided that God made the world and the evidence be damned–they would believe what was in the Bible; and still others came to the conclusion that an almighty God could very well use the means of evolution to bring life about.

Why, though, am I bringing all of this up? To make a bold new argument for the truth of the Christian faith? No.2 Rather, my point is that I often see it confidently asserted that a decline in religious faith is a necessary component of religious progress and that the march of this progress will eventually lead to a godless world. I think that, in light of the fact that unbelief is usually more a product of fashion than anything else, we ought not to look forward to a world in which the “God problem” seen in different parts of the world suddenly resolves itself. Indeed, the religious revival underway in a certain monotheistic religion and the fact that folks with a scientific and engineering background are often drawn to the most fundamentalist interpretation of this religion would both seem to indicate that we are in for a religious world for a long time to come.

1This is something of a strawman, but not by much.

2Though it would be most interesting indeed to see some theologians who actually do physics, cosmology, or Organic Chemistry examine the implications of what is now known and work from such to theological conclusions.

Posted by schizmatic at 01:22 PM

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