Read SUBSTITUTES FOR ATHEISM: CHAPTER XV of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on ReadCentral.com.

ATHEISM INEVITABLE.

Between Theism and Atheism the logical mind may halt, but it cannot rest for long, and in the end the logic of fact works its way. Compromise, while it may delay the end without preventing its inevitability, is quite out of place in matters of the intellect. In the world of practice compromise is often unavoidable, but in that of ideas the sole concern should be for truth. When Whately said that the man who commenced by loving Christianity more than truth would continue by loving his own sect more than any other, and end by loving himself more than all, he placed his finger on the great moral danger of compromise where opinion is concerned. It begins, ostensibly, by considering the respect due to an opponent’s case, it continues by sacrificing the respect that is due one’s own, and it ends by giving a new sense of value to the very opinion it aims at destroying. “No quarter” is the only sound rule in intellectual warfare, where to take prisoners is only one degree less dishonouring than to be taken captive oneself. And the value of an opinion is never wholly in the opinion itself. No small part of its worth is derived from the way in which it is held, and the importance which is placed upon it.

When Professor Tylor said that the deepest of all divisions in the history of human thought was that which divided Animism from Materialism, he was saying what I have been endeavouring to say, in another manner, in the foregoing pages. Atheism and supernaturalism are fundamental divisions in human thought, and divisions that connote an irreconcilable antagonism. The terms not only mark a division, they are the badges of a movement, the indication of a pilgrimage. Dr. Tylor’s own work and the work of his fellow labourers tell the story in detail, and although no one is in a position to write “finis” to it, there is no doubt as to what its end will be. And the manner of the pilgrimage is quite plain. The starting point is the creation by the befogged ignorance of primitive man of that welter of ghosts and gods which make so much of early existence a veritable nightmare. The journey commences in a world in which the “supernatural” is omnipresent, in which man’s chief endeavours is given to win the good will or avert the anger of the ghosts and gods to whom he has himself given being. And the end, the last stage of the pilgrimage, is a world in which mechanical operations take the place of disembodied intelligences, or of supernatural powers. From a world in which the gods are everything and do everything to a world in which the gods are nothing and do nothing. The story of that transition is the record of one of the greatest revolutions that has happened in the history of mankind. Its real greatness and far-reaching significance is not always adequately recognised, even by those who welcome it gladly. Indeed, the narrower interests that suffer from this revolution are more keenly alive to its importance than are those who benefit from its consummation. That is, perhaps, what one ought to expect from the known course of human history. For history would not be what it is, nor would reforms be so difficult of accomplishment were it not possible to persuade the slave that his servitude guards him from the very evils it perpetuates.

Incidentally the nature of that revolution has been indicated in the preceding pages. But a more connected view will form a fitting close to this work. Nothing more than the barest of outlines can be attempted, but such as it is it may serve to illustrate the truth that Atheism is more than the speculative philosophy of a few, that it is in sober truth the logical outcome of mental growth. So far as any phase of human life can be called inevitable Atheism may lay claim to being inescapable. All mental growth can be seen leading to it, just as we can see one stage of social development giving a logical starting point for another stage, and which could have been foretold had our knowledge of all the forces in operation been precise enough. Atheism is, so to speak, implicit in the growth of knowledge; its complete expression is the consummation of a process that began with the first questionings of religion. And the completion of the process means the death of supernaturalism in all its forms.

Religion, it has already been said, is something that is acquired, and although that sounds little better than a commonplace, yet reflection proves it to contain an important truth. For it is in the nature of the acquisition that its significance lies. Whatever be the earliest stages of religion it is at all events clear that its earliest form is in the nature of a hypothesis, even though only of the semi-conscious kind that exists when man is brought into touch with some new and overpowering experience. Religious ideas are put forth in explanation of something. But all explanation whether by savage or civilised man, must be in terms of existing knowledge. No other method is possible. We must explain the unknown in terms of the known, and our explanation will be the more elaborate and the nearer the truth as our knowledge of the nature of the forces are the more exact and extensive. A knowledge of the laws of condensation and evaporation enables a modern to give an explanation of the meaning of a shower of rain that is simply impossible to man in an earlier stage of culture. In every case the facts are the same, and in each case the explanation given depends upon the knowledge acquired.

Now one radical distinction between an early and a modern explanation of the world is that whereas the former moves from within outward, the latter moves from without inward. Uncivilised man explains the world by himself; civilised man explains himself by the world. The savage describes the world in terms of his own feelings and passions, the scientist regards human qualities as resulting from the relation which man holds to the forces around him. The process, while presenting a radical difference in form, is yet fundamentally one in essence. Ignorant of all that we connote by such an expression as “natural forces,” whatever explanation is offered by the savage is necessarily in terms of the only force with which he is acquainted. But it happens that the only forces which he then fancies he understands are those represented by his own organisation. What he is conscious of doing is prompted by his own will and intelligence. He hurts when he is angry, he rewards when he is pleased, and he makes the same assumption regarding the things around him. So far as he explains nature he vitalises it. Vital force becomes the symbol of all force. And this result expresses a mental law that is universally operative. The civilised mind differs from the savage mind not because the brain functions differently in the two cases, but solely in consequence of the wider and truer knowledge of the causes of natural phenomena which civilised man possesses. We arrive at different conclusions because we start from different premises. Inevitably, therefore, the first attempt of man to deal with nature takes the form of assuming the operation of a number of personal intelligences. Natural objects are alive, and everything that happens to man, from the cradle to the grave, is thought of as being either alive or controlled by living beings. The world is filled with a crowd of ghostly beings exercising more or less discordant functions. Against this riot of gods the conception of natural law developes but slowly. Quite apart from the natural inertia of the human mind, the fact of questioning the power of these assumed beings involves to the primitive mind an element of grave danger. All sorts of things may happen if the gods are offended, and in self-defence the tribe feels bound to suppress the critic of religion and of religious ideas. But once the step is taken, the area over which the gods rule is to that extent restricted, and with that step Atheism may be said to be born.

What Lange said in the opening sentences of his classic “History of Materialism,” that “Materialism is as old as philosophy, but not older,” may be said with equal truth of Atheism. That, too, is as old as philosophy, since it begins with man’s attempts to break away from that primitive interpretation of nature which sees in all phenomena the action of personal intelligences. It is of no importance in which branch of knowledge the departure was made, whichever department one takes the process can be seen at work. Astronomy appears to have been the branch of knowledge in which the powers of the gods were earliest restricted, although it was not until the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Laplace were given to the world that “God” vanished altogether from that region. Geology follows with the teaching that chemical, thermal, and other known forces leave nothing for the gods to accomplish. Biology and sociology, dealing with more complex forces, are much later in the field, but they tread the same path. They provide a refuge for “God” for awhile, but it is evident that their complete dispossession is no more than a question of time. And even though the very complex character of the forces working in these latter departments should prevent us ever acquiring the same degree of prevision that exists in other classes, no difference will be made to the general result. The principle will be fairly established and our ignorance of details will no longer be made the ground for assertions which, if made at all, should rest upon the most exact knowledge. “God” will be left with nothing to do, and man will not for ever go on worshipping a God whose sole recommendation is that he exists, nor will the common sense of civilised people hold on to a hypothesis when there is nothing left for that hypothesis to explain.

The single and outstanding characteristic of the conception of god at all times and under all conditions is that it is the equivalent of ignorance. In primitive times it is ignorance of the character of natural forces that leads to the assumption of the existence of gods, and in this respect the god-idea has remained true to itself throughout. Even to-day whenever the principle of “God” is invoked a very slight examination is enough to show that the only reason for this being done is our ignorance of the subject before us. Why does anyone assume that we must believe in God in order to explain the beginnings of life? Why is “God” assumed to be responsible for the order of nature? Why must we assume “God” to explain mind? The answer to these and to all similar questions is that we do not know, in the sense that we know the cause of planetary motions, how these things came to be. It is not what we know about them that leads to the assumption of god, but what we do not know. And the converse of that is that so soon as knowledge replaces ignorance “God” will be dispensed with. It is never a case of believing in God because of the actual knowledge we possess, but always the appeal to weakness and ignorance. From this point of view the colloquial “God only knows!” expresses the appeal to ignorance even more clearly than the elaborate argument of the sophisticated apologist.

This aspect of the matter was well put by Spinoza. Believers in the argument from design, he says, have a method of argument that is a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance. Thus,

If a stone falls from a roof on to someone’s head and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method that the stone fell to kill the man; for if it had not by God’s will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance. Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. “But why,” they will insist, “was the wind blowing, and why was the wind at that very time blowing that way?” If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather having been previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist: “But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?” So they will pursue their question from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance. (Appendix to Ethics; pt. 1)

The sanctuary of ignorance “God” has always been, and the sanctuary of ignorance it will remain to the end. It has no other function in life. A consciousness of this is shown by the upholders of Theism in the eagerness with which they welcome every supposed demonstration of the impotence of science, and of the resistance everywhere offered to the development of scientific advance.

So far, then, as the progress of life makes for the growth of knowledge, so far may we safely claim that the development of thought makes for Atheism, as we have just said, and to do the religious world justice it has always been quick to realise this, and every great scientific generalisation as well as many smaller ones, has been resisted on the ground that they were atheistic in character and tended to take the control of the world out of God’s hands. Present-day theists are apt to condemn this attitude of their predecessors, but it can hardly be denied that the logic lies with the earlier representatives. A God who does nothing might, for all practical purposes, as well be non-existent. And a God who is merely in the background of things, who may be responsible for their origin, but having originated them surrenders all control over their operations, is hardly more serviceable. The modern theist saves his God only by leaving him a negligible quantity in a universe he is supposed to sustain and govern.

And it cannot be too often emphasised that the whole basis of exact or positive science is atheistic that is, it is compelled to ignore even the possibility of the existence of God. Every scientific generalisation rests upon the constancy of natural forces. On no other basis is it possible to give a scientific interpretation to what has gone before or to anticipate what is to happen in the future. Every scientific calculation assumes that in the world with which it deals causation is invariable and universal. But if we are to assume the operations of a “God” at any time or point every scientific calculation would have to be accompanied with the D.V. of a prayer meeting. To argue from the past to the future would be futile. God might have operated then, no one could be certain he will operate now. Or he might have operated in the far past, but he might not in the future. In either case the assumption of a God would be fatal to exact scientific calculations. Thus in sheer self defence, in order to preserve its character as science, science is compelled to discard even the possibility of the existence of a controlling intelligence. As one eminent theistic advocate admits, “Science has no need, and indeed, can make no use, in any particular instance of the theistic hypothesis." It is only when supernaturalism is partly excluded from human thought that science can be said to really commence its existence; and in proportion as our conception of the universe becomes that of an aggregate of non-conscious forces or of a single force with many forms producing given results under given conditions, only then does our view of the universe reach completion.

A study of the nature and tendency of human development does, therefore, provide a very strong presumption in favour of atheism. All growth here is in favour of atheism and away from theism. In the beginning we have the gods everywhere and dominating everything. They do everything and control everything. “God” is the one universal primitive hypothesis. And all subsequent development is to its discrediting. There is no growth in the idea of god, there is only an attenuation. The gods grow fewer as the race approaches maturity. Their activities cease as man becomes aware of the character of the forces around him. And it may be further noted that this decline of the belief in deity is brought about as much by sheer pressure of experience as by pure reason. The majority of people do not reason themselves out of the belief in god, they outgrow it. People cease to believe in the gods because they experience no compulsion to believe in them. The logic of fact is ultimately more powerful than the logic of theory, and as environmental forces brought the gods into existence, so environmental forces carry them out again.

Now Atheism does but make explicit in words what has long been implicit in practice. It takes the god-idea, examines it, and explains it out of existence. It admits the reality of gods as it admits the reality of ghosts and fairies and witches. They are subjective, not objective, realities. Atheism takes the god-idea, explains its origin, describes its subsequent development, and in so doing indicates its ultimate fate. In this sense Atheism is, as I have said, no more than the final stage of a long historical process. The theistic phase of thought is an inevitable one in human evolution, but it is no more a permanent one than is the belief in hobgoblins. One might here paraphrase Bacon and say, “A little philosophy inclineth a man to belief in the gods, but depth in philosophy leads to their rejection as a false and useless hypothesis.” It is true that thinking brought the gods into the world; it is also true that adequate thinking carries them out again.

The cardinal truth is, of course, that the hypothesis of mind in nature does not owe its existence to an exact knowledge of things but to its absence. Its origin must be sought in a pre-scientific age and its persistence in a number of extraneous circumstances which have perpetuated a belief that would otherwise have inevitably disappeared. And it would indeed be a matter for surprise if this belief said by theists to be of all beliefs the most profound should be the one speculation on which savage thought has justified itself. On no other question did the primitive mind reach truth. Universally its speculations concerning the world were discovered to be wrong. On this one topic we are asked to believe that the savage was absolutely right.

From the age of fetichism rightly called by Comte the creative age in theology the history of the god-idea has been a history of a series of modifications and rejections. Scarce an invention that has not slain a god, scarce a discovery has not marked the burying-place of a discarded deity. Criticism reduced the gods in number and limited them in power. Advancing knowledge pushed them back till nature, “rid of her haughty lords,” is conceived as a huge mechanism, self-acting, self-adjusting, and self-repairing. Even in the mouths of religionists “God” to-day stands for little more than a force. We must not describe him as personal, as intelligent, or as conscious, and between this and the existence assumed by atheistic science it is impossible to detect any vital difference. Atheism, then, takes its stand upon the observed trend of human history, upon a scrutiny of the facts of nature, and upon an examination of the origin and contents of the god-idea. And upon these grounds it may fairly claim to be irrefutable and inevitable. Circumstances may obstruct its universal acceptance as a reasoned mental attitude, but that merely delays, it does not destroy the certainty of its final triumph.

With the supposed direful consequences that would follow the triumph of Atheism I have not dealt with at length. These are the bugbears which the designing normally employ in order to frighten the timid and credulous. Mental uprightness and moral integrity are certainly not the property of one religion, nor can it be said with truth that they belong to any. And examining the histories of religion it is a fair assumption that in whatever direction the world may suffer from the disappearance of religion there will be no moral catastrophe. Looking at the whole course of human history, and noting how the vilest and most ruinous practices have been ever associated with religion, and have ever relied upon religion for support, the cause for speculation is, not what will happen to the world when religion dies out, but how human society has managed to flourish while the belief in the gods ruled.

Fortunately for human society nature has not left the operation of the fundamental virtues dependent upon the acceptance of this or that theory of the world. The social and family instincts, which are inseparable from our nature as men and women, and which operate in ways of which we are largely unconscious, are the grounds of all the higher and finer virtues, and while a change in opinion may affect their operation here and there, it can never alter their fundamental character. Conduct, in short, comes from life, it is not the creation of a theory to be dismissed by resolution or refashioned by a vote.