The Necessity of Atheism, The Indispensability of Doubt
Sometimes old diseases require old cures. 1811. Shelley writes, in the essay that got him sent down from Oxford:
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.
…Thelogy mde man first fear and adore the elements themselves, the gross and material objects of nature; he next paid homage to the agents controlling the elements, lower genies, heroes or men gifted with great qualities. By force of reflection he sought to simplify things by submitting all nature to a single agent, spirit, or universal soul, which, gave movement to nature and all its branches. Mounting from cause to cause, mortal man has ended by seeing nothing; and it is in this obscurity that he has placed his God; it is in this darksome abyss that his uneasy imagination has always labored to fabricate chimeras, which will continue to afflict him until his knowledge of nature chases these phantoms which he has always so adored.
If we wish to explain our ideas of the Divinity we shall be obliged to admit that, by the word God, man has never been able to designate but the most hidden, the most distant and the most unknown cause of the effects which he saw; he has made use of his word only when the play of natural and known causes ceased to be visible to him; as soon as he lost the thread of these causes, or when his mind could no longer follow the chain, he cut the difficulty and ended his researches by calling God the last of the causes, that is to say, that which is beyond all causes that he knew; thus he but assigned a vague denomination to an unknown cause, at which his laziness or the limits of his knowledge forced him to stop. Every time we say that God is the author of some phenomenon, that signifies that we are ignorant of how such a phenomenon was able to operate by the aid of forces or causes that we know in nature. It is thus that the generality of mankind, whose lot is ignorance, attributes to the Divinity, not only the unusual effects which strike them, but moreover the most simple events, of which the causes are the most simple to understand by whomever is able to study them. In a word, man has always respected unknown causes, surprising effects that his ignorance kept him from unraveling. It was on this debris of nature that man raised the imaginary colossus of the Divinity.
If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction. In proportion as man taught himself, his strength and his resources augmented with his knowledge; science, the arts, industry, furnished him assistance; experience reassured him or procured for him means of resistance to the efforts of many causes which ceased to alarm as soon as they became understood. In a word, his terrors dissipated in the same proportion as his mind became enlightened. The educated man ceases to be superstitious.
And we talk about “new” atheism? What we need to stop pretending is that there is anything new about atheism and anything worth repeating. Anyone persuaded by the force of Shelley’s 1811 arguments will be persuaded by anything written in 1789, 1869, 2008.
It’s all the same.
Which is to say, there is nothing to add to the atheist case against God. Like the Baltimore Catechism used to say, “God always is, always was, and always remains the same.” How dull–especially for him–except so do the arguments against his being.
My advice to my fellow sceptics and unbelievers: Ignore the believers. Anyone who believes anything without a reason for doing so, as W.K. Clifford noted more than a century ago, deserves to have his ships sunk at sea. Especially the ones he strongly suspected weren’t seaworthy to begin with.
But I write for a different reason. I write to say that even if you don’t believe atheism is “necessary,” dear believer, how can you deny that doubt is indispensable?
I trace my own dilemma to one of Bultmann’s students, Gerhard Ebeling. In a nice little book called The Problem of Historicity in the Church and Its Proclamation (1967) (hideous title, typically German), Ebeling wondered how any faith–by which he meant Christian–could be authentic (ah! the sixties!) if the believer has not encountered doubt.
I was not fooled back then. For a lot of the hermeneutical indolents of the era, doubt was just another name for the devil You encountered it, you said “Go ‘way,” and then you embraced faith (or more precisely, the Christ event, which was more like embracing a beam of light), and stayed Christian–whatever that meant.
Essentially what it meant was to embrace everything doubt imposed on your belief that did not cause you to sacrifice your identity. No miracles. No resurrection, No sin, really. No guilt–especially. No supernatural salvation. A discounted Christianity without the sacrifice of the cross, the pain of good works, or the affront of conscience. The kind of thing anyone could get behind in 1967. Far out.
The difference between Shelley and Ebeling is not so great, except while the believer will reject out of hand Shelley’s undergraduate confidence that belief is absurd–so great his faith in Hume–Ebeling actually calls believers to a test that few are willing to perform. Doubt what is most important. Doubt God.
The religious significance of doubt is enormous. Unfortunately for Christians it is epitomied in two events that argue against its veracity.
Early Christians doubted that Jesus would come again. Paul (?) is clear on this point in the earliest of his letters, where he asserts that he will live, and the present generation will live to see it happen. It didn’t. The fundamental disproof of the second coming, a formative event in early Christian history, is actually enhrined in its literature.
The second is more problematical. Some early Christians doubted that Jesus had been crucified, or more exactly that he had been crucified and raised to see a new day.
The resurrection stories of the gospels offer contradictory evidence and (cumulatively) imply less that his resurrection happened than that it probably didn’t. The literary defenses of a community soon supplanted sober report about what “really” happned. It reaches a climax in the gospel of John, the story of Thomas, who grotesquely places his fingers in the wounds of the crucified and risen lord.
Christianity skewered itself on this standard of proof, because it could not be verified, could not be duplicated, and created in the person of Thomas the paradigm of every doubting Christian from his day to this.
Alas, we are either in Thomas’s position or the position of the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” There, an escaped serial killer is mowing down a family of errant travlers in the American south, last of all the Grandmother who tries to talk the killer out of his deed by reciting scripture and telling him that he is one of God’s own, a “good man.” The conversation turns to Jesus:
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.
Oh, religion is hard. But doubt must be taken seriously. If Shelley and his successors seem too self-assured, too pompus, take into account Ebeling’s view that anyone who believes without doubting hasn’t really begun to believe anthing.
“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known.