Here is a sober thought. Let us suppose we might be looking for the first atheists in the history of the world. My candidates would be Adam and Eve. They chose, at least briefly, to believe at the behest of the serpent that they could be like God by eating the forbidden fruit of a certain tree. (Genesis 3:5) But to be like God means that no God is above you, and so there is literally no Supreme Being. Atheists ever since have done Adam and Eve one better. They declare themselves not like God, but better than God, because for them it is doctrine that atheists exist, but God does not.
During the Catholic Middle Ages a notable atheist was difficult to find. Yet since Martin Luther’ schism, the Western world has endured many fractures of Christianity and a chronic surge toward atheism. Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe that once prospered are now struggling to survive. European national leaders are reluctant to declare for the record that modern democracy’s roots are in the Christian faith. Despite abundant historical evidence to the contrary, humanist pundits boldly deny that many of our Founders were Christian. According to a recent study, 34 million Americans are not affiliated with any religious group. In light of the mounting challenges skepticism brings to our religious heritage, and keeping in mind that the lessons of history can and ought to promote wisdom, a review of atheism’s history is in order.
The history of atheism is shorter than the history of religion because there had to be an established belief in God before there could be a denial of such belief. As Chesterton put it, “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.” Religious institutions, as corruptible as all others, gave rise to atheism the moment their advocates caved in to superstition and self-serving greed for the things of this world rather than the next. Atheism, the dismissal of God, was sometimes chosen as the antidote to ancient religions that were decadent and dying. No doubt it was often asked by those who worshiped the Olympian gods how a moral person could have anything to do with such decadent deities?
In ancient Greece the philosopher Diagoras of Melos (5th c. B.C.), contemptuous of the antics of Zeus and his cohorts, openly declared there were no gods. To prove his point, he chopped up a statue of Hercules for firewood to boil his turnips. Theodorus of Cyrene disputed the existence of the gods, and taught that men should focus on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. He regarded morality as manufactured by men, there being no intrinsic evil in theft or adultery. Epicurus of Athens, who believed in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, taught there was no life after death, and concluded that the universe must be infinite and eternal. He devised a riddle that he challenged the pagans to answer: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil? Is he neither willing, nor able? Then why call him God?” Clearly, Epicurus did not understand that God’s gift of free will was that we should be able to choose between good and evil regardless of his commands. Certainly not all of the Greek thinkers were atheists. Plato supposedly argued that atheism is a disease of the soul before it becomes an error of understanding. Aristotle proposed the cosmological (first cause) and teleological (design) arguments for God that were later adopted by saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Plato and Aristotle surely viewed the gods of their day as myths, rather than real. Having no knowledge of Moses, there was no divine or absolute revelation to which they could point. At best they followed the natural law, and the devil plagued them to avoid even that.
Lucretius (99 – 55 B.C.), the Roman materialist, regarded all religion as superstitious, and insisted that we should not fear death because we will only be as we were before we were born … unconscious atoms. If atheism can be defined as placing oneself on a par with or above the old gods, we see that kind of atheism in Rome when Caligula and Nero were so corrupted and deranged by power as to declare themselves gods.
Roman cynicism and relativism is best summed up in the words of Seneca: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Seneca, who advocated suicide, upon the request of Nero killed himself by slashing his own veins. The assassination of Caligula and Nero’s suicide no doubt encouraged the notion that at least some of the gods could be slain with impunity.
Atheism’s Strategic Retreat
The self-proclaimed man-God, Jesus of Nazareth, however, could not be killed with impunity. Rather, He revived and conquered the Roman Empire just when it was exhausted by its penchant for plunder and slaughter. In the early Church Saint Augustine spoke of the futility of atheism as he knew it before he was converted to Christ: “So all men who put themselves far from [God] and set themselves up against [Him], are in fact attempting awkwardly to be like [Him]…. And was I thus, though a prisoner, making a show of a kind of truncated liberty, doing unpunished what I was not allowed to do and so producing a darkened image of omnipotence?” Augustine’s own struggle with belief resulted in his surrender to the natural impulse to believe, as evidenced in his famous prayer: “You have made us for Yourself and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in You.”
As all the countries of Europe were converted, Christianity gradually became the central unifying force of Europe, and the papacy emerged as the rallying point of all political power, especially concerning the stubborn advance of the Huns, the Vikings, and the Muslims in centuries to come. Atheism was barely heard of in the Middle Ages due to the fact that Catholicism ruled and would not lightly treat the sin against the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Church during this period produced rationalist philosophers and theologians who dedicated themselves to prove, by the power of reason alone, that God must exist. Saint Anselm (1033-1109) offered what would later be called the “ontological” argument. Then Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) set down his famous five proofs in his monumental Summa Theologica. Borrowing from Aristotle and Augustine, Aquinas aimed to show that although the existence of God is not immediately self-evident, God could be approached by the light of reason, which is consistent with instinct, and revelation.
William of Occam
Perhaps the first productive seed of modern atheism was unwittingly planted by the Franciscan monk and scholar, William of Occam (1288-1348). It was to him that an ancient philosophical principle dating back to Aristotle (that the simplest explanation is likely the truest one) became known as Occam’s Razor, which argues that, when searching for the causes of any natural phenomenon, the hypothesis should be chosen (sharpened enough) that requires the fewest assumptions and the greatest simplicity. Modern atheists would apply this principle in a way that Occam never intended by arguing that there need be no God if the universe can just simply be assumed to have always existed (yet modern science teaches us through the Big Bang theory that this would be a false assumption). Five centuries after Occam, the “Razor” would be used by the neo-Darwinists to argue that the blind process of evolution “cuts out” the need for Intelligent Design leading to the creation and design of all life.
That atheism became rampant during the Renaissance is something of a myth. What did become rampant (thus laying the groundwork for the later spread of atheism throughout Europe) was the general accumulation of wealth and the ambition that such wealth inspired among the leaders of the Church. When it became transparent during the age of Savonarola and Michelangelo that many in the Church hierarchy had been corrupted by the lust for secular power, understandably a certain cynicism set in. In due time, this cynicism would be exploited by Martin Luther who engineered the splitting of Christendom into what would eventually become thousands of competing sects. Once Christianity had stood united and impregnable; now it was divided and vulnerable. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, and the gradual rise of literacy that followed, made cheap and easy the spreading of literature and propaganda that hitherto had been unavailable. As democratic principles became more popular, the overthrow of the monarchies became linked with the overthrow of the Churches (both Catholic and Protestant) which were viewed by the rebels as allied with the monarchies.
One of the more noteworthy atheists of the post-Reformation period was the Italian Carmelite monk Lucilio Vanini (1586-1619). Vanini became an atheist almost immediately after he was ordained a priest. Because of his overt homosexuality, he could not for long maintain his identity as a priest and commenced actively undermining Church teachings at every opportunity. Full of himself, he changed his name from Lucilio to Julius Caesar and tried to pass himself off in England as a convert to Anglicanism. Exposed as a fraud, he migrated to France where he published his Secrets of Nature, a lengthy tract claiming that God and Nature are identical and that true virtue is to recognize we are all animals who have just recently learned to walk upright. Vanini taught that Chance, not Law, is the mother of all things. He declared the Bible to be a book of fiction and regarded the biblical presentation of the devil as a power greater than God. Drawn to astrology, he held the greatness of Jesus as a historical figure to be attributable to the zodiac sun sign under which Vanini believed Jesus must have been born … Libra, for altruists. Within his writings can be found a hint of evolutionary thought that seems to anticipate Darwin. Absurdly, he believed that Negroes descended from apes because of their skin color, but other races did not.
Vanini may have been a source of inspiration for the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Jew whose parents hoped he would become a Rabbi. After considerable study, Spinoza abandoned his religious heritage, was excommunicated from orthodox Judaism, and began a successful career as a lens-grinder. At first influenced by the writings of Descartes, Spinoza later rejected the body/mind dualism and declared all of reality to be composed of one and the same substance, which could be called Nature or God. He believed the universe to be infinite and uncreated. Unlike Vanini, Spinoza was a strict determinist. Chance is an illusion.
Spinoza’s ethical system required what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “dictatorship of relativism.” There is no objective good or evil, yet we are conscious of pleasure and pain. Though conscious of the power of reason as a pathway to truth and happiness, Spinoza did not believe that reason could overcome any passion. Only a stronger passion could overcome a weaker one. His book, simply titled Ethics, is an impressive effort to synthesize all morality according to a mathematical model. Spinoza was reluctant to call any passion good or bad. However, certain weak passions can grow into dominant ones. In this Spinoza seems to have anticipated Freud’s discovery of the unconscious mind and its sway over the ego. Whether Spinoza was a pantheist, a deist, or an atheist is still very much disputed. What is certain is that he did not believe in a personal God and that he has been a champion of atheism for atheists since his time.
The French Revolution would begin and end with anger and bloodshed everywhere. The king and many of his nobles were guillotined. The philosopher Voltaire (1694 –1778), though not an atheist, did much to fan the flames of revolution against both throne and altar. The atheist Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was immortalized by his colorful remark that France would never be free until the last of its kings had been strangled with the entrails of its last priest. Born a Catholic, in his youth Diderot considered and later dismissed a plan to study for the priesthood. His antagonism toward the Church seems to have begun about the time his sister, a nun, died according to him of overwork in her convent.
In 1749 he wrote “Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See” which depicts the death bed scene of a man named Saunderson who explains why he must die unrepentant before a non-existing God. The logic of such a death is defended by reference to the necessity of an empirical method of thought that denies any ultimate truth beyond what we can find with our eyes wide open. As Saunderson says, “If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him.” Diderot’s “Letter on the Blind” also introduced a rudimentary concept of natural selection one hundred years before Darwin’s more scientific approach. Among Diderot’s friends and associates were many writers and thinkers dedicated to atheistic materialism.
The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was one of the most effective and revered leaders of the early empiricist movement in Britain. A rock-solid enemy of metaphysics, Hume sought to rationalize the purely materialistic nature of the world. He found the existence of the Christian God, who is pure holiness, not to be provable, since that God is the author of all things, and therefore is the author of sin itself, which would be a contradiction of God’s holiness. Moreover, since miracles contradict the laws of nature, they are not possible because evidence for them is impossible to observe and is most often offered by people who have not common sense, are insane, or lack good character. Hume’s assessment of miracles cannot apply to those who reported the miracles of Jesus, for they would not qualify as conniving liars, nor would they have spread the news of miracles falsely while they were themselves targets of suspicion and persecution, some having already entered martyrdom.
Yet Hume was not a rabid critic of all religion, seeing that it provided in general a contribution to public morality. By some contemporary accounts, Hume appeared to die comfortably as an infidel. But as his friend Samuel Johnson remarked: “Hume owned he had never read the New Testament with attention. Here then was a man who had been at no pains to inquire into the truth of religion, and had continually turned his mind the other way. It was not to be expected that the prospect of death would alter his way of thinking, unless God should send an angel to set him right.” Johnson further remarked that Hume’s well known vanity would allow him to persist in giving the counterfeit appearance of an atheist’s easy death, as it is unlikely that any man entering an unknown country alone would enter it without some anxiety.
Marquis de Sade
The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), a contemporary of Diderot, was a French aristocrat who dedicated himself to the principle that the pursuit of pleasure was the highest goal in life. He pleasured himself by writing infamous novels about necrophilia, rape, and bestiality. Subsequently, he was imprisoned in an insane asylum for thirty-five years. His name was adopted by modern psychologists to describe sadism, the perverse delight in inflicting suffering on others. While in prison he wrote his novel Justine, containing so gross a cast of pagan characters that de Sade described it as “capable of corrupting the devil.”
De Sade was a dedicated enemy of the Catholic Church and exploited every way possible to discredit its teachings. In his Philosophy in the Bedroom he argued several ways to defend abortion, from the need for population control to disposing of the evidences of fornication and adultery as one might flush one’s intestinal wastes down a toilet. In his Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man, de Sade wrote a fantasy about a dying man who calls for a priest to hear his last confession. During the confession he defends his lifelong atheism and by the end of the visit succeeds in persuading the priest to abandon religion in order to enjoy the same life that gave the dying man his abominably carnal pleasures.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher whose complex and dazzling intellectual footwork has impressed many generations of philosophers. He sought to prove that the traditional arguments of Thomas Aquinas for the existence of God were canceled out by equally impressive arguments against them. One argument he did find persuasive was the observation of an objective base to morality. Acts are intrinsically good or evil, and we know them as such even when we strive to pretend to ourselves that they are not absolute. The only logical way to explain why the moral law exists in everyone is to assume an objective Lawgiver. Yet there is no personal and loving relationship with God factored into Kantian theology.
As it turns out, Kant appears to have been more a deist than a theist. He viewed the moral imperatives set down in the Old and New Testaments as generally valid eruptions of the natural moral law (which he called the categorical imperative) that exists in all humans. Since he refused to attend church services and ridiculed the efficacy of prayer, it is difficult to fathom Kant’s God as anything more than the supreme impersonal deity of Reason that had seduced so many philosophers since the Reformation. Kant, though not himself an atheist, may have unwittingly influenced many atheists to adopt his dictum of a natural moral law as a way to show that morality need not rely on religion to validate it.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was an English poet of the Romantic period. While some of his poetry has qualities to recommend it, he did not achieve popularity in his short lifetime. Shelley was a rebel against religious tradition, as indicated by his writing an essay titled “The Necessity of Atheism,” and by the fact that he advocated free love and insisted that “A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage.” Shelley encouraged a friend to have sex with his second wife, Mary Shelley, the author of the science fiction novel Frankenstein, in which the title character seeks to play God by creating a human being from body parts of assorted dead people. Shelley died from drowning during a storm at sea at the age of 29. His decomposed body, washed up on a beach, was cremated; his heart, which survived cremation, was delivered to his wife for burial.
Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach
Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872), a German philosopher and anthropologist, was a greatly influential atheist who, through his tome The Essence of Christianity, impacted the atheism of Karl Marx. According to Feuerbach, man has invented God to personify man’s own best qualities which, mirrored back upon him, justify and validate his own supremacy over all Creation. Thus, he concluded, religious revelation is a fraud, since it would make of God a vain transcendental Being who orders Creation to reflect himself, when it is really man who invents God to reflect himself. In truth, Feuerbach’s thesis is little more than a superstition, eerily similar to the argument of the serpent that God’s vanity consisted of keeping Adam and Eve impotent by denying them the fruit of the tree that would open their eyes to their own divinity.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) rejected Christianity saying, “After your death you will be what you were before your birth.” He preferred the oriental religions, admired Buddhism (the atheistic type), and said the Upanishads would someday replace the Bible in the West. Schopenhauer had several failed relations with women and spoke of finding a good one as one might yank an eel from a bag of assorted snakes. He defended the right to commit suicide and slept with a pistol near his pillow. In the third edition of The World as Will and Idea (1856) he boldly declared “I defend and commend pederasty.” “Religion,” he said with disdain, “is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they shall think.” He seems to have missed the point of the Christian religion altogether, which is the pursuit of awakening in people awareness of how they should act and not act, and why they should love rather than hate.
Charles Darwin (1808-1882) was a biologist and author of his own theory of evolution, which startled the world by his introduction of the principle called natural selection. Many regarded his system as atheistic in that it seemed to turn the Genesis account of creation on its head by showing that Nature, not God, could have unconsciously designed, over a very long period of time, the creation of humans. Atheists, who had been looking for some kind of scientific verification of their attack on religion, seized upon Darwin’s theory and to this day fiercely promote it as a club by which to beat religion into the dust. In point of fact, Darwin denied he was an atheist (though he admitted to being agnostic) and declared that he believed one could comfortably be both a theist and an evolutionist. A priceless piece of historical irony is that Darwin’s great-great-great granddaughter, Laura Keynes, has become a Catholic apologist.
Schopenhauer strongly influenced another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who famously said: “God is dead…. and we have killed him.” Nietzsche was not concerned to prove that God does not exist, but merely to assert what had already been widely noticed by others: that religion seemed increasingly irrelevant in the modern world. Nietzsche served briefly as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian war, during which time he may have contracted the syphilis that some believe led to his later madness. He secured a professorship at the University of Basel, published several books that were not well received by his peers in the scholastic community, and cultivated a warm friendship with the composer Richard Wagner which later failed due to Nietzsche’s disapproval of Wagner’s political views.
Like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche had trouble with women, and remarked: “Goest thou to a woman? Do not forget thy whip!” Frustrated with women, disgusted with Christianity, and despising democracy, Nietzsche invented the idea of a Superman, a master race of creatures yet to be born of which he was the prophet. In this sense, Nietzsche was an evolutionist, though he seems not to have been directly influenced by Darwin. The central theme of his philosophy, the “will to power,” was hardly the same as Darwin’s central theme, the struggle to survive. Following the poor reception of his books, Nietzsche in a letter to a friend signed himself “the crucified one.” After two of his close friends compared letters he had recently sent them, Nietzsche’s mother placed him in a mental asylum. Too late for him to enjoy the success he craved, within several years his books were widely read by a budding generation of atheists.
August Comte (1798 –1857) was a French philosopher of the school called Logical Positivism and a founder of the discipline called Sociology. At the age of thirteen he abandoned any belief in the supernatural. In 1822 he devised a “Plan of scientific studies necessary for the reorganization of society” (which he would later view as a “new religion of humanity”) and commenced his writings that would be the basis of Logical Positivism. In 1826, at the age of thirty-eight, he entered a mental hospital but left without being cured. Continuing his studies and writing, Comte believed that human history had gone through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the scientific. He believed the scientific age, being the most recent, was also the most liberating.
Comte viewed traditional atheism as pathetic and suffering the same constrictions as theism because it is preoccupied with the question of God. In Comte’s view the Positive philosophy is to eliminate the old God of Catholicism altogether as a factor in human life. “Everything is relativism,” Comte said with ironic certainty, and the old God is driven out to be replaced by the new one – Humanity itself. Comte, who envied the staying power of Catholicism over two thousand years, conceived the worship not only of Humanity, but also declared a new priesthood for the new god … scientists …and especially the social scientists. In the late 1800s, emulating the aesthetic draw of Catholicism, a church was actually erected in Rio de Janeiro as a place for worshiping Humanity and practicing the main tenet of the new Positivist religion … social engineering. The Brazilian governments ever since have conducted a series of failed experiments in social engineering. Comte’s influence was great, and sociologists to this day employ statistics to determine cultural values, thus emphasizing the same relativism that Comte put at the center of his system. Even Comte’s call for an aesthetic atheism is alive in the recent plan of Alain de Botton to build a fabulous ‘temple to atheism’ in the heart of London.
Karl Marx (1818-1883), like Nietzsche, did not bother himself with maligning Christianity in particular. Rather, taking a page from the atheist Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, he pointed to religion in general as the opiate of the people, the main purpose of which is to console those who have been dealt a poor hand in life. Remove religion and it will be possible to raise the flag of revolution by which the property of the rich may be seized and distributed among the people. When economic parity is achieved, religion will die because man is only a material being, and when his material wants are satisfied his illusory need for spiritual comforts will fall away. And so, Marx concluded, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world…. It is the opium of the people.”
Marx made his point, and sharpened his point into a knife with which to stab Christianity in the heart. It is often noticed that religion and its works are hardly to be found among the very rich, who ruthlessly will do what they suppose they must to make their wealth and protect it from grasping hands. On the other hand, should the material wants of everyone be satisfied, it does not follow as Marx thought that their spiritual wants would disappear.
Built upon the government’s official denial of God, Communism failed to produce the goods Marx predicted it would, and left a spiritual vacuum that since the 1980s and the overthrow of the Soviet Union has resulted in a resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. According to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Krill, a thousand churches are built each year, five thousand since 2009. Nothing like this is noticed in the West, where churches close at an alarming rate and atheism is bolder than ever.
The American writer and orator Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) was a self-styled agnostic, rather than atheist. However, his virulent hatred of Christianity resulted in the public perception of him as an atheist with enormous influence on the young. He was especially effective at writing against the influence of religion in the public square, and was the most notable thinker along that line since Thomas Paine, who was his idol. Ingersoll no doubt was himself an idol to the lawyer Clarence Darrow, of Scopes “Monkey” Trial fame, both having written an essay by the same title, “Why I Am an Agnostic.” The modern day snobbery of atheists/agnostics toward Christian thinkers was anticipated in Ingersoll’s remark: “The history of intellectual progress is written in the lives of infidels.” Here is another of his typically shallow aphorisms: “There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.”
Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) was, more or less, the British counterpart to Robert Ingersoll. He had become an atheist before reaching maturity and campaigned vigorously for atheism all his life. He founded the National Secular Society in 1851 at the age of 18. One of his most famous aphorisms is, “Atheism is without God. It does not assert there is no God.” The distinction is difficult to fathom. If one is “without God,” and spends one’s life strenuously opposing even the idea of God, is one in the same breath asserting there might be a God one wishes to oppose?
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a hugely influential psychologist who spearheaded the movement called psychoanalysis. Like so many atheists of his era, he judged religion to be a neurosis inherited from the past. A typical remark of his on religion is the following: “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.” Freud never shows why religion is an illusion, and he never credits whether our instinctual desires might be consistent with a metaphysical truth (that God exists and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him). Nor does Freud ever seem to contend with the well documented fact that neuroses are prevalent, and suicide more common, among atheists than among believers.
In his fascinating book Faith of the Fatherless, psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz turns the table on Freud by demonstrating from biographical data that Freud’s atheism might well have been a kind of “wish-fulfillment” tied to his hostility toward his own father’s molesting of his children. Patricide (the wish to “eliminate” the father) was a common theme in Freud’s writing. The basic psychological parallels between patricide and Deicide are self-evident. Vitz’s book documents with biographical facts the similar root causes of unbelief in many famous atheists who either had inadequate fathers or no father at all.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was in his lifetime arguably the single most potent intellectual force against religion in England. As with many famous skeptics he abandoned religious belief in his teen years long before his full mental and spiritual maturity. Though not a self-declared atheist, his writings are replete with arguments against religion generally and Christianity in particular. His most famous writing on the subject is “Why I Am Not a Christian,” an essay filled with surprisingly juvenile reasoning for a thinker so highly regarded as a logician. Though he disputed the usual proofs for God, he notably declined to address Pascal’s Wager Argument. Russell’s daughter, Christian convert Katherine Tait, in a biography of her father wrote: “Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there’s an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it.” Tait observed that when her father did discuss religion in his writings, he chose to mention only the failings of religious institutions and could not bring himself to admit the good they have accomplished.
The great physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is often claimed by atheists as one of their own. This they infer from the fact that he spoke so vehemently against the idea of a personal God. However, as I have noted in my article “Einstein’s God” (Catholic Insight, November 25, 2016) Einstein very deliberately dissociated himself from atheists and spoke of God much as Isaac Newton had spoken: “My religion,” Einstein said, “consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.” And again: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a Spirit vastly superior to that of man.”
The American philosopher George Santayana (1862-1952) was born a Catholic but later became a self-declared atheist very much influenced by the writings of Benedict de Spinoza. His most famous remark: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana was not a vigorous apologist for atheism, and unlike Bertrand Russell viewed religion in general as a positive good. In his last years of poor health he was attended by the sisters at the Convent of the Blue Nuns in Rome. One of his more important books is Reason in Religion. Readers of Santayana are often struck by the elegance of his lyrical literary style, which, like Chesterton’s or Faulkner’s, it is virtually impossible to emulate. Santayana was buried by his own request at the Catholic Cemetery in Rome. As death approached, perhaps the philosopher recalled a verse he had penned in his youth:
Perchance when Carnival is done,
And sun and moon go out on me
Christ will be God, and I the one
That in my youth I used to be.
The American journalist H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) was one of the most committed atheists of modern times, having written two books to prove it: Treatise on the Gods, and Treatise on Right and Wrong. The high point of his career occurred in 1925 with his coverage of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Tennessee. The teacher John Scopes was indicted for teaching the theory of evolution in a public school, which at that time was prohibited by state law. Mencken was instrumental in helping the lawyers, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant, turn the trial into a circus of clowns fighting over Charles Darwin and the Book of Genesis. Mencken once remarked: “I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind.” He said this before the insanity of the century’s three most celebrated atheists (Stalin, Hitler, and Mao) would supply ample reasons for Mencken to reconsider his condemnation of religion. He was contemptuous of the middle class and dubbed them the “booboisee.” Mencken’s perpetual sneer is demonstrated by such cynical remarks as, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” The office of the President, he avowed, would someday be granted to a moron.
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) early in life was a hard core atheist, even before his expulsion from a seminary. Upon his ascension in the Communist Party of Russia, he worked with Vladimir Lenin to undermine the Orthodox Church in Russia and to incorporate the atheistic legacy of Karl Marx in all propaganda. Religious persecution was a hallmark of Stalin’s regime. Between 1936-37 tens of thousands of Orthodox clergy were arrested and shot. According to Stalin, “The Communist Party cannot be neutral toward religion. It Stands for science, and all religion is opposed to science.” In yet another great irony of history, his daughter Svetlana was a convert to the Catholic Church, and later remarked, “My father would have shot me for what I have done.”
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was baptized a Catholic but had lost his faith in his teen years. For the sake of his public image he frequently and scandalously invoked God’s will behind all his evil deeds. In private he is reported to have said: “The religions are all alike, no matter what they call themselves. They have no future – certainly none for Germans. Fascism, if it likes, may come to terms with the Church. So shall I. Why not? That will not prevent me from tearing up Christianity root and branch and annihilating it in Germany.” Hitler had a special fondness for the atheist philosopher Nietzsche and had himself photographed admiring a bust of the philosopher in a museum dedicated to his memory. Hitler’s regime was notorious for imprisoning and murdering Catholics, Protestants, and especially Jews.
There can be no doubt that Mao Zedong (1893-1976), a Buddhist in his youth, finally arrived at Marxist atheism. He famously observed: “Religion is poison.” The Communist Party in China today is officially atheistic due mainly to his influence. Though the Catholic Church in China is allowed to exist, it is the policy of the Communist Party to control its activities and its leaders. Even so, an underground authentic Catholic Church loyal to Rome continues to exist, though for how long is uncertain given the fact that the Chinese government has an ongoing record of persecuting religious minorities.
Jean Paul Sartre
Born into a Catholic family, the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was arguably the most famous atheist of the twentieth century. A fatherless rebel in his youth, he declared himself an atheist by his fourteenth birthday. Suffering from a wounded ego (his own mother found him to be ugly) he compensated by attending the most prestigious colleges and building a reputation as a controversial intellectual. In addition to his complex philosophical works, he was a novelist, playwright, literary critic, biographer, and journalist, offering the last of these talents in the service of communist ideology. Proud of his intellect, Sartre boasted, “I’ve got a golden brain.” He turned a blind eye to the atrocities of Stalin and sought to advance various Marxist principles. Sartre refused the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, but later unsuccessfully petitioned for the cash award that went with the prize.
Sartre regarded man as a “useless passion.” His play No Exit and his novel Nausea by their titles alone suggest the sense of struggle with reality that he believed a true atheist must confront. Sartre’s most famous line was: “Hell is other people.” The American “beatnik” generation of the 1950s, with their black berets, smoke-filled coffeehouses, and gloom-and-doom poetry readings, were a tribute to the charismatic influence of Sartre among the younger intellectuals of the day. Throughout his later years, Sartre increasingly seemed to identify with the far Left and any kind of revolutionary movement. However, months before his death he was observed to take an interest in Judaism and the messianic idea. According to his friend Benny Levy, who interviewed him several times during his last weeks of overwork and declining health, Sartre ceased to be an atheist and was making serious inquiries into Judaism.
Albert Camus (1913-1960) though born a Catholic, became an atheist who, like his contemporary Sartre, is regarded as an absurdist (life is meaningless), a philosophy amply manifested in his novels, plays, and essays. As with Schopenhauer, he became obsessed with the dark side of life reflected in his remark: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” His book The Myth of Sisyphus explores this theme in great depth. To his credit, he recognized the evil of authoritarian Soviet Communism (a bone of contention between him and Sartre) and preferred to regard himself as a libertarian socialist. Three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, he died in a car that crashed into a tree. Some who knew Camus believed that not long before his death he was approaching a more religious disposition, but if so, convincing evidence of this died with him. Speculation continues to surface that the Russian KGB had arranged the assassination of Camus because of his outstanding opposition to the policies of the Soviet Union.
Ayn Rand (Alice Rosenbaum; 1905-1982) was a Russian Jew born during the reign of the last czar. It appears that she became an atheist at the age of thirteen, about the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, after which her family was persecuted and Rand narrowly escaped to live with relatives in New York City. She quickly mastered the English language and became a playwright, screenwriter, novelist (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged), and controversial founder of a philosophical system called Objectivism. Rand’s entire worldview rests on her absolute belief in the power of reason, and reason alone, to bring about truth and human happiness. For Rand it was irrational that a man supposedly so perfect as Jesus would sacrifice Himself for creatures so far beneath Him in worth. Like so many atheists, she regarded the Catholic Church as the greatest enemy of free thought and therefore of human happiness. Her pronouncements on most subjects read as if written with infallible self-assurance; nor would she hesitate to treat as heretics those followers who disagreed with her.
Rand insisted that when sacrifice is called for, it should be for one’s own sake, not for the sake of others. Her heroes were those who did not give an inch to those who would deny the will to excellence, which is always in the individual rather than in the collective. Rand’s philosophy is essentially egoistic. Her personal selfishness was seen in her will to dominate her disciples, even to the extent of breaking up the marriage of a young couple who idolized her, after which she took the young woman’s husband for her lover. Barbara Brandon, the abandoned wife, has fully documented the affair in The Passion of Ayn Rand.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair
Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995), by her own admission, was a full-fledged atheist at the age of thirteen. She attended law school in Texas but failed the bar examination. Seven years later she applied for Soviet citizenship but was refused. She bore two children by different fathers. In 1960 she filed a lawsuit, Murray v. Curlett, in which she complained that it was not constitutional for her son to be required to pray in a public school. By 1964 the case went to the Supreme Court and was decided 8-1 in her favor. She founded the American Atheists in 1963 and governed the organization from 1963 to her death in 1995. She filed a second lawsuit to forbid the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 from reading the book of Genesis. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case — for lack of jurisdiction!
As a famous sexual libertine, O’Hair argued that children ought to have sex as soon as nature so inclined them. She produced various radio and cable-television shows that promoted atheism as a healthy alternative to the “feeble crutch” of religion. In 1980, her son, William J. Murray, converted to the Baptist church and became a minister. O’Hair referred to him as a “post-natal abortion” and declared him “beyond human forgiveness.” The American Atheist organization eventually fell on hard times due to internal strife. In 1995 O’Hair and the rest of her family disappeared, having been kidnapped and forced to steal American Atheist funds. Investigators finally learned that a disgruntled former employee of American Atheists had murdered them. Their buried bodies were recovered — sawed into bits and pieces so that they could only be identified by their dental records.
Antony Flew (1923-2010) was a world-famous atheist who late in life gave up on atheism and publicly explained in considerable detail his reasons. Flew’s father was a Methodist minister. At the age of fifteen, Flew became an atheist. During World War II, he was an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force. Later he taught philosophy at various universities in Europe and Canada. Early in his career he became famous for introducing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. Flew’s famous short essay, “Theology and Falsification,” which asserts that God as entity cannot in principle be verified or falsified, is perhaps the most widely published of all his writings and the most often cited by fellow atheists.
Throughout his career, Flew followed logic wherever it led him, and until late in life it did not lead him to God. He believed the traditional arguments of Anselm and Aquinas were without logical merit, and likewise rejected C.S. Lewis’s argument that the innate sense of right and wrong proved the existence of God.
Flew was a keen observer of scientific developments all his life. From about 1985 on, he began to reason that science was leading him to a place that Aquinas had been nearly eight centuries earlier. In his last book, There Is a God (2007), Flew conceded that scientific evidence is mounting for both the cosmological and teleological arguments of Aquinas. These arguments, he insisted, do not offer proof positive for the Christian God. Yet they strongly suggest that deists like Aristotle, Voltaire, Jefferson, and Einstein were on solid ground when they repudiated atheism and were willing to speak of God as Creator and Designer of the universe, and as possessing a mind that men can struggle to fathom. Though he was for many decades the darling of atheists everywhere, the reaction of atheists to Flew’s conversion was predictable: He must have lost his mind!
Francis Collins, born in 1950, was the leader of the Human Genome Project. He was born into a Christian home but had become an atheist by the time he finished college. After obtaining a Ph.D. in chemistry, he earned an M.D. and specialized in genetic diseases. Collins eventually headed a scientific team that discovered the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis, and the M4 type of acute leukemia. But his work on mapping the human genome was for him “an adventure that beats going to the moon or splitting the atom.”
Like Flew, Collins has been impressed by scientific developments, which have led him to conclude that atheism has no intellectual foundation. Rather, science has opened the door to a reasonable consideration of God as Creator. In his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins argues that the Big Bang theory cries out for God as a hypothesis to explain creation. Collins pronounces himself a theistic evolutionist charmed by the grand design of the universe. As for his own conversion, he freely admits to belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, a belief that was made inevitable first by reading a key passage from C.S. Lewis. Then he encountered, during a nature hike in the Cascade Mountains, the unexpected grandeur of a frozen waterfall hundreds of feet high. Collins has learned to approach God by fusing together the visionary power of both intellect and imagination. He has described his youthful adoption of atheism as one of “willful blindness.”
Sweeping the Stables
The contemporary scene in the U.S. shows atheism to be virile and aggressively pursuing its interests in the courts, the media, academia and in a plethora of bestselling books. A notable aspect of some atheist propaganda is that it slants the “facts” of history in atheism’s favor. For example, the biologist Richard Dawkins (labeled by some “Darwin’s Rottweiller”) falsely insists that Einstein was an atheist, despite several passages in Einstein’s work indicating that he regarded atheism as an intellectually untenable position. Though Einstein denied the existence of a personal God, he affirmed the existence of a “superior reasoning power” that formed his idea of God, an idea that “fanatical atheists” could not fathom because they could not hear what Einstein called “the music of the spheres.”
Another instance of atheist truth-slanting is a collection of irreverent thoughts titled The Atheist’s Bible (2007), which includes witty sayings critical of traditional religion by some of the great figures of history. But some of those cited — such as Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Paine, and Jefferson — had strongly repudiated atheism in their writings. The passages from their works showing their revulsion for atheism are, of course, conveniently ignored. For example, The Atheist’s Bible cites this sentence from Voltaire: “The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning.” But here is what Voltaire said in his little-known essay, “On Atheism,” that will never be found in any atheist’s bible:
The atheists are for the most part impudent and misguided scholars who reason badly, and who, not being able to understand the creation, the origin of evil, and other difficulties, have recourse to the hypothesis of the eternity of things and of inevitability…. That was how things went with the Roman Senate, which was almost entirely composed of atheists in theory and in practice, that is to say, who believed in neither Providence nor a future life. This senate was an assembly of philosophers, of sensualists and ambitious men, all very dangerous men, who ruined the republic.
At present, the atheist establishment, aware that its fundamental premise is negative, often tries to redefine and advertise itself as “positive atheism.” That phrase is found almost everywhere in current atheist literature. Yet the basic tenet is certainly exclusive — atheism means “no god” and it means nothing else. Every atheist is free to go where his intellect leads him after he has abolished God. But if atheism leads to a more general negativity — no God, no purpose, no sin, no redemption, no afterlife, no charge to scruples, no charge to love, no charge to forgiveness, no charge to alms — where is the positive? Such rank individualism can only produce values that fail to achieve consensus because they lack a cohesive glue. At that point Dostoevsky’s truism becomes starker than ever: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”
An idolizing pop culture has emerged around such blustering atheist spokesmen as Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) and Sam Harris (b. 1967). Hitchens’s book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is a full-scale assault on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Hitchens’s journey into atheism began at age nine. In his book Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, he suggested that Jefferson himself was an atheist. Apparently, Hitchens never read Jefferson’s lengthy letter to John Adams, in which he eloquently attacked the logic of atheism as follows: “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and infinite power in every atom of its composition.”
Sam Harris appears to have been drawn to atheism at a very early age. His parents never discussed God at home during his childhood, and he declined his own bar mitzvah. In his book The End of Faith, Harris explores religious dogmatism and its supposedly irrational roots. Atheism must in the end become a crusade for the “destruction of bad ideas.” For example, he regards the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as a particularly “mad” notion. He declares that anyone of “strong convictions without evidence” should be excluded from the corridors of power, and should be relegated to the edges of society (that would seem to include the several Catholic Justices presently on the Supreme Court). He does not explain why this exclusion, based on a standard of “strong convictions without evidence,” does not apply equally to atheists, who cannot even begin to supply evidence that God does not exist.
Citing the slaughter of 9/11, Harris maintains that Islam is at the root of modern terrorism. However, all dogmatic religion is menacing, he continues, and the only way to annihilate such a dangerous mentality is to dry up all the springs from which it flows — namely, religion everywhere — without which the world would get along very nicely. Harris does not explain how he can be empirically sure of such a “happy” result, since the world has never been entirely without religion. Moreover, in those places where religion has been outlawed or persecuted by secularists, one searches in vain for any “godless” track record to boast of. Harris has been strongly criticized by some of his fellow atheists for ironically lending to atheism a reputation for extremism and intolerance that atheists think of as more typically found among religious people.
When Albert Einstein dismissed as irrational what he called the “church of Atheism,” he was not wide of the mark. Atheism has acquired its own thundering prophets and high priests, bibles and catechisms, zealots and heretics, saints and demons, heaven and hell. In parts of the U.S. and England, some adult atheists are angered by the fact that their parents had them baptized Christians as children. They have formally renounced the sacrament and undergone a ritual “de-baptism” by a mock “priest” who blow-dries the “convert’s” hair to dry up the waters of baptism. In some places a “Certificate of De-baptism” is awarded. Since 2007, the First Church of Atheism has ordained over 13,000 ministers.
The Future of Atheism
Former atheist Alister McGrath in The Dawkins Delusion questions whether the rudest symptoms of the new atheism are anything to worry about. Perhaps they are the last gasps of a movement that has passed its prime and is frantically resisting its own downward spiral. The late Fr. John Hardon, however, was concerned that so long as secularists dominate the media, we will face a continuing uphill struggle to preserve our identity as a Christian nation. He has noted that after reading the Chicago Tribune for a week, you’d never guess that Chicago had one of the largest Catholic archdioceses in the world.
On the academic front, literature anthologies rarely include major Christian writers. In many college English textbooks there cannot be found even one essay, short story, or poem by G.K. Chesterton, arguably the most popular and influential Catholic writer of the twentieth century. The deliberate eclipse of a Christian presence in the media and in academia (or a negatively biased coverage of that presence) is all that atheistic humanism really needs to dominate the marketplace of ideas.
As the atheist population swells, its growing energy may be organized and given direction by its boldest leaders. But human nature abhors a vacuum; the absolutes of good and evil will not both be denied. Refuse God His throne and a grinning devil will soon occupy it. Yet because atheism disowns the dearest of human hopes, it is doubtful that atheists could ever mount a wildly successful appeal to the general population. Perhaps the greater danger is the rise of a universal indifference and agnosticism, the view that whether God exists is of no real importance, and is a mere distraction to a world that slips ever more deeply into the everlasting warm muck of selfish pleasure-seeking. But should atheism triumph among our politicians, as it did among the politicos of ancient Rome, Voltaire’s caution that godless senators “ruined the republic” becomes a grim prospect for us all.
Very possibly some readers, skeptical of this article’s main theme, will object that a similar history could be written detailing horrendous thoughts and deeds performed by Christians, Muslims, and people of various other religious groups. This is granted. We are all the devil’s prey. This article was partly written as a reply to the many critiques offered by skeptics against the failure of Christianity to perfect the world. The problem with such critiques is that they rarely consider the history of atheism, which in truth has a history, a sometimes very sordid one indeed, and much worse than Christianity’s record. As Bertrand Russell’s daughter noted, her father could never bring himself to see and admit all the good Christianity has done in the world. At some point it ought to have occurred to Russell that the ruthless record of persecution by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao was no recommendation for a world in which religion has been demolished.
More to the point, atheism has no specified universal creed that commands we do good and avoid evil. This is a deficiency that atheism really cannot overcome. Atheism has no bible, no laws, no authority, no church or church history; no liturgy that inspires, no sacraments that sanctify. In short, atheism has a small and eclectic base of individuals and advocates who have written for atheism but who in particular have never acquired a following beyond scattered tens of thousands here and there at best. The case of Communist atheism with its millions of followers cannot be counted as an exception, because atheism in Communist countries is more by force than by desire, and this is proven by the persistence of religion even in dominantly atheistic nations like Russia and China.
But the value of religion is not exclusively in its usefulness for conveying moral truths. Its great and enduring value is in declaring the real bond that exists between the Creator and His creatures. That bond is one of friendship in this world and eternal friendship in the world to come. The atheist, caught up in his defiant nature, unwilling to acknowledge any destiny beyond his earthly experience, loses sight of the very reason for which he was created. Shakespeare’s evil Macbeth put it perfectly. For godless men, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”