Nothing New Under the Sun When it Comes to Atheism?

I promised a fuller review of Nick Spencer’s “Atheism – The Origin of the Species” when I’d completed it. It’s a rather long review with plenty of spoilers and quotes here, since I’m gutting it for content I find useful, but a recommended read for anyone from Mrs Angry Atheist to Mr Tolerant Apologist and all considered points between. All human life is here, and a witty delivery makes it a good read.

Before we start, an observation, there’s a lot of “which came first” debate around when it comes to the the content of religions and their holy books. It’s trivially true that atheism preceded theism – the latter’s a thing believed, a situation that came to be, so clearly the absence preceded the existence. This is also true independent of any debates about whether world views could be characterised as humanist without or within theistic religion. So it makes perfect sense to start a history of atheism after the height of theistic belief. How theistic religious beliefs came to be is itself interesting of course – and coincidentally has been a topic of several talks and conversations recently – but it’s seems wishful thinking to believe pre-theistic belief has much to do with our current state of post-theistic atheism and humanism.

Interestingly one talk at this weekend’s BHA 2015 conference is advertised thus:

The Deep History of Atheism – Prof Tim Whitmarsh
It seems to suit everyone to agree that atheism began with the European enlightenment. The religious can treat it as a symptom of modern decadence; the new atheists can present it as the result of science and progress. But neglecting the deeper origins of atheism not only distorts history, it also denies atheists their roots, and so in a sense their very humanity. (It is, after all, easier to persecute people with no past.) In this talk, Professor Whitmarsh shows that atheism is at least as old as monotheism itself, and was treated as largely unproblematic in the pre-Christian Mediterranean world; it was the Christianisation of the Roman Empire that shunted it off the European mental map.

My point – obviously – atheism is at least as old, if not older than theism …. Both histories are informative, before and after theism; As I said in the intro, the debate over which came first is appears trivial, but it will be interesting to hear what Tim has to say about the nature of the atheism in the context of modern humanists – “their very humanity” – since humanism by any other name also preceded theism. (**)

So, to  Nick Spencer’s book. I already said I consider it an excellent read, brilliant in fact, after just a couple of chapters, and as well as the post 1500 historical content, the selections and witty, laconic turns of phrase make it thoroughly readable. Put me in mind of Gibbon at times. I’ll not repeat the quotes from previously, but take the story up in 1697.

In that year, the 20 year old Thomas Aikenhead was the last person to be hanged for blasphemy in the UK under the 1661 Blasphemy act, enacted the year after restoration of the monarchy. He was certainly “pugnacious and contemptuous” in his criticism of both the old and new testament stories of the Bible though, allegedly going to the gallows with his bible, it’s not clear he was actually atheist; However, quoting from Hunter and Wooton:

“A year before, the [Privy] Council had heard the case of one John Frazer, who made similar claims. An immediate and fulsome recantation saved him from the gallows. Aikenhead had either been less penitent or just one atheist too many.”

But the real point, being the last execution for blasphemy didn’t appear to make him a British martyr. Inns, taverns, coffee houses and restoration drama playhouses were already “dens of unregulated wit, levity, mockery [and worse] that undermined all that was serious and godly” to the puritan. “Theatre became the epitome of practical atheism.”

There follows comparison and contrast of not only the differences but the connections between French and British intellectual contributions through the ensuing periods leading to revolution, centered particularly round Baron D’Holbach’s salon table:

The list of attendees reads like a Who’s Who of eighteenth-century European radical intellectual life. In addition to Diderot there was [D’Alembert, Rousseau, Condorcet, de Condillac … [and more] … Smith, Hume, Gibbon and Wilkes.] Not all these stayed at D’Holbach’s table for very long. Some left quietly …. Others fell out spectacularly … Not all were materialists and not all were atheists, but …. the group shared an antipathy towards Christianity, particularly the authoritarian and royalist form it took in France.

There is the fascinating story of the rise and atheist nature of the various ethical & rationalist unions, societies & associations from Robert Owen’s ultimately unsuccessful 1810’s Benthamite New Lanark Mills project via the South Place Ethical Society and the Rationalist Press Association(*) to the modern-day inheritors of their traditions and agendas.

Relevant philosophical and intellectual movements and schools of thought are also reviewed. So, for example we get another example of Spencer’s turn of phrase rounding off this quote from Owen Chadwick on German scientific materialism:

“[N]othing represents better the temporary phase of popular philosophy which combined the contradiction of lowering man to the dust by showing him to be nothing but another animal, while lifting him to the skies and singing his praises as the ruler of the world.”

It was a sage observation, except for the word temporary.

Echoing sentiments I last read in Rebecca Goldstein’s “Incompleteness – the Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel” Spencer describes Russell’s bewilderment late in life, quoting from his autobiography:

“Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, [Feeling the unendurable loneliness of the human soul, impenetrable to all except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached] I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty … and a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable.”

Whilst acknowledging Russell’s support for atheist, secular, rational and ethical projects, I’ve always been baffled at the high regard in which he is held, given that he was philosophically undermined by the first published work of his own student Wittgenstein and totally demolished by Gödel within ten years of publishing Principia Mathematica with Whitehead. Spencer spends further pages on Wittgenstein, and the Vienna Circle that practically worshipped him despite his contempt for them – again all echoed in Goldstein, as is Wittgenstein’s own debt to Spinoza, another of Goldstein’s specialities. [My personal pet theory is that the reason Wittgenstein stepped out of philosophy – before coming back to fix the damage later – was because his Tractatus was always intended as one long joke at Russell’s expense, which was unfortunately taken-up as sincere. Like something straight out of Douglas Adams or Monty Python, but I digress.]

Quoting A J Ayer, who was very influential in popularising the Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism, asked when interviewed late in life what he now thought were the defects of Logical Positivism:

“Well, I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.”

Later, bringing us up to date commenting on New Atheism passing its peak, indeed “dying with a whimper […] Richard Dawkins [having] discovered twitter” Spencer quotes the editor of New Humanist (*) in 2013

“Dawkins provided a case study in how not to do [atheism].” Blanket condemnations of religious groups [are] morally dubious [and counter-productive]. Religious believers [are] no less intelligent than non-believers [and no less human, I say]  and secularism [does] not mean excluding religious believers from public life. The tone and arguments could hardly [be] more different from those of the New Atheists.

After a passage highlighting more subtle intellectual contributions to the current atheism debate, highlighting John Gray and Tomas Nagel, Spencer quotes a remark by Simon Blackburn, exemplifying how such atheist “heretics” are predictably “eviscerated” by their more “orthodox” atheist critics: (I cite all four positively in these pages, Gray, Nagel, Spencer and Blackburn.):

“If there were a philosophical Vatican, [Nagel’s] book [Mind and Cosmos] would be a good candidate for being placed on the index [of banned books].”

Spencer’s final observations are true enough that humanism these days – in the sincerest form of flattery – offers naming, marriage, funeral ceremonies, but not before remarking :

Alain de Botton [who pointed the way to a New Atheist church] had suggested “atheists were better stealing from religion than mocking it”.

Religious believers debated whether it was better to be patronised or ridiculed.

Nick Spencer “Atheists – the Origin of the Species” – a recommended read.


[(*) Declaration of interest: New Humanist is the title owned by the Rationalist Association, also the owner of the legacy of the original Rationalist Press Association of publishers. I’m currently a serving member of the RA board of trustees.]

[(**) Post Note: Whitmarsh arguments are primarily from non-contentious atheism contrasted with the “human” polytheistic gods of Greek and Roman antiquity. His conclusion however is pretty much identical to Jonathan Sacks the other night: In order to fix conflict between monotheistic imperialisms we need a new form of “shared belief” which is polytheistic, federal, inclusive. A redefining of religion. More later.]

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