Atheism and spiritual reformation

It seems like nonsense that Socrates or the early Christians were killed for atheism, and yet the charge is there for anyone to read. Socrates’s case is particularly emphatic since the Greeks clearly recognized the difference between not believing in state-approved divinities and not believing in God at all, and they killed Socrates for the latter offense, even after he spoke for hours about how he lived his life in obedience to the commands of God and in devotion to priestly oracles.

The charge, however, made sense. Both Socrates and the Christians fought to establish a world in which Olympus was just another large rock; where the sacred groves were just another stand of trees; where the silver gods and hearth figures were just toys and brick-a-bract; and where the countless modes of supernatural presence that threatened and organized the day were hollow superstitions. If Christianity won, the day would no longer be full of omens, nor the diverse gods of diverse people, nor the easy penny-in-the-slot and on-demand invoking of the divine oracles. The histories of all peoples would be seen as mingled with the lies and superstitious claims of the gods who came to give aid, cause mischief, found cities, give laws, or fight in battles. The Iliad would be a sham! The success of Christianity or Platonism would make the gods as extinct as any extinct species. They really were atheism. Whether they believed in something they called “God” was irrelevant – they promised to kill every sort of thing that was divine. Christian or Platonic monotheism is not a polytheism that happens to believe in only one god; it is the claim that there is no such thing as a god, and/ or if there were it wouldn’t be worth worshiping.

One is tempted to see all atheism as having this sort of historical relativity. One support for this comes from reading the early Church fathers describe the gods: their polemic is full of ridicule and charges of psychological projection (e.g. “you made Zeus an adulterer to excuse your adultery”) which are easy to find in modern and contemporary atheist polemic. Again, Christianity, pace to Gibbon, was the work of intellectuals from its inception and was seen as the more intellectual option (St. John and St. Paul were demonstratively elite scholars, which makes well over two-thirds of the New Testament the work of elite scholars) just as modern atheism is seen as the work of intellectuals and is presented as more intellectual or scientific to believe. To compare the early Christians and modern atheists has its limitations, and no one would argue that there is a perfect likeness, but given how pervasive belief in divine things is, it would be better to see atheism as the desire to reform the notion of God at its roots as opposed to trowing out the notion altogether. In other words, Feuerbach gets the heart of modern atheism basically right – it’s not that we want to do away with God, it’s that we must recognize that we are God. We want the full recognition that, by nature, there is no extrinsic limitation on our right and that all reality is nothing but raw material that we can dispose of according to our will. We want to advance the notion, in other words, that it is an individual person who transcends the universe (even the universe so far as it has other human beings or the individual’s own body!) and that his transcendence is sacred and inviolable. I stress that I don’t say any of this as a critique. This way of life is certainly what Christianity calls wrong, blasphemous and even demonic or of the Anti-Christ, but it is a reasonable account of modern desires, and, if it is a possible way of life, it is certainly a better one than the ones that Christianity offers. Even Christianity recognizes the human person’s pervasive and deep-seated desire to become God. Seen from this angle, the Christian debate with modern atheism is not about goals but about means. True, atheism does not give what Christianity would call a new view of God, but neither did Christianity give the ancient world simply another god, even an all-powerful one.


  1. thenyssan said,

    March 11, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Atheism didn’t come to destroy Christianity. It came to destroy the Christianity (and everything else) that made us stop believing we were gods. Is that what you’re going for?

    • March 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      That’s pretty much it: it wants to destroy God as a human rival, and even being other makes one a rival. (On this modern account of freedom and human nature, all “others” are rivals, even other selves or the other of our own nature. In this sense, atheism is just one part of the larger project that includes technological advance, overcoming biological limitation, the banishment of any unbreakable bonds of union or oath, etc.)

      • thenyssan said,

        March 12, 2012 at 10:56 am

        It’s “how Nietzsche was right,” isn’t it? The Catholic account might look like this: Atheism is our “divinity,” broken loose by original sin, rising up in protest against all the forces that constrain it, foremost among them the Church.

        It makes me think of that Chesteron quote (Orthodoxy I think) where he talks about the virtues running amok because they’ve become cut off from each other.

  2. JJ said,

    March 11, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    This narrative is very reminiscent of Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” and David Bentley Hart’s essay, “Christ and Nothing.” Both are recommended. The latter is short and available online.

    While this argument may be controversial, nominalism arguably had much to do with this development. Where once human activity had the possibility of participation in God’s nature in pursuit of the Good and the Beautiful, and morality was understood not as a code of arbitrary laws, but about the flourishing of the person as he or she moves toward God, nominalism destroyed the immanence of participation and left God completely transcendent, only imposing Himself upon creation from without volitionally. This account leaves God’s will and human wills in conflict. Morality becomes the violence of will against will through demands of arbitrary commands, a form of domination. Do you blame modern atheists for wanting to unseat such a tyrant?

    • Crude said,

      March 12, 2012 at 3:52 am

      The problem is, under that view, tyranny is the only game in town. The drama and justice of wanting to get rid of the Cosmic Saddam Hussein fades away when the intention is to replace him with either a single Pol Pot or an army of Stalins.

      • JJ said,

        March 12, 2012 at 8:19 am

        You have no argument from me there. But isn’t this the story of modernity, where, arguable, the two long sought goals are the realization of human freedom, defined in voluntarist terms, and the mastery of nature, itself an exercise of the human will over nature?

        But this also leaves the moderns without rest. Without God, the bottom has fallen out–they have no way of understanding ourselves or the world. In response, they deify other things to provide new centers of reality in order to make sense of it: man, nature, history, science, power, the nation-state, language, discourses, the will to power, the Market, etc. None of this, of course, will satisfy–and behind it all lies only the naked power of the will.

        Another book that I should probably mention is Michael Allen Gillespie’s “The Theological Origins of Modernity” and “Nihilism Before Nietzsche.” Both books discuss the influence of nominalism upon early modern and 19th century philosophy, respectively.

      • March 12, 2012 at 11:27 am

        None of this, of course, will satisfy–and behind it all lies only the naked power of the will.

        That, I think, is the strongest critique. The self-as-divinity is intrinsically unsatisfying, and its claim that it leads to fulfillment is all propaganda, pretense, and facade. One cannot have self-divinization and happiness. Pinckaers does a good job at showing that the Nominalism that you spoke of above, in the ethical realm, is a critique of the possibility of happiness (this is not an inference, Ockham argues for this outright).

      • JJ said,

        March 12, 2012 at 11:59 am

        Right. I should add two quick points. That on the naked power of will is precisely the point that Hart makes: it’s Christ or the will with nothing behind it.

        Second, I should qualify Gillespie’s argument: it’s not just about nominalism–if that were the case, he would have called it the Metaphysical Origins of Modernity, not the theological–its actually about the twinning of nominalism and theological voluntarism. This should render the point of the second book on Nietzsche and Nihilism more sensible. He claims that Nietzsche’s Dionysius and the will to power is a distortion of a radical theological voluntarism and he provides a genealogy of the concept of the will in Nietzsche through Schopenhauer, Fichte, and Descartes, all the way back to theological voluntarism.

  3. Trev said,

    March 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    So the atheists are now the self deifiers and the Christians are back to being the “atheists” ?

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