The Roots of Atheism
WE LIVE on a crisis-filled planet; a momentary glance at newspaper headlines confirms that fact each day. The desperate state of our world has caused many to question the existence of God. Some, claiming to be atheist, even deny his existence. Is that true of you?
Belief or disbelief in God can profoundly affect your outlook on the future. Without God, the survival of the human race is entirely in man’s hands—a bleak thought, considering man’s destructive potential. If you do believe that God exists, then you likely accept that life on this planet does have a purpose—a purpose that may yet be realized.
Although denials of God’s existence have been sporadic throughout history, it is only in recent centuries that the popularity of atheism has spread. Do you know why?
Perceiving the Roots
A towering tree is an impressive sight. Yet, the eye merely perceives the leaves, branches, and trunk. The roots—the life source of the tree—lie hidden deep in the ground.
It is much the same with atheism. Like a lofty tree, the denial of God’s existence grew to an impressive stature by the 19th century. Could life and the universe exist without a supernatural First Cause? Is the worship of such a Creator a waste of time? The answers from the leading philosophers of the day were loud and clear. “Just as we no longer need a moral code, neither do we need religion,” declared Friedrich Nietzsche. “Religion is the dream of the human mind,” asserted Ludwig Feuerbach. And Karl Marx, whose writings would have profound influence in coming decades, boldly stated: “I want to increase the mind’s freedom from the chains of religion.”
Multitudes were impressed. What they perceived, however, were simply the leaves, branches, and trunk of atheism. The roots were in place and sprouting long before the 19th century began. Surprisingly, the modern growth of atheism was fostered by the religions of Christendom! How so? Because of their corruption, these religious institutions provoked a great deal of disillusionment and protest.
The Seeds Are Sown
During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had a stranglehold on its subjects. “The hierarchy seemed ill equipped to deal with the spiritual needs of the people,” notes The Encyclopedia Americana. “The higher clergy, notably the bishops, were recruited from the nobility and saw their office mainly as a source of prestige and power.”
Some, such as John Calvin and Martin Luther, tried to reform the church. Their methods, however, were not always Christlike; intolerance and bloodshed marked the Reformation. (Compare Matthew 26:52.) So vicious were some attacks that three centuries later Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, wrote: “It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.”*
Clearly, the Reformation did not restore pure worship. Yet, it reduced the power of the Catholic Church. No longer did the Vatican hold a monopoly on religious faith. Many joined newly formed Protestant sects. Others, disillusioned by religion, made the human mind their object of worship. A liberal attitude ensued, allowing for diverse opinions about God.
By the 18th century, rational thinking was commonly extolled as the panacea for world problems. German philosopher Immanuel Kant asserted that man’s progress was being hindered by his dependence on politics and religion for guidance. “Dare to know!” he urged. “Have the courage to use your own intelligence!”
This attitude characterized the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. Lasting through the 18th century, this period was marked by an obsessive quest for knowledge. “Skepticism replaced blind faith,” says the book Milestones of History. “All the old orthodoxies were questioned.”
One ‘old orthodoxy’ to come under scrutiny was religion. “Men changed their outlook on religion,” says the book The Universal History of the World. “They were no longer satisfied with the promise of rewards in heaven; they were demanding a better life on earth. They began to lose their faith in the supernatural.” Indeed, most Enlightenment philosophers held religion in contempt. In particular, they blamed the power-hungry leaders of the Catholic Church for keeping people in ignorance.
Dissatisfied with religion, many of these philosophers became deists; they believed in God but maintained that he had no interest in man.* A few became outspoken atheists, such as philosopher Paul Henri Thiry Holbach, who claimed that religion was a “source of divisions, madness, and crimes.” As the years passed, many more grew weary of Christendom and shared Holbach’s sentiments.
How ironic that Christendom spurred on the growth of atheism! “The Churches were the soil of atheism,” writes theology professor Michael J. Buckley. “The Western conscience found itself deeply scandalized and disgusted by confessional religions. The Churches and the sects had devastated Europe, engineered massacres, demanded religious resistance or revolution, attempted to excommunicate or to depose monarchs.”
Atheism Reaches Its Full Height
By the 19th century, the denial of God was out in the open and thriving. Philosophers and scientists had no qualms about boldly proclaiming their views. “Our enemy is God,” declared one outspoken atheist. “Hatred of God is the beginning of wisdom. If mankind would make true progress, it must be on the basis of atheism.”
However, a subtle shift occurred during the 20th century. Denial of God became less militant; a different sort of atheism began to spread, affecting even those who profess belief in God.
The Protestant sects that resulted from the Reformation retained many unscriptural doctrines. See Awake! issues of August 22, 1989, pages 16-20, and September 8, 1989, pages 23-7.
Deists claimed that, much like a watchmaker, God set his creation in motion and then turned his back on it all, remaining coldly uninvolved. According to the book The Modern Heritage, deists “believed that atheism was an error born of despair but that the authoritarian structure of the Catholic Church and the rigidity and intolerance of its doctrines were even more deplorable.”
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COVER: Earth: By permission of the British Library; Nietzsche: Copyright British Museum (see also page 3); Calvin: Musée Historique de la Réformation, Genève (Photo F. Martin); Marx: U.S. National Archives photo (see also page 3); Planets, instruments, crusaders, locomotive: The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck; Feuerbach: The Bettmann Archive (see also page 3)