If the Middle Ages are to stand in history books as the Age of Faith, it could be equally asserted that the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries will no doubt be remembered as the Era of Unbelief. Whereas unbelievers in the Middle Ages were careful in how they expressed their theological doubts for fear of befalling persecution, theists (be they Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox Jew) have today learned selectivity in how they go about expressing challenges to the prevailing lack of belief impacting fundamental cultural institutions such as government, academia, and the scientific establishment. And like the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the atheistic establishment of today seeks to foster a worldview influencing all aspects of society and binds all individuals whether they wish to be or not. Such an assertion will become more obvious in the following analysis which identifies significant atheistic thinkers, clarifies why some chose to adhere to this particular belief system, and critiques this worldview and contrasts it with Christian monotheism.
As an intellectual tradition, atheism has captured the minds of some of history’s most formidable thinkers. Creation science apologist Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis has astutely pointed out that social issues and public policies rest upon a foundation of thought and belief. Keeping with this analogy, atheism proceeds from a theoretical base up through a practical program designed to influence various spheres of culture such as politics and education with prominent luminaries within the movement solidifying this mental edifice along the way.
As stated elsewhere within these introductory comments, atheism did not suddenly appear on the doorstep of the twentieth and twenty-first century fully formed demanding things like the removal of school prayer and the enshrinement of evolution as biological dogma. Rather like a weed strangling the other plants around it, today’s culture of unbelief sprang from the soil in which it was planted. While atheism can trace its pedigree back throughout much of human history, a number of modern thinkers have ensured this system a place of prominence within the cultural consciousness.
One pivotal intellect laying a foundation for atheism was Ludwig Feuerbach. In “The Essence Of Christianity”, Feuerbach set out to undermine the claims of the supernatural by providing religious belief with a naturalistic basis postulating that the idea of God is merely a mental projection of the goodness and nobility residing within man’s own bosom (McGrath, 95). Once mankind realizes that there is no transcendent deity to rely on, Feuerbach argued, his sense of alienation could be overcome by reembracing the notions of perfectibility once reserved for God as an integral component of human nature (Lawhead, 399).
Attempting to solidify these claims regarding man’s position atop a materialistic universe through a veneer of science was Charles Darwin. According to “The Cambridge Dictionary Of Philosophy”, Darwin was among the first to popularize theories of materialistic gradualism or evolution with a naturalistic mechanism, namely the process of natural selection where adaptations are accumulated in surviving organisms and passed on to succeeding generations (177-179). According to Darwin in “The Origin Of Species”, it is through the accumulation of these adaptations in response to varying environmental conditions that biologists find the diverse plethora of organisms that inhabit the earth today. Alister McGrath points out in “Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths” that “The Origin Of Species” and its ensuing theory of evolution was not accepted as much for its scientific insight than for its justification of passionately believed ideological assumptions such as the free trade policies of the English Whig Party, various strands of socialism, and assorted theories regarding the perceived hierarchy of human races and ethnic groups (161).
Standing upon thinkers such as Feuerbach and Darwin who provided atheism with theoretical and allegedly scientific justifications were other formidable intellects pursuing the implications of a social order divorced from the influence of God. One such figure drawing upon the fonts of atheism for such a purpose was Karl Marx.
Marx served as a kind of intellectual middleman between the theoretically-inclined such as Feuerbach and Darwin and the later activists such as Lenin and Mao who would adapt Marx’s own writings for the actual political arena. Borrowing from the materialism of Feuerbach, Marx believed that religion and the notion of God were devised by bourgeois elites in order to subjugate the proletarian masses. Borrowing from Darwin’s theory of growth through conflict, Marx believed these religious notions would have to be swept away along side with most forms of private property in order to make a way for the pending socialist utopia. Marx’s call for action and summary for analysis were sounded in “The Communist Manifesto”; his beliefs received further exposition through the massive “Das Kapital”, much of which was compiled by Friedrich Engels after the death of his comrade.
Another prominent twentieth century thinker dedicated to the cause of atheism was Bertrand Russell. Though best remembered in academia as a foremost philosopher of mathematics, it could be argued that Russell’s most widespread contribution remains as an influential proponent of applied atheism.
The core of Russell’s objections to Christianity can be found in his “Why I Am Not A Christian”, which seeks to justify his religious stance as well as highlight the ramifications of such beliefs as epitomized by Russell’s sexual ethics sanctioning arrangements such as trial marriages and recreational promiscuity. Russell’s views regarding family life were further elaborated upon in “Marriage & Morals”, a publication whose radicalism contributed to costing Russell a professorship at the City College Of New York.
Russell’s primary intellectual motivation was a burning contempt for God and His divine order for man. This conclusion can be drawn from Russell’s social views, which were an eclectic mixture of totalitarian and anarchistic impulses.
On the one hand, Russell supported the establishment of a world government so intrusive it would decree who would be permitted to have children. Yet Russell participated in acts of outright civil disobedience in connection with the anti-nuclear movement, thinking that the modern state had grown too powerful and destructive for mankind’s own good.
In most Christian investigations into atheism, it is common to highlight the affinity between contemporary sociopolitical leftism and religious atheism. However, the increasing popularity of intellectual iconoclast Ayn Rand proves that atheism can also serve as a temptation for those more prone to classify themselves as conservatives and libertarians as well.
Calling her philosophy Objectivism, Ayn Rand argued for the primacy of reason and the individual over all other human faculties and institutions, prompting some to characterize Star Trek’s Mr. Spock as the embodiment of her worldview. However, in her quest to emancipate humanity from the dangers of totalitarianism, Rand went too far in elevating reason at the expense of faith and by characterizing the living God of the universe as just another dogma bent on enslaving the minds of men not all that unlike Marxist Communism.
Ayn Rand’s thoughts find expression in a number of novels and polemical discourses. “Atlas Shrugged” is remembered as Ayn’s signature work extolling the virtues of nonconformity and radical individualism in the guise of a novel about an architect bending to no standard but his own. In the novel “We The Living”, Rand warns of the dangers posed by collectivism to the well-being of the individual. Rand’s nonfiction works include “Philosophy: Who Needs It”, “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”, and “The Virtue Of Selfishness”.
Of Ayn Rand, it says in “Christianity For The Tough Minded”, “her attempt to formulate a philosophy of creative selfishness will make no great impact (227).” Yet her impact cannot be denied be denied as her portrait adorns the walls of the Cato Institute and key national leaders such as former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Alan Greenspan and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas count themselves among her admirers.
Looking at the matter from a certain perspective, the beauty and appeal of atheism can be found in its ability to adapt to the needs of those building systems of thought and seeking to justify individual behavioral practices. Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky realized that, if there is no God, anything is possible.
The diminished guilt available through atheism may serve as a greater incentive to those flocking under its banner than any of the answers the system might provide to the universal questions asked by thinking individuals. D. James Kenendy points out in “Character & Destiny: A Nation In Search Of Its Soul” that Bertrand Russell may have been an atheist as much to ease his conscience regarding his numerous affairs and seductions as out of a desire for alleged rational consistency (173). The idea of God posits the notion that the right to order the moral structure of reality resides in a power beyond the level of the finite individual’s control.
And control is the one thing the individual atheist is loathe to relinquish. Though one can’t fault her, Ayn Rand was fifty-eight years old before stepping aboard an airplane for fear of giving up control over her own destiny to the pilots and mechanics she claimed possessed a faulty “modern psycho-epistemology” (Branden, “The Passion Of Ayn Rand, 318).
Anarchist Segei Nechayev wrote in “Catechism Of A Revolutionist”, “The revolutionist knows only one science, the science of destruction which does not stop at lying, robbery, betrayal and torture of friends, murder of his own family.” How much easier it is to topple the tower of morality once its foundation of concrete theism has been removed.
A classic truism teaches that if wishes were horses beggars would ride, and another piece of cherished wisdom reveals wishing for something does not make it so. These same principles apply to the longing for a deity-free universe as expressed by the thinkers profiled throughout this exposition. For even though atheists have gone to considerable lengths to implement their systems, Communists going so far as to slaughter millions of innocent individuals, atheism fails to standup to closer scrutiny on a number of grounds.
by Frederick Meekins