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§ 1. What is meant by Anti-Theism.
As Theism is the doctrine of an extramundane, personal God, the creator, preserver, and governor of all things, any doctrine which denies the existence of such a Being is anti-theistic. Not only avowed Atheism, therefore, but Polytheism, Hylozoism, Materialism, and Pantheism, belong to the class of anti-theistic theories.
Atheism does not call for any separate discussion. It is in itself purely negative. It affirms nothing. It simply denies what Theism asserts. The proof of Theism is, therefore, the refutation of Atheism. Atheist is, however, a term of reproach. Few men are willing to call themselves, or to allow others to call them by that name. Hume, we know, resented it. Hence those who are really atheists, according to the etymological and commonly received meaning of the word, repudiate the term. They claim to be believers in God, although they assign to that word a meaning which is entirely unauthorized by usage. Thus Helvetius167167“De l’Homme.” Works, edit. Paris, 1793, vol. iii. p.221, note. says, “There is no man of understanding who does not admit an active principle in nature; therefore there is no atheist. He is not an atheist who says that motion is God; because in fact motion is incomprehensible, as we have no clear idea of it, because it only manifests itself by its effects, and by it all things are performed in the universe. Cousin168168Introduction to the General History of Philosophy, vol. i. p. 169. says, “Atheism is impossible, because the existence of God is implied in every affirmation. If a man believes that he exists, he must believe in the power of thought, and that is God.” In like manner Herbert Spencer claims to be religious. He does not oppose religion, but dogmas. He acknowledges inscrutable power. He reduces all our knowledge to the two facts, “That force is,” and “Force is persistent.” Force, however, is perfectly inscrutable and incomprehensible. On this principle he attempts to reconcile religion and science. The ultimate principle of religion, that in which all religions agree, is that there is an inscrutable power which is the cause of all things. This also is the ultimate principle of science. They have therefore a common ground. Nothing can be predicated of this cause; not consciousness; not intelligence; not will; only that it is a force. This is all the God the new philosophy leaves us.169169See First Principles of a New System of Philosophy, by Herbert Spencer.
Language, however, has its rights. The meaning of words cannot be changed at the pleasure of individuals. The word God, and its equivalents in other languages, have a definite meaning, from which no man is at liberty to depart. If any one says he believes in God, he says he believes in the existence of a personal, self-conscious being. He does not believe in God, if he only believes in “motion,” in “force,” in “thought,” in “moral order,” in “the incomprehensible,” or in any other abstraction.
Theists also have their rights. Theism is a definite form of belief. For the expression of that belief, the word Theism is the established and universally recognized term. We have the right to retain it; and we have the right to designate as Atheism, all forms of doctrine which involve the denial of what is universally understood by Theism.
Is Atheism possible?
The question has often been discussed, Whether Atheism is possible? The answer to the question depends on the meaning of the term. If the question be, Whether a man can emancipate himself from the conviction that there is a personal Being to whom he is responsible for his character and conduct, and who will punish him for his sins? it must be answered in the negative. For that would be to emancipate himself from the moral law, which is impossible. If, however, the question means, Whether a man may, by speculation or otherwise, bring himself into such a state as to lose the consciousness of the belief of God as written in his heart, and free himself, for a time, from its power? it must be answered affirmatively. A man may, in this sense, deny his individuality or identity; the real, objective existence of soul or body, mind or matter; the distinction between right and wrong. But this is unnatural, and cannot last. It is like deflecting a spring by force. The moment the force is removed, the spring returns to its normal position. Men, therefore, often pass in a moment from a state of entire skepticism to a state of unquestioning faith; not of course by a process of argument, but by a change in their inward state. This transition from unbelief to faith, though thus sudden, and although not produced by an intellectual process, is perfectly rational. The feelings which rise in the mind contain evidence of the truth which the understanding cannot resist. It is also a familiar psychological fact, that skepticism and faith may, in a certain sense, coexist in the mind. An idealist while abiding by his theory has nevertheless an inward conviction of the reality of the external world. So the speculative atheist lives with the abiding conviction that there is a God to whom he must render an account.
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