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Atheism

ATHEISM:

Different Uses of the Word.

A term employed with some variety of connotation. Sometimes it is taken purely negatively and applied to every point of view which does not distinctly assert the existence of God, or order the life in view of his claims upon it. In this application it is broad enough to include not only such systems as Agnosticism and Secularism (qq.v.), but even that simple forgetfulness of God which is commonly known as ” practical atheism.” Sometimes, on the other hand, it is given a distinctly positive sense, and made to designate the dogmatic denial of the existence of God. Even when it is so understood, however, it has a wider and a narrower application, dependent on the meaning attached to the term ” God,” the denial of which constitutes its differentiation. In its narrowest sense, it is confined to those theories which deny the existence of all that can be called God, by whatever extension or even abuse of that term. In this sense it stands over against Pantheism or Fetishism, as truly as over against Theism; and takes its place alongside of this whole series of terms as designating a distinct theory of the universe. In its widest sense, on the contrary, it receives its definition in contrast with, not a vague notion of the divine, but the specific conception of Theism, and designates all those systems, differing largely in other respects, which have in common that they are antagonistic to a developed Theism. In this application, Atheism is synonymous with Antitheism, and includes not only Pantheism (q.v.), but even Polytheism, and, with some writers, Deism itself,—all of which fail in some essential elements of a clear Theism. Most commonly the term is employed by careful writers either in its narrowest sense, or else in the somewhat broadened sense of the denial of a personal God. Between these two definitions choice is not easy. All depends on our definition of God, and what we are prepared to admit to involve recognition of him. From the point of view of developed Theism all that can be thought God is denied when a living personal God, the creator, preserver, and governor of all things is disallowed; it is inevitable, therefore, that from the standpoint of Theism, Atheism should tend to receive one of its more extended connotations. It may be truer to the historical sense of the term, however, to take it in its narrowest sense and to treat it as designating only one of the Antitheistic theories, and as standing as such alongside of the others, from which it is differentiated in that it denies the validity of the notion of God altogether; while the others allow the possible or actual existence of the divine in one or another sense of that term.

The Possibility of Atheism.

The question which has been much discussed, whether Atheism is possible, depends for its solution very much upon its definition. That negative Atheism, especially in the form of ” practical atheism,” is possible, is evident from its persistent appearance in the world. Whether men may be totally ignorant of God or not, they certainly can very completely ignore him. And if the great atheistic systems like Buddhism and Confucianism have not been able to preserve the purity of their Atheism, no more have the great theistic 347systems—Mohammedanism, Judaism, Christianity itself—been able to eliminate ” practical atheism” from among their adherents. It is equally idle to deny the possibility of positive Atheism in its wider sense, in the face of the great part which has been played in the world by the various forms of Pantheism, which not only underlies whole systems of religion but is continually invading with its leaven the most austere and complete systems of Theism. It is only in its narrowest sense, in which it is the denial of all that is called God or that is worshiped, that the possibility of Atheism can be brought into question, and then only when we regard it, not in its outward expression, but in the most intimate convictions of the heart. No one can doubt that portentous systems of reasoned Atheism have flourished in the bosom of the most advanced culture. As little can it be denied that, among the backward races, a very low order of religious conception may sometimes be discovered. It may well be contended, however, that even the most thoroughly compacted system of atheistic thought only overlies and conceals an instinctive and indestructible ” sense of the divine,” just as the most elaborated system of subjective idealism only insecurely covers up an ineradicable realism; and that it is this innate ” sense of the divine” which we see struggling in the conceptions of low savages to express itself in the inadequate forms which alone a low stage of culture can provide for it. If this is all that is meant, Atheism is, no doubt, a condition impossible to man. Man differs from the lower creations, not in being less dependent than they, but in being conscious of his dependence and responsibility; and this consciousness involves in it a sense of somewhat, or better, some one, to which he is thus related. The explication of this instinctive perception into an adequate conception is a different matter; and in this explication is wrapped up the whole development of the idea of God. But escape from the apprehension of a being on whom we are dependent and to whom we are responsible is no more possible than escape from the world in which we live. God is part of our environment.

History of Atheism.

The history of reasoned Atheism is as old as the history of thought. There can be no right thinking unless there be thinking, and it is incident to thinking among such creatures as men that some may think awry. In all ages, accordingly, the declaration has found its verification that those who have not liked to retain God in their knowledge he has given over to a reprobate mind. India and China both early gave birth to gigantic atheistic systems. The materialism of classical antiquity found its expression especially in the Atomists—Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius. The unbelief of the eighteenth century ran to seed in the French Encyclopedists—De la Mettrie, D’Holbach, Diderot, Lalande—and embodied itself in that Système de la Nature which Voltaire called the Bible of Atheism. In the nineteenth century the older materialism strengthened itself by alliance, on the one hand, with advancing scientific theory, and, on the other, with the increasing social unrest; and Atheism found expression through a series of great systems—Positivism, Secularism, Pessimism, Socialism. The doctrine of Evolution (q.v.), which was given scientific standing by Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), became almost at once the prime support and stay of the atheistic propaganda. In every department of thought ” evolution” is supposed to account for everything, while itself needing no accounting for. Men as widely unlike in everything else as Feuerbach, Strauss, Flourens, Czolbe, Duehring, Vogt, Buechner, Moleschott, Mailänder, Haeckel, Nietzsche, have united in a common proclamation of dogmatic Atheism; and probably in no period since the advent of Christianity has positive Atheism been proclaimed with more confidence or accepted more widely.

Benjamin B. Warfield.

Bibliography: R. Flint, Antitheistic Theories, Edinburgh, 1880 (gives literature in Appendix 4); J. Beattie, Evidences of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1786 (contains a bibliography); J. Buchanan, Faith in God and Modern Atheism Compared, Edinburgh, 1855; Modern Atheism under its Forms of Pantheism, Materialism, Secularism: Development and Natural Laws, Boston, 1856; Paul Janet, Le Matérialisme contemporain, Paris, 1864; Félix Dupanloup, L’Athéisme et le péril social, Paris, 1866; É. Méric, Morale et athéisme contemporaine, Paris, 1875; J. S. Blackie, Natural History of Atheism, London, 1877 (keen and discriminating); J. Cairns, Unbelief in the Eighteenth Century, London, 1881; E. Naville, Le Père Céleste, Geneva, 1865, Eng. transl., Modern Atheism or the Heavenly Father, London, 1882 (philosophical); F. W. Hedge, Atheism in Philosophy, Boston. 1884; W. H. Mallock, Atheism and the Value of Life, London, 1884; H. H. Moore, Anatomy of Atheism in the Light of the Laws of Nature, Boston, 1890; A. Egger, Der Atheismus, Einsiedeln, 1901 (evangelical); F. le Dantec, L’Athéisme, Paris, 1906.

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