Sunday, 10 August 2014

Some Good Old New Atheists

I've written previously that New Atheists are not new, despite their current negative reputation in the media, which appears to be driven by an overweening respect for religion. I've listed examples of older atheistic writing by luminaries such as David Hume and Bertrand Russell which show that a healthy disrespect for many religious ideas is nothing new.

In a recent edition of Philosophy Now's quarterly magazine, Barbara Smoker, (who pre-dates Dawkins et al by a number of years!) writes on the mystery of existence (behind a paywall), but on the way talks about her atheism. For example:
My years of mental turmoil before managing to rid myself of childhood theistic indoctrination entailed sufficient search – through thinking, reading, listening and debating – to last me for life. We are not expected to keep a lifelong open mind on such hypotheses as the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, so why should an exception be made in the case of God? That hypothesis, like those other stories for children, is merely asserted, without due evidence, by dissembling, or deluded, authorities.

She mentions two priests who wrote about their atheism. Jean Meslier (1664-1729) wrote a Testament that was only discovered after his death. In it he writes:
Perhaps you will think, my dear friends, that in such a number of fake religions in this world my intention was at least to exclude from that number the Catholic religion, which all of us profess, and which we say to be the only one which teaches pure truth, the only one which acknowledges and worships the true God as it should, and the only one who leads men on the true way to salvation and eternal happiness. But open your eyes, my dear friends, open your eyes and get rid of everything that your pious and ignorant priests, or your mocker, self-seeking doctors, show zeal in telling you and in having you believe, under the fake pretext of the infallible certainty of their would-be sacred and divine religion. You are not more beguiled nor more abused than those who have been abused and beguiled the most. You are not less in error than those who have been the deepest in it. Your religion is not less vain or superstitious than any other; it is not less fake in its principles, nor less ridiculous and absurd in its dogmas and maxims. You are not less idolatrous than those whom you are not afraid to blame and condemn for their idolatry. The ideas of pagans and yours only differ by their name and appearance. In one word, everything your doctors and priests preach with so much zeal and eloquence about the splendour, the excellence and the holiness of the mysteries that they make you worship, everything they tell you so solemnly about the certitude of their alleged miracles, and everything they recite with so much self-confidence concerning the magnificence of the rewards of heaven, and touching the dreadful castigations of hell, are nothing but delusions, errors, lies, fictions and impostures. 
'Nothing but delusions, errors, lies, fictions and impostures'. That could have been written by Dawkins.

Then Smoker mentions Joseph McCabe (1867-1955), a priest turned atheist who wrote much on the dangers of religion. In his pamphlet From Rome to Rationalism, published in 1897, he explains why he left the church. Here he talks about faith in God:
The majority of men, little addicted to introspection, can give no reason, or only mutter a few superficial and crudely assimilated phrases, when asked for the motive of this, their fundamental belief. A theologian would say that God has provided a mysterious power, called faith, that links securely the minds of the unthinking majority to their belief. A more matter-of-fact observer would see either that they never reflect on the fact that they take this traditional doctrine with little or no proof, or that, from an instinctive feeling of the difficulty of the problem, they readily acquiesce in the most superficial arguments, or, from a confusion of the provinces of faith and reason, they consider it unlawful to indulge in speculation on the problem at all. But the more reflective, and their number is legion now, know that faith - the acceptance of a doctrine on divine authority - necessarily presupposes a knowledge of God, acquired and verifiable by rational methods.
It's plain that he sees a number of different forms of faith (as I recently discussed). McCabe writes well on the moral argument:
On the one hand, we have the inherited experience of innumerable ancestors and the deeply impressed associations of our early training pointing out certain lines of conduct as moral; on the other hand, we have the consciousness of our connection with a society from which our life derives half its happiness, the knowledge that each immoral act and habit tends to undermine a state of society which it is our supreme interest to support and develop. A mind withdrawn from the influence of religion feels no more than this; but this covers the whole ground of the moral code, and it is all we have to explain in conscience. We need no higher legislator to classify our actions, and to impose upon us a sense of obligation to abstain from immorality.
On Catholicism he writes:
But Roman theology is a masterpiece of ingenuity in exegetics. From Christ’s simple words, “Whose sins you shall retain they are retained,” the whole hideous system of the Confessional is evolved; from a medicinal remark of James comes the curious dogma of Extreme Unction; from some strong language of the sorely-tempted Paul is pressed Original Sin and Baptismal Regeneration; from the farewell supper of Christ the extraordinary doctrines of the Eucharist and the Mass, with all their complicated ceremonies; and the Immaculate Conception is proved from a stray remark in the Genesis version of an old Babylonian legend. Scripture must not be taken alone, they tell us; tradition embodies revelation with equal authority. But what is tradition? From the heterogeneous contents of the writings of the Fathers what are we to choose as revealed? Well, the Pope is infallible; but it turns out that even he has no inner revelation or positive assistance in the matter; he must be convinced from Scripture and tradition like ourselves, and it is extremely difficult sometimes to see the connection between his dogmatic conclusions and the scriptural data he alleges for them.
More stridency! Sadly, he paid somewhat for his apostasy:
With the sword of Damocles overhead, I have pursued my inquiry to the end, and avowed my convictions. And for that I stand before the world branded as a criminal by the Church of Rome. My dearest friends have abandoned me as though I were stricken with leprosy, if they did not indeed turn upon me with bitter and insulting language, for I was an apostate, and my word availed nothing against my calumniators. And this is an age of light and freedom and Christian charity. May the days soon come in which men will agree to differ on intellectual questions, and unite in social activity; when social ostracism will not be the inevitable consequence of honesty.
Every time people stand up against religion, a prejudice, perhaps born of an ingrained and unwarranted respect for religion, rears its head, and so those who dare to state their objections to religious institutions and thought come to be demonised. This is to be the fate of the new atheists, despite the fact that there is nothing about their statements and tone that is peculiar to them, as these extracts from venerable, older, non-believers show.


  • Allan Wort says:
    10 August 2014 at 11:53

    Very, very nice post, Mark. The last paragraph is a perfect conclusion to the rest of the well-chosen and stirring excerpts. Well done.

  • Mark Jones says:
    10 August 2014 at 14:37

    Thanks Allan! These priests certainly make for interesting reading.

  • Heather Hastie says:
    25 November 2014 at 16:47

    Great post Mark! Extremely interesting. :-)

  • Mark Jones says:
    26 November 2014 at 02:23

    Thanks Heather!

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