Ours was not a religious family – I write of the 1920’s and 1930’s. For a start, my father was an atheist. He did not drum atheism into his children’s heads, though. On the other hand, the drumming of religious belief into the heads of children, any questioning of those beliefs being deliberately put aside, has been practised on children throughout the world for a very long time: ‘Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man.’ That often-quoted statement is attributed to the Jesuits. What a staggering admission of arrogance, of contempt for a child’s intellectual advancement, of credulity-creation in his psyche!
Mother said once, at least, that if there is a god he should show himself, but she did occasionally attend the Presbyterian church. For a time, she belonged to the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union. I had some contact with the church, at Sunday school mainly, up to the age of 14. I was eventually to become first an agnostic and then an atheist, but I did not make those decisions until some years later.
When, at 16, I moved to Melbourne, I was to attend the Royal Melbourne Hospital for treatment. (I had shot myself.) In filling in the necessary form, my father, in answering the question about my religion, must have indicated, one way or another, that I was not religious. The hospital clerk said, ‘What are you, a heathen?’ I felt very embarrassed. What a nerve he had! Dad’s action annoyed me, too. I brought the matter up with him when next I saw him. He smiled in his endearing way. He would have agreed with Bertrand Russell, who wrote somewhere, ‘Most people believe in god because they have been taught from early infancy to do it.’
For some years to come, I wrote Presbyterian when a form required me to declare my religion. I am an atheist; I do not believe that there is a god. There is a number of arguments for the existence of god, and there is no disputing that many eminent thinkers have believed in his existence. The number of eminent thinkers that are believers has surely seriously declined during the last couple of hundred years or so.
Plato (born 428-27 BC), was an enormously influential Greek philosopher, although he was not, of course, a Christian. He evidently believed in goddesses if one is to accept his reference to them on the first page of his The Republic: ‘I wanted to say a prayer to the goddess…’ What is one to say?
The German philosopher, Leibniz (1646-1716), ‘…was one of the supreme intellects of all time’ according to Russell. Leibniz was a Christian believer. In 1755 there was an earthquake in Lisbon that killed 35,000people. People wondered why, if god is good, if he is omnipotent and omniscient, he allowed such terrible things to happen. (Some people still wonder about such things, of course.) Leibniz thought hard about god, no doubt, and came up with an answer of this sort: ‘If we did not have nasty things happen to us we would not be fully appreciative of the good things that happen.’ He believed, some say: ‘This is the best of all possible worlds.’ The famous French writer, Voltaire (1694-1778), gave Leibniz a bit of a hard time, so to speak, in his Candide. Using the pseudonym Dr Pangloss for Leibniz, he went very successfully about ridiculing the philosopher.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), English mathematician and physicist, despite his huge contribution to science, held on to religious beliefs, although surely he must have modified those beliefs to some extent as time passed? How did the planets get going in their orbits around the sun? God hurled them into orbit he is said to have opined.
Had that great man, Charles Darwin (1809-1882), a compatriot of Newton, published his Origin of Species in the 17th century, it seems reasonable to believe that Newton’s religious beliefs would have received a severe setback. Was the argument from design an argument that Newton thought to be a powerful one? (It was in its time.) Darwin’s evolution findings finished that argument. Even so, despite the almost total acceptance of the fact of evolution by the experts, for example, many on our planet, out of sheer ignorance, out of minds stunted by religious belief, reject and do their best to discredit, evolution. There are, as may be expected, arguments about detail.
The opinions of David Hume, the Scot (1711-1776), might well have had their effects on Newton had Newton known of them. Hume destroyed the ideas of both the soul and the mind. That is what some say. Before Hume, Berkeley had gone about doing his best to do away with matter. Now some wits were saying, ‘No matter, never mind.’ Hume, an empiricist, some have described as the greatest of British philosophers.
As for Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Russell has written that the diminutive German philosopher destroyed all the arguments for the existence of god, but then thought up one of his own. The argument went a bit like this: ‘There are many good persons on this earth for whom fate has handed out a rough deal. Surely there must be a god to provide them with rewards after their deaths.’ (Kant evidently said that he was ‘…awakened from his slumber’ by the opinions expressed by David Hume.)
It is easy to understand that the idea of an all-powerful being might enter into primitive human culture. Fear of death and an utter ignorance, to mention just two things, were no doubt pervasive in those cultures. In many cultures that followed, too. If humanity had never felt the need to believe in gods and goddesses and miracles and the like, the world would surely be a very different place from the world we know. I think that there would be a very good chance that it would be a much better place. What good has religion ever done on any scale? That it has done great harm cannot be doubted.
More than 2000 years ago, the Greeks gave great impetus to the acquisition of knowledge. For something like a period of 1000 years before the Renaissance, however, the church was largely in control of things in the western world. These were the Dark Ages. The fearful practices of the Inquisition established by the Jesuits, had their beginning. Galileo (1564-1642) was perhaps their most famous target. Many regard him as the first great scientist. Among his unwelcome arguments was that the earth goes round the sun. He was 70, very ill and going blind. The Inquisition sentenced him and forced him to abjure those of his opinions that were in conflict with the scriptures. At least they did not burn him at the stake as they did Giordano Bruno and many others. I reproduce now two extracts from the sentence of the Inquisition:
‘1. The proposition that the sun is the centre of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to the Holy Scriptures.
2. The proposition that the earth is not the centre of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, teleologically considered, at least erroneous in faith. ‘
From Galileo, His Life and Work, by J.J. Fahie, pp. 313 ff. 1903.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), an Italian, wielded then, and still does wield, enormous influence in the Roman Catholic Church. He possessed a superior intellect, no doubt. Look, though, at the period in history when he was on this earth. There is so much that humanity has learned in the ensuing years, knowledge of which the people of his day were ignorant. People even believed, for example, that everything above the earth and the moon revolved around those two bodies.
As for god, Aquinas knew so much about his existence. So much! Just how did he acquire that knowledge? It seems reasonable to ask that question. Perhaps god told him? Perhaps he was capable of such profound thought that he needed no empirical evidence to support his opinions? (But then, surely, experimentation and observation will not get anyone anywhere in an attempt to reach a supreme being – particularly if there is not one.) Many must have thought, and many must still think, Aquinas to have been so capable. Pure reason was the tool in the understanding of the many complexities of the universe. In the eyes of some thinkers, at least.
Again consider the question of god’s existence. If the world were just beginning now, and yet humanity were possessed of all the knowledge that humankind does at this time possess, the question of the existence of a supreme being would not come up too seriously among the educated people on this planet. At least, that is what I think. Again, consider the Chinese people, for example. Most of them manage not to need a belief in a god. Finally, more than once I have heard it said that Albert Einstein (1879-1955) believed in a personal god. These words of his refute any such opinion:
‘In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests.’
From Out of my later years, by Albert Einstein, pp28-29.1950
The above essay is an edited extract from the book, TOPSEC, published in 1999 by JJ Rawson. ISBN: 0-646-38604-2
By John Rawson