This week’s “Did you Know” is a continuation of Chapter Six from a soon to be published book entitled Spirituality and God by Glenn Chesnut: The rise of modern atheism during the 1880s…Atheistic and quasi-atheistic ideas had begun to appear in public contexts by the end of the eighteenth century. David Hum’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in 1779, supposedly, demolished any hope of drawing up a conclusive proof of the existence of any clearly defined God within a Lockean philosophical system (the system of thought to provide the common sense basis of the modern scientific method), and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 appeared to demonstrate that even if God existed—which he argued was not provable one way or the other—we could know nothing at all about Him. Completely atheistic ideas surfaced temporarily during the most radical phase of the French Revolution, with the abolition of the worship of God on November 10, 1793 and the formation of a short-lived governmentally-sanctioned alternative called the Cult of Reason.
Nevertheless it was not until the 1840s that modern western atheism began to spread widely among European intellectuals. At the beginning of that decade, in 1841, Ludwig Feuerback published a book called Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity), which laid out some of the assumptions of the new atheistic theory of the universe (it was translated into English in 1853 by the famous Victorian novelist Mary Anne Evans, better known by her pen name of George Elliot). Feuerback said that what religion calls “God” is simply our minds’ projecting onto the universe subjective human goals, ideas, and fears. There is no real God out there, merely an impersonal universe running according to scientific law. In the years that followed, a long string of atheistic thinkers built their ideas on Feuerback’s theory. Sigmund Freud claimed that God was only a fantasy image of our human fathers which our subconscious projected onto the universe. The sociologist Emile Durkheim said that “God is society, writ large”—that is the gods whom we worshiped on social occasions were simply symbols of our own culture, so that religion was actually the group worshiping itself. Karl Marx argued that religion was a projection of the class structure and economic structure of a society onto the material world, used as a tool for maintaining the subjugation of the lower classes.
Modern Atheism as a control fantasy and utopian fantasy: Modern western atheism, on the surface, was made up of theories like these: God is only ancient primitive superstition, or my father, or society, or a tool for subjugating the masses. But to truly understand the power of this new atheistic movement and the way it came to grip so many people’s hearts and souls in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, we need to take a deeper look into the atheistic mind. It was believed by these dedicated atheists—deeply and devoutly believed—that modern science would eventually be able to account for everything, including the origins of the universe, on the basis of mathematical laws that were completely understandable to the human intellect, without anything “left over” that would fall outside complete analysis by the modern scientific method. We would be able to explain everything that happened by scientific law, and with that, we would gain total control of Nature. That was what was at stake to the devotees of modern western atheism. It was a control neurosis. A control fantasy, where they talked themselves into believing that, as we human beings made more scientific discoveries, we would eventually be able to take over from God and run everything ourselves. To be continued…
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