Can Atheists Reason in an Age of Unreason?

A Brief History of Reason in the West

What is there for an atheist to think about? Since atheists reject the existence of God, why should they think about anything in the first place? What’s the point of it all? There is no afterlife ‒ just darkness when we die. Christians can think about God because it can result in a better relationship with Him, the Creator of the Universe.

They can find fulfillment and meaning in that assurance. Atheists, Christians claim, have a more difficult time defending a meaningful or thoughtful life. Our thoughts are an accident and the random by-product of evolution, they insist. So how will atheists deal with the ubiquitous “Age of Unreason” that I addressed in my previous blog post?

Photo by Jakob Braun on Unsplash

A Brief History of ‘Reason’

Pre-Socratics

In the West, most of our discussions concerning morality, reason, and the natural sciences originated with those we call the “pre-Socratics,” the ones that preceded Socrates, more than 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece. The thinkers most known from this period include Thale, Anaxagoras, Democritus, and Pythagoras. The pre-Socratics are responsible for several important developments in geometry, mathematics, and astronomy, to name but a few fields of interest. Of course, similar conversations and work were done elsewhere as well.

Many societies, for example, had utilized their understanding of astronomy to be able to manage the open seas, architecture to construct wondrous monuments like the Pyramids in Ancient Egypt, and typography or oratory to settle moral and political disputes, as was the case with Cleon and Brasidas infamously recounted by the Ancient Greek historian, Thucydides. Our ancestors were by no means clueless.

Socrates & Plato

Socrates. Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

The most influential thinkers following the pre-Socratics in Ancient Greece were Socrates and his most formidable pupil, Plato. These two thinkers obsessively thought about living properly in society. Indeed when speaking of Socrates, the philosopher Anthony Gottlieb, writes that “No other great philosopher has been so obsessed with righteous living.” Socrates did not shy away from criticism and obsessively argued with those he disagreed with, popularizing the “Socratic method,” a questioning technique used by lawyers in court to this day.

In fact, Ancient Greeks held that criticism could be among the best uses for speech. Among the most important aspects of speech and its prevalence in Ancient Greece was that it could be written down. Alphabetic writing was first seen in Greece around the 8th century BCE and became common-use by the 6th-century BCE. This was important, of course, because texts are more easily scrutinized than speech, allowing for thinking to develop and expand on one another similar to peer-review in academia. Without criticism, thought remained unchallenged and stifled. Socrates would scrutinize the answers to questions his contemporaries gave him to the extent that they sentenced him to drink poison, in the form of hemlock, as was typical for philosophers and nobility that were executed at the time.

The influence of the Ancient Greeks was long and far-reaching. Indeed, Plato could be considered one of the first popular intellectuals of the West. In his book, The Dream of Reason, Gottlieb writes that up unto the medieval era, “Whatever people believed, they believed because of Plato.” The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, says that “All philosophy is footnotes to Plato,” which can be seen as an exaggeration but has some truth to it according to scholarly commentators. Socrates and Plato both thought that virtue was intimately connected with knowledge. Plato indeed passed down what became a Christian notion, that the senses deceive and that “objects of genuine knowledge” must be “eternal, perfect, [and] unchanging.”

Christians will perhaps notice the similarities between their own and Plato’s view on knowledge because Augustine and most other Christian thinkers up until Aquinas adopted Plato’s philosophy into Christian doctrine that Roman-Catholics still profess today. Augustine wrote:

“There are none who come nearer to us than the Platonists” and that “If these men could have had this life over again with us . . . [t]hey would have become Christians, with the change of a few words and statements.”

The Church, however, was divided on which great philosopher they liked more. One of Christendom’s most influential figures, Thomas Aquinas, gave more credence to Plato’s brightest students, Aristotle, who happened to disagree with Plato on most of his views. The philosopher, A.C. Grayling writes that much of Aquinas’ philosophy was a “straightforward adoption from Aristotle” whether that was concerning time, cosmology, perception, ethics, and the material world and God’s relation to it. It was clear that these philosophers were doing more than the early church founders, among which were those that thought that the only noteworthy thing to know about this world was that God created it.

“All philosophy is footnotes to Plato.” — Bertrand Russell

Aristotle

Aristotle believed that a contemplative life is the “best life.” And his life certainly shows that he lived up to what he preached. Aristotle’s work consists of almost one and a half million words. There is also good reason to think that this is no more than a quarter of his actual work because we have only managed to preserve his lecture notes from antiquity.

These include books on topics such as ethics, political theory, rhetoric, poetry, constitutional history, theology, zoology, meteorology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, the scientific method, anatomy, the foundations of mathematics, language, formal logic, techniques of reasoning, fallacies, household management, mechanics, among other subjects.

Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

Two of his contributions stand above all the rest because of the preservation of their original nature and influence: formal logic, which Aristotle invented without any apparent influence, and biology, in which he was referenced until Charles Darwin developed his theory for natural selection in the 19th century. Aristotle was one of the original polymaths and broadly contributed to most fields.

We may be impressed by all of Aristotle’s achievements, but the educated people of the late medieval times, in Gottlieb’s words, “ate, drank and breathed him.” Dante (1265–1321) referred to Aristotle in his Divine Comedy as “the master of those who know.” Aquinas would merely describe Aristotle as ‘the Philosopher.’ Later Rene Descartes envied his popularity and said,

“How fortunate that man was: whatever he wrote, whether he gave it much thought or not, is regarded by most people today as having oracular authority.”

Aristotle’s books are not easy to read, as with any classical work of philosophy, but they follow the same structure and form of logic academics use today. Gottlieb even suggests that Aristotle “writes like a modern-day professor” because “today’s academics are direct descendants of a line that dutifully copied his approach.” However, some grew to dislike Aristotle because he was the juxtaposition of Plato, whose views were more in line with Christian dogma.

Aristotle had a uniquely different view from Plato (and hence Christians) on both the metaphysical and physical world. Aristotle believed that the soul dies after death; Christians believed the soul was eternal. Aristotle believed that the world had always existed; Christians said that it had a beginning. Aristotle’s God was deistic; Christians believed that God cared for them to the point of sacrificing His own Son. This is why many Christians, apart from some exceptions, dismissed Aristotle’s contributions and strayed from Greek thought — mistakenly so.

It is argued that by the year 1000 in Europe, almost all branches of knowledge from medicine and biology to physics and astronomy had “virtually collapsed.” Even the Christian monks who were acquiring knowledge in the monasteries knew significantly less than the Greeks, who preceded them by eight centuries. Meanwhile, the Muslim world was making rapid progress in medicine, science, mathematics, and philosophy, ever since Muslim scholars began translating Greek works (namely from Aristotle and Plato) into Syriac and Arabic. Aristotle’s mark was made on the world.

Photo by M Angie Salazar on Unsplash

After more than 1,000 years of near-total silence from all of these disciplines, the Renaissance ushered in an era of intellectual curiosity reminiscent of the Greeks. The “humanist” movement of the Renaissance refocused scholarly attention on a study of ethics and politics. These humanists emphasized a teaching in literature, philology, oratory, history, among other things, which helped young men prepare for work in councils, city tribunals, and Papal offices.

Notably, many Renaissance humanists were Christians since an atheist life, where you deny the existence of any gods, was unfathomable at the time. So many Renaissance thinkers can be seen making attempts to reconcile moral philosophy with Christain doctrine. However, their writing indicates a more deistic understanding of the Universe and resembles little of what we think of as Christianity today. Instead, we see that Renaissance thinkers were slowly abandoning superstition and emphasizing empirical observations over a priori convictions.

Rene Descartes & Francis Bacon

This period of philosophy gave us what are thought to be the two founders of modern philosophy: Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon. Most importantly, Bacon introduced a novel methodological enterprise for knowledge that stressed empirical thought over divine revelation, and Descartes contributed to epistemology with “Cartesian Skepticism,” among other things, guaranteeing him fame in philosophy classes across the world to this day. In this period, philosophers started adopting the concept of the individual into their thinking, abandoning the Christian collective notion of the Church.

The Enlightenment

Enlightenment philosophers drew on this new classification, recognizing the importance of the individual and what many called the ‘dignity of man.’ In contrast to the traditional Christian view of humans as fallen creatures unable to redeem themselves, a view to which even the most rational and optimistic believers such as Aquinas and Dante subscribed, humanists saw themselves as self-creating agents, free to transform themselves and the world through their actions.

Baruch Spinoza

Few would deny that the largely secular Enlightenment had abandoned Christian reasoning as authoritative. The philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, was among the first to argue that the Bible is inconsistent, which led many to consider the possibility that God’s Word is not inspired by God but written by regular people.

Indeed, the historian Jonathan Israel argues:

“during the century 1650–1750 [no one] remotely rivaled Spinoza’s notoriety, as the chief challenger of the fundamentals of revealed religion, received ideas, tradition, morality and what was everywhere regarded . . . as divinely constituted political authority.”

Spinoza still thought of Jesus as morally exemplary, but he did not think so because of His deity. Gottlieb writes that the “religion” of Spinoza was “rather close to modern secularism.”

After Spinoza, Pierre Bayle proclaimed in Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet that atheist societies may not be immoral societies as was widely believed at the time of writing. Philosophers across the Enlightenment continued to inspire each other, resulting in much advancement in intellectual insight, whether in the natural sciences, or philosophy and political theory.

Jeremy Bentham

When Jeremy Bentham, for example, read the Scottish philosopher David Hume’s work on morality, he claimed that he “felt as if scales had fallen from [his] eyes.” I point out this inspiration and influence because reasoning is often celebrated throughout history for its own sake. It seems that secular people are fully capable of celebrating reason and promoting its use in society for its own sake.

On the other hand, protestant thinkers like Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected the working of human reason. Malik explains that for them, “[H]uman reason was too weak to comprehend God’s plan.” As I expanded on in my book, Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century, God’s ways are mysterious, and his will is both undeniable and difficult to understand.

In fact, Luther thought that Aquinas’ incessant focus on Aristotle and his attempt to reconcile faith and reason was his most unforgivable fault. Biblically, reason can only help humans up to a point; Reason cannot save or redeem sinners. Malik explains that “The Reformation was an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Aquinas had introduced into Christianity.”

It is without question that the Reformation was primarily about refocusing the Church on real biblical issues. Luther’s main problem with the Church at the time was that (1) the Church “indulged” in material affairs far too often and (2) that the Church unjustly acted as a gate-keeper for granting forgiveness for sins and access to Heaven. Luther insisted that this teaching was a gross misunderstanding of the Bible, citing Romans 1:17 as evidence that faith should be the primary gate-keeper. The Reformation certainly helped encourage skepticism against the establishment, the Vatican, but it did not go as far as many Enlightenment thinkers would have hoped.

The Vatican. Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

With the rise of the concept of the individual, many were given the freedom to think for themselves and rejected established dogma, both Aristotelian and religious. Of course, Christians will once again like to take credit for the development of the idea of the individual, because, as they argue, God put value into every soul (Gen 1:27).

Throughout Christendom, that teaching was not as inclusive as Christians think it is today. On the contrary, some could argue that Luther and Calvin, the fathers of Protestantism, changed the world for the worse, namely in that they reinforced a level of anti-semitism comparable to that found in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kempf. I would not go so far, but it is something that scholars will endlessly argue over.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from my recently-published book! If you want to read more from this book, I would really appreciate your purchase and review of my book! Please do get in touch with me if you do! I would love to discuss these topics further. My email: jakub.ferencik01@gmail.com

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Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

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