Can a truly contemporary person not be an atheist? A fuller articulation of the question would go like this. Must a truly contemporary person, one who is fully acquainted with all the genuine advances in science and philosophy, who has lived under the conditions of contemporary life with its holocaust, its nuclear weapons, its moral corruption -- must not such a person be an atheist in order to be honest and clear-headed?
In this fuller form, the question subdivides into two parts. One refers to the incompatibility of the belief in God with the present state of our scientific and philosophical knowledge. The other refers to the incompatibility of the belief in God with the present state of our lives in the world as it is today. I will comment on the two parts in reverse order.
The State of Contemporary Life
It is true that immense changes have taken place in this century, especially in all the external features and arrangements of our human environment. It is true that this is the century in which such changes have taken place at an accelerated pace and in ever increasing volume. It is also true that the multiplication and swift pace of change in the external aspects of life are discomforting, upsetting, certainly challenging and perplexing. But it is not true that the essential features of human life have been greatly altered, or that life is any more difficult to live or to live well than it ever was in the past. In some respects, it is much easier than ever before, and in other respects, it may be harder. On balance, however, we cannot say that the problem of how to make a good life for ourselves is more difficult now than it ever was in the past. Nor can we say that it has now become an impossible problem to solve, or that we are doomed to defeat before we even try.
A person would have to suffer from otosclerosis -- the most common cause for deafness -- not to hear a familiar cry that life has become meaningless, purposeless, absurd, vile, intolerable. All around us we are assailed by voices full of self-pity, almost despair over the torment of having to be alive and to carry on in the world as it is today. Yet for all this, there is nothing about the conditions of contemporary life that calls for atheism as the proper response. I claim that life is no more difficult to live well now than it ever was in the past; and if belief in God ever played a role in living a good life on earth, that role is unchanged at present. Even if life were now more difficult, that would not require a contemporary person to become an atheist. On the contrary, it might more reasonably lead him in the opposite direction, for if God does exist, belief in Him might help man to overcome the difficulties he now confronts.
The crux of the matter must rest, therefore, with the present state of our scientific and philosophic knowledge. Let us look at this part of the picture.
The State of Contemporary Scientific Knowledge
I have reviewed everything I know about the most recent discoveries in cosmology (the vast expanses of the galactic universe, the competing hypotheses about its condition or its origin in the bigbang theory or the steady-state theory); in atomic physics (our new knowledge of elementary particles and our new principles of quantum mechanics); in biology, genetics, and the theory of evolution (especially our discovery of the fossil species of man and the molecular biology of DNA); in psychology and psychiatry (including Freud's psychoanalytical theories of the genesis of man's belief in God). As I go through the whole range of my acquaintance with scientific knowledge I find nothing, neither facts nor established hypotheses, that requires the denial of God's existence.
I would go further to say that, in the whole range of our currently accepted scientific understanding of the world, I find nothing that introduces a single new difficulty into our thinking about God, or presents an intellectual obstacle to our affirming God's existence. In short, so far as science goes, nothing so far discovered about the world would require me to alter in the least the philosophical conception of God that I presented earlier in this essay and nothing that I can learn from science has any bearing on the thinking that I must do when I address myself to the question whether God, as thus conceived, exists or not.
Note I did not say that future discoveries may not be decisive with regard to the question of God's existence. We must always be open to the possibility that within the next hundred years a scientific discovery or demonstration will change our view of one central fact, which may provide the coping stone for atheism. But it is as yet only a possibility. Possibilities are not realities; conjectures are not knowledge. All I am saying, then, is that the present state of our scientific knowledge of the world does not warrant the thesis that a truly contemporary person must be an atheist.
The State of Contemporary Philosophical Knowledge
Turning from science to philosophy, are there any advances in philosophy that call for atheism? Materialism in metaphysics does require atheism. But is there something new about this? Not at all. Materialism always did require atheism, from Democratus, Epicurus, and Lucretius right down to the present day. The present arguments for materialism as a metaphysical position still fall short of demonstration and proof; hence it cannot be said that a truly contemporary person cannot avoid being a materialist, if he is philosophically reasonable. And if he can avoid being a materialist, he need not be an atheist on these grounds.
Existentialism? Existentialism is a philosophical novelty, as materialism is not. Is this what Bishop Robinson had in mind when he said that a truly contemporary person must be an atheist? If so, he forgot that there are two varieties of existentialism. There is the religious or Christian existentialism of men like Kierkegaard and Marcel, and there is the atheistic existentialism of men like Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. In the latter, atheism is itself the root of the whole philosophical position, not its conclusion or consequence. The despair or angst of this brand of existentialism stems from its denial of God's existence, not the other way around.
Analytic and linguistic philosophy, of the sort that dominates the English and American university scene? None of the semantic or logical principles of analytic or linguistic philosophy would require me to alter the philosophical conception of God that I presented in these pages, or would change in any way the kind of thinking I would do in trying to answer the question whether God exists.
Hence I must conclude that the answer to our openeng question is a simple and flat no. No, it is not necessary for a truly contemporary person to be an atheist or to disbelieve in the existence of God. And I find no arguments, no reasons, no evidence or facts, not in Bishop Robinson's writings, nor in Bishop Pike's, nor in the writings of Tillich, Bultmann, and Bonhoeffer, or in the lesser breed of new theologians, which support the opposite answer.
The new theologians are impressed by the secularism of our society, by the spread of irreligion and of atheism or disbelief in God. It is this which leads them to propose a religionless Christianity, or an atheistic Christianity, a secularized religion to meet the needs or fit the condition of present life. All this is justified on the ground that the church is absolutely out of touch with contemporary life, and that this is no connection between what goes on in the church and contemporary life, and soon. I am sure that a religionless or secularized Christianity is as much a self-contradiction as an atheistic theology.
I would like to make two points about secularism and religion. One is to question the claim that secularism and irreligion are on the increase. The other is to raise the question about the meaning of religion itself -- a question that will affect the view we take of religion in the West and in the East.
With regard to the apparent increase of secularism or irreligion in our Western society, I suggest that the men and women who have given up religion because of the impact on their minds of modern science and philosophy were never truly religious in the first place, but only superstitious. The prevalence and predominance of science in our culture has cured a great many of the superstitious beliefs that constituted their false religiosity. Bishop Robinson is right if what he means is that a truly contemporary person cannot be superstitious in the way that countless human beings were in the past. The increase of secularism and irreligion in our society does not reflect a decrease in the number of persons who are truly religious, but a decrease in the number of those who are falsely religious; that is, merely superstitious.
There is no question but that science is the cure for superstition, and, if given half the chance with education, it will reduce the amount that exists.
The truths of religion must be compatible with the truths of science and the truths of philosophy. As scientific knowledge advances, and as philosophical analysis improves, religion is progressively purified of the superstitions that accidentally attach themselves to it as parasites. That being so, it is easier in fact to be more truly religious today than ever before, precisely because of the advances that have been made in science and philosophy. That is to say, it is easier for those who will make the effort to think clearly in and about religion, not for those whose addiction to religion is nothing more than a slavish adherence to inherited superstition. Throughout the whole of the past, only a small number of men were ever truly religious. The vast majority who gave their epochs and their societies the appearance of being religious were primarily and essentially superstitious.
What I have just said goes a long way, I think, toward explaining the increase of atheism. The growing number of new atheists consists of those who never did understand the conception of God, and whose mistaken conceptions of God have been shaken, as well they should, by modern science and philosophy.[ atheism ] [ religion ]