What is Atheism?
In this series of lectures we will be looking at the modern period of European philosophy. This period extends for us from Kant to Freud. We might ask what characterises this modern period. The answer to this question would be atheism, in the way that we might say that what characterised the classical period was theism.
Most us would say that the meaning
of atheism is obvious. It is the belief that there is no God. But the obviousness
of this statement leaves everything still very much obscure. We have to
ask ourselves what effect the non-existence of God has on the way we understand
the world and our place within it. One way in which we can understand
this effect is by saying that God is no longer a necessary hypothesis in
understanding the material processes of the universe. In the vocabulary
of traditional philosophy of religion, we might argue that the teleological
and cosmological argument no longer have any scientific validity.
We shall also have to understand
that the death of God also means the death of man, for it might be the
case that God was a necessary fiction that we required in order to believe
in the uniqueness and ascendancy of ourselves in relation to the material
universe. The ‘death of man’, of course, does not mean the death
of us as individuals, but the death of certain concept of man.
The end of God does not take place overnight but is the result of long historical process. This historical process has three moments of transition. These three moments can be labelled as follows: God as a transcendent object (an idea made possible by Greek metaphysics), God as a moral idea and then finally the ‘death of God’.
God as a transcendent object is considered to be a super-sensible being that exists outside and yet has created and continues to sustain the mundane world. Most of the philosophical proofs of the existence of God are concerned with this idea of God as a transcendent object, as the being par excellence.
God as a moral idea is most clearly put forward by Kant in his book The Critique of Practical Reason. Because the idea of God as transcendent is no longer defensible in terms of modern science, then it can only be a moral idea. We can think of the idea of God but we cannot know God as an object of knowledge whose existence we could prove. This idea of God is a moral idea for Kant. It is a postulate our own morality. Morality would not be complete if we did not have an idea of God. Our lives would be senseless and meaningless, if we lacked the notion of the highest good. However, Kant is very clear that this is only an idea. It says nothing about an actually existing object bearing the name ‘God’, since objects in this sense can only be talked about by science, whereas God is only a presupposition of the our reason, and not a statement about nature.
One must realise that this movement from nature to idea, places us in quite a different world. Here God is no longer seen in terms of physics or logic (cosmological and ontological conceptions) but in terms of morality. Kant is arguing that our conception of morality cannot make final sense unless we presuppose the existence of God as idea. But there can be criticism of Kant here that he is simply begging the question. For his morality is already Christian from the very beginning and in this sense it is not at all surprising that his morality would end up with a conception of God as its fundamental guarantor. But must we take Christian morality as being the only morality? Can we not conceive of a different morality? This is why Nietzsche is so important, for he is not interested in whether God exists or not, but in the morality that presupposes the existence of God. He asks what kind of morality is Christian morality. In both cases God is a secondary phenomenon. We are asking about how human beings conceive themselves, and how God is a necessary invention of a certain morality, but not a necessity of every morality.
The other important consequence of this transformation of God from a transcendent object (with some special properties) to an idea, is that it does not take a great step to imagine that this idea is in fact merely the creation of the human mind, which might answer some deep needed human desire to believe in illusions, but in no way demonstrates that there is anything real that corresponds to this idea. Thus would mean that God is a human invention. God did not create man but man God. Thus the Kantian conception that God is a moral idea makes atheism possible. It is the German philosophy Feuerbach, who takes Kant’s argument to its obvious conclusion and who we shall be discussing in the next lecture.
Feuerbach sees this psychological illusion as the projection of the highest essence of man, but we can argue that this illusion is in fact a repression of what is unbearable. What is that we find so unbearable that we need to invent a God? It is he absolute irrelevance of the human species to the material process of the universe. It is what the concept of God conceals which is the most important thing, not what it itself means, and what it conceals is the arrogance of the human species, which believes because it has some unique relation to a supernatural being, that it therefore has some special place within the universe. Thus atheism repeated, understood for the second time, is the death of man that is the consequence of the death of God. The death of man is the third moment of transition and is the final step from a theological to a post theological thinking.
What do we mean by material processes.
We mean that the universe is not the result of nor sustained by a spiritual
act. Point of singularity, the expansion of clouds of matter, contraction
into galaxies suns and planets, the emergence of organic life from inorganic
life, DNA, evolutionary processes, language, and in our time, machinic
intelligence. There is nothing spiritual in this and no hypothesis
of God or the soul is required to explain it. The whole process from
point of singularity to machinic intelligence is the rearrangement of matter.
There is literally nothing outside these processes, and because there is
nothing outside this process, neither can man claim to be outside of it
either. And because this process has nothing outside of it, it can
have no purpose or design or telos. For who is to give to the material
processes of the universe such a pattern? There is no necessity in
evolution; there is no necessity that human beings had to emerge from the
evolutionary process. Nor was there any necessity for inorganic life
to become organic. It is just a conjunction of fortuitous events that made
this or that possible.