I've been reading a book lately by James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). Turner argues that while atheism has always existed as a philosophical option, and while, throughout recorded history, believers have always wrestled with doubt, atheism has not existed as a life choice for significant numbers of people until modern times. And by modern, in the United States at least, we're talking since 1860.
In France, around the turn of the eighteenth century, there was a vigorous atheist philosophical movement connected to the French revolutionary effort to reconstruct human society and mores along more humanistic lines. And of course, Turner concedes, there have been isolated skeptics throughout history. And we certainly find ample condemnations of "atheism" in the sermons and writings of Christian theologians that go back to the early centuries of the Christian era. But we do not seem to find large numbers of actual atheists. Wrestling with doubt and fear that one might become atheist, yes, that we can find. But in the end, prior to the 1860s, the vast majority of believers who wrestled with doubt ultimately opted for belief. They ultimately felt that belief explained more and provided a more rational, more workable philosophical basis for life than the alternative of unbelief. It is only after the 1860s that we begin to find significant numbers of individuals for whom the reverse proved to be true. It is only in the last century and a half that large numbers of people who wrestled with doubt ultimately came away concluding that only philosophical unbelief could provide a workable philosophical and moral basis for life.
So the question, from Turner's perspective, is why? Why was unbelief virtually impossible to sustain before the 1860s, and why did it all of a sudden take the world by storm after the 1860s? Especially among the educated classes in Western nations, we increasingly see unbelief as the unchallenged norm. Instead of wrestling with doubt, educated Westerners wrestle with faith.
Turner's thesis is intriguing. He goes back to the Enlightenment era, at the dawning of the Newtonian Age, when what might be called the "scientific world view" first began to coalesce. He argues that religious thinkers and leaders consciously adapted religion to the new ideas emanating from scientific inquiry. They sought to make religion more rational, more moralistic and more individualistic. They sought to prove the existence of God scientifically (thus the rise of modern "creationist" or "intelligent design" arguments). They created a faith of intellectual propositions, to which the believer needed to assent, a faith of creeds and dogmas extraordinaire. They did so largely as a way of coming to terms with their own doubts. But it was these religious thinkers and leaders, argues Turner, who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries believed that they could make an iron-clad scientific case for God, who laid the foundations for wide-spread philosophical unbelief in the nineteenth century.
Not all thoughtful religious followed the "rationalizing" trend that the majority seemed to have followed in the Newtonian Age. Some -- mostly what we would describe as mystics and pietists -- insisted that the encounter with God cannot be "rationalized" or "tamed" or made comprehensible in human terms. To make the attempt is ultimately to create a false god, a god-in-the-box that we can pull out to serve our petty personal or political agendas. But it is not the true, living God, whom we can truly encounter only on God's terms. In North America, Jonathan Edwards was one of the leading spokesmen for the anti-rationalizing view (though Edwards himself was a man one would never think to describe as other than eminently rational). But Edwards' preaching of a God who is both perfect Love and perfectly terrifying is largely viewed as a cultural eddy in the larger historical movement toward rationalized faith. By the mid-nineteenth century, Edwards had been forgotten, and America entered the throes of a Fundamentalist-Modernist conflict that in many ways still engulfs us.
Fundamentalism, by the way, far from resisting the rationalizing trend in American religion actually imbibed deeply of it. The opponents of fundamentalists love to mock and parody fundamentalists as irrational rubes. In the 1980s, George Marsden finally put to well-deserved rest the notion that fundamentalism was some sort of irrational atavism, destined to atrophy and die away as the modern age progresses. Fundamentalism is in fact the militant defender of the "modern" Christian view that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It certainly -- to this day -- trots out all the old arguments produced by that age (and not much earlier).
By Turner's account, what happened in the 1860s is that advances in geology, biology and anthropology finally made it possible to explain human origins and the origins of religion and to develop a moral and ethical system in terms that didn't require a God. This alone, argues Turner, wouldn't have necessarily convinced anyone, if religious leaders had not been drilling into the minds of the modern faithful certain rationalistic, moralistic and individualistic values for the previous two centuries.
Turner poses an intriguing question. What if, instead of investing in the God of the rationalists, religious leaders had insisted on a God who can never be known through reason? What if they had insisted on a God the knowledge of whom has always required and will always require an encounter, for which the believer can attempt to prepare him or her self, but the terms of which are never within the control of the believer? Turner suggests that had religious leaders avoided the temptation to rationalize God, had Western civilization turned instead to the God of the pietists and the mystics, science could not possibly undermine such belief.
I would argue that the kind of faith Turner argues would have been immune to scientific skepticism is precisely the faith that could never have been opted for by the religious movers and shakers, the leaders and theologians who were in bed with "The Powers that Be." State and social power has always, from time immemorial, required a god more amenable to empire-building; a god who was OK with war and slavery (so long as it was war and slavery justified for the purpose of spreading civilization and faith); a god who winked at or even blessed our social and cultural and philosophical Towers of Babel. In other words, a god whom we could always create (and recreate) in our own image. That is the god who was always destined to rule our political and social order.
And such a god deserves to be torn down by the same human reason that created it. So I would argue that modern-day atheism has done and is doing a service. It can't lead us to God -- to the true and living God -- any more effectively than any of our other devices. But it can help us see the folly of our idols.
To find the true God, we need to begin by seeing clearly again and for the first time our own inability. We need to recognize that we need help. And we need to ask for help.