Gimme That Old-Time Atheism

Brooke Horvath

Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World, by Mitchell Stephens (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014, ISBN 978-1-137-00260-0) 328 pp. Hardcover, $30.00.

I awoke this Sunday morning at an ungodly hour and, recalling that I had set aside part of the day to write this review, I decided to prepare myself by watching a few not-ready-for-prime-time televangelists. The first preached that becoming a Christian was like making a shrewd investment upon which I might hope to realize a handsome return. The next reminded me that St. Paul urges the faithful to hearten each other—something that might require no more than a short phone call (preferable, I learned, to texting, though that would do in a pinch). The third took up the problem of evil, which turned out, unsurprisingly, to be merely apparent, a figure-ground illusion resulting from God’s mysterious ways.

The question for a reader of Mitchell Stephens’s Imagine There’s No Heaven is this: Does the popularity of these nationally televised church services—which are many, each with its large studio congregation—loosen a few bolts on the juggernaut of a steadily advancing atheism, or, given what was on offer this particular morning, do such messages instead constitute evidence of an increasingly attenuated Christianity? I might answer that question, but I won’t just yet (the ways of reviewers being themselves sometimes mysterious). What matters is that Stephens is alert to such questions and provides his own reasoned answers in this thoroughly researched, largely successfully argued, and always readable account of the spread and gradual acceptance of atheism, from Diagoras of Melos (fifth century BCE) and the Charvaka sect of ancient India to the present.

As many readers of FREE INQUIRY are doubtlessly aware, the history of disbelief has been detailed before—in, for instance, Steve Bruce’s God Is Dead: Secularization in the West (2002) and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University, draws upon both of these previous studies, among a host of other scholars (his notes run to forty-one pages of small type), as he charts the course of a progressively triumphant atheism. His thesis is straightforward, even if the path from Diagoras to the Council for Secular Humanism has not been: “The struggles of those who challenged the supernatural and insisted that we concern ourselves instead with the natural contributed . . . to what may be humankind’s greatest accomplishments: the advancement of knowledge and the expansion of human rights.” Indeed, whether we look at the transformation of science from ninety-pound weakling to hero of the Enlightenment beach; at the principles articulated in the U.S. Constitution or at improvements in the lives of women; at the invention of computers, cubism, and psychoanalysis or the gift of quantum mechanics—to say nothing of The Simpsons—what we witness, argues Stephens, is the operation of “a virtuous cycle”: “disbelief in the gods encourages and facilitates vigorous investigations of the natural, but such investigations also further disbelief in gods.”

As for how disbelief took hold and why it proved attractive, Stephens offers five reasons. The first is our “basic human compulsion to question,” which more often than not leads to skepticism regarding religious explanations. I might note here Stephens’s silence regarding the doubts raised by the Protestant Reformation and the conflicts (both theological and military) this split in the one true faith occasioned (to say nothing of other church missteps). Although he attends to many of the challenges to biblical authority made by one or another injudicious soul (Why do the Gospels sometimes contradict each other? How could Moses have written the account in Deuteronomy of his own death and burial?), this isn’t the whole story. Such questions are mere cracks in the drywall compared to the foundational damage done by the tremors of doubt set off by Luther and Calvin. (On this point, see Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation).

Stephens tags the second “spur to disbelief” the “anacreontic,” apparently extending that word’s derivative sense of “convivial and amatory” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) to designate the simple idea that, since we desire them, we might as well pursue the always immensely appealing pleasures of this world, such as a friend to a fondle, which are anyway readier to hand than the ineffable joys located in some promised hereafter. (How Stephens refrained at this point from quoting Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, I don’t know.)

If the anacreontic is helped along by technological advances, improved health care, and enough creature comforts to fill the largest of big-box stores, the third encouragement to disbelief is an increase in learning (which is, after all, also a pleasure). As people become better educated about the more and more there is to know, skepticism and new knowledge work in tandem to replace religious explanations with “rational understandings.” This new knowledge, in combination with an anacreontic appreciation of the here and now, yields in its turn a fourth reason to disbelieve: recognition of the extent to which religions have often been weak in opposing when not complicit in creating the “real hell” of oppression and injustice to which so many people over the millennia have been condemned.

The final goad to disbelief, the culmination of the first four, Stephens describes as the desire “to make a new kind of art, institute a new politics, think new kinds of thoughts. . . .” It is, he says, a “yearning for an open sea,” with such figures as Karl Marx, Alan Turing, Werner Heisenberg, Sigmund Freud, and Pablo Picasso among his examples. Stephens talks himself into a bit of a corner here, for some of his sailors on the open sea have been dragooned; Arnold Schönberg and Wassily Kandinsky seem poorly chosen, especially with, say, Wallace Stevens and Samuel Beckett waving from the upper deck. Still, Stephens’s point is taken: nonbelievers made possible new ways of thinking, even for those uncommitted to disbelief (such as Schönberg), and (to choose my own examples) it is indeed difficult to imagine a worshipful Keith Richards, a church-going Jim Morrison, or a William Burroughs comfortably stitching together Naked Lunch in an age of faith.

I have mentioned a few of the men and women deployed by Stephens to develop his thesis because their stories are at the heart of his book. Many of those will prove familiar to most readers of FI —Thucydides and Epicurus, Abelard and Galileo, Diderot and the Baron d’Holbach, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Robert Green Ingersoll, Simone de Beauvoir and Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Every reader will also expect certain encounters that, like Didi and Gogo’s wait for Godot, never materialize (I missed, among others, any appearance by Montesquieu or Bernard Mandeville). Of even greater interest, however, are the lesser-sung heroes of freethinking: Stephens does include the ninth-century court poet of Baghdad, Abū Nuwās; the Italian miller Domenico Scandella, who was burned at the stake in 1599 for his recidivist insistence that God “is nothing but air”; the University of Edinburgh undergraduate Thomas Aikenhead, hanged for blasphemy in 1697 shortly before his twenty-first birthday; Cesare Giulio Vanini, a seventeenth-century scholar condemned to death by the Inquisition for blasphemy “and other crimes” who remarked gamely to himself on the day of his execution (not having a friend with a cell phone), “Come along, let’s die cheerfully as a philosopher.”

Jean Meslier, Ernestine Rose, and Charles Bradlaugh deserve particular mention here, for their stories are fascinating. Meslier was a village priest whose posthumously published apology to his parishioners for having taught them a pack of “delusions, errors, lies, fictions, and impostures” staggered even Voltaire. Rose, whose story has been lost among those of her more famous contemporaries, emigrated from Poland to America in 1820 and soon began to lecture on many of the controversial issues of her day, from anti-Semitism, women’s rights, and divorce laws to abolition, prison reform, and atheism. Considering her views on religion, a Unitarian minister once observed to her that she was “the only person I have ever met who believes less than I do.” Bradlaugh—who presided over Britain’s National Secular Society and whose causes included birth control and the need for compulsory public education—achieved national prominence in 1858 when he represented atheism in a series of public debates staged throughout England. In 1880 he was elected, mirabile dictu, to a seat in Parliament as the godless “radical” from Northhampton.

A strength of Stephens’s argument is his care, for the most part, in not overstating or oversimplifying his case: his recognition, for instance, that disbelief does not invariably promise a golden tomorrow, as the excesses of the French Revolution, Stalin’s USSR, and Mao’s China have made clear. (Regarding China, Stephens would have done well to have indicated up front the limits of his interest, for Imagine There’s No Heaven is almost exclusively a history of Christianity’s demise; there is, for example, almost nothing said about Islam.) Sometimes, on the other hand, he relies too much on what he imagines is so, as when he turns to notice that religion today seems alive and well and living in Kansas. Stephens’s rejoinder is that looks can be deceiving, for even Americans are drifting into a new kind of secularism “in which religion isn’t just separate from government but separate from most of what matters in our lives.” The consequences—and Stephens’s answer to the question I let hang fire earlier—have been the refashioning of God “into more of a Heavenly Helpmate . . . less harsh, less demanding” and “more pleasant to have around”—and of religion “into something that might provide salvation in this world.” This user-friendly Christianity, Stephens contends, no longer requires (as if it ever really did) living a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience—or the need to forsake home and family, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke teach—if one would follow Jesus into everlasting life. However, the hard evidence falters at this crucial point, as the suppositional phrasing reveals (the emphases are mine): “Maybe this ‘ordinary god’ supplies a hint of purpose, meaning or guilt upon occasion” or “maybe even this is too much to ask” of the “indifferent God of the indifferent.” Again: while some “evangelical churches may have taken a well-publicized step back toward sterner beliefs . . . [m]ost probably haven’t. Many probably have drifted . . . in the opposite direction.”

However watered-down American religion may be, it is not yet quite atheism; yet it is also far from the faith of (some of) our fathers—and far from St. Francis, the hangmen of Thomas Aikenhead, and the promise of the crèche on the courthouse lawn. Whether a completely triumphant atheism, when it arrives, will eventually suffer a similar slide into indifference remains to be seen, as will the sort of world dispassion then creates.


Brooke Horvath

Brooke Horvath’s most recent reviews for FI were of Arlindo Oliveira’s The Digital Mind and Daniel De Nicola’s Understanding Ignorance.

A review of Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World, by Mitchell Stephens.

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