The Necessity of Atheism, The Indispensability of Doubt

Sometimes old diseases require old cures. 1811. Shelley writes, in the essay that got him sent down from Oxford:

Lord Bacon says that atheism leaves to man reason, philosophy, natural piety, laws, reputation, and everything that can serve to conduct him to virtue; but superstition destroys all these, and erects itself into a tyranny over the understandings of men: hence atheism never disturbs the government, but renders man more clear- sighted, since he sees nothing beyond the boundaries of the present life. — Bacon’s Moral Essays.

…Thelogy mde man first fear and adore the elements themselves, the gross and material objects of nature; he next paid homage to the agents controlling the elements, lower genies, heroes or men gifted with great qualities. By force of reflection he sought to simplify things by submitting all nature to a single agent, spirit, or universal soul, which, gave movement to nature and all its branches. Mounting from cause to cause, mortal man has ended by seeing nothing; and it is in this obscurity that he has placed his God; it is in this darksome abyss that his uneasy imagination has always labored to fabricate chimeras, which will continue to afflict him until his knowledge of nature chases these phantoms which he has always so adored.

If we wish to explain our ideas of the Divinity we shall be obliged to admit that, by the word God, man has never been able to designate but the most hidden, the most distant and the most unknown cause of the effects which he saw; he has made use of his word only when the play of natural and known causes ceased to be visible to him; as soon as he lost the thread of these causes, or when his mind could no longer follow the chain, he cut the difficulty and ended his researches by calling God the last of the causes, that is to say, that which is beyond all causes that he knew; thus he but assigned a vague denomination to an unknown cause, at which his laziness or the limits of his knowledge forced him to stop. Every time we say that God is the author of some phenomenon, that signifies that we are ignorant of how such a phenomenon was able to operate by the aid of forces or causes that we know in nature. It is thus that the generality of mankind, whose lot is ignorance, attributes to the Divinity, not only the unusual effects which strike them, but moreover the most simple events, of which the causes are the most simple to understand by whomever is able to study them. In a word, man has always respected unknown causes, surprising effects that his ignorance kept him from unraveling. It was on this debris of nature that man raised the imaginary colossus of the Divinity.

If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction. In proportion as man taught himself, his strength and his resources augmented with his knowledge; science, the arts, industry, furnished him assistance; experience reassured him or procured for him means of resistance to the efforts of many causes which ceased to alarm as soon as they became understood. In a word, his terrors dissipated in the same proportion as his mind became enlightened. The educated man ceases to be superstitious.

And we talk about “new” atheism? What we need to stop pretending is that there is anything new about atheism and anything worth repeating. Anyone persuaded by the force of Shelley’s 1811 arguments will be persuaded by anything written in 1789, 1869, 2008.

It’s all the same.

Which is to say, there is nothing to add to the atheist case against God. Like the Baltimore Catechism used to say, “God always is, always was, and always remains the same.” How dull–especially for him–except so do the arguments against his being.

My advice to my fellow sceptics and unbelievers: Ignore the believers. Anyone who believes anything without a reason for doing so, as W.K. Clifford noted more than a century ago, deserves to have his ships sunk at sea. Especially the ones he strongly suspected weren’t seaworthy to begin with.

But I write for a different reason. I write to say that even if you don’t believe atheism is “necessary,” dear believer, how can you deny that doubt is indispensable?

I trace my own dilemma to one of Bultmann’s students, Gerhard Ebeling. In a nice little book called The Problem of Historicity in the Church and Its Proclamation (1967) (hideous title, typically German), Ebeling wondered how any faith–by which he meant Christian–could be authentic (ah! the sixties!) if the believer has not encountered doubt.

I was not fooled back then. For a lot of the hermeneutical indolents of the era, doubt was just another name for the devil You encountered it, you said “Go ‘way,” and then you embraced faith (or more precisely, the Christ event, which was more like embracing a beam of light), and stayed Christian–whatever that meant.

Essentially what it meant was to embrace everything doubt imposed on your belief that did not cause you to sacrifice your identity. No miracles. No resurrection, No sin, really. No guilt–especially. No supernatural salvation. A discounted Christianity without the sacrifice of the cross, the pain of good works, or the affront of conscience. The kind of thing anyone could get behind in 1967. Far out.

The difference between Shelley and Ebeling is not so great, except while the believer will reject out of hand Shelley’s undergraduate confidence that belief is absurd–so great his faith in Hume–Ebeling actually calls believers to a test that few are willing to perform. Doubt what is most important. Doubt God.

The religious significance of doubt is enormous. Unfortunately for Christians it is epitomied in two events that argue against its veracity.

Early Christians doubted that Jesus would come again. Paul (?) is clear on this point in the earliest of his letters, where he asserts that he will live, and the present generation will live to see it happen. It didn’t. The fundamental disproof of the second coming, a formative event in early Christian history, is actually enhrined in its literature.

The second is more problematical. Some early Christians doubted that Jesus had been crucified, or more exactly that he had been crucified and raised to see a new day.

The resurrection stories of the gospels offer contradictory evidence and (cumulatively) imply less that his resurrection happened than that it probably didn’t. The literary defenses of a community soon supplanted sober report about what “really” happned. It reaches a climax in the gospel of John, the story of Thomas, who grotesquely places his fingers in the wounds of the crucified and risen lord.

Christianity skewered itself on this standard of proof, because it could not be verified, could not be duplicated, and created in the person of Thomas the paradigm of every doubting Christian from his day to this.

Alas, we are either in Thomas’s position or the position of the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” There, an escaped serial killer is mowing down a family of errant travlers in the American south, last of all the Grandmother who tries to talk the killer out of his deed by reciting scripture and telling him that he is one of God’s own, a “good man.” The conversation turns to Jesus:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.

Oh, religion is hard. But doubt must be taken seriously. If Shelley and his successors seem too self-assured, too pompus, take into account Ebeling’s view that anyone who believes without doubting hasn’t really begun to believe anthing.

“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known.

6 thoughts on “The Necessity of Atheism, The Indispensability of Doubt

  1. I like this unlifting article, I like the advice to ‘ignore’ and especially that to those who ought also to doubt… and that the earliest Christians doubted is undoubtable otherwise Matthew (?) wouldn’t have said ‘he appeared to the twelve but some doubted’ unless they did, and Luke (?) wouldn’t have blatantly left it out.

    The illustration is appropriately nauseatingly repulsive…

    Eeyore thought about and questioned things. Sometimes he thought “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about. Although specifically about pencils and what-not, he thought, ‘Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it … It gets you nowhere, particularly if the other person’s tail is only just in sight for the second half of the conversation.’ (it’s late)

  2. This put me in mind of Leo Rosten’s story of the apostate rabbinical student who went to a senior rabbi to confess his doubts. The rabbi asked him how long he’d been studying. “10 years.” “10 years? 10 years? Only 10 years and you think you can doubt?!”
    Okay, maybe that doesn’t translate so well.

  3. I have begun to notice an unfortunate side effect of the good old fashioned skepticising doubt: while doubt may lead to the loss of indoctrinated beliefs, sometimes the feeling that one had been deceived, is transferred into resentment of having formerly believed such beliefs. However new belief emerges when one is told negative things about former faith and other religious faiths that fit their new perception of religion as bad. These negative things can be conspiratorial in nature but are accepted by former religious believers, unequivocably. The way to avoid this is to be persistently and CONSISTENTLY skeptical about EVERYTHING 🙂

    Pooh and Piglet believed in Hostile Animals and Woozles and Wizzles, so when Christopher Robin said carelessly that he had seen a Heffalump lumping along, they both believed they might each have actually seen one too. However when they tried to set a Very Great Trap for the supposedly Very Fierce Heffalump, Pooh had a Very Bad Accident and they got into a spot of Terrible Trouble… But there weren’t any Heffalumps in the first place. You see, Winnie the Pooh is very funny and we enter a world of belief in things (this is a secret so shush) that aren’t at all real. Luckily Pooh wasn’t fed any Terribly Malicious conspiracy theories by Christopher Robin because Malicious wasn’t a characteristic of that world.

  4. The claim that the indispensablilty of doubt creates the necessity of the athestic case against God, without naming just what is being doubted, constitutes a non-sensical statement raising serious false implications. It is a fact that today scholars are faced with the indispensability of doubt – doubt about tradition’s ways of conceiving God on the one hand, and doubt about tradition’s claim that the writings of the NT are apostolic witness to Jesus. These two doubts, in stark contrast to any notion of creating the necessity of the athestic case against God, have in fact, for our most authoratative scholars, created a new and fully adequate way of conceiving God as well as identifying the real Scriptural source of the apostlic witness to Jesus.
    Yet my real concern is not to attempt a critique of the essay, rather my concern is to try to redeem Ebeling from serious missleading implications. Not having read his works, I lay claim to his thought on the basis of the following quote: “Gerhard Ebeling, to whom this volume is didicated, has been a friend and wise counslar during the years (1974 -1983) when the essays were being worked out”. (Preface xii) Thus what Betz writes Ebeling thinks.
    First, from the title: The Prblem of Historicity in the Church and its Proclamation, I paraphrase your statement to better reflect Ebeling’s thought: “Ebeiling wondered how the faith of anyone could be authentic if the believer has not encountered the indispensable doubt of tradition’s claim that the NT is apostolic witness to Jesus”. My letter of March 24, 2009 which CFI failed to pass on after two separate mailings, and in frustration, I posted as comments to your essay The Importance of the Historical Jesus, contains significant extracts from Betz’s Essays on the Sermon on the Mount which can unconditionally be taken as representative of Ebelings thought. In spite of poor editing and several expressions of mini panics it can be read. Thanks again for publishing the comments.

    • Since the believer Ebeling, against the advice “ignore the believer”, has not been ignored however negatively recognized, on the chance that someone may yet read his thought, I post some of Betz’s quotes as contained in the March 24. 2009 letter:

      “This source (the Sermon on the Mount – the SM) presents us with an early form (deriving from the Jesus Movement) of the Christian faith as a whole, which had direct links to the teachng of the historical Jesus and thus constituted an alternative to Gentile Christianity as known above all from the letters of Paul and the Gospels, as well as later writings of the New Testament – – If the SM represents a response to the teaching of Jesus, critical of that of Gentile Christianity, then it serves unmistakably to underline the well-known fact, frequently frogotten today, of how little we know of Jesus and his teaching. The reasons for our lack of knowledge are of a hermeneutical sort, and cannot be overcome by an excess of good will (apologetics). The Gentile-Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus that they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thought categories of Gentile Christianity, and which they judged worthy of transmission. By contrast, the SM stands nearer to the Jewish thought of Jesus and manifests its characteristic affinity and distance over against later Christianity.
      A truly disturbing problem arises for the community only when they discover that there are other Christians who have drawn very different conclusions from the teachings of Jesus (the Gentile Pauline Christ Community). It is not only their task to maintain and defend the teachings of Jesus, but to establish, first of all, what Jesus taught and desired of others and what he did not teach and desire. The strange fact that such conflicting interpretations of the teaching of Jesus could arise so soon constitutes the profound dilemma of the SM in relation to the historical Jesus,- – (In the SM) on the whole, one can say that a form of Jewish Christianity comes to expression which, even if for want of sources, we must leave open the possibility, and even the probably of an image of Jesus which is completely different from that of the synoptic tradition and its Gentile-Christian redactors.”

  5. Hello,

    I’m presently working on Shelley’s work, and more particularly the presence of anarchist thought in his theories. I was searching for the origin of Lord Bacon’s quotation when I found your blog, and wanted to simply correct what you say in the opening lines of your articles: this reference to Lord Bacon was not used by Shelley in 1811, ” in the essay that got him sent down from Oxford”, that is to say “The Necessity of Atheism”, but in the notes to “Queen Mab. A Philosophical Poem”, published in 1813.
    Although Shelley didn’t really changed is mind in the meantime, the difference is important, for the first essay is in no way as provocative as the poem and its notes. The pamphlet only affirms that the only possible foundation for belief is a passive perception of God’s manifestation, while the poem says the same thing, but adds that atheism is the only way for man to be reasonable and free.
    Here are the editions of Shelley’s works that I use, if you want to check my correction: “The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley”, vol. 1, Edited by E. B. Murray, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993 (p. 1 to 6 for “The Necessity of Atheism”); “The Poems of Shelley”, vol. 1, Edited by G. Matthews and K. Everest, Longman, New York, 1989 (p. 265 to 423 for “Queen Mab”).

    With regards (and apologies for my linguistic clumsiness),
    Raphaël Rigal

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