The Big Idea:

by admin Posted on December 7, 2011

 A New Oxonian Repost from December 2011

hristopher Hitchens is, of all the atheists I admire, the one I admire the most. I want him to live forever. But as that is impossible–for any of us–it’s his voice I will miss the most.

He is a journalist, a polemicist, a bad boy. But he is also a keen observer. And, though he may hide it, a well-trained philosopher. All of the so-called “New Atheists,” except for Harris, whose star sets, were Oxonians. In a group so small, you have to admit, that is unusual–until you think “Shelley.” I would even say Wycliffe, but it would take too long to explain why.

Hitch’s atheism is almost an accoutrement of his personality. He has always reminded me of the cynicism of a young Malcolm Muggeridge who would have hated the old Muggeridge, when the old Malcolm got religion. Hitch and I are the same age. His current condition is one I watch with dismay, but (I’m sure) there will be no final turning here, no retreat as the forces of life and death fight it out in his body, no confiteor at the end.

Malcolm Muggeridge

That is because he is brave. In Five Good Things About Atheism, I gave as reason number one that atheism is probably “right”: there is no God or “supernatural” force that can explain the world as efficiently as a natural force or process. It would be cheating to call that process God. It would be the equivalent of the Grinch strapping a tree branch to a dog’s head and calling it a reindeer.

I also said that it takes a certain amount of courage to make this claim–saying I do not believe in God–not medal of honour courage, perhaps–but the simple courage that could be described as principled and honest. When people say to me proudly, “I have never believed in God. I was an atheist when I was five and saw my mother putting presents under the Christmas tree,” I smile and say, “Right.” If you fit this description read no further.

eligious folk often cling to an improbability argument that permits them first to claim a “supernatural” cause of the universe and then to make many more specific claims about the nature of this cause.

They point to the improbability of life, then intelligent life, or moral life, arising in an “accidental” or non-purposeful way. The whole basis for Michael Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity is a version of an improbability argument, though it lacks a sufficient explanation of what an intelligent designer might “look like” at a moral- and thus at a purpose-level, which some over-educated people call “teleology.” It is nonetheless nonsensical from a philosophical and (yes) a theological point of view.

Why? Because the the improbability of anything cannot be educed as probability of something else. It’s a point as familiar to philosophers and theologians as the principle that “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” The simplest known version is Why a bee can’t fly, a problem solved by John Maynard Smith by looking not at improbability but how bees manage to do it.

I suspect many atheists know that axiom even if they don’t know many others. It is dangerous, however, to rely on it exclusively, because to assert that the universe “happens” without cause, despite a massive amount of physical evidence and probability on its side, has to be “interpreted”: t=0 is simply a statement–that everything we are familiar with came into existence: protons, neutrons, stars, galaxies–even space and time. What is difficult for ordinary (and ordinary religious) people to understand is that in addition to physical things the properties, laws and impressions of physical thingsleft, right, up, down, cause and effect, the stage for all physical laws–emerged in the same event. The question of cause and effect does not arise about the big bang but because of it.

At the same time, long before physics and astronomy captured the imagination of hard-headed empiricists, Saint Augustine ponders just this point and wonders about its relationship to his forming idea of God: space and time do not exist before creation but as a result of it. Time especially is a paradox for him. But if this is true, “cause” and “effect” cannot exist either, because what is causally related is temporally related. What then would it mean to say that God is a “cause” of the universe when the conditions for causality did not arise until it existed?

 His solution was to locate God outside the order of creation. Now we know better. And we know better in part because Augustine raised the question in relation to the Book of Genesis, which he could not take as a factual description of time and creation. Would such questions have arisen apart from the idea of a sufficient being (ens necessarium) cause-all, multi-purpose God? It is hard to say: the history we have is the history we have. But one thing (as I’ve said repeatedly): There was no clutch of atheist scientists scrounging out a meager existence in the hills above Rome waiting to come on board and set the church straight.

To the extent they know anything at all about these discussions, or have any interest in them, it may strike my hardcore atheist opponents as strange that this principle dominated attention during the Middle Ages, when “God” was all about proofs and much less the Bible. But they need to come to terms with the fact that something went on in the two thousand plus years between Jesus and us, or the three thousand between the Old Testament and us, and it wasn’t all dark, not even before Darwin, not even before the Enlightenment, and not even within the many-splendored Church. Which, by the way, wasn’t one thing but many things ranging from a political state to a souvenir factory to a patroness (the sole patroness) of higher education.

hen I say that contemporary and largely American-vintage atheism has made God a little idea, I mean atheists frankly have very little idea of the idea. In fact many who responded to my previous essay, and some in sentences that parse, have said that atheism isn’t about ideas: it is a settled “conclusion” about which there should be not discussion but enforcement and action. Anyone who can read a t-shirt should join the army, or a billboard that assures them that that they are worthy and loved and accepted, even if there is no big old Sky Fairy to magic them into immortal beings.

Two postings deserve mention as proof positive that Atheism’s Little Idea is getting smaller: A certain Jason Rosenhouse (who can’t spell Hoffmann and probably doesn’t care much–Rosen-house–really?) has written an especially imbecilic rejoinder which never engages and so never rejoins, following a recent riveting post where he asks the following seductive question: “We might wonder… why the Bible contains so much awful stuff.” And an especially obtuse and humourless man named Eric MacDonald has once again filled a balloon with gas and let it sputter around in my direction hoping it would hit me in the eye. It didn’t. For the elucidation (5 syllables, thus pretentious) of the latter, I offer Samuel Johnson’s essay “The Bugbear Style” which, as he quotes Shakespeare from memory, he will know by heart.

The atheists have convinced themselves, on the basis of reading dubious statistics badly, that they are an enormous underground movement waiting for a messiah who will lead them to Canaan, or at least to Milwaukee. They believe they are “results-oriented” political movers whose time has come: they have their evangelists and epistle-writers already, and unsurprisingly, just like the early Christians, they all agree with one another. As Jacques Berlinerblau writes, their behavior is all the more baffling when you consider they are “a cohort that prides itself on empirical precision.”

They are appreciative of science for “opening their eyes,” but they need to use them more to explore other kinds of literature, especially serious history, and not the fake atheist history of the websites and the Big Book of Atheist Quotations. It is no good accusing Christian fundamentalists of only reading one book with its skewered view of the world if the response is going to be equally false to the facts of human civilization. A few of their magi accused me of “making up” a quotation I made up from Faust, then (in quick succession as the egg dried on their face) getting the German wrong, then missing the point, then saying the joke wasn’t funny. A number of respondents accused me of “making up” the Sure-Fire Atheist Rapid Response Manual, which even as satire was pretty thin, transparent stuff. Not since Jonathan Swift offered his solution to the ‘Irish Problem’ has an audience been more willing to take seriously what is offered in jest. The new atheist troupe is proving two things, day by day: (1) They are resolute; (2) They don’t know what they are doing. There is a corollary to (2): If they do, they are doing it badly.

ut I do not want to give aid and comfort to the religious zanies simply because I expect more from my atheist comrades than they have so far been able to deliver. I know I will be stretching religious tempers to the breaking point when I say that the the idea of an all-good, all-powerful, self-sufficient being “needing” to create less good (or bad), dependent, and contingent organisms is more absurd than the irreducible complexity argument. As far as I am concerned, no matter what data proponents of ID can produce, the absurdity of the improbability argument is incontrovertible.

Most religious people prefer the idea of a “smart” and good god (“omniscient” might not come easily to their lips) with smart ends in view creating smart people like them for his smart universe.

Not the only problem with this view is that this scenario is not attested in the book they use to prove their case: The Hebrew God looks shortsighted and at times thick as molasses: a deal-maker like the merchants, priests and politicians who made him up; a crook; a powerful performer, but limited to a few physical tricks. His “smart” creation is likewise disappointing: small and unworthy rather than savvy; disobedient but persistently repentant; politically corrupt, murderous and disloyal. The Bible is not about how smart people are–and, actually, Christians and Jews used to know this. It is about how bad and ungrateful they are and how big and merciful (within limits and with exceptions, like the flood) God is. It took until the renaissance for people to face up to the idea that in moral terms, Adam was superior to god, a calculation depicted in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” where God–the very image of God atheists most love to make fun of–is geometrically reduced in form to Adam’s size and becomes Adam’s older image.

So, I reject the biblical God with some personal satisfaction. His evolution has been an ideological evolution in the way people thought about him and have been able to recast him in our improving self-image. That is what humanism in the sense most people still understand the word was all about. There is a proud “atheistic” convention of rejecting non-material causation from Leucippus to Feuerbach. It was there during the scholastic period, and emerged from the medieval period–slowly and painfully–as science. There is a proud humanistic tradition–extending from Socrates to Abelard and from al-Farabi to Leo Strauss–of taking moral responsibility away from the gods, who cannot serve as models, and turning the project over to men and women who can design them.

he biblical picture of God is not a coherent view of God. No ancient view of any god is. But it is consistent enough–sufficiently integrated–that to reject a single aspect of his description calls the whole picture into question. Rejecting the whole picture is easily the most efficient way to deal with the biblical god at a literal level, and millions of people are “atheists” in relation to this god and his story.

Some of these people, if we could look beyond the comparatively flat landscape of American atheism to the secular European world beyond, still celebrate religious holidays, light candles, give presents, and may even go to church once or twice a year. The biblical god is not part of their day to day life. Custom and tradition are. They would, I suspect, find the American debate over “Christmas” a little peculiar, jaundiced, perhaps even “typically American.” American atheists on the other hand would argue that the amount of attention given to religion during holiday seasons is oppressive and inappropriate–though this is largely a political rather than a philosophical discussion. It is a reaction to the suffocating influence religion of the most banal variety exercises over American life and political culture.

Like many soft unbelievers (I know what the paralytic expression “accommodationist” means) I regard people who still clutch their childhood god and saints tightly to their breast as superstitious. They are clinging to illusions. Many of them are not very curious about life, and many of them are not very brave about the future. They are the true servants of a god who wanted his people to be “faithful,” not very smart and not very brave, like a jealous husband his bride (Jer. 3.14). But their basic human need for consolation is none of my business; I understand it because I am human, and I need consolation, too. I have no license to rip the saints from their arms, unless they tell me to bow down and worship them too. I know as well that in the evangelical-political arena, this very thing is happening, and when it happens–when I am told that I must believe, act or think in a religious way–unbelievers, secularists, atheists and religious people have a duty to push back, to say, This far and no farther. One other thing: his chosen people were Jews, Clearly, therefore, God is not omniscient or he would have chosen some other people to be his obedient, unquestioning servants.

But my opposition to (even) organized conservative religion is also conditioned by modern reality: If someone cries “Rapture!” in a crowded theatre, no one will budge. Some people will laugh, many will tell the shouter to shut up and sit down, most people will think he is merely crazy. “Modern reality” is really shaped by the gnawing sense that even believers–not just atheists–lead skeptical lives. Religion will be lost to better ideas or it will not be lost at all. No amount of shouting, skewered statistics, contrived blasphemy or insult will kill it off.

o, the God of worship and faith, the God of the priests and mullahs and bishops and conservative rabbis, enjoined on followers by “religion” in its organized form is a god I live without as a moral presence or rule-giver. I’d be hard pressed to do without his story, however, because it is one of the most fascinating stories human beings have ever created. I would like to shake the hand of the man who put the finishing touches on the tale of God’s conversation with Abraham in Genesis 18 (16-33). What a sense of humour.

I can also live without the God of the philosophers: the diminished God of a Voltaire or a Diderot, of Paine and the coffee house agnostics, but I do so recognizing that that God had been reassembled not from premises but from slivers left over from biblical criticism and criticism of the Church, both protestant and Catholic. Even the most acerb critics were fond of making a distinction between God and his Church, until it became clear that this God was in many theological particulars the creation of the church, and aforetime of the Church’s religious ancestors, the Jewish priests. When that happened, he could not even hide behind the laws of nature where Spinoza wanted to stash him.

It’s possible to develop, as Gaskin has done, a taxonomy of unbelief that shows how atheism is not one thing but differs according to “where” one has come from in the religious system and when the atheism occurred. But atheism as an ideological position (a position with respect to an idea) doesn’t ask its holder for his or her credentials (I’m sorry to diosappoint my critics who think that’s what I have been arguing) but only for their reasons for holding that position. Saying “Because religion is stupid,” is not a reason for anything. Saying “Because people who are religious don’t understand science,” may have some general merit, but it’s pretty indirect to the question. If atheism is a defensible intellectual and ideological position, it has to be defended and advocated in the way other positions are defended. Christian apologists became adept at philosophy specifically for the purpose of defending the premises of a faith that seemed ridiculous to their philosophical opponents. Given the upper hand they say they have intellectually, isn’t it time for atheists to become better at argumentation and more aware of the sources that exist for constructing such arguments? To quote Mr Tipton (My Cousin Vinny): “No self-respecting southerner uses instant grits.” So must it be with ideas and arguments.

 healthy disbelief in the god of book tradition, theological extrapolation and defense, and philosophical rescue is a good place to start developing an atheist apologetics. But it’s going to take a lot of work from the billboard and bumper sticker crowd. The god of J L Mackie and the God of Alvin Plantinga are incompatible ideas, but the dialogue between the two is an important and patient discussion of how two thinkers can come out on separate ends of a debate. Both (Mackie died tragically in 1981 at the age of 56) take the idea seriously–not meaning that they give any premature credence to the idea, but that they give the idea the respect it deserves for purposes of discussion. They do not lessen the discussion by grounding their ideas in personal experience, for or against religion, or cheap shots at people who think differently.

As serious professional philosophers, of course, their discussions are a little heavy: Mackie, especially, has an Oxford feel to his language, which makes it both crisp and complicated whereas, as an analytic philosopher, Plantinga can at times be merely complicated.

Most of all, however, they know the history of the idea, the history of debate and discussion, the twists and turns of opinions, and above all, the arguments.

In a strange salute to Mackie, Richard Dawkins wrote, “The atheist philosopher J L Mackie gives a particularly clear discussion of [the ontological argument] in the Miracle of Theism,” and then says of the argument itself, “I mean it as a compliment when I say that you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won’t take common sense for an answer”(God Delusion, p. 107). I remember thinking two things simultaneously when I read the passage: First, how would it be to introduce Dawkins in the last sentence as “the atheist ethologist Richard Dawkins.” But that is a minor point.

Dawkins’s major point is an important one: he is saying that common sense doesn’t get us far enough into the analysis of anything in order to be able to draw conclusions, and scientists since the Middle Ages have been wary of unexplicated sensory data for just that reason. If our senses lead us astray in ordinary ways, think about the extraordinary–the cosmos for example. One of the most elegant treatises on the subject of sense-deception was the al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal written by the Persian thinker Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century. It is one of the most remarkable early treatments of perception and cognition ever written; the west had nothing like it at the time. It was written as theology.

A great deal will depend on when we come into the theatre when the main feature is Common Sense–Aristotle, Locke, Paine, William James, or later. The cheap definition–that common sense is “paying attention to the obvious”–seems to be guiding atheist discussion these days. Yet the science that is being invoked against belief in God could never have arisen if we were not fundamentally skeptical about sensory detail–unless we rejected certain axioms that were held to be true for thousands of years. Common sense is not the same as skepticism; skepticism is the correction of common sense:

If common sense were true, why should science have had to brand the secondary qualities, to which our world owes all its living interest, as false, and to invent an invisible world of points and curves and mathematical equations instead? Why should it have needed to transform causes and activities into laws of ‘functional variation’? Vainly did scholasticism, common sense’s college-trained younger sister, seek to stereotype the forms the human family had always talked with, to make them definite and fix them for eternity. Substantial forms (in other words our secondary qualities) hardly outlasted the year of our Lord 1600. People were already tired of them then; and Galileo, and Descartes, with his ‘new philosophy,’ gave them only a little later their coup de grace. (William James, Common sense and Pragmatism, NY: Longman Green, 1907, p 73)

 do not believe that the non-existence of God is self-evident or obvious. In fact, I think that the existence of some sort of god, based on our ancient perceptions of cause and effect, is common-sensical–that is, it makes sense to ordinary people. But atheists have a responsibility to reject the self-evidentialism that has made its way down the totem pole to people who think the existence of God is an established “conclusion” and that philosophical discussion (along with history and a few other encumbrances) is a waste of time. God, it seems to them, is not worth arguing about any more. The only work remaining is to get other people to see it their way. As a Zen master, a goomba packing heat, or a spirit-filled Christian might say, Don’t even think about it.

18 thoughts on “The Big Idea:

  1. Saying “Because religion is stupid,” is not a reason for anything. Saying “Because people who are religious don’t understand science,” may have some general merit, but it’s pretty indirect to the question. If atheism is a defensible intellectual and ideological position, it has to be defended and advocated in the way other positions are defended.

    I’m not so sure. Is the direct question you reference “Does God exist?”, If so, then the proposition – “Atheism, i.e. “no god exists”, is the default position in any intellectual or ideological discussion of the subject, therefore it is religion that is burdened with the defense of its positions, not atheism” – is the only position atheism needs to take. Atheism really doesn’t have to defend anything. It merely has to point out the problems with theism.

    Which is really all that most of the atheists you mention do, or should do. It may look like atheists are intellectually lazy, sitting back and popping weakened theist balloons, but really, what else need an atheist do? I find that quite satisfactory, because all the “intellectual and ideological” defenses of theism I’ve seen have fallen flat and failed to convince me of anything.

    Perhaps the discussion is worthy of academic discourse, and perhaps the entire (fictional) content of the Bible is great literature, and surely scholars need something to study, but we “men of the street” don’t really care about the history of the idea, the twists and turns of discussion in ivory towers over the last few thousand years. We want to know god exists, and if we’re going to hell for not believing in this god, and if not, life has enough things to take up our time.

    • Well, what counts as evidence for anything? What’s the warrant, and how is it determined?
      “I say to mankind, Be not curious about God. For I, who am curious about each, am not curious about God – I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least.”

      • Well, what counts as evidence for anything? What’s the warrant, and how is it determined?

        Good questions, all of which I wish theists would answer when they tell me god exists, and they have the evidence. Since I’ve never seen any “evidence” that meets even minimal criteria for the term, (as for instance, science would require) I have no idea. Most evidence, if not all of it, for the existence of god is pretty much anecdotal.

        Now, much meaning in poetry tends to elude me ( I was a History, not an English, major), so what Is Whitman saying in that quote? I see” God is impossible to describe or grasp, so don’t spend a lot of time on it.”

    • Most atheists don’t care about the history of the idea, and this just perpetuates a general inability to understand much about religion. Atheist attacks of ‘theism’ have a tendency to be attacks against fundamentalist religious beliefs. However, for so many atheists, that’s what ‘religion’ is – fundamentalism. What is ‘believing in this god’ about? Which ‘god’? Whose ‘god’? Most modern religious people don’t actually believe in the ‘god’ you’re referring to. The Biblical images of God are anachronistic – reflections of storytelling through history.

      • Most atheists don’t care about the history of the idea, and this just perpetuates a general inability to understand much about religion.

        I can’t, and won’t, speak for “most” atheists, but I enjoy reading history, with the history of ideas being a small subset of that subject. Have you read “The Swerve”? I enjoyed that, and it was pretty much a history of an idea that was lost and found. So from an academic point of view (which I consider an avocation, not a vocation) religion is quite interesting. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be leaving comments on blogs such as these, or writing my own. Maybe I’d be a more stereo-typical male, watching sports on TV all the time. It’s actually more interesting for an atheist, since it’s fascinating to explore how ridiculous ideas come to be so important to people, an interest I never had when I believed. This then spills over into other areas where ridiculous ideas crop up, like in politics. It helps to sharpen the intellect to study religion, whereas, at least for me, actual belief tended to dull my intellect, and made me prone to belief in other silly ideas.

        Atheist attacks of ‘theism’ have a tendency to be attacks against fundamentalist religious beliefs.

        I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Not 100%, but for the most part. And I think the reason for that is that fundamentalist religion is the form that tends to spill over into non-religious areas – such as politics, culture, morality. If religion was simply what Jesus seemed to imply it was supposed to be (for the most part- he did tell his believers to go forth and convert, giving us Jehovah’s Witnesses at the doorstep) then it should be, quiet, personal, and non-intrusive, and most atheists wouldn’t be so vocal. Fundamentalist religious beliefs are indeed low-hanging fruit for most atheists, myself included. But most atheists don’t really care what people believe, until those beliefs are foisted on others.

        Most modern religious people don’t actually believe in the ‘god’ you’re referring to.

        That gets perilously close to the “No True Christian” argument usually used by theists to avoid problems with their beliefs, but for the most part you’re right. There are so many permutations of “god” it’s quite hard to nail him down into some monolithic belief. He’s every god for everybody.

  2. AUGUSTINE A NON-LITERALIST? — Augustine “could not take [Genesis] as a factual description of time and creation?”


    “. . . [in Genesis 1] the firmament was made between the waters above and beneath, and was called ‘Heaven,’ in which firmament the stars were made on the fourth day.” [Augustine, City of God chapter 11.5-9] In that same chapter Augustine also cites Psalm 148:3-4 that states the “sun, moon, stars and heaven” praise the Lord along with “the waters above the heavens.” And in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine wrote: “The term ‘firmament’ does not compel us to imagine a stationary heaven: we may understand this name as given to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the water above and the waters below. . . . Whatever the nature of the waters [above the firmament], we MUST BELIEVE in them, for the authority of Scripture is greater than the capacity of man’s mind.”

    Augustine’s interpretation was echoed by Martin Luther as late as the fifteenth century: “Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which . . . are the waters. . . . We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we MUST BELIEVE them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding” [Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan (St. Louis, MI: Concordia, 1958), pp. 30, 42, 43].


    In Eden, it would have been possible to beget offspring without foul lust. The sexual organs would have been stimulated into necessary activity by will-power alone, just as the will controls other organs. Then, without being goaded on by the allurement of passion, the husband could have relaxed upon his wife’s breasts with complete peace of mind and bodily tranquility, that part of his body not activated by tumultuous passion, but brought into service by the deliberate use of power when the need arose, the seed dispatched into the womb with no loss of his wife’s virginity. So, the two sexes could have come together for impregnation and conception by an act of will, rather than by lustful cravings.
    [Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book14, Chapter 26]


    The recorded Egyptian dynasties extend back some thousand years or more before Noah, the flood, or the Tower of Babel. Roughly speaking the great pyramid at Giza was constructed ca. 2560 B.C.E. approximately the same time as the Genesis narrative places the flood, with continuous Egyptian civilization predating and postdating this time. David N. Livingstone in ADAM’S ANCESTORS notes that Augustine (354-430) opposed these ideas. Indeed, the continuing dispute over chronology was sufficiently strong that Augustine devoted a whole chapter of THE CITY OF GOD to “the falseness of the history which allots many thousand years to the world’s past” and another chapter to the “mendacious vanity” and “empty presumption” of the Egyptians in claiming “an antiquity of a hundred thousand years ” for their accumulated wisdom. (Livingston, p. 9) While Augustine had no doubt that these reports were false, the seeds of inconsistency and discrepancy were present and were factors to be considered – if only to be refuted soundly. (See, David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. The author is Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast. His book looks at the history of the idea of pre-adamic or non-adamic humans in western Christian thinking from the early church (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine) through the middle ages, the explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, the debates on racial supremacy, and on to the present day.


    • Hoff, I don’t think you can emphasize one Augustine quotation above others, and interpret it as broadly as possible, and conclude that Augustine “could not take [Genesis] as a factual description of time and creation.” His writing that I cited above prove that he could and did. He attempted to accommodate biblical and Hellenistic ideas. But he also held onto whatever biblical ideas he could still interpret literally in that day and age (a “flat earth” of course wasn’t one of them since the Greeks had already determined the earth was a sphere nearly a 1000 years before Augustine was born). Instead, Augustine held onto other biblical ideas of the cosmos and earth history, including ideas in Genesis, in a literal fashion, making his understanding of Genesis as embarrassing to later ages of Christians as the understanding of some appeared to him. Augustine is just one drop in the bucket of a long history of allowing scientific understandings to displace the words of Scripture plainly understood. Drop by drop the findings of nature gained via the telescope, microscope, and geologist’s hammer displaced the contents formerly found in the bucket of “bliblical truth.”

      • Ted Babbins:

        The North African Augustine of Hippo wrote “all who desert you and set themselves up against you merely copy you in a perverse way” (Confessions, II.6, XIII.23, XIII.24).

        About sixteen centuries later Bishop Tom Wrong, nemesis of Wright, observed ‘once a fundie always a fundie, … just batting for the other side.’

        Augustine was a maverick and a thinker who changed his mind in many ways over his lifetime. It could be suggested that he understood the concept of evolution with far more clarity than the average present 21st century atheist.

        It might seem anachronistic pedantry to attack a man’s intellectual capacity when he lived in an environment a long time removed from the so called Enlightment. Men like him had minds which helped advance ideas and knowledge. Beliefs evolved as scientific evidence unfolded.

        I’m unsure why you express your opinions so angrily. Don’t you find the history of ideas intriguing?

    • It is clear that you find Augustine backward, as well as that you have no background in Patristics. You are citing him for “literalism” in his exegetical works. These were largely developed as sermons. What do you make of his expressed view on the relationship between space and time and his professed doubt? Do you recognize in that an assertion of reason over faith, despite the proto-orthodox view that would become canonical in Aquinas that faith always supplies the deficiency when understanding fails? The problem with amateur views of church history is that they almost always get the context wrong==as you have, at least in this case. Throwing stones at Augustine for being a fifth century man is just too easy–and if I may say so, really archaic.

  3. Hoff (that’s Thom Stark’s pet name for you, I hope you don’t mind, and by the way I’ve enjoyed your books for decades now),

    People who cite the quotation of Augustine on how “non-literally” to take Genesis (the quotation that I am assuming you have in mind), seem to have no idea of what else Augustine wrote concerning his own interpretations of the primeval history chapters of Genesis (chapters 1-11) that demonstrate how literally he interpreted such passages. If anything the irony is clearly apparent.

    I’m also willing to grant that when one assumes a writing is inspired by the mind of the Creator one is naturally inclined to understand it in a straightforward manner, as early Christians did. One early Antiochene bishop declared the world was only 5,000 years old, based on the authority of Scripture. Other Antiochene fathers apparently ridiculed the spherical earth view though most church fathers did not. (As I mentioned above, the flat earth view was beyond the pale for the vast majority of educated Hellenists and had been for nearly 1000 years before Augustine’s day, however there is also nothing in either the OT or NT that suggests the earth is a globe, and some verses suggest that flat earth assumptions and speech, taken over from the OT by NT writers, were true, and some early Church fathers noted the same, and found the Hellenistic idea of a spherical earth questionable )

    I don’t blame Augustine for being a fourth century Christian who interpreted much of Genesis’ primeval history chapters (chapters 1-11) literally. I am pointing out the irony of quoting him as warning others of taking them literally, and then doing so himself in many ways. As well as the overall historical irony of Christians claiming that the Bible is inspired and attempting in each generation to accommodate as much of the Bible (understood literally) with as much of the knowledge of the world as possible, but being dragged kicking and screaming, generation after generation, toward the idea of taking increasing hunks of the Bible “metaphorically,” “spiritually,” “mysteriously.”

    Here’s an even bigger irony. . .

    “Only via the skillful application of sophisticated ways of reading texts (strategies learned from ‘pagans’ like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and Quintilian) was it possible for Christians to regard the painfully middlebrow Greek of the New Testament as the Word of God, or to tease out complex theological and moral meanings from the more embarrassing activities of some of the Hebrew Patriarchs.”
    – Christopher Kelly, “Togas and Teddy Bears,” a review of Alan Cameron’s, The Last Pagans of Rome, TLS, April 27, 2012

    Clumsy Construction in Mark’s Gospel: A Critique of Form and Redaktionsgeschichte
    (Toronto Studies in Theology)
    by John C. Meagher

    “‘Clumsy construction’ may describe the Gospel of Mark, bit it certainly does not describe this brief, provocative, and persuasive book [that is] written with unusual elegance and considerable verve…”
    – Science Religieuses – Studies in Religion

    “…engagingly written…A joy to read…”
    – Interpretation

    “…uncommonly good prose…a discerning and sophisticated literary analysis based on a negative proposition: that Mark is not the systematic thinker he has been made out to be, but a so-so narrator whose tracks can be more or less uncovered by a keen literary eye uncluttered with assumptions about unswerving evangelical purpose.”
    – Journal of Biblical Literature

    “If, as is said, God learned Greek to speak to mankind, then it is a pity he did not learn it better.”
    – Friedrich Nietzsche

    “In contrast to the stylistic perfection of the Kur’an [the holy book of Islam] with the stylistic imperfections of the older Scriptures the Muslim theologian found himself unknowingly and on purely postulative grounds in agreement with a long line of Christian thinkers whose outlook on the Biblical text is best summed up in Nietzsche’s brash dictum that the Holy Ghost wrote bad Greek. . . . In Christianity, besides, the apology for the ‘low’ style of the Bible is merely a part of the educational problem – what to do with secular erudition within Christianity; whereas in Islam, the central position of the Kur’an, as the focal point and justification of grammatical and literary studies, was theoretically at least, never contested within the believing community.”
    – B. Lewis, V. L. Menage, Ch. Pellat & J Schacht (Editors), Encyclopedia Of Islam (New Edition): 1971, Volume III, E J Brill (Leiden) & Luzac & Co. (London), p. 1020 (Under “I’djaz”)

    • Irony is very apparent. I have a suspicion that Martin Luther had very little patience. He could be quite harsh at times: “Perhaps you want me to die of unrelieved boredom while you keep on talking”, he wrote in ‘Bondage’…

  4. Hoffman, I agree Augustine was a man of his age and studying him in his time is a fascinating topic. I have read many pages of a new life of Augustine by Robin Lane Fox (an historian and atheist). He ends his biography with the ironic comment that Augustine could not have become Augustine the ascetic monk without the aid of a friend and benefactor whose interest in worldly pastimes Augustine found abhorrent.

    The main point for me is that more and more people seem to be citing a few isolated passages from Augustine on Genesis as though he would have no difficulty assimilating the theory of evolution to his many other teachings.

    And granted that Augustine was a man of his time, he was one of Christianity’s earliest apologists for intolerance, i.e., for state compulsion to drive people toward his one true Catholic church as he saw it:

    Speaking of Augustine leading the way when it came to intolerance, he was also the first Christian theologian to write a biblical defense of the view that the lost will suffer forever in hell. If you’re familiar with the way that previous church fathers – even those who believed in eternal torment – wrote, you’ll recognize that this is something new. This was almost a systematic case for eternal torment, and due to its length (compared with anything that had come before) and Augustine’s major influence, it became the standard. It took some time for dissenters to again be heard with any significant volume against this backdrop. See Augustine’s City of God (written soon after the year 410) Book 21.

    Augustine also taught that babies were in the thralls of Satan and going to hell until they were baptized.

  5. This is a late comment of Dec. 7, 2015

    “And an especially obtuse and humourless man named Eric MacDonald has once again filled a balloon with gas and let it sputter around in my direction hoping it would hit me in the eye. It didn’t.”

    This is the same Eric MacDonald that the biologist professor Jerry Coyne selected as his instructor in “sophisticated theology” for his blog “Why Evolution is True” (WEIT). I discovered this MacDonald has been a preacher all his life. After attempting a degree in philosophy, and not completing it, he found no other occupation producing income than becoming a minister, a profession where you can talk ad libitum without any risk of being interrupted or contradicted. An ideal outlet for anybody with a good streak of Irish gabbing.
    When this MacDonald intervened in a discussion of Jesus Christ’s historicity on Coyne’s blog, “Why Evolution is True (where the focus is much more on morality and critique of religion than science), I denounced not just MacDonald’s amateurism, but his thorough incompetence on the subject.
    Jerry Coyne, a good scientist, but a naive man when it comes to non-biology matters, rose up to his defense: “This is my friend”, and in Coyne’s worldview a “friend” just can’t be wrong. I ended up being barred from Coyne’s blog, which in a way I view as a feather in my cap. But what confounded me was that this Coyne, who could spot valid and wrong points in a scientific argument in matters of evolutionary biology, was entirely incapable of spotting a charlatan in the field of theology.

  6. Thanks for piece: very interesting.

    I think the question of faith has been misstated however: it isn’t, and never was, a question of proof, notwithstanding the various proofs, which do indeed come later to sure up ones faith (whatever it is). If the question of the ultimate nature of existence could be proven, like a proposition of geometry, it would be a different world entirely- one we cannot imagine. Catholicism, for eg, is a vision of reality, just as atheism is a vision of reality, and neither are in a position to ‘prove’ their case, by the very nature of the ‘vision’, which comes before all proof.

    I thought the arguments that were routinely brought against that stock atheist position of say, a Christopher Hitchens- ‘that which can be asserted without proof, can be dismissed without proof’- would be the reliability of sense perception or the reality of the physical world itself, which cannot be ‘proved’ (it can be logically doubted)- or the case of memory, upon which all experience depends, and which cannot either be ‘proved’ (ie it depends always upon itself; it is its own test). They must be taken on faith. Now have these arguments lost their power (I’ll admit I’m no expert)? Or are we to dismiss all experience and the world itself because they cannot be ‘proved’ (as Mr hitchens says)?

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