The Epistle to the Epicureans

A Letter to Atheists
(c) 2014 R. Joseph Hoffmann

Dear Atheists:

Ok, you don’t believe in God. I say, Cheers. You are acknowledging (not discovering) something that is the product of a millennium, give or take a century, of thought.

We call that a hard-won conclusion. The bad news for you is that you don’t own the conclusion, and you didn’t build the road that got us from the year 1214 to 2014. And for many of you, the road you think got is here was a magical road, a fairy bridge from ancient Greece to Darwin.

In June, 1214, the University of Oxford received its Charter from Pope Innocent III. But even though that’s a purely symbolic date and event, it marks the beginning in the West of a formal intellectual process that goes back to antiquity and, over time, produced the modes of analysis and styles of argumentation that led to a rejection of the epistemological status of faith as a mode of knowing, superior to reason, and of metaphysics as a way of description superior to natural philosophy.


That is a short way of saying that atheists didn’t “discover” that God doesn’t exist. It is a conclusion forced on the human mind by the growth and development of knowledge, and the growth and development of knowledge has a long history prior to the growth and development of science as we have come (maybe unfortunately) to associate that term with chemistry, physics, biology and their spawn.

It took the beginnings of the historical sciences of archaeology, linguistics, and anthropology to reach this conclusion. Its effects were being felt in university faculties long before Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859.

Atheists are blinded by two conceptual errors. First your belief that Religion is a bogeymen, the source of all the world’s problems–social, political and moral. Second, your belief that history like religion is a matter of opinion.

It’s the second error that entitles you to the first–your conviction that science is science and everything else is opinion.

But let’s be clear about how seriously flawed this pattern in your thinking is.

It’s your kind of thinking about history that permits a fundamentalist Christian to ignore the archaeological record in exchange for a totally bogus one drawn from revealed “truth” and scripture. An atheist who believes in an unwritten alternative history is no different. If you believe that humanity had reached a zenith of enlightenment in classical Greece, a golden age of opportunity that was suppressed by a big bad wolf of a Church that led everyone down the alley of “supernatural theism” [sic] into the dark ages, until Hume and Darwin ransomed the world from Darkness, you are guilty of ignoring things called facts, which is inexcusable coming from people who purport to love facts and hate superstition. It’s a salvation myth that rivals in pure absurdity anything recorded in the New Testament.

That right: I am saying that atheists who believe in a Golden Age of atheism are just as bad as young earth creationists. It’s a myth, a hoax. It only exists in your head.

Atheism evolved. We can trace it, chart it, pinpoint it, learn it. But what we are tracing is not the full-blown idea that God does not exist as some kind of intellectual treasure buried in the caverns of Rome. We are talking about a process that at time doesn’t look like atheism at all, and includes names that—if you knew them—you might be far more likely to associate with your bugaboo, religion.

You can’t frame the question, Did religion give us science, if by science you mean the modern sciences. Religion was way too old a mother for that kind of birth.

But if science wasn’t like the birth of Isaac to Sarah, it can’t have been a virgin birth either. Ideas, methods and processes don’t just erupt spontaneously. The fact that your standard model of the origin of the universe is a virgin birth causes its own epistemological conundrums that no amount of dark matter is likely to resolve. Fortunately, religion will be standing by in the next century to help you sort it out.

But what “religion”, or more specifically theology and philosophy, did give birth to along the way were the bits and pieces that led the way to scientific thinking and scientific results. Religion gave us an apparatus for critical thinking, though, along with it,  gave us certainty that the intellectual quest it encouraged would end up being reconcilable with the “truths” of faith–and that didn’t turn out to be the case.

Those bits and pieces, however, were indispensable: alphabetic writing, descriptive narrative, discursive method, observation and experimentation, the systematic quadrants of theology that preserved logic, scholarship and the copyist tradition, respect for knowledge and learning, universities, disciplinary study, translation, philology (the study of languages and their relationships), early anthropology, natural history and archaeology. Religion gave us universities. It preserved the whole corpus of knowledge that until the nineteenth century we called, simply, “learning.”

Through its direct questions about the nature of authority in the Reformation and Renaissance, it gave us systems of government. It gave us tolerance, charity, schools, hospitals and secularism. Please be clear: science did not give us these things; secularism didn’t make these things possible. Religion gave us the conditions through which science and secularism came about.

No, I won’t mention that Copernicus was a monk; so was the “father” of early genetics, Gregor Mendel. Just to make things really embarrassing for you, the Franciscan Oxford scholar Roger Bacon (working at the height of your “dark ages” in the 13th century), was the first to call for the use of the scientific method based on experimentation. His work on optics, especially the use of magnification, was groundbreaking and can be compared only to the scientific work of da Vinci two centuries later, or Newton, or still later Max Planck. But So what, you will say. All of this is history and our history begins with Darwin. Everything before that is porridge.

George Lemaitre

Modern cosmology has a father too, the Belgian priest George Lemaitre, who with Hubble and Eddington, in a paper written in 1927 (and unnoticed until Eddington called attention to it) convinced the majority of astronomers that the universe was indeed expanding. This revolutionized the study of cosmology. A year later, Lemaître explored the logical consequences of an expanding universe and boldly proposed that it must have originated at a finite point in time. He wrote “As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

The regnant pope at the time, Pius XII, far from sending the Swiss Guard to arrest him (but perhaps a little fuzzy on the details of Lemaitre’s findings) called it a “validation of Catholic theology.” But of course it wasn’t: what could it mean for a God to be hidden and disconnected from the very process that was thought by believers to express his being–the act of creation.

Atheists prefer to wheel rather quickly past Lemaitre as some kind of anomaly and talk (rightly) about Penzias, Wilson and Gamow; but alas we are stuck with him. Or at least real historians are stuck with him. Atheist revisionists must do as they want. What they seem to want is a fake history concocted from the myth of an ancient world populated by naturalist thinkers who never existed, replaced by a Church obsessed with suppressing atheists who never wrote, until somehow, miraculously, modern science struggled out of a womb that never bore it.

But the real leap of faith for the atheist minim is your use of a contrived dissimilarity principle that compares where science is now (or at least where it has been since the 19th century) and where religion was 3000 years ago. Apples and fossilized oranges.

It is a little like what the Christian fundamentalist does when he asks a God-fearing congregation to compare a lab rat and a fifth grader. You can argue until you are blue in the face that we share 98% of our DNA with the rat; but “common sense” and eyesight will win out over the complexities of microbiology when the assembly adjourns to return a verdict. You can say, How, utterly stupid, how irrational: don’t these yokels know anything about how science works? (The answer is: Not much.)

But comparing religion and science in historical terms requires just the same degree of perception, subtlety and  specialist knowledge as a comparison of rats and fifth graders. When you ask your adherents to compare the conclusions of religion to the results of science, you are simply appealing to the yokels, using the same fallacy—false analogy—to score a point. In fact, it is not at all clear that religion and science have different subject matters or that they will come to different conclusions in their quests for truth. Atheism and theism are faith positions, not methods. Science and theology are methods, not faith positions. The subject matter of theology and science is the describe the ultimate nature of reality. Both need to be prepared to accept the consequences of the inquiry without confusing ends and means.

When atheists compare the findings and knowledge acquired by modern science to poetic stories, tall tales and religious explanations in a book that itself evolved—in both literary and conceptual ways—over a thousand year period, you are behaving like Pentecostals. Religion did not stop in 1750 BCE or 124 CE. As with the diversification of animal species, ideas have histories and morphologies too, and you need to allow for both progress and regress among the religions of the world.

Nothing is more clear than that religion exhibits both “strands” and nothing is more clear than that atheists habitually fail to recognize this feature of religion, its dynamism and adaptability. The death of God has been proclaimed for more than two centuries, but like Freud’s primordial father (and for just the same reason) he won’t go away.

But your need to pack all the bad things about religion into one box lands you square in the swamp of hasty generalization: All religions are poison and poison is bad for you.  The role religion has played in molding civilization, law, art, literature, music, philosophy and (indeed), science?  No, it must have been something else–Dark Matter? Those atheists you postulate hiding in the catacombs?

When religious authorities have sometimes been backward, conservative, hateful and cruel towards the quest they initiated (this is where you get to mention Galileo and your new poster boy, the irrepressible neo-gnostic Giordano Bruno) it isn’t because the Church hated knowledge. The Church was in love with knowledge–so much in love it didn’t want to share it or let it go.  The fact is, science was a better lover, and the Church behaved like the jilted suitor it was: replaced by a younger, stronger and more convincing performer.  It’s a very old story.

Wisdom (Sophia) abiove all else: Early Christian depiction

A contempt for fundamentalism, for the crudity of ancient rituals and law as it is depicted in the world’s religious books; disgust at the stupidity of some religious leaders and politicos; remorse that too many Christians and Muslims believe preposterous things–on a range of social and ethical issues; despair that certain kinds of religious teaching and practice can encourage superstition, violence, and mental illness. It is possible to hate all of these effects, as I do, and still appreciate the possibilities of religion and respect what William James called the “will to believe.”

What isn’t in your jumbled profession of unbelief and your courtship of science as a frame of reference, however,  is a sense of history, including the history of unbelief. 

Atheism is not the end point in a rational discussion of God’s existence. New atheism in particular has shed almost nothing but heat on the subject and has systematically ignored the rich history of the debate since the Middle Ages. You know what Richard Dawkins says about God, but not what J L Mackie says, or Alvin Plantinga or Jurgen Habermas. Modern atheism cannot be taken seriously for the stunning reason that it has not grappled seriously with the question of God.

Your lesser lights and cheerleaders pretend to write history as though religion somehow lost civilization down a sewer on the way home from the bakery, or suppressed it before the might of the armies of Unreason, as a kind of premeditated conspiracy orchestrated by the Church to keep God on top and people dumb. –A kind of Marvel Comics view of the history of our species, written by people who can talk relative sense about how our species evolved but pure dribble about how it progressed intellectually.

[Next: The Inventions of Atheism]

12 thoughts on “The Epistle to the Epicureans

  1. Erudite writing. The atheists of Europe never gloss over the historical perspective. I m one of those and those I grew up with love the rich traditions and paths to knowledge. Immore of a hitchens guy who is fed up with religious privilege than the Dawkins type who fights intellectually.

    • I agree that Europeans are not so tone deaf historically, though surely the leader of the new atheist pack Richard Dawkins sets new standards in deafness. Other angel choirs–I think of Jerry Coyne–are not just deaf but blind and rather proud of it.

  2. Pingback: [JH] Η Προς Επικουρείους Επιστολή | On the way to Ithaca

  3. Intriguing accusations. I wouldn’t go so far as Anonymous to say that in Europe we’re that much more historically informed, but I’d hazard to say that we’re more accustomed to the constant religious background that fills european cities, even if it’s just in the form of centuries-old monuments (not to mention that in many places religion and nationality are interwoven to the point of virtual indivisibility; but that’s another story).

    I wonder if these atheist exaggerations (as mentioned in the article) aren’t just US spill-over from the the push-back against a fundamentalist attitude largely devoid in Europe. Cultural osmosis alone might be enough to explain them. Now, for the lack of historical perspective, the provincial interest in the teaching of history in schools along with the status decline of the humanities might be reasons enough (both in Europe and the US).

    Again, a very interesting read. I’ve translated the article in Greek here.

  4. Joe,I can’t avoid mention of this certain confirmation of my reconstruction of Jesus traditions:
    In my March 24, 2009.letter to you I quote from your Memorandum to Myself: “What was happening at Claremont – – “, your preceding statement reads: “(Oxford repaid its debt to scholarship with the superb re-do of J. H. Elliott in 1994) “, In reference to his challenge to M. H. James’ New Testament Apocrypha, clearly evidencing a high regard for Prof. John H. Elliott. Following is Elliott’s comments to my reconstruction: “Your letter to Hoffmann re the Jesus Project raises and touches on many important but controverted issues. But on the whole I like and concur with your remarks.”. , .

  5. Those contemporary atheists will probably reply that they don’t have to grapple with the question seriously; after all it’s not a “serious question”. And that vicious, nihilistic circle shall continue for them.

    Not to forget, one of their heroes, Bayes, was also a man of the cloth.

  6. Thanks for this. I used to be of this crowd a few years ago, before I mellowed out and developed a more serious interest in history, so much of this rings true for me. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

  7. Very insightful piece. I’ll echo Evan’s point above vis-à-vis cultural osmosis weighing on the fundamentalistic rhetoric found in much of New Atheism. Without the strident social and political presence of fundamentalist religion in America, I don’t think New Atheism would have taken off as it did and is. It’s very reactionary in this way, and as the author here notes, often fails to address anything beyond fundamentalist conceptions of God as a result. Many of its most vociferous assume that if they can refute the most parochial, blinkered views of believers (of which there is certainly no shortage here in the States), that they have refuted all notions of God in toto. Some do dig deeper, and there is no shortfall of serious academic philosophers who engage the more sophisticated formulations of God and religion, but they usually would distance themselves from New Atheism.

    All in all, this is sure to be a controversial piece that shouldn’t be controversial.

  8. Why are you now referring to enthusiasts of scientism and people who are ignorant of history and proud of it as “atheists,” when “New Atheists” describes them perfectly well and doesn’t describe atheists such as you and me?

    I read Roger Bacon in Latin, I know that the scientific method is much older than Francis Bacon (whose Latin works I also read in Latin, and who mentions so many earlier scientists that it’s obvious that the bozos who think he invented science haven’t read a page of his work), I’ve read Copernicus’ de revolutionibus too and I’m familiar with his biography. I know a lot of things about Catholic and Protestant scientists which New Atheists generally don’t want to hear. I know a bit about the beginnings of universities in the 12th and 13th centuries.

    Still, it seems (unless I’ve completely misunderstood you) that you want me to be unreservedly grateful to Christianity for those universities, even though Christian authorities shut down the “pagan” academies and maintained a fairly strict control over literacy in the Catholic territories before opening the universities more than 500 years later, over which they maintained a slightly less strict control for another 500 years or so. We have a glass-half-empty-or-half-full situation here: did Humanism and the Enlightenment flourish because of Christianity or in spite of it? I don’t think that’s necessarily an answerable question, the topic is quite vast. Bayes never was a hero of mine. (Although he looks quite heroic if you set him down next to… uh… to certain contemporaries of ours which perhaps are better not named here. And he was a Presbyterian minister, let’s not forget that.) But I think that some potentially-unanswerable questions can be legitimately asked.

    And even if it is one of the New Atheists’ grotesquely-overused talking points, there were atheists before Christianity. Maybe not many of them. Or maybe many of them. How can we know how many there were before Christianity and up until the 18th century? You’re right, Pius XII didn’t have LeMaitre arrested. He didn’t shut down the Index either. Not even John XXIII stopped the Index, that dang hippie who seems to aggravate you so.

    The New Atheists are indeed a bloody disaster, as Michael Ruse put it. Their approach to history — or should one better say; their fleeing from it? — is a bloody disaster. Still, I see no reason to let them make me stop calling myself an atheist or criticizing religion as well as New Atheism. Ah, but I don’t criticize “religion” as New Atheists do, as if it were one huge unified thing. Christianity is a vast subject; tens of thousands of years’ worth of religions the world over is a much vaster one. Referring to religion as one thing is a symptom of the disastrousness of New Atheism. I don’t claim that I’m always completely uncontaminated by it.

    • Steve – Do atheists identify themselves as ‘New’? Is ‘New’ still new? Perhaps we have post new? Perhaps we can generalise to a degree in regard to those who identify as ‘atheist’ in this world of unlimited evolving ideas? Are you really an atheist like Joe? Do you know Joe, and does he identify as ‘atheist’? Personally, I am reluctant to identify as anything except perhaps an eternal student. Or a fish.

      • Yes, some atheists self-identify as New Atheists. There never was anything New about New Atheism. “Post-New”? I don’t know whether there are Post-New-Atheists. I was never able to summon very much interest in postmodernism. Dr Hoffmann’s and others’ descriptions of it make me think I may have dodged a bullet. I don’t know Dr Hoffmann personally, I don’t know whether he refers to himself as an atheist. I tend to refer to anyone who doesn’t believe in the literal existence of any deities as an atheist. If I’ve insulted Dr Hoffmann by doing so, I apologize and will be more circumspect. I feel that the people Hoffmann addresses in this epistle are perfectly well-described by the epithet “New Atheists” whether they so self-identify or not, and that there are plenty of atheists who aren’t. Such as myself, despite my very brief infatuation with some New Atheists, which coincided with the time when you and I first virtually met. As soon as I got to know the New Atheists a little, I knew I was not one of them. I can understand people not wanting to be referred to as “–ists” of any sort, but for my own part, I’m not inclined to surrender the label of “atheist” to the New Atheists. When I referred to “atheists such as you and me,” all I meant was people who are not theists and who study history with some effort and care, who often refer to primary sources, who have some inkling of the importance of learning languages other than one’s own native language, etc. People with a healthy and appropriate respect for the study of history, philosophy, art. I did not mean to imply that we are two peas in a pod; clearly, we are not.

        Also: not a big deal, perhaps no more than an autistic tic, but I do prefer being called “Steven,” or “The Wrong Monkey,” rather than “Steve.”

      • The ambivalence of individual definition makes definitive definitions redundant. Sensitive territory, is the categorising, simplifying what is strictly complex. Self identity is what it’s all [not] about, Steven. I mind not if you call me steph, steffie, steve, stevie, steffles or fish. Apologies for dishonouring your name.

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