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chapter F O U R On the Intellectual Sources of Modern Atheism Atheism and Deism The term atheism is not new. Those who attempted to rethink the nature of transcendence have always been called atheists. Socrates was branded with the invective term for undermining the polytheist religion of his time and so, in a different way, was Epicurus . Yet both believed in God or the gods. Closer to our own time the pious Spinoza was charged with atheism for having articulated the relation between transcendence and immanence in concepts that varied from the traditional ones. The stigma adhered to his name throughout the eighteenth century. Lessing’s reputation as a religious deist changed overnight when Jacobi revealed his Spinozistic leanings . The controversy about Spinoza ended in the Atheismusstreit in which Fichte lost his chair at the University of Jena. The “atheism” dealt with in this chapter was both more radical and more comprehensive. It consisted not in a shift of the relation  41 dupre.indb 41 dupre.indb 41 1/9/08 7:49:15 AM 1/9/08 7:49:15 AM 42 Religion and the Rise of Modern Culture between immanence and transcendence, but in a gradual evanescence of the very idea of transcendence. Unlike earlier “atheism,” it failed to replace what it abolished. It was in fact the outcome of an intellectual movement derived from Christian theological assumptions . By one-sidedly emphasizing the idea of God’s omnipotence, the nominalist theology in the late Middle Ages had ruptured the intimate bond that had linked Creator and creation. In disturbing the harmonious relation between reason and revelation it caused endless polemics, which eventually broke up the unity of Christendom altogether . When the protracted religious wars of the sixteenth century finally forced Europeans to search for a new spiritual unity, the compromise that emerged bore the marks of the theological controversies of the previous century. The original attempts to restore religious peace preserved the theological categories of nature and grace, of reason and revelation. But reason provided the basis for all further discussion . This first led to the birth of a new kind of deism. Deism had existed for a long time, longer in Islam than in Christianity . The ninth-century Baghdad theologian al-Kindi had argued the rational and hence universal nature of the prophetic revelation. Al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (d. 1037) had professed similar beliefs. The idea that the existence of God could be reached by human reason had been implicit in Thomas Aquinas. A number of early Renaissance thinkers, such as Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino , Pico della Mirandola, and Jean Bodin, had explicitly accepted it. They all asserted that the human mind naturally longs for God and that this desire must come from a divine source. Far from excluding revelation, many attributed this natural religion to an aboriginal revelation made at the beginning of the human race. This allegedly primeval revelation was thought to have left some inner awareness of God. Some claimed to have detected vestiges of an aboriginal monotheism in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman polytheism. As late as the eighteenth century, the Cambridge Platonists still regarded it as the foundation of an innate religious disposition. The deists of the eighteenth century promoted a different kind of deism. According to them, reason alone, independently of any revelation , establishes the necessary and sufficient principle of transcendence needed for the support of morality and the foundation of cosdupre .indb 42 dupre.indb 42 1/9/08 7:49:15 AM 1/9/08 7:49:15 AM On the Intellectual Sources of Modern Atheism 43 mology. They bolstered their argument by Roman writers, such as Varro and Cicero, in whose works Christians, ever since Augustine, had found an arsenal of weapons against polytheism and atheism. But they did so for the purpose of establishing a natural theology that could dispense with revelation altogether. The new deism became a rival religion. Its principles included the existence of a Creator, source of cosmic motion, who rewards good and punishes evil, and whose providence guides history toward a progress of morality and culture. Although it claimed to be a product of reason alone, this deism was in fact the result of a filtering process that had strained off all historical and dogmatic data from Christian theology and retained only that minimum which, by eighteenth-century standards, reason demands. It appeared to be more an attenuated version of Christianity than a religion of pure reason...


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