Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative

Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative

Author:
Chapman Cohen
Author:
Chapman Cohen
Format:
epub
language:
English

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Author: Cohen, Chapman, 1868-
Atheism
Theism
Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative

Theism or Atheism


The Great Alternative


By CHAPMAN COHEN

 
 

THE PIONEER PRESS,

61, Farringdon Street,
————E.C.4————

1921.


Contents.

  • Preface.

Part I.

AN EXAMINATION OF THEISM.

  • Chapter I.      What is God?
  • Chapter II.     The Origin of the Idea of God
  • Chapter III.    Have we a Religious Sense?
  • Chapter IV.     The Argument from Existence
  • Chapter V.      The Argument from Causation
  • Chapter IV.     The Argument from Design
  • Chapter VII.    The Disharmonies of Nature
  • Chapter VIII.   God and Evolution
  • Chapter IX.     The Problem of Pain

Part II.

SUBSTITUTES FOR ATHEISM.

  • Chapter X.      A Question of Prejudice
  • Chapter XI.     What is Atheism?
  • Chapter XII.    Spencer and the Unknowable
  • Chapter XIII.   Agnosticism
  • Chapter XIV.    Atheism and Morals
  • Chapter XV.     Atheism Inevitable

Preface.

Shrouded in the cloak of philosophy, the question of the existence of God continues to attract attention, and, I may add, to command more respect than it deserves. For it is only by a subterfuge that it assumes the rank of philosophy. “God” enters into philosophy only when it is beginning to lose caste in its proper home, and then in its new environment it undergoes such a transformation as to contain very little likeness to its former, and proper, self. It disowns its parentage and claims another origin, and, like so many genealogists devising pedigrees for the parvenu, certain philosophers attempt to map out for the newcomer an ancestry to which he can establish no valid claim. Nothing would, indeed, surprise the ancestor more than to be brought face to face with his descendant. He would not be more astonished than would the ancient Eohippus on meeting with a modern dray-horse. In anthropology or history the idea of God may fairly claim a place, but it has no place in philosophy on any sensible meaning of the word.
The consequence of this transference of the idea of God to the sphere of philosophy is the curious position that the God in which people believe is not the God whose existence is made the product of an argument, and the God of the argument is not the God of belief. The theory and the fact have no more likeness to each other than a chestnut horse has to a horse-chestnut. A fallacy is perpetuated by appealing to a fact, but the fact immediately discredits the fallacy by disowning it in practice. The grounds upon which the belief in God is supposed to rest, the reasoning from which it springs, are seen to follow the belief instead of preceding it. The roots are in the air, and on closer inspection are seen to be artificial adornments, so many imitations that have been hung there for the purpose of imposing on near-sighted or careless observers.
The purpose of the following pages is to make clear the nature of this alliance and to expose the real character of what we are asked to worship. There are, of course, many on whose ears any amount of reasoning will fall without effect. To that class this book will not appeal; it may be questioned whether many will even read it. They will go on professing the belief they have always professed, and taking pride in the fact that they have an intellect which is superior to proof, and which disdains evidence when it runs contrary to “my belief.” Others will, I expect, complain that the treatment of so solemn a subject is not “reverent” enough. But why any subject should be treated reverently, as a condition of examination, is more than I have ever been able to discover. It is asking the inquirer to commence his investigation with a half-promise to find something good in what he is about to examine. Whether a thing is worthy of reverence or not is a conclusion that must follow investigation, not precede it. And one does not observe any particular reverence shown by the religious person towards those beliefs in which he does not happen to believe.
But there are some who will read thoughtfully an examination of so old a subject as Theism, and it is to those that these pages are addressed. One cannot hope to say anything that is strikingly new on so well worn a subject as the existence of God, but there are many who will read an old subject when presented in a new work, and even then there is also the possibility of presenting an old topic in a slightly new form. And I think these will find the main lines of the defence set up by the Goddite dealt with in a manner that should at least make the point at issue clear.

Finally, it is one aim of this book to press home the point that the logical issue is between Theism and Atheism. That there is no logical halting place between the two, and that any attempt to call a halt is little more than a concession to a desire for mental or social convenience, seems to me as clear as anything can well be. And there is really nothing gained, ultimately, by the halt. Disinclination on the part of the non-Theist to push the issue to its logical conclusion is treated by the Theist as inability to do so, and is used as an argument in support of his own belief. In matters of the intellect, compromise is almost always a dangerous policy. It heartens one’s enemies and disheartens one’s friends. And there is really no adequate reason why those who have given up belief in deity should continue to treat this master superstition of the ages as though it were one of our most valuable inheritances, to be surrendered with lowered heads and sinking hearts. We who know both sides know that in giving up the belief in deity we have lost nothing of value, nothing that need cause us a single regret. And on that point we certainly can speak with authority; for we have been where the Theist is, he has not been where we are. Many of us know quite well all that is meant by the fear and trembling with which the believer looks upon a world without God. And we know how idle the fear is—as idle as a child’s fear of the dark. What the world is like with God, there is all the experience of history to inform us; and it would indeed be strange if love and brotherhood, armed with the weapons that science has given us, could not produce a better human society than has ever existed under the dominion of the Gods.


Part I.

AN EXAMINATION OF THEISM.


CHAPTER I.

What is God?

Soon after that famous Atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, entered the House of Commons, it is said that a fellow member approached him with the remark, “Good God, Bradlaugh, what does it matter whether there is a God or not?” Bradlaugh’s answer is not recorded, but one is impelled to open the present examination of the belief in God, by putting the same question in another form. Is the belief in God, as we are so often assured, one of the most important questions that can engage the attention of man? Under certain conditions one can conceive a rational answer in the affirmative. Where the mental and social conditions are such that men seriously believe the incidence of natural forces on mankind to be determined by the direct action of “God,” one can appreciate right belief concerning him being treated as of first rate importance. In such circumstances wrong ideas are the equivalent of disaster. But we are not in that condition to-day. It is, indeed, common ground with all educated men and women that natural happenings are independent of divine control to at least the extent that natural forces affect all alike, and without the least reference to religious beliefs. Fire burns and water drowns, foods sustain and poisons kill, no matter what our opinions on theology may be. In an earthquake or a war there is no observable relation between casualties and religious opinions. We are, in fact, told by theologians that it is folly to expect that there should be. A particular providence is no longer in fashion; God, we are told, works only through general laws, and that is only another way of saying that our opinions about God have no direct or observable influence on our well-being. It is a tacit admission that human welfare depends upon our knowledge and manipulation of the forces by which we are surrounded. There may be a God behind these forces, but that neither determines the extent of our knowledge of them or our power to manipulate them. The belief in God becomes a matter of, at best, secondary importance, and quite probably of no importance whatever.
But if that be so why bother about the belief? Is that not a reason for leaving it alone and turning our attention to other matters? The answer to that is that the belief in God is not of so detached a character as this advice assumes. In the course of ages the belief in God has acquired associations that give it the character of a highly obstructive force. It has become so entangled with inculcated notions of right and wrong that it is everywhere used as a buttress for institutions which have either outgrown their utility, or are in need of serious modification in the interests of the race. The opposition encountered in any attempt to deal with marriage, divorce, or education, are examples of the way in which religious ideas are permitted to interfere with subjects that should be treated solely from the standpoint of social utility. The course of human development has been such that religion has hitherto occupied a commanding position in relation to social laws and customs, with the result that it is often found difficult to improve either until the obstructive influence of religious beliefs has been dealt with.
It is not, then, because I believe the question of the existence of God to be of intrinsic importance that an examination of its validity is here undertaken. Its importance to-day is of a purely contingent character. The valid ground for now discussing its truth is that it is at present allowed to obstruct the practical conduct of life. And under similar circumstances it would be important to investigate the historical accuracy of Old Mother Hubbard or Jack and the Beanstalk. Any belief, no matter what its nature, must be dealt with as a fact of some social importance, so long as it is believed by large numbers to be essential to the right ordering of life. Whether true or false, beliefs are facts—mental and social facts, and the scheme of things which leaves them out of account is making a blunder of the most serious kind.
Certainly, conditions were never before so favourable for the delivery of a considered judgment on the question of the belief in God. On the one side we have from natural science an account of the universe which rules the operations of deity out of court. And on the other side we have a knowledge of the mode of origin of the belief which should leave us in no doubt as to its real value. We hope to show later that the question of origin is really decisive; that in reaching conclusions concerning the origin of the god-idea we are passing judgment as to its value. That the masters of this form of investigation have not usually, and in so many words, pushed their researches to their logical conclusions is no reason why we should refrain from doing so. Facts are in themselves of no great value. It is the conclusions to which they point that are the important things.
If the conclusions to which we refer are sound, then the whole basis of theism crumbles away. If we are to regard the god-idea as an evolution which began in misunderstandings of nature that were rooted in the ignorance of primitive man, it would seem clear that no matter how refined or developed the idea may become, it can rest on no other or sounder basis than that which is presented to us in the psychology of primitive man. Each stage of theistic belief grows out of the preceding stage, and if it can be shown that the beginning of this evolution arose in a huge blunder I quite fail to see how any subsequent development can convert this unmistakable blunder into a demonstrable truth. To take a case in point. When it was shown that so far as witchcraft rested on observed facts these could be explained on grounds other than those of the malevolent activities of certain old women, the belief in witchcraft was not “purified,” neither did it advance to any so-called higher stage; it was simply abandoned as a useless and mischievous explanation of facts that could be otherwise accounted for. Are we logically justified in dealing with the belief in God on any other principle? We cannot logically discard the world of the savage and still retain his interpretation of it. If the grounds upon which the savage constructed his theory of the world, and from which grew all the ghosts and gods with which he believed himself to be surrounded, if these grounds are false, how can we still keep in substance to conclusions that are admittedly based on false premises? We can say with tolerable certainty that had primitive man known what we know about nature the gods would never have been born. Civilised man does not discover gods, he discards them. It was a profound remark of Feurbach’s, that religion is ultimately anthropology, and it is anthropology that gives to all forms of theism the death blow.
In our own time, at least, it is not difficult to see that the word God retains its influence with many because of the indefinite manner in which it is used. It is never easy to say what a person has in his mind when he uses the word. In most cases one would be safe in saying that nothing at all is meant. It is just one of those “blessed” words where the comfort felt in their use is proportionate to the lack of definite meaning that accompanies them. A frank confession of ignorance is something that most people heartily dislike, and where problems are persistent and difficult of solution what most people are in search of is a narcotic. That “God” is one of the most popular of narcotics will be denied by none who study the psychology of the average man or woman.
When not used as a narcotic, “God” is brought into an argument as though it stood for a term which carried a well defined and well understood meaning. In work after work dealing with theism one looks in vain for some definition of “God.” All that one can do is to gather the author’s meaning from the course of his argument, and that is not always an easy task. The truth is, of course, that instead of the word carrying with it a generally understood meaning there is no word that is more loosely used or which carries a greater variety of meanings. Its connotations are endless, and range from the aggressively man-like deity of the primitive savage up—or down—to the abstract force of the mathematical physicist and the shadowy “Absolute” of the theologising metaphysician. The consequence of this is to find commonly that while it is one kind of a god that is being set up in argument, it is really another god that is being defended and even believed in. When we find people talking of entering into communion with God, or praying to God, it is quite certain they do not conceive him as a mere mathematical abstraction, or as a mere symbol of an unknown force. It is impossible to conceive any sane man or woman extracting comfort from praying or talking to a god who could not think, or feel, or hear. And if he possesses qualities that the religious attitude implies, we endow him with all the attributes of personality, and, be it noted, of human personality. Either one God is believed in in fact while another is established in theory, or an elaborate argument is presented which serves no other purpose than a disguise for the fact that there is no genuine belief left.
An example of the misleading way in which words are used is supplied by Sir Oliver Lodge, who for a man of science shows an amazing capacity for making use of unscientific language. In his “Man and the Universe,” discussing the attributes of deity, he says, “Let no worthy attribute be denied to the deity. In anthropomorphism there are many errors, but there is one truth. Whatever worthy attributes belong to man, be it personality or any other, its existence in the universe is thereby admitted; it belongs to the all.” Putting on one side the fallacy involved in speaking of attributes as though they were good or bad in themselves, one wonders why Sir Oliver limits this inference to the “worthy” attributes? Unworthy attributes are as real as worthy ones. If honesty exists so does dishonesty. Kindness is as real as cruelty. And if we must credit the deity with possessing all the good attributes, to whom must we credit the bad ones? A little later Sir Oliver does admit that we must credit the deity with the bad attributes also, but adds that they are dying out. But as they are part of the deity, their decay must mean that the deity is also undergoing a process of change, of education, and is as much subject to the law of growth as we are. Surely that is not what people mean when they speak about God. A god who is only a part of the cosmic process ceases to be a god in any reasonable sense of the term.
Professor Mellone, in his “God and the World,” says that the word God “becomes a name for the infinite system of law regarded as a whole” (p. 122). If that were really all that was meant by the word the matter would not be worth discussing. “God” as a symbol of a generalisation is a mere name, and as such is as good as any other name. But, again, it is plain that people mean more than that when they speak about God. If God is a name for universal law, let any really religious man try the plan of substituting in his prayers and in his thoughts the phrase “Universal Law” for “God,” and then see how long he will retain his religion. As Mr. Balfour points out (“Theism and Humanism,” p. 20), the god of religion and the god of philosophy represent two distinct beings, and it is hard to see how the two can be fused into one. The plain truth is that it is impossible to now make the existence of the god of religion reasonable, and the plan adopted is that of arguing for the existence of something about which there is often no dispute, and then introducing as the product of the argument something that has never been argued for at all. It is the philosophic analogue of the hat and omelette trick.
In this connection some well considered words of Sir James Frazer are well worth noting. He says:—

By a god I understand a superhuman and supernatural being, of a spiritual and personal nature, who controls the world or some part of it on the whole for good, and who is endowed with intellectual faculties, moral feelings, and active powers, which we can only conceive on the analogy of human faculties, feelings, and activities, though we are bound to suppose that in the divine nature they exist in an infinitely higher degree, than the corresponding faculties, feelings, and activities of man. In short, by a God I mean a beneficent supernatural spirit, the ruler of the world or of some part of it, who resembles man in nature though he excels him in knowledge, goodness, and power. This is, I think, the sense in which the ordinary man speaks of a God, and I believe that he is right in so doing. I am aware that it has been not unusual, especially of late years, to apply the name of God to very different conceptions, to empty it of all implications of personality, and to reduce it to signifying something very large and very vague, such as the Infinite or the Absolute (whatever these hard words may signify) the great First Cause, the Universal Substance, the stream of tendency by which al

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