Book Review: A Short History of Atheism by Gavin Hyman

Hyman’s A Short History of Atheism traces the route by which modern epistemological discussion produced atheism. He contends that subjectivist Enlightenment epistemologies, both rational and empirical, shaped a modern conception of God shared by both atheists and theists. This modern conception renders the Theist’s epistemic justifications for God’s existence vulnerable to atheistic counterattack. It simultaneously undermines the atheist’s case by revealing the God of his denial to be only a modern construct. God Himself may be immune to rejection. Ironically modern theism and modern atheism exist in symbiosis and flourish on similar epistemic modes. For anyone with the sneaking suspicion pre-Enlightenment epistemologies can positively contribute to modern theology, Hyman’s book is a must read.
Hyman contends that Enlightenment thought swapped the medieval relationship between a nominative God and an accusative self for a nominative self and accusative God. Without God as subject, the self no longer existed as an object of his creative activity. Aided by the disciplines of reason and science, the subjective self reduced God and external reality to objects of thought. This reduced God functions as the image of humanity and consequently suffers the possibility of complete elimination as a mental conception. Hyman suggests, “The more that religion adapted itself to modern epistemological assumptions and procedures, the more vulnerable it became to an atheistic assault” (xix). Conversely, the growing crisis of confidence in Enlightenment epistemological modes equally endangers forms of atheism reliant on those modes.
Chapter one presents atheism as a distinctly modern phenomenon that would have been unintelligible to the classical mind. (This seems a just contention since the classical naturalists Epicurus, Democritus and Lucretius were not overtly atheistic.) Atheism flourishes on the subtractive influences of modern secularism. Atheism requires Christianity in order to define itself by denial; it is “the remaining residue, once supernaturalism and superstition have finally been expunged” (2). Like nihilism and relativism, it parasitically grows in contradistinction to established dogmatisms. Atheism first appeared in the seventeenth century as a reaction to infamous episodes of demonic possession and witchcraft in the Christian west. Not until the eighteenth century, in the person of Denis Diderot did atheism assert itself as an independent dogma. But not everyone agreed with Diderot that atheism could rise on an autonomous metaphysical foundation. Thomas Huxley, for instance, adopted Hume’s skepticism of metaphysical knowledge and substituted the term “agnosticism.”
Hyman’s second chapter expounds the core of his argument by demonstrating how Enlightenment epistemologies subjectively created atheistic outcomes. Hyman accepts the standard view of René Descartes as the hinge of modernity. Though Descartes aimed to ground God’s existence on an indubitable foundation, his quest for certainty substituted reason for the Augustinian insistence on faith seeking understanding. Though some scholars attribute this shift to Aquinas rather than Descartes, Hyman avoids anachronism. “Such a conception is thought to be a retrospective post-Cartesian projection onto the medieval mind. . . . The Five Ways should be understood as accounts of different ways in which philosophers, using natural reason, have been led to or drawn to the notion of God. But this experience of being ‘led to’ or ‘drawn to’ God does not amount to an indubitable rational demonstration” (21).
Descartes’s epistemology reacted to an antecedent “pluralisation of legitimacy” in western thought (23). The rift between Protestants and Catholics created a crisis of authority when it shattered the hegemony of Church tradition. Martin Luther’s criterion of authority amounted to “conscience compelled by Scripture.”  But of course, Luther’s authority was open to a variety of interpretations stemming from diverse consciences. Further, those who recognized neither tradition nor Scripture looked for yet additional foundations for knowledge. Enter Descartes. Against the backdrop of this pluralisation of legitimacy, Descartes’s rational quest for the “holy grail of certainty . . . inaugurated what has become known as the ‘age of the subject’” (24-25). The thinking self becomes the foundation for all knowledge including knowledge of God’s existence. Descartes’s ontological argument reversed God’s status from nominative to accusative. (Hyman cautions against an anachronistic decontextualized reading of Anselm as with Aquinas.)
Despite Descartes’s certainty about the absolute foundation he discovered in the cogito, subsequent thinkers discovered cracks that left his ontological conception of God precariously balanced. Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Barth questioned why Descartes’s cogito was invulnerable to doubt; why not take one more step to nihilism? Without a knowing subject the accusative God disappears. Immanuel Kant imposed a more difficult challenge with his insistence that “existence is not a predicate.” Descartes’s cogito reduced external reality to thought objects; it could not establish positive existence. Descartes’s radically subjective “I” limited God to a mental construct that subsequent thinkers could easily eliminate as superfluous.
A second major actor on the Enlightenment stage was the empiricist John Locke. Although Locke’s empiricism differed radically from Descartes’s rationalism, both insisted on the priority of the human subjective and God accusative modes. Locke’s cosmological arguments, like Descartes’s ontological argument, reduced God to an object of human conception. God’s attributes, claimed Locke, are ideas derived from sensation and reflection. “These ‘ideas’ are. . . projected into infinity in order to reach a concept of God that would answer to the requirements of the concept that is called forth by his cosmological argument” (29). Locke’s arguments differed from Aquinas’s who grounded his empiricism ultimately in God’s self-revelation; whereas, Locke grounded his empiricism in “human empirical sensations.” Hyman concludes, “Descartes’s God appears to be little more than an hypostatisation of rational concepts. . . . Locke’s God appears to be little more than an hypostatization of empirical realities” (31).
The medieval mind located knowledge of God in divine revelation and positioned humans as passive receivers. Conversely, the Enlightenment mind located knowledge of God in human rational and empirical sources and positioned humans as active projectors. This shift exposed theology to the withering criticism of Hume, Kant, Feuerbach and Marx. Hume followed empiricism to its logical outcome denying all metaphysical truth. Kant restored confidence in metaphysics, but argued that metaphysical truths remained in the phenomenal world because they were mediated through human empirical faculties. The noumenal world, including God, remained off limits to human investigation. Feuerbach moved Locke’s cosmology to the radical conclusion that God was nothing more than a projection of ideal humanity onto an imaginary being. Finally, Marx replaced theism as an ordering concept with dialectical materialism.
Chapter three contrasts the God modern atheism rejects with the God the medieval mind embraced. Medieval thought emphasized God’s transcendence, the limits of human rationality, the requirement of negative theology in theological definition, and the necessity of analogical language in theological discourse. Medieval theologians viewed description of God as invariably limited by creaturely inadequacies. However, the advent of modern epistemological forms led to the abandonment of both analogical description and negative theology in favor of univocal truths. Hyman argues, “analogy and the negative theology, therefore, are now seen as embodying epistemological vacuity and moral servitude . . . . Negative theology now gives way to a situation in which positive theology is unequivocally prioritized” (54). The constraints of univocal theology domesticate God’s transcendence and bring him alongside his creation as an alternate form of empirical reality. Hyman suggests that analytical philosophers, like Richard Swinburne, have continued the domestication of God by rejecting any conceptual apparatus that exceeds human rationality. In summary, “the conception of God is ‘domesticated’ as the transcendence of God is downplayed, so that God can be referred to in the univocal language of ‘clear and distinct’ ideas with the result that God is conceived in increasingly worldly and anthropomorphic terms” (62).
Hyman identifies two outcomes of the domestication of God. God becomes a radical anthropomorphism or he disappears as an object of scientific investigation. “Once the insights of negative theology and its analogical conception of theological language have been lost, God must either be brought immediately before our eyes in a particularly vivid, personalist way, or else he recedes away beyond the sights of the epistemological horizon altogether” (62). The atheism of Marx and Feuerbach stemmed from the first conception of God. Feuerbach criticized the anthropomorphic conception of God as mere “projection.”
The atheism of contemporary author Richard Dawkins stems from the latter conception of God. Once God ceases to fill a distinct function in a self-explanatory world, his existence fades from memory. Hyman suggests the fact that Richard Swinburne is the sole contemporary theistic philosopher Dawkins interacts with confirms that Dawkins seems capable of reacting only to a domesticated God, but feels ill-at-ease commenting upon a more robust medieval conception of God. (Dawkins’s stubborn refusal to engage classical apologist William Lane Craig in debate seems to justify Hyman on this point.)
Chapter four explores the theological origins of modern atheism and suggests that atheism’s roots lie largely within theology. When John Duns Scotus rejected the ontological difference between divine being and human being, the domestication of God began. (Scotus was largely influenced by the Averroist interpretation of Aristotle which aimed at identifying the ultimate ground of being.) “Being” ceased to exist as something created by God, and became something God and creation shared. The ontological distinction between finite and infinite disappeared with an elimination of the infinite metaphysical gap between God and humanity. Hyman calls this trend the “domesticating move.” “We can see that with the inauguration of a single level of ontology, the foundations of an ‘immanent’ world-view are being laid, within which an immanent reality may be neutrally observed and ‘represented.’ The world is no longer perceived as participating in a higher order, but is self-sufficient and self-explanatory” (79). This impoverished ontology eliminates analogy, poetry, rhetoric and narrative and privileges scientific epistemology.
Chapter five argues that three factors eroded belief in the nineteenth century and created a climate in which biblical criticism could flourish: the growth of atheism and agnosticism, moral considerations (particularly the questioning of biblical doctrines such as everlasting punishment) and the rise of a perceived conflict between science and religion. These corrosive factors undermined theism precisely because it rested on Enlightenment structures. For instance, Enlightenment epistemological shifts produced rational and empirical approaches to hermeneutics and necessarily excluded tradition-based knowledge. Again, the poetic, rhetorical and narrative forms surrendered to logic and science. Doctrines which stubbornly resisted being shaped in straightforwardly propositional terms were increasingly questioned. Hyman suggests that typological and allegorical interpretations would have eased the Bible into the modern world and largely avoided biblical criticism. He optimistically suggests that many contemporary theologians are taking a positive “half-turn back to the church fathers and their practices of typological and allegorical exegesis.” He even argues that the modern “literal history” reading of the text may be a “temporary aberration” (100). (This reviewer suggests that chapter five is Hyman’s weakest argument in an otherwise strong case. It seems an oversimplification of patristic hermeneutics. The Antiochian school was characteristically literal.)
Hyman’s sixth chapter explores the relationship between atheism and the rise of modern science. The pre-Victorian mind viewed science and religion as a “harmonious whole,” but the relationship degenerated from “amity to enmity.” Wittgenstein, Hyman argues, relegated science and religion to distinct non-overlapping spheres. Darwin himself had earlier suggested that there was nothing incompatible between these spheres. However, the perceived spherical relativity of science and religion was only accomplished by a surrender of core Christian truths. Geology in particular proscribed a literal reading of several texts.
The Darwinian challenge to faith was symptomatic of a much broader challenge to the Christian worldview. As early as the 1790s Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population suggested a war for survival between man and nature and consequently undermined the genius of natural revelation. By the early 1800s, Charles Lyell’s stratification of the geological record further distanced nature from Scripture. Then in 1844, Robert Chalmers argued in Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation that the laws of slow geological development should equally apply to the emergence of life itself. In this context, religion and science could not function as complementary perspectives on the origin and history of the natural world.   Hyman suggests that the conflict between science and religion emerged because Enlightenment thought located both on a “common epistemological plane.” However, Hyman is encouraged by the growing recognition that science and religion should indeed concern themselves with distinct domains. Only rarely, he says, would twentieth-century persons espouse atheism because of new discoveries in science. Rather, the most significant challenge lies in the problem of evil.
Chapter seven distinguishes two variations of the problem of evil. Nineteenth-century atheists challenged the moral integrity of Christianity with particular reference to its doctrine of everlasting punishment. Twentieth-century atheists challenged the internal logic of Christian theology with respect to God’s goodness, omnipotence and the reality of evil. The logical problem of evil drew from four sources. First, it drew from moral challenge of the preceding century. Second, an explosion in mass communication brought the reality of suffering and the unequal distributions of evil to prominence. A third factor was the twentieth-century’s astonishing death toll resulting from two world wars, the Holocaust and similar horrific tragedies.  A fourth factor was logical positivism’s rejection of metaphysical claims and its consequent introduction of analytical philosophy. J. L. Mackie was the first to offer a “forceful articulation of the logical problem of evil” (133).
Hyman offers a helpful review of the theodicists Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and John Hick. This review serves to reassert his repeated theme of a competition between theists and atheists over the same epistemic resources. “I do want to suggest, however, that what these theodicists and anti-theodicists, theists and atheists, share is, in many respects, more significant than what divides them. For one thing, it should be noted that there is no disagreement between them with respect to the philosophical methodology” (136). Just as Enlightenment thinkers recast their conception of God in modern epistemic forms, so theodicists articulate their views in modern analytic terms. Consequently, if theists and atheists agree on a methodology for defending or denying God, they inevitably agree in their conception of God. Hyman also argues that analytical philosophy is a species of Enlightenment epistemology that tends to anthropomorphize God’s omnipotence and God’s goodness. “These definitions of ‘omnipotence’ are derived from what it means for human beings to have and to exercise power; in other words, divine power is being created in the image of human power. And the same thing happens with regard to divine goodness in relation to human goodness” (142). Hyman suggests this anthropomorphism amounts to viewing God’s goodness and power as merely quantitatively in excess of human goodness and power. He then offers an alternative. Perhaps, “we know that God’s goodness bears some limited resemblance to human goodness, but further than that we cannot go” (143). “What if philosophers were to take seriously the specifically religious injunction of the prophet: ‘My ways are not your ways, neither are my thought your thoughts, saith the Lord?” (143)
In his final chapter, Hyman asks whether the end of modernity might bring with it the end of atheism. He answers in the affirmative, but equally suggests the destruction of the philosophical underpinnings of atheism might bring with it new conceptions of theism. Hyman follows Friedrich Nietzsche’s death of God philosophy to its logical conclusion, the death of metaphysical truth. If modern epistemology eliminates God as the metaphysical foundation for theism, then it equally eliminates any objective metaphysical claims, including any in the service of atheism. Hyman interprets the madman’s wiping away the “entire horizon” and the unchaining of the earth from the sun, as a recognition that with the death of God all that we love and cherish is equally obliterated. “Thus, the madman’s hearers seem to represent many of our present-day secular atheists who seem to assume that although God is dead ‘truth’ remains alive and well” (171).
In this climate, theism doesn’t remain intact. Hyman reviews several modern theologians who offer new conceptions of God. An underlying theme in their conceptions is God’s unknowability and consequently is impersonality. Hyman says, “God is therefore not only not a ‘being’, he is also not subordinate to, nor contained by, the Being of beings. The whole panoply of metaphysical procedures—rational argument, empirical evidence, experiential inference and so forth—simply cannot apply to God” (178).
Hyman’s concluding chapter, in an otherwise robust philosophical treatment, is disappointing. In his introduction he had suggested that modernity often trades on the misguided assumption “that the contemporary is intrinsically superior to the past because we have progressed from there to here.” (xvi)  But modern theologians’ new conceptions of God seem little in advance of Plotinus’s Neo-Platonist conception of the unknowable One. A God like Plotinus’s entirely beyond being might easily be renamed “nothing.” Surprisingly, Hyman does not suggest that a return to an earlier form of theism is optional.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Brenton Cook holds a PhD in Church History and teaches undergraduate courses in Philosophy, Apologetics, and Worldview at Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. He also teaches graduate courses in Church History in BJU’s Seminary and Graduate School of Religion.

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Brian Auten is the founder emeritus of Apologetics315. He is also director of Reasonable Faith Belfast. Brian holds a Masters degree in Christian Apologetics and has interviewed over 150 Christian apologists. His background is in missions, media direction, graphic design, and administration. Brian started Apologetics315 in 2007 to be an apologetics hub to equip Christians to defend the faith.

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