A Brief History of Secular Thought

A brief history of secular thought from the Enlightenment to the present, looking at how it has been shaped by culture and events. We start in the Enlightenment with Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, David Hume, and Thomas Paine. Moving into the nineteenth century we look at literary influences like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Carlyle, then social critics like Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx. Charles Darwin takes a central position in the nineteenth century, followed by expositors like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. And we conclude the nineteenth century with Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God. We start the twentieth century with Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell and look at satirical writers at the turn of the century like like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. We conclude the twentieth century with Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan and start off the twenty-first century with the New Atheists.

I’ve titled this episode “A Brief History of Secular Thought”, which is kind of funny because it’s one of the longest episodes I’ve done. But it’s brief relative to the potential scope of the subject matter. For example, Charles Taylor’s book on the subject, A Secular Age, is 896 pages. Tyler Roberts’ Teaching Company course, Skeptics and Believers, is 18.5 hours in length. So by comparison the following will be a brief history of secular thought.

Why study secular thought? Well for one thing it’s just interesting. But it’s also important for both secular and religious people to be familiar with it in order to understand the history of the ideas that they hold and respond to. One of the thinkers discussed in what follows, Friedrich Nietzsche, would employ in his philosophy what he called a “genealogy” of ideas. This kind of genealogy explores the history of certain ideas in order to see how they have been dependent on events and cultural conditions of that history. Genealogy reveals how ideas are not absolute but rather contingent; they have a history and could have developed differently than they did. In what follows one of the aims is to situate and contextualize secular thought.

In Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age he introduced a number of terms and concepts that he used to study the development of secular thought. One of these concepts is the “subtraction story”. James K.A. Smith, in his commentary on Taylor’s book, defined subtraction stories as: “Accounts that explain ‘the secular’ as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition.” (How (Not) To Be Secular) In a subtraction story secular thought is decontextualized and we lose sight of its contingency as a cultural construct. In Taylor’s words subtraction stories are:

“Stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process—modernity or secularity—is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside.” (A Secular Age, 21)

A subtraction story of the secular might be something of this form: Humans used to have all kinds of superstitious beliefs because we didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand how things really work. But with the rise of modern science we don’t need those superstitions anymore. We used to use religion to help us cope with the hardships of life. But our increased scientific knowledge has brought about technology that has made us wealthier and healthier in ways that religion never could. Now we can cast religion aside and see things as they really are and always were.

As an alternative to this Taylor spends his book arguing that the secular is constructed. It’s a cultural construct shaped by a contingent history of development.

“Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.” (ibid. 21)

By looking at secular thought as a cultural construct I think we’re doing something much more interesting than just a simple deconstruction or takedown of it. Sort of in the way people say that atheism is just another religion, which always strikes me as a bit of an unintentional self-own; I don’t like to use “religion” as a pejorative because I think religion is a good thing. I don’t think that seeing secular thought as a construct rather than in terms of a subtraction story discredits it. Instead I think it gives a fuller and more accurate picture of it. If secular thought as we have it today has been shaped by the contingent events of history we can go back through history and see those decisive points where the ideas we take for granted today started to develop. We can certainly do the same with religious thought, which is basically historical theology, and that is also a valuable exercise.

In what follows I’d like to discuss some of the major figures who shaped the development of secular thought. Two important questions leading into that are: (1) where to start and (2) who to include? Christopher Hitchens edited a volume called The Portable Atheist with writings from many such key figures. And I think his list was pretty good. His first selection is from Lucretius (99 BC – 55 BC). That’s definitely a solid pick but I’m going to narrow my focus to modernity, starting with the Enlightenment. On who to include I’ve focused on: (1) people who are generally considered important in this kind of history, (2) people whose ideas are still in the air today, even if we don’t always name them, and (3) people who were highly influential and popular in their day, who were bestsellers. I think this last point is important because cultural construction of a worldview, or what Taylor calls a “social imaginary”, is about more than just who can make the most logical or academically respectable argument. It’s also about influence. Who were people talking about in parlors and taverns? Today, who are people discussing in book clubs and on social media? Those are the people who are major culture shapers, regardless of their credentials.

It will help to do a quick overview first to see where all of this is going. So here’s a brief summary of the trajectory. Our starting point will be in the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment. Any starting point is arbitrary and there were definitely developments that led into this period. For example, there were important ideas from people like Spinoza, Bacon, and Hobbes. So it’s worth mentioning them in passing. Starting in the eighteenth century Voltaire and Denis Diderot were two important intellectuals, or philosophes, with a secularizing influence in France. In the English-speaking world important Enlightenment figures included David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine is especially interesting because he had transnational influence in America, Great Britain, and France. All these men were quite characteristic of the eighteenth century. They tended to embrace deism which, while still technically theist, was moving far from orthodox Christian theism.

In the nineteenth century important intellectual and cultural developments included Romanticism, higher Biblical criticism, Hegelianism, socialism, and evolution. All of these had secularizing influences. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a poet and essayist who went beyond deism and promoted atheism in the strongest sense, both explicitly and figuratively, in his writing. Many nineteenth century thinkers like Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche also embraced this strong form of atheism. Others like Thomas Carlyle represented and wrote for many in the nineteenth century who continued to hold on to some form of symbolic and experiential theism, even to Christianity if sufficiently reinterpreted. Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx each gave accounts for religious belief grounded in naturalistic explanations. Naturalism then gained considerable support with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Other thinkers following Darwin often referred to his work in support of their own ideas. Two prominent examples of this were Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. Spencer not only promoted and popularized Darwin’s theories but also integrated them into a more comprehensive and total philosophy of progress that dominated the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. Friedrich Nietzsche took some of the boldest and most irreverent positions on atheism and Christianity, declaring the death of God and criticizing Christian morality itself.

In the early twentieth century secular thought and intellectual life more generally was dominated by the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Like Feuerbach and Marx, Freud developed fully naturalistic theories for the origins of religious belief. Freud’s psychoanalytic thought would be foundational in the development of continental philosophy. Around the same time another line of thought was developing in analytic philosophy, led by Bertrand Russell. Russell was a prolific writer and influential both among his technical and academic colleagues as well in the wider public. Public opinion was also heavily influenced by novelists and journalists like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. Where scientists and philosophers undermined religious foundations literary figures like Twain and Mencken were able to make it look ridiculous, perhaps an even more significant accomplishment. In the later twentieth century some of the most influential secular thinkers were scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

At the start of the twenty-first century the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought new attention to the dangers of religious fundamentalism and sparked a strong response among a group of writers known as the New Atheists. These included Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.

That’s the overview. Now let’s go through all that again in more detail.

Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon, and Paine were all men of the Enlightenment. All were critical of religion. But none was an atheist either, at least not in his own self understanding. They were Deists and proponents of “natural religion”. This natural religion is theistic but in a deistic conception God is remote and doesn’t intervene in human affairs with miracles and revelations. A deistic God is very different from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They admired Jesus, or at least Jesus as they understood him. Jesus was an ancient teacher of natural religion but his teachings had been overlaid with superstitious doctrinal accretions that became Christianity, something quite different from the real Jesus of history. An evocative illustration of this idea is Thomas Jefferson’s editing of the Bible in which he kept Jesus’ ethical teachings but cut out the miracles that later followers ascribed to him.

The stage had been set for the Enlightenment by many events including the Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion, like the great Thirty Years War. Religion, in the eyes of many, was becoming more of a problem than an unquestioned way of life. Another cataclysmic event that rocked Europe was the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Europe reacted viscerally to the devastation of this earthquake and traditional religious answers started to be unsatisfying. Philosopher Susan Neiman in her book Evil In Modern Thought argued that the Lisbon Earthquake was a foundational event in modern thought upon which many of the great developments of the next century would build. It was the kind of event after which nothing could ever be the same again, like the Holocaust in the twentieth, but maybe even more so in Neiman’s view.

Well reasoned religious explanations were not lacking. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had developed an argument justifying God in light of the natural and human evils. Leibniz, one of the inventors of calculus and with a mind honed to think in terms of functions and optimizations, reasoned that the world that actually exists is the world that, out of all possible worlds, has the greatest amount of good over evil: the best of all possible worlds. Any other world that lacked some particular evil that we might want not to exist would, for various reasons unknown to us but known to God, have lower net good overall. And we’ve all probably read enough stories and seen enough movies to imagine how that might work, where something bad is later seen to have been somehow instrumental to the greater good in the long run. It’s a clever argument. But after Lisbon a lot of people weren’t convinced.

One man who was especially not convinced was Voltaire. Voltaire was a master of the pen and wildly popular. In Voltaire’s hand Leibniz became the foolish character Pangloss in the novel Candide. In the face of war, rape, murder, natural disasters, and other forms of suffering and injustice Pangloss always insists that such things happen for a reason, unlike the title character Candide who comes to see that the world often really is just cruel and arbitrary. For deists like Voltaire God is not expected to intervene in harsh realities of the world. God is more of a mathematician and physicist who sets things up with their initial conditions and then just lets the system evolve. If the system happens to have disasters like the Lisbon Earthquake, those aren’t part of any meaningful plan. They’re just meaningless outputs of the system.

Revelation had no place in natural theology. Instead the best way to understand God would be through the sciences. This was an age of massive scholarly studies. Denis Diderot launched his Encyclopédie, a great encyclopedia of all knowledge. Edward Gibbon produced his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And Hume produced his Treatise of Human Nature and later the more refined and digestible Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The great thinkers of the Enlightenment were daring to know, to use the words of another Enlightenment thinker, Immanuel Kant. They were amassing knowledge in all fields.

Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall covered the history of Rome from 180 AD with Marcus Aurelius to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. Gibbon’s project was to identify the cause of Rome’s decline and fall. And he proposed as an explanation that Rome had fallen because of Christianity. This was actually an argument that many pagans had made at the time of the fall of the Western empire in the 400s AD, which prompted Augustine of Hippo to write his City of God as a response. But unlike Augustine’s pagan opponents who attributed Rome’s misfortunes to abandonment by their gods Gibbon’s explanation was naturalistic and quite characteristic of modern history. Christianity had led to the decline of the Roman Empire because it weakened the traditional Roman social order and values. Christianity interrupted or ended important Roman economic institutions like slavery and trade. Roman soldiers lost their martial virtues and became more preoccupied with religious matters. And preoccupation with religious matters diverted Rome’s citizens from other intellectual and cultural pursuits. As with the Roman historian Tacitus writing about the Germanic barbarians, we might see in Gibbons’ writings about the Romans a critique of the society of his own day. If Christianity caused the decline and fall of Rome how might it be holding us back in our day?

Where Gibbon concerned himself with history David Hume worked in the space of ideas. Hume is one of my favorite philosophers and I really recommend reading his work, especially his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I think most of the problems of the philosophy of science that we’re still grappling with all go back to Hume, in particular his problem of induction. He was the kind of thinker who would pause over the things we take for granted and ask, “Now how do we really know that?” And then after leaving us all sufficiently perplexed he’d go play a game of backgammon and not worry about it for several hours. On religion Hume was maybe the closest to an atheist among this group of Enlightenment thinkers since he criticized even the idea the universe had been set in motion at all by an intelligent being. His most important work on the subject is his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Here, in the mouths of his fictional characters, Hume pokes fun at the notion of a deistic God of supernatural intelligence, proposing instead some much less attractive possibilities.

“This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.”

This is all delightfully sacrilegious and though Hume was naturally criticized by many people he also faced no real consequences and his wit and irreverence were no doubt celebrated by many other Enlightenment readers.

No treatment of the Enlightenment is complete in my opinion without touching on one of its most popular and towering figures across the Atlantic: the American pamphleteer Thomas Paine. His Common Sense is still read by school children today and was immensely influential among the American colonists. Just listen to these classic lines:

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.”

Paine was a hero not only to Americans but also to the French, having the distinction of being an influential pamphleteer in two great revolutions. Paine’s The Rights of Man was exceptionally popular among the French.

Relevant to our topic here, another of Paine’s great works was The Age of Reason. It’s something of a deist manifesto. It’s favorable to natural religion and a deistic understanding of God but very critical of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some key passages:

“Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet; as if the way to God was not open to every man alike… No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it… When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so, the commandments carrying no internal evidence of divinity with them. They contain some good moral precepts such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver or a legislator could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention.”

This is very direct and bold stuff. And it’s characteristic of the Enlightenment or Age of Reason as Paine called it.

As we move into the eighteenth century the spirit of age starts to look different. On the one hand there was a reaction to the heady rationalism of the Enlightenment, a response that came to be known as Romanticism. And in some ways this constituted a return to spirituality of a sort. But it was very different from that of orthodox Christianity. Something more pantheistic like Hegel’s Geist, a spirit or mind present in the events of history. But secularism also started to become more blatant and atheistic.

Percy Bysshe Shelly was an interesting combination of the Romantic poet and blatant atheist. He was kicked out of Oxford after writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism”. No deism here anymore. Shelly, one of the greatest poets in history, said that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (A Defense of Poetry) This is an important theme that I’d like to stress and return to in this episode. I think Shelly was right on the money. Philosophers are maybe more acknowledged. But we sometimes forget about the influence of the poets, artists, comedians, and other entertainers. They have a lot of influence on how we think. Probably more than the academics. I think Shelly is also a good example of an important trend in the development of secular thought, and that is the self-image of a secular person. For Shelly to be an atheist was to be among an elite group of people who were more reflective and intelligent than most others. Consider the following passage from his essay “A Refutation of Deism”:

“That the frequency of a belief in God (for it is not universal) should be any argument in its

favour, none to whom the innumerable mistakes of men are familiar, will assert. It is among

men of genius and science that Atheism alone is found, but among these alone is cherished an

hostility to those errors, with which the illiterate and vulgar are infected. How small is the proportion of those who really believe in God, to the thousands who are prevented by their occupations from ever bestowing a serious thought upon the subject.”

Shelly has plenty of arguments in the essay but I think this passage, while not one of the arguments, is actually more effective than any of them.

Not everyone was as radical and celebratory as Shelley. Another literary figure significant in the development of secular thought was the essayist Thomas Carlyle. Charles Taylor, in his book chapter on nineteenth-century trajectories, used Carlyle as a representative for much of the social imaginary of that century. Taylor characterized the nineteenth century as one of a “cross-pressure” between the unviability of religion on the one hand and the seemingly unbearable emptiness of the void it left behind. People could not believe but neither could they bear the implications of unbelief.

“Thus for many whatever in the traditional faith went beyond or contradicted the notion of impersonal order was no longer believable; but at the same time, their sense of the weaknesses, ugliness, or evils of their age forbade them to accept the more reductive, scientistic or Utilitarian modes of order.” (A Secular Age, 377-378)

And to explore this he chose to look at Carlyle:

“A good reason for looking at the advance of unbelief in these terms is the influence and impact of Carlyle… In the 1830s and 40s, he was immensely popular. When I speak here of a vector of the advance of unbelief, I mean that Carlyle’s solution to cross-pressures which he was responding to provided the bridge by which many members of the elite public could distance themselves from their ancestral faith.”

“In giving Carlyle such a central role, I am deviating from what is often seen as the standard story of the Victorians’ loss of faith. Somewhat oversimplifying, this is thought to have been caused by the impact of Darwinian evolution, which is held so directly to have refuted the Bible. This created an agonizing conflict for many people of devout religious upbringing, which was in the end resolved by many, often with a poignant sense of loss, by the abandonment of their faith. There is some truth in this story, especially about the agonizing, and sense of loss (which seems to have been felt by Darwin himself). But it leaves out something crucial: that evolutionary theory didn’t emerge in a world where almost everyone still took the Bible story simply and literally; that among other things, this world was already strongly marked by the ideas of impersonal order, not to speak of the dark abyss of time; and that an influential formulation had already been given to the displacement of Christianity by a cosmic vision of impersonal order, that of Carlyle.” (ibid)

Carlyle himself said, “This is not a Religious age,” (Signs of the Times) but he was hardly pleased with that fact:

“To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility; it was one huge, dead, im-measureable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb. O the vast, Gloomy, solitary Golgotha, and Mill of Death.” (Sartor Resartus)

The machine was an important idea for Carlyle, one he saw as the biggest threat. He said in “Signs of the Times”:

“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age.”

Carlyle bemoaned this fact but believed that most of his contemporaries viewed it with indifference.

“The singular conclusions at which Hume, setting out from their admitted premises, was arriving, brought this school into being; they let loose Instinct, as an undiscriminating ban-dog, to guard them against these conclusions; — they tugged lustily at the logical chain by which Hume was so coldly towing them and the world into bottomless abysses of Atheism and Fatalism. But the chain somehow snapped between them; and the issue has been that nobody now cares about either.” (Signs of the Times)

Nevertheless the influence and popularity of his writings would suggest that this was not entirely true and that he was giving voice to a general reaction that was anything but indifferent. Rather the toppling of traditional religion was a huge problem that needed to be solved. For Carlyle this looked something like an impersonal order. There was a need to “embody the divine Spirit of that Religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls, otherwise too like perishing, may live”. (Sartor Resartus) In Taylor’s view this kind of “not purely human spiritual force” had two important effects. One was to serve as a bridge by which people could “be both against Christianity and for it”. The other was to accustom people to start thinking in terms of impersonal order rather than personal order. Carlyle was not alone in this even if he is representative. Hegel would certainly be another important proponent of this notion, albeit in more complicated terms that were not so clearly impersonal.

The notion of impersonal general order is important because the nineteenth century gave rise to three major intellectual systems of impersonal order: Hegel’s Geist, Marx’s dialectical materialism, and Darwin’s evolution by natural selection. Secular thought in the nineteenth century moved away from deism but it did not jump straight to positivism; that idea from Auguste Comte would have to wait until the next century. Reality still had order and, significantly, direction. But it was impersonal.

I made an episode a couple years ago about how Hegel is much bigger and more interesting than the compressed picture we get through Marx. His Phenomenology of Geist is, in my interpretation, an epic-scale general study on how the mind comes to understand things. Nevertheless for present purposes of the history of secular thought it makes some sense to do violence to his work and view it through Marxism. The idea of Hegel’s that was most relevant to Marx was his theory of history which, far from being just one damned thing after another, was a rational progression. History and ideas develop together in a rational way such that, “What is real is rational, and what is rational is real.” Marx took this notion but then stood Hegel on his head so to speak. Whereas for Hegel the progress of history took place through ideas, for Marx history was emphatically material and especially economic. He took the notion of a dialectic – which would normally be something like a conversation, a dialogue, an exchange of ideas – and made it operate in economics. Later Marxists called this “dialectical materialism”.

For Marx economics was what really mattered. Everything else was “superstructure”. In Marx’s model society was composed of two major parts: base and superstructure. The base was all the modes of production and the superstructure was everything else like law, politics, art, philosophy, and religion. As he laid out in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness… The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

Note Marx’s comment that “one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself”. This is an extremely important idea and something we will also see in Nietzsche and Freud. Paul Ricoeur proposed that these three engaged in a “hermeneutic of suspicion”. This is a way of analyzing how the reasons that you think you have for believing something may not be your real reasons for it. For Marx if you are religious the reasons you have for being religious are not the reasons that you think they are. You are not religious for spiritual reasons but for economic reasons. The economic reasons for religion are, most importantly, the desperate conditions of poverty. Marx explained this in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

“The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism… Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

“The opium of the people” is probably Marx’s most famous statement about religion. And it’s a good symbol summarizing his thoughts on the subject. Why do people need such an opium? Because of the suffering produced by their economic conditions. Religion gives an illusory reprieve but it doesn’t resolve the underlying conditions, which are economic. Religion is a problem for Marx precisely because it masks the underlying conditions. It needs to be swept away so that people can see their economic problems clearly and then act on them

Marx critiqued the ideas of many of contemporaries, taking resources from their ideas where he found use for them and pointing out where he thought they did not go far enough. One such thinker was Ludwig Feuerbach. I also did an episode on Feuerbach and his fascinating book The Essence of Christianity. One of Marx’s significant works is his brief Theses on Feuerbach, with eleven theses on Feuerbach’s thought. The eleventh and most important of these theses is: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx and Feuerbach were both atheists and so Marx essentially agreed with that aspect of Feuerbach’s work. But he criticized Feuerbach for extending his analysis of Christianity only to its ideas rather than to its underlying material causes and for neglecting to promote any kind of action or response to it.

Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity is fascinating for all the reasons Marx disagreed with it. When reading Feuerbach I get the sense that he was someone who really understood Christianity well and thought seriously about it, even while rejecting it. Topics he addresses in his book include: sacred immanence, providence, metaethics, spiritual existence, the elevation of anthropology to theology, religious process, God the Father as understanding, Trinity as relation and self-consciousness, Christ as mediator, the Son as Word, the Son as Love, and the Incarnation as manifestation of God in man. These are all great theological topics but Marx wanted nothing of all that since these are matters of ideas rather than material realities. But there was one idea from Feuerbach that stood out and would have the most significance in the development of secular thought and this was Feuerbach’s concept of projection. This is the idea that humans project their own attributes onto God, basically creating God in their own image. He wrote:

“Man cannot get beyond his true nature. He may indeed by means of the imagination conceive individuals of another so-called higher kind, but he can never get loose from his species, his nature; the conditions of being, the positive final predicates which he gives to these other individuals, are always determinations or qualities drawn from his own nature—qualities in which he in truth only images and projects himself.”

We take the human attributes that we most admire and project them onto this being that we call God. Feuerbach finds this problematic and calls for people to stop doing it and instead to re-internalize the qualities that we project onto God and find them in ourselves. For one thing projection diminishes our self-regard: “To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing.” And Feuerbach also thinks that our projected regard for God is completely misplaced: “All those dispositions which ought to be devoted to life, to man— all the best powers of humanity, are lavished on the being who wants nothing.”

There are two important ideas here in Feuerbach. The first is a secular account of the origin of God. And this is the process of projection, creating God in our image. The second is more of an ethical stance, that we ought not to be distracted by concern for supernatural matters in Heaven from the important issues of material and social realities. We should be thinking more about making the world a better place rather than thinking about God.

All this set the stage and prepared the intellectual environment for the most important of the three major intellectual systems of impersonal order: Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s work is principally scientific but that’s not the main aspect to look at for present purposes. For the subject of the development of secular thought the main issue is the intellectual implications of evolution by natural selection. What sorts of secondary ideas developed from the scientific work? Darwin himself was non-religious and his own scientific work did contribute to that. He wrote in a letter to Asa Gray:

“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I [should] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.”

Part of Darwin’s development of the theory included the study of Thomas Malthus, an economist who had observed that while population increases geometrically, food production increases only arithmetically (or at least it did at that time). The dismal conclusion from this is that there would always be unavoidable periodic famine and population reduction through starvation. With limited resources populations are necessarily limited. Some members of the population will survive and others will perish. And this brings up an important question: is the question of who will survive and who will perish random or are there factors that make the survival of some individuals more likely than others? And Darwin determined that it would not be random; that certain traits would be comparatively advantageous to survival. Thus natural selection depends on two important facts: (1) populations being limited and (2) diversity of traits within a species. 

The most careful expositors of Darwinian theory are diligent to remember that the process of natural selection is completely non-directional. Species are not evolving toward anything, to become stronger, faster, or more intelligent. Those things may happen but it’s not because of any teleology. There’s no right or wrong direction for evolution to go. And humans are no more evolved than bacteria. That’s when we’re being careful. But we’re often not. And it’s been very common in the wake of Darwin’s Origin of Species to think of evolution in terms of progress. And this was the mindset that dominated the intellectual environment of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Two of the most important expositors of Darwin and evolution were Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. Thomas Huxley was a biologist who was a very public debater on behalf of Darwin’s theory. He came to be known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”. His debating opponents included prominent religious figures, like bishops and archbishops. One of his most famous debates was with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. In the course of the debate Wilberforce asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey to which Huxley responded that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Herbert Spencer was a philosopher, scientist, and social reformer and one of the most famous intellectuals of the nineteenth century. Spencer took the science of Darwinism into new areas of social theory and politics. It was Herbert Spencer who first used the phrase “survival of the fittest”. This idea came to be understood not only as a description of natural processes but as a prescription for how things ought to be. Spencer had a comprehensive, “synthetic” philosophy that incorporated science and sociology into one great system. Characteristic of this synthesis were progress and perfection. He saw things progressing toward “the perfect man in the perfect society”. In his book Social Statics he advocated for laissez-faire policies and a kind of Larmarkian evolutionary idea that only by placing humans in strenuous laissez-faire conditions would they be able to adapt to those conditions and eventually reduce the need for government:

The philosophy of progress was extremely compelling and fashionable in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It seemed that man truly had the means to bend nature and direct his own destiny. One manifestation of this was a view known as “Social Darwinism”, though it should be noted that neither Darwin nor Spencer called themselves social Darwinists. Social Darwinism was the idea that humanity could be improved through free competition and survival of the fittest. In particular it rejected the idea that charity and assistance to the impoverished are virtuous. Under social Darwinism such charity is actually harmful because it preserves habits and traits that prevent humanity from progressing. Instead the survival and growth of inferior persons and populations should not be enabled. They should be allowed to die out and diminish according to the natural course of things. Social Darwinism and Spencer’s writings were especially popular in the United States. This was also the age of large-scale colonization, which expanded the ideas of survival of the fittest to nations and races. Eugenics also naturally followed from all this as another project for the improvement of humanity.

In late nineteenth century and early twentieth century social Darwinism, imperialism, and eugenics were all intellectually respectable and reputable ideas. Eugenics especially was considered consummately scientific and progressive. Because of certain contingent historical circumstances and events these ideas happened to be associated with secular thought. Richard Hofstadter commented in his book Social Darwinism in American Thought about the unusual secular character of this kind of conservatism in America:

“Social Darwinism was certainly one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation. But it lacked many of the signal characteristics of conservatism as it is usually found. A conservatism that appealed more to the secularist than the pious mentality, it was a conservatism almost without religion.” (Hofstadter, 7)

This association wasn’t absolute but there was a pattern. Things changed dramatically following World War II and these ideas quickly fell out of favor. Secular thought persisted and continued to develop, shedding its former associations with social Darwinism, imperialism, and eugenics. So the association of these ideas with secular thought was certainly nonessential. It was contingent and ultimately dispensable.

We can see an example of this older association in the 1914 textbook Civic Biology, written by George William Hunter. This was a widely used biology textbook in the early twentieth century and was the one famously used by John Scopes to teach evolution, for which he was prosecuted in the 1925 Scopes trial. Civic Biology divided humans up into five races and taught that “it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection.” It included the following passages:

“Parasitism and its Cost to Society. – Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.”

“The Remedy. – If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with some success in this country.” (Civic Biology, 263)

I don’t share these troubling passages to propose that evolution and secularism are of necessity linked to these kinds of views. Quite the opposite actually. They were associated at the time but these sorts of views have fallen out of favor even as secular thought persists, demonstrating that they are most certainly not inseparable. The Scopes trial was a watershed event in the development of public opinion toward evolution. That effect persisted even as the other troubling views in the text of Civic Biology were abandoned.

Another atheistic perspective in the later part of the nineteenth century was that of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s contributions to the development of secular thought take a few forms. Most famously he proclaimed that “God is dead”. But in the context of his writing this proclamation was more cautionary than celebratory. Nietzsche was absolutely an atheist. But he didn’t expect that the death of God was unproblematic. The “God is dead” line comes from the following passage in The Gay Science:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’”

“’How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’”

“Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet.’”

You can get a sense here of Nietzsche’s wonderful writing style, which is both entertaining and provocative. The first thing I’d like to point out with this passage is the character of the crowd. They already didn’t believe in God. You can imagine this is how Nietzsche sees Europe. By saying “God is dead” Nietzsche wasn’t saying anything new. The people of Europe already no longer believed in God. The madman wasn’t announcing the fact that God was dead. What he was trying to get across to the people was that they had not yet comprehended what that meant. That the earth had been unchained from its sun. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about a certain stage along the development of secular thought. There’s the propositional assent to atheism. But that doesn’t necessarily include a full comprehension of what that means existentially. And Nietzsche is often considered one of the early precursors to twentieth century existentialism.

What else do we get from Nietzsche? He also has a very interesting critique of Christian morality. In his book On the Genealogy of Morality he characterizes Jewish and Christian morality as “slave morality”. In an older form of morality before Judaism and Christianity, among the aristocrats, the most important value distinctions were “good” and “bad”. Strength, power, and excellence were good. Weakness and failure were bad. In this aristocratic understanding of value, people who were weak and failures were not evil, they were just not the kinds of people you would want to be. You would want to be strong and successful. But eventually the weak were able to create a morality that reversed things. In a perversion of healthy values domination and strength came to be understood not just as bad but evil. And a person should feel guilty for them. It was better to be meek and humble. And here we see how Christian morality would figure into Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. Christianity corrupted value by making excellence, what was actually good, seem evil. Furthermore Christianity esteemed attributes of human failure. As with Feuerbach we might say that Nietzsche got Christianity pretty much right. David Bentley Hart remarked that Nietzsche “had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was… on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased.” (Atheist Delusions, 6)

Along with Marx and Freud, Paul Ricoeur saw in Nietzsche a certain hermeneutic of suspicion and included him among the three great “masters of suspicion”. Nietzsche challenged conventional accounts of morality through his process of “genealogy”. Michel Foucault would later apply this kind of “genealogy” to ideas in the twentieth century. One of the effects of such a genealogy is to expose, similarly to other hermeneutics of suspicion, that the reasons you think you have for thinking a certain way are not the real reasons. A genealogy contextualizes our ideas in the process of history and exposes how they are contingent and might have been otherwise. And so they are not as self-evident and products of pure reasoning as we might have supposed.

The third of Ricoeur’s masters of suspicion was Sigmund Freud. And with Freud we move into the twentieth century. Freud’s hermeneutic of suspicion occurs in psychoanalysis in which a patient (or any person) has behaviors, fears, desires, or other impulses for reasons hidden to that person. They are hidden in the unconscious mind and need to be retrieved by the psychoanalyst to be properly treated. So again, the reasons you think you have for your ideas are not the real reasons for them. Freud’s psychology addressed the unconscious roots of many tendencies and impulses, including religious impulses. Freud addressed religion in his books: Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, and The Future of an Illusion.

In Totem and Taboo Freud theorized about the origins of religion in its most primitive social setting, in what he called the “primal horde”. Freud understood his own work as scientific and he based his theories on work of the anthropologists of his day, particularly studies indigenous Australians. He saw his own work as continuous with Darwin. A totem for Freud was a symbolic object or animal that is revered by a group. He understood the totem to be representative of the group’s primal father figure.

“Psychoanalysis has revealed to us that the totem animal is really a substitute for the father, and this really explains the contradiction that it is usually forbidden to kill the totem animal, that the killing of it results in a holiday and that the animal is killed and yet mourned. The ambivalent emotional attitude which to-day still marks the father complex in our children and so often continues into adult life also extended to the father substitute of the totem animal. But if we associate the translation of the totem as given by psychoanalysis, with the totem feast and the Darwinian hypothesis about the primal state of human society, a deeper understanding becomes possible and a hypothesis is offered which may seem fantastic but which has the advantage of establishing an unexpected unity among a series of hitherto separated phenomena.”

One thing to point out here, important to all of Freud’s works, is the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus Complex is a complex of emotions associated with a boy’s sexual desire for his mother and resentment toward his father. Oedipus, in Greek mythology and tragedy, killed his own father and married his mother. Hence the name. This is the “ambivalent emotional attitude which to-day still marks the father complex… extended to the father substitute of the totem animal.” Freud then asserted the following origin story of such a totem that would have taken place, perhaps in multiple occasions and places, among a primordial horde ruled over by an authoritarian father father figure:

“There is only a violent, jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away the growing sons… One day the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and thus put an end to the father horde. Together they dared and accomplished what would have remained impossible for them singly… Of course these cannibalistic savages ate their victim. This violent primal father had surely been the envied and feared model for each of the brothers. Now they accomplished their identification with him by devouring him and each acquired a part of his strength. The totem feast, which is perhaps mankind’s first celebration, would be the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion.”

The sons killed and ate their father and took the females, their mothers; acts of murder, cannibalism, and incest. But after this act of patricide they felt intense guilt which worked itself out in the forms of rituals and taboos. Religion for Freud is itself a neurosis and he sees religious rituals as the same in essence as nervous tics and other compulsive habits associated with neurotic disorders. And in Freud’s psychology these are generally associated with some kind of repressed guilt or trauma. He sees religion as basically a large, group manifestation of the same thing. This primordial horde would have developed the trappings of religion as a way to deal with their simultaneous triumph and guilt:

“In order to find these results acceptable, quite aside from our supposition, we need only assume that the group of brothers banded together were dominated by the same contradictory feelings towards the father which we can demonstrate as the content of ambivalence of the father complex in all our children and in neurotics. They hated the father who stood so powerfully in the way of their sexual demands and their desire for power, but they also loved and admired him. After they had satisfied their hate by his removal and had carried out their wish for identification with him, the suppressed tender impulses had to assert themselves. This took place in the form of remorse, a sense of guilt was formed which coincided here with the remorse generally felt. The dead now became stronger than the living had been, even as we observe it to-day in the destinies of men. What the fathers’ presence had formerly prevented they themselves now prohibited in the psychic situation of ‘subsequent obedience’, which we know so well from psychoanalysis. They undid their deed by declaring that the killing of the father substitute, the totem, was not allowed, and renounced the fruits of their deed by denying themselves the liberated women. Thus they created the two fundamental taboos of totemism out of the sense of guilt of the son, and for this very reason these had to correspond with the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex. Whoever disobeyed became guilty of the two only crimes which troubled primitive society.”

Thus murder and incest became taboo and the primal father figure a totem, an object of worship.

Freud follows a similar path in Moses and Monotheism but this time with reference specifically to Israelite religion. Freud asserted that Moses was actually an Egyptian, originally a devotee of the Egyptian monotheistic religious experiment of Akhenaten. Moses led a revolt and liberated a band of fellow rebels whom he led out of Egypt. Moses was their political and religious leader but his religious rule was so demanding that the group revolted and killed him. So here we have another father figure as in Totem and Taboo and another instance of the Oedipus complex. The people felt remorse for what they had done and developed a system of belief in which Moses was the founder of their religion.

For us today Freud’s supposedly “historical” accounts seem rather fanciful. I don’t think anyone believes them even if Freud did. But what remains relevant are not the details but the overall interpretation of religion as neurosis and an instance of some kind of Oedipus complex. Today we might refer instead to something like religious scrupulosity. We still understand people to have motivations for religious practice and ritual that are rooted in psychologically unhealthy sources.

In The Future of an Illusion Freud looks forward to how religion might develop into the future as humanity becomes more advanced and, as he sees it, outgrows its need for religion. As in his subsequent book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud recognized that the aggregation of human beings, with all our destructive impulses, into the close quarters of a society requires repression of those impulses, which is also a source of frustration or discontent. Frustrating but necessary. For premodern, primitive humanity religion serves an important function, helping us deal with the discontent and guilt of social life by providing the illusion of a strong and loving protector and father figure. The father figure in The Future of an Illusion is much more exclusively positive than in his other two books on religion. The father is an object of love. We crave the comfort and security that a father could provide in childhood. The illusion of religion is that our wish for this father figure is actually true. Although Freud understands religion to have played an important role in humanity’s pre-modern immaturity he thinks that it is time to grow out of it.

“Our knowledge of the historical worth of certain religious doctrines increases our respect for them, but does not invalidate our proposal that they should cease to be put forward as the reasons for the precepts of civilization. On the contrary! Those historical residues have helped us to view religious teachings, as it were, as neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytic treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect.”

I think this is an idea that persists in secular thought. We don’t necessarily disparage our ancestors for their religious beliefs. Of course they needed them and didn’t know any better. But in our scientific and technological age we ought to move beyond religion.

Two important intellectual trends in the twentieth century were in continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. Freud’s influence has continued more in continental philosophy than in his own field of psychology. Prominent Freudians include Jacque Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler. One of the founders of analytic philosophy was Bertrand Russell. Where Freud worked in the unobservable phenomena of the mind and relied on the narrative accounts of dreams and culture the analytic school valued empiricism and precision. One early form of this was Russell’s logical atomism, which aimed to break concepts down into their most basic components for the purposes of analysis.

Bertrand Russell was one of the most important and prolific philosophers of the early twentieth century and he wrote on a number of subjects, including religion. Through logical atomism he sought to eliminate ambiguity and the potential for obfuscation. Naturally when it came to religion Russell found its scriptures, doctrines, and rituals nonsensical. Later analytic philosophers like A.J. Ayer in the school of logical positivism would similarly call them “meaningless”. Like Freud, Russell believed that religion was something humanity had outgrown:

“We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men.”

This passage is from the conclusion of Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian. In the same text he argued against the merit of Jesus as a moral exemplar. To us today some of the most compelling arguments from this essay are likely the moral ones. For example, many have advanced a similar argument as the following:

“You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised Churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world… There are a great many ways in which at the present moment the Church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering. And of course, as we know, it is in its major part an opponent still of progress and of improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all. ‘What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy.’”

There are of course arguments against Russell’s point here but it certainly carries force. It also resonates with some of the most prominent religious-secular conflicts of the twenty-first century in which progressive secular values and traditional Christian values really are just contradictory, as with issues of abortion, sexuality, and gender.

One of Russell’s most famous illustrations is his teapot analogy. This comes from his article “Is There a God?” In this article Russell makes the case that the philosophic burden of proof rests on religious people who are making empirically unfalsifiable claims. He writes:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

This analogy has been highly influential and the basic idea has taken on other forms. For example a common version today is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sometimes seen as a car decal. The Flying Spaghetti Monster originated from a satirical open letter in 2005 demanding that science classrooms give equal time to the Flying Spaghetti Monster alongside intelligent design and evolution. Russell’s Teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster play an important role in the development of secular thought, which is to make religious belief seem ridiculous.

Making things look ridiculous has a celebrated history and there are a couple American examples worth mentioning from this time period in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century: Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.

The novelist Mark Twain was especially well known for his wit, satire, and irreverent sense of humor. He had a number of memorable one-liners. For example: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” 

The most important example of a critique of religion in his fiction is in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck is deciding whether or not to turn in his traveling companion Jim, who is also a runaway slave. What’s important to the story is that Huck thinks that he’s supposed to turn in a runaway slave and that it’s what God wants him to do. (He wasn’t aware that Deuteronomy 23:15 says exactly the opposite). In fact Huck thinks that he’ll go to Hell if he doesn’t do it. So in his mind all the weight of religious authority is pushing him to betray his friend. But in an act of heroic defiance he refuses to do so and says, “All right then, I’ll go to hell”.

Twain also wrote essays criticizing religion. In his essay “Fables of Man” he invited readers to think how they would feel if anyone other than God created the world in the way that it is. He used the example the fly, if anyone other than God were to create a pest like the fly:

“Let us try to think the unthinkable: let us try to imagine a Man of a sort willing to invent the fly; that is to say, a man destitute of feeling; a man willing to wantonly torture and harass and persecute myriads of creatures who had never done him any harm and could not if they wanted to, and–the majority of them–poor dumb things not even aware of his existence. In a word, let us try to imagine a man with so singular and so lumbering a code of morals as this: that it is fair and right to send afflictions upon the just–upon the unoffending as well as upon the offending, without discrimination.”

Twain’s problem here with the state of nature is quite similar to Darwin’s problem with the Ichneumonidæ feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars. In Europe and Elsewhere he pointed out many instances in which the Bible has been the cause of evil and how humans have only progressed morally in cases where they have rejected it. He says:

“The Christian Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes… The stock in the store was made up of about equal portions of baleful and debilitating poisons, and healing and comforting medicines; but the practice of the time confined the physician to the use of the former; by consequence, he could only damage his patient, and that is what he did.”

Twain admits that there is much in the Bible that is good. But people seem to know the difference between the good and the bad independently of the Bible. In fact, people are able to discern the difference between the good and the bad that is in the Bible. And happily, it has been by and large only the bad parts, so Twain believed, that people rejected as they have progressed morally:

“Is it not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.”

Twain accused the churches of following rather than leading moral progress, usually after some period of opposing it. But then have the audacity to take credit for it:

“In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slaves, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers… So unassailable was her position that in all the centuries she had no word to say against human slavery. Yet now at last, in our immediate day, we hear a Pope saying slave trading is wrong, and we see him sending an expedition to Africa to stop it. The texts remain: it is the practice that has changed. Why? Because the world has corrected the Bible. The Church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession–and take the credit of the correction. As she will presently do in this instance.”

I include Twain in this history of secular thought precisely because he was not a philosopher or an academic but, like Shelley, an unacknowledged legislator who shaped the character of a nation through literature. Another man I’d include in this class is H.L. Mencken, a wildly popular journalist, essayist, and critic. Mencken had an acerbic wit that would be pitiful to fall victim to. Like Twain, he was also a master of turns of phrase. One of my favorites is: “Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.” Another classic, this one on the subject of religion is: “Puritanism – The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (A Mencken Chrestomathy, 624) 

In his essay “Memorial Service” Mencken paid mocking memorial to the numerous gods of ages past who are no longer worshiped:

“Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And who of Huitzilopochtli? In one year – and it is no more than five hundred years ago – 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest.” 

Mencken then gave a long list of two columns with many other such deceased gods and concluded:

“Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion: you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest dignity – gods of civilized peoples – worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.”

Richard Dawkins would later make a similar point to Mencken that, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” (The God Delusion)

One event of particular importance where Mencken played a role was the Scopes Trial of 1925. As mentioned earlier, John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in school. It was arguably the trial of the century, a total media spectacle, and very public. In a sense there were two courts: the actual legal court and, more significantly, the court of public opinion. In the actual court of law Scopes was convicted for violating the law. But in the court of public opinion creationism suffered a disastrous defeat. And Mencken, writing at the time for the Baltimore Sun, played no small role in that. He delighted in lampooning the southern Christian fundamentalists of this Tennessee town. He famously quipped: “Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a fundamentalist anywhere in the United States.” He was especially merciless in his accounts of the prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan.

The Scopes trial reinforced an important perceived division between religion and science. One was legitimized at the expense of the other. And many of the scientists who were most well-known to the public reinforced this idea. In the later twentieth century two important publications that brought the latest developments of physics and cosmology to household libraries and television screens were Carl Sagan’s 1980 television series Cosmos and Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time. Sagan and Hawking were both scientists at the top of their fields but they were also public figures and household names. The combination of their legitimate expertise and communications skills meant that their opinions carried weight, not just in their scientific fields but in many subjects, including their views on religion.

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was a major bestseller, especially for a science book. When I was a kid a number of my friends and I had that book on our shelves. Hawking was a major role model. Religion didn’t feature heavily in that book other than the comment, “What need for a creator?” In the 2011 television series Curiosity he expressed quite genially that “We are each free to believe what we want” but also acknowledged, “It is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.” Like Freud, he thought that belief in God made sense for premodern peoples but that it was something we can now move beyond: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.” Hawking suffered from a slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease and death was a constant prospect for him. Remaking on this he said in a 2011 interview with The Guardian: “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first… I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Although he was upfront and open about his atheism it was not a major topic for Hawking.

It was more of a topic for Sagan. Sagan was especially interested in critical thinking and the harms that follow from believing things without justification. Not just religion but all sorts of popular pseudoscience. This was the topic of his book The Demon-Haunted World, in which he assembled what he called a “baloney detection kit”. In that book Sagan adapted Russell’s teapot with his own story of a dragon in the garage. Someone tries to convince you that there’s a dragon in the garage but when you go to look at it you don’t see it. So they say it’s an invisible dragon. So you might spread flour on the floor to see its footprints. But the dragon floats in the air. What about an infrared camera to see the invisible fire? But the fire is heatless. Every proposal has some reason for why it will not work. Sagan concludes: “Now what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.”

Sagan was also invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford lectures in 1985 in Glasgow. The lectures were later published as The Varieties of Scientific Experience. The Gifford lectures are annual lectures on the topic of science and religion and this is Sagan’s most comprehensive treatment of the subject. Sagan’s lectures were very respectful but also pulled no punches. While reviewing a number of arguments for the existence of God he said the following on arguments from religious experiences:

“People have religious experiences. No question about it. They have them worldwide, and there are some interesting similarities in the religious experiences that are had worldwide. They are powerful, emotionally extremely convincing, and they often lead to people reforming their lives and doing good works, although the opposite also happens. Now, what about this? Well, I do not mean in any way to object to or deride religious experiences. But the question is, can any such experience provide other than anecdotal evidence of the existence of God or gods?… Large numbers of people can have experiences that can be profound and moving and still not correspond to anything like an exact sense of external reality… Every culture has things of this sort. That doesn’t mean that they all exist; it doesn’t mean that any of them exist.”

On the argument from design he made the following remark, quite similar to Hume’s:

“Why in any case is it necessary for God to intervene in human history, in human affairs, as almost every religion assumes happens? That God or the gods come down and tell humans, ‘No, don’t do that, do this, don’t forget this, don’t pray in this way, don’t worship anybody else, mutilate children as follow.’ Why is there such a long list of things that God tells people to do? Why didn’t God do it right in the first place? You start out the universe, you can do anything. You can see all the future consequences of your present action. You want a certain desired end. Why don’t you arrange it in the beginning? The intervention of God in human affairs speaks of incompetence.”

Although Hawking and Sagan were prominent faces of atheism at the end of the twentieth century neither made atheism a primary focus of their public engagement. This would not be the case for the new public faces of irreligion at the start of the twenty-first century. One of the most significant events in the development of secular thought in recent times was the catastrophic terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 perpetrated by Islamist extremists. The religious motivations for this attack provoked a strong secular response that came to be known as New Atheism. Four members of this movement were known as the “The Four Horsemen”: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. With the possible exception of Dennett the atheism of The Four Horsemen was front and center to their public engagement.

Sam Harris began writing The End of Faith shortly after the September 11th attacks. His other major book on the topic of religion was Letter to a Christian Nation. The September 11th attacks were an occasion to point out the violence that religious fundamentalism can provoke and is just one example in a long list of historical cases of such religiously inspired violence and atrocities. Harris made particular note of the complicity of religious moderates in all this. Far from excusing moderates or recommending a conversion from fundamentalism to more moderate forms of religion Harris argued that religious moderates, by taking certain texts and beliefs selectively or metaphorically, grant legitimacy to those texts and beliefs and enable those who take them literally and to extremist ends. Harris also criticized religion generally as fundamentally irrational and lacking in evidence. Science is a much more solid basis for our understanding of reality and even for moral decision making, as he argued in The Moral Landscape.

Biologist Richard Dawkins was already a popular writer on the topic of evolutionary biology prior to the New Atheist movement, having written books like The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Ancestor’s Tale. As a writer on evolutionary biology his books naturally addressed creationism and intelligent design ideas, especially in books like The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. But he really became a major face for New Atheism with the 2006 publication of The God Delusion. The God Delusion was a major bestseller and attracted widespread response and discussion. In it Dawkins explained why, in his view, there is almost certainly no God. He included arguments from his field in evolutionary biology but also discussed religious violence and intolerance.

Christopher Hitchens was a prolific journalist and essayist, a staunch free-speech advocate, and opponent of religion. Hitchens called himself not only an atheist but an “antitheist”. He not only did not believe in God but thought that it would be a horrible thing if God actually did exist. He compared a universe with God to a cosmic North Korea. His major book on the topic and contribution to the New Atheist movement was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens said that religion was “the main source of hatred in the world”. In the book he criticized Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also Eastern religions like Buddhism. As with Mencken, to be on the receiving end of Hitchens’s attacks was brutal. Some of his targets were predictable, like Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. More surprising was his excoriating criticism of Mother Teresa.

Daniel Dennett was also numbered among the Four Horsemen but of the four he was probably the least like the others. Dennett is one world’s most prominent philosophers in the philosophy of mind. He’s certainly an atheist but it’s not as front and center to his work. In his book-length contribution to the New Atheist movement, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, he even called for world religions to be taught in school. Dennett is perhaps best known for his philosophical work on qualia: individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. In Consciousness Explained he develops a number of arguments to demonstrate how the way our minds work must be quite different from the way it seems to us. Dennett’s philosophy of mind, given its subject, naturally impinges on religious ideas of the soul. In Breaking the Spell Dennett proposed that religion should be thought of as a natural phenomenon and studied by scientists just as any other natural phenomenon.

Dennett and Dawkins have made frequent reference to each other’s work. Dennett has made philosophical use of Dawkins’s concept of memes, as developed in The Selfish Gene and Dawkins has praised Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in particular his metaphor of skyhooks and cranes. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is perhaps the most interesting and detailed study on the philosophical implications of Darwin’s work. Dennett refers to the concept of natural selection as a kind of “universal acid” that eats through everything it touches. He uses the metaphor of a skyhook for any kind of apparent intelligent design that seems to be suspended from the heavens, but that in fact is held up by a crane or series of cranes, and anchored securely to the ground. The core of Darwin’s dangerous idea, according to Dennett, is the algorithm; an automatic process that requires no intelligent direction. Dennett then shows instances where Darwinian algorithms dissolve apparent skyhooks in biology, mind, meaning, mathematics, and morality.

I remember that New Atheism was in full bloom when I was in my twenties. It also coincided with the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which enabled its diffusion. It seems to have tapered off somewhat since then for whatever reason. All of the Four Horsemen get a mention in this survey because, being quite recent, their influence on the development of secular thought still persists. My guess is that in a similar survey fifty years from now Dennett will be the only one discussed even though he was probably the least prominent of the New Atheists in its heyday. But I’d say his ideas are the most uniquely interesting and instrumentally useful in the service of secular thought.

So what do we make of all this? In going through this brief history I haven’t stopped to challenge any of these thinkers and their ideas. I’ve tried to present their ideas fairly and doing that properly means making it apparent why these ideas have been appealing and persuasive. That’s challenging because I don’t find their ideas personally persuasive. But I do find them interesting and important.

This is admittedly something of an exercise in genealogy, in the style of Nietzsche and Foucault, to show how secular ideas are not absolute but contingent, how they have been dependent on historical events and trends, and how things could have been otherwise. For example, secular thought today is usually aligned with progressive ideals of antiracism, protection of people with disabilities, and the interests of sexual minorities. But before World War II and the Nuremberg Trials the most secular and scientifically-educated people in society were moving in quite a different direction. I think Charles Taylor is correct that secular thought as we have it today is not merely what is left over when we chip away religion. Secular thought is a construct that has been created over time by people and events.

In a certain sense something being a social construct doesn’t really matter. Technology is a construct or a collection of very many constructs. But our devices still work. The scientific principles underlying our technologies are also constructs. And they still work. So does it matter? I think it does. Thomas Kuhn, with his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did some excellent work situating and contextualizing scientific developments, showing how they also come about in very circuitous paths with many discarded theories that were once the best theories available. It’s good to know about all that when we think about the future of science and technology. It will likely go in some very unpredicted directions.

Still, with religion and secular thought there are some big either-or questions. Does God exist or not? Was Jesus resurrected or not? At the end of the day between Christians and atheists someone is right and someone is wrong. A genealogy of secular thought doesn’t resolve such questions. But one thing it can do is reveal how certain perspectives can seem more or less compelling because of contingent historical developments. In other words, if certain religious positions seem more problematic and certain secular positions seem stronger than they otherwise would, that’s useful to understand. It helps us to think what is usually unthought. Charles Taylor borrows the term “unthought” from Foucault to refer to all the presuppositions underlying our understanding of religion and secularization that we aren’t even aware that we hold. By bringing the unthought into our conscious thought we should be able to think about things more comprehensively and reflectively.

With this in mind consider two issues that are seemingly problematic for religion: science and religion and the problem of evil.

In Western modernity Judaism and Christianity have been thought to be in conflict with the sciences. And the sciences are so manifestly successful that religion would be at a clear disadvantage. At best, religion could hold to some kind of “God of the gaps” whose domain progressively shrinks as science explains away more and more religious ideas. Natural phenomena like earthquakes and lightning no longer need divine explanations. And our creation myths don’t stand up to geological and fossil evidence. But is this apparent conflict essential or accidental? It’s quite fascinating and often surprising to read premodern Jewish and Christian texts. The authors of the Talmud and the Early Church Fathers were not at all unfamiliar with the internal tensions of the sacred texts or of passages that they could not take literally. They were quite aware of them and wrote extensively about them. Philo of Alexandria (Jewish) and Origen of Alexandria (Christian) are two of the most famous expositors of allegorical interpretation in antiquity. Additionally, in modernity where we make a sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural, with God operating as something separate from nature, in the Middle Ages educated Christians like Thomas Aquinas understood that distinction to be much less absolute. In their understanding the supernatural always already infuses the natural world, as has been written about by Fergus Kerr (After Aquinas, 2002) and Tyler Roberts (Skeptics and Believers, 2009). Both the premodern comfort with allegorical interpretation and the metaphysical understanding of the natural being infused with the supernatural would make the relationship between science and religion look quite different than the relationship that developed between the two in modernity. David Bentley Hart has even suggested that: “In the ancient or mediaeval worlds, the idea of the evolution of species would not necessarily have posed a very great intellectual challenge for the educated classes, at least not on religious grounds… It would not have been drastically difficult for philosophers or theologians to come to see such evolution as the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.” (The Experience God, 62) It was by no means inevitable or necessary that the developments of geology and evolutionary biology would come into conflict with religious beliefs. It just happened to work out that way given the particular intellectual and religious milieux of the time. That’s useful to think about, both for secular and religious people. As Christians we would do well to familiarize ourselves with early thinkers in our tradition to find perspectives that are surprisingly much more unproblematically accommodating to modern science.

The problem of evil is an even more interesting one I think. And if Susan Neiman is correct this is the most salient issue in modernity and for the whole human condition really. How are we to come to terms with God if his creation has so much evil and suffering? The Lisbon Earthquake and the Holocaust are the two major examples of disruptive disasters in modernity. With the problem of evil I actually don’t think there’s ever been any historical period where such disasters would be religiously unproblematic. Disasters of a certain scale and degree always induce religious disruption and crisis. But what’s interesting is that in the case of Judaism especially, and in Christianity by extension, response to this kind of disruption is actually part of the religion. One of the most important events in the Bible is the conquest of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Judeans by the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This dramatically transformed the Judeans as a people. Judaism took another dramatic turn again after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, leading to what would become Rabbinic Judaism. And the Holocaust itself induced major reflection and changes in Judaism, as in the work of people like Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Elie Weisel, Irving Greenberg, and Eugene Borowitz. The Hebrew Bible also contains responses and laments to the problems of evil. Most obvious is the Book of Job. Much of the Bible’s Wisdom literature as found in Job, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, is testament to the troubled yet creative religious response to suffering. It doesn’t seem like there’s any expectation from God in scripture that we are to be unmoved and untroubled by the evil present in his creation.

Both secular thought and the religions of Judaism and Christianity are part of history and Western heritage. It’s valuable to be familiar with all of it. The history of all these traditions could have taken different paths. But regardless, the traditions as we have them make up who we are and how we think.

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