This speech was delivered at the FFRF mini-convention held in San Francisco on July 31, 1999.
In 1623, the Friar Mersenne declared that there were 50,000 atheists in Paris alone. Yet just two years later, another Catholic theologian, Father Garasse, could count only five atheists in all of Europe (two Italians and three Frenchmen). How can we explain this discrepancy? Either thousands of atheists had suddenly converted within a two-year period, which is highly unlikely, or these Catholic observers had radically different things in mind when they used the term "atheist."
The word "atheist" has traditionally been used as a smear word--or "bugaboo epithet," as the historian Preserved Smith once described it. To call someone an atheist was more often an accusation than a description, an invective hurled by orthodox Christians against any and all dissenters, including other Christians.
Derived from the Greek atheos (meaning: "godless, not believing in the existence of gods"), an "atheist" is "one who does not believe in the existence of a deity." Atheism, or the absence of theistic belief, is therefore a perspective, not a philosophy. Although there can be atheistic philosophies which are based solely on naturalistic principles, there cannot be a "philosophy of atheism" per se--because a negative position can never serve as a satisfactory foundation for a philosophical system.
Since an "atheist" is a person who does not believe in any god or number of gods, how we define "atheist" will depend on how we define the word "god." Some theists have been called atheists for disbelieving in the god (or gods) of the orthodox majority. Early Christians, for example, were frequently accused of atheism by their pagan critics. "We are called atheists," wrote Justin Martyr in the second century, "[a]nd we confess that we are atheists, so far as [the pagan gods] are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God . . ." Another apologist, Athenagoras, dismissed as "exceedingly silly" the charge that Christians are atheists, because pagans disagree among themselves, some believing in gods that others do not. Hence if Christians qualify as atheists owing to their disbelief in the pagan gods, then everyone is an atheist of some sort, since those who believe in the god (or gods) of one religion will necessarily disbelieve in the god (or gods) of other religions.
Atheism was sometimes used to describe a doctrine that, if carried to its logical conclusion, would allegedly result in disbelief. Montaigne, one of the most intelligent and sophisticated Catholics of the sixteenth century, had this in mind when he condemned the teachings of Martin Luther as implicitly atheistic. Protestants had rejected the Church as an intermediate authority between God and man, arguing instead that individuals should search their own conscience for divine inspiration. But this was a dangerous innovation, according to Montaigne, because the feeble and unreliable judgments of individuals would generate diverse and conflicting religious beliefs, and eventually terminate in atheism. The "novelties of Luther" were "shaking our old religion," and this "new disease would soon degenerate into loathsome atheism."
It was rare to find atheism mentioned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries without being preceded with adjectives like "loathsome" and "wicked." Montaigne was also following the custom of his day in referring to atheism as a "disease." Equally common was to label atheists as "monsters" of one kind or another. Post-Reformation Christians, Catholic and Protestants alike, regaled their readers with dire accounts of how the disease of atheism was rapidly infecting many thousands of people, and how atheistic monsters were stalking the land, devouring all morality and decency that lay in their path. The Elizabethan writer Roger Ascham blamed the freethinking Italians for infecting many of his countrymen with atheism. These "Italianate Englishmen are incarnate devils . . . for they first lustfully condemn God, then scornfully mock his word, and also spitefully hate and hurt all the well wishers thereof . . . They count as fables the holy mysteries of religion." Another Englishman of that era claimed to have found more atheists in Oxford and Cambridge alone than in all of the rest of Europe.
In 1645, the Presbyterian Thomas Edwards expressed alarm at a new breed of atheistic monsters who were "now common among us--as denying the Scriptures, pleading for a toleration of all religions and worships, yea, for blasphemy, and denying there is a God." (The advocate of religious toleration was sure to find himself condemned as an atheist, for who else would dare call for the legalization of blasphemy, heresy, and other heinous sins?) In 1652, Walter Carleton, formerly a physician to the king, complained that England had produced and fostered "more swarms of atheistical monsters" than any other age or country.
A decade later Bishop Stillingfleet noted an alarming but fashionable trend of atheism among educated Englishmen, who considered disbelief in Christianity to be a mark of wit and good judgment. Sir George Mackenzie--nicknamed Bloody Mackenzie for his zeal in persecuting heretics--was perplexed because "the greatest wits are most frequently the greatest atheists," while in 1665 Joseph Glanville similarly noted that it is "now accounted a piece of wit and gallantry to be an atheist." Matters had apparently become even worse by 1681, when Archdeacon Parker testified that "atheism and irreligion are now as common as vice and debauchery"--a warning that was seconded by Archbishop Tillotson, according to whom "atheism hath invaded our nation and prevailed to amazement." [Smith, 348]
References to the atheistic "disease" and to "atheistic monsters" remained common throughout the nineteenth century. Typical of this trend is a book published in 1878, The Natural History of Atheism, wherein the author warns of "the atheistic disease" that results from a "moral disorder of the reasonable creature." The author divides atheists into two categories: "atheistic incapables" and "atheistic monsters," both of which result from "the morbid atheistic pathology." This effort to slander atheism through metaphor is found even among modern writers. In 1971, the Catholic priest Vincent P. Miceli claimed that "every form of atheism, even the initially well intentioned, constricts, shrinks, enslaves the individual atheist within and against himself and, eventually, as atheism reaches plague proportions among men, goes on to enslave and murder society."
In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas writes:
"[M]ortal sin takes away sanctifying grace, but does not wholly corrupt the good of nature. Since therefore, unbelief is a mortal sin, unbelievers are without grace indeed, yet some good of nature remains in them. Consequently it is evident that unbelievers cannot do those good works which proceed from grace, namely, meritorious works. Yet they can, to a certain extent, do those good works for which the good of nature suffices. Hence it does not follow that they sin in everything they do. [A]n unbeliever can do a good deed in a matter which he does not refer to the end of his unbelief." [II, 429]
"Unbelief does not so wholly destroy natural reason in unbelievers but that some knowledge of the truth remains in them, which enable them to do deeds that are generically good." [Ibid., p. 429.]
As much as Francis Bacon disliked atheism, he disliked superstition far more. (For "superstition," read "Catholicism.") It is better to have no opinion of God than to have a wrong opinion, one that is unworthy of him, for such superstitious beliefs can easily bring about harmful actions.
"Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation, all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not, but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men."
Pierre Bayle's rehabilitation of atheism is based on psychological and historical observations. On the psychological side, Bayle insists that the fear and love of God "are not the sole springs of human action." People behave morally for self-interested reasons, such as the desire to win the approval of others, and these natural motives influence the behavior of atheists as much as anyone else. Indeed, such motives are frequently stronger than the love and fear of God, as anyone can verify by looking within himself and at the everyday actions of others. It is therefore possible for an atheist, impelled by his natural temperament, to lead a virtuous life. Many atheists are sober, frugal people with a zeal for the public good and a desire to help their neighbors.
History, according to Bayle, "teaches us that . . . persons who denied either the existence or the providence of God, or the immortality of the soul, have nevertheless lived virtuous lives." The historian has the obligation to represent people as they were, not as he thinks they should have been. Should facts be suppressed because some theologians believe they will diminish our horror of atheism? Should the historian serve as a lackey for ideological interests? No, says Bayle, it is the duty of the historian to strive for objectivity. Deliberately to distort the historical record, even with the best of intentions, would be to violate "the fundamental laws of historical scholarship."
Bayle's critics were outraged by his claim that the vast majority of criminals believe in God; indeed, "of the many criminals who pass through the hands of the public executioner, there are none found to be atheists." Bayle rejects the practice (which was apparently as common in his day as in our own) of referring to immoral people who profess to believe in God as "practical atheists." Atheism, properly considered, pertains to the theoretical issue of belief, not to the practical matter of behavior. Those who insist that atheists are necessarily immoral should provide historical evidence for this claim.
Bayle observes that the most wicked of all creatures, the devil, is "incapable of atheism." The devil believes in God, as do his human disciples. Hence the most outrageously wicked people, those who have dedicated their lives to Satan, are not atheists, because belief in the devil and belief in God go hand in hand. The greatest evils, therefore, are "joined with a conviction of the existence of God."
Christians were sure to be outraged by the contention that "the worst villains are not atheists, and that most atheists whose names have come down to us have been virtuous according to ordinary standards," so Bayle counsels his readers to examine the issue more carefully. Consider what would happen if moral behavior were impossible to all except the small number of people who have received the sanctifying grace of God. Society, which depends on peaceful cooperation, would be impossible if most people were incapable of respecting the rights of others; and the result would be "a general inundation that would destroy all monarchic, aristocratic, democratic, and other states."
Bayle suggests that God "has everywhere spread a restraining grace" on humankind, on believer and atheist alike. In other words, the need for social cooperation provides natural incentives for virtuous actions, while vicious actions are checked by our desire for the approval and esteem of others. The social utility of virtue explains why atheists are fully capable of living virtuous lives.
I. Is God an Atheist?
Before the Christian dismisses atheism as irrational or condemns the atheist as immoral, he should consider the disturbing possibility that the God of Christianity is himself an atheist. And if this is true, it means that the Christian worships, obeys, and has devoted his life to an atheistic being who does not believe in any power superior to himself, never prays, is utterly without faith, and who does not acknowledge any authority, either cognitive or moral, external to himself.
If theism is loosely defined as belief in a higher power, a mysterious being whose essential nature cannot be understood (whether in whole or in part) by the believer, then God is an atheist. He does not believe in a power higher than himself, nor can there be anything which he fails to understand, for nothing can be unknown or unknowable to an omniscient being.
If theism is defined as the belief in a supernatural being, then God is an atheist. His own powers, though supernatural from a human point of view, are comprehensible to himself. Everything is "natural" from God's perspective.
If theism involves a relationship of subordination and dependence between a theist and her object of veneration, then God is an atheist. He is a self-sufficient Being who disbelieves in any power greater than himself. He worships nothing, never prays, never seeks forgiveness, and never acknowledges his own errors.
If theism is the belief in a creator, or first cause, who is ultimately responsible for one's own existence, then God is an atheist. He believes himself to have existed eternally--though, as Kant suggested, even God must occasionally wonder where he came from.
If theism involves the belief in an external moral authority, a being whose moral law is obligatory for his creatures, then God is an atheist. He does not believe in a higher law, nor does he think himself capable of doing wrong. He does not regard himself bound to respect the rights of any other being. God is morally autonomous, a law unto himself.
God is therefore an atheist. Moreover, he is a positive atheist of the most dogmatic variety, for he claims to know with absolute certainty that there exists no being superior to himself. He is never troubled by doubt, never re-examines any of his beliefs, and never feels obliged to justify them.
This raises some further questions: Why, if God is himself an atheist, should we suppose that that he disapproves of atheism among his creatures? Is not a benevolent father pleased when his children grow up to be like him? And how can the Christian condemn atheism per se without also condemning their atheistic God? Is not the atheist who strives to be like God more admirable than the Christian who merely believes in him?
II. Is Satan a Christian?
Satan is not an atheist--that much is clear--for he believes in the God of Christianity. We thus have the intriguing spectacle of a battle between two titans, with God the Atheist on the side of good, and Satan the Theist on the side of evil. And if the Bible is to be believed, the Atheist will ultimately triumph over the Theist.
Is Satan the Theist also a Christian? Apparently so, because a Christian is defined in terms of his beliefs, not his actions. Satan clearly believes in the central tenets of Christianity. He believes, for example, that Jesus, the Son of God, was sacrificed to redeem the sins of mankind--for if Satan does not believe this, why did he tempt Jesus in an effort to sabotage his divine mission? He also believes in the resurrection of Jesus, in the power of God to work miracles, and in the existence of a heaven and a hell he calls home.
Satan, a major player in many biblical events, does not have the least doubt about the veracity of God's word. Indeed, it is impossible to name one belief of the best Christian that Satan does not share. We may therefore conclude that Satan is a Christian, despite his rebellious spirit and competitive zeal. No one is perfect, after all.
III. Can God Tell the Perfect Joke?
Does God have a sense of humor? Has he ever laughed divinely? Has he ever cracked a spiritual grin? Has an omni-jolly chuckle ever punctuated the grim silence of eternity?
Can God, a perfect being, tell a perfect joke?--a joke of which nothing funnier can be conceived? Can an infinite being tell a joke that is infinitely funny--and, if so, could it cause people to die laughing? Do those who populate the kingdom of heaven ever laugh, or does humor die with the body, along with sex and other innocent pleasures?
These questions are not as frivolous as they may first appear. Humor plays an important role in human life. Laughter is an intrinsic value, something we enjoy as an end itself rather than a means to something else. Laughter is a moveable feast, something we can take with us anywhere and enjoy at our leisure. To laugh with another person is among the purest forms of social interaction, a spontaneous intermingling of thoughts and emotions.
It is nice to think that God deliberately bestowed upon us the gift of laughter; if so, it was one of his better ideas. A traditional method of exploring this kind of issue is to speculate on the nature of prelapsarian man, i.e., human nature before Adam's lapse, or fall, into sin.
According to St. Augustine, for example, prelapsarian man would have engaged in sexual intercourse for the purpose of procreation, but the pleasure of sex would not have been nearly as intense as it now is. Sexual lust (including the orgasm) is a consequence of original sin and was therefore unknown to Adam and Eve prior to the Fall.
May we apply the same logic to laughter? Were Adam and Eve capable of laughter before the Fall? If they had never sinned, would humor have been a part of prelapsarian life? If our present nature had never been vitiated by original sin, would we still tell jokes? Would there have been a place for stand-up comedians in the Garden of Eden--or is George Carlin solely the product of original sin?
There are problems in supposing God to have a sense of humor. Comedy is the art of the inappropriate. We laugh at the unexpected, not the routine. But nothing can be unexpected for a God who knows everything--past, present, and future. There can be no punch lines or novel twists for a God who is incapable of being surprised. Everything happens on schedule according to a divine plan; and God, the author of that plan, is never taken aback. Thus, if God is to laugh at all, he must provide his own humor and laugh at his own jokes, because there is nothing to surprise or amuse him in the course of human events.
Of course, to say that we cannot make God laugh is not to say that he cannot make us laugh. But this laughter, if it is to be authentic, must be the product of natural humor rather than supernatural decree. An omnipotent God who can turn a woman into a pillar of salt could easily generate as much laughter as he likes by merely willing it to happen. But this would be cheating, reducing God to the level of a bad comedian who provokes laughter in his audience by drugging their drinks. The question is not whether God can cause people to laugh, but whether he can do so through humor.
It seems that a perfect God should be able to tell a perfect joke, one that can generate more laughter than any joke that is merely human. But this is where things get complicated. Suppose God were to reveal the perfect joke, the joke than which nothing funnier can be conceived. This joke is absolutely funny, not relatively so, because it emanates from God's absolute sense of humor. To understand this joke is necessarily to understand that it is the funniest of all possible jokes, and to laugh accordingly.
But what if I don't laugh at this divine joke? Do I sin if I fail to laugh hard enough or long enough? This question seems to require an affirmative answer. For consider: If whatever God says is necessarily true, and if he says that his joke is the funniest of all possible jokes--one that merits the greatest amount of laughter--then for me not to respond appropriately would be to defy the will of God.
Suppose I laugh less at the divine joke, which God has declared to be the funniest of all possible jokes, than I do at a joke by George Carlin. Since I assess the quality of a comic by his ability to make me laugh, my response to Carlin would mean that I regard him as funnier than God. This is a blasphemous notion, however, because it suggests that the supreme being, whose nature is synonymous with perfection itself, is less than supreme in his capacity as a comic.
If both Carlin and God framed their jokes with the intention of provoking laughter, and if I laughed more heartily at the former than the latter, this means that Carlin was more successful than God in accomplishing what he set out to do. And if Carlin is better able to evoke laughter, if his power in this sphere is greater than God's, then God is neither supreme nor perfect in all things, because his ability to tell a good joke is inferior to that of a mere mortal. And this implies that God was either mistaken or lying when he proclaimed his joke to be the funniest of all possible jokes, because there is at least one joke that I find funnier than his.
A perfect being, as we noted before, can tell a perfect joke, a joke than which nothing funnier can be conceived. Now let us suppose that God, having decided to bless us with his infinite humor, reveals his perfect joke, to wit: "The cat is on the mat."
So now we have it, the perfect joke, straight from the mouth of the supreme comic, an infallible being who has declared it to be the funniest of all possible jokes. The problem is that few people will laugh spontaneously upon hearing, "The cat is on the mat"--and they will fail to understand why this should even be dubbed a joke at all, much less a perfect one.
We are thus confronted with a dilemma. We have been told by an infallible being that this joke is supremely funny, so we feel that we ought to laugh. But we don't laugh, because we don't find it funny at all. So who is to blame--God or man--for this discrepancy between ought and is, between the response that we should have in theory and the response that we do have in fact?
The main issue here is whether we have a moral obligation to laugh at the perfect joke. This will doubtless strike many as a senseless question, because genuine laughter is a spontaneous reaction that is impervious to moral imperatives. If I don't see any humor in the perfect joke, "The cat is on the mat," but am commanded by God to laugh at it nonetheless, how can I possibly do what is required of me? I could fake it, of course, like an actor in a comedic role, but my insincerity would be transparently obvious to a God who knows my every thought and feeling. God demands that I respond with genuine laughter, not hypocrisy, but how is this possible if I don't see any humor in his perfect joke?
The problem of the perfect joke generates two schools of interpretation: the Believers and the Free-laughers.
According to the Believers, the perfect joke is indeed supremely funny, so our failure to laugh is our problem, not God's. God, after all, knows better than we what is truly funny, so we should have absolute faith in what he tells us and strive to understand his transcendent humor. We should not presume to judge God's joke by human standards, but should accept it as supremely funny and work from there. Belief must precede humor, and faith is the foundation of belief.
The Believer, having accepted God's humor as an act of faith, will learn to laugh at his perfect joke. The cat is on the mat will eventually strike the man of faith as supremely funny, causing him to tingle with a spiritual laughter that will seem foolish to the unbeliever.
The Free-laugher, on the other hand, is unwilling to subordinate his sense of humor to the demands of an external authority. The perfect joke is simply not funny, regardless of who originated it, and it does not become any funnier merely because God demands that we laugh at it. And why would God endow us with a spontaneous sense of humor and then punish us for a reaction over which we have no control?
It seems that the perfect joke, like the Trinity and other Christian doctrines, will forever elude our understanding. But the perfect joke, though it transcends our sense of humor, does not contradict it. Taking our cue from Thomas Aquinas, we may say that the perfect joke supplements, or perfects, our natural sense of humor. Thus, however much the Christian may fail to understand the humor of the perfect joke, he must place trust in God and laugh on faith.
George H. Smith is author of Atheism: The Case Against God (1975) and Atheism: Ayn Rand & Other Heresies (1991). This speech is based on two excerpts of his forthcoming book, Why Atheism? to be published by Prometheus Books this year.
George was the Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University for 16 years. In the 1980s he was Senior Editor and scriptwriter for Knowledge Products, a Nashville-based company that produces audiotapes on philosophy and history.
George was married to Laura Kroutl on January 29, 2000, in Bloomington, Illinois, where they now live.
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