Monday, July 27, 2015


One of Huxley's heroes was David Hume, who's philosophy had quite an impact on Huxley. Rob Zaretsky describes an encounter between Hume, showing himself to be an agnostic, and Baron D'Holbach...

"Soon after his arrival, Hume was a dinner guest at the home of the libertine thinker Baron d'Holbach. Hume announced that he did not believe atheists existed for the simple reason that he had never met one. Holbach laughed. Look around you at your fellow dinner guests, "I can show you fifteen atheists right off. The other three haven't yet made up their minds."
Though Hume smiled at Holbach's remark, he was also saddened. Rational proofs against god's existence, after all, were as nonsensical and intolerant as were rational proofs for His existence. Indeed, in Hume's eyes, the three undecided guests at Holbach's table were the only reasonable men in the room. Reason and our sense faculties are simply too flawed to allow for what philosophers call absolute knowledge claims about the world.
Indeed, reason cannot even guarantee our most basic assumptions, like the belief that tomorrow will follow today. Such claims, Hume observed, are based uniquely on experience, which provides absolutely no proof for future events. As a result, how could we ever offer a rational proof for the existence (or non-existence) of a being whose reality falls, in a sense, outside the pale of our senses or reason?"

In that described encounter, D'Holbach appeared to be using a narrow definition "atheist". This was around the time of the French Revolution, when The Cult of Reason surfaced, and tried to violently wipe out religion in France. They too, were most definitely narrow definition atheists. 

In Good Sense, D'Holbach details that skeptics, like Hume, aren't atheists: 

It might be said with more truth, that men are either skeptics or atheists, than that they are convinced of the existence of God. How can we be assured of the existence of a being, whom we could never examine, and of whom it is impossible to conceive any permanent idea? How can we convince ourselves of the existence of a being, to whom we are every moment forced to attribute conduct, opposed to the ideas, we had endeavoured to form of him? Is it then possible to believe what we cannot conceive? Is not such a belief the opinions of others without having any of our own? Priests govern by faith; but do not priests themselves acknowledge that God is to them incomprehensible? Confess then, that a full and entire conviction of the existence of God is not so general, as is imagined.
Scepticism arises from a want of motives sufficient to form a judgment. Upon examining the proofs which seem to establish, and the arguments which combat, the existence of God, some persons have doubted and withheld their assent. But this uncertainty arises from not having sufficiently examined. Is it possible to doubt any thing evident? Sensible people ridicule an absolute scepticism, and think it even impossible. A man, who doubted his own existence, or that of the sun, would appear ridiculous. Is this more extravagant than to doubt the non-existence of an evidently impossible being? Is it more absurd to doubt one's own existence, than to hesitate upon the impossibility of a being, whose qualities reciprocally destroy one another? Do we find greater probability for believing the existence of a spiritual being, than the existence of a stick without two ends? Is the notion of an infinitely good and powerful being, who causes or permits an infinity of evils, less absurd or impossible, than that of a square triangle? Let us conclude then, that religious scepticism can result only from a superficial examination of theological principles, which are in perpetual contradiction with the most clear and demonstrative principles.
To doubt, is to deliberate. Scepticism is only a state of indetermination, resulting from an insufficient examination of things. Is it possible for any one to be sceptical in matters of religion, who will deign to revert to its principles, and closely examine the notion of God, who serves as its basis? Doubt generally arises either from indolence, weakness, indifference, or incapacity. With many people, to doubt is to fear the trouble of examining things, which are thought uninteresting. But religion being presented to men as their most important concern in this and the future world, skepticism and doubt on this subject must occasion perpetual anxiety and must really constitute a bed of thorns. Every man who has not courage to contemplate, without prejudice, the God upon whom all religion is founded, can never know for what religion to decide: he knows not what he should believe or not believe, admit or reject, hope or fear.
Indifference upon religion must not be confounded with scepticism. This indifference is founded upon the absolute assurance, or at any rate upon the probable belief, that religion is not interesting. A persuasion that a thing which is pretended to be important is not so, or is only indifferent, supposes a sufficient examination of the thing, without which it would be impossible to have this persuasion. Those who call themselves sceptics in the fundamental points of religion, are commonly either indolent or incapable of examining.

D'Holbach discusses atheism more, in his The System of Nature:

"But what is this man, who is so foully calumniated as an atheist? He is one who destroyeth chimeras prejudicial to the human race; who endeavours to re-conduct wandering mortals back to nature; who is desirous to place them upon the road of experience; who is anxious that they should actively employ their reason. He is a thinker, who, having meditated upon matter, its energies, its properties, its modes of acting, hath no occasion to invent ideal powers, to recur to imaginary systems, in order to explain the phenomena of the universe--to develope the operations of nature; who needs not creatures of the imagination, which far from making him better understand nature, do no more than render it wholly inexplicable, an unintelligible mass, useless to the happiness of mankind."

Describing theists as the "true deniers" (he does this throughout, flipping the tables on theists and calling them the true atheists, the true infidels, etc.):

 "Thus, to speak precisely, they are the partizans of imaginary theories, the advocates of contradictory beings, the defenders of creeds, impossible to be conceived, the contrivers of substances which the human mind cannot embrace on any side, who are either absurd or knavish; those enthusiasts, who offer us nothing but vague names, of which every thing is denied, of which nothing is affirmed, are the real Atheists; those, I say, who make such beings the authors of motion, the preservers of the universe, are either blind or irrational. Are not those dreamers, who are incapable of attaching any one positive idea to the causes of which they unceasingly speak, true deniers?"

Describing all of what theists attached to the word "atheism": 

 "Let us listen, however, to the imputations which the theologians lay upon those men they falsely denominate atheists; let us coolly, without any peevish humour, examine the calumnies which they vomit forth against them: it appears to them that atheism, (as they call differing in opinion from themselves,) is the highest degree of delirium that can assail the human mind; the greatest stretch of perversity that can infect the human heart; interested in blackening their adversaries, they make incredulity the undeniable offspring of folly; the absolute effect of crime. "We do not," say they to us, "see those men fall into the horrors of atheism, who have reason to hope the future state will be for them a state of happiness." In short, according to these metaphysical doctors, it is the interest of their passions which makes them seek to doubt systems, at whose tribunals they are accountable for the abuses of this life; it is the fear of punishment which is alone known to atheists; they are unceasingly repeating the words of a Hebrew prophet, who pretends that nothing but folly makes men deny these systems; perhaps, however, if he had suppressed his negation, he would have more closely approximated the truth. Doctor Bentley, in his Folly of Atheism, has let loose the whole Billingsgate of theological spleen, which he has scattered about with all the venom of the most filthy reptiles: if he and other expounders are to be believed, "nothing is blacker than the heart of an atheist; nothing is more false than his mind. Atheism," according to them, "can only be the offspring of a tortured conscience, that seeks to disengage itself from the cause of its trouble. We have a right", says Derham, "to look upon an atheist as a monster among rational beings; as one of those extraordinary productions which we hardly ever meet with in the whole human species; and who, opposing himself to all other men, revolts not only against reason and human nature, but against the Divinity himself."

Addressing theists tossing around their narrow definition:

"This granted, we shall be competent to fix the sense that ought to be attached to the name of atheist; which, notwithstanding, the theologians lavish on all those who deviate in any thing from their opinions. If, by atheist, be designated a man who denieth the existence of a power inherent in matter, without which we cannot conceive nature, and if it be to this power that the name of God is given, then there do not exist any atheists, and the word under which they are denominated would only announce fools."

Again addressing theists' use of the narrow definition:

"What has been said, proves that the theologians themselves, have not always known the sense which they would attach to the word atheist; they have vaguely culminated and combated them as persons, whose sentiments and principles were opposed to their own." 

 Again... "whose sentiments and principles were opposed to their own" ...the narrow definition atheist. 

There is too much to quote all of D'Holbach, but he, himself, was arguing that there was no God. He also mentioned a number of publications by theists, whom he considered influential, and who were a voice of the Christian majority, with regard to what they meant by "atheist" and "atheism". 

One such opponent was Buddaeus, and his Treatise On Atheism. Having a look at that, we get an idea of what the theists meant by "atheist", from their own mouths: 

"That a God exists, is a truth so clear and certain, that we cannot deny it without dealing cruelly with our mind, and without making great efforts on ourself. Nevertheless, experience, as well as history ancient and modern teach us that there have been in all ages men so unhappy, which have by force of study and application, finally triumphed  over themselves, or to doubt the existence of God (1), or to even make an open profession of atheism (2), or at least to advance some doctrines, from which a certain consequence is that there is no God (3)"

By Buddaeus' wording, either "doubt" is somewhat different from "atheism", or all 3 roads lead to the conclusion "no God".

"Atheism is a malicious and perverse disposition of spirit (1), by which, without paying heed to conscience, one stifles inspirations and remorse, and sets out to persuade oneself that there is no God (2), or or one approves and obstinately defends certain opinions, from which naturally follow a natural and necessary consequence that cannot be ignored, that there is no God (3)."

 "No God".

"Theoretical Atheism is either ignorant and vulgar, or very philosophical. The former is for those who are guided purely by the stirrings of a blind passion, and are persuaded, or at least claim to be persuaded that there is no God, without taking the trouble to make sense of the phenomena of nature, which otherwise announce the existence of their Creator to us."

"No God".

Another opponent, is one Bentley, and what D'Holbach shortens to Folly Of Atheism

"Psalm XIV. v. 1.
The Fool hath said in his Heart, There is no God; they are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doth good.
I Shall not now make any enquiry about the time and occasion and other circumstances of composing this Psalm: nor how it comes to pass, that with very little variation we have it twice over, both here the 14th. and again number the 53d."

 Bentley tells us all of that which theists attach to the word "atheism", and where they get it from. He repeats the premise throughout, ad nauseum.

"For I believe that the Royal Psalmist in this comprehensive brevity of speech, There is no God, hath concluded all the various Forms of Impiety; whether of such as excludes the Deity from governing the World by his Providence, or judging it by his Righteousness, or creating it by his Wisdom and Power. Because the consequence and result of all these Opinions is terminated in down∣right Atheism. For the Divine Inspection into the Affairs of the World doth necessarily follow from the Nature and Being of God. And he that denies this, doth implicitly deny his Existence: he may acknowledg what he will with his mouth, but in his heart he hath said, There is no God."

All roads lead to "no God". 

"They cannot be said to be of the Atheist's opinion; because they have no opinion at all in the matter: They do not say in their hearts, There is no God; for they never once deliberated, if there was one or no."

What modern atheists might call broad definition atheism is not considered atheism, at all, in the 17th century, at least not by Bentley.