The New Dark Ages
Serious atheism—secularism—developed only within the last three hundred years. Although skepticism (the idea that we can never know anything with certainty) was a minority philosophical position in ancient Greek thought, atheism had never done well. Mankind is insistently religious. Even though Greek philosophers—the founders of Western civilization—espoused anti-biblical ideas, such as reincarnation, they did, as I mentioned earlier, believe from observing the universe that a Superintellect existed behind creation. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, in seeking a perfect world, laid a philosophical foundation for theism—the belief in God.
This search for a Being greater than themselves is not surprising in light of Scripture. The Bible states plainly that God instills in every person an innate sense of His existence. This basic revelation of God is called "general revelation" and it is made known to us through the glory of God's creation: "Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead" (Romans 1:20).
And their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1—4)
Because of the innate knowledge of God, the Bible declares that only a "fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'
(Psalm 14:1). How is it, then, that mankind misses God? The answer is found in the rebellious nature of humanity. People choose idolatry and sin—adultery, fornication, homosexuality and murder—rather than submission to God (see Romans 1:21—32). They reject the knowledge of God because if God exists, they must be subject to Him!
But even as they ask questions, they (and we) are biased investigators. Everyone is bent away from godliness: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). Couple mankind's inherited rebellion against God with the devil's strategy of lies, and you can understand why alternatives to the revelation of His nature continue to endure.
Today we live in a world in which atheism is everywhere prevalent. The entire superstructure of Communist thinking rests on dialectical materialism, the atheistic philosophy of Marx and Lenin. Western Europe is solidly secular, declaring a mechanical universe. Most of the American academic world and educational system is secular.
Still, the belief in God was thoroughly entrenched in the Western mind; we did not arrive at secularism easily. How have we come to have millions of atheists—secularists—in the world today? To understand the process, it is necessary to review the development of atheism over the last few centuries.
The Roots of Secularism
Three forces combined to provide man with an escape from God: the end of the authoritarianism of the Dark Ages, the rise of humanism and the growth of science.
During the centuries before and after the birth of Christ, Rome built its Empire upon the civilization of Greece. Its unified government established trade and communication throughout the expanding Empire, and allowed ideas, including Christianity, to spread rapidly. By the fifth century A.D., just before the fall of Rome, Christianity had become the state Roman religion and had spread throughout the Western world.
When the Empire fell to the invading Huns, the government collapsed and the part of the Empire we know as Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages. For a thousand years Europe was a mire of bloody conflict as serfdoms struggled with neighboring principalities in a maze of war, assassination, alliance, disease, poverty and ignorance.(Winston Churchill's assessment)
The Roman Catholic Church preserved the little memory of government and philosophy that was not lost to the barbaric hordes. The teachings of philosophy and science were encapsulated in the libraries and disciplines of the monasteries. In time, the Church succumbed to the barbaric influences of the conquering pagan warriors, as paganism found its way into many practices of the Church.
The Renaissance was born in the wake of the Black Death, which swept Europe in the mid-fourteenth century; between 1348 and 1377 some forty percent of the global population was lost. With the end of the Plague, the government began to stabilize and international trade began to emerge. With trade, communication and a degree of sanity in government, the Greek masters were rediscovered; the Renaissance blossomed.
This rekindling of government and learning began to im prove the lot of mankind. Optimism replaced fatalism and an emphasis on the dignity and worth of humanity emerged; man had potential for a good life now, not simply in the hereafter.
The stage was set for humanism, which at heart dignified individuals against the "divine right" authoritarianism of Church and state. It is important to note that humanism was not, in itself, contradictory to Christianity. Many of the great lights of the Protestant Reformation were humanists, trying to reject the dominance of the corrupt Church with the light of knowledge preserved from Greek antiquity. The Renaissance allowed the authority of the Church to be challenged by leaders of the Protestant Reformation—men like John Wycliffe, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli.
By 1500 A.D., England had evolved from a coarse, brutal feudalism (eight of the eighteen kings who ruled England between 1066 and 1485 died violent deaths) into a parliamentary government. Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. The last heretic was burned in England in 1610 and the Puritan Revolution sent the Pilgrim fathers to America in 1620. The air of religious freedom caused the English parliamentary society to question how far the reformation of the Church should be allowed to go. They decided there could be no limits
Interestingly, many of the emerging great scientists were deeply religious: Galileo, Robert Boyle and, perhaps the greatest of all, Sir Isaac Newton. (According to one historical account, at the end of his life Newton spent more time studying and writing about the Bible than he did science.)
It was Newton, ironically, who laid the foundational science that would be used to undergird the secularism of today. Newton's Principia Mathematica (1687) described the laws of motion and a clockwork universe. For Newton, the universe was evidence for a Creator God. Unfortunately, others used Newton's theories to describe the universe as a machine that could get along without God.
The seventeenth century became known as the Age of Reason; the eighteenth, the Enlightenment, as scientists struggled to understand the new universe that appeared in their microscopes and telescopes. Suddenly the world was infinitely more complex and wonderful than anyone had imagined. Copernicus revealed that the earth was not the center of the universe. People began to question the biblical account of creation. Could there be another explanation for the universe? If the Bible should prove to be wrong about the material world, could it be wrong about the very nature of God?
It is important to realize that much of what medieval man thought the Bible taught about the universe was not what the Bible taught at all. Rather, it was what the existing Church mistakenly understood the Bible to teach. When Galileo came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, he was not in conflict with the Bible, but with erroneous dogmatic concepts that the Church embraced.
The Church, in other words, had used the Bible to validate faulty medieval science. It now found itself dogmatically connected to an incomplete science and unable to let go. Many of the new scientists rejected not what the Bible declared, but what the Church declared. That subtle distinction was, how ever, often unrecognized in what was shaping up to be a battle between science and God.
The first step toward modem atheism was to shake the knowledge of the biblical God as Creator and sustainer of life, and as moral lawgiver. As humanism dignified (and often idealized) man, it led some to ask if they could not find God without the constraints of Christian dogma. Their concept of the "noble savage" sketched aboriginal man as the possessor of a "natural religion" that allowed him to worship God rightly without a Bible or other specific revelation from God. This line of thinking led to deism, which excludes God from the workings of the universe.
Science convinced deists that the universe was a machine. But a machine could not create itself: There had to be a Creator—the First Cause. The universe worked so well and by such divinely established laws that they decided God, who was necessary to create it, was just as unnecessary to maintain it. The universe worked too well; God had become superfluous! God became the "Supreme Mechanic," the "Divine Watchmaker." People began to look within themselves for a sense of morality.
Men like John Locke of England, Voltaire of France and Thomas Jefferson of America were prominent deists. They labored for peace, justice and morality, while scorning the revealed religion of Christianity. Voltaire was the most violent in his opposition, saying of the Christian Church, "Crush the infamous thing!" Revealed religion—the religion of the Old and New Testaments—was seen as the antithesis to the God of reason and enlightenment.
Deism failed because it was a compromise position. The deists, abandoning revelation, eventually had to choose be ween secularism or occultism.
The move to full secularism is seen in David Hume, the Scottish historian and philosopher who wrote Essay on Miracles in 1748. Hume and others began to build a platform of literature for secularism. To do so, they needed to confront the arguments of Christianity. They needed an alternative to the Christian explanation not only for the complexity and beauty of the universe, but also for the emotional and artistic nature of the human mind. They struggled with this theory of mind—today called psychology. Alongside their version of the Newtonian "world machine," they developed its equivalent: the human mind machine.
What enlightened intellectuals lacked was a unified theory that could account for the wonder and complexity of the human mind and body without God. How could material forces alone account for all the wonders of the universe? How could they explain the universe, including animal and human life, without God?
These questions were answered for them in 1859 by Charles Darwin. His theory about evolution left an incalculable impact on Western culture. We will continue with the secularists' strong reliance on evolution and begin to see how to combat it in the next chapter.