Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why Do We Tolerate Atheists? Locke, Bayle, and Darwin

"For hundreds of years, Hell has been the most fearful place in the human imagination.  It is also the most absurd."

That's the opening of the cover article for the Christmas issue of The Economist. 

After ridiculing the traditional depictions of Hell, the author concludes the article: "Just as there can be no light without dark, and no sound without silence, so everlasting celestial joys depend on a contrast of everlasting horror.  Without Hell, you can't have Heaven."

So just as there is no Hell, there is no Heaven.

What I find most remarkable about this is that this article in a popular magazine will not provoke any outrage--at least not in most of the Western world.  I assume that this article will be banned in those countries where blasphemy is a crime--even a capital crime.  Not long ago, however, in Western history, anyone who denied the reality of Heaven and Hell would be subject to persecution and even execution.

For most of us in modern Western societies today, the idea of persecuting people for questioning the doctrines of orthodox Christianity--such as God's eternal judgment after death--is incomprehensible.  Even the most devout religious believers generally agree that we must tolerate not only differing religious beliefs but even open atheism as an exercise in freedom of thought.

For me, this raises two general questions.  First, what exactly is the philosophic or scientific reasoning behind this modern policy of liberal toleration?  Second, is there any Biblical basis for this liberal toleration?  I'll take up the first question here.  I'll take up the second question in my next post.

Probably, the single most influential statement of the case for toleration in early modern political thought is John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (first published in 1689).  We might expect, therefore, that Locke would give us the rationale for tolerating atheists.  Surprisingly, he doesn't do that. 

Locke does argue for tolerating Protestants, Muslims, Jews, and Pagans (including the American Indians).  But he thinks there is no justification for tolerating either Catholics or atheists.  Catholics are intolerable because their submission to papal authority make them disloyal citizens.  Moreover, no religious group is to be tolerated if it teaches intolerance, and the Catholic Church officially endorses persecution of heretics, which includes all Protestants.

Here's what Locke says about atheists:
"Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God.  Promises, Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist.  The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.  Besides also, those that by their Atheism undermine and destroy all Religion, can have no pretence of Religion whereupon to challenge the Privilege of a Toleration." (52-53)
That atheists cannot reasonably claim protection under a policy of religious toleration seems clear enough.

But what about the other point--that denying the existence of God dissolves the bonds of social order by subverting the grounds of promises, agreements, and oaths?  Elsewhere, Locke says that believing in the existence of God is "the foundation of all morality" (132).  Apparently, for this reason, in the Constitutions of Carolina, which Locke coauthored with Shaftesbury, every freeman of the Carolina colony was required to acknowledge God and join a church, although diverse churches would be tolerated (146-47).

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argued that one of the great advantages of Christianity was that its teaching about Heaven and Hell provided the only solid ground for morality.  "Upon this foundation, and upon this only, morality stands firm and will defy all competition" (185).  In this respect, the moral teaching of the ancient philosophers was inferior because they "seldom set their rules on men's minds and practices by consideration of another life" (183).  Of course, the word "seldom" here might remind us that Plato was the first philosopher to elaborate a teaching about rewards and punishments in an afterlife, and, indeed, much of the Christian teaching about Heaven and Hell was shaped by the Platonic tradition.

That atheism was not tolerable because it corrupted morality, and therefore should be prohibited by law, was a common assumption of almost all the proponents of toleration.  Sebastian Castellio's Concerning Heretics (1554) was the first full statement of the argument for a tolerant Christian society, which was provoked by John Calvin's execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva for heresy.  And yet Castellio was clear that blasphemers who openly turn away from God should be punished, and even killed, because such atheism leads to criminal immorality.  Roger Williams's The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) was the most sweeping justification of toleration up to that time--including even Catholics, whom Williams identified as "Antichristians"--but even so, Williams never explicitly said that atheists should be tolerated. 

As far as I can tell, the first writer to explicitly extend toleration to cover atheists was the English Leveller William Walwyn, in Toleration Justified and Persecution Condemned (published in 1646).  A man "whose mind is so misinformed as to deny a deity or the scriptures," Walwyn argued, has committed the "worst of errors," but this does not justify coercive punishment (20).  Rather, the best response to such error is to use reason and argument to expose the error. Yet this is only a brief comment by Walwyn without any elaboration. 

The first full explanation of how atheists could be safely tolerated comes from Pierre Bayle.  In his Philosophical Commentary on Jesus's parable of the marriage feast ("compel them to come in"), first published in 1686, Bayle defended religious toleration as embracing all believers, including Catholics.  But in one passage, he did allow for punishing obstinate atheists (242-43).  This is hard to understand because his earlier book--Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet (1682)--was the first writing in the history of philosophy and science to defend the possibility of a decent society of atheists.

What Bayle says about how morality depends on natural passions or sentiments rather than on religious doctrines lays out a moral psychology that was later deepened by David Hume and Adam Smith, given an evolutionary explanation by Charles Darwin, and provided more theoretical and empirical support by recent research in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.  Bayle sees himself as reviving a tradition of "natural philosophy" that goes back to the ancient Greeks.  The modern natural science of Hume, Smith, and Darwin continues that tradition.

Considered purely as a general or abstract idea, it seems plausible that belief in a final judgment by God with eternal rewards and punishments in the afterlife would support virtue, and therefore that atheistic denial of this doctrine would subvert virtue.  If all human beings seek happiness, and if they believe that obeying God's moral law will bring them eternal happiness in Heaven, while disobeying that divine law will bring them eternal torment in Hell, then one might expect that those human beings with such beliefs would always be virtuous. 

Bayle's argument, however, is that this general idea is contrary to what we know by experience, because we can see that Christians who sincerely believe in this doctrine of Heaven and Hell are no more virtuous than those people who doubt or deny this doctrine.  The reason for this is that our conduct depends very little on our abstract ideas and much more on the dominant passions of our nature.  This allows Bayle to argue that insofar as atheists are moved by natural passions that lead to virtue, they are virtuous in their conduct.

Bayle's argument is an attack not only on orthodox Christianity but also on Platonic rationalism, because the Christian belief in Heaven and Hell as the necessary support for virtue continues the tradition of Plato's teaching (particularly in the Laws, the Republic, the Timaeus, and the Gorgias).  Now, I know that some scholars--particularly, the Straussians--would say that Plato's teaching about immortality of the soul with judgment in the afterlife is not Plato's true belief but only a noble lie for the many.  But then Bayle would argue that Plato was wrong to think that this is a noble lie, because popular belief in the lie does not really motivate good conduct.  (The one weakness in Robert Bartlett's Introduction to his translation of Bayle's Various Thoughts is that he does not recognize that Bayle's attack on Christianity is also an attack on Plato.)

Bayle writes:
"One sees by now how apparent it is that a society of atheists would perform civil and moral actions as much as other societies do, provided that it punish crimes severely and that it attach honor and infamy to certain things.  As the ignorance of a First Being, a Creator and Preserver of the world, would not prevent the members of this society from being sensitive to glory and scorn, to reward and punishment, and to all the passions seen in other men, and would not stifle all the lights of reason, people in good faith in commerce would be seen among them who would help the poor, oppose injustice, be faithful to their friends, scorn insults, renounce the pleasures of the body, and harm no one, either because the desire to be praised would prompt them to all these fine actions that could not fail to earn public approbation, or because the plan to gain friends and protectors for themselves in times of need would lead them to such actions.  Women would pride themselves on modesty because they would without fail gain love and the esteem of men thereby.  There would be crimes of all kinds, I do not doubt it; but there would not be more of them than in idolatrous societies because all that caused the pagans to act, either for good or for ill, would be found in a society of atheists, namely punishments and rewards, glory and ignominy, temperament and education.  For as regards that sanctifying grace that fills us with love of God and that leads us to triumph over our bad habits, pagans are as deprived of it as are atheists." (sec. 172)
That appeal to "sanctifying grace" in the last sentence is what some readers see as evidence that Bayle was not himself an atheist, but was rather a Calvinist who saw human depravity as so deep that Christian virtue could not arise from belief in Christian doctrines but only from grace as a supernatural gift from God.  It is not so clear, however, that this grace makes much difference as far as the regular conduct of human beings is concerned (secs. 92, 157).

What Bayle says here about the natural motivations for morality that do not depend on religious doctrines is very similar to what Darwin says in his Autobiography in a section explaining his gradual loss of religious belief, and how his evolved moral sense could stand without religious support:
"A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.  A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly.  A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections.  He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, names the social instincts.  If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth.  By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts.  His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.  As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science.  i feel no remorse from having committed any great sin." (94-95)
In affirming his devotion to a life of science, Darwin indicates that he belongs to that small group of human beings whom Bayle identifies as having a dominant passion for natural philosophy or science (secs. 171, 175, 181).  Although the natural human passions are universal to the human species, each individual shows a distinctive profile of passions in which some are stronger than others, which creates a diverse range of temperaments and thus a diverse range of goods for different human beings.  Liberal toleration secures the freedom that allows the fullest expression of this diversity of human goods, protecting the philosophic few as well as the nonphilosophic many.

Darwin is also like Bayle in that both of them reject "particular providence" in favor of "general providence."  It is worthier of the greatness of God to work through the general laws of nature than to have to intervene arbitrarily into the world through miracles.  Like Bayle, Darwin can allow God to work as a primary cause in determining the laws of nature, while allowing the secondary causes of nature (like natural evolution) to work out the natural history of the world (Bayle, secs. 172, 230, 234).

If moral order depended on believing in certain religious doctrines (like Heaven and Hell), then liberalism would be indefensible, because we would have to assume that for the sake of social order we must use the laws to compel people to believe those doctrines, and thus individual freedom of thought would have to be seen as dissolving all social bonds.  An evolutionary account of how moral order arises from natural human desires through voluntary associations in civil society, without any necessity for enforcing an established religion, supports the argument for liberalism.

Pierre Bayle, Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet, trans. Robert C. Bartlett (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000)

Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: Norton, 1958)

John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, ed. Mark Goldie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010)

John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, ed. George W. Ewing (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1965)

Andrew Sharp, ed., The English Levellers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

A few of the many posts on related themes can be found here, here, here., here.,, and here.

Some of my posts on explaining religious belief as an evolved instinct of the human mind can be found here, here,  here., and here.


Thesauros said...

I'm sorry, I didn't have time to read your post in detail. That's why I missed your answer to the second question regarding how the Bible addresses this issue.

In Matthew 13:24 - 30 we read - “God’s kingdom is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. That night, while his hired men were asleep, his enemy sowed thistles all through the wheat and slipped away before dawn. When the first green shoots appeared and the grain began to form, the thistles showed up, too.
The farmhands came to the farmer and said, Master, that was clean seed you planted, wasn’t it? Where did these thistles come from?”
He answered, “Some enemy did this.”
“The farmhands asked, “Should we weed out the thistles?’
He said, “No, if you weed the thistles, you’ll pull up the wheat, too. Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll instruct the harvesters to pull up the thistles and tie them in bundles for the fire, then gather the wheat and put it in the barn.”
. That parable is specifically about NOT “pulling up” or killing those who are clearly not part of God’s kingdom.
. That parable is specifically about NOT “pulling up” or killing those who are antagonistic toward or openly trying to destroy the kingdom of God.
. That parable is specifically about NOT seeking out and then judging as to who may or may not be part of the kingdom of God.
It is God who will deal with these people at the proper time. It is not our job.

Merry Christmas
God Bless
Happy Holidays

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, this parable of the tares was one of the most commonly cited Biblical passages for the proponents of toleration.

But beginning with Augustine, proponents of persecution interpreted the parable to mean that if the tares are easily identified and not confused with the wheat, it is necessary to pull them up before the harvest. Thus, Augustine was willing to engage in a gross distortion of scripture to get his preferred conclusion.

In my next post, I will take up the Biblical arguments.

Anonymous said...

Philosophers have been looking for secular reasons to behave altruistically for millenia. They have never found one. The only success story we have for actually motivating altruism is divine rewards and punishments. That is the only way Plato was able to justify the just life as being superior to the unjust.

The 21st century will be about coming to realize exactly what Christianity gave to the West and the cost of its waning.

Anonymous said...

You would think that as a Darwinian your first question when confronted with something that has lasted for thousands and thousands of years is to ask, what it is doing that lets it stay around? What is its survival value? Why hasn't religion died out? You could take the Marxist position that religion is the opiate of the masses, but you then have to ask why it hasn't long ago been discarded. Communism was obviously against the peoples' interest and so it only lasted 60 years before it was discarded. Why has religion lasted as long a civilization? Could it be that religion makes civilization possible?

Larry Arnhart said...

In some previous posts, I have argued that religious belief is an evolved instinct of the human mind, rooted in our evolved theory of mind and our history of group selection.

The desire for religious understanding is on my list of 20 natural desires.

I have added some new links at the end of my post.

Anonymous said...

But you also think that a society of atheists would work just as well as a religious one. I think that darwinism can get you kin selection, and tit-for-tat reciprocity, but that isn't enough to have a real civilization which requires altruism on a grand scale. Religion is what treats the problem of free riders eventually overwhelming the cooperators.