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Nothing New Under the Sun

Neil Thomas
Photo credit: Lenstravelier via Unsplash.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to host a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham: “The Return to the God Paradigm,” of which this article is the second entry. Thomas is reviewing three books: Is Atheism Dead?, by Eric Metaxas; Return of the God Hypothesis, by Stephen Meyer; and God of the Details, by Cristian Bandea. Find the full series here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design.

Given the often-cyclical movement of intellectual history, some views of the three authors under consideration in this series — Eric Metaxas, Stephen Meyer, and Cristian Bandea — may strike a fascinating note of historical déjà vu. By which I mean that in some cases their analyses represent a reflection (even down to verbal details) of the debate as it developed in late 18th century England when many persons, even though they frequently subscribed to that rather diluted, deistic conception of the Creator then in the ascendant (meaning a creator who no longer actively intervenes in his creation), nevertheless saw claims of atheism as being baseless and actuated by little more than “pride or affectation.”1 Similarly, Metaxas concludes that those today who ignore the cardinal principle of cause-and-effect and the increasingly theistic implications of many branches of modern science are indulging in “wilful unreason or mere affectation” (p. 3).

Many of the late 18th century intelligentsia were inclined to deny that atheism could even exist as a defensible intellectual position and were implacably opposed to the kind of sentiment that would in short order animate the pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism” (1811), penned by the poet Shelley as an Oxford undergraduate. The majority denied the logical possibility of atheism on grounds of the complexity and fine orderliness of the world — an order which could scarcely have come about by mere unplanned chance. Hence for 18th-century intellectuals the watchword was, pace Shelley, more The Impossibility of Atheism than its claimed “necessity.” 

The Argument from Complexity

Judged on the grounds of what I will term the 18th-century Argument from Complexity, disbelief in a Creator was seen as irrational and unscientific. This of course represents a foreshadowing of the by now familiar modern argument about “irreducible complexity” not being possible without the cosmic intervention of a supranaturally omnicompetent architect-cum-engineer. Intellectual history, as already observed, often moves around full circle, and in this case it is readily explicable that those who reject Darwinism are drawn to the logic which first established itself in the pre-Darwinian era. That logic was supplied by Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, and Galen, who underlined the importance of causality, and not by Epicurus and Lucretius, whose free-floating speculations put “the nature of things” down to jostling atoms and their supernaturally lucky combinations and reconfigurations — the somewhat “out there’’ conception which provides the philosophical underpinning (such as it is) of Darwinism.

Cristian Bandea observes that the inference to a First Cause has begun to percolate down to people of all faiths and, most importantly, to those who hold no prior allegiance to any of the world’s accredited religions. With reference to the latter group, it is, however, abundantly clear that their “conversion” to this inference does not bring with it any spirit of religious revivalism of the evangelical sort with which we are familiar historically, such as the 18th-century Methodist revival, or, in more recent history, the Welsh revival of 1904/5 which led to sympathetic movements throughout Europe and the U.S. in the earlier 20th century. In contradistinction to that kind of scenario Bandea represents in the following terms the views of those who, although they infer the case for a creator on logical grounds, remain unpersuaded by the claims of any revealed religion (beyond their own spiritual intimations):

Sacred texts of the world’s religions are all manifestations of the human imagination, reflecting our cognitive flaws, limits and biases and are simply too provincial to have been dictated, inspired or written by the Creator of the world.

p. 2

The author himself represents something of this independent form of spiritual apprehension. More so than is the case with Metaxas or Meyer, his conception of the creator is decidedly of the logic-based “God of the philosophers” variety which we commonly associate with late 18th-century Deism:

What I mean by God is a higher order of complexity, beyond physical laws, time and human understanding who brought the universe into existence and made life possible.

p. 7

“A Pilgrimage of Reason”

Such a position is very much in accord with the 21st-century zeitgeist since it tallies well with the thinking of a number of contemporary scientists and philosophers. Cosmologist Paul Davies, for instance, explains in his book The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning (1992) that he is not religious but that “through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact.”2 In other words, the scientific evidence, rather than any antecedent religious motivation, led him to his conclusions. Or take the remarkable volte-face of the late atheist philosopher Professor Antony Flew, who spoke of his belated espousal of theism as having been a specifically scientific conversion, a “pilgrimage of reason” as he termed it. 

Advent of the Electron Microscope

The erstwhile leading light of the British Rationalist Association described his science-based motivation in his book There Is a God (2007)3 where he describes his conversion from atheism being strictly evidence-based and brought about by his ability to access fresh scientific evidence not available to him in his youth. That evidence stemmed from the previously unsuspected intricacy of the microbiological world whose preternaturally miniaturized detail was simply not visible before the invention of the electron microscope in 1946. Flew noted that the invention of that revolutionary microscope with its unprecedented powers of resolution had revealed to him a variety of exquisitely designed (no other word will do) microworlds. These previously hidden realms not only exceeded the reach of human competence to replicate but also defied human comprehension as to how such sub-Lilliputian organisms in their multiple billions might have arisen in the first place. Just before his death in 2010 he wrote: “It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.” Notwithstanding the apparent historical incongruity of persons finding their way to God by reason rather than by faith, his move might justly be characterized as a scientific conversion of the sort that is becoming more common in the 21st century, as Bandea in particular makes clear. 

Next, “The Tip of a Larger Iceberg.”

Notes

  1. See David Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (London: Croom Helm, 1988), pp. 1-43.
  2. Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), P. 16. 
  3. Antony Flew, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: Harper, 2007). For further details see my Taking Leave of Darwin (Seattle: Discovery, 2021), pp. 98-100.