Evolving Thoughts

On disbelief

Repost from the old blog: This week I am an Eighth Day Agnostic, as recent reformers in my irreligion have decided that we also don’t know what a week is. My sermon for today begins with a question: When did it become possible to be an atheist?

On Friday I attended an interesting PhD confirmation seminar on the Marquis de Sade. Apart from a nice dirty graphic used as the backdrop, rather distractingly, for the PowerPoint presentation, there was little or no actual sex or sadism. Mostly the discussion centred on what it was that de Sade intended to be doing with his libertine ways. The suggestion the candidate is following up is that he intended to be seen as an Enlightenment thinker like Diderot or Voltaire, and as a public atheist.

Over a number of beers, the discussion turned to the question when it became possible to be an atheist. De Sade lived at a time when public atheism was just beginning its run. Prior to that, it was hard, if not impossible, to be an atheist, largely because the very idea of denying all gods hadn’t yet come up. This set me thinking. Well, that and the beer.

Previously, to be an atheist was to deny a particular theology; that of the ruling establishment. Socrates, for example, in Plato’s Apology is tried and convicted for atheism, despite his denials that he does accept the existence of gods, and The God, only not the pantheon of Athens. In the middle ages, when Christian theology was taken aback by the Islamic philosophers, debates began on how to prove the existence of [the Christian] God, and so a tradition began. Over time, these arguments were seen to be weaker and weaker, until Kant delivered the final coup de grace for the Ontological Argument after the time of the Enlightenment. But Kant was still a theist. The Enlightenment atheists were a new phenomenon.

These arguments and their failure led to the raising of the possibility of there being no God. Hume famously was known as a skeptic, and called an atheist, but it’s hard to tell if he was. Nevertheless, the possibility had been raised. Why? One answer is given by Foucault – there is an episteme defined by the social structure and so on of the time. What Foucault, so I understand, doesn’t address is how the episteme changes over time. I want to suggest that there is an evolutionary account for this.

Not a biological evolutionary account, although biology clearly influences and possibly sets the limitations for conceptual change, but a cultural evolutionary account. I take as my text,

Forms of Explanation by Alan Garfinkel (1981), in which the following account of explanation in the social sciences is offered (although similar accounts have been given by Bas van Fraassen, Frederick Suppe, and Peter Gärdenfors most recently; I read Garfinkel first and his is the most vivid).

Garfinkel tells this story (which is apocryphal): A priest goes to visit the bank robber Willie Sutton in prison. “Why do you rob banks, Willie” asks the cleric. “Because that’s where the money is,” replies Willie. Garfinkel notes that the priest had a particular contrast in mind, perhaps as opposed to living virtuously. Willie, more pragmatically (because he was interested in the cash value, see?) contrasts it with other places to rob, like liquor stores or service stations (if they had them back then). His answer explains why, of a set of contrasts, it was banks he robbed. That is the explanation offered, albeit unsatisfactory to the priest.

An explanation reduces the contrast space down to a particular state. In science, one explains why the outcome observed was that one, and not some other outcome permitted by the laws in operation. One does this by offering a deductive or probabilistic argument from those laws and the initial states. In short, it makes likely the outcome. So, too, are commitments of belief or propositional attitudes. Not that one is explaining, though if asked for reasons that is what one tries to do, but the assertion of one out of a number of possible concepts as being true or the best thing to commit to.

So we might say that the episteme is the set of all the active contrasts in a social or cultural locale. How does it change? Social functionalists think that we are determined in our beliefs by the economic or social structures of our time. This is probably often true, but they usually overlook the fact that an individual can exceed or even change the contrasts accepted as the basis for social discourse. But it seems very likely that one cannot exceed it too far. There has to be a kind of “reach” so that one can communicate to the rest and even convince them.

It is very like the accumulation of mutations in a population, and the effect they have on the mean fitness of the population. A few mutations don’t make it impossible to interbreed with the rest of the population, and a novel mutation might even increase the mean fitness by being fitter. But if you have too many mutations, the structure of the genome will mean that no sharing is possible, because the genome of the mutant is not a good “fit” with that of the ordinary member of the species. In short, it can’t spread.

Conceptual change is very like this. Too many novelties mean the innovator is incomprehensible, or worse, taken to be a heretic. So some views are either ignored or punished, like Socrates’, until the milieu is suitable for it to be accepted. Science fiction often deals with this in time travel – the “advanced” time traveller can’t make himself understood, and lacks the prior technologies to introduce their own ideas. I might be able to tell Edison how to make a light bulb. I’m fairly sure I couldn’t tell Babbage how to make an electronic computer.

Now, I’m not saying that some new ideas aren’t revolutionary. Einstein’s rejection of absolute frames of reference made a whole new advance in physics possible, even if he didn’t like some of them. But the change in contrasts was not, in itself, all that great (and Mach had made that before him). At some point it became conceivable that space and time might not be absolute. And at some time it became possible to be an atheist, and not merely a critic of the prevailing religion.

Even today there are folk who cannot conceive of someone not being of their religion unless they are atheists, no matter whether they are religious in another tradition. Conceptual change occurs unevenly between places, times, and cultures. And traditions have a particular role to play in stabilising conceptual change. For example (and sorry if I bother anyone here), the idea that God is triune in the orthodox Christian tradition, despite the conceptual tangle it causes, is unlikely to change over the bulk of the tradition because it is a “solution” to the divinity of Jesus and the unity of God (the one against the idea that Jesus was just a man, or even a spirit using the form of a man, and the other against the polytheism of Roman, Greek and pagan religions). No matter what problems the Trinitarian view causes, it is so core a belief that it is beyond a likely revision. Unitarians seem to lack the fire that defending a faintly absurd doctrine causes. [And it's likely that holding something a disinterested observer can't fathom is a way to strengthen community bonds, for if they think you are mad, then you only have fellow believers to talk to; which may explain people believing Mormonism and Scientology.]

So to summarise today’s sermon, let us wonder what we might think in the future, and not be too cocky about our own views, for they may just be the best we can come up with before a new contrast is added to our conceptual field. Except for mine, of course. I am right on everything of import…


  1. #1 Jim Harrison
    September 14, 2006

    One strategy in addressing this question is the philological equivalent of Wittgenstein’s advice, “Look and see.” Lucien Febvre’s book The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century (1942, English translation 1982) assembles and analyzes the evidence to see whether or not one could manage to be an atheist (in our sense of the word) in Rabelais time. His conclusion was that the mentality of the age just didn’t have a place for atheism. I don’t know if Febvre’s right or not, but the book sure makes the issues a lot more concrete.

    By the way, John, you have a wonderful blog and not just because of the handsome portrait photo at the top.

  2. #2 John Wilkins
    September 14, 2006

    Thanks for that. I’ll hunt it up.

    The pic is a bit old. I have less hair now…

  3. #3 John Farrell
    September 14, 2006

    Speaking of that portrait, has anyone ever told you you look like Maurice Evans?

    (with his Planet of the Apes make-up on, that is)

  4. #4 lockean
    September 14, 2006

    There is the case of Paolo Sarpi, State Theologian of Venice and contemporary of Galileo. His private notebooks preserved in the Venetian archives are said to show that he was a militant atheist. At least according to Paul Rahe’s Republics Ancient & Modern, vol 2 (UNC 1994) who states that Lord Acton first brought the papers to light.

    Rahe sites:

    David Wootton’s Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment (Cambridge 1983)

    Lord Acton’s Essays on Church and State (London 1952)

    In my opinion Paul Rahe is a Straussian, so maybe he’s not to be trusted.

    But if he’s right and a State Theologian of Venice was an atheist, it’s safe to say a lot of people could have been atheists.

  5. #5 pwe
    September 15, 2006

    John Wilkins wtote:

    Even today there are folk who cannot conceive of someone not being of their religion unless they are atheists, no matter whether they are religious in another tradition.

    Indeed – an atheist is a disbeliever; that is, a person that doesn’t believe as you do.

    But let’s make a little twist to this, shall we? Certain recent events have made it clear that (some) atheist evolutionists are of the opinion that any theist is a creationist.

    The idea that you are of the evil one, unless you agree with everything I agree with myself about, is quite common – whether it be among theists or atheists.

    Apart from that, I agree with the rest that this is a wonderful blog, and that your silver hair look absolutely stunning.

  6. #6 Brian Utterback
    September 15, 2006

    This ties in directly with the theory of memes. A particular idea or concept flourishes because it has attributes that promote its propagation in the environment that it exists, while not having attributes that prohibit its propagation. The same meme may flourish in one environment but die in a different one.

  7. #7 Murffy
    September 15, 2006

    It’s hard for me to imagine that someone like Roger Bacon would have trouble understanding the modern concept of atheism. If I could go back in time and visit him, it wouldn’t surprise me if he responded something like, “I’m glad to see that in the future people have given up their superstitious beliefs.” And, of course, I’d be like, “Er, um, well …”

  8. #8 Georgiana
    September 15, 2006

    Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation, a dense history of same, could be summed up as explaining a change in the prevailing episteme. He argues that the Reformation was neither needed nor inevitable, but rather exemplifies how an individual idea can shatter the economic, political and social context out of which it came, while still being shaped by that context.

    Of particular relevance to this discussion are two points he made regarding atheism. One, atheism was a familiar concept to the 16th and 17th centuries, although discussed under the guise of classical literature to make it more palatable. Second, John Locke apparently excluded two groups, atheists and Roman Catholics, in his Letters Regarding Tolerance. So obviously while there many not have been many atheists, there were enough to cause worry.

  9. #9 bob koepp
    September 16, 2006

    I tend to agree with those who think a robust sort of atheism was well within the conceptual horizons of people who lived long ago. The _expression_ of that idea, however, would tend to be veiled if not utterly suppressed when and where there were severe penalties for corrupting the populace with heretical notions. But the fact that such notions were recognized as heretical is telling.

  10. #10 John Wilkins
    September 16, 2006

    The term atheist meant, basically, someone who did not accept revelaed religion, but included those who were deists, I believe, at the time of Locke. And I think this would also be true of those classical allusions Georgina mentioned. After all, Socrates, who spoke of his “daimon” and talked also about “the god”, was called an atheist by his Athenian accusers, and Christians in the early part of their encounter with the Roman Empire were also called “atheist” for not accepting the state gods. The modern sense of “atheist” as one who has no gods of any description is relatively recent.

  11. #11 Murffy
    September 17, 2006

    I don’t think history supports the idea that the modern sense of atheism is relatively recent. The Carvaka in ancient India, for example, were strict matarialists, rejecting any sort of spirit gods or soul.

    If we’re talking just Western history, the idea still seems highly questionable. In modern times, the notion that rigorous atheism was beyond the conceptual boundaries of Western people until Descarte, appears to have originated with work of Lucien Febvre in his book, “The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century,” which kind of became the orthodoxy on the subject. Recently, the thesis has been challenged by various scholars including Michael Hunter and David Wootton with their book, “Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment.”

    Jennifer MIchael Hecht summarizes the debate nicely in “Doubt: A History.” One example offered among many are excerpts from the 1584 heresy trial of a peasant man known as Menocchio (Domenico Scandella):

    Questioner: Who do you imagine God to be?

    Menocchio: God is nothing but a little breath, and whatever else man imagines him to be.

    It goes on in that vein and clearly Menocchio proudly rejected gods or miracles of any kind. Apparently, he wasn’t particularly well read and claimed he didn’t get his ideas from anybody but came to his own conclusions.

  12. #12 John Wilkins
    September 17, 2006

    The Carvarkists, as interesting as they are (and they are!) are irrelevant here, because so far as I can ascertain their ideas had little direct influence on western thought. The atomists had more, but they were roundly attacked by all leading thinkers from Aristotle onwards, including the much more influential Stoics.

    But given that Epicurus and Democritus were known, one must say it was formally possible to be an atheist in the western tradition, yes. And “sports” like Menocchio indicate that as early as the 16th century, there were indeed people making that inference. I don’t want to quibble over dates. I think that in general it was not possible to be a public atheist until the 18th century though. And it remains the case that formally available or not, nobody was expressing atheism in the modern sense until quite late (the 16th century being what I call “late”, given the existence arguments of the 12-14th centuries).

    I can best express this evolutionarily – we are talking about when it was possible to be a flying bird (European public atheist). That there were feathered pre-birds earlier does not make the dating of the first known flying bird less secure. That pterosaurs and insects flew much earlier doesn’t affect this either. And if we found a single flying feather theropod species, from which there was no further issue, that muddies the water but doesn’t affect the larger phylogeny. [I trust that darkly illuminates the mode of thinking I am using here.]

  13. #13 Murffy
    September 17, 2006

    Fair enough.

    Fanny Wright, a kind of early American proto-feminist, in some speech or other exhorted women, rather than follow traditional dogmas, to “observe, compare, reason, reflect, understand.” Perhaps I cling to a romantic belief that these tools have been available for a long time and there’s always been “mutants” that emerge willing to go where those tools lead regardless of what cultural orthodoxy they were saddled with. It’s just that in some eras using these tools was more dangerous than in others.

    Which is why I like to think Roger Bacon and his ilk, when they coined the distinction between revealed wisdom and discovered wisdom, weren’t offering it up as something they truly believed, but rather as a kind of bone thrown to appease their religious superiors so they could get on with their work.

    Btw, I like the evolutionary anology. It’s been interesting to think about.

  14. #14 Jim Harrison
    September 17, 2006

    The Epicureans always denied that they were atheists. The claimed to believe that the Gods were peaceful beings that lived in the spaces between worlds. The Gods didn’t have much of a role in the economy of our planet, but they did serve as models for the kind of serene, passionless form of life recommended by Epicurus and company. We know that they exist because they are sometimes seen via images that float in from a great distances.

    I used to think that Epicurus and Lucretius were kidding about this notion in order to avoid the charge that they were atheists. I’ve changed my mind, however. It seems to me that the ancients were operating with a different set of assumptions about the value of witnesses. Since people were forever reporting sightings of the Gods, wouldn’t it be perverse to deny the reality of what they saw? Unlike the Aristotelians and Stoics, the atomists didn’t need the Gods to explain the system of the world,but they didn’t have any real reason to deny their existence either. Indeed, since the Epicurean Gods were not cosmic principles but living beings that looked like the statues of Apollo or Jupiter, their theology was closer to popular religion than the other philosophical schools. So lets hear it for Alma Venus, the godess invoked in magnificent hexameters at the beginning of the Nature of Things.

    The restriction of credible witness to a relatively small minority of respectable people is, I think, a relatively recent development, albeit “recent” in Wilkins’ unhurried kind of recent. When a crazy guy or some hysterical church woman reports a vision of something otherworldy, we tend to explain the vision by the pathology of the viewer. In antiquity, some people were certainly thought to be insane, but insanity didn’t mean they didn’t really see something. Maybe insanity is precisely that state in which the suffer can see more than mortal men should be able to see–that’s a common theme in Greek mythology. Anyhow, plenty of people who weren’t obviously crazy reported sightings of divine figures just as many individuals who aren’t obviously nuts do today. Heck, I’ve noticed that when I gaze at the bright sky, it quickly starts looking wormy as if it were full of writhing, translucent beings. No wonder the Greeks and the Romans took it for granted that the aether is full of daemons.

  15. #15 John Wilkins
    September 18, 2006

    That’s an interesting take on it Jim (and of course I’m not saying that just because it goes to support my main claim here or anything…). And I also very much like the phrase “unhurried kind of recent”. I think of myself as a grand overview kind of guy (philosopher!), and for me history covers the last 8000 years or so, not just yesterday (post 1500). Of course, that makes it hard to keep appointments.

    The empirical turn in western thought comes around the 5thC BCE, and develops slowly over the next 2000 years. Despite there being a number of empirically minded investigators, Aristotle, Archimedes, Roger Bacon, and my hero Frederick II, the epistemology of reliable observation really is a late development, and even then it didn’t take widely until the so-called Scientific Revolution. The key change is, I think, the notion of sharing exact, measurable, observations that anyone might have made. Tycho is perhaps the turning point here.

    The apparent lipservice you note of the Epicureans to the divine, which I see now is not lipservice at all, is ironic in the light of how the Epicureans were treated by the theistic west. It’s is doubly ironic that one of the first charges made against Darwin is that he was an Epicurean. I believe Dalton got the same charge made against him, although after Darwin, by French and Belgain Catholic theologians in the 1880s.

  16. #16 lockean
    September 18, 2006

    I’m glad John Wilkins is over his cold enough to argue.

    The notion of sharing exact, measurable observations is surely a late development; it has often been traced rightly or wrongly to Francis Bacon. Whether exact, measurable observation promotes atheism, was somehow brought into being by atheism, or works symbiotically with atheism, I could only guess.

    But I won’t guess, because what I really want to comment on is Ancient Greek religion.

    There is no record of the prosecution’s actual charges against Socrates, but the citizen leading the prosecution, Anytus, had personal and political grievances with Socrates, and it seems likely that the basis of the legal case was impiety, a failure to recognize the gods recognized by the city, not failure to recognize gods generally. (nomizein tous theous, not nomizein theous).

    In a Christian context impiety implies unbelief and unbelief implies impiety–since in Christianity some degree of belief is part of one’s duty– but in the ancient world pious participation in the rituals of the city or empire was a public duty, but what the rituals meant was not fixed at all. I could say Eros was the first god from who Chaos derived, you can say Eros was the son of Aphrodite. Imagine a writer in a Christian country claiming that Satan was thrown into the pit because he was in love with Mary and wished to wed her, but his older brother Jehovah seized her first leading to a war.

    That’s sort of what the ancient world was like. Anyone could make up mythology on the fly to make any point. Moreover any force or idea could be personified into a god. ‘The two sons of Chaos had an argument and Electromagnetism demanded to be treated with the most honor, but Gravity said, “You will have your honor and speak most loudly, but I will have one steady quiet song never be bent or broken.”‘

    Homer was the most-read book in Greek education of course and he does this stuff all the time. Virtually all the ancient texts use gods in this way. I think the important point is not that the Stoics or Epicureans believed their own tales, but that they agreed with notion or habit of describing the forces of nature, personality and social life in terms of divinity. It’s so loose it becomes almost like a form of atheism or at least deism, but it really is a different thing.

  17. #17 Jim Harrison
    September 18, 2006


    Two points, one kinda pedantic (but you started it with the Greek!) and one more philosophical:

    1. The Stoics allegorized Homer and Hesiod quite self consciously. I don’t think the Epicureans did the same sort of thing, however, since Lucretius, at least, does not treat the Gods as personification of natural forces. Anyhow, for an atomist, there really aren’t any natural forces, just atoms and void; and the Gods are made of atoms like everything else.

    2. What characterizes modern science is not so much exact observation–astrologers can be as anal as anybody else–as a credentialing process that identifies who gets to make trustworthy observations. I think that the invention of moveable type and the spread of literacy made a restrictive system an absolute requirement because immense amounts of utter nonsense flooded Europe in the aftermath of Guttenberg, far more dreck than gold. Peer review and other limitations on free speech that we associate with the development of the Royal Society in England were partly a way of insulating a tiny group of investigators from the surrounding static of superstition and fraud so they could hear themselves think. (I don’t claim any originality for this line of thought, by the way. It’s largely inspired by Shapin and Shaffer’s book, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. 1983)

  18. #18 lockean
    September 18, 2006

    Jim Harrison, my statement about observation was a reference to Mr Wilkins’ previous post. But since you brought it up…

    While contemporary science institutionally has a lot to do with credentials, historically the credentialing seems to follow the first modern scientists by a hundred years or more. Galileo was a college dropout hired as a sort of associate math instructor; Kepler worked as a math instructor. Neither was a tenure track guy in the modern sense. Bacon (if you consider him a scientist) was a politician and lawyer. Newton was a tenured professor, but that doesn’t seem to have played much part in the acceptance of his ideas. There doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of credentialing until about 1700 at the earliest, and a non-academic could still be taken seriously as a scientist until at least 1800. I mean in reference to science of course. Universities were for training physicians, lawyers and ministers. Science was on the fringes. I guess you could consider physicians scientists, but one didn’t have to have a degree to practice medicine either. Am I missing the substance of your credentials argument?

    I want to think more on your first point. Lucretius was, of course, Roman, but I was glomming the Romans onto the Greeks in my pro-Hellenic bias. They certainly demanded public piety as did the Greeks. And they changed myths as did the Greeks. They were skeptical too. But they don’t seem to have dealt with gods in the same way. That’s very interesting.

  19. #19 Jim Harrison
    September 18, 2006

    Sorry for thinking you were addressing me. Delusions of reference: a common problem in mad houses and threads.

    I’m using the notion of credential in a rather wide sense to refer to the bona fidas one needed to be recognized as being in the game. Maybe it’s the wrong term. A tremendous amount of serious science was done by amateurs before 1900 or so, but it wasn’t that easy to be recognized as a legitimate amateur if you lacked the right social position.

  20. #20 lockean
    September 18, 2006

    To get one’s books read until 1700 or so, one had to be able to write in clean neo-classical Latin. If one wasn’t very gifted in languages or from a family rich enough to afford a tutor, that’s a formidable hurdle.