The autocratic rule of both tsar and church in imperial Russia gave rise not only to a revolutionary movement in the nineteenth century but also to a crisis of meaning among members of the intelligentsia. Personal faith became the subject of intense scrutiny as individuals debated the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, debates reflected in the best-known novels of the day. Friendships were formed and broken in exchanges over the status of the eternal. The salvation of the entire country, not just of each individual, seemed to depend on the answers to questions about belief.
Victoria Frede looks at how and why atheism took on such importance among several generations of Russian intellectuals from the 1820s to the 1860s, drawing on meticulous and extensive research of both published and archival documents, including letters, poetry, philosophical tracts, police files, fiction, and literary criticism. She argues that young Russians were less concerned about theology and the Bible than they were about the moral, political, and social status of the individual person. They sought to maintain their integrity against the pressures exerted by an autocratic state and rigidly hierarchical society. As individuals sought to shape their own destinies and searched for truths that would give meaning to their lives, they came to question the legitimacy both of the tsar and of Russia’s highest authority, God.
The central contention of the “New Atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens is that there has for several centuries been a war between science and religion, that religion has been steadily losing that war, and that at this point in human history a completely secular scientific account of the world has been worked out in such thorough and convincing detail that there is no longer any reason why a rational and educated person should find the claims of any religion the least bit worthy of attention.
But as Edward Feser argues inThe Last Superstition, in fact there is not, and never has been, any war between science and religion at all. There has instead been a conflict between two entirely philosophical conceptions of the natural order: on the one hand, the classical “teleological” vision of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, on which purpose or goal-directedness is as inherent a feature of the physical world as mass or electric charge; and the modern “mechanical” vision of Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, according to which the physical world is comprised of nothing more than purposeless, meaningless particles in motion. As it happens, on the classical teleological picture, the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the natural-law conception of morality are rationally unavoidable. Modern atheism and secularism have thus always crucially depended for their rational credentials on the insinuation that the modern, mechanical picture of the world has somehow been established by science. Yet this modern “mechanical” picture has never been established by science, and cannot be, for it is not a scientific theory in the first place but merely a philosophical interpretation of science. Moreover, as Feser shows, the philosophical arguments in its favor given by the early modern philosophers were notable only for being surprisingly weak. The true reasons for its popularity were then, and are now, primarily political: It was a tool by which the intellectual foundations of ecclesiastical authority could be undermined and the way opened toward a new secular and liberal social order oriented toward commerce and technology. So as to further these political ends, it was simply stipulated, by fiat as it were, that no theory inconsistent with the mechanical picture of the world would be allowed to count as “scientific.” As the centuries have worn on and historical memory has dimmed, this act of dogmatic stipulation has falsely come to be remembered as a “discovery.”
However, not only is this modern philosophical picture rationally unfounded, it is demonstrably false. For the “mechanical” conception of the natural world, when worked out consistently, absurdly entails that rationality, and indeed the human mind itself, are illusory. The so-called “scientific worldview” championed by the New Atheists thus inevitably undermines its own rational foundations; and into the bargain (and contrary to the moralistic posturing of the New Atheists) it undermines the foundations of any possible morality as well. By contrast, and as The Last Superstition demonstrates, the classical teleological picture of nature can be seen to find powerful confirmation in developments from contemporary philosophy, biology, and physics; moreover, morality and reason itself cannot possibly be made sense of apart from it. The teleological vision of the ancients and medievals is thereby rationally vindicated – and with it the religious worldview they based upon it.
Religion without God
Ronald Dworkin Harvard University Press, 2013 Library of Congress BL51.D96 2013 | Dewey Decimal 200
In his last book, Ronald Dworkin addresses timeless questions: What is religion and what is God's place in it? What are death and immortality? He joins a sense of cosmic mystery and beauty to the claim that value is objective, independent of mind, and immanent in the world. Belief in God is one manifestation of this view, but not the only one.
In 1883 the editor of a penny newspaper stood trial three times for the "obsolete" crime of blasphemy. The editor was G. W. Foote, the paper was the Freethinker, and the trial was the defining event of the decade. Foote's "martyrdom" completed blasphemy's nineteenth-century transformation from a religious offense to a class and cultural crime.
From extensive archival and literary research, Joss Marsh reconstructs a unified and particular account of blasphemy in Victorian England. Rewriting English history from the bottom up, she tells the forgotten stories of more than two hundred working-class "blasphemers," like Foote, whose stubborn refusal to silence their "hooligan" voices helped secure our rights to speak and write freely today. The new standards of criminality used to judge their "word crimes" rewrote the terms of literary judgment, demoting the Bible to literary masterpiece and raising Literature as the primary standard of Victorian cultural value.