If Newton Had Not Had His GodHow did tacit atheism take root in our society? Those who deny faith in God have "purged" the public square of religious content based on their own religious belief system.
Our modern world blithely continues on its unthinking way as though there is no God, or at least, no God whose existence must necessarily be acknowledged. This is tacit atheism: an atheism that never speaks its name but exerts a huge impact on our lives and indeed even on the language we speak. It exerts this effect because we are logical, but only slowly logical, so that, in the absence of a real God, we lose His transcendent laws and only our autonomy is left us. Let us consider how this happened and what comes next.
We need to be unafraid when we say we believe there is a creator.
My thinking about this problem was prompted by the dismal failure of attempts to eradicate malnutrition from sub-Saharan Africa. I had acquired the modern reductionist thought patterns characteristic of medical school. A problem is defined, sufficient cause is identified and the problem is solved, or so the theory goes, only too confident of its power. Nutrition education and the provision of food have not changed the prevalence of endemic malnutrition, excluding malnutrition induced by war and famine.
My earlier incoherent acceptance of abortion came about in the same way; it avoided the problems of unwanted babies, but I remained deeply uncomfortable. The problems with this approach to medicine were recognized in Elwood's 1988 Shattuck lecture, "Health care executives believe we have struck an unhealthy balance between health care and economic outcomes." Elwood did not know what to do.
Newton was not a reductionist and he could have helped Elwood. Newton said, "This most beautiful system of the sun, the planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being." Newton believed the world could be understood because it was made by a rational God and that it could be studied because it was contingent and created—not sacred. These two ideas made inductive reasoning reasonable and experiments ethical. Thus, the stage was set for science to explode, but without these theological underpinnings, experiments would be unthinkable and sacrilegious.
However, the stage was also set for the growth of a radical reductionism; science or more precisely scientism—the idea that we are no more than the sum of our parts and that only scientifically demonstrable facts are "real" facts. Science had arrogantly presumed to define the nature of knowledge. Within a century, Laplace could say he had no need of the hypothesis of God. Soon we had a world of public facts and private values; the former are subject to debate while the latter are private and sacrosanct. The "Public Square" was now to be naked of religious content despite the fact that this, in itself, is a religious statement based on a belief system.
Such a world, with only internal, private, often philosophically incoherent and undiscussable ideas to tell us what we ought to do, has no means to formulate public policy. Tacit atheism leaves only power as the basis for running a society although the vestiges of previous civilization fortunately decay slowly. Nevertheless, the result is a declining ethical ethos in medicine and society. In the Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom had the temerity to say so and deeply offended the academic elite. In Bloom's words, "The family's moral education (today) comes down to inculcating the bare minima of social behaviour—not lying, not stealing—and produces students who can say nothing more about the ground for their moral actions than, 'If I do that to him, he could do it to me'—an explanation which does not even satisfy those who utter it."
The modern educational experience founded on such secular ideas in disenchanting for the young and they become cynical and alienated. University is no longer what Socrates hoped it would be.
Fortunately, the reductionist world of the enlightenment is showing signs of cracking; science is not enough of an explanation. Indeed science, itself, needs an explanation. The removal of the Aristotelian idea of purpose turns out to have undermined our understanding of ourselves. We need to be unafraid when we say we believe there is a creator. This statement can be no more unacceptable than we believe there is no creator as the starting point for a society and it may be the better of the two options. Given what we have seen happening to our own nation in the last half century, it may be that T.S. Eliot was right.
"And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
Dr. John Patrick is the director of education and public policy for the Christian Medical and Dental Society.
Originally published in Focus, February 2005. The full text is available at www.gallery.cmds-emas.ca/Focus.lasso.
Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2005 Christianity.ca.