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  • 7/27/2019 Cohen - Theism or Atheism


    Theism or Atheism

    by Chapman Cohen

  • 7/27/2019 Cohen - Theism or Atheism



    Part I.


    Chapter I. What is God? 9

    Chapter II. The Origin of the Idea of God 20

    Chapter III. Have we a Religious Sense? 37

    Chapter IV. The Argument from Existence 49

    Chapter V. The Argument from Causation 59

    Chapter VI. The Argument from Design 69

    Chapter VII. The Disharmonies of Nature 85

    Chapter VIII. God and Evolution 94

    Chapter IX. The Problem of Pain 110

    Part II.


    Chapter X. A Question of Prejudice 131

    Chapter XI. What is Atheism? 138

    Chapter XII. Spencer and the Unknowable 151

    Chapter XIII. Agnosticism 169

    Chapter XIV. Atheism and Morals 181

    Chapter XV. Atheism Inevitable 194

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    Shrouded in the cloak of philosophy, the question of theexistence of God continues to attract attention, and, I mayadd, to command more respect than it deserves. For it isonly by a subterfuge that it assumes the rank ofphilosophy. "God" enters into philosophy only when it isbeginning to lose caste in its proper home, and then in itsnew environment it undergoes such a transformation as tocontain very little likeness to its former, and proper, self. Itdisowns its parentage and claims another origin, and, likeso many genealogists devising pedigrees for the parvenu,certain philosophers attempt to map out for the newcomeran ancestry to which he can establish no valid claim.Nothing would, indeed, surprise the ancestor more than tobe brought face to face with his descendant. He would notbe more astonished than would the ancient Eohippus onmeeting with a modern dray-horse. In anthropology orhistory the idea of God may fairly claim a place, but it hasno place in philosophy on any sensible meaning of theword.

    The consequence of this transference of the idea of God to

    the sphere of philosophy is the curious position that theGod in which people believe is not the God whoseexistence is made the product of an argument, and theGod of the argument is not the God of belief. The theoryand the fact have no more likeness to each other than achestnut horse has to a horse-chestnut. A fallacy isperpetuated by appealing to a fact, but the factimmediately discredits the fallacy by disowning it inpractice. The grounds upon which the belief in God issupposed to rest, the reasoning from which it springs, areseen to follow the belief instead of preceding it. The roots

    are in the air, and on closer inspection are seen to beartificial adornments, so many imitations that have beenhung there for the purpose of imposing on near-sighted orcareless observers.

    The purpose of the following pages is to make clear thenature of this alliance and to expose the real character ofwhat we are asked to worship. There are, of course, manyon whose ears any amount of reasoning will fall withouteffect. To that class this book will not appeal; it may be

    questioned whether many will even read it. They will go onprofessing the belief they have always professed, and

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    taking pride in the fact that they have an intellect which issuperior to proof, and which disdains evidence when itruns contrary to "my belief." Others will, I expect, complainthat the treatment of so solemn a subject is not "reverent"enough. But why _any_ subject should be treated

    reverently, as a condition of examination, is more than Ihave ever been able to discover. It is asking the inquirer tocommence his investigation with a half-promise to findsomething good in what he is about to examine. Whether athing is worthy of reverence or not is a conclusion thatmust follow investigation, not precede it. And one does notobserve any particular reverence shown by the religiousperson towards those beliefs in which he does not happento believe.

    But there are some who will read thoughtfully anexamination of so old a subject as Theism, and it is tothose that these pages are addressed. One cannot hopeto say anything that is strikingly new on so well worn asubject as the existence of God, but there are many whowill read an old subject when presented in a new work, andeven then there is also the possibility of presenting an oldtopic in a slightly new form. And I think these will find themain lines of the defence set up by the Goddite dealt within a manner that should at least make the point at issueclear.

    Finally, it is one aim of this book to press home the pointthat the logical issue is between Theism and Atheism. Thatthere is no logical halting place between the two, and thatany attempt to call a halt is little more than a concessionto a desire for mental or social convenience, seems to meas clear as anything can well be. And there is reallynothing gained, ultimately, by the halt. Disinclination onthe part of the non-Theist to push the issue to its logicalconclusion is treated by the Theist as inability to do so, andis used as an argument in support of his own belief. In

    matters of the intellect, compromise is almost always adangerous policy. It heartens one's enemies anddisheartens one's friends. And there is really no adequatereason why those who have given up belief in deity shouldcontinue to treat this master superstition of the ages asthough it were one of our most valuable inheritances, to besurrendered with lowered heads and sinking hearts. Wewho know both sides know that in giving up the belief indeity we have lost nothing of value, nothing that needcause us a single regret. And on that point we certainly

    can speak with authority; for we have been where theTheist is, he has not been where we are. Many of us know

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    quite well all that is meant by the fear and trembling withwhich the believer looks upon a world without God. And weknow how idle the fear is--as idle as a child's fear of thedark. What the world is like _with_ God, there is all theexperience of history to inform us; and it would indeed be

    strange if love and brotherhood, armed with the weaponsthat science has given us, could not produce a betterhuman society than has ever existed under the dominionof the Gods.

    Part I.




    Soon after that famous Atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, entered

    the House of Commons, it is said that a fellow memberapproached him with the remark, "Good God, Bradlaugh,what does it matter whether there is a God or not?"Bradlaugh's answer is not recorded, but one is impelled toopen the present examination of the belief in God, byputting the same question in another form. Is the belief inGod, as we are so often assured, one of the mostimportant questions that can engage the attention of man?Under certain conditions one can conceive a rationalanswer in the affirmative. Where the mental and social

    conditions are such that men seriously believe theincidence of natural forces on mankind to be determined

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    by the direct action of "God," one can appreciate rightbelief concerning him being treated as of first rateimportance. In such circumstances wrong ideas are theequivalent of disaster. But we are not in that condition to-day. It is, indeed, common ground with all educated men

    and women that natural happenings are independent ofdivine control to at least the extent that natural forcesaffect all alike, and without the least reference to religiousbeliefs. Fire burns and water drowns, foods sustain andpoisons kill, no matter what our opinions on theology maybe. In an earthquake or a war there is no observablerelation between casualties and religious opinions. We are,in fact, told by theologians that it is folly to expect thatthere should be. A particular providence is no longer infashion; God, we are told, works only through general laws,and that is only another way of saying that our opinionsabout God have no direct or observable influence on ourwell-being. It is a tacit admission that human welfaredepends upon our knowledge and manipulation of theforces by which we are surrounded. There _may_ be a Godbehind these forces, but that neither determines theextent of our knowledge of them or our power tomanipulate them. The belief in God becomes a matter of,at best, secondary importance, and quite probably of noimportance whatever.

    But if that be so why bother about the belief? Is that not areason for leaving it alone and turning our attention toother matters? The answer to that is that the belief in Godis not of so detached a character as this advice assumes.In the course of ages the belief in God has acquiredassociations that give it the character of a highlyobstructive force. It has become so entangled withinculcated notions of right and wrong that it is everywhereused as a buttress for institutions which have eitheroutgrown their utility, or are in need of seriousmodification in the interests of the race. The opposition

    encountered in any attempt to deal with marriage, divorce,or education, are examples of the way in which religiousideas are permitted to interfere with subjects that shouldbe treated solely from the standpoint of social utility. Thecourse of human development has been such that religionhas hitherto occupied a commanding position in relation tosocial laws andcustoms, with the result that it is often found difficult toimprove either until the obstructive influence of religiousbeliefs has been dealt with.

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    It is not, then, because I believe the question of theexistence of God