There are no Atheists

JAMES M. GILLIS, C.S.P.

In The Unknown God Alfred Noyes reveals and comments upon many startling passages from the works of recognized agnostics and reputed atheists in evidence of God.


There are no atheists. At least no thinkers are atheists. “Freethinkers” rise to that bait more surely than a trout to the fly and snap at it more viciously. But it is equally axiomatic that freethinkers do not think freely. Proof? Well, suppose a freethinker thinks himself into religion. Ipso facto he is rated a renegade and apostate. He is free to think atheism, but not free to think theism.

Sometimes a freethinker lets the cat out of the bag. For example, John Stuart Mill says in his autobiography, “It would have been wholly inconsistent with my father's ideas of duty to allow me to acquire impressions contrary to his convictions and feelings respecting religion.” So! Papa is a freethinker, and Sonny must not think otherwise than Papa. The same phenomenon vastly magnified so that all may see it with the naked eye is now on exhibition in Russia. There indeed we have a World's Exposition of Freethought. Irreligion may be taught but not religion. That statement too makes the freethinkers' gorge rise, for oddly enough the breed is predominantly pro-Bolshevik. Religion,” they declare, “is not banned in Russia. A man may be religious if he will.” Yes, he religious and starve. He is free to think, but if he thinks the wrong way, he dies. This is Liberty Hall. Here a Man does what he pleases. And if he doesn't we make him. Stalin and Co. now do the thinking for the Russian people more tyrannically than the Czar or the Patriarch in the old Orthodox days. Under the Church a professor or a general or a diplomat could be an avowed unbeliever and hold his job. Under the Soviets, no one in office may go to Mass, pay pew rent, or even make the sign of the Cross — visibly. It is ever thus. There is no freedom under Freethought.

But let us get back to the primary proposition: No thinker is an atheist. Herbert Spencer said atheism is “unthinkable.” True, he also said that theism is unthinkable. In particular he said God is unthinkable. But thereupon he proceeded to do a great deal of thinking about the Unthinkable. Before he finished thinking, he had enumerated the attributes of God as confidently and as completely as St. Thomas Aquinas.

These remarks are by way of preliminary to the declaration that I have recently read a wise and eloquent volume that is to all intents and purposes a commentary upon the text, “No thinker is an atheist.” It might be called an elaboration of the equally familiar statement of Lord Kelvin that lie had investigated a great many ostensibly atheistic systems of thought and had always found a god of some sort concealed somewhere. The Unknown God by Alfred Noyes is packed with profound and searching thought beautifully and stirringly expressed. Its author, one of the leading poets of our time, turns out to have been a philosopher from his very teens. Indeed so successful is he in the role of the philosopher that I rather think his prose — a beautiful, sensitive, imaginative, virile prose — may surpass his poetry in survival value, as, conversely, Chesterton's poetry will probably outlive his prose.

In The Unknown God Mr. Noyes reveals and comments upon many startling passages from the works of recognized agnostics and reputed atheists in evidence of God — not merely “a god of some sort,” as Lord Kelvin says, but substantially and essentially the orthodox God, the God of Catholic theology, the God of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Mr. Noyes was an agnostic and is a Catholic. He came from agnosticism to Catholicism, not like Chesterton by revulsion from the inanities and absurdities of “liberal” thought, but by following hints and clues that he found in his agnostic authors. He has read widely and deeply — so deeply that he has dug up many a passage that had been buried — perhaps purposely buried — in Huxley, Darwin, Tyndall, Spencer, Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, Spinoza, Helmholtz, and a dozen others generally thought to be anti-theological, anti-Christian, and anti-theistic. He read the agnostics as an agnostic, sympathetically. One and all they had their part in leading him to Catholicism. It is a novel and interesting narrative.

Take Darwin, who though himself no philosopher was the inspiration of Huxley, Spencer, and a hundred other more recent evolutionistic thinkers. Mr. Noyes evidently has read his Darwin. Of not many contemporaries can that be said. The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man are, I suspect, no more read than Newton's Principia or Calvin's Institutes. Every one says, “Oh, yes, Darwin!” just as they say, “Oh, yes, Don Quixote!” But who reads the one or the other? But Alfred Noyes used Darwin's Origin of Species as an outdoor book, a companion of his recreational rambles as an amateur naturalist. I for one never knew there could be such a Darwinian in our day. Well, knowing Darwin intimately, Mr. Noyes quotes from The Descent of Man a passage which he thinks Darwin's “friends and enemies have both forgotten to read.” Darwin says of the evolutionistic process, “This grand sequence of events the mind refuses to accept as the result of blind chance. The understanding revolts from such a conclusion.” Nonetheless, atheistic evolution must accept blind chance. The only thinkable substitute for blind chance is a superintending intelligence. But once an intelligent directing power is admitted you have God. For as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “We see that things which lack intelligence nevertheless act for an end not fortuitously but designedly. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence. And this Being we call God.”

There is many a hard nut for the professed atheist to crack. And here is the first one on which he may sharpen his teeth — or more likely break them: “The understanding revolts from blind chance”; very well, if not blind chance, what? Any alternative will be, as Aquinas says, “what we call God.” It is entertaining as well as enlightening to find Charles Darwin and Thomas Aquinas expressing the same truth, one negatively and by implication, the other positively and directly.

Darwin, as we have said, and as all the world admits, was no philosopher. He was not even a logician, that is to say a close and relentless reasoner. If he had been, he would have followed his own lead. “If not blind chance, what then?” Pursuing one “And then?” to another “And then?” he would have come to “what we call God.” Darwin, with what he thought intellectual humility, said, “Into these questions we cannot enter.” But reason bids us “nor sit nor stand but go.” When reason urges us on it is not humble to refuse to follow. And if we follow reason we end with God.

We need no theologian from the Middle Ages to return and tell us that. Socrates was no Scholastic, nor Aristotle, nor Seneca, nor Marcus Aurelius. For that matter neither was Francis Bacon who is called — perhaps inaccurately — ”the father of modern science.” He said he “would rather believe all the miracles in the Koran than believe that this universal frame had no Maker.” Belief in the absurd yarns of the Koran is not more superstitious than the acceptance of blind chance. Between the devil of chance and the deep sea of God a true scientist will not hesitate. He cannot choose chance, for chance means accident, and the first article in the creed of the scientist is that there is no accident in nature. So the horns of Darwin's dilemma were blind chance and God. His understanding revolted from blind chance, but he could not bring himself to speak the immemorial word. . . .

In Alfred Noyes' youth (I am still following him, though reserving my liberty to wander considerably), Spencer loomed large. Noyes, like every one else in those days, read him, but, unlike almost every one else, Noyes got out of Spencer much that he afterwards discovered had been said by St. Thomas Aquinas. The casual reader may be tempted to think that Noyes' discovery of the Catholic hidden away in the agnostic is a mistake or a trick. But, in spite of Spencer's familiar declarations that God is the Great Unthinkable, he has made an amazingly complete and accurate assemblage of the attributes of God. He reasons thus: First there must be a cause of impressions produced in what we see, hear, taste, and smell. A possible cause may be matter, but matter on the other hand may be only a mode of manifestation of spirit; in that case not matter but spirit is the true cause of sensation. Or matter and spirit may both be only “proximate agencies.” If so, some first cause must lie behind them. Spencer even uses capitals for the First Cause, says it is “impossible to consider it as finite” and therefore “it must be infinite.” That would suffice for us. “Infinite First Cause” is a fairly complete designation for God—indeed surprisingly complete for an agnostic who professes to know nothing about God. But the Darwinian philosopher goes on. “The First Cause must be independent. It exists in the absence of all other existence. It must be in every sense perfect, including within itself all power and transcending all law.” And he concludes, “To use the established word, it must be Absolute.” Noyes adds with wit and point: “To use the even more firmly established word, it must be God.”

Even yet, however, Spencer is not done with his amazing asseverations — amazing I mean from an agnostic. In his stilted way, he says that the existence of the transcendent Absolute is “a necessary datum of consciousness.” More simply and more epigrammatically he might have said that the act of our thinking proves God. That goes further of course than Descartes' Cogito eigo sum. It approaches Newman's “two luminously self-evident beings — God and my soul.”

Finally, as if to give the lie to his own agnosticism, Spencer says “the belief which this datum constitutes has a higher warrant than any other whatever” and in “this assertion of a reality utterly inscrutable in its nature, religion finds an assertion essentially coinciding with her own.” If I may venture yet once again to take some of the starch out of these stiff sentences, I think he means, “Nothing else is so well warranted as the fact of God's existence” and “In supplying this warrant philosophy plays into the hands of religion.” But that too had been said by the Scholastics: Philosophy is the handmaid of theology.

For those who don't see the immediate logical connection between the statements “I think” or “I am” and the statement “God exists,” it might be well to ask Spencer's question, “Why should there have been anything at all?” Without God there could have been nothing at all. I have sometimes amused myself by setting this little problem to over-militant atheists: Explain the origin of the world without a World Maker. If you manage that, try another: Explain the origin of life without a Life Giver. A third stickler might well be the one suggested by Spencer, Descartes, Newman, and Aquinas: “If there be no First Thinker, how could anyone think?” Talk about making bricks without straw — atheism tries to make bricks without straw or clay or a brickmaker.

The supreme example of this impossible mental legerdemain was the attempt to explain the universe and all in it by supposing the aboriginal existence of a nebula. There we have one more preposterous substitute for God. For if nebula made nebula, nebula is God. But if something back of nebula made nebula, that something back of nebula is God. I may twist and turn and double on my track, I may, as Francis Thompson says, “Flee him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind,” but if I think at all I cannot escape God. “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” “Perhaps the darkness will cover me,” but though I create a darkness with large heavy philosophical words, “The Unknowable,” “The Ultimate,” “The Absolute,” “The Transcendent” even “The Hidden Synthesis of Contradictions,” or “The Resolution ofAntinomties,” it is all God. I cannot escape him. I cannot escape him in heaven or hell, in the uttermost parts of the earth, or in the mystic maze of my own mind. And so, I cannot hide from him even behind the smoke-screen of the nebula.

Of the nebular hypothesis, Tyndall (of the evolutionistic trinity — Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall) declared with scorn, “Strip it naked and you stand face to face with the notion that not alone the more ignoble forms of animalcular or animal life, not alone the nobler forms of the horse and lion, not alone the exquisite and wonderful mechanism of the human body, but that the human mind itself, emotion, intellect, will, and all their phenomena — were once latent in a fiery cloud. Surely the mere statement of such a notion is more than a refutation.”

“It is nothing of the kind,” says Noyes, defending Huxley against his teammate Tyndall! But Tyndall had at least apparently good reason for scorn. For Huxley had spoken with sympathy of the proposition “that the whole world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay, potentially, in the cosmic vapor; and that a sufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapor, have predicted, say, the state of the fauna in Britain in 1869, with as much certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapor of the breath on a cold winter's day.”

I confess I am malicious enough to enjoy seeing one leading agnostic scientist of the nineteenth century calling his confrere an ass, and it does seem almost a pity that a Catholic should intervene and explain that Huxley and Tyndall were not contradicting one another, but that their statements require coordination. Still I suppose we can afford to be generous. We can get fun enough watching them both squirm away from the main question — Whence comes these “definite laws” and these “forces possessed by molecules,” this “primitive nebulosity of which the universe is composed? Composed, did you say? And was it composed without a Composer?

Once more we fall back on the never-failing common sense of Thomas Aquinas: “Whatever lacks intelligence cannot move to an end unless it be directed by some Being endowed with intelligence.” The perennial philosophy is perennial because it is the philosophy of all normal, sensible persons. And no normal, sensible person believes that the flora and fauna, to say nothing of the humana, of Britain in 1869 came out of a fiery cloud of incalculable eons ago, without a superintending intelligence. Only in atheism does the spring rise higher than the source, the effect exist without the cause, life come from a stone, blood from a turnip, a silk purse from a sow's ear, a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue from a kitten's walking across the keys. In comparison with these prodigies, the ridiculous miracles of the Koran would be reasonable. O vous incredules, says Pascal, les plus credules!

Unbelievers believe more than believers and on less evidence. “Skeptical as I am,” said Voltaire, “I declare such to be evident madness,” speaking of some silly theory broached in his day to explain plus by minus and produce something out of nothing. No wonder he couldn't be an atheist....

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Gillis, James M. “There are no Atheists.” The Catholic World (September 1934).

THE AUTHOR

James M. Gillis, C.S.P., was a popular author and lecturer and for twelve years was a member of the Paulist mission band.

Copyright © 1934 The Catholic World


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