Darwin and Others, and Apophatic Atheism


To mark Darwin Day, which is galloping toward us at a rate of knots, I have decided to write about apophatic atheism.  

“Apophatic” (from Greek ἀπόφασις from ἀποφάναι – apophanai, “to show no”) – is a term used in apophatic theology, [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophatic_theology ] according to which the essence of God and His mysteries is unknowable by way of pure reasoning, and therefore to know God you have to use a method of negation, paradox, antinomy, etc.

It states what God is not; for example, God is not mortal, God is not limited.

The first apophatic text which made a serious impression on me was written in 1956 by Leszek Kołakowski and was entitled “Socialism is not Truncheons”. The young (then) philosopher explained on two pages what socialism is not and concluded with praise rooted in the apophatic tradition of that which is not what we were just talking about.

I have decided that there is a need to illuminate the mystery of apophatic atheism, which says what atheism is not.   

Let us start with the fact that for many people atheism is an unfathomable secret. Though atheists themselves state that it is merely a refusal to believe in supernatural beings—the peculiar mystery of shrugging one’s shoulders—many stop at the word “mystery” and feel the shortage of God’s grace to understand it.

Atheism is less complicated than quantum theory, the theory of relativity, the theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection, and many others with which it is worthwhile to get acquainted because they are interesting.

Atheism is not complicated. This is the first and most important thesis of apophatic atheism (it is also probably the main reason it is so incomprehensible for many).

Atheism is not science. Because among Nobel Prize winners in sciences the quotient of non-believers to believers is in inverse proportion to that among the participants of a village fair, a supposition arises that atheism has something to do with science. Yes, atheism is a conclusion (in the past – but also today – it has been an astonishing one) that explaining the mysteries of the world does not require the idea of God, and furthermore, the idea of God makes the explaining more difficult. An atheist who reaches the conclusion that God is redundant does not have to be a scientist, but he/she should know that one cannot present any scientific proof for the non-existence of God, nor proof of the truth of atheism, for atheism is not a scientific theory. It is a point of view that holds that doing theology is as infertile as a gelding, and that religion itself can be as damaging… as I don’t know what.

Atheism, which is a conclusion drawn from science more than from philosophy, is not a complete worldview, either. This proposition may seem very controversial to some, but I am prepared to defend it. Nothing (in science) points to the idea that some higher being was necessary for the universe to appear, for matter to appear, or for life to appear. So far, all natural phenomena can be explained without this hypothesis, and where our knowledge is too meager to give a good explanation today, the God hypothesis is merely a cardboard explanation which in no possible way wants to cooperate with solid scientific explanations of other phenomena. For those who reject religion as something which allows us to know and understand the world, religion may remain as a source of morality, i.e. a local god as a source of good and moral judgments.

Atheism is not a system of ethics. Rejecting the proposition that “good” comes from a god, the atheist has a free hand and the right to ponder where this damned “good” came from and why there is so little of it. In effect, the quest for an independent ethic is not based on atheism as such, though the lack of an invocation to God in ethics carries with it a dramatic duty to think independently.

Atheism does not exempt you from thinking. Atheism does not suggest any ready-made solutions, either in relation to discovering the world or in relation to moral codes. Atheism, in contrast to religion, is not a crib. It is a proposition to think independently, it is a proposition to look at tradition critically, but it does not offer any ready-made solutions, and it doesn’t even give a hundred percent surety that those supernatural beings really do not exist, stating merely that neither immaculate conception nor walking on water is a likely phenomenon. It gives, however, the right to gain knowledge and to draw conclusions.

Why should Darwin Day also be the Day of Apophatic Atheism? From childhood Charles Darwin was much more fascinated by birds, beetles and even worms than by theology. These interests led him, though he was offered the altar and the pulpit, to a journey around the world and to observations of the animal world. It finally led him to unraveling the mystery of how the diversity of life had arisen. A side conclusion of Charles Darwin’s scientific work was finding that there is no place for a god in his theory.

Charles Darwin lived at a time when his self-restraint in announcing this conclusion was caused by his unwillingness to upset his wife and his dislike of the shrieking of hacks who might scare away the readers of his book. However, he didn’t have to be afraid, as some others were, of imprisonment or of being burned at the stake.   

Hundreds of others—the greatest minds in the history of mankind—were not in such a comfortable situation, and while developing the sciences they remained silent about many of their conclusions, because words which could have been interpreted as contradictory to religion could also have meant a sentence of a not always painless death. In schools they don’t mention the humble letter from Nicolaus Copernicus to the Pope. Information is also not given about atheism, so it is not surprising that we so often encounter slightly nonsensical questions.

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