The ‘fallacy’ of atheism: an Eighteenth-century perspective.

I’ve recently finished the 1796 novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis. The following appears in the last chapter:

(the full text is available here.)

I know that there has always been a great deal of philosophical debate based on the existence of God and the perceived literal truth of the Bible, so I guess that this is a conclusion taken as a given following a lifetime of unswerving faith.

Having said that, he says that ‘his knowledge was too extensive, his understanding too solid and just’, which certainly implies a great deal of thought having gone into this position.

Firstly, can anyone tell me what would have been the ‘extensive’ knowledge and the ‘solid and just’ understanding that so disregarded atheism at this time? Was it the sort of reasoning along the lines of: 1. It says in the Bible that God exists. 2 The Bible is always right ergo God exists? Or would it have been something a bit more robust?

I suspect I can safely assume that there have always been atheists. I guess, too, that for much of the time atheists were in the massive minority, and atheists form a higher percenatge of the population now than in, say in the late eighteenth century. Assuming the above is correct, does anyone know when this shift started to occur or why? Did anything precipitate more conversions?

I’m reasonably well-read on the contemporary arguments for and against the existence of God, but I’m really interested in the nature of this debate through history.

Thank you all!

Darwin, and evolution. Even people who thought that religion was nonsense simply didn’t have an alternative solution to the simple question of how life can be what it is, before Darwin. It was religion’s trump card; before evolution, there wasn’t a good answer to “where do we come from ?” After Darwin, there was an answer, and religion lost it’s trump ( which helps explain the hostility so many of the religious have towards evolution ).

As a classic horror fan, I’ve had a PB of Lewis’ THE MONK for years. As a lazy lard-butt, I’ve never actually read it. (Or my two-volume 1970’s Dover reprint of VARNEY THE VAMPYRE or even LeFanu’s CARMILLA), BUT IIRC, isn’t the plot about a monk who goes so far into depravity that he fully realizes the spiritual/ supernatural nature of evil (the argument- “I know there is such evil, there must be a Devil, and if there’s a Devil, there must be a God…”) and thus can’t seek refuge in atheism as it would be a denial of what he “knows” by experience to be true?

Marlowe’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS had a similar ending, where he knew the Devil and demons existed, he was doomed for Hell, and that Christ’s Blood was available for his salvation, but he could/would not repent.

We studied *The Monk * last spring in my graduate Restoration Lit class. Damn, now I wish I’d actually read it!

As I recall, the discussion of the ending went something like this: Ambrosio knew that he had commited vile, evil sins, and that he probably would suffer eternal torment for them. He was, in his own mind, irredeemable. Because he was still fairly young, he knew he would have to live with that knowledge for the rest of his mortal life, and wished he had, instead, the “ignorance” of an atheist. At least then he would be spared the additional torment of knowing, during his mortal life, the fate that awaited him in death. Such ignorance was not to be, however, because he was too well-versed in the truth of his faith.

At least that’s what we came up with after almost two hours of discussion.

I think it has much more to do with the liberalism that allowed people to be atheists. The mere fact that you wouldn’t be burned alive for being a heretic is what bred a growth of atheism in the post Christianity Western world (since that’s what we’re talking about. Outside of the ethnocentric confines of this discussion, atheism has been much more common. The ancient Greeks questioned the existence of gods, and so did East Asian countries, let alone the plenty of tribal societies without strict, prescriptivist religions).
Atheists didn’t need an alternative to an explanation of the origin of life to disbelieve in God, since that’s nowhere near the main purpose of Christianity or most other religions. Sure Darwinism provides that, but on the whole it doesn’t have much to do with anything, it just provides a blow to fundamentalist Christianity.

Given that Ambrosio is a Catholic monk, we’re probably supposed to assume that he’s read extensively in Catholic theology. And indeed many of the Catholic theologians wrote at great length about the existence of God. The most famous was St Thomas Aquinas. The most common argument in these writings was the “first mover” argument first proposed by Plato.

However, Catholicism always placed great emphasis on personal experience and self-understanding, and many of the great Catholic mystics found their understanding of God in that way. Protestants often disagreed strongly with the Catholic focus on self-discipline, viewing it as leading it to self-inflicted pain. Lewis (a Protestant) was a follower of this viewpoint, and he packed The Monk with anti-Catholic stories and symbols

It’s tough to give figures because no one was taking polls a long time ago, certainly not before the twentieth century. There were Marxist movements sweeping through Europe (and America to a lesser extent) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Marx himself was a militant atheist, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether all his followers swallowed all his arguments about religion. Another key figure was Sigmund Freud, whose theories about the psychic explanations of religious beliefs convinced many intellectuals around the turn of the century. However, serious drop-offs religious belief in Europe didn’t occur until after WWII.

However Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason used the orderly nature of the solar system to justify the belief in a deistic god. He ran into enough trouble attacking Christianity that you can’t say he wasn’t an atheist out of fear. Fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists (the distinction didn’t really exist back then) could both honestly argue that a god was a better explanation for the universe than any then known. Many religious people at the time truly expected science to support them - and that was a major reason for the impact of Darwin. Evolution attacked one of the most deeply held beliefs - the uniqueness of humanity.