Michael J. Buckley, S.J.

Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism

Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism. By Michael J. Buckley, S.J. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 173 pages. $40.00.

Review by David Rohr, 2012 | Review by Joel Daniels and Thurman Willison, 2009

Review by David Rohr, 2012

In Denying and Disclosing God, Michael Buckley argues that modern atheism resulted from theological attempts to argue for God’s existence from the structure of the natural world and the organization of human subjectivity. Once the theological enterprise was established on the foundation of such arguments, the dialectical process of history predictably furnished a robust atheism. Attempts to infer God’s existence from scientific knowledge or philosophical arguments assume that God is another object caught in the causal flux of our universe. According to Buckley, this error can be avoided if the givenness of God in religious experience is restored as the proper basis for theistic belief.

In chapter one, Buckley argues that science was not initially hostile to religious faith. Instead, science and Christian theism were assumed to be compatible, though there were several models of how these subjects related. Whereas Galileo kept theology and science totally separate (6) and Kepler’s theology absorbed his science (13-4), Newton developed a physics of universally applicable mechanical causation that provided the foundation for religious faith. Newton’s mechanics witnessed to God as the initial force animating the causal sequence and the brilliant designer of a stunningly ordered system that required only minor divine adjustments (20-1). Newton’s model of science as the rational foundation for faith soon dominated Western culture and provided the necessary basis for atheism’s emergence.

Chapter two opens with a clarifying discussion of Buckley’s notion of historical dialectics. He does not intend to invoke an inevitable transcendent culmination of history’s dialectical process (28-9). Instead, he is merely recognizing a meaningful pattern: a particular form of theological argument led to a very similar atheistic response in multiple historical settings. That pattern became visible in the seventeenth century when thinkers began offering philosophic proofs for God’s existence. Building on this growing tradition, Descartes’ universal mathematics and Newton’s universal physics were both explicitly intended to prove God’s existence. Yet it was precisely by synthesizing Descartes and Newton’s work that Diderot and D’Holbach formulated a consistent atheism (34-5). Likewise, Cotton Mather’s arguments concerning design in the biological realm collapsed after Darwin. As the natural world that God was invoked to explain was increasingly understood in purely scientific terms, the denial of God’s existence became ever more plausible.

In chapter three, Buckley responds to Paul Tillich’s accusation that the inferential, rational approach to God — and thus, for Buckley, the possibility of atheism — began with Thomas Aquinas. This charge is mistaken because Aquinas argued that a primordial knowledge of God is given in our longings. It is this pre-rational knowledge of God that is clarified through rational reflection (54-6). “For Aquinas God is given initially or primordially in his effects, rather than simply inferred from his effects. God is a presence, not simply a conclusion” (68).

Chapter four begins by surveying the “turn to the subject” brought about by thinkers like Locke, Kant, and Schleiermacher who developed philosophical systems in which questions about the limits of human knowledge were foundational. In these human-centered systems of thought, God’s existence was necessary to explain the basis of human rationality (Locke; 76), human morality (Kant; 79), or the feeling of absolute dependence (Schleiermacher; 81). By arguing that God was necessary to ground human experience, a tension between the glory of humanity and the glory of God was established. In response a new, more urgent form of atheism emerged in the “prophetic humanism” (71) of thinkers like Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

The fifth chapter consists of a comparison between the projection theories of Feuerbach and Freud and the mystical contemplation of St. John of the Cross. Feuerbach argued that, because God is not a sense object, ideas about God must come from human consciousness (103). This truth is reflected in the fact that all predicates of God are drawn from humanity (104). Thus, “God” is merely a projection of humanity. Freud believed God was a projection of “a protecting-and-threatening father figure” (108) that helped people feel secure in a dangerous and uncertain environment. Buckley argues that these projectionist critiques are anticipated by mystics like St. John of the Cross who recognize that all human conceptions of God are limited and actively purify themselves of the pleasure-seeking impulses that underlie religious faith. According to Buckley, deep awareness of this projectionist critique leaves one with few options: “for the reflective and sensitive mind . . . the alternative may well lie between atheism and contemplation” (119).

In the sixth chapter, Buckley presents his solution to the problem of atheism. God’s existence cannot be proven through philosophical arguments about the natural world. Instead, God must be known in the immediacy of religious experience. Actual religious faith almost always begins when God is manifested to a person. This can happen while reflecting on the life of a saint (129-30) or in the experience of a pre-rational, absolute obedience to truth, justice, love, beauty, or other divine characteristics (131-5).

Although Buckley’s learned discussion is rich with insight, many of his larger arguments are unconvincing. His dialectic analysis highlights significant aspects of the rise of modern atheism, but it also greatly oversimplifies a complex, multifaceted process. Buckley mentions that other factors like warring divisions within the Church (31), comparative religions (41), and higher critical methods of studying scripture (ibid.) also played important roles in the development of atheism. Thus, he properly limits the explanatory range of his historical analysis. However, his response to atheism fails to register any issues other than the main ideas whose dialectical progress he analyzes. Buckley’s gesture towards immediate religious experience as the proper foundation for theism overlooks all moral objections to traditional notions of God, intense concerns about the authoritative value of sacred texts, and the ubiquity of mystical encounters in religions that posit very different entities behind these events. To return to his dialectic, Buckley’s solution is not a new antithesis to the robust thesis of modern atheism, but a response that might address some of the issues that led to contemporary atheism if it could be anachronistically inserted into the seventeenth century.

The strongest argument in the book occurs in chapter two, which summarizes Buckley’s previous book At the Origins of Modern Atheism. Undoubtedly, the enthusiastic construction of theology upon the basis of scientific and philosophical arguments for God’s existence was, in retrospect, ill-advised. As the explanatory gaps that required God gradually shrank and then disappeared, God-as-hypothesis became superfluous. However, Buckley’s narration seems to imply that the decision to argue from natural phenomena to God’s existence was an arbitrary choice, not a confluence of prior historical causes. Specifically, Buckley ignores the fact that, before science emerged, “natural” phenomena were attributed to God’s activity. Whatever other roles gods have played in history, they have always helped to elucidate transformations and patterns in the natural world. In its mature form (after Laplace) Newtonian mechanics evacuated a significant realm of divine activity. Thus, God as “a friend behind the phenomena” (38) was a theological consolation prize after God as ‘the force directing all phenomena’ vacated the natural premises. It is unclear to what extent Buckley accepts the legitimacy of this divine evacuation. He certainly appears to think that the human mind is open to divine causation. However, contemporary neuroscience suggests that all experience — including religious experience — is mediated by the brain according to physical laws. At the very best, Buckley’s God of religious experience is “a friend beside the phenomena.”

Though the fourth chapter appears to follow the basic structure of the second chapter’s argument, it actually charts a less plausible trajectory. Buckley begins by identifying an argument for God’s existence that parallels those based upon Newtonian physics: philosophers like Locke and Kant developed systems focused on human subjectivity which sought to establish God as the necessary ground of human existence. However, rather than showing how others recognized that these philosophical systems functioned fine without God and, therefore, the plausibility of atheism soared, Buckley actually posits something far less tangible. According to Buckley, the anthropocentrism of the new “fundamental thinking” (72) somehow established a fundamental opposition between the glory of humanity and glory of God. This, in turn, produced the passionate anti-theism of thinkers like Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. The connection between the epistemological worries of Locke and Kant and this new radicalized atheism is nebulous at best. These four thinkers probably adopted atheism for many reasons, but, in each case, the harsh tone derives from a moral objection to the social and/or psychological consequences of theism, which cannot be derived from human-centered epistemologies.

As interesting and moving as the last two chapters are, they constitute an evasion of atheism’s challenge, not a substantial response. The striking parallels between projectionist critiques and the mystical asceticism of St. John of the Cross conceal the irreconcilable differences between these two approaches. Dwelling within an authoritative tradition, John never seriously questions the presence of the God he approaches. However, after fully absorbing projectionist critiques, it is unclear why anyone would maintain this level of confidence. If humanity made God in our own image, why should we expect God to “communicate” to us or to “grasp” us (110-1)? In addition, Buckley assumes that, by employing Dewey’s notion of experience which integrates “act and material, subject and object” in “an unanalyzed totality” (127), he can secure the traditional object of religious experience. Profound religious experiences are unquestionably important in many religious people’s lives, but there is no reason to assume they result from the action or presence of the God of traditional Christian theism. One could easily imagine that these experiences are encounters with Brahman, Zeus, or some New Age spirit. Or, more plausibly, such experiences may arise quite naturally when incredibly powerful brains are embedded in intensely stimulating ecological and social contexts.

Review by Joel Daniels and Thurman Willison, 2009

How in the world did we end up here? At one time, the Christian faith was the foundation on which rested the tradition of Western Europe; its tenets and practices shaped the entire culture. While neither uniform nor hegemonic (it was the Muslim community in Spain that famously preserved the writings of Aristotle), it was the Christian worldview that framed the lives of millions of people for over a thousand years. How things have changed! Demographic research indicates that somewhere between 43% and 54% of French citizens don’t believe in God; Britain, with an established Church, is between 31% and 44% atheistic; and in Italy, of all places, the numbers are between 6% and 15%.

How in the world did we end up here? This is the question that Buckley answers in Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism. He locates the beginning of atheism as we know it in the early modern period, a latent toxin hidden in the scientific presuppositions enthusiastically embraced by theologians beginning in the 17th century, ideas that would reveal their fatal contradictions only when it was too late. In fact, a central assertion of Denying and Disclosing God is that it was not an antagonistic interaction between the post-Aristotelian sciences and traditional religion that begat modern atheism. Quite the opposite: it was the overly-welcoming resignation of theology to science, a squandering of theology’s rich and abundant birthright, that gave rise to what we know as modern atheism. The victims, in this case, were the perpetrators.

Buckley first sets out to schematize three settlements reached by religion and science in the early years of modernity, identifying them with the persons of Galileo Galilei, in his work on motion, Johannes Kepler, in his philosophy of geometry, and Isaac Newton, in his study of mechanics. The three settlements were different, but successful in their own ways, and each scientist saw his work as contributing to humanity’s witnessing to the divine. For Galileo, the disciplines of religion and science were autonomous in their own spheres; while the issue of physical causes was his concern as a scientist, the question of a “first cause” was not part of the same kind of study, a stance akin to Stephen Jay Gould’s view of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria.” Buckley calls this the “separation” model of religion and science.

Kepler’s Platonism contributed to his view that all study is a path to the single source of truth. This truth spoke many different languages, of which geometry was one, scripture another, and so on. Knowledge of any of them is knowledge, however partial, of God. Buckley calls this the “subsumption” model: incorporating the two disciplines under the more general principle of truth.

It was the Newtonian settlement, however, that carried the day. Newton held that mechanics is exhaustive and universal, that it is in theory capable of explaining everything, including other branches of science and mathematics (including Galileo’s motion and Kepler’s geometry), and even religious belief: Newton considered his work to be a warrant for a “fundamental religion,” grounded in universal mechanics. This is the “foundation” model of religion and science, where science is the underlying principle, the source of meaning, and religious belief and practice is built on top of it – if it is built at all. It is from this Newtonian view of mechanics that science more generally came to stake its claim of universal competence. In laying out this schema, Buckley does a great service to readers interested in the history of science generally, and those studying religion and science specifically. The typology he presents clarifies the relationships that the three individual disciplines had with theology, and then explains how those relationships each contributed separately to the debate about religion. Against a popular perception that a monolithic science took on a monolithic religion, Buckley provides details and context that illuminate both the historical and contemporary situations.

Of course, it wasn’t the scientific developments themselves that led to modern atheism, but the particular worldviews that became associated with them; “events become ideas,” Buckley writes, and the idea of scientific foundationalism that came from the Newtonian settlement, after being quickly embraced by 17th-century apologists, ironically led to their eventual defeat, hoisted with their own petard. By running into the arms of scientific naturalism, and accepting its standards as the only suitable criteria for the generation of meaning, religion first lost its independent standing, and then any standing at all.

Buckley gives three examples of how that happened, how apologetic instincts, which saw inferences from science as a sure route to Christian belief, contained inherent contradictions that would lead to their own demise. He uses as his examples Leonard Lessius, in Flanders in the early 17th century, the warring factions of scholastics and Cartesians in France in the 18th century, and Cotton Mather, in 19th-century America. This diverse group held in common a strategy of what Buckley calls a “bracketing of the religious,” the setting-aside of what belonged uniquely to religion – its history, institutions, piety, experiences, and so forth – in favor of an apologetic based on inferences from the natural world. Buckley makes clear that, in a moment of theological stridency and seeming triumph, this was an implicit admission of defeat. Why? Because the apologists across the board were “confessing to the cognitive insufficiency, even emptiness, of religious beliefs and experience” (46). They had decided to locate the warrants for belief exclusively in the design of the natural world, inferring the existence of God from the number of planets, the structures of an organism, or the mechanical nature of causation. With an increasing scientific sophistication, however, and a philosophical shift to an understanding of matter as inherently dynamic (thus not requiring a “Prime Mover”), God became not so much impossible as unnecessary. By the mid-18th century, Buckley writes, “Mechanics may not have needed theology, but theology in its apologetics had come to need mechanics” (36).

This is the core hypothesis of the book: atheism came about from the conscious abandonment, by religious people, of millennia of religious thought, culture, and practice, in favor of jumping on the promising bandwagon of biology and astronomy: “The infinite mystery that was God had in effect become a corollary of a particular configuration of the solar system or of the human body” (36). “Natural theology” had become merely an appendage of physics, and one that could easily be lopped off when it became troublesome. By adopting inference from design, Lessius, Mather, and others disqualified from consideration exactly that lived experience that gives religion its richness. In the story of the birth of atheism in the modern world, the well-meaning natural theologians are implicated just as much as Diderot and d’Holbach.

Buckley takes a sharp detour in the third chapter to make sure that we don’t include Aquinas in that list of atheism’s progenitors. The preface reveals that this was a conclusion some reviewers had reached from Buckley’s previous book, At the Origins of Modern Atheism. Understood as part of a larger conversation between the previous text, commentary on it, and the present text, the interpolation on Aquinas makes sense; Buckley is setting out to refine and clarify his overarching theme about the genesis of atheism. Read in the isolation of Denying and Disclosing God, however, it feels like a passionate defense in response to an accusation that no one has made.

Briefly, Buckley takes as his starting point an article by Paul Tillich in which Tillich essentially accuses Aquinas of the same thing of which Buckley is accusing the natural theologians: privileging rationality and the study of the world of the senses over an understanding of God as the presupposition of all that is. As Tillich explained it, “God can never be reached if he is the object of a question, and not its basis,” and Tillich recognized the predecessor to natural theology’s arguments from inference in Aquinas’ opening questions in the Summa theologiae about whether God exists. Buckley then demonstrates, with great erudition and an exhaustive knowledge of Aquinas’ thought, how Aquinas isn’t inferential after all. Rather, Aquinas creates a third way between inferential rationality (of the kind Tillich despises) and beatific vision. This third way of “proving” God is to recognize that the human desire for happiness, broadly defined, is in fact a longing for God, as God is the proper end of all desire. Since one only desires what one knows, however vaguely, God’s presence is the foundation of all human desire, not only its object, and thus the foundation of all human life. With Buckley having established that the presence of God is assumed, not inferred, in the Summa, Aquinas is off the hook. It is a fine defense of the theologian, and an illuminating look at Aquinas’ Christology. Nonetheless, in tone and narrative flow, it impedes the progress of the argument.

It is a rare diversion in a book that otherwise proceeds with great skill and clarity, and the insights into philosophical and theological history that it provides far outweigh this chapter-long digression. Buckley succeeds in bringing to life the personalities and ideas of early modernity through brief character studies and accounts of philosophical controversies. By the end of the story of western atheism that he so masterfully tells, it’s hard not to feel sorry for those earnest natural theologians, who thought they had discovered the Holy Grail of evidence in the motion of the stars and the mechanics of the universe; finally, they were able to offer conclusive, scientific proof of the ancient faith. Their intentions were good and their piety sincere, but Buckley shows that, ironically, they, not the scientists, are the parents of today’s atheist Europeans. Alas, the Holy Grail turned out to be laced with poison, and by the time they realized it, the natural theologians had drunk too deeply.

In his final three chapters, Buckley lays out the trajectory for the dialectical progression of theism that he ultimately envisions. Despite his denial that he is a Hegelian (122), he deploys in these chapters a critique of modern atheism that looks to Hegel for insight every step of the way. According to Buckley, atheism “did not arise in its strength primarily from a purported opposition of science or…from the intellectual movements skeptically agnostic to any claim for certainty” (46). Rather, atheism arose, in Hegelian-style dialectical fashion, “from the contradiction immanent within the orthodox tradition itself and its apologetic strategies” (46). In other words, atheism is religion’s own negation (or betrayal) of itself. Buckley locates this negation in religion’s bracketing or excising from inquiry its own “religious evidence and religious consciousness” and interpersonal dynamics that mark “authentic religious life and experience (xv)”. But Buckley suggests that this negation of the religious will produce yet a further negation of atheism through the retrieval of a “specifically religious intellectuality” and through the restoration of “the religious both in its evidence and its form of cognition” as a “warrant for the affirmation of the reality of God” (xv).

Consider how Buckley develops his thesis that atheism is leading toward a new negation of itself. In Chapter 4, entitled “God as the Anti-human,” Buckley traces the development of theism’s first negation in which humans turned God into God’s own contradiction (Satan, i.e. the “anti-human”). In Chapter 5, entitled “The Radical Finitude of Religious Ideas: Atheism and Contemplation,” Buckley describes two paths that humans have taken in attempting to reconcile with theism’s first negation: 1) affirming atheism as the embedded “secret of religion” and 2) pursuing “negative or mystical theology as the purification and fulfillment of religion (xiv).” Finally, in Chapter 6, entitled “The Negation of Atheism,” Buckley gives his own vision for how the negation of theism might itself be negated, suggesting that “personal,” experiential evidence must be recovered in order to justify once again belief in the existence of a personal God (138). Thus, the final three chapters each represent a stage in the Hegelian dialectical model. Atheism is presented as a new thesis (Chapter 4), which is followed by an attempt at synthesis (Chapter 5), which leads ultimately to a new negation, i.e. antithesis (Chapter 6).

Throughout these three chapters, Buckley has a lot of interesting things to say about the development of atheism, beginning with John Locke’s revolutionary shift of focus away from the “content of thought” to the “human process of thinking itself” (74-75), which led to a seismic reorientation of intellectual emphasis on human subjectivity (prominent in Kant and Schleiermacher). This reorientation then culminated in Feuerbach’s critique of religion as a projection of humanity (a critique which was then appropriated in different ways by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud). For Buckley, Feuerbach’s projection critique was of central importance to atheism in that it revealed God to be the Satanic enemy of man by highlighting the problem of humanity’s alienation from itself and subsequent weakening of itself due to its robbing itself of its essential attributes and giving them to God. God was thus turned into the antagonistic thief of man’s attributes, and man was being urgently called upon to become like Prometheus and to steal those attributes back. In this overview of atheism’s rise, Buckley successfully paints a portrait of why the movement was indeed so emotionally charged. For, as Buckley convincingly demonstrates, “atheistic humanism thought itself in a struggle to eliminate the satanic in human history, the alienation and destruction of the human” (98).

Buckley also gives an intriguing analysis of the intersection between the projection critiques of modern atheism and the self-recognition of human projection within contemplative traditions. Buckley gives the Spanish mystic John of the Cross a particularly sensitive reading in this analysis, arguing against detractors who would accuse the mystic of simply wallowing in self-denial. Buckley rejects this caricature and portrays John of the Cross positively as one who insightfully perceived “the radical inadequacy of religious experience” and as one who was, with Feuerbach, “sensitive to the humanization which consciousness works upon its God” and, with Freud, “acutely aware that the religious movement towards God can emerge either from the desire for satisfaction or from the drive to be morally reassured” (114). John of the Cross’s answer to these realities was of course different from Feuerbach’s and Freud’s in that the latter two simply denied God while John believed that one can pass through denial to a state of “purification of desire and of awareness” (117). Buckley seems to be especially appreciative of this notion of passing through atheism to something more purified and mystical on the other side, and he suggests that the answer to Feuerbach and Freud might well lie in John of the Cross’s direction (119).

But despite Buckley’s compelling analyses on the topics mentioned above, he falls short throughout most of the material of adequately attending to the development of his own thesis. Buckley’s thesis, as noted above, is that the negation of theism will in turn negate itself when religious experience “in all its fullness” (138) is no longer bracketed and excised from theistic inquiry. But Buckley does very little to defend this thesis apart from simply giving a Hegelian reading of atheism’s historical development and suggesting some mystical alternatives to atheism. His thesis depends entirely on what he means exactly by “religious experience” and he only begins to develop this concept in the final ten pages of the book. We do know that he sees religious experience as a complex manifold involving “intuitional,” “emotional,” “volitional,” “speculative,” “rational,” “institutional,” “historical,” and “traditional” components (138). And we know that he takes a cue from Karl Rahner in his definition of religious experience. Buckley is careful to distance himself from the Aristotelian (experience as an acquired skill for gauging the future), Kantian (experience as the “the empirical dimension of all knowledge” (127)), and pragmatist (experience as the root for all human knowing and doing) definitions of experience and opts instead for Rahner’s definition in which experience is made up of two dimensions: the categorical and the transcendental. Buckley explicates each of these dimensions only briefly, throwing out quick nods to Edith Stein, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, and John Henry Newman as examples of the categorical dimension (in which “the truth or reality of God” emerges through “moments or episodes or steady dimensions of life” (128)), and devoting only six pages to explaining what he means by the transcendental dimension, which turns out to be a rather vague notion of one’s subjectively mediated commitment to absolute truth and its ultimate claim upon life.

It’s a real problem that Buckley does not go into any further detail about the nature of these dimensions of religious experience, because his entire argument concerning the retrieval of these dimensions in theistic inquiry rests upon what one understands these dimensions to be. Of course, I recognize that to demand an adequate articulation of these dimensions is to subject these dimensions to the kind of empirical, inferential reasoning that Buckley finds unsatisfactory. But are we to simply capitulate here and buy into Buckley’s argument that religious experience threatens to negate atheism when Buckley defines “religious experience” only vaguely as an authentic commitment to absolute truth combined with a certain interpretation of one’s own life events? Buckley needs to provide more here. Is Buckley honestly trying to suggest that devout and passionate atheists only continue to be so because they have excised experience from their atheism? Could not an atheist fully embrace all of the varied dimensions of experience and still be an atheist? Could not an atheist’s experience include a zealous acceptance of absolute reality (even if this reality forms no rational absolute) and an existential awareness of how one’s own life history has culminated in atheism?

Buckley’s treatment of the development of atheism and of the intersections between atheism and mysticism is no doubt well researched, eloquently expressed, and truly beneficial to the reader. But Buckley subjects his entire treatment to a Hegelian vision of atheism’s future that rests on a weak foundation in that it assumes that religious experience is a category implicit in theism alone (being the negation of atheism). But why can’t atheism claim all of the dimensions of experience for itself and still remain atheism? Buckley is still under the burden of needing to show, through more meticulous articulation and argumentation, why experience lends its support only to theism in Buckley’s Hegelian model. Perhaps Buckley does indeed have in mind an understanding of religious experience that could support his theory. But it is not clearly evident here. And so hopefully future works can amend this problem. Until then, it seems premature to prophesy atheism’s negation of itself simply through the retrieval of experience in inquiry. Experience belongs to the theist and to the atheist alike, and shows no favors to either side.