Explaining away Religion?

by / May 29, 2016

A recent article published by the University of Cambridge reported that historical investigation on “ancient atheists” revealed humans were not “wired to believe in God,”[1] citing new research from scholar Dr. Tim Whitmarsh in his book, Battling the Gods.[2] The Cambridge scholar demonstrates that “atheism flourished in societies like ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome – societies with many gods,” and hence atheism cannot be a novel, Western, post-Enlightenment development.[3] According to Whitmarsh, “Believers talk about atheism as if it’s a pathology of a particularly odd phase of modern Western culture that will pass, but if you ask someone to think hard, clearly people also thought this way in antiquity.”[4]

Whitmarsh is right when he states that atheism is not a “phase of modern Western culture,” atheists have indeed existed before the Enlightenment; in his words, “it’s as old as the monotheism of Israel.”[5] When surveying the course of history, atheists have always persisted no matter what place in the world they were in. In Psalm 14:1 we find a reference to and rebuke of ancient atheists: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” The same phrase is reiterated in Psalm 53:1.

We also learn that the morals of these ancient atheists were “abominable” and “iniquitous;” the Bible always associates sinful behaviour with atheistic belief.[6] Bible commentators Harmon and Buttrick write that the core of these Psalms are “a statement of the spiritual state of the practical atheist and his inevitable history of futility and fear.”[7] But if academia is suggesting that atheism is a novel development of the West, “a product of the European Enlightenment,”[8] as Whitmarsh describes it, Scripture faithfully testifies to the existence of ancient atheism.[9] However, this is not to say that these ancient atheists were irreligious, they were in fact humanists. The disestablishment of religion is fundamentally impossible, what happens is merely the substitution of one worldview for another.[10]

Early in his book, Whitmarsh constructs a Homeric dialogue between an ancient atheist, Diotimus, and a Greek theist, Thersander, in which the former states:

The gods are dead. Their withered bodies lie immolated on the altars of science and reason… humans created gods. Primitive humans saw divinity in the sun, moon, and stars, in the cycles of the seasons…it is religion that is dying. It has no answers to the questions of the modern world, only adherence to outdated dogma and ritual.[11]

Whitmarsh suggests that religious belief is dying, that belief in God is not a “default setting.”[12] He states that “The notion that a human is an essentiallyreligious being is no more cogent than the notion that apples are essentially red.”[13] Of course, every worldview is inherently religious, and so Whitmarsh starts from a false position that informs the rest of his research.  Given that the atheist holds naturalistic beliefs on origin, meaning, morality and destiny, given that he has a system of beliefs, there is essentially no such thing as an irreligious atheist, no such thing as presupposition-less scholarship, it’s impossible. In the end the atheist is just as religious in his atheism as the Hindu is in his Hinduism. Where sinful man once worshiped the sun as a god, he now more explicitly worships man as a god, as is illustrated in the West’s venture into creating values and morals by the power of the state and by the will of the people, rather than protecting the truths of God’s word.[14] Whitmarsh scoffs at the truth that all men subconsciously believed, or lived, as if there were a God, hence his attempt to present secularism as a natural condition for man.

However, contrary to Whitmarsh, the apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome that all living beings created in the image of God do share a common belief: that there is a God to whom all men are accountable; this includes atheists both ancient and modern. Romans 1:19-20 reads:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse”.

Commentator Colin G. Kruse writes that the plain reading – that all mankind has a level of knowledge of God – was the common interpretation of the early church,[15] citing St. Chrysostom, “For what will the [heathen] say in that day? That ‘we were ignorant of Thee?’”[16] Kruse also notes that this was the common belief among first-century Jews.[17]

Although we often refuse to acknowledge it, human beings have always believed in God, how else can they explain a universe that adheres to laws of rationality and nature? What I mean by this is that man lives in such a way that he expects regularity in nature, he expects that language will continue to have meaning each day, that gravity is continual and that he won’t float off the earth. Essentially, man lives in a way that presupposes a personal Creator, because nature follows laws, and laws imply a law-giver who governs creation.

However, a chaotic, godless universe cannot consist of order and laws – it is governed by random chance.[18] Ideas of both good and evil are borrowed from the moral framework of the biblical worldview, because from a non-theistic perspective, good and evil are merely social constructs, as psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg argued that “moral codes were constructions from subjects’ reasoning and not duplications of codes which prevailed as conventions in society… [his] insight was to make reasoning serve as the process which guides subjects in their construction of moral codes.”[19] There is no real basis for calling one thing good and another evil, and therefore there can be no real morality or justice. The fact that man operates according to the principles of logic, which are rooted in the being of God, demonstrates that man lives, although he does not consciously think, in a way that presupposes the existence of God.[20] Why do atheists refuse to acknowledge the God of the Bible when they live in such a way that confirms his existence?

The reason is twofold. First, they are blinded by their own sinful nature, asRomans 1:18 explains: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousnesssuppress the truth.” This suppression can be a deliberate, conscious hardening of the heart, such as atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[21]

Secondly, man is still subject to the original temptation of the Garden – to be as God. Man’s sinful nature will lead him to construct a man-centered worldview, in which he is his own god, the creator of his own reality, determining good and evil. But inevitably, this pursuit of godhood is a vain chasing after the wind. In some cases, it manifests itself as atheism, more specifically secular humanism in the West, and in other cases it manifests itself as various other religions, where humanist ethical philosophy is integrated with religious rituals and beliefs; but whether atheistic, polytheistic, or monotheistic, it is always a form of humanism, whether secular or religious – a foundational belief that man is the measure of all things.

Romans 1:21-23 explains how man fell away from worshipping the true God:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

As Kruse writes, “there is a tragic irony here: ‘the glory of the immortal God’ is exchanged for mere ‘images made to look like a human being.’ The prophet Isaiah parodies the folly of those who do these things [Isa. 44:13].”[22] It is described as folly because by means of natural revelation, there is clear and ample evidence that there is a God. But Whitmarsh seeks to challenge altogether “the idea of ‘religious universalism’ – that humans are naturally predisposed, or ‘wired’, to believe in gods.”[23] He’s not the first to attempt such an explaining away of religion, in fact similar attempts were made in the 1800s.

Religion and Social Evolution

The theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher,[24] the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach,[25] the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud,[26] the psychologist Carl Jung[27] and others all sought to explain away religious belief as an intellectual aberration, but eventually a broad consensus developed around a Darwinian-inspired idea of the social evolution of religion.[28] According to this concept, the evolutionary scheme of religion’s development began from the lowest stage of simplicity and worked its way up to higher levels of complexity, climbing what appears to be a never-ending ascension. The lowest stage is “Mana,” a belief in an impersonal spiritual force present in all of reality. Often accompanying Mana is “magic,” man’s attempt to interact with the spiritual realm in order to manipulate and control the real world.[29]

As the culture develops – culture defined as religious belief externalized – religion supposedly develops from the Mana stage to Animism. This involves viewing spiritual forces as personal spirit beings as opposed to an impersonal force. In animistic cultures, these spirits are also split into categories: “nature spirits and ancestor spirits.”[30] It’s in this stage that religious experts supposedly emerge, such as shamans, priests, and witch doctors.[31]

Advancing from animism, the next stage in the evolutionary model is polytheism. This development occurs when personal spirit beings, which are not seen as superior to man, are elevated by worship to the status of deity. A defining feature of this kind of polytheism is that gods are comparably superior to man – the difference is of degree, not kind.[32] This is not to say that certain features of animism have disappeared; the ancient Romans were polytheists for example, both in the sense that they believed in multiple gods, but they also prayed to their ancestors.[33]

Polytheism is followed by henotheism. Henotheism is the belief in multiple gods, but it differs from polytheism in that particular towns or tribes will perform worship to only a select group of gods that govern certain geographical areas.[34] This is why the biblical narrative of the Exodus was so significant, because for the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, their slavery implied that they were henotheistically under the dominion of the gods of Egypt, and yet the plagues and miraculous deliverance of Israel demonstrated the powerlessness of not only Egyptian idols but of all idols of all nations, and the supremacy and sovereignty of the one true God over all of creation.[35]

The fifth stage of religion’s evolution is monotheism, the belief in one God, as exemplified in Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam; but as previously mentioned, in the framework of evolutionary religion, this pantheon has no top floor. Those who have argued for a cap on the evolution of religion, its highest point, have claimed that secular humanism is the highest advancement of human culture.[36] In all this, similar to Whitmarsh’s research, “who believes it has been necessary to claw intellectual and moral authority away from the clergy and reallocate it to the secular specialists,”[37] the presuppositions of scholars who have backed this theory have been anti-Christian from the start. It was the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard who wrote:

We should, I think, realize what was the intention of many of these scholars if we are to understand their theoretical constructions. They sought, and found, in primitive religions a weapon which could, they thought, be used with deadly effect against Christianity. If primitive religion could be explained away as an intellectual aberration, as a mirage induced by emotional stress, or by its social function, it was implied that the higher religions could be discredited and disposed of in the same way…[38]

What is ironic about this evolutionary schema is that it has never been observed at any point in history. We have not found any records of cultures progressing through these successive stages, in fact what we observe are cultures regressing into more “primitive” forms of religion. This attempt to explain away belief in God, specifically Christian belief, was abandoned shortly after the work of a Christian scholar who demonstrated the correspondence of the biblical narrative with real history, discrediting the vain theoretical propositions that have borne no historical validation.

Wilhelm Schmidt, a twentieth century ethnologist, entered the discussion of religion’s origin with unashamedly Christian presuppositions. He was a Catholic priest who believed that Scripture provided the answer to the origin of religion, and he expected to find that history reflected the truth of Scripture. His research concerned original monotheism, according to which the beginnings of religion are found in God, not man’s supposed evolution. This monotheistic belief is characterized as follows:

(1) Belief in a personal God;
(2) Referred to with masculine grammar and qualities;
(3) Abiding in the heavens;
(4) Infinitely superior to mankind in every form, including knowledge and power;
(5) Creator of all things;
(6) Moral-law giver;
(7) Judge of all men who have violated his law.

As to man’s relationship with God:

(1) Man is God’s creation;
(2) He is subject to God and under his reign;
(3) He was separated from God because of his disobedience and rebellion;
(4) And the means God provided by which man could be reconciled with God was through animal sacrifice. [39]

Schmidt discovered religions that fit this characterization in the primitive cultures of the twentieth century, as documented in his extensive ethnological studies.[40] These primitive cultures, holding to an original monotheistic faith, were found in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, Australia, and various other parts of the world.[41] Schmidt discovered that the most ancient cultures “featured exclusive worship of God and almost no magic or mana.”[42] His studies helped demonstrate that cultures fell away from this higher-level religion on the evolutionary scheme, demonstrating an inverse development, which involved decay and corruption (Rom. 1:21-23). It could have broken down from monotheism to animism, or polytheism, or henotheism, or taken any other direction, including a counterfeit monotheism.

We find this strikingly similar to the biblical narrative because Schmidt expected to find the truth of Scripture in his ethnological and historical data. Scholar Winfried Corduan wrote that Schmidt “believed that his conclusions not only paralleled the biblical narrative but verified it from a scientific standpoint as well.”[43]

The discovery of ancient atheism doesn’t challenge biblical testimony, it further attests to its truthfulness. In all this we remember, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).


[1] ‘Disbelieve It or Not, Ancient History Suggests That Atheism Is as Natural to Humans as Religion’, University of Cambridge (University of Cambridge, February 16, 2016), last modified February 16, 2016, accessed February 17, 2016, http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/disbelieve-it-or-not-ancient-history-suggests-that-atheism-is-as-natural-to-humans-as-religion?

[2] See Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, (London: Faber & Faber, 2016).

[3] University of Cambridge, ‘Disbelieve It or Not, Ancient History Suggests That Atheism Is as Natural to Humans as Religion’.

[4] Rob Waugh, ‘No, Humans aren’t “Wired” to Believe in God: There were lots of Ancient Atheists,’ Metro UK, last modified February 16 2016, http://metro.co.uk/2016/02/16/no-humans-arent-wired-to-believe-in-god-there-were-lots-of-ancient-atheists-scientist-claims-5691799/.

[5] Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods, 7.

[6] Nolan B. Harmon and George A. Buttrick, eds., The Interpreter’s Bible: The Holy Scriptures in the King James and Revised Standard Versions with General Articles and Introduction, Exegesis, Exposition for Each Book of the Bible, Volume 4 ed. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1955), 75.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods, 3-4.

[9] Harmon, et al., The Interpreter’s Bible, 278. ; Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, “‘Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World,’ by Tim Whitmarsh,” Sunday Book Review, November 20, 2015, accessed March 4, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/books/review/battling-the-gods-atheism-in-the-ancient-world-by-tim-whitmarsh.html?_r=0.

[10] Joseph Boot, The Mission of God: A Manifesto of Hope for Society (London: Wilberforce Publications, 2016), 133-134.

[11] Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods, 3.

[12] University of Cambridge, ‘Disbelieve It or Not, Ancient History Suggests That Atheism Is as Natural to Humans as Religion’.

[13] Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods, 5, emphasis added.

[14] Boot, The Mission of God, 133-134.

[15] Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, ed. D.A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 91.

[16] ‘Homilies on Romans 3’ [ACCSR, 39], as cited in Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 91.

[17] ‘Wisdom of Solomon Chapter 13 KJV’, King James Bible Online, accessed February 17, 2016, http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Wisdom-of-Solomon-Chapter-13/ ; Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 91. Here Kruse cites the Book of Wisdom, an Alexandrian Jewish text written during the reign of Caesar Augustus.

[18] Greg L. Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Inc., 2007), 144.

[19] James Youniss, “Moral Development through a Theory of Social Construction: An Analysis,” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development 27, no. 4 (1981), 386-387.

[20] Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 2012), 312.

[21] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford.: Oxford University Press, 1997), 130-131.; Nagel has more recently rejected a bare materialist view of the world, conceding that the emergence of conscious life may have teleological (that is, purposeful) principles. See Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[22] Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 97.

[23] University of Cambridge, ‘Disbelieve It or Not.

[24] See Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994 [orig. 1656]).

[25] See Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (London: John Chapman, 1854).

[26] See Sigmund Freud The Future of an Illusion (New York: Liveright, 1928); For a refutation and debate between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, see Armand M. Nicholl Jr., The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (New York, NY.: Free Press, 2002).

[27] See Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (New York: Doubleday, 1964).

[28] Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, second edition (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 32-33.

[29] For an example of Mana and Magic in modern film, consult Peter Jones, ‘Star Wars and the Ancient Religion’, Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity, last modified January 8, 2016, accessed February 17, 2016, http://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/blog-entries/star-wars-and-the-ancient-religion.

[30] Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, 34.

[31] Ibid, 35.

[32] Ibid, 36.

[33] ‘Ancestor Worship’, Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed February 17, 2016, http://www.britannica.com/topic/ancestor-worship.

[34] See Friedrich M. Mueller, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion: As Illustrated by the Religions of India (New York: AMS Press, 1994).

[35] Ed Hindson and Gary Yates, eds., The Essence of the Old Testament: A Survey (Nashville: B&H, 2012), 76.

[36] Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, 38.

[37] Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, review of Battling the gods: Atheism in the ancient world, by Tim Whitmarsh, New York Times, last modified November 20 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/books/review/battling-the-gods-atheism-in-the-ancient-world-by-tim-whitmarsh.html?_r=0.

[38] E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), 15.

[39] Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, 40.

[40] See Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion (Proctorville, OH: Wythe-North Publishing, 2014).

[41] Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, Second Edition, 44.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid, 44.

Originally posted on the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity website.

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Steven Martins is Staff Apologist & Junior Scholar in Residence at the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He holds an undergraduate degree in Human Resource Management from York University, and is working towards a Masters of Arts in Christian Apologetics at Veritas Evangelical Seminary.

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One Comment

  1. Excellent article, and I will be sharing it soon. The mantra of “children are naturally born atheist” is simply an arbitrary assertion, and has no scientific support. When I call out atheopaths on this, they get furious. It gets worse when they are informed that there are scientific studies that show the opposite: children are born theist! Here is one discussion on that. I do not endorse the entire article or the site, but it has some good material: http://rightreason.org/2012/born-atheists-science-and-natural-belief-in-god/

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