In her excellent book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong takes an interesting detour on the language of belief and doubt. She describes how the proliferation of religious choices may have made faith more difficult, not less:
Indeed, by the end of the sixteenth century, many people in Europe felt that religion had been gravely discredited. They were disgusted by the killing of Catholics by Protestants and Protestants by Catholics. Hundreds of people had died as martyrs for holding views that it was impossible to prove one way or the other. Sects preaching a bewildering variety of doctrines that were deemed essential for salvation had proliferated alarmingly. There was now too much theological choice: many felt paralyzed and distressed by the variety of religious interpretations on offer. Some may have felt that faith was becoming harder to achieve than ever.
So did people respond with atheism, or something else?
Yet in fact a full-blown atheism in the sense that we use the word today was impossible. As Lucien Febvre has shown in his classic book The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, the conceptual difficulties in the way of a complete denial of God’s existence at this time were so great as to be insurmountable. From birth and baptism to death and burial in the churchyard, religion dominated the life of every single man and woman. Every activity of the day, which was punctuated with church bells summoning the faithful to prayer, was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions: they dominated professional and public life—even the guilds and the universities were religious organizations. As Febvre points out, God and religion were so ubiquitous that nobody at this stage thought to say “So our life, the whole of our life, is dominated by Christianity! How tiny is the area of our lives that is already secularized, compared to everything that is still governed, regulated and shaped by religion!”
I wonder, what dominates our own lives in such a way that we cannot realize? How shackled is our thinking by the commonplace? It’s a fascinating line of questioning.
Even if an exceptional man could have achieved the objectivity necessary to question the nature of religion and the existence of God, he would have found no support in either the philosophy or the science of his time. Until there had formed a body of coherent reasons, each of which was based on another cluster of scientific verifications, nobody could deny the existence of a God whose religion shaped and dominated the moral, emotional, aesthetic and political life of Europe. Without this support, such a denial could only be a personal whim or a passing impulse that was unworthy of serious consideration. As Febvre has shown, a vernacular language such as French lacked either the vocabulary or the syntax for skepticism. Such words as “absolute,” “relative,” “causality,” “concept,” and “intuition” were not yet in use. We should also remember that as yet no society in the world had eliminated religion, which was taken for granted.
So, what things enabled people to visualize a world without God, and develop a secular existence? And what things encouraged them along that path? I think the religious wars of Europe and, as Armstrong mentioned, the overwhelming variety of religions from which to choose, both made religion in general seem less desirable. I’m not enough of a philosopher to name pivotal events in that movement that made a secular worldview possible, but in the field of science, Darwin was certainly one of the key turning points. Here’s a quote from Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker:
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
But the question remains–what else is holding us back?