The Greek atomists and the god of Paley

In recent posts, I have been defending classical theism and criticizing Paley-style “design arguments” as time wasters at best and theologically dangerous at worst because of their implicit anthropomorphic conception of God. Here’s another way to look at the problem.

As is well known, the ancient Greek atomists were forerunners of modern naturalism. They pioneered the mechanistic approach to the study of nature. They were critical of traditional religion. They denied that there is any Uncaused Cause sustaining the world in being. But they were not atheists as that term is understood today. They generally acknowledged that the gods existed. They just regarded them as one part of the natural order among others. Were they writing today, they might have expressed their position by comparing the gods to extraterrestrials or beings from another dimension.

If you are a Christian, suppose it turned out that there really was such a being as Yahweh, but he was an alien from Alpha Centauri who had decided for a few centuries to have a little fun with the ancient Israelites. In particular, suppose it turned out that something like the events recounted in the Old Testament really did happen, but only as interpreted by Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods. Would you feel vindicated? Would you expect Richard Dawkins to repent and race over to the nearest revival meeting? No, because even Dawkins is not that foolish, and neither are you.

Certainly the atomists would have responded with a gigantic yawn. And rightly so, because if God were really a space alien, then He wouldn’t be God. He certainly wouldn’t be worthy of worship. Scary, maybe. Perhaps for that reason someone you might not want to tick off. But still merely a cosmic despot, or (if we’re lucky) a cosmic kindly old grandfather. It really doesn’t matter for religious purposes, because, again, he would not in that case be any more worthy of worship than Superman.

Thus, if contemporary naturalists were wise, they would stop getting so upset over the arguments of ID theorists, given that those theorists themselves keep insisting, quite rightly, that their arguments don’t (and, I’ve been arguing, can’t) strictly get you anything more grand than E.T. If the ancient atomists could happily accept that, why couldn’t the American Atheists? Perhaps someday they’ll wise up and realize they can. For with respect to the anthropomorphic god of Paley, you might as well say: “There probably is such a god, but stop worrying and enjoy your life anyway.”

You see, there is a reason why Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and all the others among the very greatest thinkers of the Christian tradition insisted on classical theism. There is a reason why it is reflected in the creeds and councils, and why it is the infallible, irreformable doctrine of Holy Mother Church. Nothing less gets you beyond the naturalism of the ancient atomists. Which, if ID theory ever gained wide acceptance, would simply become the naturalism of the modern naturalists. Darwinism will have been defeated, but a redefined naturalism will bop along unscathed. The last laugh will belong to Democritus rather than Dembski. Then many will say bitterly, in the wake of their Pyrrhic victory: “Even the naturalists believe, and tremble not at all.”
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