dimanche 9 décembre 2012

Atheism in Modern History by Gavin Hyman (2007)

There is a brilliant essay in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism written by Gavin Hyman entitled Atheism in Modern History that should be read by anyone who is interested in the historical and theoretical movements that have shaped western religion. This essay is not easy, it assumes a familiarity with philosophical concepts but it is cleverly structured and it defines and clarifies ideas as it moves along.

It begins with the story of a witch-hunt that occurred in France in 1632 — an event which is emblematic of the “trauma of the birth of modernity” because its failure represents the confrontation of a society with the certainties it is losing (theism, faith) and those it is attempting to acquire (modernity).

The next section describes how medieval theism develops into “secularism”, “agnosticism” and “atheism” of all stripes, citing the important cultural developments which precipitated these shifts in thought. The core of the essay, the thesis, resides in the idea that medieval theism, the one espoused by Thomas Aquinas did not and could not have conceived of atheism as we know it today and that it was the work of one unwitting Duns Scotus (a monk!) which so shifted the theological/philosophical paradigm that the possibility of doubt was introduced into Christian thought.

Essentially, the Thomistic idea that God is “transcendent”, forever apart and therefore always unknowable to us was compromised by Duns Scotus and those who followed. Before, only Divine revelation which was of course, only God's prerogative, could allow us a glimpse into His nature. Then came the revolution — God was not “transcendent”, He could indeed be apprehended by us: we now saw that we shared in God's nature. He was infinite and we were finite, He was omnipotent and we were not, of course, of course — but now, the terms by which we could describe Him and our relationship to Him could be “clear and distinct”. We could apply logic to the question, we could use scientific evidence, archaeological findings, we could bring the force of our learning to the study of God and religion in order to get closer to Him. Or, we could use Enlightenment tools to doubt and to build new explanations for our existence...

There is much to recommend this essay to believers and non-believers alike. Bravo to Professor Hyman.

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