In response to yesterday’s blog post about Christopher Hitchens’ polemic, God Is Not Great, in which I spoke about atheism “beginning” with Socrates, I was informed that in fact, Socrates was not an atheist after all. Oh dear, perhaps I should have taken philosophy class after all. How could I get such an important detail so utterly wrong?!
Well, I didn’t of course. I never once said Socrates was an atheist, and whether he was or not is manifestly not the point. To quote Hitchens again: “Even though he was not in fact an atheist, he was quite correctly considered unsound for his advocacy of free thought and unrestricted enquiry, and his refusal to give assent to any dogma.” That was my essential point. Socrates’ methods championed free enquiry, preferred naturalistic explanations for weather and other events, and never once submitted to unverifiable “truths”. Socrates’ primary weapon was the “gentle but relentless” process of questioning and questioning again; it is this process even today that forms a methodological basis for scientific enquiry and all nonreligious thinking about the natural world. In any event, Socrates had no particular reason to believe in the gods with any certainty; it is a matter he left unresolved and was happy to. It was an irrelevant question for him. As Hitchens writes: “For one thing, why would “they” bother with the tedium of human existance…all attempts to read the gods’ intentions, such as studying the entrails of animals, are an absurd waste of time.” What mattered for Socrates was truth seeking, not truth knowing, and there are only so many ways by which one can come to know the truth. Studying entrails is manifestly not one of them. As Hitchens asserts, Socrates was not interested in any dogmas or certainties; his whole philosophical scaffold was centred upon the notion of ignorance and contingency.
On this basis we can postulate that atheism begins with Socrates. Although Socrates never came out and said “I do not believe in the gods”, his methods severely questioned and undermined all Athenian orthodoxies. All this he accomplished without modern science, which goes to show that the basis of atheistic thought lies not in the nuts and bolts of physics, but in common standards of rationality and reasonableness. Even without a knowledge of the Big Bang, Socrates was able to demonstrate that a dogmatic and certain view of the universe and its origins was an unsound preposition. Today, with our vast (although by no means complete) understanding of the Universe and its workings, modern atheists are able to go one step further and point to natural explanations that do not require us to invoke any sort of divine creator at all. The natural world can be explained and understood satisfactorily without recourse to the gods. Although this does not “prove” that God is non existent (that is a moot point) it demonstrates that the probability of God’s existence is pretty small, and that invoking him in any way as an explanation is redundant. And that’s just “god”; and undefined “prime mover”. How religious people claim to know him mind is a whole nother matter, one Socrates would have scoffed at.