My attempts to understand the history of atheism have led me back to the early Enlightenment. It’s a very confusing time. Up to that point, the streams of thought had been largely confessional (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, etc.) As some point, probably during the mid-17th century, that began to break down. It gets harder and harder to classify people.
The politics of the arguments don’t help. Frans Kuyper, who was recently mentioned, is a good example of the problem. Kuyper was a religious radical: he was a unitarian, he rejected the idea of original sin, etc. Yet his printing press turned out attacks on anybody who was slightly more radical, or radical in a different way. And Kuyper wasn’t precise in his use of language. Everybody was a Spinozan, a Quaker and an atheist.
Moderates attempted to distance themselves from radicals by calling them atheists. Conservatives tried to lump them all together. Radicals tried to defend themselves by praising God in pantheistic terms. The result is that it’s very difficult to tell the difference between one person’s atheism and another person’s pantheism. And the difference could be a matter of life or death, as it was for Giulio Cesare Vanini, executed in Toulouse in 1619 for his perceived atheism.When God and Nature are the same, does God fall away? Is it just a shift in language? How much of the philosophical difference between the two positions is real and how much is just hair-splitting in order to avoid the charge of atheism?
Sometimes I think I understand the differences, but then I run across a poetic atheist like Neil DeGrasse Tyson:
I wanted to become an astrophysicist not because I chose it … in a way the universe chose me. […] I was called by the universe. I had no choice in the matter.
Poetry or Pantheism? Is that spiritual atheism?
James McGrath once asked Why Be an Atheist Rather Than a Pantheist?. Pointing out that Dawkins once called pantheism “sexed-up atheism,” he asks why we don’t opt for the version with more bells and whistles. Does anybody have an answer?