Question of the Day: Atomism = Atheism?

Victor J. Stenger’s God an the Atom is a very nice history and description of atomism (and thanks to Prometheus Books for the review copy.) Stenger’s background as a particle physicist makes him probably the most qualified of the popular new atheists to write the book. What I’m less sure about is Stenger’s argument that atomism automatically leads to atheism. He throws this out in the early part of his history:

Most authors who write on the subject insist that the ancient atomists were not atheists because they still believed in Gods. Yes, they said they believed, but that was probably to avoid having to drink hemlock. The atomist gods play no role in the universe or in human lives, unlike theism as we understand it today. Atomism is atheism. [p 13]

I’m not sure about the history, and I have a hunch we’d end up quibbling about the definition of theism. That aside, does the belief that the universe can be reduced down in its totality to atoms and vacuum automatically lead to atheism?

  • kessy_athena

    I think that depends primarily on how you define the term “god.” If you define a god as necessarily being transcendent and somehow beyond the universe in the style of Christianity, then I think that atomism would tend to argue in opposition to the idea. Of course, it’s easy enough to subscribe to a mechanistic view of nature and add on a “supernatural” layer to accommodate such gods. On the other hand, if you view the gods as being powerful but limited beings who are of the universe and not beyond it, then I see no contradiction between the two. And I’d point out that the classical Greek gods were far more akin to the latter then the former.

  • Michael Mock

    “That aside, does the belief that the universe can be reduced down in its totality to atoms and vacuum automatically lead to atheism?”

    For me personally, atheism is basically an outgrowth of materialism. So, depending on exactly how we’re using terms like “Universe”, my answer would be a qualified “Yes.” But that’s thinking in general terms, and not specifically in the context of atomism and the discussion of its history (about which I know almost nothing).

  • Chuck Vonderahe

    “…does the belief that the universe can be reduced down in its totality to atoms and vacuum automatically lead to atheism?”
    Yes. Yes it does.
    (If one is willing to have an open mind and really think about what that would mean.)

  • Chris Morrow

    While I do take issue with those theists who say things like “God is just the condition of possibility” or “God is the universe, that’s all”, I also think it’s a mistake to over-define deities too. No one has total ownership of the God concept. I myself think that only personhood (in the sense that the gods has subjective experiences, even if they are complex to a degree beyond human imagining) and power (in the sense of making decisions that influence reality somehow) are key ingredients. The more power, the more godlike (with perhaps a certain lower-bound power threshold for basic qualification).

    But all that aside, the real issue is that the unreality of gods has intimately (but invisibly) shaped the history of how humans think about what “gods” are supposed to be. Today we know that water is formed from hydrogen and oxygen. William Shakespeare didn’t have any beliefs regarding hydrogen or oxygen, but it would be silly to say that William Shakespeare didn’t think water existed. Likewise, if the Greek gods had been real (whether alien beings or otherwise), then our modern definitions of “god” would naturally accord with the actual properties of gods (assuming that we were able to gain an ever-improving scientific understanding of gods with each passing generation). Unfortunately, there are no actual properties of gods (on account of there being no actual gods), so the debate becomes muddled.