Diderot (or perhaps D’Alembert) writes: “ATHEISME, s. m. (Métaphysiq.) c’est l’opinion de ceux qui nient l’existence d’un Dieu auteur du monde. ..J’ai ajoûté ces mots, auteur du monde, parce qu’il ne suffit pas d’adopter dans son système le mot de Dieu, pour n’être pas athée. Les Epicuriens parloient des dieux, ils en reconnoissoient un grand nombre; & cependant ils étoient vraiement athées, parce qu’ils ne donnoient à ces dieux aucune part à l’origine & à la conservation du monde, & qu’ils les reléguoient dans une mollesse de vie oisive & indolente.”
[“ATHEISM, (Metaphysics.) is the opinion of those who deny the existence of a God creator of the world. ..I added these words, creator of the world, because, in order not to be an atheist, it is not simply enough to use the word God in one’s system. The Epicureans spoke of gods, and recognized a large number of them; yet in truth, they were really Atheists, because they attributed to the gods no part in the origin and the preservation of the world, but relegated them to a soft life of leisure and indolence.”]
Atheism is always a controversial subject, and it has many definitions. This Enlightenment one from the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une Société de Gens de lettres, however, has an interesting thrust. Yes, of course, one is an atheist if one actively denies that there is any god of any kind and that such a being is not even worth thinking about. The Encyclopedist says that it is atheism even if you believe in gods, but that these gods are seen as not having anything to do with the origin or preservation of the world, the cosmos then it is just as atheistic as denying the existence of any gods. The example used is of the Epicureans, whose gods live a totally free life apart from the rigors of the world. But such a statement also applies to the perfect gods of Confucius’s Heaven who do not even speak or the Immortal of the Daoists. These immortals, even if they exist, would still render their believers to be atheists.
One wonders, then, what to make of fairies or spirits that inhabit various parts of the world, or a naiad that glides through the water. Assuming such beings exist, but they are not truly gods, would one’s belief in them also be atheistic?
The 18th-century Encyclopedist knows that this definition of atheism is one of many that have been investigated and held over thousands of years. The major point is that in order to have gods, the gods must be living and doing things in our world and they must react and act on it.
That view first intrigues me because it puts a problem to the Aristotelian notion of god. First, Aristotle’s theos is a great noetic sphere, eternal and located nowhere. That sphere is thought thinking itself, which means, to use Medieval terminology, there is an Active Intellect and a passive one. The passive intellect is actualized by the Active Intellect for an eternity, and that passive intellect is where the entire universe resides. This noetic sphere generates the physical universe. First, by separate noetic intellects, each a sphere within the great sphere, and then by transforming undifferentiated noetic movement into the elements, all of which are species of movement: air, fire, water, earth, all derived from ether, undifferentiated motion. Corporality, then, is nothing more than the combinations of motions that come from the thought of the theos. The thought thinking itself is also the prime mover of all the spheres, as well the first and also final cause of all things. In Aristotle’s universe, everything is in motion and there is a cause of motion and all motion has a final cause. All this occurs in the thought thinking itself of the theos.
But the Encyclopedist says that the god must be the creator of the world. But Aristotle’s god does not create the world, because it is eternal. Moreover, everything, including human beings, are nothing but slices of the god’s eternal thinking. Strictly speaking, the god thinks the world all the time, but he has never created it because it is not apart from his pure thought. One could argue that this eternal theos constantly maintains the world, so that this god, adopted by Maimonides and St.Thomas, cannot be thought to be a form of atheism.
However, we know empirically that Aristotle was wrong. There is no such theos, because the Aristotelian cosmology is completely wrong. The cosmos is not geocentric, and the spheres do not exist. So, no great one god.
Let us consider an alternative . There is a totally transcendent god that has revealed to the world that he has created the world. But this god remains separate and apart from the world, unlike Aristotle’s god who is eternally thinking the world. That makes our world entirely stupid. The god of Aristotle, because it is all part of god’s thought, informs everything and allows it be understood; it is a world where wisdom rules, because there is a theos who is and governs the cosmos. But the other kind of god that is out there apart from his creation makes a world that designed to be stupid (not an intelligent design as the anti-evolutionists claim today about this god). God keeps all wisdom to himself, and provides man only faith in his revelation. We have really no want to know whether this god actually created the universe or is maintaining it. We only know that this god says he does. There is no way to know. Is specialized ignorance, i.e., faith, enough to keep us from atheism? What if this god has decided to deceive men, and does nothing like the Epicurean gods?
Now, we all know that the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses had an everyday life, and they live within a cosmos and are not completely wise. Zeus must think out the problems he faces using principles and standards that are higher than the gods. These gods fit the Encyclopedist’s definition of god very well, as do, for example, the Indo-Aryan gods and goddesses. Help me, Lakshmi! However, monotheists deny polytheism, which seems to be the prima facie case. Polytheism makes sense as there seems to be gods and goddesses everywhere within nature and it is not atheistic, while the monotheist requires either a cosmos envisioned by Aristotle (which we know does not exist) or a very contorted set of assumptions that deny man any wisdom whatsoever.
Now, although there are scientists who claim not to be atheists, we have to face the reality of modern physics and biology. Both sciences are constituted in such a way as there is no god of any kind, and you cannot god into a system without the system itself showing the god. The only kind of gods that makes sense in the system of understanding of modern natural science are those Epicurean ones, and modern natural science doesn’t recognize them either. Modern natural science of necessity must be atheistic. It is not enough to say you believe there is a god directing all the traffic of modern science. That is exceptionally poor reason and even worse faith, as, after all, you have to have faith in modern natural science and that faith is absolute, as it includes the denial of all pre-scientific thought. Modern natural sciences seems very much in accord with the notion that we human beings along with everything else were thrown or excreted out of Being and we only exist, awaiting the coming of Being to inform us. We know that from a profound experience of dread that comes over us when we realize the truth. The big bang as existentialism.
The problem is that it is very hard to prove atheism, just as it is very hard to prove that there is a single god. In order to either, one must have comprehensive knowledge of all things, and apparently everyone nowadays denies that that is possible. And no one wants to say a man can become a god. Instead, we are left simply being stupid, which may be enough for some people’s faith, but it is not certainly enough to prove anything. Apparently, truth is not enough.