Everyone’s familiar with the term “vicious circle” but far fewer contemplate the “virtuous circle.” And while some believers may cringe at even associating atheism with virtue, Mitchell Stephens makes a convincing case that atheist thought helped spur and — combined with growing exploration and understanding of the natural world — create a virtuous circle crucial to the development of Western civilization.
Although his book, Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World examines several mainsprings of disbelief and their development, it seems clear the linchpin is our innate desire to understand the world around us. The same could even be said for religion. Even earliest man wanted explanations for why certain things happened or what caused them. Given the methods available, a god was as valid an explanation as anything. But knowledge is a formidable thing. We notice that seasons seem to be associated with movement of the Sun and the stars. We then ask why they are moving. As Galileo and others discovered, the correct answer may threaten religious beliefs. But a correct answer leads, in turn, to more questions, including efforts to validate or invalidate prior answers. As Stephens observes, “Questioning — doubt — is where atheism begins.”
Stephens looks at how, although perhaps slow to develop, this cycle led to what we now call “the scientific method.” Equally important, once Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica launched the scientific revolution, the cycle was even more active. As Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested in the opening episode of the reboot of Cosmos, two words may best describe the scientific method: “question everything.” That approach would necessarily encompass or involve gods and religious beliefs. “Religion explains. Science explains,” writes Stephens. “After Newton it became hard to deny that — on many subjects at least — science explains better.”
Yet Imagine There’s No Heaven also points out atheism’s impact beyond natural science. It explores how the writings of various atheists or similarly inclined individuals influenced political thought, especially prior to and after the French Revolution. These ideas were in part founded on tolerance and included justice, freedom, equal rights and other democratic ideals. This in turn reinforces the virtuous cycle because, as Stephens notes, tolerance requires taking a step back from our own beliefs. He is not blind, though, to the adverse effects some ideas had, pointing out the role some atheistic concepts played in the French Revolutions “Reign of Terror.”
In that respect, while Stephens is an advocate, he does not appear to be overly biased. There may be a few times he could be accused of overreaching and cherry picking, but Imagine There’s No Heaven is a thoughtful examination. Perhaps more important to the reader, the book explores its topic from pre-Grecian times to the 21st Century through the stories and ideas of specific individuals, some famous and some unknown to most. As such, it makes what could be a dry topic much more readable and easier to comprehend.
Ultimately, some may wonder why it takes a book to point out atheism’s impact on Western civilization if it, in fact, was as influential as Stephens claims. Wouldn’t it be part of our history classes or generally recognized? After all, we’re certainly aware of religion’s role in history. Here, Stephens makes a telling point.
Even if we ignore the destruction of “blasphemous” material throughout history, hand copying was necessary to reproduce texts before the printing press. Where was most of that copying done? In monasteries. Thus, early books, plays and other writings considered even slightly irreligious weren’t at the top of the reproduction list, making them few and far between by the time Gutenberg’s invention allowed mass distribution. For several centuries after that, the church dominated European society and life. As a result, comparatively speaking, atheism’s role in ideas and culture may appear to be only a recent development. Imagine There’s No Heaven is a strong step in correcting that record.