As I said recently, I’ve posted two items that I had written for my book What If I’m an Atheist? but had to delete from it in cutting the book to the proper word count. In the spirit of “Well, why not?” here is an excerpt that did get into the book and that I think deserves a blog posting.
Atheists and theists claim that some famous historical figures were atheists. But were they? Here are some people who often get described as atheist.
Everyone knows that Hitler’s forces imprisoned and killed Jews. They also jailed Catholic priests and Protestant ministers, shut down religious newspapers and magazines, and pushed religious youth groups and other faith-based organizations out of business. But Hitler also outlawed societies of atheists and declared, “The people need and require … faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and not merely with a few theoretical declarations: We have stamped it out.”
Hitler also had a spiritual side. “Providence,” he said, “called upon me and vouchsafed it to me, once an unknown soldier of the Great War [World War I], to rise to be the leader of my people, so dear to me. Providence showed me the way to free our people from the depths of its misery without bloodshed and to lead it upward once again.”
Lincoln was raised in a hard-line Baptist faith, but he rejected it. “Mr. Lincoln had no hope, and no faith, in the usual acceptance of those words,” his wife said.
But presiding over the Civil War seemed to bend Lincoln toward God. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln quoted the biblical books of Matthew and Psalms, and included lines like “Fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue … so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Einstein was Jewish, but his view of God came from the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Dutch Jew excommunicated from Judaism, presumably for his view that God has no mind or personality. To Spinoza (and Einstein), God was the substance of the universe.
“Science,” Einstein said, “can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Twain disliked religion and the God that the preachers of his time praised — particularly toward the end of his life. As he said:
“Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
“To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master.”
“I cannot see how a man of any large degree of humorous perception can ever be religious — unless he purposely shut the eyes of his mind & keep them shut by force.”
Edison denied being an atheist — “I am not, never have been, never said I was,” he told the New York Times in November 1910. He believed in what he called a Supreme Intelligence.
But at the same time, he said, “I have grave doubts whether the good folk of this earth are going to be aroused from their graves to go to some beautiful, shining place up aloft. Don’t see it, can’t understand it, and neither can these ministers of fashionable churches.” Two months earlier, he had told the Times, “Nature made us — nature did it all — not the gods of the religions.”