Atheism has been a tempting option to man at many points of his intellectual career. The term “atheist” as employed during much of the past two centuries has covered a mixed bag of thinkers—agnostics, social and political radicals, freethinkers, humanists, and intellectual anarchists. But all shared one feature that tended to distinguish them from our contemporary atheists: they moved against the prevailing intellectual and moral currents of the West.
Until fairly recently, it was commonly held within Western Christendom that reason could bring a fair degree of assurance that the origination of all things rested with an eternal and necessary personal Being. Even when Kant insisted to men of his day that the so-called proofs for God’s existence rested upon personal interpretations of reality and of thought, and upon prior commitments to life that were no longer tenable, thoughtful persons stood with him in awe before “the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”
If under the impact of the Kantian revolution men of the post-Enlightenment period found the speculative road to belief in God blocked, they still found the way of religious experience open and usable. Religious romantics stood in awe before the great psychologically impressive qualities of the universe. This, reinforced by social pressures favorable to the acceptance of religion, sustained theistic belief as a widespread option until well into the 20th century.
By the second quarter of our century, however, most of the supports of traditional theism were under major attack. The stellar world came to involve, seemingly, no necessary view of God. It began to appear rather as a collection of physical data to be reduced to order, ...1
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