BUT if objects for gratitude and admiration are our desire, do they not present themselves every hour to our eyes? Do we not see a fair creation prepared to receive us the instant we are born — a world furnished to our hands, that cost us nothing? Is it we that light up the sun; that pour down the rain; and fill the earth with abundance? Whether we sleep or wake, the vast machinery of the universe still goes on. Are these things, and the blessings they indicate in future, nothing to us? Can our gross feelings be excited by no other subjects than tragedy and suicide? Or is the gloomy pride of man become so intolerable, that nothing can flatter it but a sacrifice of the Creator?
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
This is from Paine’s notorious anti-Christian polemic. It is congruent with remarks by Richard Dawkins, and it is representative, in a populist American way, of Deist and Enlightenment thinking.
In the typical atheist narrative, Deism was a necessary precursor to a full-blooded rejection of religion, because it granted knowledge of God only through the use of scientific reason. Once they determined that God was not necessary for creating the universe, imposing order, and creating life, freethinkers were able to leap into the blissful glory of atheistic humanism. In this way they feel that they avoided the trap of pantheism, which is associated with mystical spirituality and indifference toward human suffering.
The idea was that order in an organism and in an ecological system could arise through the interaction of various simpler organisms and biological components having an unknown origin and motivated by unknown forces. This is problematic, though, in that it still allows for a Deistic God or a kind of benign universal consciousness, as with pantheism. Atheism only follows necessarily from Darwin’s theory if one is willing to overlook the lack of a mechanism for the creation of space, time, matter, universal laws, and life.
Humanism, however, holds a different trap for atheists. They don’t want to privilege humanity, and so they have to concede that humanity is not a necessary consequence of evolution. The human mind is supposedly evolved purely to enable survival and reproduction and thus is not necessarily capable of knowing abstract truth. Humanism leads to the so-called postmodern viewpoint, which is antithetical to the positivism of scientific materialism.
Scientific materialism is positivistic insofar as it asserts to know the truth about the universe through the use of an empirical method of inquiry; not just a contingent or limited truth, but unqualified facts and corollary theories that apply universally. Of course this is impossible, since inductive reasoning cannot derive an unqualified and universal truth. Nevertheless, it is necessary to use scientific materialism to justify knowledge of truth, if one is claiming that the development of human consciousness is entirely contingent on ecological forces.
This still leaves an opening for Deism and pantheism, though, and that seems to be the way it is going for most of the Science-worshippers. There are still secular humanists, of course, but they can have no coherent position on origins or universal truth; and I would say that their patron saint is the Buddha or Friedrich Nietzsche. They know there is no transcendent deity only because he isn’t them (yet). This position is too difficult for the average anti-theist to understand or implement.
The historical materialists, Earth-worshippers, anarchists, and confused spectators are moving toward pantheism, as they have been for over a hundred years. I think that the vast majority of “atheists,” agnostics, and disaffected Christians are closet pantheists of this sort.
The logical positivists and scientific materialists will gravitate toward Deism, because their bottom line is the knowledge of absolute truth. This is the same approach taken by Tom Paine: if you worship Reason and natural order, eventually you find yourself confronting God’s creative work. This is nothing for Christians to celebrate (despite the apparent association with the intelligent design movement), because it is ultimately vain and self-glorifying to contemplate God’s creation without listening to Him.