Have you ever noticed how Atheists sometimes capitalize words like "Nature" and "Fate"? I was reading a paper on Freud this morning (as part of my Christian counseling studies) and noted this phenomena once again while reading something he said way back when. I seem to remember Stephen Hawking doing much the same thing in his "Brief History of Time" and wish I still had a copy just to verify that. No matter, it comes up often enough that specific "who's" are a somewhat secondary issue. It would need a more extensive study but it strongly suggests to me that fate and nature act as functional God substitutes for some of them.

6 thoughts on “God Substitutes

  1. I think it’s just a way of respecting whatever they may see as ultimate reality, or a real source of awe and wonder, since their other writing (if they are materialists) makes it clear that they’re not imputing real personhood to such forces. I think Carl Sagan’s use of Nature (in Cosmos, if I recall from long ago), emphasized the element of wonder. There may be some worshipful element in their language, but I would see it as a purely rhetorical anthropomorphosization of nature in most cases.
    If they’re steeped in old deist-era writers, then it could be a hangover from the old writing style in which qualities of nature derived from divinity (science being ‘Natural Theology’) were customarily capitalised in honour of their source. So for instance, to take the first handy example, Bishop John Colenso wrote in the preface to his 1863 commentary on the Pentateuch:

    “Do [the Bishops] really suppose that, by the obstructions of the Church censures and anathemas, or the mere exercise of Authority, they can bar out the entrance of that light of Critical Science, which God Himself has given us, as one of the special blessings bestowed upon us by His Goodness in this day.”

    It would be rather odd for atheists to be preserving once-divine honorifics in this way, but it may be where they got the idea, then noticed — more to the point — that they could get a rise out of Christians by doing so. 🙂


  2. Sagan and Hawkins never struck me as being quite so aggressive as Freud and Dawkins, so I have some doubts about the universal applicability of your last comment. However, I was not aware of the honourific hangovers you mention so I’ll have to keep more of an eye out for that. I think your first explanation is the most likely, that it is just a way of honouring what they consider to be ultimate reality, but that just brings me back to my initial point, that it is functioning as a God for them.
    See, what I would contend is, we all have a worldview, and within each of our worldviews there exists something that functions as the ground of all existence, its just we all interpret it differently. Atheists see ultimate reality as impersonal and indifferent; we theists see ultimate reality as personal and loving. What label we put to it is a secondary matter to the qualities we ascribe to it.


  3. But is it meaningful to say “functioning as a God”?
    Sure, they seem to be appreciating a ‘weight of glory’ in the world around them, which, like love or worship, presses so strongly upon the mind that it seems necessary to acknowledge this in language.
    But I think that atheists would say if pressed that such sentiment must be a projection of emergent human qualities onto nature, while as a Christian theist I would say it at best only functions as an invitation to enquire “through Nature up to Nature’s God” (if I may keep on going with the quaint old language).
    So I don’t think “functioning as a God” reflects the thoughts of either atheists or theists as to how God ‘functions’ — respectively: not at all, or as a person.
    It seems to me that a lot of the generalized language of religious experience breaks down when applied to boundary cases like theism and atheism.


  4. I’ve noticed something similar at university. In courses on evolution the professor often speaks of evolution (or nature) as a person. I guess even for them it sometimes is difficult to imagine something with no cause.


  5. I’ve always like what Paul Tillich said : “Religion is ultimate concern”.
    Matt – I think that your idea about qualities being more important than labels is astute. One problem with scientism is it deals in quantities and measurables and so “quality” is threatening in its non-definability.


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