We live in an age that is defined by its adherence to what is often referred to as the post-Darwin world of physical science. Science is king and the lines are deeply cut between it and religion in most people’s thinking. You are either a Bible believing Christian or an enlightened modern thinker who puts their hope and trust in the progressive unfolding of scientific discovery. We might say the choice is either God or Darwin and the one we choose will determine our worldview.
What may shock some people is the fact that the post-Darwin world with all its ramifications for faith is not the great herald of our modern age that is often proclaimed. The great European and American Enlightenment movements are believed to have opened the eyes of a growing middle-class to the wonder of fresh scientific discoveries and the resulting mistrust in the claims of Christianity.
But, the Enlightenment was not a new worldview that suddenly popped up out of nowhere to change the thinking and direction of European and American populations. The roots of such a “new order of the ages,” the Latin inscription found on the great seal of America on the back of the dollar bill, is in the philosophy called Epicureanism.
So, what is Epicureanism and how does a third-century BC philosopher by the name of Epicurus have such an influence upon our modern, new age way of thinking? He looked around him at the influence of the gods of pagan religion and became disgusted with the whole mess. His argument was that the gods didn’t care about humanity, and as a result didn’t intervene in our affairs or judge the world’s inhabitants after death. Death to Epicurus was simply the end-lights out.
Epicurus was responding to the common held beliefs that the gods were always angry at humanity and could hardly wait for people to die so they could judge them and burn them alive after death. His response to these assertions was to proclaim that the natural world is nothing more than a random collision of atoms banging off each other and whatever happens happens.
The philosophy of Epicurus would have probably died a natural death if it hadn’t been for the Roman poet Lucretius who lived about seventy years before Jesus. He wrote an amazing poem designed to appeal to the Roman intelligentsia called, De Rerum Natura (Concerning the Nature of Things) that espoused Epicurus’s teachings.
N.T. Wright gives a good summary of Lucretius worldview, “The world is what it is because (what he called) atoms, which, free-falling through space, collide with one another, sometimes combining and sometimes bouncing off. There are clearly different kinds of atoms, which is why they have these different effects; major changes are caused by inexplicable “swerve” that sometimes happens to the atoms so that they veer off in new directions and produce different results. But the main point is essentially what we would today call the evolutionary thesis; life in the world has developed under its own steam as the random by-product of chance collisions and combinations of atoms and the more complex life-forms they produce. The gods are out of the picture. They are nowhere to be seen. Death is, quite literally, nothing at all: the atoms disperse, never to recombine.” Surprised by Scripture p. 9
In the fifteenth and sixteenth century Epicureanism emerged as a powerful force on the hearts and minds of a burgeoning middle-class in Europe. It was the rediscovery of Lucretius poem in 1417 that once again set things in motion. Many people, just like Epicurus, were fed up with the bullying gods who constantly found fault, burned them in eternal hellfire and that they could never please. His philosophy of being on our own without the wagging finger of God was a pleasant relief for people living under the burden and fear of religion. Thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbs, and Thomas Jefferson were all influenced by the philosophy of Epicurus and men like Voltaire totally pushed God out of the picture altogether.
So well before Darwin sailed on his epic voyage on the Beagle, the world was familiar with the philosophy of atoms swerving and colliding to bring cause and effect without God. In a very real sense evolution is not an invention of Darwin and wasn’t even invented by his Enlightenment predecessors but has its roots in the philosophy of Epicurus.
For most people today Epicurus has won and the idea that God, if He exists, is a long way away and stays out of touch is reality. Emily Dickinson summed this up nicely, “They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse.” quoted, N.T. Wright Surprised by Scripture p. 11
Why did these theories of nameless atoms crashing through space at random causing reactions without outside control or intervention so quickly grasp Enlightenment thinkers? Because of politics. People no longer believed in the “divine right of Kings” with their special privileges and powers. It was the intellect that was to rule the day and not a king because of how or to whom he was born. 1848 was known as “the year of revolutions” throughout Europe and in 1859 The Origin of Species appeared bringing together the perfect storm of revolutionary thinking and evolutionary science to push an unpopular God into the shadows.
The worldview that permeates our society today is not new but as old as Epicurus, but it is simply a modern view of that Epicurean past. Now here is our problem as Christians. We have been influenced not so much by Epicurus but by Deism. That is the belief that God set the world in motion, and then backed off allowing things to work out whichever way they do without His intervention. The result are Christians that believe things “just happen” and there is nothing we can do about it, or things happen because “God wills it” regardless of our input or desires.
In light of these ancient philosophies guised as progressive modern teachings, Christians need not throw science out the door nor embrace evolutionary thought whole-heartedly. We need to understand that much of what passes for scientific truth is based simply upon philosophy that can be as flawed as any other system of thought.
How we respond to all of this will be the subject of our next post.
* Many people around the globe are currently experiencing persecution for their faith in God, and many even unto death, for the love of their God. These people know pain and suffering. They need our support and prayers. Please take the time to read some of their stories at http://thebeggardanced.com/nine-oclock-club/ there is much more on the internet.