Theism or Atheism: The Great Alternative by Chapman Cohen

Theism or Atheism: The Great AlternativeTheism or Atheism: The Great Alternative by Chapman Cohen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read quite a lot on this subject and was surprised that I’d never come across this book. I learned of it in Harry Harrison’s autobiography. He’d read it at age 13, 17 years after its publication, and left religion and deist belief behind for the rest of his long life (Harry thought the author’s name was “a good English name and a good Jewish name!”) So, off on a hunt, which didn’t take me too long. Turns out the book is in the public domain and available from Project Gutenberg, a digitization of the original 1921 edition. This is not long, but Cohen has a skill with condensation of word and packs a lot in a small space. His positions are surprisingly modern and at the same time, his explanations quite unique. Thorough, detailed, and eminently logical, it’s no wonder young Harry came away changed.

Cohen hits it hard right away

Shrouded in the cloak of philosophy, the question of the existence of God continues to attract attention, and, I may add, to command more respect than it deserves.

Bam! and

For it is only by a subterfuge that it assumes the rank of philosophy.

Bam! Bam! Remember, this was 1921! He says, “The purpose of the following pages is to make clear the nature of this alliance [theism and philosophy] and to expose the real character of what we are asked to worship.” He rightly observes “There are, of course, many on whose ears any amount of reasoning will fall without effect.” He also observes that “we have been where the Theist is, [but] he has not been where we are.”

What the world is like with God, there is all the experience of history to inform us; and it would indeed be strange if love and brotherhood, armed with the weapons that science has given us, could not produce a better human society than has ever existed under the dominion of the Gods.

On defining “What is God?”, he gets to a point saying, “It is a tacit admission that human welfare depends on our knowledge and manipulation of the forces by which we are surrounded.” (Ever the “proper” grammar!)

There may be a God behind these forces, but that neither determines the extent of our knowledge of them or our power to manipulate them. The belief in God becomes a matter of, at best, secondary importance, and quite probably of no importance whatever. But if that be so why bother about the belief? Is that not a reason for leaving it alone and turning our attention to other matters?
In the course of ages the belief in God has acquired associations that give it the character of a highly obstructive force. It has become so entangled with inculcated notions of right and wrong that it is everywhere used as a buttress for institutions which have either outgrown their utility, or are in need of serious modification in the
interests of the race.
The course of human development has been such that religion has hitherto occupied a commanding position in relation to social laws and customs, with the result that it is often found difficult to improve either until the obstructive influence of religious beliefs has been dealt with.

And he answers an implied question – Why treat with this at all?: “Any belief, no matter what its nature, must be dealt with as a fact of some social importance, so long as it is believed by large numbers to be essential to the right ordering of life.

Whether true or false, beliefs are facts—mental and social facts, and the scheme of things which leaves them out of account is making a blunder of the most serious kind.
Facts are in themselves of no great value. It is the conclusions to which they point that are the important things.

(Emphasis mine.) And here’s that logic, where Descartes sort of failed:

If we are to regard the god-idea as an evolution which began in misunderstandings of nature that were rooted in the ignorance of primitive man, it would seem clear that no matter how refined or developed the idea may become, it can rest on no other or sounder basis than that which is presented to us in the psychology of primitive man. Each stage of theistic belief grows out of the preceding stage, and if it can be shown that the beginning of this evolution arose in a huge blunder I quite fail to see how any subsequent development can convert this unmistakable blunder into a demonstrable truth. To take a case in point. When it was shown that so far as witchcraft rested on observed facts these could be explained on grounds other than those of the malevolent activities of certain old women, the belief in witchcraft was not “:purified,” neither did it advance to any co-called higher stage; it was simply abandoned as a useless and mischievous explanation of facts that could otherwise be accounted fop.

“Civilised man does not discover gods, he discards them.” There is so much reason in just this one essay!

That should whet an appetite. I have too many notes. I like “Let us commence with the fact that religion is something that is acquired.” – every mind is not born with a theistic belief…that is acquired (and far too often forgotten is that what is acquired is entirely dependent on geography! Where you are born…) Cohen says “In all discussions of theism there is one point that is usually overlooked. This is that theism is in the nature of a hypothesis. And, like every hypothesis, its value is proportionate to the extent to which it offers a satisfactory explanation of the facts with which it professes to deal.” And further, theism “exists first as an idea; it only exists as an emotion at a later stage. There is really no such thing as a religious emotion, there are only emotions connected with religion.”


Samuel Taylor Coleridge relates how the clergy raised the cry of Atheism against him, although he had never advanced further than Deism. And it
is to his credit that in referring to this charge he said:

— Little do these men know what Atheism is. Not one man in a thousand has either strength of mind or goodness of heart to be an Atheist. I repeat it. Not one man in a thousand has either strength of mind or goodness of heart to be an Atheist.

Not one man in a thousand has the strength. Or conviction. It sure is easier to pass the blame to something unseen and intangible. But it is also intellectually irresponsible.

“Between Atheism and Theism there is no logical halting place.” There really isn’t. So-called agnosticism is a kludge, and despite what wishers may profess, theistic. (“It has become, in the half century of its existence, as indefinite as ‘religion,’ and about as enlightening.” – About as enlightening!) “As a mental attitude Atheism is quite independent of any theory of cosmic working,…” Mental attitude. I like that. He also presages Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Majesteria:

Religion having for its subject matter the unknown and unknowable, while science has for its subject matter the known and the knowable, religion and science are not antagonistic, but complementary. Conflicts only arise when one trespasses on the other’s department, and a recognition of the true line of demarcation effectually reconciles these hitherto hostile forces.

Good book. Thanks to Mr. Harrison, gone seven years tomorrow, for mentioning it in his memoirs. I will come back to this again.

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