Apologetics in the Atomic Age

Ronald Knox FAITH Magazine September-October 2006

Extracts from a 1945 Sheed and Ward book 'God and the Atom' written shortly after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima

… we felt certain till now, we could not do without God
as the explanation of things, now we are not quite so certain. Brute matter could not enter the lists as a rival explanation; a negative thing, mere potentiality. But this Force lurking at the very root of matter… That was quite a different affair… the atheists of tomorrow may be in the making, and all unconscious of it as they read through two dozen lines of cold print about something that has happened two continents away… it strikes at our sense of cosmic discipline… (p.8)

… I suspect that the atom will be the totem of irreligion tomorrow , as the amoeba was yesterday. Meanwhile we have to reckon not only with the attacks of our enemies, but with the inadequate apologies of faint-hearted friends. There will be an intensified demand for the kind of apologetic which gives up the notion of religious certainty, and attempts to rally the sporting spirit of our compatriots in favour of a balance of probabilities. There will be fresh attempts to dissociate natural theology altogether from our experience of the natural word around us, to concentrate more and more on precarious arguments derived from the exigencies and the instincts of human nature itself. Meanwhile the seminary-trained theologian, with all the wisdom of centuries at his finger-tips, will more thanever find himself talking a strange language, more than ever at cross-purposes with the shibboleths of an Atomic Age. So it will go on, I suppose, till we find someone with enough courage, enough learning, enough public standing to undertake the synthesis; there is a battle royal, long overdue, which still has to be fought out at the level of academic debate. (p.13)

The dominant thought of Europe was certainly Platonist when the Schoolmen took control of it. What the moderns usually forget to give them credit for, is having dragged the world back from Plato to Aristotle …. (St Thomas) imposed on his generation a synthesis of philosophy and religion…. But it was a ready-made philosophy, not a tradition of research, that had been rescued from the ruins of Greek civilization. It was the
task of St Thomas to make a Christian of Aristotle,
not to make a better scientist of him... (He) became
to the generations that followed him a model of what a philosopher should be, and research was left to the alchemists, whom the popular mind obstinately associated with magic.

… It must be confessed that the best intellects of their time gave themselves up to abstract speculation, which shows, as the centuries progress, a law of diminishing returns. It is unfair to criticize the schoolmen for their indifference to the inductive process, unwise to defend them on the ground that they had minds too lofty to be content grovelling among the data of sense….

Our loss is that they couched the eternal verities in language which was then the jargon of the laboratory, and is the jargon of the laboratory no longer…. Our metaphysical principles might be expected to emerge from our study of physics; but the student who should digest a modern manual of physics by way of preparing himself for a course of St Thomas would do worse than waste his labour... . An accident of history has put us
all at cross purposes.

Nowhere is this inconvenience more observable than where it is most vital; namely when the schoolmen set out to convince us about the fact of God….. They are meant to fit with our ale-house debates; but for the most of us, to open a book of formal apologetic is to step into a remote cloister. The ladder that is meant to climb to heaven from our front door step climbs it, instead, from a period world which only history recaptures for us. It is definitely pre-Atomic.

… During that astonishing efflorescence or research that would mark the seventeenth century science and metaphysics drew further than ever apart…. Descartes would cut philosophy and theology away from all contact with rude material things... . He made absolute
by a decree that has lasted to our own day the divorce between study of the world outside of us and study of the human mind as an instrument. (Curiously for more than a century science made use of its married name and gave itself out to the world as “experimental philosophy"). (pp. 23-27)

Faith Magazine