Lessius and the Fear Theory of Atheism

The ‘fear theory’ of the origin of religion is sometimes traced back to Democritus and Lucretius; it may be found too, in David Hume‘s Natural History of Religion. In its most general form, mankind conjured up God and the gods when made aware of its fragility in the face of nature’s capriciousness and power, its inevitable, painful and slow death. The seventeenth century Catholic theologian Leynard (Lenaert) Leys (latinized: Leonardus Lessius) who enjoyed a long, productive and influential career at the University of Leuven, although perhaps most famous for his 1605 treatise De justitia et jure (On Justice and Law) ‘that went through more than twenty editions in the 17th century alone’ provided an ingenious response–of sorts–to it. It does not amount to–and certainly does not intend to be–a refutation of the fear theory; it presupposes the existence of God, so it does not form part of the dialectic dedicated to the task of establishing such claims. Instead, it applies a converse version of the fear theory to atheism and thus seeks to ground its proponents’ claims in their own particular psychological pathology.

In his De Providentia Numinis et Animi Immortalitate, Libri Duo Adversus Atheos et Politicos (On the Providence of the Deity, and the Immortality of the Soul, Against Atheists and Politicians), which contained some arguments from design–fifteen in all–for the existence of God, and was translated in 1631 into English as Rawleigh: His Ghost, Lessius explains atheism thus: Man seeks to deny religious belief because secretly he accepts its teachings and fears the terrible penalties that will accrue to him on Judgment Day because of his sinful, dissolute life. Afflicted by this agonizing fear, unable to reconcile himself to its terrifying finality and perhaps unable to change his sinning ways, he conjures up atheism and its associated doctrines, notions which deny the existence of God. This lack of belief in a Supreme Being then, relieves him from his fear by getting rid of the cause of that fear.

(The targets of Lessius’ polemic are not particularly notorious. He relied on lists made by Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, and Claudius Aelianus and identified, among others, the following:  Diagoras of Melos and Protagoras; Theodore of Cyrene and Bion of Borysthenes; Lucian; and besides Democritus and Lucretius, Epicurus.)

Lessius’ theory–while certainly a clever bit of work–is false. It is so largely because: a) arguments against the existence of God are quite as successful as they are–via their refutation of positive arguments for that claim–and show belief in the existence of a Supreme Being to be lacking any rational foundation; and b) in sharp contradistinction to the prima facie plausibility granted to the fear theory of theism by the oft-expressed fears of the unknown by the faithful, it relies on ascribing a wholesale ‘false consciousness’ to atheists.

Sources:

1. Michael J. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism, Yale University Press, 2004, pp 30-33.

2. S. N. Balagangadhara, The Heathen in his Blindness: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion, Manohar Books, 2013, pp. 159.

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