Secularists sometimes say that it’s time to give up on a faith-based belief in Christ left over from the ancient Mediterranean world. They don’t acknowledge, though, that in the early A.D. years two major faith-based beliefs with staying power were in conflict, along with a host of minor ones.
The big two from that era still duke it out in modern America: Christianity, of course, but also evolutionary materialism. Even though Darwin didn’t give the latter a scientific cover until the 19th century, Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) saw the world and all life as part of a self-creating cosmos, with life just happening, and growth coming.
Epicureans had psychological advantages and disadvantages. Their good news: We humans, despite the lessons of history, could believe in our own magnificence. We rule, and God doesn’t. Their bad news: When we’re dead, we’re dead. Life is essentially meaningless. We have no “big story” (see Justin Buzzard’s “The Big Story” from WORLD’s July 13 issue).
Epicurean atheism was faith-based, for we have no way to know that God does not exist. Its Christian challenger was faith-based as well, but also fact-based, since the apostle Paul based his argument on the direct observation of multiple witnesses. He wrote to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.?…?But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Paul offered reasonable hope. Over time the idea that everything had come into being without the creative work of a higher power seemed increasingly unreasonable. No one had a convincing explanation of how that could have happened until 19th century scientists with Epicurean leanings observed small changes within species and theorized that big changes, given enough time, would alter species.
Mission accomplished: Ancient faith-based Epicureanism, now with blurbs from scientists, came out in a new edition. Then, beginning 99 years ago, World War I gave European civilization (with its Christian elements but huge amounts of sin mixed in) a hit from which it never recovered. World War I salted European soil with so much blood that Christian optimism withered.
Darwinism seemed like a life preserver. Literary leaders like George Bernard Shaw argued that “the world without the conception of evolution would be a world wherein men of strong mind could only despair.” The New York Times editorialized in 1925 that modern man needs “faith, even of a grain of mustard seed, in the evolution of life.”