Atoms and Atheism - the changing ways that Christians have viewed the nature of matter


The Nature of Matter

Today's chemists continue the ancient task of working to understand the nature and properties of matter and the use of this knowledge to transform the raw materials of nature into useful products.1   Theoretical chemistry finds roots in the atomic ideas of the Greek philosophers Leucippus , (ca. 435 B.C.) and his student Democritus (ca. 410 B.C.). Atomism wasDemocritus stamp further developed in the next generation by Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) and  just prior to the Christian era by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (ca. 99-55 BC) Synthetic chemistry began in pre-historical times with the discovery of fire and the later more systematic work of the alchemists of Babylon, Persia, and Egypt.

Democritus Greek postage stamp    

Early Greek atomists postulated that all matter consists of invisible and indivisible atoms whose differing combinations give the properties of the visible world - from sand and glaciers to living beings. These atoms were said to exist in perpetual motion in empty space (the void) undergoing random collisions to provide new objects which would further collide to form different materials etc. The universe was made up of atoms and space alone - the gods, souls, and all spiritual beings were also created by these chance encounters of eternal atoms.  The details of this description are obscure and vary in ways that appear inconsistent today. We are not sure whether Democritus meant that it was physically or logically (conceptually) impossible to divide an atom.  While it was impossible to see atoms themselves in action, effects as the effect of water leaving clothes hanging in the sun made sense in terms of atomic theory. For some atomists, the soul or life of an animal was a special, very small, fast moving group of atoms that operate within a living being to help it sense and act on its environment. The atoms of the soul also breakup on death to form something different, thus there would be no place for immortality of the soul.

Atomism gave rise to a mechanistic, deterministic system that has become more accepted in modern times than in the early period. Explanations are bottom up, not top down. That is, the movements and behavior of a compound of atoms (e.g., a tree or an animal) are to be understood as the sum of the individual movements of all the atoms comprising the "compound."

Egyptian masters of applied chemistry combined their work with the Greek theory.  Their chemical knowledge was linked with embalming the dead and religious ritual. Their ibis-headed god of wisdom, Troth, was seen as the source of all chemical knowledge.  Greeks, impressed with the knowledge of the Egyptians identified Thoth with their own Hermes and accepted much of the mysticism.  As a result the knowledge that had been built up by chemical workers became shrouded in mystery and isolated in mythical form.  Progress was retarded since each alchemist was now isolated from his fellows and could not learn from their successes and failures.  It was also easier for the charlatan to present himself as an expert.  It is instructive that the art of chemistry diminished in Roman times along side the general decay of Greek learning.  After 100 A.D. there was a rising tendency to turn to ever-more. mystical interpretations of the earlier writers.

 Plato (427-347) and Aristotle (384-322) were skeptical of atomism primarily because of the difficulty of understanding how the observed order and regularity of nature could arise from random collisions of matter.  Also, atomism excluded the supernatural.  The latter was clearly found in Epicurus who made the atomic theory into a monist and materialistic description of an eternal reality without reference to divine intervention.  Epicurus describe a view of the 


goal of human life as happiness, resulting from absence of physical pain and mental disturbance.  He enthusiastically taught that the point of all one's actions was to attain pleasure (conceived of as tranquility) for oneself, and that this could be done by limiting one's desires and by banishing the fear of the gods and of death. His gospel of freedom from fear proved to be quite popular, and communities of Epicureans flourished for centuries after his death. The combination of atomism and pleasure seeking did not endear its author to those who were  committed to a life of sacrifice and commitment to the triune God. His most famous student, the Roman Lucretius provided the fullest  and most enduring description of atomism in his lengthy poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things).

Early atomism was largely replaced by the very different philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.  Aristotle offered a complex notion of physical objects which makes little sense to the modern reader. He described the "stuff" of nature along the following lines.