Lucretius: Atheism’s John the Baptist and the Progenitor of a Hell Realm

Below is a great (and very contemporary sounding) atheist quote from Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. Atomism and evolution have always been the poison pills at God’s bedside (or, at least, the religious believer’s).

Have you swallowed their implications yet? As an agnostic, I take a good hard look at them, just sitting there on the intellectual bed stand, all the time. I just don’t see how you ever get to a confident belief in God’s existence with them hanging around.

In any event, here’s Lucretius laying down his atomism rap:

… [atoms are] moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. … There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.

All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms, it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully, endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited, die off quickly. But nothing — from our own species, to the planet on which we live, to the sun that lights our day — lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal …

My two sentence summary of Lucretius’s quote is the following: given enough time, everything’s possible (even inevitable). No gods need apply.

I found the above quote, by the way, at the National Public Radio (NPR) website. It sounds a bit doctored—did Lucretius really anticipate Darwin quite so explicitly?—but here’s the link to it (as well as Robert Krulwich’s great interview with Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt on Lucretius’s atheism).

Lucretius’s quote opens up a great deal of nightmarish desolation in me. I wonder if anybody else has a similar response. It puts me in mind of something Jorge Luis Borge wrote in his essay, “The Total Library.” (The idea behind the Total Library is that every possible book has already been generated at random, and it’s an obvious metaphor for atomism’s infinity of material configurations.) Here’s Borge:

One of the habits of the mind is the invention of horrible imaginings. The mind has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, abnormal transformite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratalogical Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, articulated into a single organism. . . . I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wilderness of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.

And Borges turned the idea of the Total Library into an unforgettable Kafkaesque short story, “The Library of Babel” (1941), the first sentence of which is the following:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.

The Total Library is atheism’s Hell; a version of Nietzsche’s eternal return; the place where the Holocaust plays itself out again and again with just a very minute difference each time. It is the crypt of God and the death of justice. On atheism, the problems of suffering and injustice never reach resolution, but only multiply. These things are eternal, as torture in the monotheist’s hell is eternal.

So, in making God doubtful, Lucretius and Borges must surely make for unpleasant dreams in any theist with an intellectual pulse. But, in making suffering and injustice eternally recurrent—and devoid of any point whatsoever—they must also make for equally unpleasant dreams in the alert atheist.

The sleep of reason produces monsters. But an awake reason has the power to do this as well.

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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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