God and the Atom
From Democritus to HiggsPrometheus Books 2013
Two millennia and five centuries ago, the Greek philosophers Leucippus
and Democritus proposed a simple model of reality: all that exists are
material atoms and the void. Atoms were defined as elementary objects
that cannot be further subdivided. The universe composed of atoms and
void is infinite in extent and eternal in time. Events happen by
chance, with no ultimate purpose. Any gods that may exist play no role
in the world or in human life.
Atomism contradicted the predominant philosophical teachings of the
age, notably those of Aristotle. However, it became the basis of the
philosophical school established by his contemporary Epicurus. Later,
around the time of Julius Caesar, the Roman Lucretius composed an epic poem De
Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in Latin that immortalized the
teachings of Epicurus and the atomists who preceded him. The atomic
model contributed to the significant scientific progress that occurred
in Greece and Rome during those centuries.
However, most of this progress, along with atheistic atomism, was
suppressed when Christianity took over the Roman Empire in the fourth
century CE, initiating the thousand-year period known as the Dark Ages.
Only by sheer luck did a copy of De Rerum Natura survive. When it was
discovered during the Renaissance, it helped encourage the scientific
revolution that followed. The atomic picture of particles moving around
and colliding with one another became the essence of Newtonian
In the nineteenth century, atoms were identified with the chemical
elements. In the early twentieth century, these “chemical atoms” were
separated into more fundamental constituents. By the 1970s, these
constituents were reduced further to the quarks, leptons, and bosons of
the standard model of elementary particles and forces. The ultimate
triumph of atomism, and the standard model, came in July, 2012 when it
was announced that the Higgs boson, a particle predicted forty-eight
years earlier as the origin of the masses of elementary particles, had
been confirmed by two independent experiments involving thousands of
The nature of matter was not the only insight of the first atomists
that has found support in modern science. The non-reality of secondary
qualities is confirmed by physics. Quantum mechanics and Darwinian
evolution before it have established the central role of chance in the
world. Modern cosmology strongly indicates an eternal “multiverse” in
which our universe just one of perhaps and unlimited number of others.
In none of this do we find any need to introduce immaterial elements
into our models to describe observations. The atheism of ancient
atomism is confirmed by the science of today.
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