I’ve heard arguments over atheism all of my life. People forget that while the South may be the Bible Belt, it has more atheists per square mile than any other part of the USA, including America’s Scandinavia up there in the Pacific Northwest with the lowest rates of church membership and attendance. The atheists down South can be just as hard-shell as the fundamentalists who alienated them in the first place. In their own way, they believe in a “turn or burn” scorched earth approach to religious pluralism that is little different from their fundamentalist antagonists. Dallas in the 1960s and 70s may have famously produced the Reverend WA Criswell of the First Baptist Church, but it also had very publicly atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Their gladiatorial combats were staples of local teevee and radio for years. Here’s a sample of Ms. O’Hair from 1968, from a radio show in Austin.
The religious always point out that God is invisible and unknowable, that our belief in Him is a matter of faith and not evidence. And yet we are shocked when some people come to the very reasonable conclusion that there’s no one there. Atheists are, in turn, taken aback at the shock and feel themselves alienated in a culture that may no longer be quite so religious, but whose cultural reference points are still very religious. Conflict inevitably begins, and with conflict comes the hardening of positions as both sides circle the wagons and break out their rifles. Each assumes the other to be a united and entirely hostile monolith. We know, dear readers, that religion is hardly monolithic, but how about atheism? I don’t mean secularism, but atheism, the conviction that God is not there. Could there really be history, an evolution, variety, and even conflict there too?
Just as religion evolved into a wide and frequently conflicting variety, so did atheism. It was never a single monolithic entity, no more so than religion. It was never the same thing down through time, and surprisingly, it was not always in conflict with religion.
In my amateur research on the fly (keep in mind that I’ve never darkened the door of a seminary or a philosophy department), the earliest form of atheism I could find was in ancient India in the 6th century BC. The Charavaka school of thought was probably the earliest articulation of atheism, and in its surviving writings, there is much that a modern atheist would find familiar:
There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world,
Nor do the actions of the four castes, order, &c, produce any real effect,
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes —
Brihaspati says, these are but means of livelihood for those who have no manliness nor sense.
If he who departs from the body goes to another world,
how is it that he come not back again, restless for love of his kindred?
Hence it is only as a means of livelihood that Brahmans have established here
all these ceremonies for the dead, — there is no other fruit anywhere.
The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.
All the well-known formulae of the pandits, jarphari, turphari, etc.
and all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in Aswamedha,
these were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests,
while the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.
--Quotations from surviving Charavaka fragments.
The Charavaka was an extreme reaction against the excessive ritualism and doctrinalism of the ancient Vedic religion of India. It was especially a protest against the caste system. As you can see for yourself, the surviving writings of the Charavaka School have a sharp anti-clericalism and skepticism familiar to modern readers.
And yet, this very ancient atheism took on a lot of trappings that could be called religious. It had its own sutras. Far from fear and revulsion, thoughtful religious people of that time and place were deeply affected by Charavaka, and took its protest very seriously. Later Hindu thinkers saw it as a necessary and healthy corrective to religious excesses. There is evidence of influence from Charavaka on early Buddhism and Jainism.
Probably the earliest articulation of something like atheism in the West was in the writings of Epicurus. He would be very surprised to see himself described as such. Epicurus makes references to the gods in his writings frequently, and he participated in all of the customary public religious rites of his day.
And yet, Epicurus’ conception of the gods is very different from the temperamental beings of ancient sacrificial religion. He describes the gods as immortal and blessed, as almost abstract symbolic beings preoccupied with the creation and ordering of the cosmos. They are completely indifferent to human affairs. Epicurus denied the existence of anything like the soul or any kind of an afterlife (not quite so exceptional a point of view in the ancient world as we would imagine; lots of cultures with lots of gods had no belief in an afterlife, such as the earliest Greeks; the Egyptian preoccupation with the afterlife was exceptional). Something that would be very familiar to modern readers, Epicurus expanded on Democritus’ theory of atoms that the world and everything in it were made out of the random collisions of tiny particles. Epicurus rejected Democritus’ determinism and insistence that atoms always travel in straight lines. Epicurus said that the movements of atoms were random and unpredictable in an uncanny anticipation of quantum mechanics. Epicurus insisted that everything had a mechanistic explanation.
Epicurus would never have heard of the word “atheism.” That word is based on a theoi, “without gods,” a term coined by later educated Philhellene Romans to describe those ultimate blasphemers against all things sacred, those unspeakable desecrators of the family, the gods, and the Patria, who trampled on all things good and holy, the Early Christians. The Romans saw the Early Christians as far from being today’s ferocious guardians of conventional morality and established order. They saw the early Christians as dangerous incendiaries, as nihilists ready to desecrate temples, storm Olympus, and throw out the gods themselves, turning the world upside down in the process. Today’s Christian hierarchies are much closer in spirit to the priests and augurs of ancient Rome defending all that is established and sacred.
Modernity clearly did not invent atheism, though atheism is usually thought to be exclusively modern.
Is all modern atheism the same? Is the atheism of Karl Marx the same as that of Friedrich Nietzche? Is the atheism of Lenin the same as that of Sartre or Genet? Is their atheism identical to that of Richard Dawkins or Ayn Rand or Madalyn Murray O’Hair?
That very insightful running commentary on contemporary ethical dilemmas, South Park, ran an episode imagining a post-religious future completely dominated by atheism. However, atheism was divided into three warring schools of doctrine, each insisting that it was the true atheism and that all the others were imposters. South Park, I think accurately, suggests that religious warfare would survive the end of religion. What the show’s writers accurately suggest is that these conflicts are not driven by anything intrinsic to either religion or atheism, but by people’s addictive demand for certainty in a world that promises none. People don’t like ambiguity, nuance, paradox, or complexity. Especially in times of strife and hardship, people want clear and easy answers, and if none are forthcoming, then they make up their own. As Jacob Bronowski once dramatically pointed out, when people demand certainty, when people require absolute knowledge, and aspire to the knowledge of gods, then they can turn “a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.”
In the conflict with religion, atheism wins all of the arguments. It has far and away the superior advantage in arguments over whether or not God exists. On the other hand, a wide variety of religious thinkers from Lao Tse to Saint Augustine insist that any God whose existence can be proven and demonstrated is no God at all. The classical arguments for God’s existence were all written to be demolished as so many religious thinkers demonstrated.
My current favorite argument against religious belief, one that is particularly effective against Christianity, is from psychology, the cognitive dissonance argument. Cognitive dissonance is when people carry two contradictory ideas together, and they clash. Dissonance occurs when a belief is proven to be wrong, for example, a prophecy of the end of the world fails to come to pass. Many will address the dissonance by abandoning that failed prophecy. Others, unexpectedly, will cling all the more fervently to the prophecy and the prophet, rationalizing away the disconnect between fact and belief. You could argue that Christianity was the creation of such a cognitive dissonance. Jesus’ followers did not see the Kingdom of Heaven arrive. Instead, they saw their young prophet arrested, condemned for blasphemy, and executed for sedition. By all measures, the movement failed catastrophically. So then, his surviving followers, clinging to their faith in the face of all evidence to the contrary, came up with the whole business of the resurrection, and the idea that his death was necessary for the fulfillment of his mission.
That’s a very reasonable and compelling argument for skepticism. So good, that I don’t have an answer for it.
No one, however, is argued into belief or disbelief. People don’t arrive at decisions at the ends of strings of syllogisms. Even when we change our minds, we arrive at our convictions after a lifetime of experience and reflection.
Genuine atheists see the absence of God and the transcendent as liberation. I doubt that I could see that absence as anything other than a loss. Atheists are happy to be atheists. I wish evangelizing Christians would drop the presupposition that atheists are unhappy or immoral. I know atheists who live out Christian morality far more conscientiously and successfully than most Christians. Christianity does not have any copyright on morals and ethics (thank God). Curiously, both secularists and religious mystics come to similar conclusions about morality and the divine. Morals and ethics ultimately are for mortals who need them. They belong to the world, not to heaven; “Why do you call me good?” asked Jesus in the Gospels.
So many times, I listen to atheists (especially new ones) talk about what they don’t believe in, and it turns out that I don’t believe in a lot of those things either. I don’t believe in any homicidal father figure in the sky cherishing an ancient grudge for some small slight generations ago, requiring a sacrifice of blood to be appeased, preferably that of his own son. I agree that we make our gods (and God) in our own image. That doesn’t necessarily mean that He’s not there. I don’t believe in a world run by magic and hocus pocus. A loving God would not create a world in which anything can happen and without consequences. I’ve never believed in God as some great puppeteer pulling the string of everything that ever happens. God is not a controlling tyrant or a micro-manager. The world and all that lives in it lives and acts on their own for their own sakes. I don’t believe in ghosts. Why would the dead be interested in visiting the living? They don’t need or care about time anymore. They don’t even have to wait for us. I don’t believe in the idea of God as some great moral auditor adding up our ethical credits and debits. God is not a forensic accountant or an exam proctor. God does not run any extortion business demanding that we believe in this or that or accidents will happen. I don’t believe in any eternal underground prison and torture chamber called hell. If there is anything like hell, then we make it for ourselves, and we can always leave it if we really want to.
I notice in my discussions with atheists that they try to demonstrate that I don’t need God, that there are plenty of things out there that can take His place. The marvels and workings of nature and its great aesthetic experiences should be enough, I’m told. I love nature and marvel at its wonders as much as anyone. But the enjoyment of flowers, birds, mountains, and stars is the pleasure of being alive. I don’t think experiencing nature needs any more meaning than that. I resist religious attempts to use nature and its marvels as “proof” that God exists. Nature proves no such thing. The only things that the complexity of the brain and the mathematical structures in nature prove is that our minds prefer order to chaos, and value complexity over simplicity. I don’t believe that God is necessarily there in “mountain-top experiences.” What’s there on the mountaintop is a great view and the pleasure of climbing it. I notice in the Gospel stories that there is only one that could be called a “mountain-top” experience in the sense that we usually mean, the Transfiguration. The rest of the Gospel narratives are so very un-aesthetic. The writers seem to go out of their way to downplay the usual spectacular theophanies and apotheoses that accompany divine visits and miracles in so much ancient literature. If God is anywhere in the Gospels, it’s not on mountaintops, but by the side of the road, in a village lane, or amid an urban crowd. Even the miracles have a remarkably prosaic and quotidian quality. Jesus spits in the dust and rubs it in the eyes of the blind to restore their sight. Lazarus comes back from the dead not in a big sound and light show, but with the stench of a few days in the grave. God in the Gospels is as ordinary and necessary as bread and water.
I don’t see religion as an “alternative explanation” to science. I don’t think the point of religion is to explain anything. Philosophers hate religion for good reason. It is so messy. Yes, religion is a human creation out of the tangled mess of human need. Religion is as flawed, conflicted, confused, and messy as the people who make it, and that’s what makes it so marvelous and so awful. But the Object of religion is above and beyond all religion. Religion is about trying to talk to whatever may, or may not, be there on the other side of death. It’s about looking across that barrier between being and nothingness and trying to see what’s there in between making the difference. Religion assumes that whatever’s there is as alive and self-conscious as we are, and that somehow we can talk to it, that it’s not an abstraction, but a being, a person. Real or not, religion is that conversation between us and whatever it is.
I understand the reluctance of people in this day and age to find any credibility in Christianity. Aside from the churches crapping all over themselves regularly, Christianity asks a lot from people. It asks people not only to believe in a personal God whose existence is hardly demonstrable, but that same God became a man and walked and talked among us, that he died and rose from the dead, and somehow in some fashion still lives. Christianity asks people living in an age dominated by science and technology to believe that God can beget a child with a mortal woman, that a virgin can give birth, and that the dead can live again. That's a lot to ask, especially now. I don’t think most evangelically minded Christians appreciate how difficult it is for people to believe such a proclamation, or even to take it seriously.
Islam has the great advantage over Christianity in the simplicity and clarity of its creed. Buddhism appeals to contemporary people because of its pragmatism and indifference to the supernatural.
If Christianity has any advantage at all, if it can get out from behind that ugly wall of right wing supremacist ideology trying to hijack it for political advantage and turn it into a tribal identity, then it has generosity and equality. Salvation is a free gift for everyone, not something earned by moral or spiritual athletes, or reserved for the white and well off, but a gift from God for everyone no matter what type or condition. The message of Christianity is not that rich white straight men rule, but that God is with us, and for us, all of us, in true solidarity with each and every one of us forever no matter what.
The Hindu sages from the time of the Upanishads were right. Atheists do the religious a service (and sometimes vice versa). Nietzche’s greatest influence was on Christian theology. He raised questions that had to be answered and made criticisms that forced religiously minded people to take a good hard look at assumptions they long took for granted. The Danish pastor Soren Kierkegaard all of his life thought of himself as a sincere believing Christian, and yet his radical criticism of systematic doctrinal theology would have a profound influence on some schools of atheism in the 20th century.
Francisco de Goya, plate from The Disasters of War showing a long dead corpse writing the word "Nada" (Nothing) on a tablet. This was once interpreted as a confession of Goya's atheism, but its meaning is not so clear or so simple. The darkness surrounding the corpse is hardly empty, but full of shrieking babbling faces. Perhaps Goya suggests in this powerful and mysterious image that the realms of death beyond the range of our mortal vision are too terrible and mysterious for either the easy comforts of conventional religion, or for the generalizations of a facile secularism.