Not Believing Is Not A Belief
In Greek they said atheos and atheotes; to these the English words “ungodly” and “ungodliness” or “without god” correspond rather closely. In the criminal law of Athens there was also the term “asebeia”- literally: “impiety” or “irrespect towards the gods”.
“Asebeia” conveys the idea this ancient Greek law principally had offences against public worship in mind – from the felling of sacred trees to the profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries. When towards the end of the fifth century BCE, “free-thinking” began to assume forms which seemed dangerous to the religion of the Greek State, theoretical denial of the gods was also included under asebeia.
From about 431 BCE to the close of the fourth century BCE, there are on record a number of prosecutions of philosophers who were tried and condemned for “denial of the gods”. The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras was sentenced to death about 450 years before the start of modern era when he claimed that the gods were just mystical abstractions.
The first self-proclaimed atheist was probably Diagoras of Melos, who lived in ancient Athens in the 5th century BCE. Diagoras was a student of Democritus, the atomist philosopher. He denied the existence of the official gods of the Athenian city-state, since the gods did not seem to punish many vicious acts that they were supposed to have condemned. Diagoras was exiled from Athens for his overtly atheistic statements and spent the remainder of his life in Corinth.
In 300 BCE, Theodorus the Atheist of Cyrene denied the existence of the gods. Theodorus argued that the goal of life was to pursue joy and escape grief, rather than seeking to worship any gods or obtaining any kind of afterlife. Later writers, including Cicero and Plutarch, gave Theodorus the name Atheus, whence he became known as Theodorus the Atheist. Theodorus was banished from both Cyrene and Athens.
Epicurus himself, while not an explicit atheist, formed a philosophy of life that atheists would have no problem with. If there were gods, argued Epicurus, they had nothing to do with human affairs and left people to fend for themselves – a point of view resurrected by the Deists of the 18th century.
In Rome they did not possess, as in Athens, a general statute against religious offences; there were only special provisions – this was, however, remedied by the vigorous police authority with which the Roman magistrates were invested. In Rome severe measures were often taken against movements which threatened the Roman official worship, but it was done at the discretion of the administration and not according to specific rules.
There were eventually many clear-cut atheists even in Rome. Statesman, thinker and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero openly admitted his distaste for all religions. He believed in reason instead of superstition – some later writers have alleged that he was willing to believe in some sort of deity and he could perhaps be more accurately described as an agnostic. He is nonetheless widely respected as one of the founding fathers of what became known as Western Humanism.
The epicurean writer and philosopher Lucretius is one of the great atheist thinkers in Rome and his main work “De rerum Natura” was first and foremost an attempt to free human mind from the fear of death and shackles of superstition. Also the great roman philosopher and writer Seneca is widely claimed to have been an atheist. Stoic Seneca wrote much about the need to calmly face the inevitability of one’s death. Also the renowned writer Petronius is widely accepted as an atheist.
The Roman government first came to deal with denial of the gods as a breach of law when confronted with the two monotheistic religions which invaded the Roman Empire from the East. That which distinguished Jews and Christians from the ancient pagans was not that they denied the existence of the pagan gods – the Christians, at any rate, did not do this as a rule – but that they denied that these deities were gods, and therefore refused to worship them.
The tolerance which the Roman government showed towards all foreign creeds and the result of which in imperial times was, practically speaking, freedom of religion over the whole Empire, could not be extended to the Jews and the Christians; for it was in the last resort based on reciprocity, on the fact that worship of the Egyptian or Persian gods did not exclude worship of the Roman ones. Every convert, on the other hand, won over to Judaism or Christianity was an apostate from the Roman religion, an “atheos” according to the ancient conception.
The Christians were generally designated as “atheoi”, as deniers of the gods, and the objection against them was precisely their denial of the pagan gods, not their religion as such. When the Christian, summoned before the Roman magistrates, agreed to sacrifice to the Pagan gods he was acquitted; he was not punished for previously having attended Christian services, and it seems that he was not even required to undertake not to do so in future. Only if he refused to sacrifice, was he punished.
The punishments meted out were different, in that they were left solely to the discretion of the magistrates. But they were generally severe: forced labour in mines and capital punishment were quite common.
Atheism has its roots in both Eastern and Western ancient cultures. While the philosophers of ancient Greece were debating the characteristics of their gods, the Indian Vedas were also questioning the power and origin of the deities of their belief system. These debates, in both cultures, eventually led to questions concerning the actual existence of any gods. These questions did not gain widespread recognition until much later.
After the great Roman thinkers there was a long and dark silence. The Christian Church took over the Roman Empire in the 4th century and after that there simply was no possible way of declaring any kind of religiously nonconformist views for nearly a millennium.
Early Christian thought was what actually set some of the groundwork for later atheist arguments. Christian thinkers debated the characteristics of god and tried to prove, through reason, the existence of god and especially the existence of the Christian idea of god. Anselm of Canterbury, for example, in the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God, argued that god is that which there is nothing greater, and since a real god is greater than an imagined one, then god must exist.
AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT
Atheism as it is known today largely developed in Western culture, and had its first great entrance onto history’s philosophical stage during the Age of Enlightenment – Originating about 1650-1700, it was sparked by philosophers Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, and Pierre Bayle and by mathematician Isaac Newton.
During the Enlightenment, empirical knowledge, reason and the scientific method all had an impact on society. Mankind came to trust only those things that could be tested and studied. Without evidence, a theory was useless. Mankind first applied these processes to science and mathematics. Eventually, people began to use the same processes to posit the question of god’s existence. When this eventually occurred, many people decided that not enough evidence existed to support the idea of the existence of a god or supreme being. These people were the first modern atheists.
Only in the 1700’s was a situation resembling the freedom of thinking in Greece of Antiquity achieved again. French writers la Rochefoucauld, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean Meslier, Englishmen Thomas Otway, Thomas Woolston and David Hume, Americans Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine could at times present openly atheistic ideas and the road leading to the modern atheistic thinking was opened.
Lucien Febvre’s “Le probleme de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle” (1942), and Paul Oskar Kristeller’s ‘The Myth of Renaissance Atheism and the French Tradition of Free-Thought” (1968) employ a narrower (modern) definition of atheism that distinguishes blasphemy, heresy and anticlericalism from direct questioning of god’s existence. They conclude that there is no good evidence for atheism (in this stricter sense) prior to the seventeenth century. According to these historians, accusations of atheism in the sixteenth century and earlier amount to nothing more than an indication that the accuser was in some respect or other hostile to the position of the accused, not that there was any genuine atheism around.
The first atheist texts in Europe are generally referred to as the “clandestine” or clandestine literature, about 200 examples of which survive. These texts were predominantly (although not exclusively) francophone and can be dated from approximately the mid-seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth century. These almost exclusively anonymous manuscripts were circulated mainly in handwritten form and consequently escaped censorship. Most of the main atheist arguments of the French radical Enlightenment are anticipated in the clandestina.
PHILOSOPHY OR RELIGION?
There is a common perception that there must be “something more” to (hard) atheism than simply disbelief in gods because of the fact that these atheists are so often engaged in debates with theists. After all, what is the point of debating if not to convert someone to some other philosophy or religion? It is, then, legitimate to ask why atheists get involved in such debates and what they hope to achieve. Does this indicate that atheism is some sort of philosophy or even a religion?
The broader, and more common, understanding of atheism among hard atheists is quite simply “not believing in any gods”. No claims or denials are made – an atheist is just a person who does not happen to be a theist.
According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive belief rather than mere suspension of disbelief.”
So, although there is a strong correlation between being an atheist and being irreligious, atheists claim that there is not necessary and inherent connection between the two. Atheism is not the same as being irreligious; theism is not the same as being religious.
Also, according to many atheists, atheism is not necessarily the absence of religion, the absence of belief in the supernatural, the absence of superstitions, the absence of irrational beliefs, etc, and because of this, there is no inherent barrier preventing atheism from being part of a belief system.
There also exists a narrower sort of atheism, sometimes called ”hard”, “strong” or “explicit” atheism. With “explicit” atheism, the atheist explicitly denies the existence of any gods – making a strong claim which will deserve support at some point. Some atheists do this and others may do this with regards to certain specific gods but not with others. Thus, a person may lack belief in one god, but deny the existence of another god. Many others who identify as atheists still “believe” in “other” energies, spirits, etc. I find it difficult to identify this construct with atheism, it reminds me more of agnotism, pantheism, animism, etc.
It is true that religion is a difficult concept to define. Various definitions have been proposed, many emphasize a belief in the “supernatural”. But such definitions often fail to deal with religions which worship non-supernatural things in their own right (for example Jainism, which holds that every living thing is sacred because it is alive); and they also fail to include religions such as Confucianism and Taoism which focus almost exclusively on how adherents should live, and the little they do say about supernatural issues such as the existence of an afterlife is very vague.
In “What is Religion? Defining the Characteristics of Religion”, Austin Cline writes that religions tend to share certain characteristics – these include narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material. Not every religion has every dimension, nor are they all equally important within an individual religion.
These Characteristics are (Italics mine):
· Belief in Supernatural Beings:
Perhaps the most common and fundamental characteristic of religion is a belief in supernatural beings – usually, but not always, including gods. Few religions lack this characteristic and most religions are founded upon it. Atheism is the absence of belief in gods and thus excludes belief in gods, but it does not exclude belief in other supernatural beings.
· Sacred versus Profane Objects, Places, Times:
Differentiating between sacred and profane objects, places, and times helps religious believers focus on transcendental values and/or the existence of a supernatural realm. Atheism excludes believing in things that are “sacred” for the purpose of worshiping gods, but otherwise has nothing to say on the matter – neither promoting nor rejecting the distinction.
· Ritual Acts Focused on Sacred Objects, Places, Times:
If people believe in something sacred, they probably have associated rituals. As with the very existence of a category of “sacred” things, however, there is nothing about atheism which either mandates such a belief or necessarily excludes it – it is simply an irrelevant issue. An atheist who holds something as “sacred” may engage in some sort of associated ritual or ceremony, but there is no such thing as an “atheist ritual” – which would be an oxymoron.
· Moral Code With Supernatural Origins:
Most religions preach some sort of moral code which is typically based upon its transcendental and supernatural beliefs. Thus, for example, theistic religions typically claim that morality is derived from the commands of their gods. Atheists have moral codes, but they do not believe that those codes are derived from any gods and it would be unusual for them to believe that their morals have a supernatural origin. More importantly, atheism doesn’t teach any particular moral code. But then again neither does many forms of contemporary Paganism.
· Characteristically Religious Feelings:
Perhaps the vaguest characteristic of religion is the experience of “religious feelings” like awe, a sense of mystery, adoration, etc. Atheists may experience some of these feelings, such as awe at the universe itself, but they are neither promoted nor discouraged by atheism itself.
· Prayer and other Forms of Communication:
Belief in supernatural beings like gods does not get you very far if you can not communicate with them, so religions which include such beliefs naturally also teach how to talk to them – usually with some form of prayer or other ritual. Atheists do not believe in gods so obviously do not try to communicate with any; an atheist who believes in some other type of supernatural being might try to communicate with it, but such communication is completely incidental to atheism itself. But here too this holds true for certain forms of contemporary Paganism.
· A Worldview & Organisation of One’s Life Based on the Worldview:
Religions are never just a collection of isolated and unrelated beliefs; instead, they constitute entire worldviews based upon these beliefs and around which people organise their lives. Atheists naturally have worldviews, but atheism itself is not a worldview and does not promote any one worldview. Atheism is not a philosophy or ideology, but it can be part of a philosophy, ideology or worldview. In Paganism, there are probably as many worldviews as there are Pagans.
· A Social Group Bound Together by the Above:
A few religious people follow their religion in isolated ways, but usually religions involve complex social organisations of believers who join each other for worship, rituals, prayer, etc. Many atheists belong to a variety of groups, but relatively few atheists belong to specifically atheistic groups. When they do belong to atheist groups, though, those groups are not bound together by any of the above. However, contemporary Paganism tends also to lack complex social organisations of believers.
Some of these characteristics are more important than others, but none is so important that it alone can make a religion. If atheism lacked a few of these characteristics, then it would qualify as a religion . If lacked five or six, then it might qualify as metaphorically religious, in the sense of how people follow rugby or cricket religiously. However, atheism seems to lack every one of these characteristics of religion. At most, atheism does not explicitly exclude most of them, but the same can be said for almost anything. Thus, atheism is not a religion. They are completely different categories: atheism is the absence of one particular belief while religion is a complex web of traditions and beliefs. They are not even remotely comparable.
Atheism (in its explicit sense) is neither a belief or a religion but alack of belief and lack of religion. The prefix “a” before the word “theist” denotes the absence of something.
So why do some people claim that atheism is some kind of religion? Usually this occurs in the process of criticising atheism and/or atheists. It may at times be politically motivated because if atheism is a religion, they think they can force the state to stop “promoting” atheism by eliminating endorsements of Christianity. Sometimes the assumption is that if atheism is simply another “faith,” then atheists’ critiques of religious beliefs are hypocritical and can be ignored.
Since the claim that atheism is a religion is based upon a misunderstanding of one or both concepts, it must proceed from flawed premises. This is not just a problem for atheists; given the importance of religion in society, misrepresenting atheism as a religion can undermine people’s ability to understand religion itself. How can we sensibly discuss matters such as the separation of religion and state, or the history of religious violence if we do not adequately define what religion is?
Atheism is a community of like-thinking people, true, but this does in no way make it a religion – if being a community of like-think people was all that was necessary to denote religion or spirituality, then a group of physicists getting together to discuss quantum physics would also be a religious or spiritual gathering – in fact I would find it easier to accept this due to vague but nonetheless possible links between quantum theories and certain spiritual concepts.
Implicit atheism is a “state of disbelief” and has nothing to do with faith or spirituality – not believing is not a belief.
THE “NEW” ATHEISTS
The current atheist debates the so-called “New Atheists” generally deny that there are good reasons to believe in the sort of personal god believed in by members of the Abrahamic religions. This is because they perceive the great Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – as the greatest threat to the integrity of science and the rule of secular law. However, they also reject deism – the belief in a god that is not based on revelation but on evidence from nature and does not intervene in the world – polytheism (belief in many gods) and pantheism (belief that god is identical with nature). The last is not seen as atheism, as it is seeing the natural world in a spiritual way – probably very true for modern pantheists, though by no means universal amongst earlier pantheists, many of whom were more accurately panentheists, seeing the world as within god.
New Atheism refers to a 21st century movement in atheism. The term, which first appeared in the November 2006 edition of Wired magazine, is applied to a series of six best-selling books by five authors that appeared in the period 2004–. These authors are Sam Harris, Daniel C Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor J Stenger and Christopher Hitchens.
They and other supporters of the New Atheism movement are hard-line critics of religion. They state that atheism, backed by recent scientific advancement, has reached the point where it is time to take a far less accommodating attitude toward religion, superstition and religious fanaticism than had been extended by some atheists and secularists. New Atheists share a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticised and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.
BURDEN OF PROOF
Atheists say that in the absence of evidence for the existence of the Divine, one is justified in presuming Divinity does not exist. Rather than providing positive justification for atheism, the atheist resorts to the supposed lack of justification for theism as proof that atheism is true. This leaves only the theist with the burden of proof to establish the existence of the Divine – with this argument, if the theist cannot prove that Divinity exists, atheism is thus rationally justified by default.
This is known as argument from ignorance or “appeal to ignorance” – it asserts that a proposition is true because it has not been proven false (or vice versa). This represents a type of false dichotomy in that it excludes a third obvious option, which is that there is insufficient investigation and therefore insufficient information to satisfactorily prove the proposition to be either true or false.
Avowed atheists tend also to disbelieve in supernatural entities of any kind (spirits, disembodied souls, etc) and also in supernatural interventions of any kind in the course of nature or events inexplicable in terms of the best orthodox scientific understanding of the universe (such as “parapsychological occurrences”).
Some would say that one must differentiate between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice).
The term orthopraxy means “right practice’, and stands as a contrast term for orthodoxy “right belief”. It is often said of Asian traditions generally that – in contrast to most Western traditions – right practice is of more importance that right belief, and to a certain extent this is true. For instance, Confucianism is primarily concerned with the rituals and practices that constitute a properly ordered society, while Buddhism is ultimately concerned with the practices that bring about enlightenment. This emphasis should not be overstated, however, as particular beliefs often undergird the practices of Asian traditions (as in Confucian beliefs about the nature of cosmic order) and the practices themselves sometimes vary so widely as to call into question the very notion of right practice (as in Buddhism).
When it comes to Pagan Atheism, there seem to be two versions. One is “behaving as though the gods exist even though you don’t believe in them”. This is probably intellectually dishonest, and often looks like cultural appropriation (used here as: taking something out of its original context and then using it in a different way than was originally intended). There are sometimes also agnostic Pagans who are not sure if the gods exist, but find their life works better if they behave as though they do. I do not have a problem with that. It is worth remembering that Parmenides implied that something exists if we can conceive of it (in other words, it exists as an idea at the very least).
The other form of atheist Paganism is not believing in the gods and therefore not including them in rituals – however, this does not really describe atheism, as certain forms of contemporary Paganism follow this “recipe” – an accepted contemporary Pagan view is the concept of the deity within us (“Thou art God/dess”), and the recognition of the transcendence of Nature.
That there are “Pagan Atheists” highlights yet another stumbling block for contemporary Paganism to actually mean anything which people or groups who identify as Pagans can agree on. If there are no clearly defined beliefs at all which are held in common among contemporary Pagans, the word itself becomes far less useful as a word which people can use to describe a community. We often speak of the “Pagan community”, but considering that there is no common meaning to what qualifies or makes someone a “Pagan” (using “Pagan” as contemporary Pagans use, as opposed to more classic definitions), how much can one speak of “Pagans” or “the Pagan community” and have that identify an actual group of people, when “Pagan” essentially means whatever one wants it to?
Individuals who believe that “goddess” and “god” are metaphors for describing qualities we perceived in nature” would be better described as pantheists and not atheists. There are many points in common between contemporary Paganism and pantheism. Many Pagans say they are pantheists. They too revere Nature and the Universe and regard them as in some sense unified wholes. Many other Pagans are straight pantheists, using polytheism as a metaphoric way of expressing their reverence for the Universe and Nature. Some people feel the need for symbols and personages to mediate their relationship with nature and the cosmos.
Pantheism basically celebrates the “numinosity” of the whole of the universe and nature. This whole possesses the power, the creativity, the awe and mystery that we need for a focus of our spirituality. However, the whole exists through and in its parts. Every natural thing from the sun to a grain of sand, from a giant sequoia to a bacterium, is a part of the whole. Every natural thing has a numinous quality of being a distinctive organisation of matter with its own unique character and dignity.
The pantheist attitude to all individual natural phenomena is one of appreciation of beauty, quiet and respectful observation, love and care. Since it is impossible for us to perceive or grasp the whole universe at once, we can revere it in and through its constituent parts. There is thus respect and reverence for the Sacred.
When it comes to the term Pagan Atheist I personally take issue with combining the term “atheism” with any other term that connotes belief/spirituality, as it is an oxymoron at best. If you are an atheist, be an atheist.
While Divinity manifests itself in a number of ways, (monotheism, duotheism, polytheism, etc) it is rather grasping at straws to find a Pagan path without some form of deity, or at least some form of recognition for the Sacred. Nature and its reverence tend to be manifest in some form of Sacredness, and even people who do not view the gods as external, often internalise them. Non-Wiccan Witches, ceremonial magicians, who are often associated with Pagans, often have some external force they work with/ manipulate, some may view them as deity, others as spirits, natural energies, etc, and as such these people are not atheists.
True, there is no copyright on defining Paganism. Anyone can define it anyway they wish and most people do just that. But although contemporary Paganism is indeed a rather wide open group, we do have a responsibility to ensure that it does not become some formless blob of associated and disassociated beliefs and disbeliefs, incorporating anything and everything, to the point where any form of recognisable consistency becomes impossible.
– Atheism In Pagan Antiquity by A. B. Drachmann Professor of Classical Philology in the University of Copenhagen