A history of atheism

As we know, atheism is the rejection of Gods, and deities, and despite the term only really being in circulation for around 500 years, there have always been people, cultures and religions that don’t accept the idea of deities. Atheism is derived from the etymological Greek root word (atheos – ‪ἄθεος‬), which in its literal sense means ‘without gods’. In ancient times atheists had to move in clandestine circles, as many societies punished atheists by imprisonments, or even death. Early feminists who fought for suffrage were openly atheist as they believed that religion held back the rights of women, liberty and essential basic human rights like anti-slavery. Religion has always seen atheism as a threat, and none more so than Christians who are of the belief that a world without God is a world of corruption and sin, and without Christian values to guide you, then you’re morally bankrupt. Yet many atheists have become humanists as they’ve studied its philosophy and realised that it’s about the greater good, for everyone, not just non-believers. Humanism is about freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion, in its support of secularism. No one knows the true number of atheists in this world as unfortunately it has a stigma attached to it, and many people, in many cultures are simply too afraid to announce their atheism for risks of losing their family, their job, their friends and the respect of people they care about.

Theists will vehemently argue that man was created to believe in gods. That’s their purpose in life, and the majority are stubborn in their convictions, yet for several millennia academics have debated whether gods can exist, and whether they can provide morality and an ethical life. Archaic Greece was a notorious place for the birth of the freethinker even though they lived in a polytheistic society. Philosophy was an important part of their culture and the basis of philosophy is to question everything, so of course religion was heavily debated. Many people, including educated scholars are adamant that atheism is a modern idea that came about in the European Enlightenment, but this is simply not true. With the birth of modern science, and academics beginning to understand the world around them, atheism, at least for a while, grew rapidly as people rejected the idea that religion was a natural state of the human mind.

ANCIENT GREECE

“Men create gods after their own image, not only with regard to their form but with regard to their mode of life.“- Aristotle

One of the most outspoken sceptics in BCE Greece was ‘Carneades‘, who was the leader of the Platonic academy in Athens. He was adamant that belief in gods was illogical and rejected all dogmatic doctrines, and Protagoras‘ claimed that ‘what cannot be perceived cannot exist’, and the Sceptics (skepsis) which is the Greek word for investigation, claimed that ‘beliefs rest on shaky foundations’

“When I look upon priests, prophets, and interpreters of dreams, nothing is so contemptible as a man.” – Diogenes

As well as the schools of thought that include the Cynics and the Sceptics, the Sophists (sophistēs)who were a collection of professional teachers, were openly critical about religion, law and ethics. As a whole they were secular atheists who were openly critical of beliefs and traditions, and were extremely skilled at arguing their case. ‘Socrates‘, who was linked to the Sophists through his good friend ‘Chaerephon‘, was put on trial and charged with corruption of the young, and impiety, as he refused to believe in the gods of Greece. He was sentenced to death and was forced to drink hemlock, but this does not imply that Socrates was an atheist, but he was certainly brave enough to go against the status quo. Prodicus‘, however, who was a good friend of Socrates was a fully fledged atheist, who promoted the philosophy of naturalism, and he claimed that man was so primitive that he had to invent gods so he had someone to thank for the goods nature provides.Critias‘ had a different viewpoint altogether, and he was of the opinion that religious faith was a powerful political tool that leaders can use to maintain discipline from their subjects.

In Ancient Greece the word ἄθεοι initially began as a derogatory slur to describe someone who didn’t believe in someone’s god, or deity. The Romans who persecuted early Christians for not accepting their polytheism would have been described as being ἄθεοι. In Ancient Greece and Rome, you had to show respect to the gods, and if you were critical or held contempt it was wise to keep your thoughts to yourself to minimise the risk of being charged with impiety, but in spite of this expectancy of respect, atheism wasn’t outlawed, and people were able to believe, or disbelieve in what they wanted. It was only after the polytheistic views died away, and paganism became a target for Christian assimilation, that it became much more difficult to be an atheist through fear of being executed after being charged with heresy. Atheism, in a sense went underground for over a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire.

THE DARK AGES

‪There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages.” – Ruth Hurmence Green‬

The reason it’s often referred to as the Dark Ages was because religion had a stranglehold over Europe, and there’s was a distinct lack of cultural, scientific and social development. The Dark Ages lasted until the ‘Age of Discovery‘ and the beginning of the ‘Italian Renaissance‘, where Renaissance humanism started, which once again brought about the discussion of moral philosophy not being exclusive to religions, like Greek philosophers discussed as far back as 2000 years prior. Throughout the Dark Ages, or Middle Ages if you prefer, there was no escape from Christianity, as it dominated every area of a person’s life. It had a foothold within governments and monarchies, schools were run by servants of god, and from the womb, until the grave, life was smothered by Christian doctrine. If someone was brave enough to announce their atheism, they’d get no support, as everyone was brainwashed to obey the church.

“Unbelief is the greatest of sins.” – Thomas Aquinas

There were many cases of people being charged with heresy and blasphemy, and much of the medieval unbelief stemmed from the common man being treated unfairly by the church and being of the opinion that God was being used to manipulate them, and justify the actions of the churches. It was expected that you believed, and obeyed God, and if you dared to rebel, you would more than likely face dire consequences.

“Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.” – John Locke

ATHEOPHOBIA

“A fear of atheists is also unwarranted given the cowardly nature of most atheists and their inability to intellectually justify their denial of the existence of God” – Conservapedia

As you can see from the above quote from the extremely biased, and judgemental website, Conservapedia that atheophobia is unwarranted, but mocking is perfectly acceptable, and their website mocks atheism at every opportunity, which is fine, as it’s only words from foolish people. Yet, atheophobia, or simply the hatred of heathens has been rife as long as atheists have been open about their disbelief. There are some vicious stories of atrocious acts that Christians have committed against atheists over the years, and I will share a few.

‘Lucilio Vanini‘ was an Italian philosopher and freethinker, who lived at the end of the 16th century, and the start of the 17th. He was one of the first people to suggest that humans and apes share a common ancestor, and in his second book, ‘De Admirandis Naturae Reginae Deaeque Mortalium Arcanis‘, he declared his atheism. He was arrested in Toulouse in 1619, trialed and sentenced to death. This involved having his tongue cut out, being strangled to death, then burned.

Domenico Scandella‘ was also Italian, and he lived in the 16th century. He was particularly outspoken about his atheism after studying several books on theology, and living during the Catholic inquisitions, he didn’t go unnoticed, and was eventually arrested and considered a heresiarch. Even at his trial he disputed that Jesus couldn’t have been born from a virgin mother, and he didn’t die to redeem us all. He was executed by being burned at the stake.

Casimir Liszinksi‘ was Polish, and lived in the 17th century. He was a philosopher who had studied as a Jesuit, but decided that it was illogical and declared his atheism through a paper he published. He was arrested, trialed, and charged with being a heresiarch, and the punishment was execution. This involved a burning iron forced into the mouth, his hands were burned slowly, and then his whole body was set alight. After he was pronounced dead, his tongue was ripped out and he was beheaded.

There are many more examples of why it’s been dangerous throughout the ages to admit atheism, and the reason there is much less evidence of atheistic movements than theistic movements throughout history is because history is always written by the victors, and many atheistic books have been systematically destroyed.

NAZI PARTY

‪Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord. . . . And the founder of Christianity made no secret indeed of his estimation of the Jewish people. When He found it necessary, He drove those enemies of the human race out of the Temple of God.” – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf‬

In 1933, the Nazi party in Germany began to rise into power, and at the time the majority of Germany was Christian with a mixture of Protestantism and Catholicism, and a small fraction, of minority faiths, like Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baháʼí were outlawed, as well as most paganism, astrology, witchcraft and the occult. The Nazi party were all followers of some form of Christianity, and saw any deviation from that as heresy, and this included atheism. Adolf Hitler, with the help of his advisors attempted to unite all the German churches, and create one German Evangelical Church. Hitler banned atheistic and freethinking ideology, and the Gestapo, his secret police persecuted them. He also closed down the German Freethinkers League, (which was in direct opposition to the German Orthodox Church), who had half a million atheist members. Later that year, Hitler gave a speech addressing the German public that he had officially stamped out atheism in their country.

‪”I have not tolerated an atheist in the ranks of the SS. Every member has a deep faith in God, in what my ancestors called in their language Waralda, the ancient one, the one who is mightier than we are” – Heinrich Himmler‬

ISLAMIC STATES

In Islamic states, atheism can be treated most severely, and even though it’s 2020, and we are allegedly in a civilised era, it can still be punishable by death in 15 Muslim nations. Denying Islam, if born a Muslim gives you apostate status, and can be punishable by death for men, and imprisonment for women. Whilst this isn’t always the case, it’s still a punishment that countries who adopt Sharia Law believe is their right, and they claim that being opposed to a Islam, and Allah is blasphemy, and blasphemers will not be forgiven. The countries in question include Egypt, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Libya, Pakistan, Qatar, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Brunei, Maldives, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. In Iran, atheists aren’t given legal status, or legal rights, and in 1965, in Indonesia, the army committed mass genocide against atheists, or anyone accused of atheism, and Saudi Arabia view atheism as a form of terrorism.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

In America some states deny an atheist the opportunity to run for public office, or even be part of a jury, and the Boy Scouts of America doesn’t allow atheists members or officials. This is because of America’s general distrust of atheists, and because they have no divine authority to answer to, they are ethically and morally bankrupt. The Freedom of Religion Foundation (FFRF) claim that religion, as in Christianity, has too much influence over the government. There have been surveys conducted throughout America about atheists running for public office, and an average of 50% of Americans would not vote for them, and as a rule, people in public office tend not to declare atheism due to the risk of career Kamikaze. Many Americans are of the opinion that an atheist politician cannot serve his nation as honestly as a Christian, as Christians behave much better when they feel God is watching them.

America has quite a large humanist population, and despite not gaining their morals from some higher power, they’re keen to put humanity as prime importance over folklore and superstition. Despite the importance of humanity in the minds of humanists, Christians still hold much antipathy towards them. Humanism focuses on liberty and philanthropy, and Sir Francis Bacon associated it with a ‘love of humanity‘. In 1933 the Humanist Manifesto was published in Chicago, America, and it was in support of social justice, and for science and reason to be the foundation of ethics, preferably not religious dogma. They weren’t in direct opposition to Christianity, they were just offering another philosophy of life. In 1941 the American Humanists Association was formed, with the aim of promoting secularism and social activism across America.

“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”  – Kurt Vonnegut

ATHEISM ON THE RISE

It has been estimated by historians that people who identify as irreligious, or atheists potentially exceed half a billion people world wide, which is roughly just under 6% of the world population, which in itself doesn’t sound like a large amount, but if atheism was classified as a religious group, it would be the fourth largest behind a Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Atheism is hardly a trivial matter, so why has religion maintained its intolerance towards it? One of the reasons I’ve already stated, is distrust, but it’s much more than that. Many theists are of the belief that atheists have a hedonistic lifestyle, are more likely to suffer from depression, and aren’t able to maintain fidelity with partners. They also maintain the belief that atheists are unable to raise their siblings to become upstanding citizens, that atheism is the cause of autism, or makes people nihilistic as they think without a spiritual outlook an atheists’ life has no meaning or purpose. Also an atheist rejects God because their ego won’t allow them to accept that there’s a power greater than them. I’m sure you’ll agree that this is all speculation, and misguided assumptions. Atheists are unique from each other as they have no culture, no doctrines, and no dogma. They have no formalities, dress codes, prayer rituals or worship.

Many antiatheists object to naturalism, and cannot comprehend how anyone can accept that perhaps life and the universe around us actually did happen by chance, rather than being created. This is why the atheist’s association with science, or the ‘religion of scientism‘ as I’ve heard it called, is often one of the first objections that theists bring to the table. Their distaste of ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution’ literally gets their blood to boiling point, as how is evolution possible without the hand of God? Because many atheists embrace science, as do many theists, they see science as the enemy. Some of the greatest minds to have been involved with science have had religious faith, but by being true to themselves, and true to their field of science, they’ve managed to keep their faith and their studies separate. Yet many creationists, and apologists see science as an attempt to remove God.

“The more a nation gets into darkness, the more it’s going to hate the light. The more it’s going to run from the light. And we have a generation of people who have given themselves to darkness, and they’ve embraced atheism, because it gets them away from moral responsibility to God.” – Ray Comfort

We are primates, of the great ape collective, and we are cousins to chimpanzees and bonobos. This is an indisputable fact, but many theists find it amusing to call atheists apes as though it’s an insult, or refer to atheists as nothing but animals, when that’s exactly what we are. The thing they often fail to realise is that many animals, especially other species of apes live in social groups, that require them to cooperate to survive. They have no concept of gods, yet they still form hierarchies and care for their young. Humans, despite being in more complicated social groups work the same way as their cousins, and because atheists accept this, and don’t as a rule see us as a special and superior species, theists hold contempt and reject atheists from their society.

Does religion define morality?

I’ve covered this subject a few times, Why religious people can’t be objective, Good without God, Philosophical morality, and other articles have referenced religion and morality, but after researching world religions for a previous article, I have more opinions on the subject matter. First of all, let’s define what morality is.

Morality, put simply is a system of values which determine a person’s conduct, or put less simply, it’s a code of ethics that directs a person, and defines their mode of action and behaviour, and allows a person to define the difference between wrong or right, good and bad, and to be moral is about the greater good, in which your aim is to maximise happiness, and minimise suffering. Stanford has two definitions for morality, and they are as follows:

  1. descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior, or
  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

As you can see, a society or group, like a religion, has codes of conduct, but morality isn’t exclusive to religion, and isn’t exclusive to certain groups or societies, and also what you have to decide is which religion is the most moral, as many of them differ greatly as to what’s morally acceptable. Take Hinduism as an example, they value all sentient life, so to them being a vegetarian is often their lifestyle choice, as they believe they have no right to take a life, but Christians are of the mindset that God placed all the animals of the Earth for our consumption, and many American Christians support the second amendment and go hunting. A Christian believes they are morally superior to Muslims, as Muslims execute animals using the Halal method, which involves a sharp blade to the jugular artery, and the animal is left to bleed out, as opposed to being stunned or sedated before execution. This is just one example of how three of the world’s biggest religions value life differently, yet all believe their holy book gives them moral guidance.

Instead of focusing on all religions here, I will deal with Christianity verses atheism. As I’ve covered in a previous article, geographical indoctrination, a person’s faith is often defined by their family’s influence, and the society they live in. If you’re living in the Bible Belt of America, there’s an extremely high possibility that you’re going to be a fundamental Christian, as opposed to a Taoist, or Confucianist, as they tend to be more Asian focused religions and philosophies. So bearing this in mind, a Christian is left with the Bible, whichever version they prefer, but when I quote the Bible I tend to use the King James for consistency.

The Bible is a collection of books that were written thousands of years ago, and interpretations have changed through language, translations and generations. No one can take all of the Bible literally, and different branches of Christianity take certain things, and leave others behind, and some of the subjects in the Bible don’t reach the modern interpretations of morality, and this is where the term cherry picking comes into play, as often what a Christian defines as moral matches their personal feelings on the matter. In other words, they take from the Bible what they see themselves as being moral, and attempt to justify the more horrific acts, like slaughtering of babies, or a global flood as God’s will, and who can question that? Looking at it this way, a Christians morality is based on emotion, and elements of what they believe is correct in the Bible, and just like atheists a large part of their morality is subjective, and/or based on what society expects from people.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been asked why, as an atheist, I can categorically state why rape is wrong, as I’ve no God to guide me. Most people grow up from a child being taught what ethical behaviour is from their parents, schools, society and through experience. If a child hurts another child, and feels remorse, then their compassion and empathy have come into play, and it’ll make them sad, and hopefully this will teach them a life lesson that’s it wrong to hurt someone, as walk in their shoes and see if it’s enjoyable. As children get older, they learn that it’s not acceptable to steal, hurt people, insult their parents etc, and they learn to respect others. By the time a child reaches adulthood they should know that it’s unacceptable to infringe on another person’s rights, especially physically harming someone like an act of violence, rape or murder.

In the modern world, especially in the west, people tend to pick and choose as they reach adulthood as to what religion suits them best. They may have been raised a Christian, but encountered a Buddhist, and that way of life suits them more and they convert. They choose Buddhism because of its ethics and lifestyle, and if it’s morally suitable then great, but it doesn’t define the moral compass they already have within them.

Disestablishmentarianism

If you may or may not be aware, the official religion of ‘Great Britain‘, and one that’s politically supported, and headed by the monarch, ‘Queen Elizabeth II‘, is the ‘Church of England‘, and by default they get an automatic number of seats in the government’s ‘House of Lords‘, which currently stands at 26 seats. What this means is the Church of England has 26 ‘Lords Spiritual‘, who represent England, but the Presbyterian Church‘ that represents Scotland, and the ‘Anglican Church‘ that represents Wales and Northern Island get no say. The full title of the House of Lords is ‘The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled‘ and the majority aren’t voted in, they are appointed. The House of Lords is responsible for scrutinising and amending bills and laws created by the ‘House of Commons‘, so their impact on British and Commonwealth decision are extremely significant.

‘Disestablishmentarianism’ is a political campaign to separate church and state; that will essentially secularise Great Britain, and remove the Church of England as the state religion; thus removing their automatic right to sit at the House of Lords.

What’s the big deal?

Why should one form of religion have more importance over another? We are forever being told that Great Britain is multicultural, so if that’s the case, then why don’t ‘Muslim Clerics‘, or ‘Jewish Rabbi‘, or representatives of ‘Humanism‘ get automatic seats too if we are multicultural?

“Secularism would require an end to bishops sitting as of right in the House of Lords and a substantial reduction in permissible discrimination based on religion or belief. No other democratic sovereign state gives seats in its legislature to religious representatives as of right. ” – Humanists U.K.

It’s the 21st century, not the 18th, and no religious group should be able to make decisions that affect everyone in Great Britain with bias from their faith, or beliefs. It matters not if voters make their decision based on faith or belief when they choose political candidates, as we live in a democracy, but there’s no way people should get automatic seats because they belong to a particular church.