I love studying religion, because if you study religion through history, you get a very interesting look at history itself. If you combine this with a study in scientific history, literary history, and military history, you have yourself a pretty damn comprehensive look at the full extent of human development since the advent of writing (looking back further is also interesting, but it’s more speculative and factually patchy).
One thing I tend to keep in mind when studying religion is atheism, even though most atheists wouldn’t consider it a religion. I’m pretty sure you can imagine why I do lump it in with religious studies, even if atheism isn’t a religion itself (or is it… but that’s a topic for another post).
So, even though atheism does not ideologically emerge until the 19th century, I look for precursors and influences towards atheist and skeptical thought as I peruse the history, philosophy, theology, and even mythology of the world.
While I must give a nod to the ancient Greeks and Muslims of the Golden Age of Islam for preparing the soil, I think you really see the seeds of atheism planted in Europe during the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment.
When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Church of Wittenberg in 1517, what he accomplished was almost as significant as the work of Copernicus. He stood up to the authority of the church, and he did so as an insider. He helped pave the way for acceptance of the Copernican model and scientific discoveries by Galileo, beginning a process of (sometimes labored) Church endorsement of science which culminates with Isaac Newton.
This isn’t to say that I sing the praises of religion during this era, nor do I think religion is a pre-condition for science, but rather, the reality was that Europe had been thrown into a several century-long rut since the fall of the Roman Empire, and part of this was attributable to the monolithic and suppressing power of the Church.
When Luther stood up to the Christian authority and called into question the practices of the Church, he started a revolution of the mind that swept Europe. It even affected those loyal to the Pope, for even if the papacy was the ultimate authority in your mind, you could not deny he was no longer the only authority. Just the mere existence of choice is enough to force the mind to think, consider, and ultimately reject something.
There have been religions (like Buddhism and Jainism) and philosophers (like Epicurus or the Stoics) who have adopted the view that the gods do not need or deserve worship, but only in 19th century Europe did people reject the very idea of gods.
This may surprise some people (though hopefully not regular readers of my blog). I’m of the opinion there must have been individuals who were atheists in the modern sense, but there is no record of them. The term “atheist” and it’s etymological roots go back to Greek, where an atheist was merely synonymous with “impious.” Mocking, taunting or questioning the power of the gods would be the act of an atheist. The problem is, that does not entail a lack of belief in gods. With the rise of Christianity, believers in the Roman pantheon called the Christians “atheists,” and the Christians called the Hellenes “atheists.” Both believed in god(s), it’s just that they disagreed on which one(s).
Oddly enough, monotheism’s rejection of the very existence of other gods played a small part in the formulation of atheism, as it is a shift away from the syncretism (or blending of foreign faiths with the familiar) among the Greeks and Romans towards one of flat out denying the very truth of heathen religions.
In order for serious philosophers to reach the point of formulating and adopting atheism as we know it, it was important to have a greater understanding of the universe. It’s not that atheism required science. Science provided answers, and people find answers comforting, so it provided a soft landing for those jumping off the religious bandwagon. Any atheist prior to the Enlightenment would have been wandering aimlessly in the wilderness of the mind, which may be why we never hear of them.
Luther’s decision to base his religion off the Bible, rather than the Church hierarchy, was a major step towards looking outside the traditional structure for answers. Luther’s courage in following what he thought was right in the face of what could well have been his tortuous demise was a priceless philosophical action that ranks in importance alongside the death of Socrates and the American Revolution.
More than any non-scientist of his era, I believe Luther’s actions set the stage for atheist ideology to not only emerge, but gain acceptance and even influence. Now, I know what most victim-minded atheists might think, but trust me, there is widespread acceptance where Luther’s work is influential. People in Europe, America, and Australia aren’t being put to death for atheism. I know that’s a low bar, but it is an important milestone; you cannot flourish if you are being hunted down.
The Protestant Reformation wasn’t just about skeptics leaving the Catholic Church, either. It was also about the Catholic Church itself changing. This began a long tradition of slow progress in modernizing religion, both within the Church and among Protestant sects. Continued “reinterpretations” which are so often fueled by internal and external social pressures to liberalize have allowed most Western religions to lose a great deal of their bite.
Besides becoming more and more harmless, modern liberal religions are only a philosophical hop, skip and a jump away from atheism. While fundamentalism gets all the attention from the media and atheists, this is largely because they are such lightning rods for controversy and they make for a good news story or boogeyman. They are easy targets of criticism and disgust, and it is right to oppose them, but the majority of people are not a part of the more nefarious or just plain irritating strains of religion.
This should be heartening to any atheist. People have gotten less and less religious as a whole over the years. Even in the US, the supposed bastion of Western religion, the young continue to embrace atheism more and more with each passing generation. I’m not a particularly positive person, but I am hopelessly optimistic in regards to the notion that atheism is on an inevitable path towards being the dominant religious affiliation of the future.
The question is… will atheism pick up the flag of religion and run with it, or is this the dawning of a new era in post-theist philosophy?