Thursday, March 12, 2009

Atheism vs. Iconoclasm

When it comes to the general consensus on atheism, I think the primary concern for believers is the preservation of their beliefs. This is perfectly valid, and religion should be respected as having a right to exist. Religion should never be attacked with intent to destroy. I don’t mean to imply that religions are above reproach. However, the actual destruction of religion, religious places of worship, or believers themselves is morally reprehensible.

Atheism's stance on religion will become very important with the rise in atheism's popularity. It is one of the fastest growing responses in polls regarding faith. While it clearly hasn’t happened yet, atheism may become a sought after voting demographic. Should atheism gain government support, it will be important to draw a sharp distinction between atheism and iconoclasm.

While an atheist does not believe in gods, an iconoclast seeks to destroy all ideas and faiths that differ from his own. An iconoclast can be an atheist, but most iconoclasts have been religious. The most successful iconoclasts in history have all been religious. The only government sanctioned atheist iconoclasms were in Communist nations like the Soviet Union and China; they failed miserably, as both of those countries remain largely religious. [The information on China is very nuanced; there is debate over what is a religion and what is a "thought system," or philosophy. Estimates show roughly 8-14% are "atheist." The number of people practicing Daoism and Buddhism, which are sometimes discounted as religions, brings China's religiosity to average levels for most developed nations, besides the especially religious US.]

Ancient iconoclasts include the early Christians. After attaining influence within the Roman government, they destroyed much of Rome's polytheistic culture and even secular philosophy. Epicurus, for example, is documented as having an exhaustive collection of over 300 works attributed to him, but what remains intact are only a few short letters, quotes, and interpretations of his philosophy by others. Epicurus believed that the gods deserved no worship, which is likely why so little of his ideas survived Christianization. Modern iconoclasts include the Taliban of Afghanistan, who destroyed the colossal Bamiyan Buddha statues, built over 1,500 year ago.

These acts are damaging to humanity as a whole. All religions and philosophies are collections of accumulated wisdom. They plumb the deepest recesses of the human condition. Every ideology has a value that is intangible to us. Who would have thought Freud would deduce such conclusions from the myth of Oedipus? Could Plato conceive that his ideas would be borrowed by rebellious Jews hundreds of years later, who would go on to call themselves Christians?

One day, all that we believe will be taught to young children, and they will mock us for it. We must keep a humble perspective on our place in history. Even our greatest institutions are but tiny pieces of a much greater puzzle. We must be sure not to forget any of them, even if we cease to believe them. One day every text that is sacred now will be read in Ancient History classes alongside Homer, and I have news for you: most people will prefer Homer.

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