Sunday, March 15, 2009

Atheism's Jewish Roots

I see religion as evolving through history. At first, man must have “worshipped” (or simply stood in awe at) the natural world that he saw. The sun, moon, stars, and weather must have seemed impressive and mysterious to the burgeoning rational human. Even some animals are impressive.

Some people, either through mind or might, would distinguish themselves as powerful. The worship of heroes and cults of personality would arise around those who seemed (or claimed) to possess knowledge or control over nature. Heroes who descend to the world of the dead and return are popular, but sometimes great chiefs and kings have been identified with sky or earth gods.

The end result of all this hero worship is a vast collection, or pantheon, of gods and goddesses. Polytheism was the natural progression from local tribal worship into communal and city systems. Within pantheons, gods seem to vie for power as their followers on Earth war with each other. In the end, these wars seemed to determine which systems “worked best” (or got lucky). Adaptable religions persisted, static religions died, and dynamic new ones filled in the gaps.

What does all of this have to do with a link between Judaism and Atheism? Judaism is the first persisting faith to deny the existence of gods. In fact, all Abrahamic religions owe their theology to Judaism. Prior to this, Greek and Roman theology had practiced syncretism, which is the belief that one small village’s chief god is merely a local manifestation of the father god of the conquering empire’s pantheon. This is why gods like Zeus, Ares, Athena, etc. have many additional epithets that denote local cult worship. Even Yahweh and Jesus were both invoked by non-Jewish, non-Christian Greeks and Romans for the purposes of ritual (most evidence that survives today is in the form of curse tablets, buried in the ground).

The Abrahamic attitude toward the religious faiths of others opened the door for atheism. While it may have taken a long time, this is because the monotheists were much better at quashing resistance than the open-minded pagans before them. While the Romans are criticized by modern Christians for their intolerance, Rome was far more accommodating to new ideas under polytheism than under the Church (as evidenced by the Church’s ability to rise to prominence). The treatment of “heretical” thought under monotheistic control is a direct result of the narrow, singular worldview presented as truth (evidenced by the complete lack of thinking that occurred in the Dark Ages).

So we have progressed from wonder, to hero worship, to a pantheon of gods, to one god. However, this is not where we are today. Instead, we live in a revisitation of the hero worship phase. The most popular religions around the world are Christianity and Islam, both of which are reliant on cult figures to define their worship. While Christians claim Jesus was God, and Muslims won’t bow down to a picture of Mohammed, the reverence for these very human (and therefore imperfect) men as unquestionable pillars of religious practice have resurrected the hero cult.

New personalities are always appearing, ready to lead their own flocks in the name of the one god. The heroes portrayed themselves as self-sacrificing, all in honor of the one god. Monotheism can potentiate one positive cause, but only if it is successful in complete membership of every person: complete unification under one goal. This is unrealistic, and perhaps frightening when one considers how foolishly humanity tends to act when no criticism is tolerated (and what methods are used to achieve complete “compliance”).

It would appear the next logical step was atheism, as this is the complete severance from the abstract notion of the divine. I have no doubt atheism will become popular, but it will likely never be a majority. Atheism, in the average person, is a vacuum of faith which sucks in any nearby idea. Those not intellectually motivated to pursue secular solutions to replace those of religion will be cursed to swallow the venom of dogma along with the waters of belief when the next person comes along claiming to have the answer. Old faiths will continue to disappear, and new faiths will replace them.

As atheism increases, the cult of personality will as well, and new religions will form more frequentlty. Scientology has already filled a niche in a scientifically minded society. It has constructed its theological and philosophical vocabulary around scientific sounding terms and theories. It has even gone so far as to paint their primary secular competition, psychiatry and psychology, as the enemy.

Whether popular religions today continue into the future will not be an issue of which faith is “better.” There is no better or worse faith, only ones that work for their time and place, and ones that do not. The one’s that work in the future will be ones that are compatible with society’s ever changing needs and situation. Whether a religion can evolve will determine whether it survives to lie another day, or retires to the night-time fairy tales of tomorrow’s children.


  1. Neat post. I see things a lot like that too, nowadays. Do you have formal education in history, theology, and or psychology?

  2. Nothing beyond a few classes here or there in college. Greek and Roman religion and philosophy classes, basic psych and soc, the odd history course. I majored with a degree in Humanities and Science, which means I'm essentially a hippy who took labs, and my capstone paper was on the influence of drugs and psychosis in the writings of Philip K. Dick (who I see as having been a religious writer far exceeding L. Ron Hubbard in thought, just not ambition). Most of what I have picked up is from a system of self study where I get a book, read it slowly, look up everything mentioned in it that I don't understand on wikipedia, looking up all the source materials mentioned in wikipedia for the topics, and getting more books. I usually don't read more than four books at a time, but it takes me weeks to finish any of them.


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