The Tucson Atheists discussed the history of Atheism on April 15th—tax day—this year at our monthly meeting at Denny’s. The meeting was only two hours long and there was no way to completely cover the topic and while it’s important to get to the facts and figures, the group thrives on discussion and personal feelings. Talking about the facts of history is not difficult. Ideally, the facts and events are simply pinned to a timeline. Sometimes however what those facts and events mean and meant at the time they occurred is unknowable with any certainty and depend on the source of the information and the attitude of the receiver of the information. The sources of the information that was presented to kick off the discussion included Jonathan Miller’s A Brief History of Disbelief and other sources.
The history of Atheism begins thousands of years ago with the Greeks and Romans even though the name wasn’t officially created until the 16th century in France. The Greek philosopher Aristophanes who lived between 446 and 386 BCE said, “Surely you don’t believe in the gods. What’s your argument? Where’s your proof?” A Greek contemporary, Democritus who was partially responsible for the theory that all matter was composed of atoms said that the greatest good is happiness and contentment. All matter existed forever; therefore, there is no creation. Aristotle born in 348 BCE believed that Tyrants must have gods on their sides. Cicero born in 106 BCE asked, “Do gods exist or do they not?” Seneca born around 4 BCE famously said that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Finally, Epicurus born in 341 BCE pointed out the illogic of an omnipresent, omniscient, benevolent god when he said:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
Lucretius born in 99 BCE wrote an ode to Epicurus and contributed his own skepticism of the existence of supernatural beings when he said, “Fear is the mother of all gods. Nature does all things spontaneously by herself without their meddling.”
Religion comes very natural to us and Atheism requires a level of reason and rationality that allows us to overcome it. Atheism as an idea has had its ups and downs and it is by shear serendipity that our country was formed in the period of time called “The Age of Enlightenment.” It was during this time that the world discovered Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), John Lock (1632-1704), Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), Isaac Newton (1643-1727), and Voltaire (1984-1778). These men laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment and pushed the ideas of rationalism, social liberalism, religious toleration, science, the scientific method, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the separation of church and state. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution particularly the Bill of Rights came out of the Age of Enlightenment and remains the backbone of our Democratic Republic. However, the popularity of reason and intellect has since been challenged by the influences of Romanticism where policy is often dictated by human emotions such as apprehension, horror, terror, and awe along with extreme patriotism. The Zeitgeist or “spirit of the time” which appeals to human emotions has allowed a resurgence of religious fervor. Fear of “godless” Communism has been codified into our lives by well-meaning politicians when they added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, added “In God We Trust” as a national motto to be inscribed on our money.
Slowly our country is moving back to an “Age of Reason.” Religion is losing its hold on the populace as we see the disappearance of “Blue Laws,” the acceptance of alternate lifestyles, and the growth of the number of people identifying as “non-religious.” Not everyone is on board but the trend is undeniable especially considering the polling data that indicates that people under the age of 30 are twice as likely to profess “no religious belief” as those older.
There was also discussion of the “growing pains” in the current movement towards reason. The internet is a two edged sword in that it allows a free exchange of ideas but also anonymous modern day Vandals, trolls, that tend to make small points of contention overblown and damaging. To keep the movement going, we must ignore those that thrive on getting attention at all costs and remember that we’re in agreement 99% of the time. You can catch a very interesting discussion involving Dave Silverman, Hermant Mehta, and Chris Mooney HERE.