Friday 25 March 2016

New directions in atheism

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families". 

Odd that thoughts and prayers are thus separated, as if the two were incompatible - an intellectual process running in tandem with a superstition. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn adjusted the formula after the terrorist attacks in Brussels when he tweeted "Our thoughts and sympathies…" etc, although that seems an inelegant compromise. Why not simply "Our thoughts . . ."? 

Is there a term for an atheist who not only doesn't believe in God (singular, as in God Almighty), but doesn't believe in any gods (plural)? Atheism today tends to be a principled disbelief in the existence of a particular (and all-powerful) deity. Yet all devout Christians, and come to that all believers in any particular deity are also atheists on the grounds that fervent belief in their chosen God necessarily means that they do not believe in any others. They are selective in their belief, and disbelief.

It's both easier and harder to be an atheist in a monotheistic culture, which is pretty much what we have around us today. In ancient times could one disbelieve in the existence of the entire pantheon? Or, come to that, could one choose to believe in Apollo but not in Lares and Penates? Was selective atheism possible in a pantheistic society? It's easy enough to say today that one doesn't believe in Loki - but what about Allah? But - and here's the point of this blog - how many gods are there, or were there, in human history? To how many supernatural entities have we struggled to make ourselves attractive?  How many gods can we atheists choose to disbelieve in? Do Zeus and Jupiter count as one? Does the Holy Trinity count as three? What about those thunder gods worshipped by early man of whom we have no record? How can one set about dismantling any belief in any god? 

This blog was prompted not by recent events in Brussels but by my purchase of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh, which I plan to read, with typically self-conscious atheistic contrariness, over the Easter holidays. This comes from the publishers, Knopf:

Before the revolutions of late antiquity, which saw the scriptural religions of Christianity and Islam enforced by imperial might, there were few constraints on belief. Everything changed, however, in the millennium between the appearance of the Homeric poems and Christianity’s establishment as Rome’s state religion in the fourth century AD. As successive Greco-Roman empires grew in size and complexity, and power was increasingly concentrated in central capitals, states sought to impose collective religious adherence, first to cults devoted to individual rulers, and ultimately to monotheism. In this new world, there was no room for outright disbelief: the label “atheist” was used now to demonize anyone who merely disagreed with the orthodoxy—and so it would remain for centuries.

The idea that the universe is full of redundant gods is an appealing one. Perhaps that's what the stars really are -  burnt out deities, starved of veneration.

It was the late Christopher Hitchens who magisterially declared that "what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” He is much missed - there is a Hitch-shaped hole in current discourse around religion.

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