Origins of Atheism

The actual word ‘atheist’ wasn’t used in Europe until the sixteenth century, but the idea of atheism is as old as the idea of theism itself, they are in effect, two sides of the same coin. The word Atheos originates from around the seventh century BCE and was used in Ancient Greece and Rome to denounce someone as amoral who either didn’t worship a god, (namely the officially sanctioned crop of gods on offer) or worshipped the wrong gods (eg. foreigners). The demand for unquestioning devotion to god or gods, in particular by those in positions of authority was, predominantly “in the interest of consolidating power” (Onfray:15). Atheism very quickly became a convenient political tool to rebuke anybody who questioned the veracity of a belief system where the deity is “invisible, inaccessible, and therefore silent about what he can be made to say or endorse” (16).

In Act 5 Scene 1 of
The Robbers Franz declares “There is no God!... Peasant wisdom, peasant fears! – No one has yet discovered whether the past is not the past, or whether there is an eye watching beyond the stars – hmmm”. This invisibility and inaccessibility of god produces one of the fundamental bones of contention for sceptics because there is no tangible, scientific “evidence to support theological opinions, either way” (Dawkins:34). A genuine discourse on atheism didn’t start til the early eighteenth century when a French priest Abbe Meslier dedicated much of his life toward his masterwork (with the rather lengthy title) Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier: Clear and Evident Demonstrations of the Vanity and Falsity of All the Religions of the World ; a book devoted to the question of atheism which was not published until after his death in 1729 - “The true history of atheism had begun” says Onfray, but why did we not know about it? (29)

Meslier’s book and the others asserting atheistic doctrines during the Enlightenment have all but been ignored; “The dominant historiography hides atheism from our sight” (Onfray:29). Onfray cites books like Baron d’Holbach’s
The System of Nature; a scathing attack of religion and its power as one of the many books on atheism that are rarely found in any library, likewise the critiques of his works by the likes of Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire (31). D’Holbach, he says, is of “surprising contemporary relevance” as he presents a strong thesis on dismantling the power, wealth, intolerance, misogyny and fables of the church (31). Using knowledge to combat belief he postulates the concept of a post-Christian morality, redistributing the church’s wealth to the indigent and shifting governments focus on the political to an ethical position, amongst other things. This ‘cover-up’ extended even further, Onfray says, like Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841) – the “third great moment of western atheism” – where he reaches the conclusion that God (and everything that goes with it) is completely a man-made creation (31). These and other atheist voices continued to be suppressed or marginalised, to various degrees, by the dominant order and its agencies for many years to come.

Fortunately at the dawn of the twenty-first century, atheism has been repackaged; “Atheism is in harmony with the earth” declares Onfray (xvi). Atheists, it appears, are no longer the epitome of immorality; “We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion” affirms Hitchens (6). And Dawkins assures us that just like everybody else, atheists can also be “happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled” (1) and that “atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind, indeed a healthy mind” (3). So where does that leave the god-believers? To Hitchens, “The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species” (11). For these writers, stealthy intellectual enquiry over centuries has produced fairly substantial evidence to refute any claims to a higher deity watching over and judging our every thought and action. “Literature” says Hitchens, “not scripture, sustains the mind… and the soul” (5). Furthermore given twenty-first century technology in which information is transferred with great speed, there is definitely no possibility this time of suppressing atheistic viewpoints.

From the perspective of Dawkins – the Scientist, “the existence of god is a scientific hypothesis like any other”(50). He estimates that given the readily accessible scientific evidence and the powers of reason, the probability of god’s existence would be “far from 50%” (50). To the atheist, the concept of a god is not only illogical but dangerous and for as long as the compulsion to believe in a divinity has existed, so too has the compulsion by some to question or even deny god’s existence. Questioning the established god(s) is akin to questioning the whole hierarchical belief system of which that community is built around. As the questioning of god permeates increasingly through a community, the threat to its socio-political order becomes real and steps need to be taken to restore this order; this is a recurring pattern. The pendulum shifts back and forth “depending on the need to create or immolate a divinity” (Onfray:14). Given the socio-economic conditions in Germany during the 18th Century the need to “immolate”, or at least turn a cold shoulder toward, god is understandable

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