There is a fable about a traveler who meets an angel on the road. The angel is carrying a flaming torch in one hand, and a bucket of water in the other. The traveler inquires as to where the angel is going, and the angel responds: “With the torch, I am going to burn down the mansions of Heaven, and with the water, I am going to quench the fires of Hell. Then we will see who believes in God.”
Today, we explore the Great Tradition of Atheism. There are degrees of atheism, just as there are of theism. Philosophers speak of “weak atheism” which holds that it is not possible to know if God exists or not, rendering the question meaningless, and of “strong atheism”, which categorically states that, in fact, there is no God. Cast the net a little wider, and you will find other non-theistic traditions such as Agnosticism, which is uncertainty concerning the existence of God, or Buddhism or Pantheism, which accept ideas that are spiritual but which do not accept the existence of a particular Supreme Being.
Atheism is a modern philosophical development, virtually unknown in the West before around the year 1800. In the ancient world, there were a few materialists, such as Democritus and Epicurus, who taught that everything was made of small, indestructible bits of stuff, called atoms, and that there was no such thing as “spirit.” Under the influence of Plato and with the growth of Christianity, such ideas found no lasting traction.
For the ancients, atheism was synonymous with “godlessness,” and was a term used to define socially disruptive behavior. Socrates was condemned to death on the charge of atheism, not because he taught that no gods existed, but because he stated that participation in the civic religious festivals was not necessary. His crime was political, not theological. He was undermining the foundations of the State. His attackers were quite similar to those people today who insist the nation is weakened because public schools no longer sponsor prayer in the classroom or at graduations.
This “Classical Atheism,” which continued into the modern era, didn’t deny the existence of the divine; it simply ignored it or defined it in a way that ran counter to the prevailing opinion. “Philosophical Atheism,” the active denial of the supernatural, would have to wait until one basic question could be answered: “If there is no God, where did everything come from?” One possible answer is that it has always been here. But the idea of an eternal cosmos never caught on in the West, as it did in the East. Isaac Newton provided a mathematical framework for understanding the mechanics of the universe. The cosmos was a clockwork, running with incomprehensible complexity but according to precise physical laws. Still, the need for a Creator to set it all in motion remained an insurmountable obstacle to a systematic atheistic philosophy.
And then came Charles Darwin. Actually, he was not the first to suspect that there was a natural, evolutionary process at work in the development of life. Geologists were beginning to understand the means by which the earth was formed, and were concluding that those layers of rock we could see dated from a time farther back than the Great Flood. Yet it was Darwin who put many of the pieces together, and brought the idea of evolution to the public.
The theory of evolution made it possible to answer that question about the origin of things without requiring the action of a Creator. In “On the Origins of Species,” atheism had its Book of Genesis, and the battle was joined. Today, there are “Anti-Religion Atheists,” espousing what is called the “New Atheism.” This movement, popularized by scientists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, primarily is fueled by a passionate defense of science and rationalism in the face of creationists and other literal religionists. As important as this movement is, it has not, so far at least, addressed the deeper questions raised by atheism, instead serving a more polemical, political and social purpose. Yet those deeper questions persist, and over the past couple of centuries, many philosophers have struggled with them. To embrace atheism in its strongest form is to be a materialist, to posit that all things consist exclusively of the interaction of matter and energy. Phenomena such as consciousness, intuition, heightened states of awareness, are solely the result of material processes and, given sufficient information, can be explained in the same way we would explain the circulation of blood in the body or the orbits of the planets. What you see is what you get. In his iconic song “Imagine,” John Lennon asks us to imagine a world without God, Heaven, Hell, or any type of such belief. He writes, “It isn’t hard to do.” With all due respect, I think John was wrong about that. Every aspect of our world is shot through with “God Thinking.” Our ethics and morality, our politics and law, all derive from traditions that assume some underlying divine presence, some objective standard against which our actions can be, and would be, measured.
Atheism dispenses with all that. There is no one looking over our shoulders, whispering directions into our ears, holding our hands, keeping us honest. There is a proverb, “Character is what we do when no one is looking.” If we are alone, what are the rules? Are there any rules? Are all people endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights? No. Is any action in and of itself a virtue, or a vice? Murder? Slavery? Feeding the hungry? No. Is there such a thing as justice beyond the will of the majority? No. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw these issues addressed by writers and philosophers. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote extensively of nihilism, or “nothingism.” Nihilism asks the question: If there is nothing objectively true, where does life find meaning? For a nihilist, life is utterly meaningless, or we create our own meaning, knowing that it is no more “true” or “right” than any other opinion. Values prevail in society because strength imposes them.
Existentialism is another response to the atheistic challenge. Existentialists recognize that the world is “absurd,” that there is no intrinsic meaning to life. We must face this fact head on. Albert Camus, an existentialist writer from the mid-twentieth century, wrote that “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” In the words of the old Peggy Lee song, “Is that all there is?” Yet some of the existentialists saw in the human capacity for self-awareness a means for discovering an authenticity within ourselves, and that such an awareness can be the basis of developing a humanistic ethics.
Depressed yet? The issue on which the Great Tradition of Atheism focuses its bright, steady, unflinching light is the concept of Freedom. We are free. There are no mansions in Heaven awaiting the obedient and no tortures of Hell beckoning the disobedient. No karma governs our next life. We are free. Atheism forces us to decide, for ourselves, without leaning on any outside authority, what is right, what is wrong. Radical freedom is a dangerous thing. As the existentialists tell us, our values, our worth, our purpose, if we are to have such things in our lives, must come from within. As Bruce Wayne is reminded in the first of the most recent Batman movies, “It’s what we do that defines us.”
The great problem “How ought we live?” is no longer a multiple choice question, with preprogrammed answers. Now it is an essay question, the response derived from within us. If we decide to stand for peace, compassion, justice, order and love, atheism demands of us an explanation. Why generosity, and not greed? Why mercy, and not revenge? Why kindness, and not cruelty? Atheism can show us that are reasons for such choices beyond obedience to commandments, fear of punishment, hope for reward, or, as I used to rather sarcastically tell my kids when they asked why they had to do something – “Because that’s the way Jesus wants it.” With the angel in the story I told at the beginning of this reflection, what do we stand for, believe in, give our lives to, if “the mansions of Heaven and the fires of Hell” disappear? If there is no life after this one, if karma is nothing more than a metaphor for “Life’s a bitch?” If there are no inherent natural, human rights, but only choices?
The ancient Israelites named God “I AM” as a way of designating the divine presence as the source of all being. The philosopher Rene Descartes formulated the one truly knowable fact as “I think, therefore I am,” setting Thought at the center of the human experience. Atheism asks, “What am I?” “Who am I?” For our Unity Celebration, I brought in this mirror. I invite you to come forward, look at your reflection and ask those questions. Who am I? What am I? Take just a moment to look yourself in the eye and ask, beyond any expectation of family, society or faith, honestly, who am I? If you would like to share your insights, we can do so at Tree Talk. For now, just look.