ATHEISM:

A PHILOSOPHICAL EXAMINATION


INTRODUCTION

 

1.1. Definition of Atheism

1.1.1. The word and concept: 'Atheism'

 In the scientific study of religions and of religious phenomena, as is also the case in the philosophical and theological disciplines, various words occur which reveal various and different attitudes to religion and especially differing conceptions of God. The more important of these words are theism, deism and atheism.

 a) Theism: The root of the word is theos, the Greek word for God. Theism thus signifies the doctrine of those who believe in the existence of God, as a personal being, for example, Christians and Jews.

 b) Deism: The root of the word is Deus, the Latin word for God. Deism, signifies the doctrine of those who acknowledge the existence of a supreme Being, whose nature is unknown. God, is considered to have no immediate relation with the world, although He is responsible for it. There is no personal conception of God, here; the God of revelation is rejected. The implications of Deism are that the religious petitions and hopes of men are illusory and that in understanding nature reason finds all the necessary guides for moral and religious living. Deism is the doctrine of men like Voltaire and Newton. It was born in a very anti-Christian philosophical climate in the 18 century. 

c) Atheism: The root of the word is a-theos, derived from the Greek particle a- which signifies negation, that is 'no' and the Greek word for God as we have already seen above. Atheism signifies the doctrine of those who deny the existence of God or of a supreme Being. Metaphysically speaking, atheism thus rejects both theism and deism.

The denial of the existence of God or of a supreme Being implies much more than a personal conviction about religion. That a person does not practice a religious faith or has neither faith in, nor some feeling, awareness, or knowledge of a God or the God, has many more implications and consequences than most people seem to think. How one looks upon his or her own life, his own moral convictions and principles, how one relates to other people, to society, to the ecology, and how these are evaluated can differ greatly between a theist and an atheist. Similarly an atheistic world view or attitude treats the various sciences differently from a theist, whether these sciences be natural, legal, medical, economical, historical, philosophical or social.

 1.1.2. Different conceptions of God

 As one might have noticed, the words 'theism' and atheism' are some what vague and imprecise in themselves. Atheism is the negation of God, of a-theos, of theism. But what does theism, a-theos, or 'God' mean. As we know, for different people, different cultures and for different religions, the conception of 'God' or the understanding of 'God' varies greatly. The rejection of God, the negation of God, the a-theos, can also vary in so far as the understanding of that which is rejected varies.

 In examining atheism (and theism too) it is necessary to ask who (socio-cultural and individual considerations) is atheist, why (personal experiences, socio-cultural influences) is one atheist, how (intellectually, emotionally, morally) or in what way is one atheist, and what (the conception of God) are they atheistic about, what is he or she rejecting.

 1.1.2.1. Cultural influences

 The way in which people conceive things, the way in which they reason, not only varies between individual and individual. Greater differences occur in the cultural, social, philosophical and religious contexts. These differences should not be always judged as being good or bad, positive or negative. Rather they should be seen as valid differences with a right to self-expression. They should be considered as a challenge to both our thinking and emotions. They (the various differences) themselves should be challenged to greater purity and maturity.

 In the cultural ambient, we find multiple influences on the way in which those who have been born into and live in such a culture, conceive and value oneself, others, society, ecology and finally also God. For instance, some cultures tend to be very assertive of individualism and liberty. The relation of someone from such a culture-type to God is going to differ from one who is born into a society where the family or tribe are considered to be more important than the individual. There are also geographical influences on human mentality, needs and emotions, all of which determine the way in which one perceives God. Thus an Eskimo is going to have a different conception than one who has been born in the mountains, and from one who has been born in the desert. Likewise the history of a culture or a nation has a great significance: A persecuted nation or a country that has suffered many wars or famines will have a different religious spirit from a nation that has been a conquering one, as also from a nation that has been always at peace and prosperous. Similarly, the economic situation of a country will effect the spirit and mentality of its people, and this in turn will effect the need for or the feelings towards and the conceptions of God or/and religion.

 1.1.2.2. Philosophical influences

 Likewise, the various philosophical trends present within the cultural and intellectual context have a major influence on the way people perceive and conceive God. There is little doubt, that philosophies are often expressions of a particular culture, seeking solutions for the problematic present in the particular cultural or historical ambient. However as philosophies tend to explain or improve in a new way the unanswered questions, or the still unexplained or imperfectly understood elements of a society, they can have a great influence on the future of a particular society. The mediums of philosophical influences and change are the educational systems and the media, as well as various other groups with in society. These in turn effect politics, the national feeling, the thinking of the people and so forth.

 Accordingly, some one growing up in a society which is greatly influenced by pragmatism is going to ask what use has God for me or society, what does God do. The tendency will be to the less theoretical. In a society influenced by idealism a person will be more likely to try and analyze God and question how one knows God and how can one be sure that this knowledge is sure. A person born into a culture into a society under the influence of personalism will tend to value a personal and free or creative relationship with God, while a person from an ambient where life is the theme of philosophy will conceive God as Creator and as Lord.

 1.1.2.3. Various religious conceptions and / or mis-conceptions

 Not only do the above contribute greatly to the conception that both individuals and societies have of God but they also have a major influence on the way in which one negates God. Thus the question can be what god, or kind of god is the atheist rejecting? A secondary question is thus, what kind of consequences will any particular rejection have on other dimensions of life and society.

 Within this context, religious considerations must be kept in mind. Each religion explains God somewhat differently. Each religion explains the relation of man to God differently. Each religion evaluates man, his thoughts, his actions, his emotions, his failures and achievements differently. While people can say that there is only one God, it is not right to say that God is the same or is conceived the same by everybody. When atheism is understood as a rejection of a God, we must therefore ask 'what kind of god?', 'what kind of religious conception of God?' is the object of negation. Thus, some people reject God, because they can only conceive God as being a God of anger and intolerance. For such people there can not be such a God, and maybe they are right. However we must investigate further and ask are they a-theist or a- anger and a- intolerance?

 Within this religious context it is important to make a brief examination of the various religious types and the various religious systems.

 a) Religious types

i. Monotheism: There is only one subsistent and eternal God who is the reason or cause of the world.

ii. Dualism: There are two equal principles (gods, or spiritual forces), one good and the reason for good and the other evil, the reason for evil.

iii. Polytheism: There are many gods, with a hierarchical structure among them, with their own characteristics and individual attributes. Some being born, others being eternal.

iv. Pantheism: God is everything, in that everything that exists is part of God, either substantially or accidentally.

v. Animistic: A belief in the immortality of the soul, with variations in the degree of monotheism (theologically undeveloped) and polytheism.

 b) Religious systems

i. Judeo-Christianity : Monotheistic and personal conception of God. A theistic religion.

ii. Islam: A monotheistic religion, semi-theistic and semi-deistic

iii. Hinduism: A polytheistic religion with a belief in personal relations with particular gods.

iv. Buddhism: An atheistic religion. No personal God, and no subsisting God. The goal of Buddhism (nirvana) is pantheistic in character.

v. Chinese: Belief in the next life, with a remote but convinced belief in a supreme God, who although not very well known is strongly revered.

vi. Traditional African: Animistic and polytheistic. Differs from tribe to tribe. Some acknowledging a supreme spirit

vii. Occultism & magical: A degrading of religion in the form of a dualism, a distinction between the forces of good and evil, with a conscious binding of oneself to the forces of evil, who sometimes are called good.

 1.1.2.4. Logical consequences: theological and secular

 a) Theological.

Theology is the science of God. The very way in which one conceives God will determine the theological consequences: the relation of God to the world, to society and to the individual, the duty of man to God, the Will of God and one's (eternal) finality. Hence just as atheism is a rejection of God, so it is also an inherent rejection of the theology that surrounds the rejected God.

 b) Secular.

The secular consequences of the conception of God, as also of the rejection of this conception are in the first place ethical in nature, with consequences on both the conceptions and dynamics of other aspects of life: politics, economics, medical policies, juridical and civil structures. One of the main reasons for this type of consequence is that the way in which one conceives God has a direct influence or connection with the way in which one perceives both oneself and others, thus determining the anthropological perception of both individuals and society. The way in which one defines 'man' will determine greatly the way in which these other dimensions of life, politics, economics, and so forth, are evaluated and perceived.

 1.1.3. Agnosticism

 It is important to also make a mention of agnosticism. The name comes from the Greek root a-gnosis, that is the particle of negation, 'no' and knowledge. The agnostic, on the epistemological level, holds that it is impossible for man to attain knowledge of a certain thing. When understood in the theological sector, agnosticism signifies, that theory of religious knowledge which asserts that it is impossible for man to attain knowledge of God. This is clearly different from atheism, but in its practical consequences and its influence on the moral life of the individual as also upon the ethical life of society, it has many of the same consequences as atheism.

 1.2. Types of Atheism

 1.2.1. Anthropological clarification

 Before examining the various forms or expressions of atheism and the atheistic spirit that can be at play in various cultural settings, it is felt that one of the first questions must regard the one who believes in or rejects a-theos, that is God. It is man who believes in God, it is man who rejects God. The question to be asked then is, who is this man, what is he, and how does he believe, and in this particular point of our examination of atheism, how does he reject God, why does he do so. In one sense this is a very epistemological area. 

While we are not interested in defining man or 'human being', it is nonetheless important to examine the different dimensions of our human nature, particularly with respect to the way one can relate to or reject the existence or notion of God. 

a) The Senses Most cultures and people, theists and atheists alike, understand 'God' as being a spiritual being. Spiritual means non-sensible, or unknowable to the human senses, whose nature is to react to material stimuli. Thus the eyes react to light, the sense of touch to heat, cold, hardness, softness, and so forth. Thus, there is a mutual exclusion of natural contact between what is material and what is spiritual.

 However, most of our knowledge is based upon sense-experiences, and the reasoning out and putting together of the various experiences we have had so as to arrive at a new knowledge. The idea of innate knowledge is very hypothetical and debatable. Thus, there can be a crisis as regards knowledge of God. We do not see Him, nor hear, nor touch, nor smell nor taste Him. The atheist would hold that only that which is sensible is knowable. Hence no one senses a God or a spirit and so it is illusory to suggest that a God exists. There is no knowledge to prove it. One who believes in God, must however, believe that from sense-knowledge, one can and does induce metaphysical (beyond the sensible) knowledge, and can thus arrive at a knowledge of the spiritual and abstract.

 b) The Intellect Knowledge is primarily intellectual in that realization and understanding happens in the intellect. The intellect, defined as the faculty of knowing, is not just passive, in that it perceives knowable realities, but it is also active in that it reasons things out, putting various items of knowledge together so as to arrive at some new knowledge or understanding.

 The intellectual atheist may be of two types:

 i) One who has never though of God, never asked, 'if there is really a God or not?' One might even in fact argue that this is not really atheism, as no rejection of God is made, it is a total ignorance regarding the whole question of God.

ii) One who has thought about the question of whether there is a God or not, and has reasoned or arrived at the conclusion that there is no God. Here there is a clear intellectual rejection of the concept of God. The question for us here is, why this rejection? Often it is due to materialism or empiricism. However what is important to note here is that the way in which one reasons, the type of logic at play in one's mind, the categories through which one thinks have major consequences on the way in which one believes in God and on the way of and the reason for rejecting God. There is little doubt that various philosophies and world-visions have a major influence in this regard. Thus, for instance, if one thinks that all abstract realities are always creations of the intellect, then one can conclude that for such a type of thinking, that God is also a creation of individual intellects. This type of thinking is clearly a-theistic, in that it denies the real existence of God.

 c) The Emotions The emotions too have a major part to play in the theism or atheism of any particular individual. That the emotions make up the most subjective part of man, is hardly debatable. The strongest of the emotions are fear-anger, desire and repulsion. With in these one finds other emotions, such as happiness, serenity, needs, loneliness, depression, dependency and love.

 The emotions are very deeply effected and to some extent determined by various factors, be they social, family, cultural, personal experiences etc. That the emotions effect faith in God or the rejection of God by any individual is indisputable, the question, however is, to what extent do they? In each individual this will obviously vary greatly, yet just as in the case of atheism as in that of theism, the emotions are certainly fundamental, acting as a basis, and predisposing the individual in whatever his or her belief might be. Thus, for example, with the emotion of fear: a person who is always afraid of things or people might seek in God a sense of security and protection, much more so than a person who seems to fear no one or nothing. This kind of fearful person might therefore be very religious, theistic. However a similar person might also greatly fear God and might thus be inclined to reject God, choosing another and maybe an atheistic meaning of life. There is no doubt that there is always an emotional side and predisposition to atheism and to a person's decision to reject God. 

d) The Will The will is the faculty of deciding and execution. Various options are presented to the person, either from the senses, the emotions and the intellect, from society, culture or religion. The person decides if he wants or does not want to do, to think, to say, or to be something and then does something about it. The act of evaluating and executing is called the will. God is also an object of the human will, in so far as man can choose to accept (believe in, love, obey, adore, serve, hope in) or to reject (to have nothing to do with God). In this sense man can choose to be theistic or atheistic. Many people, for instance choose to have nothing to do with God, not because they disbelieve in his existence, but because they do not want Him. This type of decision on the part of man is often based upon decisions regarding morality, or due to a repulsion towards the religion that he knows, or the way he conceives God to be.

 In concluding this anthropological clarification, the principle point to be made is, that while atheism is usually defined as an intellectual rejection of the belief in the existence of God, this definition is somewhat limited. Man, or human nature has various dimensions that are all interconnected, and some of these dimensions in connection or rather together with the intellectual faculty of human nature may also be atheistic in character. Thus, man may be intellectually convinced in the non-existence of a God. He may also be emotionally atheistic, as also with his will, he may choose to be atheistic, to reject God, not so much with regard to the question of existence (ontology), but with respect to his own life and person. Thus, one hears at times, 'for me God does not exist.'

 1.2.2. Cultural considerations

 Earlier it was noted that there are various cultural influences upon the way in which one conceives God, conceptions of God that the atheist rejects. The atheist rejects certain and limited conceptions, or presentations of God to the mind, to the emotions and to the will. One might say in other words that each atheists rejects his own conception of God and this can greatly vary, according to the individual, to the philosophical and cultural influences at play.

 However there are also cultural considerations to be made with respect to the various types of atheism that occur within a society, and within the world. Culture is always changing, either evolving or corroding. Connected to culture is what might be called the general world-view. The world-view is based upon or formed by the previous culture or cultural world-view, and the present world-view is what is forming the culture and the cultural world-view of the future.

 Some cultures are more prone to atheism than others, as are also some world views. At this point, rather than speculate or theorize, one can make a brief survey of the history of world cultures and can see that the majority have been very un-atheistic. God or the gods been essential, and therefore are incapable of being divorced from life and fate. The thought of been separated or abandoned by God was something terrible. God had to be thanked for all good, He had to be beseeched for all needs. This is the situation of African, Oceanic, Indigenous and Hispanic American, Indian, Turk and Arabian, and the practical side (not theological) of far eastern cultures. It was the situation of European cultures up until the seventeenth century, when an atheistic spirit started to grow and evolve in European society, effecting the various nations, societies and cultures and various moments over the last three hundred years. Atheism is really a modern European phenomenon, which has of course been influencing other non-European cultures.

 Within this general area of European, or actually western culture, we find various cultures or cultural trends, which have strongly effected the world-views of so many. Such cultural trends are secularism, humanism, individualism, collectivism, consumerism, materialism (soviet). There are also various and very influential sub-cultures such as the modern sex culture, modern music and drug culture and finally the TV-video culture. A culture that is certainly developing is the computer and internet culture.

 Although all of these trends are not necessarily atheistic (materialism being certainly an exception), they are however, prone to producing atheism, be it intellectual, emotional, or of the will. In this sense, while it would seem stupid to speak of the atheistic renaissance or the atheistic monarchies, it does not seem stupid to speak of atheistic consumerism or atheistic sex-culture.

 There is little doubt that these cultures and sub-cultures support and encourage atheism, and are somewhat responsible for it in subsequent cultures. Latter, some of the reasons that led to the atheistic environment that expresses itself in these cultures will be considered. First, it is necessary to make a division of atheism, which should help to clarify a little bit further the preceding chapters.

 1.2.3. Theoretical atheism

 The theoretical atheist is one who rationally and intellectually denies the possibility for the existence of (a) God. He can explain why there is no God, he attempts to show that the idea of a God is illusory. He is clearly intellectually atheist. There is little doubt that the theoretical atheist is influenced by his emotions and by his culture (directly or indirectly-rebelling against it). His atheism tends to be philosophical.

 With respect to the previous section, and the examination of history, it seems quite evident that the manifest or inherent theoretical atheism of various individual philosophers and philosophical schools had a major role to play in the birth of atheistic cultures.

 Theoretical atheism while often caused by skepticism, is also a cause of skepticism which in turn leads to both theoretical and practical forms of atheism. Within atheistic cultures people are often educated or at least inspired to be theoretical atheists.

 1.2.4. Practical atheism

 The practical atheist, is one who with or without theoretical elaboration, lives his life as if there were no God. He organizes both his private and public life without any consideration of the absolute principles or values that transcend both human and individual values. Atheism in this form is therefore very similar to indifferentism. Practical atheism is very much on the level of the emotions and of the will, as has been considered above. It is primarily forms of practical atheism that arise in the modern cultural contexts.

 


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