The Three Phases of Atheism

Atheism has been around, in various forms, for some time now. At the risk of oversimplification, one can speak of three phases or periods of atheism.

Types of atheism have been in existence in antiquity. In ancient Greece Socrates was accused both of atheism and of corrupting the youth. But there were many different meanings of atheism then, and they could often be contradictory as well. But generally, as in the case of Socrates, it meant denying the Athenian gods and the traditional religions of the day.

The wide diversity of meaning associated with the term back then can further be seen in the fact that the early Christians were even accused of being atheists by their critics. Of course for ancient Rome, an atheist could be anyone who would not worship the official deities of the Roman state. Thus political concerns tended to trump religious concerns, and refusal to bow to the emperor and imperial symbols, for example, was seen as sedition.

It is only the second phase, or modern atheism, that most people would recognise today. This was part of the modernist project, especially the Enlightenment. It is most well-known and associated with the French Revolution. Modern atheism is much less nebulous and ambiguous than its ancient counterpart, and the term means much more specifically the explicit denial of the existence of supernatural beings.

Names like Voltaire, Feuerbach and Marx come to mind here. These and other thinkers offered a more nuanced and sophisticated version of atheism, and as such, it can be seen as a relatively recent innovation in Western intellectual history.

Modern atheism has developed over the past few centuries, and won many converts. But a third phase might be demarcated, known as militant atheism, or the new atheism. The new atheists are not only true believers in their cause, but also believe that until atheism reigns supreme, the world will always be in strife. Until all religion is eliminated, and atheism takes its place, the world will find no rest. For according to the new atheists, religion is the root of all evil. Indeed, religion simply is evil.

Older atheists could be quite scathing about religion, but the new atheists hold nothing back. They are savage in their attacks and explicit in their aims: they want to see the elimination of all religion. Nothing less will suffice. They are true evangelists for atheism. I refer specifically to three men: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

They all have new books out extolling the virtues of atheism and the evils of religion, which are selling like hotcakes. These books are, respectively, The God Delusion; Letter to a Christian Nation; and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, all published this year. Together they mark a new and more militant war against religion and all forms of faith claims.

A very interesting article which features interviews with these three along with an assessment of their atheism appeared in the October 13, 2006 WIRED magazine. Entitled “The Crusade Against Religion,” it is written by a contributing editor of the magazine, Gary Wolf. In the article he examines these three thinkers closely and describes their holy war in detail. I encourage all of you to have a look at this article (see link below).

Just a few quotes can here be featured. Wolf is certainly not a believer, but he does see, like many others, a disturbing aspect to this new atheist project: “Contemptuous of the faith of others, its proponents never doubt their own belief. They are fundamentalists.”

He concludes his lengthy article this way, “The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there’s always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.”

Another interesting commentary on all this is a piece by Albert Mohler from his website on November 21, 2006. In it he interacts with the WIRED article, and offers his own assessment from a decidedly theistic point of view.

Says Mohler, WIRED “consistently offers significant intellectual content and it takes on many of the most controversial issues of the times. Considering the relatively young readership of the magazine, the decision to put atheism on the front cover indicates something of where they think the society is headed – at least in interest.”

After interacting with the article, he concludes, “The very fact that Wolf remains unconvinced by the arguments promoted by the New Atheists is itself significant. What Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett – along with the other New Atheists – really demand is that society must place itself in the hands of a new and militant atheistic priesthood. Science as defined by these new priests, would serve as the new sacrament and as the means of salvation.”

If religious fundamentalists can be a cause of concern, it seems that these atheist jihadists are equally of concern, perhaps even more so.,71985-0.html

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