It seems to me that Atheism is simply the opposite of Theism, Theism being the belief that God exists. Obviously, for this to be meaningful, we need to define what we mean by God. No one religion or theology can have a monopoly on the word by definition, or else all members of all other religions could be called ‘atheists’. God, clearly, is defined appropriately (though perhaps not exhaustively) as the Ultimate Reality, that than which nothing greater could be conceived – that which has all of the great-making properties maximally, exists such that it cannot not exist, etc etc. Take somebody’s view to qualify as ‘atheistic’ just in case they do not positively affirm that this ‘God’ exists.
Given this definition, it is striking just how many religious people are atheists. Buddhists, Mormons, and some religious observants belonging to non-western philosophical traditions, may be among ‘atheists’ in this sense. This point has occupied my mind lately, and upon further reflection a concomitant thought occurred to me.
In thinking about it, I just realized that a Theist could propose a Theistic parody of the Hegelian-Evolutionary model of religion. According to the Hegelian-Evolutionary model of Religion (henceforth HER) as it has often been presented (eg. in Josh McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict), religions naturally evolve from primitive forms of polytheism, to religious monotheism, then to irreligious monotheism (Deism), and finally to something like enlightened Atheism. According to this model, in tandem with what I will here simply call a ‘Wellhausian’ approach to the Old Testament, it is proposed that ancient Israelite religion was not Monotheistic until second-Isaiah introduced the idea of Monotheism in the ancient Near East. Thus, Moses was henotheistic, but not Monotheistic, since at the time of Moses the Israelites were too primitive to be candidates for Monotheistic religion. Similarly Hinduism developed Monotheism in several schools, and needed to marry its religious language with this new development which seemed to conceptually transcend former categories; thus it found a way to speak about Brahman without eliminating the need for, or legitimacy of, engaging in polytheistic religious expression.
Consider then the Greeks and Philosophy. The Greeks were polytheists, and were so in such a way that they would not qualify as ‘Theists’ according to the above definition of Theism. The whole hellenistic project of philosophy has often been read by moderns as being a religious-watershed which allowed people to question and explore the world without accepting the ready-made answers of their polytheistic religion(s). Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Socrates, later Plotinus – these people dared to think freely, and it is interesting (at least to me) that they were all unanimously led to be monotheists and Theists (at least approximately). In fact, the Greek project of philosophy was often seen by the Church Fathers to be an example of a sort of Natural-Christianity or what we today would call Natural Theology. Justin Martyr argued that Plato was clearly a Christian, since what he was glimpsing philosophically was a radical form of Theism which Christianity introduced more persuasively. Clement of Alexandria argued of Philosophy, that just as God made a special covenant with Israel which was the school-master leading ultimately to Christianity (namely, the Torah) so the Greeks were given the covenant of philosophy which acted as the same for them. Philo of Alexandria said that the Greek philosophy was that “than which no more perfect good has come into the life of mankind” (Cited from F.E. Peters Judaism, Christianity, And Islam: Volume 3: The Works of the Spirit, p.264).
I have often thought before, but it has dawned on me even more clearly just tonight, that this is probably best explained by the fact that man has the ability to find God beyond religious categories and without any revelation from God of himself – and this seems the best explanation of why, whether by religious evolution or philosophical inquiry, the best and brightest classically have always been led to be Theists. What is more, I think that the HER is no more confirmed by the Greeks than would be a Theological version of HER (Call it THER), where THER would imply that this religious evolution is aimed at Theism as its end, and not Atheism as its end. On THER, mankind will always come eventually back to the insight of Theism by reason alone, whether with religion or not. Perhaps the evolution is aimed precisely towards realizing Theism, and anything which obscures this is simply backwards (whether religious or not). Plato, the Hindu schools of Theism, Confucius, Spinoza – these people were not moving towards becoming atheists anymore than Jesus of Nazareth was. They were moving towards Theism. The Greeks were leaving behind an atheistic polytheism for a philosophical Theism. They were thus moving precisely away from Atheism and towards Theism. In fact, the only evidence I can think of to prefer HER to THER is the evidence of the development of the Western intellectual tradition’s shift since the enlightenment towards a kind of empirical Deism which prefigured the now realized Atheism. However, for the greater part, this can be considered an exception to the rule observed in all other times, places and cultures, and only a kind of chronological (and geographical) snobbery can privilege it as the natural narrative of philosophical evolution. I think that in moving away from Theism the Western world has, far from moving beyond Theism, simply regressed back into a more sophisticated version of the non-Theism extant in polytheistic systems. One can see this with a view to how radically different Theism is conceptually from Polytheism, and draw an analogy from that to the difference between Theism and what is typically called Atheism today.
I recognize that those are bold and speculative thoughts, but it has always seemed to me that this picture of the evolution of intellectual traditions reaching their zenith in Theism, rather than Atheism, better fits the whole range of clues which any evolutionary model of religion/philosophy is intended to integrate into a coherent model. Moreover, the postulate is verifiable; if true, then the development of the intellectual tradition in the West is bound to bounce back to a robust Theism – and I read the radical shift back towards classical metaphysics and Theism in Western Philosophy since the 1950’s to indicate something like the first sings of this inevitable trend.
Isn’t it interesting, as a final note, that the first people to ever earn the title ‘Atheists’ were the early Christians, who stood defiantly with the philosophers over against the atheistic religious pagan polytheists. This irony seems to contradict the thesis just presented, but it seems to me that the kind of ‘Atheism’ of which Christians were being accused was itself as radically different from any kind of metaphysical-nihilism which characterizes Naturalism today as it could possibly have been.
[Note: I edited this post when, upon re-reading the original, I realized that what I had written was terribly unclear, thus I made some substantial revisions. It is significant that these revisions came as I was reviewing the post precisely because it somehow earned me the label of an Atheist blogger – however, I sincerely believe that my revisions did nothing to take away from the basic effect of the original post, which was unambiguously anti-Atheistic.]