The Story of Atheism

In my previous post, I wrote some thoughts on the power of storytelling and how atheists can use it to our benefit. In this post, I intend to apply those principles to tell a story: the story of atheism.

Because gods are fundamentally human creations, this is also a story of humanity. It opens in the time when the human race was newborn, when we had first come of age as conscious beings who could look around and conceptualize the world. I don’t know the exact nature of the beings in whose minds these ideas first appeared – they may not have been modern Homo sapiens, but they were undoubtedly our ancestors and deserve to be described as such.

The end product is somewhat similar to my atheist psalm, “The Gods“, somewhat similar to treatises on the origins of religion like Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. In the name of narrative convenience and brevity, some details have been omitted from this story. Nevertheless, I think it captures an adequate, if simplified, account of events in our past that actually happened. Editorial suggestions are, as always, welcome.

In the beginning, Humanity was lonely and afraid. We had tremendous potential, but we were still simple creatures, knowing only the rudiments of survival, and at the mercy of a world that was chaotic and full of danger. Like children lost in the wilderness, we knew that we existed, but not where we had come from, nor what happened to us when we died.

To ease our loneliness and fear, in our imaginations we filled the world with other people: people who lived in fire and water, in earth and trees, in sun and moon. From what we knew then, this was reasonable: after all, the only other things we knew of that reacted to us with as much complexity and inscrutability as these natural phenomena were our fellow human beings. And if the natural events that governed our lives were personified, then perhaps those people could be supplicated in times of trouble, perhaps they could be persuaded to have mercy on us. But because these other people were invisible, we called them spirits; and because we could not control the seasons or the weather, we reasoned that these spirits must be more powerful than us.

When agriculture was discovered, our population expanded and we became sedentary. But this meant we were even more dependent on nature’s favor, and staying in the good graces of the spirits became even more important. Thus, in our eyes, they became more powerful still, and were elevated from spirits to gods – invisible beings who had power over our lives, and who had to be appeased above all else. This was the birth of religion, as our duties to the gods became formalized, crystallizing from folk superstitions about what had seemed to bring prosperity in the past.

These ideas stayed with us, and as our knowledge and our civilization expanded, they too began to grow in scope. As tribes merged into nations, the gods ran together, like drops of water merging. When war was kindled, the rulers sought to fill their people with courage by assuring them that the gods were on their side and would see that they prevailed over the enemy – or, at worst, that their spirits would end up in a pleasant afterlife. And as human power continued to grow and nations were forged into empires, the gods of the victors grew ever more powerful, the success of their worshippers tangible proof of their expanding dominion over the earth.

At first, the gods and the earthly ruler were one, and the voice of the king was assumed to be the voice of the divine. Through assertions of power both earthly and in the afterlife, their sway was initially absolute. But as the gods grew in power and influence, it became more advantageous to claim the right to speak for them. This was especially true when disaster struck a society, when the rulers had made bad decisions and their link to the gods could be doubted. Small wonder, then, that prophets began to appear who preached that the existing authorities were corrupt, that the gods wanted something different of us, and that they had had an insight into this new path. And small wonder, too, that the more persuasive of these prophets attracted followings of their own.

What this led to was a decoupling of religion from the state apparatus and a flowering of religious creativity as new sects of every kind arose, expressing all the creativity of which the human mind is capable. Wherever there was a human need unmet by the existing society, new religions sprang up promising to fill it. Of course, the state-run religions still existed and often lashed out harshly at their competitors. In other places, new religions grew in power until they became the established authority, or were coopted by an existing state whose rulers found their tenets to be useful. And old religions that had become bureaucratic and impersonal were often outcompeted by younger, more vibrant faiths and dwindled away, their gods’ voices fading to nothingness as their followers died out and their temples crumbled.

All this was the pattern of human society for millennia. Belief in differing gods led to bloody wars between societies, but also sustained a shared cultural identity within a society, leading to a stable equilibrium. Every era had skeptics and doubters of the established faith, but few of them gained any great following, since they had no alternative religion to offer on which they could build a power base. But in one society in particular, there came an era of enlightenment, when great thinkers dared to ask questions of the world… and in at least one time, at least one place, there were enough skeptical minds put together to fan the embers that had been smoldering throughout human history into flame. The scientific age had dawned.

At its essence, the scientific era was underlain by a simple, revolutionary idea: statements about the world should not be accepted on the basis of faith, but proven by open and systematic testing. But simple as it sounds, the advances it brought us were immense. Fired by the thrill of discovery, the heralds of the scientific age sent their new paradigm sweeping out over the world like a universal acid, dissolving the superstitions and dogmas that had for so long impeded our thinking.

In the light of science, the natural phenomena that had once seemed so inscrutable, so humanlike, lost their mystery as the hidden rules underlying them were laid bare in all their grand, mechanical glory. We peered into the dark and discovered that the cosmos was not a place of thundering spirits or leering devils, but a vast machine, one whose guiding principles meshed with all the harmonious elegance and regularity of great gears. Even life itself, so long thought to be supernatural, was revealed to be another machine, albeit a particularly complex and subtle kind. The deities and demons that had once dwelled the interstices of our ignorance washed away like sand in water, as we learned about the origins of the world, of the human species, of the mind. At least in part measure, we have grasped the truth, and learned that it was far more intricate, more satisfying, and more wondrous than the imaginings of our youth. Science does not have every answer, nor does it offer guidance for every aspect of life, but when it comes to finding out how the world works, it has no equal.

The reverberations of this era of change are still with us. We live in a time, one ongoing since the Enlightenment, when the old certainties of faith are shifting underfoot. Every sect has dealt differently with these changes, but none have entirely avoided them. Some people are moving their gods into ever more rarefied realms to escape the relentless probing, crafting deities whose existence is indistinguishable from their nonexistence. Others, more militant, are reaffirming the old creeds with fiery zealotry, denouncing scientists for their godlessness, and boasting and cheering one another for their stubborn clinging to faiths that are childlike in their ignorant simplicity. Still others, probably the majority, have come to a reluctant accommodation with the scientific outlook, but banking their hope on finding tangible traces of the gods in the shrinking areas we haven’t investigated – an unsustainable compromise, whether they know it or not.

And now, into this new world, come those who did not grow up in the shadow of gods, and who have taken the simple, revolutionary step of asking why we should believe any proposition for which there is no evidence. The crude fundamentalisms of humanity are all alike in their falsehood; the unfalsifiable beliefs are all alike in their irrelevance. In place of chasing these shadows and clutching at these mirages, this new generation of free thinkers has come to the realization that we should turn our attention to the things that are real, that are verifiable – the only important things. In place of trying to appease phantoms of our imagination, we should turn our attention to bringing goodness into this world and easing the burden of our fellow creatures.

The atheist view can seem cold and comfortless to novices, for it does not promise that all our hurts will be succored. Nor does it give us guardians hovering above to guide our steps. But where atheism requires us to abandon the consolations of childhood, it brings in their place the maturity of adulthood. Instead of clouded sight, it brings clear vision. Instead of gods and angels to watch out for us, it brings the realization that we must look out for each other. We live in a vast and uncaring cosmos, but we have each other to depend on, and the freedom to succeed or fail by our own efforts.

This is our story, and we are all characters in it, as well as the storytellers. But unlike any other character, we see the story we are in, and our choices will write the next chapter. In spite of everything, the darkness of our past may come sweeping back, and our future may be a fall back into the same precipice we have been painfully climbing out of. Or the slow, frustrating, yet upward trajectory of history may continue, into a bright future that surpasses our imagination as far as the truth surpasses the imaginings of the past.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Brad

    I think this narrative is useful, especially for how accessible it is, for telling the story of humanity and religion sans gods. I can make predictions, though, where believers would find difficulty accepting particular plot claims. Seeing the “welcome” mat laid out on the front porch of your post, I think I’ll step inside and take a look around. Following are my many but small editorial suggestions.

    p1 – “We had tremendous potential in store, …” (accurate and foreshadowing)p1 – “… not where we had come from, nor where we were going” (makes more sense in context, although loses afterlife remark)p2 – “supplicated beseeched” (if you’re going to simplify, then be consistent) p2 – “control the seasons or the weather, the cold night skies or the daily burning sun, …” (seemed to be missing something) p3 – “became sedentary settled in permanent homes.” (simple) p4 – “ran together in our minds” (easier to visualize) p4 – “pleasant blissful afterlife.” (rings better) … p8 – “blind faith, … impeded our thinking and closed our minds.” (more pointed) I’ll add more later.

    Perhaps you’re thinking of telling your story of atheism in your new book, Ebonmuse, right before the epilogue?

  • Brad

    Sigh. UL and LI tags are disallowed in actual comments, but not in the previews apparently.

  • Luke

    I love the story of atheism. Thanks for telling it so beautifully.

    When do we get more details on your book?

    BTW, I’d love to review the chapter on morality if you’d like some thoughtful criticism.

    Keep up the good work, Ebonmuse.

  • OMGF

    I’m not so sure that referring to the universe as a machine or our cells/bodies as such is a good idea. This is the thinking that ID advocates try to exploit to claim that life/the universe has been designed. I’m not sure how else to express the thought at the moment (I know, some help, right?) but it’s something to look out for.

  • Steve Bowen

    I’m not so sure that referring to the universe as a machine or our cells/bodies as such is a good idea.

    Yes I have my doubts about this too; a watch implies a watchmaker to the literal mind. emergent structure might be a possibility, if a little prosaic. This I think is at the heart of the problem for an Atheist story. The religious narrative is simple and simplistic, the scientific one can be complex and crafting “Just So” tales run the risk of alienating the science literate and misguiding the rest. The endeavor is definately worthwhile though.

  • nfpendleton

    Some parts of the story are a tough sell, as stated above. But so is, “…and they hang him on a cross so that Man may have everlasting life…”

    Don’t forget the talking snakes and prophets darting around on flying horses.

    Keep at it. With enough work and a little luck, the truth will out.

  • Fargus

    Wonderful effort, Ebonmuse. Longtime reader, second- or third-time commenter here.

    I agree with some of the comments above concerning referring to the universe and its contents as “machines,” but I don’t see an easy way out of it, at least linguistically. You could say that the world and everything in it are natural outgrowths of the rules that govern the universe, but this is all personifying language. Just as a machine implies a creator in peoples’ minds, rules imply rulers, governance implies governors, etc. The problem seems to be more implicit in language than I’d realized before.

  • Brad

    I honestly never took issue with the term “machines.” If wanted, the second instance could be replaced with “machines of the earth,” implying a ‘creator’ of sorts yet not promoting intentionality or intelligence in it. Also, “clear” can be replaced with “clarity,” and I would replace “storytellers” with “storymakers” or “authors.”

  • cl

    Good writing.

  • Joffan

    “Machines” in this context means “predictable systems” – which would be a reasonable substitute. The allegory of “great gears” could stay even with that change.

    To me, this phrase seems to spring out of nowhere: “… we should turn our attention to bringing goodness into this world…” and I would prefer something more on the lines of “we should turn our attention to further improving our understanding of the world, including each other, …”.

  • Ebonmuse

    In regard to some earlier comments:

    I agree that the use of the word “machine” has some undesirable connotations. Unfortunately, I don’t think English has a word that better captures the meaning I wanted to convey. (This may go to underline my point: we invent gods because we attribute intentionality to the natural world; lacking any other frame of reference, we conceive of natural phenomena in the same way we conceive of our fellow human beings, as agents possessing desires and wants.) Terms like “emergent structure” or “predictable system” are more technically accurate, but too awkward for the kind of everyday storytelling I was aiming for.

    Still, I think even conceiving of the cosmos as a machine is an improvement. The one useful thing about the allegory is that we understand machines themselves don’t have desires – there’s nobody “in there”, but just a series of unintelligent parts which work in unison. Even if it leaves a gap for unfalsifiable intelligent first causes to slip through, it’s still superior to the supernatural view which conceives of every aspect of the universe as governed by inscrutable, anthropomorphic agents. The world as a machine, imperfect as it is, nevertheless is a step up over the demon-haunted world.

  • Ishryal

    Well, instead of machine one could use automaton. Basically the same thing, but with less ‘insert creator here’ baggage. A machine also suggests a level of intelligence… something that is just automatic doesn’t (IMO).

  • Waialeale Mike

    I’m “afraid” you lost me at “beginning” and “alone and afraid.” I believe humanity is an emergent quality and I’d hesitate to say it had a beginning, more that it emerged over time, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.
    Were we ever “alone and afraid?” No more lonely than a chimpanzee or gorilla. Maybe in modern society, we’re even more alone. We likely evolved from a social primate and always had members of the tribe or family unit nearby. As for afraid, I’d guess we’re more afraid today — since we have more time to sit around and think of things to be afraid of. And then there’s the politicians, lawyers and insurance salesmen whose task is to make us afraid. Oh yeah, I forgot the preachers teaching hellfire and damnation. At least the monkeys don’t worry about going to hell and being tortured for eternity.

    Interesting article in NewScientist this last week. “Born Believers: How Your Brain Creates God.” It discusses several God theories gathering traction among scientists — personally, I don’t believe they’re incompatible. And certainly doesn’t envoke the supernatural. And maybe they’re not incompatible with your Psalm, just another way of putting it.
    I won’t bother summarizing the article, but it’s probably good reading for most atheists.

    Waialeale Mike

  • Laura Tas

    This is so beautifully written. As a new Atheist I am loving your website and am blown away by this piece. Thank you!

  • LaplacesDemon

    Outstanding prose and amazingly insightful ebonmuse. I too am not happy with the word “machines”. I suggest that you replace it with the phrase “after countless millenniums the forces of nature gave order”. That not only solves the problem of “deus ex machina” but gives some basis for the actual process and turns the readers attention in a more productive direction.

  • LaplacesDemon

    In context it could read something like this:

    We peered into the dark and discovered that the cosmos was not a place of thundering spirits or leering devils. Over countless millenniums the forces of nature had given order to chaos. The result was an orderly system, with mathematically predictable principles, that meshed with harmonious elegance and regularity like the gears of a vast machine. Even life itself, so long thought to be supernatural, was revealed to be another machine, albeit a particularly complex and subtle kind. A machine that continues to evolve and adapt to survive in a sometimes hostile environment.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    That speaks to the awe I feel when I look up at the sky, or down at an ant.

  • Mark Fournier

    There are a few things missing in this explanation–what changed about religion that most people are not aware of, and what has not changed that many think has.

    Science was given its charter in the West as Natural Philosophy, as means of understanding creation and hence the creator. But for that, religion would have crushed the entire scientific and enlightenment project at the outset, but from Acquinas on, it was believed that understanding the world led you to a better understanding of God. When Laplace was asked by Napoleon, when he explained mathematically the wobble of the planets, what there was left for God to do, Laplace answered “I have no need for that hypothesis.” Napoleon was bold enough to laugh. But only when Darwin filled the last major gap for which God was required as an explanation was it clear where the scientific project was headed. Darwin was revolutionary in the sense that with him, science finally shook off the primacy of theology as the “Queen of Sciences” and walked on its own. From that point on, science and religion could at best be indifferent to each other, but a genuine antagonism was born. Christianity will never again be the ally of science, and this is a change that we must be aware of.

    What has not changed is the nature of religion. We in the West have grown accustomed to a domesticated form of religion, forced to conform itself to the discipline of reason and evidence because we live in secularized democratic societies. But religion has never been, nor will it ever be, content in this role. Even the most tame religion, the Anglican Church, is revolting against its limited position. Westerners are confounded by Islam because we have forgotten what religion is really like. We have forgotten that even Bhuddism, that supposedly most rarified and mystical of religions, is more than willing, and able, to become the most bloody tyrant if given the chance. It is a telling fact that when the Dalai Llama was exiled, many of the people of Tibet considered Mao an improvement. Now, how bad does a regime have to be to be considered worse than Mao?

    Modernity–which is largely a product of our scientific and technological expertise–may be described as the set of solutions which has enabled our current human population to exist and is required to sustain it. Without a hint of poetic license I would say that if you are tired of modernity, you are tired of life, and I would further add the question, whose life are you tired of? Are those opposed to modernity offering to die to bring back the primitive superstitions of the dark ages–and if they aren’t, who are they offering in sacrifice to their dark god?

  • Explorer

    I too am wary of the machine analogy and prefer something along the lines of ‘predictable system’ to describe the character of the universe. That’s a harder sell for life though, since much of life’s intricacy is not yet as predictable as we’d like.

    Dawkins “God of the gaps”, to which you’ve alluded in this piece, is an important concept here, I think. While some still cling to the hope that God will eventually be found hiding behind a quark, the rational among us see the limit of the equation – we may never eliminate all the possible hiding places for God, but the hiding places must inevitably continue to shrink, and the only rational conclusion is that if he has not yet been brought to light, then he is not in the ever diminishing places the light hasn’t reached yet either.

    I also agree to some extent with Joffan’s comment on “goodness”. While the vast majority of thinking beings may agree on the broad strokes of right and wrong, goodness is just as much a creation of the conscious mind as is God. The universe doesn’t care whether we love each other or slaughter each other.

    In all though, I agree with the consensus expressed here, that as a draft parable it is excellent.

    Finally, I want to take issue with Mark Fournier’s closing comment on modernity. To me the term ‘modernity’ applies to more than just the sum of our knowledge; it also sums up the folly of unbridled consumptive individualism. If I were to talk about rejecting modernity, it would not be in the sense of rejecting science, or indeed the validity of individual preference, but in the sense of rebuilding respect for community and nature. Western society could do with a bit more humility, frugality and selflessness.