A New Book Looks at How Atheism Shaped Western Civilization

We often hear about how religious believers and their ideas and inventions shaped modern history, but less examined is how atheists — with their persistent questioning and challenging of orthodoxy — influenced the world in which we live.

Mitchell Stephens has written a new book exploring precisely that aspect of religion. (Call it the “Old Atheism,” if you will.) His book is Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

In the excerpt below, Stephens looks at unbelief in places where the written word wasn’t a part of society:

Atheism in one person or culture is not identical to atheism in another. Just as we have varieties of religions, we have varieties of disbelief (though they tend not to be so mutually intolerant). With the help of philosophy and science, atheism has strengthened and deepened in recent centuries. But atheism did not originate in recent centuries. The Cārvāka were remarkable, but they were not alone. Where it is possible to look, outspoken nonbelievers frequently turn up.

Indeed, a kind of unbelief also appears even where it is not possible to look directly: in societies that left no written record, in preliterate societies. Here, in trying to understand preliterate disbelief, we are dependent on the anthropological record: on Westerners who encountered these cultures in the last few centuries.

An account survives, for example, of a native of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific, early in the nineteenth century, whose unbelief had gone pretty far. That account comes from a British teenager, William Mariner, who was stranded on the islands when the natives captured his ship, and whose adventures and observations were later recounted in a book. The preliterate native of those islands with that skeptical perspective on religion was their king, Finow. “Finow had often stated to Mr. Mariner,” the book reports, “his doubts that there were such beings as the gods. he thought that men were fools to believe what the priests told them.”

Finow lived more than 2,000 years after that Greek nonbeliever, Diagoras. But his story — available to us only because he was visited by some Europeans — is a clue that in the tens of thousands of years before recorded history there likely were plenty of others who doubted “there were such beings as the gods.”

And Finow is far from the only preliterate nonbeliever in the anthropological literature. Among the !Kung Bushmen in southern Africa in the 1920s, some men believed that lions harbor the spirits of powerful dead Bushmen. But, according to the anthropologist Viktor Lebzelter, other members of the same tribe chuckled at the idea. That’s “just a tale,” they said. Another anthropologist, A. B. Ellis, describes the various reactions in a crowd at an initiation ceremony for some new Ashanti priests in West Africa in the nineteenth century. “The old people, particularly the old women,” he explains, demonstrated “the most implicit faith.” But many of the younger people “appeared skeptical, and some openly laughed.”

These were less carefully worked out and probably less sweeping forms of disbelief than that of the Cārvāka: in a preliterate society, less energy may be devoted to coming up with coherent and consistent philosophies. But even individuals in preliterate societies can marshal a pervasive and compelling doubt.

Anti-religious sentiments are difficult to measure in a society. they are often halting, inchoate or confused. And such sentiments are frequently submerged, since their expression can prove embarrassing or even dangerous. preliterate religions, like postliterate religions, can make life unpleasant for those who question their practices — and therefore their power. King Finow on the Tonga Islands was not unwise enough to express his doubts in public, but word that Finow was “disrespectful to the gods” got around. He died suddenly — probably poisoned by a priest.

Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World is available online and in bookstores beginning today.

If you’d like to win a copy of the book, just leave a comment below telling us about your favorite historical atheist and use the hashtag #OldAtheism to be entered in the contest. I’ll contact the winner next week!

(Excerpt reprinted with permission of Palgrave Macmillan)

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