Atheism’s Ancient Creation Myth

Atheism’s Ancient Creation Myth September 10, 2014

The cardinal rule for writing a book is starting out strong with a memorable story, anecdote, or aphorism.

Frequently the promise of those first pages is enough to keep the readers glued to the rest of the book even if it doesn’t live up to the promise. Michel Foucault was a master at this, for example, when he began Discipline and Punish with the enthralling story of a regicide’s quartering. Tolstoy masterfully pulled his readers into the brick called Anna Karenina with a mere sentence pronouncing on the happiness of families. Augustine initiates his readers into the Confessions with an intense prayer. Finally, Italo Calvino’s novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler begins by telling its reader in details how they should kick back, relax, and read the book.

Nick Spencer’s well-received evolutionary account Atheists: The Origin of the Species does the same for the history of atheism. His hook is so good that I couldn’t help writing out the first page and a half of the book for you. What’s amazing is how the rest of the book keeps up the promise of the first pages (I’ll be writing about that soon enough).

Once upon a time there was a terrible monster that lived in the sky. No one had ever seen it because it lived a long way away, and because it was invisible, but everyone knew it was there because a long time ago it had shown itself to some clever men.

These very clever men explained how the monster had one head, three bodies and a thousand eyes, with which it could see into people’s souls. They told terrible tales of what the monster would do if it got angry but also of how kind it was if people would only worship it without thought or question. They explained how the monster had given them a powerful magic, which, if used rightly, would protect the world from evil.

Sometimes the monster would get angry and when it did the clever men would offer it sacrifices, dragging people into market squares where they would burn them alive, just to show the monster how much they loved it.

There's a lot more here than the opening story. It's actually a very sophisticated account of the origins of the many varieties of atheism.
There’s a lot more here than the opening story. It’s actually a very sophisticated account of the origins of the many varieties of atheism.

The people listened to the very clever men and believed them. But they still yearned to be free of the monster.

And then, one day, a few brave men, who had only ever pretended to believe in the monster, unearthed a chest of strange metal. The chest had been hidden by earlier, wiser, freer people, who had lived in the land before the monster came, and had known a better way of life.

Ever so slowly, the men began to work the metal, which they called ‘reason,’ using it to forge a new weapon, which they called ‘science,’ and they used ‘science‘ to attack the monster, and the very clever men. They had to be very careful at first because if anyone was caught using ‘science,’ they would be dragged into market squares where they would be burned alive, and indeed this was how many lost their lives.

But these were brave men, not to be fooled by fables or cowed by threats. Their band multiplied and their weapons grew in number and power until one day, a brilliant, reclusive rebel invented a super-weapon, which he called ‘evolution,‘ which could punch clean through the monster’s armored scales.

After that the attacks increased in frequency and ferocity until one day the rebels were able to show the people what they had long known themselves. The monster had never actually existed. It was just a tale told by the very clever men to keep themselves in riches and power. Slowly the truth spread and although some very clever men still cling to riches and power, and some very stupid ones still believe them, gradually, wonderfully, the world is being set free.

Spencer, a Catholic who is head of UK’s Theos Think Tank, concludes the opening myth of Atheists: The Origin of the Species with a dose of delicious skepticism:

Or so the story goes. Every culture has its ancient creation myth, and this is atheism’s, albeit one that is only about 150 years old. Atheism emerged in Europe through the services of reason, science, and evolution and in the teeth of often brutal religious opposition. In as far as the history of modern atheism is told, it is often a variant of this myth.

This book tries to tell a different story. This is not to say that atheism’s creation myth is wholly untrue. Creation myths are rarely wholly untrue. In this instance the tale is true enough to be believable, even if it’s not true enough to be true.

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