The Story of Atheism

The Story of Atheism January 5, 2009

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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