Genealogy of Atheism

Genealogy of Atheism February 9, 2018

Gavin Hyman (A Short History of Atheism) doesn’t think contemporary atheists are aware of the origins and cultural conditions of their own unfaith. They suffer from “a lack of awareness of atheism’s own origins, of the historical, philosophical and cultural matrix out of which it emerged, of its own deep implication with the religion, or better, theism, against which it defines itself, of its own situatedness and cultural specificity” (xiv).

Specifically, they aren’t aware that their unbelief is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Hyman defines modernity as the conviction that the present is inevitably, unequivocally superior to the past: “at the heart of the notion of modernity was the conviction that the contemporary is intrinsically superior to the past because we have progressed from there to here. The modern way of thinking and acting is not simply an alternative way to that of antiquity; it marks a movement of improvement” (xvi).

Modernity also involved a new conception of the self, which implied a new conception of God in relation to the self: “When humanity considers itself to be the only true subject, then everything else becomes an object in relation to it. This includes God, who now becomes an object of thought, like the rest of reality which is being mastered and controlled. When God becomes an ‘object of thought’ (rather than the source of all thought), then one would expect the resulting conception of God to be qualitatively different from that which prevailed before. Indeed, one of the central arguments of this book is that this was indeed the case. The advent of modernity brought with it a transformed conception of God, a distinctively ‘modern’ theism” (vii). The faith atheists disbelieve is a modern faith.

This genealogy relativizes atheism, but also raises questions about its viability and credibility in a post-modern situation. As confidence in modernity erodes, will atheism be able to hold its own? As Hyman puts the question, “if the world in which we live is no longer straightforwardly ‘modern’ in the way in which it once was, then the plausibility of atheism cannot but be affected. So too, if the distinctively ‘modern’ manifestations of religious belief are themselves being transformed into something else, this may well make the atheistic apologia less pertinent” (xv).

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  • enchess

    Well that’s just about the most condescending thing I’ve read this week. I’m not even sure where to start…

    1) atheism doesn’t have a geneology like Christianity does. Nobody becomes a Christian in a vacuum. They only convert by exposure. People do become atheists in a vacuum.
    2) atheism isn’t just against modern religion. Many atheists views are entirely decoupled from any instance of religion. There reasons for disbelief apply just as much to 1st century Christians as they do to 21st century Christians. To say otherwise shows profound arrogance and ignorance.
    3) it’s true that religion became less viable as it became more modern, making more people ”’see the light’ so to speak. The cage of the religion they were raised in became a poor illusion, but now that the illusion is shattered a better illusion will no longer fool them. Besides, post-modern religions fare as badly or worse than modern. If anything the march of time favors atheism.

    I know I’m likely wasting my time, but seriously nothing good is capable of coming from this dishonest thinking. It aggravates atheists because is so clearly dishonest and it makes the religious arrogant and ignorant.

  • schini

    Atheism, at its core, is the disbelief in gods or deities (or supernatural things in general). That is not impacted by the religious now having a “conception of God to be qualitatively different from that which prevailed before”
    That is a bit like saying “OK, our old version of god was bullshit, would you consider this new and refined version?”.
    No we would not. We do not believe in the existence of gods, whether we like or dislike your “conception of god” (attributes of your alleged deities) is irrelevant.

    I think, deep down he knows he lost the argument, now he’s trying to drown us in words.

  • Fast Atheist

    I think, deep down he knows he lost the argument, now he’s trying to drown us in words.

    I think he’s just trying to cash in. The religious head nodders pay good money for stuff like this.

  • ravitchn

    There is simply no evidence, never was any, that god is anything but an invention of people with serious need for consolation and help. It is the weak, the conflicted, the mentally ill who need god. Healthy people with intellect and common sense do not need god.. I believe that most so-called believers actually only pretend to believe in god for social reasons; most of the clergy also only pretends.

  • guadalupelavaca

    It’s not Atheism. It’s Hatetheism.

  • Erp

    For those interested in other discussions of the book
    by Daniel J. Lindford which gives some more details about the changes in theology

    Second The Journal of Religion in Europe 5 (2012), page 127 (behind a paywall, DOI:10.1163/187489211X612839) by Benjamin B. DeVan notes that Hyman is dealing with modern European atheism not atheism in general (i.e., not India[1]). The review seems to be a fairly complete summary of the book.

    [1] Though it is argued whether atheism in India is an European import or a native development or a mix. See the chapter on India by Johannes Quack
    in the Oxford Handbook on Atheism 2013 doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199644650.013.018 The Handbook btw also has chapters on From the Pre-Socratics to the Hellenistic Age. Now Hellenistic atheism was different from modern European atheism (all things change) but it did exist.

  • enchess

    Even the phrase “import” applied to atheism and the differentiation of modern European atheism and Indian atheism feel deceptive. Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. There are no “flavors” of atheism or geneologies. This whole idea is an artificial way to equate atheism with religions to try and tear down it’s credibility (which it’s so ironic that equating atheism with religion is the way religious try to discredit it)