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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