What Is An Atheist ?

07/21/2016 12:14 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2017

"So shall I do to the freshest things now reigning, and make stale the glistering of this present" (TIME, as the Chorus in The Winter's Tale by Shakespeare)

ATHEIST. noun. One unconvinced about the God of his epoch.

I am supposing human ingenuity will arrest or repair human degradation of the planet, and even if a catastrophe does occur, a portion of humanity will persist and continue to evolve for hundreds of thousands of years, or millions. We mustn't think that we, or our great, great, great grandchildren, are special enough to cause or witness the death of our species.

Most of us do not permit evolutionary time, or even historic time, to penetrate our thinking and judgment. We act as if history and evolution have stopped. We seem to think we arrived late to the story, as if our present moment is the pinnacle and term of history and evolution, as if there are not as many years ahead as behind. We think the human species has reached it's summit--in us.

But surely those who lived thirty thousand years ago thought they too were the apex and term of human life. Cro-Magnons would have agreed that they had reached the very height of ascendancy for human development, with no more to expect.

Picture Cro-Magnons saying to one another: "It can't get better than this, right? We have our well-appointed cave, our bear-skin clothing, our stony tools. Most of us live to the ripened old age of five sets of five. As to knowledge, we can count to five, and we can count by fives, and we can anticipate rain if the skies look grimly. We are the absolute peak of human evolution!"

And they were--at the time. But thirty thousand years followed Cro-Magnons, to date, with considerable improvements in the species. Thirty thousand years will follow us too. And thirty thousand more will follow that. And thirty thousand more after that. Can you begin to think of thirty thousand years from now?

Though there have been a million years since our species emerged, historians mark only six thousand years of (recorded) human history, and they divide these six thousand years into ten periods: remote antiquity, antiquity, late antiquity, early middle ages, middle ages, late middle ages, early modernity, modernity, late modernity, post-modernity.

Thirty thousand years from now historians will wipe this nomenclature clean and re-label the first TEN thousand years 'x' and say of it, "Well, that happened, and then..." The 'and then' is currently beyond the capacity of human imagination to conjure, but it may entail radical human manipulation of evolution, the emergence of super-humanoids, space travel and contact with life on planets elsewhere.

Time & Religion

All theories of religion work best when applied to ancient religions that flourished thousands of years ago but are now dead.

For instance, a given theory might say religion is an error perpetuated by uncritical indoctrination of children: childhood lessons leave psychic impressions deep enough to carry religion into old age for generations on end. This theory 'works' as one explanation of the success of ancient dead religions. How did presumably erroneous religions last for thousands of years? There must be some answer. Indoctrination of young people is one plausible response among others.

Atheism can also 'work' when applying it to ancient dead religions. Suppose an ancient Egyptian doubted the existence of his epoch's Egyptian pantheon. Suppose this man was subjected to a barrage of criticisms from defenders of the faith. Suppose he had to support his own position and offer reasons for his incredulity. Suppose defenders of the faith offered credible arguments and he offered weak arguments.

No matter how marginal this man's skeptical ideas were, no matter how inept he might have been in presenting his views, no matter how he mis-handled the internal dissonance and public isolation resulting from his rejection of childhood indoctrination, no matter if he was indeed the only skeptic in the nearly four thousand-year epoch of Egyptian religion, we know, from the distance of two thousand years since Egyptian religion died, this ancient Egyptian 'atheist' was correct: No Gods actually graced an ancient Egyptian pantheon.

We could imagine another such 'atheist' during the nearly four-thousand-year epoch of ancient Summerian-Akkadian-Babylonian religion: he too was right. If there was a person immersed in ancient Norse religion but doubting it: that person was also right. And on and on--of all those who disbelieved all those now-dead religions.

Ancient skeptics doubted because there WAS something incredible in the theologies of their epoch, though most people at the time could never espy a cause for incredulity when those religions were in full flourish.

I speak of single 'atheists' in the epochs of ancient religions, but there could have been hundreds or thousands of ancient skeptics (quiet ones). For all we know, there might in fact be a steady-state of five percent (or ten percent or twenty percent) of a population in any epoch that is skeptical about their epoch's religions.

Our Epoch

Should our epoch be any different if this is the track record for historic religions? Is it part of our temporal myopia to think our religions will escape judgment thousands of years from now? Will our epoch's atheists be considered correct in thousands of years?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said one epoch's religion is the next epoch's literary entertainment. We enjoy ancient Greek religion as a literary event called mythology. But ancient Greeks didn't call their religion mythology, did they? They called it theology. They believed in those Gods. Visit Greece today and you'll see it in ruins--and the ruins are the very real remains of ancient temples to Greek Gods that did not exist. And yet the epoch of ancient Greek religion existed for two thousand years.

There's a twist to time and religion. Though time is corrosive of old beliefs it also evolves new beliefs. If God exists and is an immutable thing, God is nevertheless portrayed in human images that are ever changing. How people image and render God has evolved and improved over many thousands of years. We have a kinder image of God than ancient peoples. And people living thousands of years from now will have a better idea of God than we do, although some people in that future will be the atheists of that epoch: they'll be the dissident few who see flaws in the local images of God--flaws veiled to most at the time, but flaws completely obvious to another epoch thousands of years later.

Atheists of all epochs offer hints about the future of religion. Atheists divine the future of God.


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