Class Warfare Blog

October 23, 2018

Mommy, What’s an Atheist?

Filed under: Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:29 am
Tags: , ,

I was reading a book review in The New Yorker magazine, which included the following:

“(John) Gray, author of a new book on atheism, Seven Types of Atheism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), taught at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and the London School of Economics before turning full time to writing, starts his book by offering a highly provisional and idiosyncratic definition of atheist: “anyone with no use for a divine mind that has fashioned the world.’

I am always fascinated by systems of categorization, especially those involving numbers of “types.” The numbers rarely come out as “non-mystical,” they are almost always a seven, or three, or twelve. How come there aren’t 22 categories, or 17?

In any case, I found the definition of atheism a bit lacking: the definition in widespread use is rather simple: an atheist is anyone who does not believe in your god. In other words, the definition is personal.

Most Christians are fairly ignorant of the early history (or really any history) of the Christian churches. Prior to Christianity being adopted as a Roman religion (which preceded it being adopted as the Roman religion), Christians were often accused of atheism because of their refusal to worship any of the Roman gods. As, I said, they lacked belief in “their god(s).”

A common trope of atheists is that we are all atheists, which according to my definition, we are. Ask any Jew or Christian or Muslim whether they believe in Krishna or Ahura Mazda* or Odin and they will say “no.” To any worshippers of those gods, they are therefore atheists. There are literally thousands of gods that have been created over our existence. (I have a list! Shut up, Senator McCarthy. But, yes, I do have a list, presumably incomplete, but with thousands of named gods on it.)

In the Bible, there is a clear history of the Israelites making the transition from polytheism to monotheism. No matter what the Bible says, it also says that Jews worshipped more than one god until about the sixth century BCE.

One of the questions addressed by the reviewer in The New Yorker piece was “Why are Americans still uncomfortable with atheism?” Quite a few points were thrown on the table to establish why this is still a question, but they left off one of the most important: the unrelenting campaign by fundamentalist Christians vilifying atheists.

I often ask folks who make disparaging statements about atheists: Do you know any? And, “How well do you know them?” Most of these folks do not have any atheist friends or acquaintances, at least that they are aware of. So, they have no basis for their opinion, other than what they have been taught. What they have been taught is that there is no morality without their god and their god’s punishments for infractions of its rules.

Currently it is well known that a Muslim apostate (someone who was formerly a believer but is no longer) is marked for death. The penalty for apostasy in Islam is death. So, it was in Christianity also. Many of the penalties for rules infractions in the Old Testament are death. Of course, many Christians say that their god is nor love and those old rules no longer apply. That may be so, But I notice all of their Bibles still have the OT in them and, well, there are six states in the U.S. that still have blasphemy laws on their books (Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming).

Theists are taught that atheists are not to be trusted, that we are amoral and a danger to their way of life. Surely this is part of the reason that atheists are trusted less in the U.S. than any other identity group.

So, how do you define atheist? And, really, does it matter? If you are going to smear someone you barely or entirely do not know, do you care whether the epithet is accurate? Do you care if you actually understand that person at all? Or should you just blaze away rhetorically and legally until the danger is vanquished? (And is the danger to you personally, or to your god technician’s job?)

* Zoroastrians believe in one God, called Ahura Mazda (meaning ‘Wise Lord’). He is compassionate, just, and is the creator of the universe. Ahura Mazda is:
Omniscient (knows everything)
Omnipotent (all powerful)
Omnipresent (is everywhere)
Impossible for humans to conceive
The Creator of life
The Source of all goodness and happiness.

Sound familiar?

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