Author Topic: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion  (Read 2903 times)

Offline stromboli (OP)

Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« on: February 17, 2016, 09:00:33 AM »
http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/disbelieve-it-or-not-ancient-history-suggests-that-atheism-is-as-natural-to-humans-as-religion

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Despite being written out of large parts of history, atheists thrived in the polytheistic societies of the ancient world – raising considerable doubts about whether humans really are “wired” for religion – a new study suggests.

 The claim is the central proposition of a new book by Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture and a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge. In it, he suggests that atheism – which is typically seen as a modern phenomenon – was not just common in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome, but probably flourished more in those societies than in most civilisations since.

 As a result, the study challenges two assumptions that prop up current debates between atheists and believers: Firstly, the idea that atheism is a modern point of view, and second, the idea of “religious universalism” – that humans are naturally predisposed, or “wired”, to believe in gods.

 The book, entitled Battling The Gods, is being launched in Cambridge on Tuesday (February 16).

 “We tend to see atheism as an idea that has only recently emerged in secular Western societies,” Whitmarsh said. “The rhetoric used to describe it is hyper-modern. In fact, early societies were far more capable than many since of containing atheism within the spectrum of what they considered normal.”

“Rather than making judgements based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren’t intuitively there in your world. The fact that this was happening thousands of years ago suggests that forms of disbelief can exist in all cultures, and probably always have.”

The book argues that disbelief is actually “as old as the hills”. Early examples, such as the atheistic writings of Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570-475 BCE) are contemporary with Second Temple-era Judaism, and significantly predate Christianity and Islam. Even Plato, writing in the 4th Century BCE, said that contemporary non-believers were “not the first to have had this view about the gods.”

Because atheism’s ancient history has largely gone unwritten, however, Whitmarsh suggests that it is also absent from both sides of the current monotheist/atheist debate.  While atheists depict religion as something from an earlier, more primitive stage of human development, the idea of religious universalism is also built partly on the notion that early societies were religious by nature because to believe in god is an inherent, “default setting” for humans.

 Neither perspective is true, Whitmarsh suggests: “Believers talk about atheism as if it’s a pathology of a particularly odd phase of modern Western culture that will pass, but if you ask someone to think hard, clearly people also thought this way in antiquity.”

 His book surveys one thousand years of ancient history to prove the point, teasing out the various forms of disbelief expressed by philosophical movements, writers and public figures.

These were made possible in particular by the fundamental diversity of polytheistic Greek societies. Between 650 and 323 BCE, Greece had an estimated 1,200 separate city states, each with its own customs, traditions and governance. Religion expressed this variety, as a matter of private cults, village rituals and city festivals dedicated to numerous divine entities.

This meant that there was no such thing as religious orthodoxy. The closest the Greeks got to a unifying sacred text were Homer’s epics, which offered no coherent moral vision of the gods, and indeed often portrayed them as immoral. Similarly, there was no specialised clergy telling people how to live: “The idea of a priest telling you what to do was alien to the Greek world,” Whitmarsh said.

As a result, while some people viewed atheism as mistaken, it was rarely seen as morally wrong. In fact, it was usually tolerated as one of a number of viewpoints that people could adopt on the subject of the gods. Only occasionally was it actively legislated against, such as in Athens during the 5th Century BCE, when Socrates was executed for “not recognising the gods of the city.”

While atheism came in various shapes and sizes, Whitmarsh also argues that there were strong continuities across the generations. Ancient atheists struggled with fundamentals that many people still question today – such as how to deal with the problem of evil, and how to explain aspects of religion which seem implausible.

These themes extend from the work of early thinkers – like Anaximander and Anaximenes, who tried to explain why phenomena such as thunder and earthquakes actually had nothing to do with the gods – through to famous writers like Euripides, whose plays openly criticised divine causality. Perhaps the most famous group of atheists in the ancient world, the Epicureans, argued that there was no such thing as predestination and rejected the idea that the gods had any control over human life.

 The age of ancient atheism ended, Whitmarsh suggests, because the polytheistic societies that generally tolerated it were replaced by monotheistic imperial forces that demanded an acceptance of one, “true” God. Rome’s adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century CE was, he says, “seismic”, because it used religious absolutism to hold the Empire together.

 Most of the later Roman Empire’s ideological energy was expended fighting supposedly heretical beliefs – often other forms of Christianity. In a decree of 380, Emperor Theodosius I even drew a distinction between Catholics, and everyone else – whom he classed as dementes vesanosque (“demented lunatics”). Such rulings left no room for disbelief.

 Whitmarsh stresses that his study is not designed to prove, or disprove, the truth of atheism itself. On the book’s first page, however, he adds: “I do, however, have a strong conviction – that has hardened in the course of researching and writing this book – that cultural and religious pluralism, and free debate, are indispensable to the good life.” Battling The Gods is published by Faber and Faber. Tim Whitmarsh is A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture and a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

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The age of ancient atheism ended, Whitmarsh suggests, because the polytheistic societies that generally tolerated it were replaced by monotheistic imperial forces that demanded an acceptance of one, “true” God. Rome’s adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century CE was, he says, “seismic”, because it used religious absolutism to hold the Empire together.

 Most of the later Roman Empire’s ideological energy was expended fighting supposedly heretical beliefs – often other forms of Christianity. In a decree of 380, Emperor Theodosius I even drew a distinction between Catholics, and everyone else – whom he classed as dementes vesanosque (“demented lunatics”). Such rulings left no room for disbelief.

So monotheism works better as a control in a society than polytheism. May be a very good reason why the dominant religions are monotheistic today.

And it further cements the connection between religion and politics, how one works to reinforce the other. The current situation of a party that is leaning towards atheism and secular issues to the other party deep in the clutches of Fundamentalism isn't new, apparently. So a classic drama of old is being played out before our eyes.

I said once on here that what we are as humans was created in the hunter/gather period of our existence, and I still believe that. We invented religion during that period (Gobekli Tebe) 10,000 years or more ago. And since then have incorporated it as a political tool as well. 


Another book on the subject:

http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Pagan-Antiquity-B-Drachmann/dp/1500735051/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1455667444&sr=1-1&keywords=a.b.+drach
« Last Edit: February 17, 2016, 09:03:02 AM by stromboli »

Offline josephpalazzo

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #1 on: February 17, 2016, 11:47:54 AM »

Offline Baruch

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #2 on: February 17, 2016, 07:35:13 PM »
Individual "atheists" in ancient Greece were despised, and sometimes given a death sentence.  I don't see how this means we are wired for X or not.  All humans are wired for eating and shitting (unless you have a terrible birth defect).  I am not saying that atheists are genetically mis-wired ... only that they are "culture variant".

The other major atheists were the Lokayata in India ... they were a minority group.  The Buddha tried to skirt the issue, by saying that questions about the supernatural were unproductive.

What people meant by atheism varied ... sometimes is simply meant not slavishly following the local superstitions (see Athens).  Also inventing new religions was considered iffy ... specifically what Socrates was accused of.  Socrates followed the local customs.

So are we wired for culture X or culture Y?  I don't see the evidence.  If you adopted an English baby, who looked European, into a German family, and raised him German, I don't think he would be any different from any other German.  Religion is culture based, not genetic based.
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Offline stromboli (OP)

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #3 on: February 17, 2016, 08:13:21 PM »
Individual "atheists" in ancient Greece were despised, and sometimes given a death sentence.  I don't see how this means we are wired for X or not.  All humans are wired for eating and shitting (unless you have a terrible birth defect).  I am not saying that atheists are genetically mis-wired ... only that they are "culture variant".

The other major atheists were the Lokayata in India ... they were a minority group.  The Buddha tried to skirt the issue, by saying that questions about the supernatural were unproductive.

What people meant by atheism varied ... sometimes is simply meant not slavishly following the local superstitions (see Athens).  Also inventing new religions was considered iffy ... specifically what Socrates was accused of.  Socrates followed the local customs.

So are we wired for culture X or culture Y?  I don't see the evidence.  If you adopted an English baby, who looked European, into a German family, and raised him German, I don't think he would be any different from any other German.  Religion is culture based, not genetic based.

Its an article. Read the book.

Offline aitm

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #4 on: February 17, 2016, 08:59:38 PM »
I think the idea that humans are "wired" for religion is misapplying a humans desire for a "father figure". People love to be protected, when their protection is gone they try to find a replacement. Religion supplies that, although only emotional. God and jesus or Zeus and Odin are merely father replacements. They replace the dead father and offer the same protection a dead father does. Nothing but emotional.
A humans desire to live is exceeded only by their willingness to die for another. Even god cannot equal this magnificent sacrifice. No god has the right to judge them.-first tenant of the Panotheust

Offline Baruch

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #5 on: February 18, 2016, 07:00:49 AM »
I think the idea that humans are "wired" for religion is misapplying a humans desire for a "father figure". People love to be protected, when their protection is gone they try to find a replacement. Religion supplies that, although only emotional. God and jesus or Zeus and Odin are merely father replacements. They replace the dead father and offer the same protection a dead father does. Nothing but emotional.

You and Freud are exactly correct (Moses and Monotheism).  We are wired for a father figure, and a mother figure.  Sometimes this is manifested into politics, not religion.  This is what allows President Hindenburg to hand the Chancellorship to Mr Hitler.  We are wired for politics, not religion.  But when religion is one's politics ... then QED.  Aristotle observed, humans are social animals.  We are not individualists like Americans pretend to be (while rabidly conforming).  "Idiotes" is the Greek word for individualist.

In my case I am at peace with my human dead father.  But my heavenly Father ... no peace there ... who can live with such a monster?
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Offline Solomon Zorn

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #6 on: February 18, 2016, 07:35:57 AM »
I think human beings are wired for a number of different attributes, that make them susceptible to believing what their elders teach them, regardless of how implausible that teaching may seem.

Parents are wired to want the best for their kids, so they indoctrinate them early, hoping they will grow up to be "god-fearing" adults, and make it into  Heaven.

Kids are wired for curiosity, and wired for gullibility. Either one can be used by, a parent or authority figure, to train the uninitiated in the dogmas of faith.

Most people are wired to  anthropomorphize the inanimate - attributing conscious intentions to random events. I still occasionally find myself getting angry at objects, when they give me difficulty.

People are wired to try to control their world, including the other people in it. God is more of a means to an end than anything else. Prayer controls the weather's behavior, and holy proclamations control other people's behavior.

A religion free upbringing, and secular education, should eliminate most of the tendency to believe in a god.
If God Exists, Why Does He Pretend Not to Exist?
Poetry and Proverbs of the Uneducated Hick

http://www.solomonzorn.com

Offline SGOS

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #7 on: February 18, 2016, 08:27:08 AM »
I too once assumed that atheism was somewhat new, probably based on the fact that science, which has recently disproved so many religious claims, now makes enlightenment universally available to so many people.  Being exposed to knowledge also contributed much to the development of my own atheism.

But one size doesn't fit all.  We don't need science and evolution to be atheists.  Skepticism isn't some world view only available to intellectuals, especially when someone tells you there is an invisible man in the sky you can talk too, but only if you believe the right way.

Way back in the stone age, there had to be a few Ogs in the cave watching members of his tribe praying to the thunder for a bountiful harvest of wild tubers, and being perplexed by such non-senseical behavior.  He probably had intuitively figured out the more success came by looking for them at the  right time of the year, in places where they have consistently grown in abundance before.

I'm sure atheism has always been with us.  So much religious behavior requires so many absurd beliefs, that surely some people have always noticed and questioned.

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #8 on: March 01, 2016, 04:58:32 PM »
There is never anything wrong with questioning why, However, to imagine that there is nothing beyond our own existence is to be dull.

Offline aitm

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #9 on: March 01, 2016, 05:01:36 PM »
However, to imagine that there is nothing beyond our own existence is to be dull.
We already know there is a great deal beyond our existence. But to suggest it is magic is to be childish.
A humans desire to live is exceeded only by their willingness to die for another. Even god cannot equal this magnificent sacrifice. No god has the right to judge them.-first tenant of the Panotheust

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #10 on: March 01, 2016, 05:47:29 PM »
We already know there is a great deal beyond our existence. But to suggest it is magic is to be childish.

Magic and the miraculous are entirely two different things. God is supernatural and not supermagical.

Offline Baruch

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #11 on: March 01, 2016, 06:50:48 PM »
Magic and the miraculous are entirely two different things. God is supernatural and not supermagical.

Everything is supernatural ... because the division of the natural form the supernatural is a false dichotomy.  Most people don't understand magic ... magic is how your perception can be manipulated, not how the facts can be manipulated.  So supernatural and magic are not the same.  When some salesman convinces you to buy something, that you weren't planning on buying before ... he has cast a spell on you.
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Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #12 on: March 01, 2016, 07:58:43 PM »
Everything is supernatural ... because the division of the natural form the supernatural is a false dichotomy.  Most people don't understand magic ... magic is how your perception can be manipulated, not how the facts can be manipulated.  So supernatural and magic are not the same.  When some salesman convinces you to buy something, that you weren't planning on buying before ... he has cast a spell on you.
I disagree my friend.  Nothing is supernatural.  If it exists, it is natural.   I see only natural--nothing is beyond nature--well, except fiction.  Either it is natural, or it just isn't.
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent,
Is he able but not willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able or willing?
Then why call him god?

Offline aitm

Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #13 on: March 01, 2016, 08:30:37 PM »
Magic and the miraculous are entirely two different things. God is supernatural and not supermagical.

No…no they are not. You're inserting your personal bias into this, perhaps embarrassment about being so gullible or naive, or perhaps even stupid. But alas, there is a cure. Keep coming here for a few months and keep your mind open and you will flush away the stupid and be free of ignorance.
A humans desire to live is exceeded only by their willingness to die for another. Even god cannot equal this magnificent sacrifice. No god has the right to judge them.-first tenant of the Panotheust

Offline Hijiri Byakuren

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Re: Atheism As Natural To Humans As Religion
« Reply #14 on: March 01, 2016, 09:52:40 PM »
There is never anything wrong with questioning why, However, to imagine that there is nothing beyond our own existence is to be dull.
Key word here being "imagine."