Monday, 1 August 2016
The Irrationality of Atheism
The word atheism is constructed from the Greek word for God, ‘theos.’ God was spoken of by Plato as ‘ho theos,’ meaning ‘the god’. With the addition of the Greek privative particle, we have ‘atheos’, meaning ‘no god,’ or ‘godless.’
So, one might imagine that the derived term ‘atheism’ is a legitimate pair with ‘theism,’ the one indicated the idea of no god, and the other the idea of God. You can be inclined to one or the other according to your disposition, your culture, or your education. Both are apparently rational concepts, and both can be used in rational argument.
It is peculiar that Plato spoke of the creator of the world (though the actual work of the creation was done by the demiourgos, in order that there should not be too much of the divine about the world) as ‘the God’, which seems to imply a single divinity. The Greeks were polytheists, with a large pantheon of gods, and many stories about the gods’ lives and relationships. They paid divine honours to them at their birthplaces and their shrines, and sacrificed to them. So the idea of ’ho theos’ needs to be explained. I will return to this interesting question later in this post.
Atheism, in the sense of not believing in god or the gods, or giving the idea of them any credence, is an idea which is very old. The people who ransacked ancient tombs and holy places in antiquity, did not show reverence to those places, their contents, or the gods who were honoured by them.
It is easy to understand how the idea that the gods or divinity were not in any sense real might have come about. We do not see them, and we do not see them act. We do not hear them talk, or give advice. They are altogether invisible to mortal man. What we have are stories about them, places venerated as the place of their birth, and their holy sites. All of which could have been made up by the priests who honour them, and maintained the divine cults. Their images in wood, metal and stone were made by mortal craftsmen, after the pattern of the descriptions of the divine in poetry and myth. Many of these divine cults had become extremely rich over centuries of patronage by rich benefactors and many pious pilgrimages to their shrines. The show spoke of unimaginable wealth. But the gods themselves were nowhere to be seen.
So an intelligent individual might come to the conclusion that the pomp and circumstance of holy ritual and temple life, most of which took place behind closed doors, was a fiction devised by the priestly cults, in order to maintain their own wealth and power.
This is one side of the story – the part which it is easy for us to understand. The cults create stories and images around the idea of the gods, and gain power and prestige for themselves and their gods. The intelligent individual does not know anything of the mechanics or the purpose of the fiction. He simply has no reason to treat the divine as something real.
Some other intelligent individual, having been at one time a neophyte in one of the divine cults in the ancient world, will have known something of the details of the fiction. But as a disbeliever in the reality of the gods, it does not matter to him what there might be to understand. His mind is made up. The complexity of the myths and rituals mean nothing, and suggest nothing to him which he would benefit from knowing.
Of course, it is possible to object to the reality of the gods, while holding to the idea that a single god is real. This view might be arrived at by a form of logical argument, along the lines of: only God is real, everything else is illusory. This is the view that the author of the Book of Enoch took. In which case the apparent and iconoclastic atheism of the individual is actually the extreme expression of the idea that there can be only one God.
In this case, everything apart from the idea of a single god, apparently divorced from the whole of the physical creation, and the representation of other aspects of the divine through sculpture, ritual and cult, is illusory and false. The representations might be ascribed to the work of demons, who strive to distract us from our proper purpose, which is to pay due honour to the one god.
The point I’m making here is that we have to be clear about what is in the mind of those who appear to be atheists. There are those who think that there is no such thing as the divine, and that the very idea of the divine is a fictional presence in the world, created by those who are credulous, or who are cynically exploiting the credulity of the majority of mankind (or both). Most modern atheists are of this kind.
Those who did not understand the origin and function of the various divine cults in the ancient world, and rejected them, but who embraced the idea of a single god, were not atheists. They were simply against the plurality of the gods. They too could destroy temples, shrines and statues of the gods, but had the notion of a purer ‘cultus deorum’ in their heads.
We can describe these individuals as monolaters or monotheists, though they are not the same. The monolaters follow one god, however they arrived at the notion. Their single god does not need to have a philosophical aspect, by which its singleness is put beyond question. Monotheism however does imply the presence of a degree of philosophical debate around the uniqueness of god. In the Book of Malachi for example, Jehovah is presented as saying ‘I do not change’. So the Hebrew god is beyond a political and tribal conception.
Returning as I said, to the question of Plato’s term for God, ‘ho theos’, it is clear that his conception of God is purely philosophical, as we might expect. He is described by his master Socrates (himself accused of impiety towards the Gods) as having ‘no form, shape or colour’, and we know from other parts of Plato’s work that ‘ho theos’ has a nature which is beyond change. His nature is transcendent of all the categories of experience and understanding.
Plato is writing about a God who is in fact Reality itself, in that the properties and attributes of his god are identical with the properties and attributes of his understanding of transcendent reality. We cannot see it, measure it, and it has no presence in the secular world as itself. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that this conception of Reality is equivalent to the conception of a nothingness, a void, and an absence. This conclusion would be foolish: I’ve written elsewhere of the notion of Reality as a plenum, as something which is undefined and unlimited, and which is beyond the conception of something which is absent. Absence implies presence, and transcendent Reality is beyond both absence and presence.
Atheism can mean many things, but ordinarily it means the lack of a belief in God. Or rather the lack of a belief that God has some form of existence, or the property of being something which is real, as opposed to a figment of the human imagination. But consider, if the definition of God is Reality itself, and not an entity which just occupies some part of the universe and has powers and properties attributed to it, then the atheist is in effect denying the reality of a transcendent reality, which lies behind all the phenomena of the universe, its laws, its properties, and its very existence.
Atheists do not deny the existence of the world, its laws and properties: they just argue that the concept of God is not required to accept the world, and to have an understanding of it. They are of course at a loss to explain how the world came to be, and why it should have come into existence. They have no explanation for physical existence of anything, and no explanation for the existence of spatial dimensions and the phenomenon of time. These are not important questions for atheists in general, since the important point for them is that they are not credulous people, and not people who put their faith in the fictions which are promoted by most formal and informal religions, particularly in the modern west.
But if God is Reality itself, then to deny the reality of God is effectively to deny the reality of the world and everything in it. In which case even the illusion of the physical world can never be properly accepted or explained. Atheism itself is therefore a form of privation, in which nothing can make sense beyond the casual acceptance of physical reality, and about which no great questions can or should be asked, and where even the laws of the universe are the way they are for no reason that might be understood.