Andrew Brown, writing in the Guardian, notices some interesting stuff about belief and disbelief, and nearly gets it right. Alas, no–but it is instructive to look at the interesting stuff, though.
There are as many atheisms as there are gods. We spend most of our lives disbelieving in things without wasting time asking why, and quite right too. So what is it that makes some particular forms of disbelief intellectually fertile or socially significant? Nick Spencer’s short history of atheism goes a long way towards answering this question, and anyone seriously interested in religion and irreligion today should read it.
Well… yes and no. As both my regular readers know, I like the privative definition of atheism; by that definition, of course, atheists did not and could not exist before believers did. “Godless” presupposes a god. There are no “flightless tables”, even though no tables fly; there are “flightless birds”, though.
What Brown gets wrong, though, is that he confuses “nonbelievers in god X” with “atheists”. There is already a perfectly good word for non-believers in the Christian God: heathens. Non-adherents to Islam are infidels; non-Jews are goyim. These are not different types of atheist, though–a heathen may well be a Muslim; a Jew may be an infidel; Christians are goyim. Not all religions have this us-them binary, but clearly a great many do.
Over in Greece, the logical difficulties of an omnipotent and benevolent God were clear as soon as people got the concepts of omnipotence and benevolence straight. Everything you needed to be an intellectually fulfilled disbeliever in the Christian God was in place by the birth of Christ.
And everything you needed to not believe in Zeus was available the moment Zeus was. All you need is something to create the positive category, and the privative, negative category is the logical consequence. But Brown doesn’t see that.
One answer, Spencer suggests, is that important atheism is always secondary to theism. For any particular atheism to matter, there must be an important conception of God to be rejected; in that sense, atheism is closely related to blasphemy. And the concept of God is itself extremely flexible: some are so strange as to be unrecognisable as gods to other worshippers, which is one reason why the early Christians themselves appeared as atheists to the pagans around them.
Arguments against God’s justice, such as those we see in Babylon, are not arguments against his existence: they are arguments about his character, which presuppose that he has one. Modern atheism, in the sense of a rejection of Christian monotheistic conceptions of God, doesn’t really get started until the 18th century. But by the French Revolution, modern western arguments were clear except for the faith in science, which emerged in the next 100 years.
Yes, of course, atheism depends on religion, logically, as I said above. But atheism does not require a rejection, nor does rejection of a religion’s tenets equate to atheism. As often as not, those who disagreed with a particular tenet of Christianity simply started their own denomination. Martin Luther disagreed with the Catholic church; by Brown’s logic, that makes him an atheist? Joseph Smith–atheist? Oh, hell–here’s a list of founders of religions; by Brown’s logic, each of them are atheists about whatever other religions they might have followed but did not. “[A]rguments about [God's] character, which presuppose that he has one”, are far more likely to be reasons for the splitting of and establishment of new religions, rather than reasons not to believe.
Of course, he is wrong. Being a non-believer in X does not make you an atheist. It makes you a non-believer in X, that’s all. Sometimes there is a label–heathen, infidel, goyim, or perhaps hundreds or thousands more–but there is no need.
The study of how these arguments spread and ramified into their modern forms turns out to be historical and political, rather than philosophical. It was impossible to separate a reaction against Christianity from a reaction against the Christian church, and so the forms this opposition took was determined by the role of the church in the societies involved.
“The” Christian church. See? He’s doing it again. There is not one Christian church, with those who do not believe all atheists. There are hundreds (or thousands, or tens of thousands, depending on how you define them) of Christian denominations, and they are not always even on speaking terms with one another. One can be a Christian and not believe that Catholics are, or that Mormons are. Or one can be a Christian and include those groups among one’s own ingroup. More importantly, one need not be an atheist to disagree with fundamental tenets of a religion. “[A] reaction against the Christian church” can lead to atheism, or to yet another version of the Christian church claiming to be the right one.
Too bad. His first two sentences showed promise. So close.