A PHILOSOPHICAL EXAMINATION
ATHEISM IN CULTURE
3.1. A static view
In the following sections a brief examination of various cultural forms of atheism will be made. So far, through the introduction and the section concerning theoretical philosophy we have seen that the word 'atheism' can have a great diversity of meanings related to the two aspects of the word atheism, derived from the Greek, a-theos, which consists of two particles.
1) a- The particle of negation. We have seen that there are different ways in which God is rejected, intellectually (Feuerbach), morally -volatile - (Nietsche) and emotionally (Sartre?).
2)a-theos, The Greek word 'God'. The definition of this name, God, or the conceptions that people have are most varied. a-theos can signify monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, deism. It can also carry with it as many varied psycho-emotional attitudes as there are people in the world. So far we have been looking at the question of atheism with this in mind. We have looked at philosophies and philosophers in the different ways they have rejected or negated God, and at the different conceptions of God that they have tried to reject. We have tried to examine the whys and the hows at work in the minds of the more important of the 'atheistic philosophers', also taking their Sitz im Leben into consideration.
In the following pages, atheism will be considered in an entirely different way. Atheism will be understood as 'no-Godness' of a particular cultural reality. This no-Godness can signify an intellectual rejection of the existence of God, it can also mean a lack or absence of a conception of God in a cultural experience. However, in the following pages God will be understood as supernatural, spiritual being with attributes of personhood, intellect and will. Consequently the theme from now on will be considering God primarily in a European (Christo-Judaic and Moslem) way.
3.1.1. Greek Culture
In examining ancient Greek culture and its attitude to the divine or to Divinity there are several points which should be taken into consideration. The first aspect of particular importance is the evolution from mythical polytheism towards philosophical-metaphysical monotheism, from finite Gods to an infinite God, from personal deities to an impersonal God, from theism to a form of deism. The second and more important point is the development within the philosophical dimension of Greek culture, from a form of materialism to the above deistic type of dualism.
The first philosophers, Thales, Anaxamines and so forth attributed the Urstoff of the world to some material (determined or undetermined material reality). Accordingly the essence and principle of all things is material. The logical consequence of this philosophy is obviously an exclusion of God as above conceived. At the same time it is unlikely that these philosophers rejected the official gods. However, these gods like Zeus and Hercules were, from philosophical position, super humans, divinized men. Men with divine or excelling attributes rather than metaphysical gods with human characteristics. In its acceptation of these gods or such a type of divinity, Greek culture was slow to accept and easily rejected the type of unique and transcendental God, the first Cause, the Prime mover of all other things.
Cultures influenced by Buddhism are found particularly within the cultural ambients of south east Asia during the time period of the last 2400 years. The first point to be made is that Buddha proposed a way of life rather than a religion or a faith in God or a god. Although Buddhism nurtures many of the external characteristics of religions, monasticism, meditation, morality, spiritual directives, a final goal (nirvana), various devotions and holy books, it does not propose faith in God, nor is it concerned with the existence of God.
Even thought it is open to the concept of the after death, it conceives this state as being a positive nihilation of oneself into the nothingness of the great one nirvana. The fact that Buddhism (even when certain forms of it tend to divinise Buddha), does not posit as part of its doctrine, the existence of God, implies that its system is intrinsically atheist. With its spiritual path and concept of the after death, the inclusion of an infinite personal deity would mean an inherent contradiction within the system.
Buddhism, however, is not atheistic in the sense of being anti-God, it is rather an absence of God that marks the original needs and the developments that have given rise to Buddhism.
The Chinese cultural and religious ambient is very unique, even when marked by strong Buddhist influences. The Chinese as a people, and not so much their various schools of philosophy, have a remarkable conviction of and belief in the after-life as well as, of the immortality of the human person. Thus, their various rituals and devotions are very much colored by this conviction.
As a whole the concept of God was somewhat removed from their lives, to a semi-deistic type of belief. God was Tien-Zhu or Sheng, the one who ruled the heavens, and the mediator between God and the world was through the Emperor. It would therefore be wrong to consider the historic Chinese cultural ambient as atheistic. It is rather somewhat semi-deistic
The Soviet cultural ambient has been already touched upon in relation to the various Russian and Marxist philosophers. Within the Soviet society, atheism was official policy for sovietism tried to control and order all elements of society and life, including the cultural and religious.
What is of interest at this moment is the influence atheistic materialism, as a philosophy and as an ideology, had on society and upon the people. It was in this particular sociological-type where the Pisarevian ethics, and the Chernyshvevskian aestethics were to be realized. It was here that the idea of Lenin that philosophy must be subjected to the Party was realized.
Further, in Soviet society there was an almost pure development of atheistic educational programs, health care, bellistic science. All of these developments had undeniable and serious anthropological consequences. One needs to only think of the attitude to human rights, on the one hand, and to the conception of the family, on the other, fewer children, working wives, family size conditioned by the size of apartments, taxation and social benefits, the attitude to abortion and so forth.
3.1.5. Modern European and North American
In modern European society one finds many atheistic characteristics formed often under the influence of the philosophies of Sartre (especially in France) of Freud, through the sex revolution, and attitudes which are semi-atheistic through the anti-clericlaism of Voltaire, Roseau and Nietsche.
Under the influence of consumerism and the break down of local cultures, the European finds himself in a somewhat cultural oblivion, within which he must face many diverse ideas and ways of life, which are judged by contemporary society to be all equal and deserving of the same respect. Thus, there has arisen a crisis of faith. The cultural foundation has been knocked and religious belief has tended to become one of the ways of life, either equal to other ones or in many cases it is the lesser among equals.
The atheism of both Europe and North America tends, however, to be very much a practical form of atheism, not the intellectual denial of God, but rather the moral exclusion of God from one's life usually due to a disagreement with religious moral norms or the commandments of Christianity.
A second phenomena is a re-evaluation of religious doctrine. Many reject atheism, believing in a God, but tend to reject many of the dogmas of Christianity, often due to the seemingly contradictory position to be found when contrasted with scientific theories and other philosophical systems and ways of life.
While the European man tends to question the existence of God, i.e. is open to doubt, the North American tends to have a certain need for religion, partly based upon the concept of being American, and the foundation of American society on faith in God. (Semi-masonic type of faith).
3.2. A dynamic view:
In the preceding section we have considered various cultures and atheistic characteristics that are therein contained. However, limiting oneself to the study of individual and independent cultural examples does not allow for a fuller vision of this cultural phenomena. Therefore, a look at various trends within (at least western) culture will be made. It is hoped that this will provide a comprehension of the changes that were at play over a period of several centuries.
3.2.1. Renaissance Ț Humanism
After the regaining of political stability in Christendom (tenth century) the cultural and intellectual dimensions of European society started to develop. One of the characteristics of this development was the new knowledge of and interest in the Greek and Roman classics. The universities provided a major channel for such knowledge. A second event that had a major cultural effect on Europe was the Moslem conquest of Byzantium. Many Christians fled to the west, accompanied by scholars and those of great culture. Europe began to experience the Renaissance: an interest and appreciation for ancient culture and an attempt to produce a new culture through various artistic and architectural works, as also in the fields of literature and music (somewhat retarded!).
An important evolution to be noted is a theological effect on the mentality of the people. In the era of Scholasticism the goodness of nature and the material and physical world was affirmed, a victory was won over those who advocated the evils of the same, i.e. the Albigensis and Manichaeans. This meant that nature deserved attention, awe and love. It was exalted on the spiritual level and now it ought to be exalted by human forces within the realm of human society and culture.
Over a period of three centuries great works of art and architecture were produced. Human nature now had a place within the world view of European society that it did not have previously. By the seventeenth century and especially the eighteenth, the phenomenon of humanism started to become very relevant. It was a Renaissance spirit revolting against religious limitations in the sphere of knowledge. Now man and nature were not only esteemed and valued but a strong stress was also made on the importance for man to enjoy his existence in this world to the utmost. In the humanistic mentality there is a clear conviction that it is man and this life which are important, and God and the supernatural are secondary. Thus humanism had certain atheistic characteristics and it provided an important part of the foundation for many forms of nineteenth and twentieth century atheism. The Renaissance provided the foundation for humanism.
3.2.2. The loss of the mystical (Creation takes the place of Creator)
Within this process of evolution from the Renaissance to Humanism, there is one important thing to be noted within the changing of the intellectual and cultural world vision. Until the time of the mature renaissance people thought through the category of the mystical. God was the one who gave meaning to the lives of people, God, the one who is so great that one can not properly conceive Him. God was the cause of all things and human existence, God was the end to whom all should direct their lives. Human life and society was to be ordered in such a way that it be in harmony with the Divine. All human activity ought to be a glorification of God just as the rest of nature and the world is a glorification of God.
However, with the Renaissance the mentality of people, especially the educated and cultured, began to change. It was humanity, and nature that were worthy of glorification. The meaning of man's life is terrestrial and the important goal of man ought to be the greatest use of nature and of his own humanity. Man himself was in the process of discovery and he himself was to be discovered and wondered at.
Accordingly the sense of the mystical was lost. The Creator was no longer given the important and essential cultural meaning that He had once been given. Man himself became the mystical and the creature thus took the place of the Creator.
3.2.3. Theistic cultural ambient Ț a secular humanist
Here a change from a theistic cultural ambient to a secular humanist can be seen. In the first moment, culture is dependent on God and conditioned by religion. In the second moment culture and society are conditioned by the conception that some people have regarding the meaning and the dynamic of human life.
It is important to realize that this transformation has occurred within most of the first and second worlds. In the various cultures, it has occurred at different times, at different velocities and in various degrees. Likewise, it is important to remember that the term 'culture' is somewhat difficult to define clearly on a practical, as opposed to theoretical level. When 'definition' means a process of conceptual distinction or separation, the practical definition of Russian culture or Italian culture for example becomes either impossible or very vague. For, within individual cultures there are many sub-cultures, thus, for example, within twentieth century soviet (atheistic) culture there were certain theistic cultures (sub-cultures).
3.3. A religious view
In continuing to examine the cultures of Europe, in particular, over the last centuries, changes in conceptions regarding religion and God also become apparent, as also do changes in the feelings for God or of the need peopel and peoples have for His help.
Various developments, not connected directly to religion have effected religion and to a certain extent provided a cultural basis upon which latter atheism could find a basis. The following paragraphs will examine religious trends and the subsequent changes which took place in culture.
3.3.1. Protection of God Ț domination of nature
With developments in the areas of science, man found that he was more capable of dominating nature or at least of being more liberated from the domination of nature: thus, the great events of the middle ages, the great voyages and explorers. Nature was no longer mysterious and frightening. Man began to discover the laws of nature, as of physics and chemistry. Likewise, huge developments were made in the area of medicine. Towards the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many new things were discovered, from automobiles and submarines to the light, the radio and the telephone.
Before all these events and discoveries, man was less independant from the laws and forces of nature, than he is now. Consequently, he was naturally more dependant on God. People relied on God to protect them from the dangers of nature, from all that can take life or can be damaging to it. Similarly, people relied on God to provide the good things of nature, so as to benefit human life and society, be it rain or sun; God was implored and thanked for these gifts.
3.3.2. God: answer and explanation Ț Scientific knowledge of world
In a similar way God was understood as the first cause and the exemplar cause of all things. Thus, man often could not explain things from a natural perspective due to his ignorance of nature. God was thus, the explanation of all things and in the same way the Bible and religious beliefs were also used to explain and to understand the various phenomena in both the world and in the anthropological and social dimensions of mankind.
The developments which took place in this perspective meant that human knowledge was less dependant upon the theological, not just in the scientific realm but also in the realm of the common and private world-views of people and peoples.
3.3.3. Position of Church becoming politically & culturally stronger
Due to various political developments, the position of the Church or religion became stronger within the sphere of politics and culture. This strength was partly due to the riches held by the Churches. But it was also a natural consequence of the intellectual and cultural maturity of the clergy and the ecclesial institutions of education. There was also that moral strength which the Church and religion had, which was able to greatly influence not just society in general, but also in a particular way the cultural and political dimensions of whole nations.
This strength often provoked a reaction which became paramount to a rejection of religion and the Church, due frequently to a common confusing of religion and politics and the inability of people to distinguish the two, whether practically or in theory.. Thus, the rebellion against political forces was often seen as one against religion. In some senses it was; the confusion being attributable to both Church and political leaders among others This rejection of religion paved the way for the latter moral and political acceptance of atheism.
3.3.4. Crisis of truth with division in Church: Reformation
One of the greatest causes of atheism in Europe was certainly the Protestant reformation, and this for two reasons.
For Protestant theology, man, his body, his deeds, and all of nature is intrinsically evil. Even through the salvation of Christ this intrinsically evil nature remains. Man therefore always sins, no matter what he does. A consequence of this thought is that man can do anything he likes and therefore live without God.
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