Wednesday, June 30, 2010

a brave new world

My current reading of Robin Lane Fox [Pagans and Christians] not only informs me, like never before, of approaches to gods and religion in the period of the birth and spread of Christianity, it gives me some pause when contemplating approaches to atheism, especially my own. Some modern philosophers, such as Donald Rurtherford, and intellectuals such as Jonathan Miller, have emphasised the tradition of non-belief going back to the Graeco-Roman period and the likes of Epicurus and Lucretius, and of course there is such a tradition, but Fox and others show through their research that this tradition is very thin, a thin thread through a world thick with belief.

Pagans and Christians covers the Latin and Greek world in second to the fourth century of the Christian era, examining the actual religious practice of the time, as far as it can be revealed from inscriptions, contemporary reportage, and other archaeological and documentary evidence. There's very little place for non-belief. It's unlikely that even those who cynically manipulate the credulity of others - and there are plenty of them - are philosophical non-believers themselves. It's hard to think oneself into such a world. These days we think of paganism as something wild and primitive and vaguely counter-cultural, but essentially it was a Christian, pejorative term for the polytheistic religious beliefs and practices of Graeco-Roman rustics. Coming as we do from a culture of institutionalized monotheism, it's easy, perhaps, to fall into the trap of imagining these beliefs as protean, disorganised and ad hoc, yet in spite of a lack of centralized control and orthodoxy, they followed traditional lines and undoubtedly assisted in maintaining order and continuity throughout the empire. It would be impossible to explain how in a short, or even a long, blog piece, so I'll simply recommend Robin Lane Fox's delightfully detailed book [a long one too - I'm only part of the way through].
Amongst many other things, the book reminds me of just how new and revolutionary atheism is, in spite of De rerum natura. I recall Jack Miles, author of God: a biography, in an otherwise fair review of Dawkins [or was it Hitchens?], having a dig at atheists, those poor beleaguered souls, still battling away at irrational belief systems after more than two thousand years, and apparently getting nowhere. He failed to mention that when the term 'atheist' was used in earlier times, whether in the very early Christian period or during the Reformation, it was almost always in relation to other religions or denominations. Christians often described paganism as atheistic, and no doubt vice versa. It's really only since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the eighteenth century enlightenment that atheism has made much headway amongst the general populace, and it has been gradually growing in popularity ever since. Whole nations now proclaim themselves as largely non-religious - something unimaginable a few centuries ago. I credit this development to two factors. First, the rise and rise of science as a set of methodologies for making more and more sense of every aspect of our world, and second, a universal and compulsory education system that exposes people at an early age to those methodologies and to the value of thinking independently and sceptically.

Still, the deep-dyed religiosity of earlier, highly sophisticated civilizations does make me nervous or reticent about engaging in too much scorn of religious thinking. I'm bemused, for example, to read of the religious turn that Plutarch took in his later years, as I prefer to think of him as a brilliant this-wordly observer. I'm unsettled sometimes, I must admit it, by the sheer weight of religious belief, not just as we witness it in the present age, but historically, generation after generation after generation. I'm an atheist - and my parents? My father got himself hitched to the Jehovah's Witnesses some years before his death. When I went to his funeral and listened to the eulogy it seemed clear to me that these people knew very little about the man. Well, maybe neither did I? I've no idea whether he believed all that shite - he wasn't a very educated man. He refused to believe me when I told him that crucifixion was a common form of execution for non-Romans back then. He was intelligent but hopelessly unworldly. Anyway, the point is, he wasn't an atheist, and neither was my mother, and I can't go back further in the family tree than that, having been cut off from the grandparents and the extended families by our emigration to Australia from Scotland. Chances are, though, that my generation is the first atheist one. And this must be the case for a great many people. It really is a brave new world.

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