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A Little Thanksgiving Godlessness

Because nothing says “Thanksgiving” like a scholarly disquisition on godlessness, I feel now is the right time to return to the subject of atheism.

On this day of family and gratitude I want to draw your attention to the solid and occasionally spectacular Cambridge Companion to Atheism edited by Michael Martin. The contribution of greatest interest to me is “Atheism in Modern History” by the philosopher Gavin Hyman.

Hyman’s article is something of an intellectual thrill ride, interrogating Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Feuerbach, and Marx in the span of 17 fevered pages. Intellectually swashbuckling as the piece is, I hope that Professor Hyman will forgive me for concentrating on just a few aspects of the article.

These help correct widespread misconceptions about atheism, two of which I will list here:

Glaring Misconception 1: Atheist identity is timelessly stable and consistent. There is basically one way to be an atheist and it has been operative since the days of the Athenian polis. We atheists are so cognizant of who we are that we can spot one another in crowds. Much in the way that anonymous bald men on the street feel a sense of solidarity with one another, we atheists can visually bond with our atheist brothers (we note with sadness that we lack for sisters) in public spaces.  Also, at the circus our gaze is drawn almost reflexively to the atheist clown.

Glaring Misconception 2: Atheism has no connection whatsoever to theism. We owe those believing bastards absolutely nothing. The atheist worldview was born fully formed like Athena bounding out of the head of Zeus and holding a copy of Atlas Shrugged.

Readers of Hyman’s study would be quickly disabused of such notions. For starters, his analysis helps us to re-think the odd conceit that atheism is one thing and has been one thing for millennia.

Any serious student of atheism understands that this is an absurd proposition and Professor Hyman offers us a good reason why this is so:

[I]f definitions and understandings of God change and vary, so too our definitions and understandings of atheism will change and vary. This further means that there will be as many varieties of atheism as there are varieties of theism. For atheism will always be a rejection, negation, or denial of a particular form of theism.

Atheist identity is dialectical; it develops in relation to the type of theism one is rejecting. That’s why the atheist from a Pentecostal background may share so little in common with the atheist from a Jewish upbringing. These wide divergences in identity, incidentally, might explain the well-known challenges of mobilizing atheists for political action.

Professor Hyman also notes that pre-modern forms of theism differed radically in their basic epistemological assumptions from modern ones. Aquinas’ infinite God, which could not be apprehended by reason or language was dramatically distinct from the God conjured up by Descartes and Locke.

That Modern God was conceived as a “thing” which could be in some way understood through rational analysis, empirical observation, and so forth. Modern God had a “substance, an “identifiable location,” a “function.” And it is this conception of Modern God—which I sense Hyman sees as absurd—that invoked the ferocious dissent of theorists such as Marx and Feuerbach and generations of latter day atheists.

If this is the case—and many other scholars make similar points in different ways—then we must see modern atheism as growing out of modern theism. In Hyman’s words atheism arose “from a revolution within theology itself . . . the origins of modern atheism are ultimately theological.”

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