Monday, 26 August 2019

On the Rise and Fall of Atheism

The term “atheist” is derived from the Greek term “atheistos,” which refers to one who denies the traditional religion of the Athenian establishment. In Ancient Athens denying the existence of the gods was a punishable offense. The Athenians forced Socrates to commit suicide because they believed that he was an atheistos. However, Socrates was not an atheist in the modern sense—in the Platonic Dialogues, he does not deny the existence of supernatural entities.

The 18th century Enlightenment philosophes can be seen as the first major propagandizers of modern atheism—disgusted by the corruption of the religious institutions, they made an intellectual and political case for a godless society. They were convinced that society can be liberated through an atheistic revolution. In his book The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, Alister McGarth gives a good account of modern atheism. He begins his book by noting that the fall of the Bastille in 1789 marked the rise of the modern atheism, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the recognition of the fact that an atheistic nation is uninhabitable:

"The remarkable rise and subsequent decline of atheism is framed by two pivotal events, separated by precisely two hundred years: the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and that of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Two brutal physical structures, each of which served as a symbol of a worldview, were destroyed, to popular acclaim… The fall of the Bastille became a symbol of the viability and creativity of a godless world, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall later symbolized a growing recognition of the uninhabitability of such a place. They mark neither the beginning nor the end of atheism, simply providing the historian with convenient boundary posts for a discussion of its growth, flowering, and gradual decay."

The French Revolution was the first major atheistic revolution and the Soviet revolution was the second. The political wing of atheism has been quite successful because between 1950 and 1990 almost half of the world’s population was living under atheistic regimes.

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