Throughout this blog, we covered many topics dealing with religion, and studied what people believe and why. We also covered topics such as syncretism between religions, and why people believe at all, but one topic we haven’t touched on, and many overlook, is what about the people who don’t believe? Indeed, the majority of the world is religious, with Christianity at roughly 2.1 billion followers, and Islam running up at about 1.6 billion and growing, religion is a steady force on humanity. In fact, roughly 84% of the entire world believes in one religion or another, but another 22% identify as nonreligious, with 11% identifying as atheists. As said in previous posts, the connection between humanity and religion is very strong, and very prevalent, as the statistics show, but one has to wonder, what led the “other quarter” or more precisely “other fifth” to believe otherwise? With religion providing social cohesion, to morals and values, traditions, explanations of things we don’t know, and a comfort in the face of the unknown, it makes one wonder, from an anthropological standpoint, why did some people reject religion?
To first try and answer that question, we can look into the history of irreligion and secular thought. Like many things in Western culture, they can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. While atheism wasn’t expressly out in the open back then, some of the philosophers had more vaguely atheistic ideas, Socrates, was convicted of being “atheos”, not acknowledging the proper Greek gods. The term “atheist” meant not what it is today, the absence of a belief in a god, but rather, not believing the official state sanctioned gods! Even early Christians were persecuted as “atheists”! Many philosophers criticized the nature of their gods, and were thus accused of being impious.
In the middle ages, in Europe, there are no known names of any particular atheists. Not surprisingly, any deviation from The Church was strongly suppressed and eliminated. Accusations of atheism were used as a way to attack political or religious rivals. However, in the Islamic world, atheism in the modern sense was recognized, albeit quelled too. However, people like Ibn al-Rawandi actually criticized the concept of religious prophets and said religious beliefs were trumped by reason. Another scholar, Abu Isa al-Warraq, said religion was “a fable invented by the ancients”!
However, more explicit views of irreligion came about starting in the 1700’s into the 1800’s. Scholars believe that more atheistic thoughts flourished during the French revolution with new movements of Rationalism and Free thought. A poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “The Necessity of Atheism” in the 1800’s and was subsequently expelled from Oxford! The pamphlet was thought to be the first openly atheistic writing to be published in the English language! Shelley has influenced more famous atheistic thinkers such as Carl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. With a still unwelcome climate, yet more relaxed, secular views were allowed to grow. No wonder Charles Darwin was able to publish his “Origin of Species” when he did. There were still religious tensions he was all too aware of, but many people have previously thought of evolution-like ideas predating Darwin but never came to light. Before, the power of religion was all too great to safely come out with those ideas.
In the 1900’s to present, irreligion has grown tremendously. Partially, that has to do with the many rapid scientific breakthroughs in the past century. Discoveries, such as DNA and genetic technology that Darwin never knew about only reinforce the more secular ideas such as evolution. Before our eyes, we are able to see more concrete evidence to prove or disprove supernatural interventions in our world. Now more than ever before, we can size up the claims of many religious narratives, and find evidence that correlates with the account or is inconsistent. Simply speaking, secular thought has moved out of the solely philosophical domain, where one argues the need for religion and purpose it gives, but to truly analyze the supposed factual knowledge said religion claims. Also, many other “new school” ideas that came to fruition within this last century could be said to have helped drive it too, or at least provide a more gentle climate for it to flourish. Often, many traditional religions prescribe rigid morals and ways of doing things that now clash with more recent ideals and values. Many controversies of today, such as abortion, same sex marriage, gender equality, stem cell research etc… are being more accepted. With that, comes the clash between the more traditional religious beliefs on their moral and proper status, and the contemporary views that clash. More secular thought allows for said ideas to be practiced, as it doesn’t hold it’s followers to a rigid moral code. Also, with increasing acceptance of said ideas, it leads the way for many ideas to be socially acceptable, including non-religion. However, religion is still going strong globally, but recent trends show younger generations breaking away from more traditional religion and moving toward less religion. Indeed, many countries have secularized, or are trying to, as they try to imitate more democratic countries.
Which leaves one last question, what do secular minded people today believe is the reason they chose to not be religious? In light of the more accepting climate and advances in science, they believe that the evidence points to the absence of the supernatural. For many, it’s that simple. Them and others too, also take the philosophical stance, and say that they do not need religion to live fulfilling lives, and live morally. They believe that they don’t need a deity to tell them what’s right or wrong, and often criticize religion for it’s rigid dogmas and some more outdated values. Many in the secular community have the opinion that one doesn’t need a god to alleviate the fear of death and the unknown, but rather to just enjoy the life we do have on earth. Overall, with a more accepting climate, technological advances, and changes in the overall world view and philosophy, it has allowed more minority ideas such as non-religion to take root and start to grow. While religion is still the majority influence on humanity, now many have the chance to question centuries old beliefs.
To read more in detail: History of Atheism