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The Atheist's Way
Living Well Without Gods
By Eric Maisel
New World LibraryCopyright © 2009 Eric Maisel
All rights reserved.
We Have Our Traditions
(Did You Know That?)
Many people are not aware that the tradition of atheism is as old as that of the world's religions. One of the lures of religion is the way that it plays on our unconscious belief that "old things" must also be "good things." For that reason, we need to recognize and understand that atheism is "old" too. As far back as thousands of years ago, sensible people like you and me were seeing through religion. These were often the best and the brightest of their era — thinkers and creators we still revere for their insights and their works.
You may prefer to call this a "thread" rather than a "tradition," if the word tradition connotes something too systematic, codified, or ritualized for you. Yet the point remains the same: individuals have been voicing atheist views for thousands of years, even when doing so could have cost them their lives. If you've always thought that atheism is a new philosophy arising only as recently as the Age of Enlightenment or with the Industrial Revolution, then listen to these Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Arab voices from thousands of years ago:
Heraclitus (c. 535–475 BCE): "Religion is a disease."
Lucretius (99–55 BCE): "All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher."
Petronius Arbiter (c. 27–66 CE): "It was fear that first brought gods into the world."
Seneca (4 BCE –65 CE): "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful."
Abu al-Ahmad (973–1057 CE): "The world holds two classes of men — intelligent men without religion and religious men without intelligence."
Cicero (106–43 BCE): "What old woman is so stupid now as to tremble at those tales of hell which were once so firmly believed in?" Epicurus (341–270 BCE): "Faith is the credulous belief in the reality of phantoms."
Confucius (551 BCE –479 BCE): "Why talk of spirits when you do not understand men?"
Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE): "It is ridiculous to suppose that the great head of things, whatever it may be, pays any regard to human affairs."
Aristotle (384–322 BCE): "Men create gods in their own image."
Atheism is a partner to the freethinking tradition, the rationalist tradition, the naturalist tradition, the secular humanist tradition, and the scientific tradition. It is also a partner to the existential tradition: the tradition of lone individuals experiencing their subjectivity, fallibility, freedom, and mortality. And it is a partner to the truth-telling tradition: the tradition that remarks on the emperor's nakedness, the indecency of tyranny, and the corruption that comes with power. Likewise, it is a partner to the tradition of martyrdom: the tradition of brave individuals sacrificing their lives because they refuse to renounce their convictions.
Even within the world's religions, freethinking threads have existed since the beginning. This is naturally most true in those religions that do not posit the existence of gods, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. But it is a feature of all religions. Many religious thinkers have argued that it is incumbent on believers to reason clearly, act honorably, and take responsibility for their actions. If you are a believer and don't want to abandon your religious beliefs quite yet, there is still ample reason for you to decide to take responsibility for your actions and to reject religious dogma that makes no sense to you.
Teachers in each of the religious traditions have argued that engaging in the rituals and trappings of religion is no substitute for doing the right thing and taking responsibility. Listen to these three more modern speakers, one a Catholic, one a Protestant, and one a Jew:
Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth-century theologian and philosopher): "The highest manifestation of life consists in this: that a being governs its own actions. A thing that is always subject to the direction of another is somewhat of a dead thing."
Geoffrey Fisher (archbishop of Canterbury from 1945 to 1961): "There is a sacred realm of privacy for every man and woman where he makes his choices and decisions, a realm of his own essential rights and liberties."
Martin Buber (twentieth-century Hasidic scholar): "Infinity shall be contained in every deed of man, in his speaking and seeing, listening and walking, standing still and lying down. In order to perfect oneself, one must renew oneself day by day."
Each of these believers articulates the demand that his fellow believers thoughtfully and actively participate in their own lives. Not only must you not shirk from doing the work of life; you must figure out what that work is. Even if a god has a plan for you, you are not privy to that plan, so you must operate as if you and you alone are constructing the plan of your life. Those whispers and signs you are waiting for may simply be the result of hallucinations or indigestion.
These religious existential speakers are arguing that you must think through how you want to be good, productive, and righteous, trusting that your god's hand is on your shoulder as you make your own choices. If you do not embrace the idea that you must take responsibility for your beliefs, your decisions, and your moral direction, and if you act as a follower rather than a leader, you make the world a safer place for pious selfishness and pure humbug. They are defining life as a project that demands your best efforts and your considered intentions, an admonition not unlike the one that existentialists make.
It is written in the Koran:
God does not compel a soul
To do what is beyond its capacity:
It gets what it has earned,
And is responsible for what it deserves.
In other words, the believer must take responsibility for his actions. He cannot use a divine presence as an excuse or a scapegoat. He must earn his righteousness, and he must think through, and then take responsibility for, his choices. This passage also addresses the objection that taking responsibility for being righteous and good is simply too much work. The Koran articulates great faith in the individual, assuring each one of the faithful that he is capable of ascertaining what constitutes ethical action and then following through on his considered opinions.
The Koran also makes it explicit that when you refuse to take responsibility and when you fail to act ethically, you are not permitted to turn around and complain, "Well, I followed someone I thought was a holy man." You are not permitted to fall back on the argument that something was demanded of you by this book or that leader. You are simply not permitted the tactic of refusing to think through what are the right, proper, and humane things for you to do.
In the Hindu tradition, Ramakrishna (1836–1886) explained, "Let each man follow his own path. If he sincerely and ardently wishes to know God, peace be unto him! He will surely reach Him. "Ramakrishna, a teacher who according to Hindu tradition attained enlightenment, plainly announces that you must make your own decisions about your path. In answer to the question always posed to atheists, "Well, if I am forced to make my own decisions, what if I decide to kick puppies or rob old ladies?" again Ramakrishna is clear: you will not do this, and all will be well "if you sincerely and ardently wish to know God." If you engage your moral sense, all will be well.
In the Buddhist tradition, the following teaching of the Buddha is telling: "Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay.... But when you know for yourself that certain things are unwholesome and wrong, and bad, then give them up ... and when you know for yourself that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them."
The Buddha puts it simply and clearly: you must decide for yourself what will constitute a good, righteous life for you; and then you must commit to what you have decided. The work you choose will not be beyond you; according to the Koran, you have been given the capacity to follow through on your commitments. Nor should you be afraid of taking a wrong step; as Ramakrishna put it, any path has the potential to be the right path, as long as you are aiming for the "high." Yes, you will be uncertain at times. Yes, there will be moments when you need to reevaluate your choices. But you must have faith that what you choose for yourself is right for you and that you have the ability to accomplish the arduous work of authentic living.
Nowhere is this existential note more beautifully heard than in the words of the Taoist poets. Listen to this poem, for example, by Juan Chi (210–263 CE):
POEM OF MY HEART
Unable to sleep.
I get up and sit,
I play and sing to the ch'in.
The fragile cloths
mirror a brilliant moon;
agitates my sleeve.
One single crane
cries past the farthest fields;
sings in the northward grove.
Go back, go forth.
What shall any of us find?
Solitude. Shaken nerve.
Or to this one, by Kuo P'u (276–324 CE), which sounds like an existential battle cry:
"TZU YEH" SONG
Let others find themselves alike,
My will is obstinately I.
My winter blinds are wide to winds
And long, in cold,
my curtains fly.
Side by side with these existential voices speaking from within the world's religions are the voices of those who refused to accept the blandishments of faith and who, for thousands of years, even through the Dark Ages, stood up for their atheist beliefs. Most of these martyrs are unknown to us, their history erased by their oppressors. Their very absence from the historical record is an eloquent feature of our tradition.
A few of these lone individuals managed to be heard and are remembered by Joseph McCabe in his book A Biographical Dictionary of Ancient, Medieval and Modern Freethinkers. There was the Roman orator Dio Chrysostom (C. 40–120 CE), known as "Dio of the Golden Mouth," who denounced slavery a thousand years before any Christian leader thought to do so. There was Aurelius Celsus, a second-century opponent of the church, who mercilessly satirized the gospel story of Jesus. There was Domitius Ulpianus (d. 228 CE), a Roman jurist who, from 211 to 222 CE, humanized Roman law and appealed to the "laws of nature" as his authority. There was Muavia (510–585 CE), the first Syrian caliph, whose parents bitterly denounced Muhammad as an impostor and who moved his people from barbarism to civilization in a single generation.
There was John Scotus Erigena (810–877 CE), an Irish philosopher several times condemned by the church for arguing that "reason preceded faith." There was Tai-tsung, Chinese emperor of the Tang dynasty from 762 to 779 CE, an avowed atheist who preached tolerance and whose reign has been described as one of "unrivalled brilliance and glory" and about whom it was said, "No ruler of any country has had sounder claims to be entitled Great." There was the German emperor Frederick II (1194–1250 CE), "the Wonder of the World," a freethinker whose stance was so well-known that when a book about Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad called The Three Impostors appeared, he received the attribution.
There was Francesco d'Ascoli (known as Cecco) (1257–1327CE), scientist and professor at Bologna University, "a man of immense erudition and great ability burned at the stake for his freethinking and plain speaking." There was the Italian human-ist Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457 CE), an atheist who, as secretary to the king of Naples, exposed forged documents used by the papacy to perpetrate a famous fraud. There was Michael Servetus (1511– 1553 CE), who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, was driven out of Spain, took up medicine in France, and, while passing through Switzerland, was arrested by Calvin and burned at the stake.
And there was the great freethinking Persian astronomer and poet Omar Khayyám (c. 1048–1122 CE). Listen to a few verses from The Rubaiyat, a poem that its best-known translator, the English poet Edward Fitzgerald, had to have printed anonymously, since blasphemy was a serious crime in Victorian England:
Why, all the saints and sages who discussed
Of the two worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish prophets forth; their words to scorn
Are scattered, and their mouths are stopped with dust.
Oh, threats of hell and hopes of paradise!
One thing at least is certain — this life flies;
One thing is certain, and the rest is lies;
The flower that once has blown forever dies.
And that inverted bowl we call the sky
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die
Lift not your hands to it for help — for it
Rolls impotently on as thou and I.
The revelations of the devout and learned
Who rose before us and as prophets burned
Are all but stories, which, awoke from sleep
They told their comrades, and to sleep returned.
There are thousands of beautiful, important quotations from our tradition that I would love to share with you, if only there were space. So I will limit myself to just five from each of four different centuries:
FROM THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY
Pierre Bayle (1647–1706): "No nations are more warlike than those which profess Christianity."
Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626): "In every age, natural philosophy had a troublesome adversary; namely superstition and the blind and immoderate zeal of religion."
Giordano Bruno (1548–1600): "Nothing appears to be really durable, eternal and worthy of the name of principle, save matter alone."
Ben Jonson (1572–1637): "What excellent fools religion makes of men."
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679): "Theology is the kingdom of darkness."
FROM THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Edward Gibbon (1737–1794): "The practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision. So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition."
Denis Diderot (1713–1784): "Men will never be free until the last king is strangled in the entrails of the last priest."
David Hume (1711–1776): "Examine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world, and you will scarcely believe that they are anything but sick men's dreams."
Voltaire (1694–1778): "On religion, many are destined to reason wrongly; others not to reason at all; and others to persecute those who do reason."
Henry Fielding (1707–1754): "No man has ever sat down calmly unbiased to reason out his religion and not ended by rejecting it."
FROM THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822): "Every time that we say that God is the author of some phenomenon, that signifies that we are ignorant of how such a phenomenon was caused by the forces of nature."
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882): "As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect."
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873): "God is a word to express, not our ideas, but our want of them."
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865): "It will not do to investigate the subject of religion too closely, as it is apt to lead to infidelity."
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902): "The religious superstitions of women perpetuate their bondage more than all other adverse influences."
FROM THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931): "Nature made us — nature did it all — not the gods of the religions. Religion is all bunk and all bibles are man-made."
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963): "My religious development has been slow and uncertain but eventually I became a freethinker and from my thirtieth year on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor, and war."
Albert Einstein (1879–1955): "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism."
Ayn Rand (1905–1982): "Religion is the first enemy of the ability to think. This ability is not used by men to one-tenth of its possibility, yet before they learn to think they are discouraged by being ordered to take things on faith. Faith is the worst curse of mankind, as the exact antithesis and enemy of thought."
Excerpted from The Atheist's Way by Eric Maisel. Copyright © 2009 Eric Maisel. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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