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What Religion is Not: An Atheist Perspective

August 19, 2020 Authored by: John Gray

The idea that religion is a matter of belief is parochial. What did Homer ‘believe’? Or the authors of the Bhagavad-Gita? The web of traditions that western scholars have described as ‘Hinduism’ comes with no prescribed creed, any more than does the mixture of folk religion with mysticism that western scholars call ‘Taoism’.

The notion that religions are creeds – lists of propositions or doctrines that everyone must accept or reject – emerged only with Christianity. Belief was never as important as observance in Jewish religion. In its earliest biblical forms, the religion practiced by the Jewish people was a type not of monotheism – the assertion that there is only one God – but of henotheism, the exclusive worship of their own God. Worshipping foreign gods was condemned as disloyalty, not as unbelief. It was only some time around the sixth century bc, during the period when the Israelites returned from exile to Jerusalem, that the idea that there is only one God emerged in Jewish religion. Even then the heart of Judaism continued to be practice, not belief.

Christianity has been a religion of belief from the time it was invented. But there have been Christian traditions in which belief is not central. Eastern Orthodoxy holds that God is beyond any human conception – a view fleshed out in what is known as negative or apophatic theology. Even in western Christianity, ‘believing in God’ has not always meant asserting the existence of a supernatural being. The thirteenth-century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) was explicit that God does not exist in the same way that any particular thing exists.

In most religions, debates about belief are unimportant. Belief was irrelevant in pagan religion and continues to be unimportant in the religions of India and China. When they declare themselves unbelievers, atheists are invoking an understanding of religion that has been unthinkingly inherited from monotheism.

Many religions that feature a creator-god have imagined it very differently from the God that has been worshipped in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Since the rise of Christianity the divine mind that is supposed to have created the world has often been conceived as being perfectly good. However, Gnostic traditions have envisioned a supreme God that created the universe and then withdrew into itself, leaving the world to be ruled by a lesser god, or Demiurge, which might be indifferent or hostile to humankind. Such Gnostic ideas may seem to us far-fetched. But they have some advantages over more traditional conceptions of a Supreme Being. For one thing, they resolve the ‘problem of evil’. If God is all powerful and all good, why is there evil in the world? A familiar response has it that evil is required by free will, without which there can be no true goodness.

This is the central claim of Christian theodicy (in Greek, ‘justifying God’) – the attempt to explain evil as part of a divine design. An entire tradition of atheism has developed against theodicy, memorably articulated by Ivan Karamazov, who in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov declares that if a tortured child is the price of goodness then he will hand back to God his entry ticket to the world. I consider this type of atheism –sometimes called misotheism, or God-hatred.

Taking monotheism as a model for religion is misleading. It is not only animism and polytheism that are left out of the picture. Non-theist religions are ignored as well. Buddhism says nothing of any divine mind and rejects any idea of the soul. The world consists of processes and events. The human sense of self is an illusion; freedom is found in ridding oneself of this illusion. Popular Buddhism has retained ideas of the transmigration of souls that were current in India at the time when the Buddha lived, along with the belief that merits accumulated in one life can be passed on to another. But the idea of karma, which underpins these beliefs, denotes an impersonal process of cause and effect rather than reward or punishment by a Supreme Being. Nowhere does Buddhism speak of such a Being, and it is in fact an atheist religion. The smears and fulminations of the ‘new atheists’ make sense only in a specifically Christian context, and even then only within a few subsets of the Christian religion.

Source : Seven Types of Atheism – John Gray [Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2018]

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