Atheism VI

A friend of Hermitary wonders if the entries here on atheism too narrowly identify atheism with modern Western thought, science, and technology, when atheism has been a factor in many other cultures having little to do with science. Our focus has been on modern atheism, which is based on premises that a Socrates or Lucretius did not hold as either philosophical necessity or cultural compulsion. Modern atheism is, as Robert Thurman puts it in his Infinite Life, “nihilistic materialism,” which even the Buddha — mistakenly called an atheist by many Western religionists — rejected as an error.

Classical skepticism was not so much a militant belief against Zeus or Caesar but a mild shrug at folly, discernible in Stoics and Epicurians, still observable in the constructs of Descartes or the reflectiveness of Spinoza. But mildness is not a characteristic of modern atheism, with its teeming metropoli and its death camps, its nuclear and bio-chemical weapons, its raising of a Babel-like world culture. As our correspondent rightly points out, however, it should be emphasized that atheism has not been alone in creating these horrors. Christianity and its scriptural siblings have supported and extended these horrors, and some of the more articulate defenders of war and destruction are emphatically religious in that convenient identity, spinning off new justifications for distinctly modern and ungodly contrivances. Thus many Christians and their coreligionists have embraced science and technology (after sanitizing its moral ambiguities) and all the horrors that science and technology are capable of. And not merely the horrors but the drab and oppressive ways of modern culture so inimical to holistic life.

A skepticism of culture itself is what is in order, not merely of its epiphenomena, and this is where modern atheism fails. Instead it has enthusiastically embraced culture as a field of contention for struggle and triumph, or if unable to capture culture — like capturing the state — it has dissipated itself in nihilistic materialism. Where classical skeptics remained doubtful of social change and functioned more like solitaries in their personal lives, the cultures of atheism have been secular versions of the suppressive cultures they hate, mirrors of what they rival. Who, then, is Dr. Jekyll, whom Mr. Hyde? Neither one escapes complicity. Both sit disquietly in the seat of judgment, for are they not one person after all?

Disbelief in culture — even mere disillusion, like that of the hermit — is the beginniing of an affirmation of values. The potential of evolving an ethos may not involve a metaphysical component at all. In fact, it is here, in this state between what has historically been called theism and atheism, that the diversity of peoples and cultures can begin to find something in common.