The critical study of religious text and doctrine during the period of the Protestant Reformation in Europe would in time lead some to further question the very idea of God itself. Dutch theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) challenged the precepts of medieval scholasticism by arguing for free will, religious toleration, and critical thinking within the context of Catholic faith. This “humanistic” school of thought influenced the German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), who postulated that salvation by grace through faith could occur outside the jurisdiction of the Roman Church. Faith and salvation were not guaranteed by participation in the Sacraments. The individual must make a choice to believe in a personal Lord and Savior.
For some later Enlightenment thinkers, the choice was not to believe at all. These writers and philosophers concluded that the very concepts of church and salvation were themselves flawed and unnecessary. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) embraced deism, which accepted belief in a creator of the universe apart from participation in institutional religion. This approach was shared by prominent American thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). For others, however, deism did not go far enough. More radical rejection of religious doctrine took the forms of agnosticism (from the Greek “without knowledge”) and atheism (“without God”).
These ideas were explored by French Enlightenment philosophers such as the aristocrat Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789), physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), and the art critic and writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784), compiler of the world’s first encyclopedia in 1751. These and others argued that the human capabilities of reason and feeling were enough to produce both happiness and prosperity, and that the notion of God and the ecclesiastical and theological infrastructure needed to sustain it were therefore superfluous. Diderot was briefly imprisoned by the French government for expressing these views in his 1749 essay Letter on the Blind.
Many of these objections to theological constructs arose within the context of French Catholicism, where ecclesiastical wealth, corruption, and political influence in the Bourbon court at Versailles bred popular protest. The virulent hostility of the French Revolution against the Catholic Church bears witness to centuries of resentment and outrage. Later atheistic thinkers such as Karl Marx (1818-1883) carried this thinking further in describing organized religion as “the opiate of the masses” invented and utilized by the rich and powerful to control the working classes.
Marx was influenced by the German anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who argued in his 1841 book The Essence of Christianity that the idea of God is merely a projection of the best of human nature and not a separate Supreme Being that requires devotion and service through participation in organized religion. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and others built upon Feuerbach’s ideas in the development of modern empiricism, existentialism, and nihilism. These schools of thought dismiss religious doctrines as distracting fictions that pull focus from human responsibility in the only world that truly exists, the material world available to the senses.
But not all atheism is an historical reaction to European institutional Christianity. The idea of a deity or deities that exist separately from human beings is foreign to many eastern religious traditions, particularly Taoism and Buddhism. Millions of people today consider themselves atheists or agnostics even while they visit ancestral shrines and participate in cultural religious holidays and festivals. Millions more, especially in the western world, claim no connection whatsoever to any religious tradition, cultural or otherwise. Those who consider themselves actively religious today have become demographic minorities in many societies where religious membership was once required on pain of exile, imprisonment, or death.
The Communist revolutions of the 20th century were based in part on a political and philosophical materialism that rejected established religion as a tool of capitalist injustice. Participation in religious life was considered threatening to these regimes and often severely punished. Jews and Orthodox Christians were persecuted in the Soviet Union and Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists in Communist China. Only in this century have people of faith been permitted to practice their religion in Cuba, North Korea, and other traditionally Communist societies. Human rights groups still call attention to the repression of Buddhist Tibetan and Muslim Uyghur minorities in China today.
In the United States, the First Amendment allowed for freedom of religious expression and the disestablishment of a state church. This left room for the development of independent religious denominations as well as the growth of secular humanism. American atheists found a champion in activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995), who led a successful campaign to ban Bible readings in public schools that culminated in the landmark Supreme Court decision Abington v. Schempp (1963). O’Hair founded American Atheists that same year and devoted herself to defending the separation of church and state. She appeared on national television and fought to remove the word “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and the U.S. dollar.
Atheists generally fall into the two categories of positive or hard atheism, which asserts definitively that there is no God, and negative atheism, which rejects a personal theism but does not deny the possibility of God altogether. Many negative atheists can be more accurately described as agnostics, as their approach to the question of divinity is either ambivalent or apathetic. Recent polls have suggested that up to 90% of Americans still believe in a God of their understanding, while less than 10% are willing to commit to positive atheism. The larger figure includes millions of agnostics who are reluctant to take sides on the issue of faith.
Following the initial anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment period, agnosticism grew in popularity with the dissolution of traditional religious communities during the period of rapid urbanization and industrialization in 19th century Europe. Marxist materialism and the association of the church with discrimination based on race, sex, and class added to the alienation of many with institutional Christianity. Marginalized groups that did not have their own supportive religious infrastructure often chose to reject the relevance of religion altogether.
The advent of film, radio, television, and the internet increased the volume and diversity of public discourse on matters of faith and church membership. Many young people and leftist intellectuals in the 1960s antiwar movement and counterculture objected to some of the language of the political right that defended the unpopular Vietnam War as a “righteous crusade” against “Godless Communism.” Scientific inquiry clashed with religious fundamentalism throughout the 20th century. Civil rights struggles, financial crashes, and environmental crises eroded the effectiveness of religious answers in addressing the complicated problems of the new century.
Recent sociological studies have shown that more than half of the adult populations in the developed world today can be characterized as “unchurched,” particularly among the “Millennial” generation born in the closing decades of the 20th century. This number includes many who have left institutional religion as well as those who dismiss notions of faith and God as antiquated or irrelevant. All across the world, church membership among those under 40 years of age is falling dramatically. Some have left one religious tradition for another, but more have never attended church at all or have dropped religious affiliation altogether.
Some object to the very words “God” and “religion” and prefer language like “Higher Power” and “spirituality.” Many have been scandalized by criminal, avaricious, or hypocritical behavior among church leaders and religious politicians. Some argue that unearned suffering and senseless tragedy point to the absence of a benevolent deity. Others are horrified by terrorism and murder committed by fanatics in the name of religious faith. For still others, church attendance and prayer at home cannot compete with the appeal of a secularized popular culture endlessly streamed through cable television and social media.
Whether their beliefs are the result of outrage, disillusionment, disappointment, materialism, apathy, ignorance, or critical reflection, today’s atheists and agnostics constitute a significant portion of the world’s population today, especially among the young. Many believe in the same altruistic values of human rights, economic justice, and environmental sustainability that have characterized the best public efforts of organized religions. The contributions of “nonbelievers” to solving the most critical challenges facing the global community will be as necessary to the quality of life on earth as those who adhere to an historic religious faith.
- Can a person of faith also be an agnostic? What about an atheist? Explain your answer.
- What effects do you think the internet and smartphone technology have had on religion’s role in human society?
- What do atheists and theists have in common? How can they find common ground to transcend their differences and work together to create a better world?
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