History of Atheism: From antiquity to the "New Atheism"

How atheism arose

Defined as disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods, atheism has attracted attention in contemporary intellectual circles. Christopher Hitchens, a prominent figure in the New Atheism movement of the 2000s, demonstrates this stance with his confrontational rhetoric and strong rejection of religious ideology. In a famous debate with his brother Peter Hitchens in 2008, Christopher Hitchens strongly condemns the concept of God, characterizing it as totalitarian and equating it with a "celestial North Korea." His bestselling book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything clarifies his views, arguing that supernatural beliefs and organized religion impede human progress by stifling individual freedom, self-expression, and scientific inquiry.

Hitchens is often associated with other modern intellectuals such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, who are known as the Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse. Through their public speeches, best-selling books, and television debates, these figures have propelled atheistic ideas into mainstream discourse, challenging the moral integrity of religious institutions and advocating critical examination of religious beliefs. In light of global events marked by religious fundamentalism, their voices have gained significant support, positioning them as authoritative representatives of secularism and rational thought. As a consequence, the New Atheism movement is gaining momentum, influencing public perception and promoting greater acceptance of atheistic views in contemporary society.

Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett

The term "atheism" or "atheist" historically appeared in English in the 16th century and is derived from the French "athéisme", which in turn is derived from the Greek words "a" meaning "without" and "theos" meaning "God". Originally used as a pejorative label, the concept of atheism has ancient roots, notably seen in figures such as Diagoras of Melos in the 5th century BC, who openly challenged the religious beliefs of his time. However, the Age of Enlightenment was an important period for atheistic thought, fostering intellectual discourse and critical examination of religious doctrines. The philosopher Baron d'Olbach played a key role in this era, promoting atheism in his influential work The System of Nature, in which he boldly refuted the existence of God and attributed religious beliefs to fear and ignorance.

In Britain during the Victorian era, prominent figures such as John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer questioned religious dogma and advocated the superiority of science. While Mill criticized the utility of religion in society in posthumously published essays, Spencer emphasized empirical demonstration as the basis of knowledge, questioning the existence of a supernatural deity. These Victorian thinkers, though cautious in their pronouncements, challenged prevailing religious norms and emphasized the limitations of absolute belief in a divine being in a society dominated by religious adherence.

In the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell became a prominent figure in philosophical discourse, especially with regard to the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. Russell, influenced by his own journey of departure from Christian faith, attempted to distinguish between atheism and agnosticism, eventually defining atheism as disbelief in a supernatural deity, as opposed to agnosticism, which recognizes the lack of conclusive evidence for or against the existence of God. Although Russell considered himself an agnostic, his skepticism of traditional religious beliefs underscored his transition to atheistic views that emphasized the lack of logical justification for belief in the Judeo-Christian God.

In fact, the evolution of atheistic thought from antiquity to modernity reflects a growing skepticism toward supernatural claims and a critical reevaluation of religious doctrines, highlighting the continuing tension between faith and reason in philosophical discourse.

what the new atheism is

Bertrand Russell

Modern discourse defines atheism as a fundamental disbelief in the existence of God or gods as articulated by contemporary thinkers. This clear distinction has helped remove much of the social stigma historically associated with atheism, allowing prominent figures, including celebrities, to openly call themselves atheists without fear of ostracism. The emergence of high-profile comedians such as John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr, Stephen Fry, and Eddie Izzard, who use humor to challenge religious beliefs, has further normalized atheist views in popular culture. For example, a clip from the Irish television show Jimmy Carr humorously talks about his atheism, illustrating the shift in public acceptance of atheist views.

However, the rise of the New Atheism movement and comedians' open criticism of religion has led to accusations of atheists being militant and fundamentalist. While this criticism emphasizes the continuing tensions in society around atheistic beliefs, it also points to the possibility of progress and acceptance of dissent in religious discourse. Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton argues for a more nuanced approach to atheism that recognizes the value of religious teachings and promotes understanding between religious and atheist communities. In his TED Talk titled "Atheism 2.0," de Botton emphasizes the need to appreciate the wisdom and insights offered by religion and suggests that religious principles can benefit people regardless of their religious affiliation. As society grapples with the complexities of religious and non-religious belief systems, de Botton's call for a gentler and more inclusive philosophy of atheism promotes dialog and mutual respect between different worldviews.

The history of atheism teaches us that the search for answers to fundamental questions about being and deity is an ongoing process. In today's world, where different worldviews coexist, it is important to have an open dialog based on rational thinking and mutual respect.


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