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Origins of Atheism
Posted: 19 March 2005 05:35 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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Religions as we know them are recent inventions. Prior to the rise of the "axis" religions (before tribes began to productively interact with each other) life instructions were hyper-superstitious. With the invention of writing came formal religions, which taught essential lessons for those who wanted to trade with others and live in cities. People learned how to get along with others. Unfortunately, the fact that such lessons eventually became internalized has not resulted in the end of their superstitious origins.

Judaism, some scholars tell us, has its roots in ancient Egypt. Monotheism was most likely first implemented by way of decrees made by the pharaoh, Akhenaten. This rebellious leader died at an early age, but not before he had dared to removing all but one god from a long list of those worshipped by his people. After Akhenaten’s death, his name was promptly eradicated from all statues and inscriptions where it had been carved. But monotheism somehow survived and flourished.

Other scholars bring Zoroastrianism into the one-god picture, claiming that Judaism, Islam, Christianity and other religions share much of what Zarathustra figured out and disseminated to the world. Central to Zoroastrianism is humanity’s struggle between good and evil, and the concomitant notions of heaven, hell, and judgment day.

No one knows exactly what took place, but approximately 3,600 years ago, something happened that reverberates to the present day. Whether it was Akhenaten, Zarathustra or Moses who succeeded in popularizing monotheism seems to be up for grabs. I don’t have an opinion about who should get originating credit or blame, since I’m not a historian. I do feel, however, that most people misunderstand what took place.

Whether or not it was the first earnest attempt, Akhenaten did manage to transfer worship of many animal gods to the worship of a single god: the "almighty" sun. My thesis here is that Judaism—probably via Egyptian influences from Pharaoh Akhenaten—was humanity’s first major step toward atheism. My use of "theism" implies a parental, human-like entity, or at least one who is able and willing to empathize with and assist or impede humanity. My position is that Jesus attempted to take this gradual process toward atheism one step further by gently reforming Judaism, but ended up being foiled by Christians who misunderstood him. According to the scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, Jesus himself never claimed to be any aspect of God. Christians not only eventually became more rather than less literalistic toward their inherited approach to God, but even brought polytheism back into the picture with their Trinity.

Of course, ancient scriptures often portray God as being entirely parent-like. I’m not claiming that Judaism finished the job. Just that they killed off a great number of deities, in a sense. To me, that’s a valiant effort toward the kind of atheism I’ve just described, even if it involves clinging to a remnant of supernatural authority. The kind of God modern Jews think created the universe actually makes a certain amount of sense to me. Einstein’s idea of God, for instance, is infinitely more plausible than the one portrayed by Moses.

Unfortunately, the world remains saturated with unrealistic opinions people hold about their gods. Some are so fervently held that countless otherwise intelligent individuals willingly go to their deaths battling others over such opinions. Only recently have scientists and philosophers been able to understand much of anything about how our realities get constructed, and I feel that only recently have we been able to get a cognitive handle on the mechanisms within the human brain that bring about religion-based madness. One attempt of cognitive science has been to apply a bit of this newfound understanding to our ancestors’ wildly imaginative inventiveness—to apply modern cognitive context to our inherited superstitions.

I hope this post doesn't seem too disjointed. I fully realize that my above take on Christianity-Judaism is unconventional, and I've written about it because I welcome dissenting opinions and facts.

Dave

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Posted: 19 March 2005 06:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Dave,

Interesting conjectures.  You mention “scholars” who tell us about Judaism and monotheism.  It would be helpful if you would post your sources. A bibliography or reference list would be nice.

George

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Posted: 19 March 2005 06:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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George, unfortunately I’ve forgotten titles and authors’ names I read back in the early ‘90s about Akhenaten and the origins of monotheism. But as I understand it, today’s scholars are not in agreement about what exactly took place anyway.

Dave

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Posted: 19 March 2005 07:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Actually, I do have one source: The Acts of Jesus, by the Jesus Seminar. On page 34, the following appears:

Jesus makes no claim to be the Anointed, the messiah.

Sorry I don’t have more.

Dave

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Posted: 21 March 2005 06:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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In your opening post Dave, you mention that “with the invention of writing came the formal religions” - and that is true and remains true to this day - unfortunately.  In an illiterate world religion was equal to what we call culture today - there were myths that explained the inexplicable and those ideas varied dramatically from location to location.  Oral transmission of myth/ideas/culture meant that all of these teachings were in constant flux and with the intermingling of peoples change was constant. However with the birth of writing these mythologies took on a life of their own - ideas were able to be permanently inscribed and passed on in tact from generation to generation. 

The Jews traveled from place to place carrying their “covenant” with them as their most precious possession.  Even the bible begins with “The Word” and then we get all the rest of creation and genesis to follow.  Obviously to an illiterate population the holders of the “covenant” were also the holders of power.  And this legacy of “the written word” still permeates our society in bizarre and insane ways.  Sometimes I just want to scream at the believers of any faith, “These are just words! Look I can write, you can write, it’s no longer such a precious commodity! The Word is not divine or inspired or indubitable - sure it once was (in a culture of ignorance) but grow up, we are way past that kind of idolatry!”

With literacy rates nearing 100% it is incredible to me how fervently some people will believe the scribblings that go back for thousands of years in spite of how completely wrong, contradictory and inaccurate they are.

This forum is one example of the legacy of the written word and at least I can appreciate that - for what it’s worth.

Bob

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Posted: 21 March 2005 04:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Bob, I appreciate your interpretation of “Word” at the opening of John’s Gospel. I’ve always wondered about it, and have had fun trying to figure out what sort of metaphor the author intended. Genesis also has a reference that has always haunted me with the beauty of its profound though elusive insight: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

The use of the word “when” implies that the act was inevitable. And what exactly was the act? I can’t help interpreting this metaphor of eating from the frightful tree as relating to the birth of humanity. Genesis seems to be pointing at a Darwinian picture. I may sound ridiculous here, but Darwin was certainly not the first person to feel the fact of natural selection, though he was the first to clarify it and back it up with mountains of evidence. Darwin invented the theory, but many before him held the insight.

What differentiated ape from man, according to my little speculative explication? The word (not the written word, but the spoken word), and awareness of good and evil. To this day, those two things seem to define humanity, don’t they? Once we became people, we were dead to the glory of Eden, and started on the path toward engineering our own very elaborate comforts.

Dave

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Posted: 22 March 2005 06:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Dave, you say

“What differentiated ape from man, according to my little speculative explication? The word (not the written word, but the spoken word), and awareness of good and evil. To this day, those two things seem to define humanity, don’t they?”

Hey that doesn’t sound like such a speculative thesis, in fact I have long held that to be the case.  It is our specific sort of linguistic ability that differentiates us from our primate relatives.  And of course everything else that makes us different comes from that very fact science, art, technology, culture, etc..  The one thing that we’ve had difficulty finding is the origin our ethical awareness.  However, I think you’ve got it precisely correct - that with the spoken word (language) also comes the awareness of good and evil.  I’m working on a paper at the moment attempting to show explicitly that our linguistic behaviour and our moral outlook come from the very same cognitive ability.  I like the direction of your thought.

Bob

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Posted: 22 March 2005 08:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Bob, this whole topic fascinates me, as well. But of course we need to be careful not to fall into a literalistic trap in our philosophical imaginings. For instance, I’ve written quite a bit about what I consider to be differences between ethics and morality. Yes, the author of Genesis had an incredibly poetic point in his reference to good and evil, but precursers to the good-evil paradigm can easily be found in other species. This paradigm, it seems to me, is highly dependent on expectation.

Just feed a flock of geese and watch for struggles between individual birds. Randomly toss them bits of old bread. For the most part, the goose closest to a piece of bread—assuming he senses it—eats the food. His neighbors leave him alone and hope for the next morsel to arrive closer to them. At some point, one goose will see a piece of bread and expect to get it, but another one unexpectedly grabs it instead. The successful bird is quite happy until the first one repeatedly bites at the successful one’s feathers. Punishment is quick and apparently painful. It’s all due to expectation that fails to pan out. It’s basic to animal conflicts, including those of Homo sapiens, of course.

If you get a chance, let me know what you think about ethics vs. morality. My own take, to drastically summarize, is that we’ve inherited all the ingredients that go into morality from the “lower” animals, though obviously humanity took it to entirely new levels with religious instruction. Ethics is what we’re gradually adopting as a replacement for unthinking moral judgement.

What do you think, Bob?—and let me know if you want me to post or send you more extensive material that I’ve written over the past couple of years.

Dave

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Posted: 23 March 2005 04:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Dave, the difference between the word ‘ethics’ and the word ‘morality’ in my estimation could be that “ethics” is the philosophical study of morality, but we use them interchangeably.  I can also use immoral and unethical to mean the same thing, what’s your take?  Check your private messages for more.

Bob

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Posted: 24 March 2005 03:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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Bob, that sounds like a plausible analysis, and one I had not thought of.

I sent you a message today, but it was the first one I’ve ever sent through this board, so I hope you got it. Please let me know if you didn’t receive it.

Dave

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Posted: 25 March 2005 04:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Hi Dave. No message for me from you.  Did you click on the “pm” box at the bottom of one of my posts and then go from there to send it?  Also click on the “private messages” box at the top of these forum pages to get your messages.

Bob

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Posted: 25 March 2005 12:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Bob, I re-sent the message, but it’s still not going into the “sent box.” It just sits in the “out box.”

I’m not sure what to do, and I’m reluctant to post my e-mail address here because of someone else who has reported a security breach with this forum. In fact, I may have experienced something screwy a couple of days ago after I replied to one of her postings. I’m getting a little paranoid about hackers.

Any ideas?

Dave

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Posted: 20 April 2005 06:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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It may be that your meaning for orgins of atheism are different from what I mean by it. I simply did not believe the fantatic stories read to me at the tender age of five or six. Apparently they were meant to be ‘hooks’ to facinate kids, but it backfired for me!

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Posted: 20 April 2005 10:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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[quote author=“Dragon”]It may be that your meaning for orgins of atheism are different from what I mean by it. I simply did not believe the fantatic stories read to me at the tender age of five or six. Apparently they were meant to be ‘hooks’ to facinate kids, but it backfired for me!

Dragon, the title of this thread should probably be, “Historical Origins of Atheism.” And I suppose it more properly belongs in the Faith section. I’ll get better at this over time.

As with the other threads I’ve started, I invite any and all criticism about my views, as this helps me to refine my thoughts and writings.

Dave

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Posted: 25 April 2005 03:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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I’m working on a paper at the moment attempting to show explicitly that our linguistic behaviour and our moral outlook come from the very same cognitive ability.

Its occurred to me that different personality types may view ethics a little differently. Just a thought.

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Posted: 25 April 2005 05:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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[quote author=“Dragon”]

I’m working on a paper at the moment attempting to show explicitly that our linguistic behaviour and our moral outlook come from the very same cognitive ability.

Its occurred to me that different personality types may view ethics a little differently. Just a thought.

I agree completely. Just look at liberal vs. conservative personalities and the concommitant ethical-moral battles, for one of many possible examples. Steven Pinker talks at length about this in The Blank Slate.

And I’m looking forward to seeing what CanZen comes up with. I suspect that what he’s getting at has to do with our evolutionary development. Ethical thinking, it seems to me off the cuff at least, is not really possible without language. On the other hand, morality is as old as the hills. But only once we started talking to each other could we build up miniature libraries in our heads, memorizing instructions from leaders, overseeing the work of others, teaching offspring, negotiating business deals, etc., etc. Morality and ethics must have developed alongside of our linguistic development. Of course, the neurology involved is another question.

Dave

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