Which raises more questions about atheism or God

Live with or without God

Minois takes a benevolent look at atheism

From Ursula Homann

Discussed books / references

Who came first, the atheist or the person who believes in God? Atheism is generally believed to presuppose and is a pagan reaction to monotheism. The religious and social historian Georges Minois has a different opinion. Atheism, he explains, is as old as religions and has a longer history than Christianity. But if you look closely, then there was neither belief nor unbelief at the beginning, but a mythical consciousness. Consequently, this is a basic human need and not religion.

After books such as "Die Hölle" (1994), "Geschichte des Sumord" (1996) and "Geschichte der Zukunft" (1998), Minois has again presented a comprehensive and material-rich handbook, this time on the history of atheism from antiquity to Present, taking into account sociology of religion and related research areas. He rightly points out that - apart from Fritz Mauthner's four-volume work "Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendland" (1920 to 1923) - the area of ​​disbelief has so far only rarely been examined from a historical perspective, although atheism has its own history which, in the opinion of Minois, is not simply the negative of the history of religious belief, although not a few consider it to be. Perhaps it is because of the negative connotation, Minois muses, that is associated with unbelief, or because there is a certain discomfort in the idea that people exist without God and without the devil.

Sometimes even today a person without God is considered a person without morals and a danger to society. For a long time, the only evidence of unbelief came from the religious authorities who suppressed it, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. Who is atheist is often determined by the other, the opponent. For the philosophers of antiquity, for example, the early Christians were heretical sectarians. In the eyes of Christians, on the other hand, Buddhism or Taoism were regarded as atheism and polytheism as idolatry. In any case, the church fathers regarded as atheists all those who did not believe in the God of Christians. For the Protestant Antoine de La Roche-Chandrieu there was no worse atheist than a Catholic, and for his opponent Luther was considered an atheist.

How can one trace the history of an attitude (because that was atheism at first) that obviously has no positive content? asks the author and makes it clear that the attitude of disbelief is a fundamental part of every society and is by no means limited to non-belief. Rather, it is an affirmation of man's loneliness in the universe, which creates pride and fear. An atheist denies the existence of a supernatural being interfering with his life. Instead, he believes in people, so Minois, whatever that means, and bases his morals or ethics on homo sapiens. So not believing in God is not a negative attitude. It is a position that leads to autonomous practical and speculative decisions.

Like religion, atheism is also plural. It has developed and taken on various, sometimes even antagonistic, forms. So there is the atheism of protest against the existence of evil, against moral prohibitions, against restrictions on freedom and speculative atheism in times of crisis in values. In its radical form, atheism did not appear until the wake of modern materialism and Marxism, but in its agnostic form it already existed in ancient Greece, among the pre-Socratics and the sophists. In the 4th century BC Parmenides, Heraklit, Xenophanes taught the eternity of matter from Colophon. It was followed by Epicurus and his school, the Cynics and Skeptics. Outside of Western culture, as early as two thousand five hundred years before Christ, Indian sages proclaimed that the sky was empty. Ancient Persia also knew a form of atheism. The same applies to the Hebrews: the Psalms quarrel several times with the wicked who deny the existence of God.

Until the middle of the 20th century, believers and unbelievers formed two antagonistic worlds in the West. Only recently does the contradiction seem to have finally been overcome. Believers and unbelievers, Minois says, have no reason to feud, because after all we are all born without asking, live without knowing why, and die without receiving an apology. Many don't ask questions, they are probably the happiest, others have ready-made answers, and still others ask and are not satisfied with any answer. The author belongs to the third group. His heart beats unmistakably for atheists and doubters. The history of atheism is not the history of a minority - Minois simply counts pantheists, skeptics, agnostics and deists among the atheists - it does not affect millions of people who do not believe in God or a divine world order because a belief cannot be prescribed to prove, not to be imposed from the outside. Presumably, atheists make up the majority of humanity.

The author goes into detail on atheism in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, on Plato, who fought against the deniers of God, although he was a disciple and follower of Socrates, who, as an alleged denier of God, had to empty the hemlock cup. Minois also emphasizes that the Middle Ages were not, as is often assumed, purely Christian. Some scholars excluded belief when studying nature. Their nominalist opponents took the opposite stance. But cryptoatheism is the same: reason cannot prove God. In the people, God sank into an amalgam of superstitious ideas. The everyday life of the peasants also seems not to have been far removed from practical atheism. In Christendom at the end of the 15th century, the author claims, not inconsiderable sections of society cultivated a latent theoretical and practical atheism. Certainly, with the rise of atheism in the sixteenth century, one must take into account the desire for the liberation of morals, especially sexual ones. In addition, the renaissance of ancient myth, the great voyages of discovery and the encounters with atheistic peoples have given a number of people in the Occident to reflection and doubts.

However, atheism, which at that time was persecuted as the scourge of humanity, was not yet a systematic, no cheerful atheism and had no real doctrine, but was "more of an attitude of sheer revolt against the tyrants of the Creeds." But then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, its rise as a worldview was favored by several European cultural crises. In the 18th century in particular, the foundations of Christianity were increasingly called into question. All at once the frightening perspective opened up: an eternity without God, an eternity of emptiness. In the 19th century Nietzsche then appeared with his proclamation "God is dead!" on the plan.

What about atheism and its opposite pole, faith today? Minois' résumé is that the twentieth century, far from showing the victory of one certainty over another, ends with the rise of uncertainty. At present, more than a fifth of people no longer believe in God, and among the rest there are certainly numerous indifferent, sectarian and agnostic people. In addition, the great religious complexes are disintegrating in favor of a spiritualist fog. However, Minois considers the return of the religious to be an illusion. The re-enchantment of the world is not on the agenda, because the wave of guardian angels, spiritualism, the paranormal is just a childish game with a therapeutic aim. At the end of the old and the beginning of the new millennium, western culture resembles a field of rubble, according to the author. The debates no longer revolved around the question of the existence of God. Some still speak of God, Allah, Jehovah and others. But the content of her speech is no longer religious, but political. And others speak instead of God of the fulfillment of man and his inner balance and see in the ego the ultimate holy value.

After the century of God's death, we are now facing the century of death of certainties, to the detriment of both faith and atheism, for both share the global worldview. They will continue together or perish together, Minois proclaims prophetically.

The question, however, is not so much whether the 21st century will be religious or atheistic, pious or unbelieving, but whether people still have the will and the means to invent a future for themselves.

Indeed, a somewhat pathetic conclusion after the long furious passage through the history of atheism. Do we really have to be satisfied with that?

Georges Minois: History of Atheism. From the beginning to the present.
Translated from the French by Eva Moldenhauer.
Verlag Hermann Böhlaus Nachf. Weimar, Weimar 2000.
740 pages, 45.00 EUR.
ISBN-10: 3740011041

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