Consider the brief “history” of atheism as outlined in a recent post by a member of an atheist group in Tucson, Arizona (update: the link is now broken). Here history is construed as the presentation of facts across time; to tell the history of atheism quickly all that is required are the names, dates, and arguments of various figures presented in chronological form. Although the post raises questions about the certainty with which we can establish certain historical facts, what we get is a straightforward chronology and a series of minimally interpretive bullet-points. The purpose of the sketch seems to be to trace doubts about the divine throughout the whole of human history.
Consider now the moral of this story. Developing doubts first articulated in Grecian antiquity, we learn that the Enlightenment first established “rationalism, social liberalism, religious toleration, science, the scientific method, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the separation of church and state.” The Enlightenment is then construed as the backbone of the founding of the American republic, which established the separation of church and state as well as human rights. This was subsequently undermined by Romanticism’s appeal to “human emotions”. In the present day, the lesson continues, American politics has been similarly ruled by “human emotions” and the comforts of religion. Thankfully, the post concludes, a new “Age of Reason” is dawning.
What we are presented with is a popular account of atheism’s history that is intimately connected to a contemporary understanding of American culture and politics, itself based on a particular conception of Enlightenment rationalism and natural rights. It should be noted that this popular construal of the relationship between the Enlightenment and contemporary politics does in fact have echoes in the scholarly accounts advanced in recent years by several prominent historians, most notably in the highly erudite work of Jonathan Israel (The Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, The Democratic Enlightenment). The implication of the popular story of atheism’s history given in this blog post, however, is that religion is little more than an irrational defense mechanism by which disturbing passions and fears are calmed. Religion and Romanticism apparently cloud the human mind’s ability to think clearly and naturally about the world and our place in it. If the USA was founded on Enlightenment principles, the conclusion seems to be that a return to those principles provides the basis on which contemporary challenges and problems can be faced and solved.
The idea of a return to original principles is of course one of the oldest rhetorical tropes in Western thought. In our own day it is often seen as the appeal by which certain religious fundamentalisms try to impose a strict adherence to a given set of beliefs and practices. Yet it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that very many of our beliefs and practices are guided by similar stories. Our stories may not be origin myths, but they might nonetheless be narratives of another kind. What the blog post’s popular history of atheism offers, then, is a reminder of the fact that how we envision our moral and political lives is very often related to a kind narrative, typically one which mediates the past in some fashion and provides a certain amount of the structure for living out our beliefs in the present.
It is worth pausing a moment to reflect on how this particular post and its content came about: a local community is working through its own broader history, its considered convictions, and the kinds of social and institutional practices which sustain them. In this respect an atheist community stands in an analogous position to religious and civic communities. This raises an important and overlooked question: how do such communities affirm and revise their shared considered convictions in the light of various kinds of pressures, including the work of scholars, the challenge of public disagreement, the pluralistic forms of social life, within a polity framed by liberal democratic constitutionalism? That’s quite obviously a loaded question. As my own brief attempt indicates, it remains a question I think educators, politicians, judges, religious leaders, as well as unbelievers and atheists, should continue to ask within and between the various communities to which they belong.