- Posted August 9, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
First Person: Your essays
Beware Established Religions: Non-Belief is Resurgent
Those Indians who are aware of the origins of atheist thought might shrug at the news. Scholars of religious philosophy broadly agree that the world’s first atheists probably emerged in ancient India. For instance, in the recent book Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create The Modern World, Mitchell Stephens says that the first known atheist may have been Ajita Kesakambli in the 4th or 5th century BCE. Asked by a king to give his view on religion, Ajita said: “It is an empty lie, mere idle talk, when men say there is profit therein”. He rejected the claim that some blessedly enlightened beings have “understood both this world and the next”.
Stephens goes on to list the arguments of the Charvakas, a sect of non-believers in India, who rejected the supernatural and insisted: “Only the perceived exists.” However, India today, along with America, has the largest proportion of religious believers, perhaps nearly nine out of 10 persons, reveal recent global surveys.
Atheists are vastly outnumbered in the world as a whole. A 2012 Pew survey suggests atheists comprise just 2.01% of the world population. But if you add the proportion of the ‘non-religious’, the overall percentage of non-believers may tally between 16% and 18% of humanity. But the numbers are growing. Even in deeply religious America, those who don’t believe in any particular religion plus atheists and agnostics are today said to total close to 20% of the population.
Statisticians caution that surveys on religious belief are difficult to conduct because people vary widely in how they personally define religion and faith or atheism and agnosticism. Without entering into complex debates on definition or any argument over the existence or non-existence of a divine prime mover and cosmic godfather, we could select two aspects of atheism that, to my mind, are eminently humane.
Atheist TV, its promoters assert, will advocate the absolute separation of church and state and a view of life that emphasizes the here and now and provable. In other words, it won’t present science fiction or pseudo-scientific claims as science fact.
This fits neatly into a secular view of life. In that worldview, assertions of bigoted charlatans, who masquerade as scholars, that ancient Indians knew about stem cells, motor cars and computers should either find no place in modern discourse or must be vigorously dismissed. Atheists and non-believers are well positioned to challenge such idiotic obscurantism. Secular science forms today’s foundation of knowledge.
A second happy feature of atheism and non-belief is that all need for an exclusive religious identity is obviated. Every devotee of any religion defines a path to truth at the exclusion of every other religious view. Implicit, and sometimes explicit, hostile difference and potential violence are ingrained in religious belief no matter how each belief-system asserts peace and tolerance towards all. Religion divides us.
Secular humanism emerged in modern civilization as an antidote to religious division. A humanist advocates a sober, even humble, understanding of nature and the current extent of knowledge. A humanist celebrates uncertainty to advance incrementally our understanding of life, its origin and the future of the human race.
Writes British philosopher A C Grayling in his book The God Argument: “Having intellectual courage to live with open-endedness and uncertainty, trusting to reason and experiment to gain us increments of understanding, having the integrity to base one’s views on rigorous and testable foundations, and being committed to changing one’s mind when shown to be wrong, are the marks of honest minds.”
Religion offers quick palliatives to our existential anxieties. Life is harsh, you’ll be happy in heaven; or, the gods know what they are doing even when things go grievously wrong; it’s all for the good, piety will save you. Really? I wonder, says the humanist.