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  ‘The fool says in his heart, there is no God.’ The Old Testament verse accurately sums up the attitude to atheism found in the Bible. But the question there is only whether one worships and obeys the true God or a false god. Even in the Book of Job (4th century  BCE), it is not the existence of God which is questioned, but only his justice, mercy and love. When Job is finally vindicated, his hypocritical friends are said ‘not to know’ God, meaning that for all their protestations of faith, they understand nothing. In the ancient Greek world, to be atheos (‘without God’) similarly meant to hold false beliefs, and to fail to participate in the official cult, rather than to have no beliefs at all. In Roman times, the early Christians and Jews were frequently accused of atheism, because they did not make images of their deity and had no altars, temples or shrines, nor any recognizable priesthood. Their beliefs were treasonable because they did not join in public sacrifices, and though they prayed for the emperor, they would not offer libations to his ‘genius’ (indwelling spirit). Much the same attitude persisted in Christian kingdoms until the late 18th century; blasphemy is still an indictable offence in the UK. In some Muslim countries atheists are considered an insult to God by their very existence, and are punished accordingly.

Since false gods cannot be said to exist in the same sense as true gods, atheism, a negative, came to mean denial of belief. Not only does God not exist, but to assert belief in him is wrong—a modern attitude which stands the theist\'s argument on its head. The Lisbon earthquake in 1752, in which thousands of faithful Catholics died, led many European intellectuals to adopt an atheist position of this kind. In the so-called Age of Reason, human reason was considered to be capable of solving the question of the existence of God, and the answer was increasingly negative. In the 19th century the discoveries of science were held to militate against religion because they undermined a literal interpretation of the scriptural narrative, especially of creation. In the 20th century ‘theological atheism’ holds that ‘God’ as a concept is dead, that theological language must be reinvented to take account of modern atheism, and that traditional arguments for the existence of God must be scrapped, just as divine intervention can no longer be used as the explanation for phenomena we do not understand. The consequence of this development is that belief in God supported by reason is no longer the norm, and theologians have abdicated the realm of metaphysics to philosophers.

Just as there were ancient Greek schools of thought (such as the Sophists and the Cynics) who attacked the prevailing theism, so in the ancient religions of the East, there were and are atheistic developments: schools of philosophy which teach atheism and schools of religion which, by emphasizing human effort, are de facto atheist. Nevertheless there is a danger, for Westerners, in categorizing Eastern religions as atheist when all they lack is the Western concept of a creator-God or a comparable belief system. They are still based on an experience of the numinous. This is particularly true of Confucianism and Daoism where moral law was held to govern the world like a natural process, and while there was controversy as to whether rituals were necessary to placate the spirits or not, the real question was whether such human attributes as benevolence could or could not be ascribed to this moral force.

It is rare to meet self-professed atheists in modern India, and when one does, it is usually because they have been influenced by the West. A famous example is Jawaharlal Nehru, who felt that India had ‘too much religion’ and that it was a great obstacle to social reform. The most radical objections to Hindu theism came from Buddhism and Jainism, but it has also been argued that a system which revolves around the concept of dharma (see Dharmic religion) is essentially atheist, since all depends on fulfilling one\'s dharma and thus achieving a better karma in the next existence. Jainism aims to free one from this system by asceticism, and though Jains accept the reality of the material world, they believe it exists eternally, and was not created. For Buddhists, the world is transitory, so it cannot have been created by a changeless God who has in any case no good motive to create the world. KDS

Further reading Gordon Stein (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Unbelief.



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