Atheism: a secularized theism—Jakob de Roover

1: Atheism is a phenomenon that came into being in the western culture at around the time of the so-called Enlightenment. The West claims that it liberated itself from the dogmas of the Christian religion in this Enlightenment, and those who call themselves atheists mean by this that they belong to the enlightened people who “have escaped from the dogmatic illusions of religion.” Now, as it has always done, Christian Europe simply identified its own history with human history in general, and it claimed that all cultures had so far been under the ignorant spell of religion, but that they could now be liberated by the Enlightened West. This claim needs two separate premises: (a) That all cultures have religion (b) That atheism was a new and rational system of beliefs that could liberate people from all cultures from this illusion of religion.

2. Now we come to what Balagangadhara claims in his ‘The Heathen in His Blindness …’, and what I consider to be a much better description of the current state of western affairs. The Enlightenment was not a liberation from the Christian religion at all. Atheism as it developed during the last few centuries in the West is nothing but one of the results of the dynamic of secularization that is intrinsic to Christianity. As Balagangadhara has explained, there are two horns in the Christological dilemma, and one horn gives rise to a dynamic within the Christian religion in which it tries to cast off its recognizably Christian features. That is, throughout the development of the western culture, Christianity has simply tried to dechristianize itself. One of the moments within this dynamic was that of theism and deism in which the emphasis shifted from Christ to God – as the creator and sovereign of the universe. Now, the next obvious step for the western culture was to dispose of this God and declare the advent of atheism. As we are slowly finding out, however, this so-called atheism of the western culture is but a theism in disguise. This is why I say that atheists are Christian theists in disguise. Their moral and political philosophy, their psychology and sociology, their anthropology, etc. all consist of accounts that make sense only if one accepts a number of deeply Christian assumptions.

3. One of these so-called secular accounts that are in fact Christian is the belief that all cultures have a religion. It is simply a secularization of the Christian belief that the biblical God gave religion to humankind, which was transformed into the assumption that religion is a cultural universal during the Enlightenment. This pre-theoretical assumption precedes all empirical research and theory-formation on religion and culture. From the early missionaries to the contemporary anthropologists, no one has ever even doubted that the phenomenon of religion is universal to all cultures. All psychological and sociological and even biological and neurological explanations of religion take this pre-theoretical Christian theological assumption as a starting point. Now, this is hardly scientific, isn’t it? In his book, Balagangadhara shows that the belief that all cultures have religion has more to do with the structure of the Christian religion than with the nature of human cultures. Furthermore, he develops a theory of religion which reveals that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are at present the only instances of the phenomenon of religion. On top of that, he shows why those belonging to these religions and to the cultures they have created, are deeply inclined to believe that all human cultures must have a religion or at least a world view. The latter belief in the universality of religion is not a scientific hypothesis at all, but a religious doctrine. He also shows that the pagan traditions have a structure that is completely different from that of these three religions. In other words, the Semitic religions and the pagan traditions are not variants of the same supposedly universal phenomenon of religion, rather they are different phenomena.

4. Balagangadhara’s theory first of all shows us that there is no such thing as pagan religion. There are pagan cultural traditions but these are completely different from the religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. One of the differences is that belief in general and belief in God in particular are central to the latter, while they are utterly irrelevant to the former. Although even the intellectuals of the pagan cultures have today learned to speak in the language of secularized Christian theology, they are simply wrong when they say that there is a religion of Hinduism which revolves around a belief in Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, or the entire Hindu pantheon. Admittedly, in the Hindu traditions, there are many stories about these devas and many pujas are related to them, but it does not even make sense to ask the question “do you believe in Shiva (or any other pagan ‘god’)?” to a Hindu or a pagan in general, like you would ask the question “do you believe in God” to a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew. Therefore, when you call those who say ‘no’ to the latter question ‘atheists’, and this is how we have learned to use the word, it does not at all make sense to designate someone who is no longer practicing any of the pagan traditions as ‘an atheist’. This is not even an intelligible proposition, from the perspective of the pagan traditions.

5. The proposition ‘X is an atheist’ would be intelligible if and only if you are willing to accept the following assumptions: (a) The modern western culture is the climax of human evolution; (b) The Enlightenment truly liberated the West from the illusions of religion, and brought it to the rationality of atheism; (c) This atheism also offers the possibility of rational liberation to the followers of other cultures, which are all under the spell of religion; (d) By not participating in the practices of the pagan tradition you stem from, you have been liberated from religion by the rationality of modern western atheism. As these are all secularized Christian assumptions, accepting them would simply make you into a Christian theist in disguise.

6. The other option is to take Balagangadhara’s scientific conclusions seriously. Then it is clear that the pagan traditions do not revolve around belief in God or gods or any entity. They do not revolve around belief or doctrine in general, and therefore truth claims are absent in the pagan traditions. Thus, a claim like “I’m not on any ‘quest for truth’. I simply feel quite happy and satisfied with the fact that I happened to be living here on Earth at a time when there is such a vast amount of knowledge available that helps me in answering practically all the important questions that I have,” illustrates a typically pagan attitude.

In many pagan cultures, including the Ancient Roman and the Indian, there were streams of thinking that simply denied the existence of the pantheon of gods or devas. These groups were not systematically persecuted or harassed, but most of the time they were accepted as merely another avenue in the human quest for truth.

  • Mitch

    This article makes very little sense. It is directly contradicted by history and modern sociology. Let’s count the ways:

    1: Atheism has existed for as long as religion has. Ever since the first caveman said “Big Og in sky say no kill other tribe members,” someone has responded with “Got any evidence for that?”

    2: “The West” as an entity does not exist. Never has. Don’t invent entities.

    3: While christians and certain other religions often claim that all cultures and individuals have religion, atheists tend to reject this notion. Asserting otherwise makes you wrong.

    4: Atheism is the state of having listened to claims about gods and said “that doesn’t make any sense, got any evidence to back it up?” Nothing more.

    The rest of this is nonsensical rambling praising the uninformed babbling of someone who clearly has no idea what they’re talking about.