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Atheism has meant various things to different people through the ages. Tribal loyalism through religion has always been an effective tool to keep the populace in line. Those who reject the official religion naturally get spurned. Before, this meant persecution; nowadays in the West, the repudiation ranges from marginalization to outright discrimination. And until that public discussion called science was freed to follow truth wherever it led, influential intellects pointed to "God" to explain all mysteries, just as theocracies used religion to keep the masses loyal to the party line.
Today, the most important functions of "God" have taken a back seat to our own powers of reasoning. It's one thing for this to be true; it's another altogether for the general populace to be aware that we've always had this power -- now rivaling what was once thought to be the power of God.
In the Christian religion, rejecting Christ is the ultimate crime; it is for this sin alone that the Christian god created Hell. Thus, it is easy to see how theists, particularly biblical Christians, would shun atheists.
We can see this attitude in practice by opening up a dictionary and looking up "atheist." It means, among other things, "wickedness." If we consult writings of 200 years ago, we must examine the context to see whether the writer's use of "atheism" meant lawless rebellion against authority. Until Darwin unwittingly rendered atheism an intellectually tenable position, this was a common and accepted use of the word. Nowadays, equating atheism with evil is a mistake -- both in language and in concept.
Yes, atheism once was a very untenable position. Richard Dawkins admits this in "The Blind Watchmaker" when he says, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Before then, the design argument was too compelling. Now, natural selection explains why organisms have the appearance of intelligent design.
The same holds for the existence of the universe. Until Edwin Hubble showed us that our universe is constantly expanding, a formidable argument stated that there is no room for order to form due to the laws of entropy. "God" creates order amidst the chaos, they told us. An expanding universe makes room for pockets of order to overcome the tendency toward disorder. "God" is once again out of work.
Now that we're legit, so to speak, there is no room to equate atheism with evildoing in the minds of any -- except those hardline fundamentalists who devote themselves to seizing political power at all costs. For them, unbelief that results from critical inquiry is still the ultimate act of evil, but for reasons other than those they state. Critical inquiry of any kind is verboten in their book because we who actually use our minds are more likely to detect and expose these exploiters for what they are, and replace their regime with one that may pass any excesses back to the public.
Their only hope is to try to control the masses through tribal loyalism and to own the explanation of all mysteries. The rise of Rationalism ended the persecution; the American Revolution legitimized critical inquiry. We can't just assume it'll stay this way. Our forebears fought and so must we.
Copyright ©2000 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon