Atheism is a much maligned word. Yet persons whom succeeding generations revered as prophets were considered atheists by their contemporaries. They were persecuted too. Socrates, Jesus, Mohammad, Marx and Gandhi were notable examples of this kind. Obviously atheism is a progressive tendency of civilization. Conservative forces are averse to it. They calumniate and harass atheism.
Atheism is the opposite of theism. The popular meaning of theism is faith in existence of a god. Though the concepts of god are many and varied, the quality common to all of them is to regard god as superior to man. Also there are faiths, like Hinduism, which do not postulate a god. Still they hold belief in relentless fate, natural law or something which is deemed superior to man. Therefore in relation to god, fate or law, man stands inferior. The assumption of the inferiority of man seems more fundamental for theism than belief in god. Thus theism is evidently the expression of man's feeling of inferiority; and conversely atheism is the expression of man's feeling of freedom.
The conflict between theism and atheism is the conflict between man's slave mind and his freewill. A slave shirks to stand on his legs. He looks for a prop. The earliest prop that theism took up was belief in a god. But the concept of an almighty god which ordains man's life is clearly inconsistent with the actual and everyday expression of freewill. Further the needs of moral conduct refute the faith in an omniscient and omnipotent god. If there were a god which is all-knowing and all-powerful and which created man and the universe, why should pain, grief and vice exist? That god which tempts or tests man with torment ought to be wicked and it should be condemned and demolished rather than worshiped.
In fact there is no god at all. An open examination into the nature of god reveals that the concept of god is either a complete falsehood or at best a hypothesis which is enunciated to explain the meaning of phenomena. As god is a postulate supposed by man, its usefulness consists in subserving human happiness. But the assumption that god is superior to man smothers man's initiative and fixes him in complacent servility. A slave creates a god for a prop and remains a slave due to faith in it. The slave-mind dominates his outlook on philosophy, economics, politics and ethics. He feels inferior in every field. In metaphysical thought he imagines an all-pervading spirit or matter of which the man is supposed to be an infinitesimally tiny part; in the field of economics he acquiesces in a capitalistic order wherein man's life is conditioned by property relations; in politics he submits to a centralized administration of kings or of dictators: and ethically he prays to god or curses his stars helplessly for injustice done to him, instead of actively fighting with anti-social ways of life. In short, theistic civilization is a civilization of slaves. It affords the security and the dull satisfaction of servility.
But slave-mind which breeds the feeling of dependence does not promote free growth of human personality. It achieves little, because it holds back initiative and bold endeavor. The slavish submissiveness of the many provides handle for the active few to exploit fellowmen. Indeed it is the slave who makes a tyrant of his brother. Consequently, theistic order of life seeths with inequalities and injustices, greed and violence, ignorance and cowardice. The greater the faith the wider these evils spread.
In order to save the mass of people from the degradation into which the theism has thrown them, stalwarts with stout heart like Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, Marx and Gandhi, preached bold action and strong initiative among the common people. Their efforts bore fruit. Popular rebellions rose against exploitation and enslavement and carried civilization a step towards common weal. It may be that they too talked of god and did not dispense with theistic attitudes altogether. But the new god was so much rational and revolutionary and so much less deterministic than the old and conventional god that these stalwarts were certainly more atheistic than their contemporaries. By adopting that amount of atheism, they attained a corresponding amount of progress. They awakened mankind out of former stupor. In the wake of the teachings of those prophets, rationality, socialism and democracy entered into the philosophy, economics and politics of common people and they were benefitted by the change. It is no wonder that priests and princes whose interest were vested in superstitious beliefs, capitalistic exploitation and in autocratic rule resented the awakening and upsurge among people. They decried atheism with vile abuse and tried to put it down with all the forces at their command. The prophets and their followers were ruthlessly persecuted. Yet atheism emerged out successfully because it is in keeping with the progress, prosperity and happiness of mankind. The march of civilization accords with the rise of atheism stage after stage.
While the amount of atheism contained in the teachings of the prophets enhanced human happiness, the remnants of theistic thought lingering in them corrupted the ranks of people again. Socialist movements have deteriorated into managerial controls; democracy is dominated by party cliques; and free thought has got entangled in dissertations on ultimate reality. The common man has again fallen a slave to the trade union leader, to a political party or to a doctrinaire approach, as in the case of Marxism. The pomp and pride of elected ministers of modern democracies are no less haughty than the disdain of hereditary princes. The common man is the victim to these reverses. He has no one to blame for this sad plight by his theistic sentiments and conventional practices.
What redeems mankind once for all is an open avowal of complete atheism. The slander thrown at atheism during the past ages has been sufficiently washed out by the blood and tears of prophets and their followers. It should not be difficult now to declare atheism lock, stock and barrel. Open atheism prevents people from slipping into old faiths and ways of life. A permanently awakened mankind is the indispensable condition for the success of socialism and democracy. Only citizens who are activated by the acceptance of atheism can feel the masters of their ministers, can control their government and bend it to serve their needs.
Atheistic civilization is the civilization of free, equal and moral people. Atheists feel free because atheism is based upon the recognition of the freewill of man. Atheists understand that what are called natural laws and ultimate reality are only interpretations of their experiences. They have no validity except as broad guesses. They shall have to change with ever-growing experiences. Theories can only explain facts. They are neither infallible nor can they contradict facts. As any theory which subordinates man's life to an external control is incompatible with the every-day experience of individual freedom, all theistic theories are wholly false. This understanding should disillusion people with regard to their theistic beliefs.
All free people should necessarily live equal too. As men are similar in strength, talent and need, equality in opportunity and respect is more proper to our social relations than exaggeration of differences. In fact there is not that natural difference between man and man as there is between a lion and a lamb. And the little variations in taste and form can be accommodated and improved through human sympathy, education and effort. The present distinctions of castes creed, class, culture, race and nationality among people are maintained partly through a belief that they are divinely ordained and partly through the protection of the barriers with violent force. When people lose faith in divinity, the mischievous ideological sanction behind the distinctions falls into pieces ignominiously. Also an awakened mankind no longer lends support to the violence that perpetuates the injustices of inequalities. As the distinctions are removed, the ideal of one humanity and world citizenship comes nearer to realizations. Further the crossing of national frontiers removes the main cause of wars and rids humanity of the evils associated with wars.
The greatest contribution of atheism is the provision of a firm basis for ethical conduct. Atheism explains that morality is a social obligation but not a passport to heaven and salvation. The theistic belief in divine retribution sidetracked moral behavior. Believers were more prone to please the god of their imagination by prayer and ritual than to conform to rules of moral conduct. Consequently immorality and anti-social activities spread wild wherever people were absorbed in the worship of god and in the propitiation of fate. Atheism brings about radical changes in the outlook of people in this context. Truth, tolerance, love and equality are the basic needs of social harmony. Membership of society imposes on everyone the obligation of their observance now and here. Transgressions should be checked and punished by public opinion and mutual control, since immorality on the part of anyone disturbs the happiness of everyone involved in the social relation. The indirect method of encouraging morality through hope and fear of requital in the other world lent itself to much abuse, especially when the concept of the other-world was exposed to be a big hoax. So atheism which bases morality on social obligation and self-discipline and which controls violations with persuasion and pressure of satyagraha, ensures ethical behavior more definitely and reliably than religious faith could.
The insistence on morality by the atheistic outlook alters the present course of scientific development. Indeed the modern achievements in the field of technology have been magnificent. But the theistic outlook of the scientists has warped their moral sense, with the result that they produced a bomb of the atomic energy which they laboured hard to release. Scientists have been as callous to the suffering of fellow men as priests and princes were. They prove to be more cruel too since they wield the mighty powers of steam, oil and atom. Hence the need of atheism for the scientists. No one can absolve himself from the effects of his achievements. Atheism sets an ethical direction to the course of scientific investigations. No act but the moral deserves praise.
As an aid to self-discipline, ethical conduct could be regulated by an external agency like a government. When the mass of people were theistically minded and when they were indifferent to the affairs of the government on account of their other-worldly outlook, the institution of a government did enslave and exploit people instead of helping them in the regulation of social behavior. The attitude will be different when atheism holds the field. The citizens grow realistic, become active, and control the government rather than being controlled by it. Inasmuch as a government derives authority from the co-operation which people give and gathers revenues from the taxes which people pay, the government ought to be useful to the people as a servant. So when atheists turn the government to this advantage, it no longer rules but assists people in the maintenance of morality, harmony and equality in social relations. Nevertheless the institution of a government is always attended with dangers of coercion which are inherent to external control, and so it should not only be kept under strict control of the people but its functions should be replaced by self-discipline as soon as possible. Obviously, atheistic outlook with its sense of realism, humanistic approach and active effort is essential for the establishment of good democracy wherein the people govern themselves.
Atheist Way of Life
Atheist way of life is full of initiative. Its objective is equality; its method is openness; its means is political action; its driving force is the moral freedom of the individual.
A right does not bear fruit unless it is accompanied by the consciousness of the claim. The consciousness is not possible as long as one believes that his life is ordained by powers beyond him. Therefore atheistic outlook is indispensable for awakening the consciousness and the will for the real working of democracy. Without avowed atheism, democracy turns into a formality of the exercise of voting franchise without deriving benefits that are intended by it.
The essence of atheism is the freedom of the individual. Freedom releases the immense potentialities of human imagination, initiative and effort that lay oppressed under theistic faith. Free individuals feel masters of situations. The mood of supplication and complaint, inherent in prayer to god and petitions to government, has no place in the atheistic way of life. Atheists always assert; they never surrender. They take no failure; everything is an experience that improves the method for further attempts.
Originally published by the Atheist Centre, Vijayawada,
India. Digitized and proofread by John R. Edwards. Permission to reprint
in digital form obtained by Mr. Edwards from Lavanam, Atheist Centre, Vijayawada,
India. This article may be reproduced in any form provided the article
is not altered, and proper credit is given for publication, digitizing