“Atheism” is a word that presupposes what it contradicts. Like the word “atypical”, it can only be defined by explaining what it is not. “Atheist” simply means “not a theist”, which begs the question: What is a theist? Well, a theist is a believer in God or gods.
Atheism, therefore, concerns unbelief in gods. Most people today manage to worship or trust one God, forsaking and disbelieving in all the other thousands of gods that have been worshipped by human beings since the earliest forms of writing appeared.
Atheism, therefore, is about as much a religion as celibacy is a sexual position. Since it is not a religion or sect, not all believe in similar things. There are many different forms of scepticism, disbelief, and atheism, so it is hard to speak of atheism as a single entity.
Non-believers do not have a guiding doctrine or book, they do not meet and rationalise and praise evolution and Carl Sagan. And not all are without religion. For example, Buddhism is an atheistic religion. All Buddhists are atheists, but not all atheists are Buddhist.
Public atheism is a recent luxury of the secular age. Throughout the ages, a disavowal of whatever local god your community worshipped was met with ostracism and even death. In the past, religious belief was deeply intertwined with political power, so to doubt the local religion was considered an act of sedition.
The king used to rule by divine right, so if you doubted a god’s existence you would be denying the king his right to rule. That is why atheism, if it was there in many traditional societies, had to be hushed up. To stand up and claim in traditional African society that witchcraft was not real was to identify yourself as a witch. Only a witch would try and make others less wary of their charms.
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful,” said Seneca, a Roman philosopher. Ancients like Democritus and his more famous student, Epicurus, came up with arguments against belief in gods 2,300 years ago that are still widely quoted today despite the fact that the arguments are often older than most of the gods worshipped today.
So atheism is not new; it is only getting more vocal. But it still faces some hurdles in today’s world. In some countries the punishment for atheism remains death. In others, like Saudi Arabia, apostasy (renunciation of the faith) carries the death penalty, while some states in America do not allow an atheist to hold public office.
Closer home, atheists claim that discrimination towards non-believers requires that all students sitting for KCPE take a paper in religious studies from only three option: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. The Constitution also makes the assumption that all Kenyans believe in God, they argue.
Most atheists are particularly explicit about their disbelief because of the dangers of fervent religious belief in a nuclear age. Even in our secular and more tolerant world, a lot of the world’s conflicts involve some aspect of religious belief — for example, Sudan, India-Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Palestine, the Caucuses, and Azerbaijan.
All these conflicts have one set of people who believe in a certain set of dogma against another set of people who believe intractably in a different set of dogma. These differences have led to deaths of millions in recent decades and, in the case of Kashmir, could lead to a case of nuclear winters alongside the monsoon in the subcontinent.
Religious belief determines what people live for and, all too often, what they are willing to kill and die for, but atheists say they aim to have beliefs that are constantly revised by evidence and arguments as they come along.
Theirs, they argue, is an attempt to be reasonable in a world where conviction without confirmation almost always leads to death and destruction.
What that means, therefore, is that atheism is presented as a rational and intelligent skepticism at claims not backed up with proof.
The only criticism I have of atheism and atheists is that they are not nearly loud enough. Atheists, turn up the volume so that the heavens may hear you!