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New Worlds: Atheism

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I suspect many people assume atheism is a modern concept. After all, isn’t it a product of a scientific worldview? Once you have science to explain things, you don’t need gods?

That’s certainly the approach assumed by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, back in the nineteenth century. He argued that in our primitive state, we believe in magic; when we get more civilized, we have religion instead; and when we reach the pinnacle of civilization — that is to say, late Victorian Britain — we have science instead. But his unilineal cultural evolutionary theory assumed that societies must progress from earlier stages to later ones, abandoning one mode as they pick up the next, and even a brief glance at the real world shows that isn’t true. Scientists can be religious. Religious people can believe in magic. And you don’t have to wait for the Scientific Revolution to not believe in gods.

In fact, some of the earliest examples of atheism are quite ancient. We have evidence of atheistic individuals and traditions from both Greece and India several centuries BCE — a good two thousand years before you might expect! These are both regions that had very sophisticated schools of philosophy, and so it’s not entirely surprising that some of them would turn in a materialistic direction, questioning the underlying nature of reality. But it’s important to note that just because these ideas existed doesn’t mean they were accepted; the vast majority of people back then were theist.

Of course — and you won’t be surprised to hear me say this — it does depend on how you define “atheism.” The word literally means “godless,” and it’s been used in that sense many times over the millennia: ancient Romans accused Christians of being atheists because they didn’t worship the pagan gods, and Catholics during the Reformation accused Protestants of being atheists because they denied Catholic beliefs about the nature of God and the Christian faith. So not every reference you find in history of someone being called an atheist actually means atheism as we think of the term.

But even if you limit the use of that word to a lack of belief in any god, you haven’t yet cleared out your can of worms. What’s a god? We’ve had that essay already, so I won’t recap it here, but I’ll note that it’s possible to disbelieve in deities, yet still believe in supernatural forces that take no personified form. Euhemerus asserted that the “gods” were just mortals built up by later propaganda, and other classical thinkers found the myths about them to be kind of absurd; that still doesn’t mean they didn’t hold beliefs we would consider to be straight-up magical. On a different front, a great deal of Western ink has been spilled over how to classify Buddhism, since — depending on what form of it you look at — it is a religion without a god.

Then there’s agnosticism, the belief that the truth of such matters is unknowable: we can neither definitively prove nor disprove them one way or another. Like atheism, this is a fairly ancient stance, and understandably so; scholars and philosophers have been pointing out the limits of human perception and cognition for a long time. Some modern atheists decry this as a cop-out, an unwillingness to commit to full denial of the divine, but it can be just as much a committed stance as either end of the belief spectrum.

Whether or not atheism shows up in speculative fiction tends to depend on what corner of it you’re looking at. Although this is changing now, I think, science fiction’s default position used to be atheism — if not as an explicit declaration, than as an implicit absence. After all, if our future is more science-y, that means it’s necessarily less religious, right? (Frazer’s ideas about cultural evolution have not died out yet.) On the rare occasions when religion appeared in SF, it was more likely to be practiced by the Other, i.e. aliens, or else by humans that have fallen away from that scientific ideal: colonies regressed from their technological roots, post-apocalyptic social collapse, etc.

In fantasy, meanwhile, it’s quite the opposite. Being an atheist there seems nonsensical, at least if it’s meant in the sense of denying the existence of any god. (Fantasy characters could certainly accuse each other of denying the existence of the right gods, in the right forms.) You certainly do get fantasy stories in which religion simply doesn’t play a role, but because of our assumptions around genre, that won’t carry the same implication as in SF, that there’s no religion in the setting at all. And to have a character explicitly deny the gods in a story that has both magic and faith would feel peculiar: is that character just an idiot? Can’t they see the world they live in?

As you might expect, I think it’s interesting to push at those default modes. Bring on more societies that are both religious and highly technological — as more authors have been doing in recent years — and while you’re at it, I’d love to see more worlds where there’s magic, but someone denies that there are gods anywhere to be found. (Not just Ruritanian fantasy, where there’s no magic either, but an active rejection of non-materialistic beliefs.) I think it would be an interesting dynamic.

But the effect it has on the reader may be interesting in a different way. This theory does not originate with me — I can’t remember who it does originate with, except it might have been a comment Ted Chiang made during a convention panel once — but I find it interesting to view the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and speculative horror through a lens closely related to this point. In fantasy, the universe is assumed to be fundamentally benevolent: full of bad things, maybe, but on a metaphysical level, the scales tilt in favor of good. In horror, it’s the opposite; the universe is fundamentally malevolent instead, its arc bending toward suffering. And in science fiction, the universe is neutral, with no metaphysical bias toward one moral pole or the other. It’s either unaware, or aware but completely disinterested. (The latter being how Epicurus characterized the Greek deities.)

The nature of the gods, including whether they exist or not, is going to affect where a given story falls in that schema. Run the metaphysics counter to the surface tropes of science fiction or fantasy, and you’re liable to wind up in that middle zone of science fantasy where readers argue about whether it’s “really” one or the other.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad place to be!

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8 thoughts on “New Worlds: Atheism”

  1. This is a very great read; kudos and thank you!

    Just two questions:
    Was it Socrates who was accused of atheism, because he didn’t believe in the gods of a particular city?

    Ruritanian? I’m afraid I don’t know that one, sorry…though my guess is that there’s an emphasis on rural life?

  2. Bujold has a bunch of twists:

    Barrayar, a lost colony planet that dropped in tech level for hundreds of years. Only displayed supernaturalism or religion is some superstitions and some ambiguous ancestor reverence. Some call that unrealistic; I say if the planet was settled by mostly irreligious Europeans of the 2300s, then we have no real idea of what to expect. Bujold also never commits to what *science* was lost; you could practically go Stone Age while passing atomism and germ theory on to your kids.

    The Sharing Knife books are straight up fantasy, with magic, and invocations/swears of “absent gods”. No one has stopped to tell the fourth wall why they do that, though one might guess it has something to do with the magical cataclysm in their past.

    The Five Gods universe is also fantasy, with actual gods. Benevolent gods. *Weak* benevolent gods, whose power over the material world is mostly “influence an animal or send a dream, if some human provides a conduit”. Thus solving the Problem of Evil.

  3. It’s also worth looking at an underconsidered intermediate instance: Not denying the very existence of deities, but only the propriety of worshipping/having faith in them. Consider a pantheon consisting entirely of arrogant, vicious jerks (even if “entirely” is monotheistic); that perhaps lends itself better to tales told to frighten children into good behavior than any impulse or system of “religion.”

    Then there’s the actively-misleading propaganda variant on Euhemerus, in which real deities do not at all resemble the belief system — in that instance, the gods-of-the-belief-system don’t exist, notwithstanding the existence of others who do. Pascal’s Wager would be really interesting in that context!

    1. “only the propriety of worshipping/having faith in them”

      Pratchett had a couple versions of that. Granny Weatherwax knowing gods existed but not worshipping (or maybe “believing” in) them, that would just encourage them. Dorfl the golem and ceramic atheist, doubting the existence of gods even after having been struck by lightning… Which, frankly, feels less clever to me now than when I was 20. *Something* sent the lightning.

      Hodgell had a twist in _God Stalk_. Jame is from a monotheist race (this makes sense) that acknowledges (worship ain’t quite it) a powerful creator god; Jame also runs into little ‘gods’ of Ankh-Morpork, causing a crisis of faith or something. She eventually tries to save a dead god she accidentally invited in, does a bunch of sacrifices don’t work, then a piece of moldy bread along with “I’m monotheist but I acknowledge you exist”, which does. (Probably helps that she’s also an avatar of Godhood herself… having that say you exist must be a big boost.)

      But the whole idea of ‘faith’ or ‘propriety of worship’ is a rather Christian idea. Typically, a polytheist god isn’t worshipped because they’re special or morally deserving, they’re worshipped because they’re powerful and can reward/threaten you if you don’t satisfy them. Which I guess is a point for Dorfl after all: his nature makes him immune to the standard power of angry Discworld gods.

      (Or put another way, ‘worship’ is itself a vague term, maybe circularly defined: you worship gods, gods are what you worship.)

  4. Neo-Platonists believed in one supreme God who, being perfectly perfect, could not possibly need or even be aware of anything outside himself.

    Epicureans believed that the finite gods were not concerned with humans at all.

    It’s quite easy to write a fantasy in which the gods are adequately distant that they’re debatable. It does, however, preclude a good number of stories even as it enables others.

    1. Anthony Docimo

      >not concerned with humans at all.
      Those are the sort of gods I’d be most afraid of…because they seem like the sort who would send a great flood when the humans are making too much noise. (ie, Sumer)

      …or does that count as concerned, reacting to human doings?

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