Atheism can evoke strong feelings. It can also raise profound questions about the nature of human existence. Atheism, of course, is not a singular phenomenon. Strictly speaking, it is a rejection of belief in God. But the lines can blur between atheism and agnosticism, which is not so much the rejection of belief in God as it is perplexity about questions of ultimate truth and the extent to which they are represented in the beliefs and practices of religious communities.
The way atheism is conceived depends on one’s point of view. In imperial Rome, Christians were called atheists because they refused to sacrifice to the gods of the empire. They were a threat to the prevailing social order. In classical Islam, atheism was more about rejecting the teachings of Islam than the existence of God. This, too, was seen as a threat to the prevailing social order.
The point is that atheism is always situated in a context. In this sense, it has a positive role to play. It is not simply a theological position one has reached after years of individual reflection in isolation from wider developments in society. It may be that, but it is also more. It is also a counter-cultural statement. By challenging the beliefs that rule a society, atheists, like the earliest Christians, call a society to reflect more deeply on ultimate questions. This is not to deny other sides of atheism, such as the psychological. For some, atheism can be personally liberating. For others, it can destabilize one’s life and even lead to a loss of purpose. For this and other reasons, we need to be careful how atheism is taught just as we need to be careful how faith is taught. Just as we cannot teach faith over against the insights of science, so we cannot teach atheism in a way that is blind to the well-being of human persons. In addition to the psychological aspect, atheism also has socio-economic and political implications. Is a spiritual authority needed to challenge the concentration of power in the hands of the few?
The history of atheism intrigues and also unsettles, and as suggested above, it has many sides to it. Here, our goal is to consider instances of atheism over history to illustrate the way in which atheism exists as one point on a broader spectrum of theological discourse. In this sense, atheism is seen as playing a positive role within (rather than apart from) the process of theological reasoning. We document how atheism serves as a necessary ingredient in the theological adventure, keeping the process honest but also helping it move forward in response to changing socio-political circumstances. Tap into the links above to get a sense how the history of atheism has insight for us today. Indeed, atheism has theological purpose!