Last year, sometime in the month of July, I participated in the ‘Knowledge Underground’ IDEAS forum event. The event was sponsored by The Consultancy Group, facilitated by the Moray House Trust located on Camp and Quamina Streets. The aim of the IDEAS forum was to explore TIME magazine’s one hundred ideas that changed the world and the way we think. Invitations were open to the public, welcoming anyone in Guyana who were interested in participating by presenting on at least one idea. The event was executed wonderfully, with highly informative talks delivered by our local intellectuals, and knowledgeable persons on specific topics. Topics ranged from social and human rights issues, to science and technology, and even atheism! You might ask ‘why atheism?’. I took it upon myself to not just discuss ‘atheism’ as a mere idea, but to talk about atheism and what it is premised on. Another aspect of my presentation focused on atheists in Guyana, and finally secularism, both of which I will discuss here further. You can click here to view the presentation slideshow.
Historically, one may argue that religion has played a tremendous role in shaping world history. Indeed, religion has impacted our lives and society in many ways, and still continues to do so, although arguably with influences less significant as both current and future generations shove faith aside and resort to human reason and understanding as a guide to solve very human problems. So where does atheism fit into the ‘ideas that changed the world’? I argue that non-belief is becoming more influential regarding the way we see ourselves, the world and even political issues, especially concerning matters of authority and accountability at the State level. In brief, the role of non-belief in a higher power of some sort lends important insights in our quest for certainty, truth, justice and meaning.
Much of what I am about to discuss relates directly to how I became an atheist. For clarity’s sake, I will share a bit of that journey. I am Guyanese. I have never lived abroad. I had a Christian upbringing. My family was mostly religious while I was younger. We were ‘practicing’ Christians. We usually attended church three times per week, partaking in various church activities, such as preaching the ‘Gospel’s good news’ to communities – that the world is coming to an end, and there would be a place for those who obeyed God before Armageddon (the ultimate demise of planet Earth). I often read and studied the Bible with church elders. In my spare time, I would spend quality time with the book of Exodus. It was, and still is, my favorite book in the Christian Bible. Its theme of liberation captivated me. Through my readings of Exodus, I later developed a fascination and deep curiosity with ancient Egyptian culture and early antiquity. This curiosity to know more led me to investigate ancient cultures. It should be noted that the church’s governing body I once followed forbids members from reading literature that are not approved or cited as recommended by them. Instead, the church’s publications were considered the only credible source of ‘spiritual food’ or knowledge and ‘truth’; an order decreed by the church’s governing entity, based in the U.S.A. The church was constantly discouraging members from reading secular publications. I found this to be strange, for we were told to have an ‘open mind’. Once again, led by my curiosity, I eventually did read the works of scholars. In doing so, the seed of doubt was planted in me. Many things taught in my church did not seem to be authentic or ‘truthful’; including what I was told regarding Christianity and the Bible itself.
The inevitability of doubt was powerful and felt immensely burdensome. At the age of sixteen I discarded my orthodox way of thinking and pursued knowledge available in other inquiries, such as the sciences and the humanities. Almost entirely self-taught, my knowledge in the vast areas of science and philosophy allowed me to challenge myself rigorously with scrutiny and introspection. I eventually placed reason above faith, which then led to my atheism, something I have been embracing since the age of 17, and never looked back. My background is not unique. I know many people who live here and have been through a similar tale. And it is no surprise that the church I grew up with ex-communicated me because of my different perspective.
What is atheism?
There were three main areas I usually focus on to unpack atheism. First, definitions – specifying exactly what atheism is, and how it contrasts with other ‘atheistic’ views, such as agnosticism and humanism. Secondly, why atheism should matter to us, even to those of us who are not atheists, which touches more on secularism. Finally, what atheism can teach us all, believers and unbelievers alike, which is the importance of thinking critically and being skeptical. The latter two I discuss later in this piece.
On the matter of definitions, probably an enlightening way to understand atheism is to contrast it with theism – the belief with a high level of certainty that there is a god. On the contrary, atheism, in its original Greek ‘atheos’, is simply the disbelief in a god or gods. Many people often assume that atheism is a radical suggestion about the cosmos and what’s ultimately there. I would propose that it is not. All of us, in one way or the other, are atheists. To highlight my point, suppose you believe in Yahweh or Jesus. You would understand, I’m sure, what it is like to disbelieve in the gods of ancient Greece, such as Zeus or Ares, or the gods of ancient Egypt such as Horus or Ra. We do not find reason to believe in these gods and if we came across anyone who did believe in any one or more of them, we would most likely not take them seriously (I suppose). And this is what atheism is. We are all atheists with respect to all the other gods that came before. Some of us just disbelieve in one god more than others.
There’s a common misconception about atheism that it is a belief system. Let me make it clear that it is not a belief system or religion! It cannot be since it has no creeds, no doctrines and no dogmatic appeals. There is no authoritative figure in atheism. However, it is noteworthy to consider another view: agnosticism. Agnosticism takes the middle position without declaring a firm stance either theistically or atheistically. On a belief scale of whether a God exist, ranking between one and ten, agnosticism would rank somewhere about a five. There are also ‘agnostic atheists’ who do not proclaim the non-existence of God with absolute certainty. The question of whether there is a God in the universe becomes a matter of probability, which the agnostic atheist would consider highly improbable. This happens to be the view I hold, grounded on philosophical reasons.
It should be noted that atheism in ancient Greece was seen as a threat to religion, and by extension, the state. This can be explored further during the Hellenistic period, a time of great philosophical inquiry and the scholastic pursuit of knowledge.
Some Greek philosophers, classical thinkers who dare explored through reason the fundamental notions of existence, purpose and meaning, often opposed the authority and workings of the gods. They were deemed crazy, having insults thrown at them. “Atheist” was such an insult. Questioning the nature and existence of the gods of the ancient Greeks could get one killed in that society. And to criticize religious authority or elements, even worse the gods themselves, was to criticize the state authority. The role of religious institutionalization with the state (‘Polis’) was highly influential and powerful.
The classical argument presented against the existence of God is made famous with the so-called ‘Epicurean Paradox’. This paradox, commonly credited to the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, but arguably should be instead to the philosopher Carneades, is probably one of the oldest constructed arguments in the Western hemisphere questioning the nature and possibility of God’s existence. The paradox questions the existence of a just and loving God given the suffering and evil in the world. The only solution to the paradox, in my opinion, is to eliminate God from the equation as ‘existing’. In doing so, one is left with the notion of ‘evil’ as a natural aspect of the world, without any theological underpinnings. This would mean that the world we live in is cruel, vile and dangerous, without purpose and without significance. Of course, human beings prefer a more comforting view of the world than this.
‘Heathens’ in Guyana
‘Heathen’ is an unpleasant label. But that is the preferred description assigned to unbelievers, a description which was adopted by the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). There aren’t many reports on atheists in Guyana – who they are, what their views are, and so forth. However, according to a 2007 US survey, some 4% of Guyana’s population declared themselves as without faith or no religion, which is synonymous with atheism in its general sense. Like other countries with the majority of the population being religious, atheists in Guyana are usually afraid to ‘come out’. The most obvious reason for this is because of the high level of stigma society has towards atheism. Because of stigmatization, people are afraid that they might lose their jobs, or become classified as an ‘immoral’ person by friends and family. These realities are no stranger to my own personal experience of ‘coming out’. I was often ridiculed, shunned and despised by a few of my friends and family members. Despite Guyana having a reputation of being a ‘highly tolerable’ society of diverse people, this is a tolerance many Guyanese citizens who think ‘differently’ are not afforded. Essentially, people of no faith are struggling for acceptance and a space to have their voice heard, similar to those on other social issues, such as the acceptance of LGBT people. It is a struggle for freedom, for acceptance, for dignity, for respect and, perhaps most importantly to the individual, for identity.
Atheism and the Secular Cause
Unbelievers are generally people who are skeptics, atheists/agnostics, and secular humanists, possessing no belief in a god simply because they find no good reason to believe. Since atheists do not subscribe to an authoritative figure for guidance. Some of us put trust in our human capacity for the common good – to create just societies and establish social principles for the benefit of all. The core idea is that we ought to work out our problems on our own, with the use of the rigors of skepticism. An important aspect is not to accept claims without good argument, and to always question authority.
It should be clear that I am not against religion or religiosity. What I am against is when religious institutions interfere with our politics, social policies and education curriculum. There are many reasons why church and state should remain separate in any progressive society – which is the secular cause. Secularism isn’t atheism. It has a following of both believers and non-believers because of its importance to healthy societies. Secularism assures us that everyone will be treated equally and fairly regardless of religious affiliation and belief. Unfortunately, the present government has thus far failed to demonstrate a balanced approach to the diverse Guyanese belief system during Guyana’s 49th Independence Day ceremony, with continued referrals to one particular religion, Christianity. And while this might be unproblematic to most, it is a disrespect to our secular constitution. State officials should not give preference to their personal religious beliefs in public offices or at public events. It is my hope that the current administration’s perceived ‘messianic’ appointment does not interfere with the people’s interest, such as resolving the discrimination of LGBT people, the abolition of capital punishment and blasphemy from law, and the abolition of corporal punishment. I have high hopes in the current administration, but that would not stop me from scrutinizing authority, an authority given by people of different views and religious faiths.