An atheist is one who does not believe in the existence of God or who denies God’s existence.   The   difficulty of   defining   atheism results from the whole range of nuances that the concept appears to subsume. Whether it results from active denial or whether it derives from a real or supposed vacuum, whether it is therefore ‘‘positive’’ or ‘‘negative,’’ atheism is fundamentally conceived as unbelief. But this only renders the problem more complex: how can one devise a history or a sociology of the ‘‘negative’’?  If atheism, placed as it is under the sign of privacy, is nothing more than the other side of belief, only the  latter can be a positive concept. Atheism is thus  an integral part  of a system organized around  a central reference to a religion which exhausts the concept  of  belief. Ultimately,  any  sociology of atheism is a sociology of religion.

The difficulty of accounting for unbelief (or non belief) independently of what is supposed to  provide  its  foundations explains why the concept of atheism has been studied by theologians  and  philosophers,  psychologists and psychoanalysts, far more than  by sociologists and   historians.  (This   does   not   take  into account the  abundant  literature  –  pertaining more to  propaganda than  to  science –  dedicated to this subject in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries.) There  is no doubt that the phenomenon has a very long history: 2,500 years  before  our   era,  there   were  thinkers in  India  who  claimed  that  the  skies  were empty. Lucretius  and Epicure, Epictetus and Parmenides,  Heraclitus  and  Xenophanon  of Colophon  held   similar  assumptions.  More than 2,000 years before Nietzsche, Theodorus the  Atheist  proclaimed  the  death  of  God. Moreover, from  the  atheism  of  antiquity  to that  of the  Enlightenment  and the  ‘‘Masters of Suspicion’’ (Ricoeur’s expression for Marx, Nietzsche,  and  Freud),  the  history  of  non belief is  also that  of  the  deepening  of  the distinction  between  the  sacred  and  profane, lay and religious.

However difficult it may be to reduce it to a  unique  definition,  atheism  as an  indicator and  an  instrument  of  the  secularization of societies occupies a  pivotal  position  in  this process of  disenchantment  which,  mostly in Europe,   constructed   the   individual   as   an autonomous category and as the central subject  of  history.  In  that  sense,  atheism,  as invented by modernity, is a pure  product  of the  Christian West, even if its occurrence is well attested in other contexts. Strongly condemned and attacked by the churches, which saw it as the epitome and the culmination of all the errors of modern times, as this ‘‘absurd enterprise which is the construction of a world without  God’’ denounced by Louis Veuillot, this   atheism   derives   simultaneously   from materialism,  rationalism,  and  more  modern trends  going from immanentism to  phenomenology and from Marxism to existentialism. Some identify within it the expression of four tendencies: a scientistic atheism (science does not need the hypothesis of God to explain the laws of nature);  a moral atheism (there  is a contradiction  between  God  and  evil:  ‘‘The only  excuse God  has,  therefore,  is  that  He does  not  exist,’’ a  formula  Sartre  borrows from  Stendhal);  a  humanist  atheism  (from Bakunin to Nietzsche and from Proudhon  to Luka´cs or to Merleau Ponty); and an ontological atheism (Nietzsche, once again, but also Ho¨lderlin or Heidegger). And there is even a ‘‘methodological atheism,’’ which  should  be scrupulously respected in any scientific description of phenomena related to belief.

Atheism cannot possibly be grasped today in the same terms as those used by the seventeenth century Encyclopedists or, nearer to us, by Marxism or existentialism. Nor can it be grasped in the terms we use to approach these thinkers.  If  atheism remains in  certain societies legally impossible or socially difficult, and  thus  an  object of  scandal, what  everywhere else was once a marginal attitude  has now become an  established social fact,  provided one interprets atheism not as the militant denial of God, who is relevant to only a small number  of our  contemporaries, but  as aprofound  indifference  which  can  take  on many different forms. As pointed out by the Japanese Buddhist monk, theologian, and philosopher  Hoˆseki  Shinichi  Hisamatsu  (1996), ‘‘the fundamental characteristic of the modern era is atheism.’’

This  is  not  because a  solution  has  been found  to  the  question  of  the  existence  or non existence of God. It is that this question appears to  have lost  its  organizing capacity. The   radical  individualization which  characterizes our contemporary relation to meaning deprives religion of the centrality it claimed to  embody. Such  an evolution, seen against the backdrop  of  a  massive distancing  from  the institutionalization of belief, entails two major consequences: the ever increasing difficulty of sustaining  the   distinction  between  believer and  non believer  when  there  is  no  longer, except in theory, a ‘‘content’’ to belief which can be taken as an  ultimate  frame of reference;  and  therefore  the  loss  of  sociological relevance of a concept of atheism, the meaning  of  which  demands  that  very  frame  of reference.

Theology  itself  has  made  use  of  these trends.  Apart  from  the  currents  which,  in the    perspective   opened   up    by   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, try to define an a religious Christianity   (especially  in   the   English speaking world and  under  diverse forms), some have suggested that  the  term  ‘‘unbeliever’’  should be replaced by ‘‘believer in a different way.’’ Others even go so far as to consider unbelief as  a  new  paradigm  for  theological research, and even as a new model for the comprehension of faith.

In the field of sociology itself, the substantial developments observable within our societies suggest an end to the bias which consists in identifying belief with religion and the latter with institutionalized religion. Maintaining this  approach  implies that  the  only  way of outlining the contours of contemporary belief is  to   use  the   analytical  tools  devised  for the   study   of  institutionalized  religion.  An approach through  membership, based on the proximity  or  the  distance  from  a  specified content of belief, seems unable to account for the trends  just mentioned. To  take only one example, a very large majority of French people  claim to  be Catholic, but  40 percent  of them simultaneously state that they ‘‘have no religious affiliation.’’ Along these same lines, approximately one third  of the teenagers who identify  themselves as  Catholics  assert  that they ‘‘do not believe in God.’’

The   contemporary   landscape,   in   which belief is governed by subjectivism, is made up entirely of fluid currents which remain highly resistant to any structuring reference to a form of stability, unless stability is perceived as strictly operational. The  goal is not to reach a  ‘‘religious identity,’’  seen  as  stable  (and indispensable to  understand  an  ‘‘a religious’’ identity). What is now at stake is the relation to  experience (and  the  priority  of the  latter over  the  content  of  belief); to  authenticity (and the priority of the latter over truth); to a refusal of violence and to belief constituted as a ‘‘comfortable’’  space, kept at a distance from constraints and norms.

Of  course, individualization is  not  a  new process, nor is individuality a modern invention,  nor  individualism a  contemporary discovery. This  is not the question. The  rather enigmatic status of religion today (should the term be used in the singular or the plural? Is religion on its way out or making a comeback?

Is it ultimately reducible to politics or is it the converse?) does not proceed from an overriding individualization of the relation to meaning, but from the social legitimatization of the latter. Even the great names of sociology, from Durkheim to Weber and from Tocqueville to Marx, are of little help in understanding this phenomenon because it is – if not a radical or unexpected novelty – at least a brutal  acceleration of the movements which stir our contemporary societies, and via globalization, even those  beyond  our  western  societies,  which have been the  cradle of the  individualization of belief.

If the  concept of atheism does not  appear to make sense today as a sociological  tool, it continues however to make sense as a political category. We are not thinking here specifically of  the  effort  to  eradicate  religion  pursued in  the  communist system, where the  official policy of  forced atheization was a  necessary part  of the construction and consolidation of the legitimacy of the regime. ‘‘Opium of the masses,’’ religion was construed as the prime indicator of social suffering. If its disappearance would have demonstrated the advent of the  harmonious  society  sought  for  by  the regime, its  resilience proved how difficult it was  to  achieve such  a  program.  Only  one country, Albania, followed this logic inherent to the communist project to the bitter end, by declaring religion unconstitutional.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, the reference to atheism has taken on a different political significance. If yesterday  it  was  linked  to  communism,  it  now testifies to  the  perversion and  decadence of western society. This  type of discourse, often associated with a radical interpretation of Islamism, presents the  secularization of societies as an  outgrowth  of Christian  civilization. In the   last   instance,   it   aims  at   stigmatizing ‘‘democracy’’ as the official institutionalization of pluralism and therefore of a presumed relativism. From the same perspective, it also denounces a  domineering West  imposing its own order on the rest of the world.


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