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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