(TRENDS in CHRISTIANITY – continued)
Changing Concepts about God | Changing Mores | Liberalization in the Roman Catholic Church | Protestants and Conflict | Falwell and Robertson turn Political | Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Swaggart and Osteen
Pollsters have occasionally asked people whether they believe in God. It is a question that belongs more to the late twentieth and early twenty-first century and not a question that would have been asked in the 1500s in Europe. The word "atheist" in the 1500s was commonly used to denote a libertine rather than someone who does not believe in God. To be described as an atheist then was an insult. The French historian Lucien Febve (1878-1956) wrote that there were "conceptual difficulties" in the 1500s in denying the existence of God. "Every activity of the day ... was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions." And asking someone whether he believed in God was to suggest the possibility that he did not and must have been as insulting as asking if he were a sodomite or murderer. Peter Watson in his book Ideas agrees with Febve. Watson writes that "One reason Montaigne never really doubted that there was a God was because to do so in his lifetime was next to impossible."
Atheism continued to be scorned in the late 1600s, as indicated by the Enlightenment's John Locke. He claimed that atheism was “not at all to be tolerated” because “promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist.”
During the Enlightenment it was deism, not atheism, that challenged the standard ideas about God. Some deists, at least, didn't hold to the idea of God as having human-like empathies and other human-like emotions. Deism defined God as a force that did not intervene in human affairs. Deists rejected godly revelations, miracles, prophesies and the Genesis account of creation. Deists questioned the divinity of Jesus Christ and thought of him only as a moral teacher, and some deists expressed hostility toward Christianity. Traditional Christians were likely to view deists as atheists. The deist Thomas Jefferson was accused of atheism.
And there was pantheism. It appeared among the ancients and later among Muslims, Buddhists and others. It was reborn into the modern Christian world during the Enlightenment, and it was received by traditional Christians as another form of atheism. If God were nothing but nature, it was argued, the word "god" added nothing conceptually or logically to the world around us. Why, one could ask, did one word not suffice as a label? God had to be different from nature to have significance or meaning. It was differentiation that helped people to find their way.
The argument against the popular Christian conception of God changed with the rise of secularism in the 1900s. Darwinism provided an argument against creationism, and astrophysics gave more respect to the empirical interpretation of the universe.
By the late twentieth century there was a well-known astro-chemist and astronomer, Carl Sagan, who wrote that "The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard, who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by 'God' one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God." Sagan described such a god as emotionally unsatisfying and added that "it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity."
Into the 21st century, people in many societies have a right to question standard assumptions passed along by the dominant culture – a few Muslim communities being one exception. And outside of the United States people have managed to get elected despite their professed atheism. In choosing their political leaders, some people considered the issue of atheism politically irrelevent.
Into the 21st century, a few have been selling books that promote their doubts about God. And there is the former Catholic nun, Karen Armstrong, who has delved into religion and history in her book History of God. In it she writes,
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, atheism was definitely on the agenda. Advances in science and technology were creating a new spirit of autonomy and independence which led some to declare their independence of God.
Armstrong had been discomforted by doubts and a failing religious identity. She went from atheism to the eclectic spirituality that had been growing in popularity. In her writing she has left God undefined and the question of belief in God unanswered. She has written that religion isn't about believing things: "It's about what you do. It's ethical alchemy. It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness." For Armstrong and many others, the question of God is not about what church you belong to. It is inextricably linked to the question, "How does this affect me?"
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