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Why I’m an Atheist

March 16th, 2006 by Jason · 3 Comments

Well, if you’ve read this blog long you’ll know that’s obviously a facetious title, but, hey, finals are over and this is a blog after all. I suppose a more apt title would be “Why Early Christians were Called Atheists by their Greco-Roman Peers,” but who wants to read that? It is interesting though, that in the highly religious atmosphere of the 1st century Greco-Roman world Christians were not seen as particularly religious. The reasons for that are several.

Foremost, perhaps, was their refusal to take part in the Cult of the Emperor. And their neighbors must have wondered “why not?” Most of the emperors were very modest about the whole thing—they didn’t want to be worshipped until after their death and they were more than happy to let you worship your own gods as well. Moreover, you weren’t worshipping the emperor so much as his genius, the spirit of the god that resided within him. How else could Augustus have created the pax Romana if he didn’t have the spirit of Jupiter helping him out? Plus, it was a matter of patriotism and showing that you weren’t trying to plot a revolt against Rome. The emperor embodied the empire. But, alas, the Christians refused to play along and call him “Lord and Savior.” Of course calling only Jesus Lord meant the whole structure of patriarchy was threatened as well since that meant not only was the emperor not lord, but dad wasn’t lord, and neither was your husband if you were a woman.

Then there was that small problem that the early Christians didn’t have a temple (until the 3rd century that is, when Constantine’s mother built the first one). This also meant they had made no sacrifices. And where was the big statue of Jesus? You knew a god or emperor was a god because they had nice big statues put up for all to see. No temple also meant no priests (also until the 3rd century). Instead Christians insist that their holy place is wherever “two or more are gathered.” Strange folks.

Additionally, you had to wonder why the Christians didn’t go on pilgrimages (that started in the 4th century)? Good religious folk might head over to Epidaurus to get healed by the friendly healer-god Asclepius. Or, if you had some extra cash and wanted to ensure a blissful afterlife, you might make a trek to Eleusis where you could be initiated into the mystery religion of Demeter.

Speaking of mystery religions, why was initiation into the Christian community so easy and public? The mysterion they talked about was something that had been hidden in the past but was not revealed to everybody. There weren’t multiple levels of initiation, and the initiation—baptism—was a public ceremony. No secret passwords or hidden sayings. It was all so public. And public stuff doesn’t seem very, well, religious.

The final, sure-sign indicator that these Christians were atheists was their rejection of revered social codes of their day. Their leader had redefined all the purity codes with his touching bleeding women, healing on the sabbath, and what not. They didn’t seem to put a lot of stock in the honor/shame code that ordered life; in fact, they worshipped a criminal killed in the most shameful way. To top it off they greeted each other with a “holy kiss” and called each other “brother” and “sister” all the time. Like a good pagan is going to believe that? Not just immoral, incestuous.

Atheists, unpatriotic, immoral. Who are these people?

Tags: theology

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Mar 17, 2006 at 1:06 pm

    There used to be a blog called The Gutless Pacifist that had a lot of lively discussions (though often at times, delving into the immature). I remember at one time there was a discussion about voting and about how Alasdair MacIntyre (I think it was him) argues against participating in the liberal order on a national level, even to the extent that we shouldn’t vote, using Christian reasoning for such a move (I acknowledge that many attempts are also made by Christians to argue for voting in national elections, although these days, I personally am less and less convinced, but I digress).

    Then, he was called a ‘nihilist’ by some people in the discussions.

    I wonder if this is in any ways similar? If MacIntyre is a nihilist, the assumption is that he “doesn’t believe in anything’, and in this case, the belief would be in the nation-state. Is this in anyway similar to the early Christians? I dunno?



  • 2 isaac // Mar 18, 2006 at 9:10 pm

    Eric makes me think of a something Dorothy Day said: “Don’t vote; it only encourages them.” I didn’t vote in the last presidential election (now, I have to admit, I’m having second thoughts… I didn’t know Bush was so violent. A so-called ‘weak’ president without any ‘backbone’ seems a better choice than one full of what my people call ‘machismo’). Anyhow, I think I’m going to try something different in this next election. Instead of using my political voice to speak silence, I’m going to figure out how the “least of these” would vote and cast my vote with them. So, if I’m in Durham, I’ll go with the black caucus. Or maybe I’ll go figure out how all these illegal immigrants would vote and give them my vote—do what they think is best. Just a thought.

    The ending of Jason’s post reminds me of something Jacob Taubes, the Paulinist nihilist, wrote about the early church: “now here comes a subterranean society, a little but Jewish, a little bit Gentile, nobody knows what sort of lowlifes are these anyways.” What a bunch of irrelegious folks, those early christians. I’m sure they would have made Dr. Dobson and his Focus on the Family crew blush.

  • 3 Ephen // Dec 4, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    thank you