Did humankind start out as atheistic or theistic?

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Quick! When in your American schooling up to higher education did you ever learn about the rich, global history of religious skepticism?

“Never” is the correct answer.

You might have been taught a thin sprinkling of heresy, perhaps, glancing for a moment on the lurid burnings of medieval Christian skeptics by the feared Inquisition, or briefly learning about the ancient Greek flirtation with “natural philosophy,” which, today underpins science and atheism.

Mostly in the West, though, we learn in school about the history of Western civilization, which, in terms of religion, is all about Christianity and its historical effects, not religious skepticism.

From kindergarten to the Ph.D., virtually no one reads the vast literature of unbelief.

J.H. McKenna

Indeed, nowhere in our elementary and secondary school history books do we learn of the yawning breadth of religious skepticism in the world throughout history (i.e., after writing was invented), including persecuted outliers among adherents of the world’s major monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

However, those spiritual naysayers and freethinkers didn’t generally last long in their own times, all too often ending up torched, drawn and quartered, hung or generally doomed in a so-called “trial by combat” or by the ancient practice of “ordeals,” which Christians enthusiastically embraced in the Middle Ages often against alleged Satanic witches.  In combat and ordeals, the truth was ostensibly determined by God as ostensibly demonstrated by the real-world results.

Is faith truer than faithlessness?

This cultural blindness regarding the broad existence of unbelief in history has in part allowed Christianity to become so culturally embedded particularly in the United States that faith to many if not most Americans seems (unjustifiably) truer and essential than faithlessness. I do somewhat of a deep dive into the negative, coercive effects on society of this delusive assumption in my 2020 book, “Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the True American Dream.”

An article I recently read in J.H. McKenna’s Humanism plus blog—“A Very Short History of Western Atheism”—reminded me that world culture, which is awash in all manner of religious faith, is, in naturalist terms, topsy turvy, because our species, Homo Sapiens, was born atheist, not theist. Dr. McKenna is an American history and religious studies academic.

So, what Christianity has been able to mostly successfully accomplish over millennia but especially since medieval times is the spiritual brainwashing of billions of human beings into believing that invisible deities exist in and even rule the real world. With virtually no competing narratives of religious skepticism in primary and secondary schools.

This mass delusion was assisted by prior dissemination of other popular supernatural spiritual beliefs throughout humankind’s existence, including animal worship; shamanism; animism; Greek, Roman and Egyptian god systems; Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism; Hinduism; Yazdânism; Jainism; Confucianism; Buddhism; Taoism; and Shintoism, to name a few.

Were primitive humanoids believers?

But in the beginning, it was arguably just awe of nature or even just supreme disinterest in what might be termed intellectual issues.

“[W]hen humanoids did appear on the scene, atheism existed before theism. Atheism was the original state of humanity. It would take millions of years of evolution of a humanoid brain in order for a human mind to evolve to the point of believing in Gods. God belief required a certain sophistication of brain matter.”

— J.H. McKenna

Yet, when human beings did acquire that “certain sophistication of brain matter,” they appeared to be strikingly biased toward supernatural conclusions—so biased that they’ve seemingly become hard-wired into our psyches, with most people in the modern world still wholeheartedly believing in all-powerful, invisible divines. Including the United States of America.

Even today, the important and consequential history of global religious skepticism is not taught in primary and secondary curricula in the U.S., while the history of Christianity is fulsome, implicitly characterizing the faith as a kind of truth by a lack of its objective, critical analysis.

Nonetheless, unbelief has bequeathed an extensive, compelling legacy of historical writing. McKenna writes:

“The literature of religious skepticism over the last 2600 years is huge, and most of it is high-quality writing, with many famous authors contributing.

But almost no one is exposed to this literature during their years of formal education. From kindergarten to the Ph.D., virtually no one reads the vast literature of unbelief.”

Secular literature worth reading

He suggests a list of relevant books to read:

To these I would add:

A lack of secular focus is also a built-in bias of U.S. colleges and universities for much the same reason as primary and secondary schools: Christianity has long been embedded, even peripherally, in the American educational process.

Although mainly CatholicProtestant, and Jewish colleges and universities have been founded throughout the Western world, zero atheist ones have anywhere in the Western world, including in secular Europe and Australia, according to Conservapedia.com.

Religion’s legacy in U.S. higher education

A recent article in Connecticut’s Wesleyan University ezine, titled “Christianity’s Role in the Development of Modern Institutions,” explains the evolutionary cause of religion-influenced higher education in the West:

“The earliest universities, in early medieval Italy, trained their students in canon law; subsequently theology came to be studied, and then the humanities. Almost every university and college founded in the U.S. and Europe until the mid-19th century—and many afterwards—was founded by some religious organization (including Wesleyan, of course). The degree of control exercised by these varied, but it is safe to say that no college or university has been unaffected by the Christian background of the university.”

And one of the effects has been that the formal teaching of atheism has been viewed as anathema.

In fact, according to a 2018 Atlantic magazine article—“How Should Atheism be Taught?”—the first faculty position in American history specifically for the study of atheism wasn’t endowed until that year at Miami (Florida) University. Florida resident Louis J. Appignani, the 84-year-old former president of Barbizon International modeling and acting school, provided the $2.2 million endowment. The new academic position was named the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics.

Appignani stressed that the chair would be “strictly academic” and not political, allowing students to be “exposed,” often for the first time, to religious nonbelief, and to “be able to choose” what they agree with “and not be ostracized in the process.”

Having attended Catholic schools in his youth, Appignani told The Atlantic that he and everyone he knew “sort of took faith for granted.” It wasn’t until he attended university and began reading the skeptical philosophy of Bertrand Russell, that he started to realize that “faith is stupid … [and that] mythology is not true.”

Sadly, most people in the world have not and never will probably make that intellectual leap.

And it’s why schoolchildren in America still haven’t a clue about the actuality and vast possibilities of unbelief.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...