Confident Atheism: Reflections on the Golden Bough

Atheism. How hubristic! Afterall, how can any mere mortal know for certain that no gods exist anywhere in or beyond this vast cosmos? One would need to be omniscient to be justified in drawing such a comprehensive conclusion, right? So goes the argument for soft atheism and/or agnosticism, and, for quite some time, I myself found this kind of argumentation quite compelling. As I broadened my academic study, however, beyond biblical studies, to include the full gamut of world religious traditions through times and cultures, ultimately earning my Ph.D. in Religious Studies (rather than in mere Biblical Studies), I confidently abandoned that line of argumentation. Surprisingly (or not), biblical studies, once plainly contextualized within religious studies, leads to one and only one destination: atheism. Several lines of thought arise, all pointing in this one direction. Here, I shall discuss atheism as the natural and necessary corollary of what was known in biblical studies as the History of Religions School.

Nineteenth-century Germany saw the rise of critical biblical scholarship, reaching its zenith with die religionsgeschichtliche Schule (the History of Religions School). This “school” of thought amounted to a shared methodological paradigm predominantly advanced at the University of Göttingen in the 1890s under such distinguished names as Gunkel, Weiss, Bousset, Otto, and Wrede. These pioneers set forth what most in biblical studies at the time regarded as a radical approach to academic study of the Bible: One best studies the religious content, themes, and patterns inscribed in the biblical texts within the context of a larger understanding of all religious content, themes, and patterns. With the History of Religions School, we witness the nascent underpinnings of what later came to be known as the field of comparative religions. These early pioneers began a discussion about biblical texts fully grounded in human cultural history, a discussion that held the biblical texts as no more special or “revelatory” than any other known religious documents.

Rather than biblical scholars refining this methodology over the last 120 years, however, the field largely circumvented and ignored the History of Religions School, instead pursuing the study of the biblical texts in radical isolation, under the overriding force of theological politics and faith interests. To this day, 99% of the membership of the Society of Biblical Literature has next to zero training in world religions or the broader contextual trends of the ancient world. 99% have never taken a single course in anthropology or cultural studies or sociology as part of their graduate training. To apply an analogy, this would be like claiming to be a world expert regarding a particular mountain, say Mt. Rainier, without ever having taken a course in geology, tectonics, or botany, i.e., studying one mountain as though it were a static, altogether isolated (even magically produced) object. This radical myopia defines the present state of 99% of the “experts” in the field, the result of which is an unimaginably deluded, ungrounded discourse held in morbid isolation.

What about the 1% who have grounded their work in a broader, “History of Religions” training? What conclusions arise from a correct academic study of the Bible? Over the last century, we have turned on the lights, observing the larger topography of world religions through the ages and millennia. A simple, obvious observation has come into clear view. We see a complex genetic “tree” of religious influence, offspring religions, and religious cross-pollination through times and places that shows direct analogues with all other fields of cultural production: music, sculpture, literature, folklore, etc. That is to say, theism, as one of many observable patterns in religious history, evolves, adapts, conflates, and syncretizes with much the same malleability and traditional quality as any other wholly man-made cultural product (e.g., poetry, fashion, painting, etc). All gods are but human constructs, ever-evolving products of human cultures through times and societies. The biblical texts, rather than providing an alleged revelatory origin of one particular deity, that is, as codified in the “book,” register in various snapshots various theistic expressions arising out of diverse ancient (loosely coupled) societies over many centuries. The theistic “ideas” inscribed in the book were all part of a larger complex, a delta or marshland, if you will, of theistic streams and tributaries in ancient cultures. This great river network of ideas ever evolved and synthesized prior, even more primitive constructs in prehistoric spiritism and superstition. The diverse biblical texts reflect peculiar fusions of such myth and belief taken from various ages and contexts, all associated with one of many ancient deities in the human pantheon. Such cultural phenomenology is the study of religious anthropology, a methodological approach pioneered in the grand work of Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer in his The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890). At nearly the same time, German-American anthropologist Franz Boas concluded similarly in his years of study of such phenomena:

It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up, only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments.

Recognizing the mythological essence of theism, that is, as a wholly human-made construction, we may dismiss all gods as non-existent. How so? What if one deity actually does exist? The argument, in light of the above considerations, approaches, indeed surpasses absurdity. The same person may foolishly ask how one may prove the non-existence of a fully operational McDonald’s on the darkside of the moon or the non-existence of aliens disco dancing to the Bee Gees in some distant galaxy. Just as McDonald's restaurants and disco dancing arise as inherently human cultural constructions, so also are the gods. Whatever is the case, we can confidently dismiss all religious mytho-systems as untrue, the all-but-arbitrary coping products of human cultural imagination.