There are many ways to be an atheist. Atheism must have diversity if it is to thrive and eventually move beyond the simple denial of theism. Until now, unfortunately, atheism has no culture of its own. This primarily means that it builds on the surrounding dominant Christian culture – most atheists are cultural Christians. Although atheists deny that Christian doctrines are true, they still view Christianity as normative. Think about spirituality. Many atheists believe that spirituality means dealing with spirits, where spirits are conceived in the Christian sense. They use a Christian dictionary to define the concept of spirituality. Or they use the Christian dictionary to define other concepts like mystical experience. Christians say that mystical experiences are about God. Many atheists agree. But since there is no God, these experiences are irrelevant.
I have long advocated for the construction of new non-theistic cultures. They will be cultures which do not believe in God and which do not regard Christianity as normative. These new non-theistic cultures must be founded on philosophies, philosophies which give them deep or ultimate meanings. There are already a few examples of people building new cultures based on old philosophies. One example is Westernized Buddhism, which abandons many supernatural aspects of Eastern Buddhism. Another example is the New Stoicism, which updates and naturalizes old Stoic ideas. Buddhism built more of a culture than Stoicism. There is art. There are pictures and statues. There are practices. All of these things help define it as a cultural movement. There are a lot of awesome things about these new cultural movements. They show that new cultures can be built.
I think that in order to build new atheistic cultures, we have to follow the example of the new Buddhists and Stoics: we dive back into older philosophies, modernize them and naturalize them. I find Platonism particularly attractive here. Platonism was a rich ancient philosophy with a very long history. And it wasn’t just theories about the abstract aspects of reality. Ancient Platonism was associated with many practices. These were practices rooted mainly in the pre-Christian pagan cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Some of the doctrines and practices of ancient Platonism involved deities – the gods and goddesses of the Olympian pantheon, as well as many others. And Platonism has theistic aspects. But it’s surprisingly easy to edit Platonism (as the New Stoics edited the Old Stoicism) into a non-theistic philosophy.
The deities of ancient Platonism do not resemble the Christian God much or the other gods of the Abrahamic religions. The Olympians had bodies. They were superhuman animals, not immaterial spirits. Today there are futuristic movements, like transhumanism, that argue that we can use science and technology to create future superhumans who will be like these Olympians. These deities can therefore be naturalized. And it’s really easy to just remove the theistic God from Platonism. This God (whom Plato calls the We or the Demiurge, and Plotinus calls the Divine Spirit) really does nothing. The Platonists believe in abstract objects, such as mathematical objects and moral objects. The Platonists believe in mathematical laws like the Pythagorean Theorem and the axioms of set theory. And in moral laws like the golden rule or the categorical imperative. We believe in values ââsuch as truth, beauty and goodness. These are objectively existing values.
Atheists are often accused of being immoral – of being moral relativists or moral nihilists. Moral relativists think that morality is only your opinion, while moral nihilists don’t think there are any rules or moral values ââat all. Both positions are widely condemned because they seem to justify anything. As Sartre said (he was paraphrasing Dostoyevsky): if God is dead, anything goes. But only a cultural Christian would believe it. One would have to think that Christianity was morally normative to believe that atheism implies either moral relativism or moral nihilism. Unfortunately, far too many atheists believe that Christianity is normative. Atheist Platonists deny that God has any connection with morality.
Plato presented Euthyphron’s dilemma: either (A) a type of action is right because God says it is right, or (B) God says that a type of action is right because it is just. Theists of course choose option (A). And humanists also choose option (A), but they replace God with humanity. So: a type of action is right because humans say it is right. So humanity is the measure of all things. Platonists generally choose option (B): moral laws have an objectivity that does not depend on any spirit, human or divine. Gods and humans are obliged to follow moral laws. Of course, now there is no more need for gods. Moral laws themselves do all the necessary moral work.
Besides our physical universe, the Platonists argue for the existence of a system of purely mathematical objects. But we don’t need to be dualists: we can say with Max Tegmark that physical existence is quite simply the same as mathematical existence. Today’s physics confirms this thesis. Physicists like Sean Carroll say that our universe is just a vector in a Hilbert space. Everything is mathematical. Mathematical laws are therefore objectively real principles which give reality a rational order and structure. Laws and mathematical objects do not depend on minds. They do not depend on divine or human spirits. Thus, an atheist can easily assert the existence of laws and mathematical objects.
The Platonists also assert the reality of things like the One and the Good. Plato distinguished the One and the Good. (Some people say he merged them, but there is no direct evidence for this.) The One is the source of all existence; it is the self-being which gives birth to beings, to all existing things. Good is the goal of existence. All beings fight for their own good as they fight for the Good itself. The One and the Good are abstract and impersonal objects. They are not gods. It would be absurd to pray to the One or to worship the Good. It would be like also praying or worshiping the axioms of Euclidean geometry. You could do it, but it wouldn’t make sense. Plotinus merged the One and the Good, but carefully distinguished them from God.
While Platonism became dominated by Christianity at the end of the Roman Republic, some pagan Platonists became pagan monotheists: they merged the One and the Good with their pagan God. But this movement has already broken with Platonism and led to Christianity. It is a movement that atheist Platonists must undo. The One is not God; Good is not God; and the Good is not the One. We have to go back to the early pre-theist sources to clearly separate these ideas. Once we do, we can see that God is irrelevant. Any work attributed to God is more exactly attributed either to the One or to the Good. The One helps to found our explanations of existence. Good helps to found our morality.
Just as ancient Platonism was a pagan philosophy, atheistic Platonism is a kind of atheistic paganism. It’s atheopaganism. A great advantage of this atheistic paganism is that it helps give atheists a rich system of symbols and practices. Here it is interesting to point out that much of Wicca was directly inspired by Late Roman Platonism. Gerald Gardner read that of Sallustius On the gods and the world and used it as the basis for many Wiccan doctrines and practices. Of course, atheist Platonists will not be Wiccans. But we can naturalize many of the ancient Platonic symbols. When neo-pagans talk about the cardinal elements like fire, air, earth, and water, they are using Platonic symbols. Rituals involving solar directions and vacations have their roots in ancient Greek and Roman practices. The pentagram is an ancient Pythagorean symbol.
Here is just a simple example. The New Ages often say that crystals have magical properties. Of course, there is no proof for their claims, and these claims are false. But crystals have become culturally associated with the New Age. But now there is a twist: The belief in the magical properties of crystals is not really theistic – their magical properties do not come from any deity or god. They are supposedly natural. Thus, many contemporary atheists use crystals for various purposes. The theory of magic that appears in both New Age and neopaganism comes from Platonism, from writers like Plotinus and Iamblichus. An atheist Platonist can use crystals in another way. The ordered structure of crystals can be used as a symbol of the rational structure of nature. Any atheist who believes that reality is rationally ordered can wear a crystal pendant to symbolize this rationality. I already hear the complaints: But crystals mean woo woo! Well that’s what they mean if you think woo woo is normative. Why would an atheist think this? Why do atheists consistently grant cultural authority to superstition and supernaturalism? Atheist Platonism offers atheists a way to acquire their own cultural authority.
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