Atheism, Secular Humanism and Paganism

John C. Rankin

The origins of atheism and secular humanism (in the west) lies in a reaction to Greek paganism or polytheism in the several centuries before Christ, but never transcended pagan ethics. (In the east, Confucianism and Buddhism are different realities, worthy of separate focus.) These ethics believed that the gods were finite and petty in nature, and fatalistically manipulated human beings. Thus, men and women were slaves in a hostile cosmos. Also, a male chauvinistic sexual ethos prevailed, with no concept of the fidelity of one man to one woman in marriage being the healthy norm.

The Stoic, Epicurean and Cynic philosophers rejected the ideas of the gods and goddesses actually existing, and thus wound up becoming (in the Greek)  a + theos, a negative construction meaning “without god.” But they only succeeded in exchanging one form of slavery for another. A godless Epicurean universe only spits us forth by chance and swallows us up in the end, without hardly a burp of care for or awareness of our existence. No point in life ultimately, no purpose, the abolition of hope and teleology. Also, there is no concept of the fidelity of one man to one woman in marriage being the healthy norm.

Secular humanism is a softer and more modern term, but as rooted in the Latin saecularis (“of this world”), it limits its scope to a time bound minimum, putting off limits the discusion of what precedes and follows our physical lives. It likewise embraces a hostile cosmos that spits us forth and swallows us up, being slaves not to personal petty deities, but still slaves, to an impersonal force. And, no concept of the fidelity of one man to one woman in marriage being the healthy norm.

Yet, interestingly, atheists, secular humanists and pagan all strive for meaning in life, and are wired to want to leave legacies beyond their own graves. Against the “reality” of their own beliefs, as it were.

So, atheism, secular humanism and paganism are stuck as slaves in the face of a hostile cosmos, however defined. At least the pagans have more interesting stories, and in these stories the image of God yearns for escape from the fatalistic deities. Atheism and secular humanism have no such stories, and in this sense, more deeply suppresses the truth.


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House of Lords 17 October 2017

Text of John Rankin’s address on the occasion of the 500th annive5rsary of the Reformation.