Paganism, Atheism and Secular Humanism: Birds of a Feather

John C. Rankin

(January 23, 2013)

When biblical theology is grasped on its own terms, beginning with the uniquely revealed order of creation in Genesis 1-2, everything else is in a different category.

In the Hebrew Bible, this began with the goyim, the “peoples” or “Gentiles” who were outside of the nation Israel and served “other gods.” And for whom Jesus came, as with all people.

In the New Testament era on forward, the language became that of “paganism.” This comes from the Latin term pagus for “rural” or “village.” As the Gospel spread, it took root first in the cities, then in the towns, then in the rural areas last.

“Atheism,” proper, is a more recent used term. It is from the Greek roots of a + theos, to be “without God.” But its deeper history traces both to the Hebrew Bible and Greek philosophy. In Psalm 14:1-3 (cf. Psalm 53:1-3), we read the following:

“The fool says in his mind, ‘There is no Elohim.’

“They are abominable, their works are wanton; there is no one that does good.

“From the heavens Yahweh looks down on the sons of men to see whether any are prudent, any who seek Elohim.

“All have turned aside, and have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

Many atheists bridle at this language about the “fool” saying there is no God. But first, the biblical text needs to be understood on its own terms. This psalm was written for the covenant people of Israel who knew the living God in their midst – especially in the miracles of Moses and Aaron in the face of the Pharaoh, the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, deliverance from enemies, the manna, the water from the rock, and on forward into the Promised Land. This was all historically witnessed by millions of people. The Israelites who read this psalm of David about 1000 B.C. were only some four centuries removed from the Exodus, and they all knew the acts of the living God in their midst in the intervening years. In other words, they knew their history as well as we know our history today – of the Dutch exploring the Hudson River in 1609, and the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

So, indeed, it was foolish for the Israelites of King David’s day to say there is no God. How about today?

As I write elsewhere, I do not believe there are any real atheists. Their arguments are not against the intellectual concept of the Creator, but always couched (in my experience) with reactions against broken trust tracing back most often to childhood, especially in terms of fatherhood issues, or against hypocrisy in the church etc.

At the level of childlike wonder and intellectual rigor, let’s try this syllogism:

  • None of us can conceptually grasp that which is greater than space, time and number – we cannot wrap our minds or physical abilities around that which has no defined final boundary (an oxymoron to boot?). Always, we wonder what is beyond, what happens one moment later, and what happens when one more digit is added. Endlessly.
  • There is no written concept in human history of that which is greater than space, time and number.
  • Except for the Hebrew understanding of the name of Yahweh Elohim: He who is greater than space, time and number in his very essence, he whose power is unlimited, whose nature is good, and whose purpose in creating the universe is to bless all of us as made in his image.
  • We know through all observational science that cause and effect always works, and that a greater order is necessary to produce a subsequent or lesser order.
  • If we trace cause and effect all the way back to the scientific theory of the Hot Big Bang – or any theory for that matter – we come up against the question: How did it all start? To postulate multiple universes and circular time only postpones the need to honestly deal with this question: What is greater than all these supposed universes, and what is prior to circularity if time can be measured at all?
  • As human persons – with creativity, will, and opposable thumbs – we cannot evade the cause and effect of what has produced us. This is also a central assumption to materialistic evolutionists who limit their inquiry and wonder to what they can control as finite beings.
  • Thus, once we trace the cause and effects of our origins, regardless of theory or knowledge, we come back to a specific question or questions, for example: What preceded the Hot Big Bang? What governed its original explosion and our arrival as human persons?
  • To wit, whatever preceded the Hot Big Bang must not only be greater than space, time and number; but also, since we are persons, and the cause and effect of greater order precedes and provides for lesser order, this means that whatever preceded the Hot Big Bang must be a greater Person. And the only written concept of such a Person is Yahweh Elohim. And in the flesh, Jesus called himself the “I AM,” rooted in the Greek translation of the Hebrew name for Yahweh.

Hopefully, none of us likes to be called foolish, yet here King David says that those who deny God are fools. Is it foolish to deny logic? Thus, the invitation to atheists is to provide a greater logic regarding cause and effect to what I have outlined here.

Too, David was using a word that was deeply rooted in his own experience, where the foolishness was a moral not an intellectual teem. In Psalms 14 and 51, the term is nabal, the very name of Nabal in 1 Samuel 25. He was an ungrateful man who was “surly and mean” in his business dealings, and though David and his men had protected Nabal’s property fro marauders, Nabal mocked David. True folly. Thus, for an atheist to mock the good God who created them is indeed foolish.

Consistent with nabal, as Psalm 14 continues, the foolishness of saying there is no God leads to vile and corrupt actions and attitudes. This diagnosis was set against a background understanding of the three cardinal sins of pagan nations at the time – sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice – which were also the three major sins that led to the later destruction of the Northern kingdom of Samaria and Israel in 721 B.C., and of Jerusalem and Judah in 586 B.C. The Israelites, then the remnant Jews, became truly foolish in choosing non-living gods over and against the living God. Let look at three compelling analogies.

First, sorcery consigns itself to the fatalistic whims of capricious deities. Atheism consigns itself to a cold and uncaring cosmos that spits us forth and swallows us up with no care for the hard wiring of our humanity with hopes and goals.

Second, sacred prostitution justifies the breaking of marriage as one man, one woman, one lifetime. Is there one atheistic or secular humanist organization that does not permit or advocate sexuality outside such an understanding of marriage?

And third, child sacrifice in ancient pagan nations only differs from the ethos of human abortion in terms of the age of the child. Can any atheist or secular humanist deny the biological humanity of the unborn? Were we all not once vulnerable unborn children? Is this not a matter of science, but rather, one of human willpower?

Let’s have the discussion.

Against the backdrop of Greek pagan and polytheistic religion, the classical philosophers began to dispute their inherited pagan myths, centuries before the advent of Jesus. This led to the rise of Socrates and his dialogues, to Plato, to the Epicurean, Stoic and Cynic schools. In the process, atheism was a rejection of pagan gods. And out of these philosophic schools we can trace the identities of many present day atheists, agnostics and secular humanists. (Confucianism, from the oriental perspective, also makes a contribution).

Secular means “of this world.” Thus, “secular humanism” restricts itself to materialistic or “natural” cause and effect, and usually rejects out of hand any possible “super” natural. (Note: the metaethics of the term “supernatural” can be a stumbling block to many. I understand that everything in the universe is “natural” as God designed it, and that which is “super” actually precedes and defines the natural, is not against it, nor suspends it – rather we just are limited in our fallen humanity from grasping the truly and original Natural).

“Agnosticism” is from the Greek roots a + gnosis, or “without knowledge,” usually in reference to the existence of God. Most secular humanists identify themselves as agnostic. But it is a question of whether or not the agnosticism is positive or negative in nature. Etymologically, it is a negative, and a negative agnosticism does not want to know the final answer, for to know God is to be changed – and many people fear change from patterns and habits by which they have carved out a survival and communities in this life.

But too, there can be a positive agnosticism in the sense of someone who has yet to encounter the question, and who has, as of yet, no experience with God’s presence. A positive agnostic wants it know the answer. As I write about elsewhere, I grew up as a Darwinian secular humanist, in an agnostic Unitarian context in a heavily Jewish town where there was much post-WWII pain at the evil of the holocaust, and questions about how a good God could have possibly let such evil happen. But at the same time, I was a boy who deeply wondered about the beauty of the universe in which I found myself. I was a positive agnostic, and as a 14-year old, the Creator of the universe visited me and I met Jesus.

In fact, the greatest concern of Jesus was not with what we might today identify as pagans, atheists, agnostics or secular humanists, or even, at the time, heretics such as the Sadducees – but it was with those among the theologically orthodox Pharisees who were also hypocrites. Jesus was criticized by them for hanging out with the hated tax collectors (traitors to Judah in service to the Roman occupiers), the prostitutes and other “sinners.”

Thus, I can say easily that I find more human rapport with honest agnostics, or any other self-defined skeptic who in interested in open-ended conversation, then I do with the theologically orthodox who are hypocrites.

And such an open-ended conversation will always involve ethics, law and human sexuality. For indeed, paganism, atheism and secular humanism are birds of a feather. They are non-biblical in essence. The Greek philosophers may have transcended pagan religious myths, but their sexual ethics did not change, and their politics had no concept of transcending chattel slavery. So atheism and secular humanism are the same as paganism, with the only difference being that at least the pagans had some truly interesting stories to go along with their views.