Jews, Judaism, Early Christianity, Agnosticism, and Atheism

By Clarke Fountain

There is some sound scholarship that credibly asserts that before the 3rd-4th century in the Roman world, there was no such thing as “religion” with coherent teachings, creeds, theology and so forth. The Romans wanted to have a handle on the chaotic spiritual/religious streams happening during those years. Christianity was the main focus of their efforts, and out of that the Constantinian orthodoxy we largely today call “Christianity” emerged. As a side effect of that, the Jewish people had to respond to the Romans with faith statements to keep the special exemptions that occasionally permitted them to continue to practice Judaism in the Empire. Some people called that a “privileged” position. Conveniently, the Roman-era Jewish faith statements gave the later dominant Christians handles to beat them up with.

If you want to disprove any of the three Abrahamic faiths, have at it. They have all started out or became (in the case of Judaism) religions, as we understand the word in the West. What is it that is present elsewhere in the world if not religions? Basically patchworks of (more or less) tribal affiliations, practice and beliefs, usually loosely affiliated. It has been said that Hinduism didn’t exist until the British came and insisted that it was a religion, and crammed it in to that box. Before that? Hinduisms, plural. “The practices and beliefs of my region, my village, my family. Yes, there were continent-wide theorists and philosophers in China, India, and the Mediterranean, but the for the most part they were simply that.

Judaism, too, before about the 3rd-4th century, was more like an unorganized tribal affair than most people realize. When people try to imagine what the “original Christianity” was and how it could emerge from the Jewish context, they wind up deep in multiple rabbit-holes. I know I have. And what we blithely call “gnosticism” is a term applied by the Constantinian orthodox to a variety of what they perceived as unorthodox paths. Any definition of gnosticism that works for some fails to include others. You have to dig deep in order to dismiss the “folly” or “misapprehension” of others across the board. And by then I’d propose you’re at the basic flaws of human perception and ideation, not religions.

Our concept of true and false vis-à-vis religions to a large degree has to do with “faith claims” which are largely as a category a confection of later Western thought, pointedly as it emerged with the development of Protestantism and the reactions to it. Even when the religion in question called “Bahai,” or something else, emerged during that period. When you dismiss one set of faith claims (of one kind of Christianity) you have not done the job with other of the thousands of larger and smaller sects both in the present and in the past. You’re play whack-a-mole, for whenever you had dealt with one set of claims, another set pops up. (And yes, I know, Maimonides put together an expression of faith in the 12th century.) Or, since humans throughout history have apparently followed some spiritual practices and beliefs, why is that? Why not tribal groups of agnostics or even atheists? Why are they not to be found?

Agnosticism and Atheism, too, have varied in meaning through the ages of Western Civilization, but they rarely appear in pre-modern or non-western societies, if they appear at all. I suppose the average person living in a Roman housing complex (favela) wasn’t bothered by creeds or any of that, though they paid homage to the gods –and when they could afford to, they bought meat from the temples of the gods. Religion? Paganism? I believe these terms are both inventions of later antiquity and Christianity. So, look and see what religions you might think you have debunked, and look again. I suspect you have some more studying to do. By all means adopt an agnostic or atheist stance if it suits you, but the quest for some final, over-arching truth is a legacy of Christianity. And it’s almost impossible to find people obsessed with this quest in East Asia (just to name one location with other “religious” thinking).

Which religion is true? True? Think about what you mean by that word.

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