Godless: Negative View of Atheism As Old As Faith
The word "godless" is generally defined as an individual who does not recognize a god or is without a god. In a society where atheism is an accepted alternative to the various faiths and lifestyles that recognize the existence of god in some form, we have to question if being godless is truly as negative as the word has always implied. Why is it so hard for those of us who believe in a god, goddess, or set of gods to understand someone who does not? A small step into the history of the world may help us to paint a clearer picture.
From the first stirrings of human faith, beliefs, and superstitions, polytheism has existed. Although there may have been more ancient cultures that we do not have written accounts of, we do know of the relations to and understanding of gods as far back as the Sumerians. In terms of concepts of deity, the ancient cultures were very peaceful toward one another, even as they warred for other reasons. The main exclusion, of course, being against monotheistic faiths, which we will discuss in the next section.
How did such varied cultures maintain peace in terms of religious differences? It was the idea that each civilization and its people had their own gods. The Egyptians did not care that the Romans had different gods and traditions. The traditions were to appease a specific set of gods; different gods called for different traditions. Some households had patron gods, or a god that they honored above the others. However, the other gods of the pantheon were not denied. There were no disputes over who was right or wrong, as the Greek gods were the right gods for the Greeks and so on. When there was argument over right and wrong or who was better, it was one civilization against another, not against their gods.
To be godless in those times, then, would have meant you did not have a home or family. You were outcast not only from society but from the gods themselves. You were an orphan of sorts with no deities to guide and protect you. Being godless was not a matter of a difference in religion or spirituality. It was a statement of how removed from everyone else someone was. Being godless, then, was looked at either with pity or fear. The latter reaction because associating with someone the gods disown may make you lose favor in the gods' eyes as well.
Monotheism of and by itself is not bad in the least. It actually began with the idea of peace and focus on individual families. Akhenaten was the first to introduce the idea of a single deity to the ancient world. In doing so, he took Egypt from a time of success and plenty and nearly destroyed it out of pure negligence to the duties of a pharaoh. Egyptians, then, did not take too kindly to those who belonged to a single god.
Akhenaten's failures aside, monotheism brought about a problem worse than being godless. It sent a loud message that there is only one god and that all others do not exist. This, of course, angered all the civilizations that had grown strong and were protected and favored by their sets of gods for more generations than they could count back to. To say their gods did not exist was to deny all the centuries of what they perceived to be evidence for the existence of their gods. Monotheistic faiths, then, were far more dangerous than associating with an individual or group of individuals who were godless.
The "only one god" belief became worse as monotheistic faiths clashed. They could all agree that only one god existed, but they could not agree that the god they revered was one and the same. As a result, they often battled against each other in the name of their gods so that they could declare the victor as the one and only true god. The understanding of each individual having their own gods was gone. Now, you either followed the one true god (as declared by whichever monotheistic faith was in charge at the time) or you were godless.
Is being "godless" a bad thing?
With a return of polytheistic thinking and the building of interfaith relations including monotheistic beliefs that were previously incompatible with different faiths, the term "godless" takes on more of the older meaning. To be godless has less to do with not following a specific god and more to do with the fact that an individual does not believe in or follow any gods. However, the term still carries the negative connotation. Atheists and many agnostics are looked down on for not having a god or set of gods. They are often excluded from interfaith talks and discussions, not so much from their own choice but because those who recognize and follow a god or gods fail to understand that "godless" does not mean "faithless." Only by recognizing this truth can the term "godless" lose the long-standing negativity that comes attached.
© 2012 Evylyn Rose