Atheists have been around for hundreds of centuries. They were usually that 4-5% of the tribe who sulked on the outskirts of the ceremonial tribal fires so angry with the gods that they denied them. Although not in public. Not cool back then. In fact it was so uncool, atheists could get themselves burned at whatever stake the local witch-doctor/priestess/bishop could bless for the occasion.
Flash forward a few thousand years and the sulkers picked up some credibility. Folks who had academic degrees that they could add to their skepticism. Then beginning in the 16-17th C, these degrees were usually in empirical fields such as biology and physics. These specialists were busy unlocking the secrets to the universe, but somehow divinity was never showing up in their microscopes or telescopes. By the 18-19th C biblical scholarship was becoming a powerful new investigative tool, revealing just how little empirical evidence there was for the holy narratives.
Archaeologists scurrying throughout the Holy Land were not finding what was supposed to be there and at the same time finding what was not supposed to be there. Suddenly the Hebrews in Egypt, the crossing at the Red Sea, Manna in the desert, virgin births, miracles, and resurrections were being examined empirically rather than spiritually.
Atheists were now safely coming out of the philosophical woodwork in droves.... the religious establishments were fighting back in concern...the confused faithful in the middle were left to reach whatever conclusions they could live with.
We middlers are today showing signs of shifting as church and temple attendance plunges. Some say it is the inevitable conclusion to a centuries-long age of doubt; others say it is the inevitable weeding out of the doubters from the faithful. One sees demise; the other sees renewal.
Either way, today's atheists probably make the most interesting guests at the party. They have the panache of the fresh, the informed, that quiet smile which can disarm any traditionalist. Oh, and they also seem to have the very same flair those kids did who I remember in the back of the classroom making fun of the teacher.
OK, so I've betrayed my biases here....! But even back then I always thought they were smirking more out of bravado than belief.
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