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Rebecca Moore
San Diego State University
5500 Campanile Drive
San Diego, CA 92182-6062
619.594.6252 (office)
619.594.1004 (fax)

Last Update: 12/15/11

Conference Background

Intellectually, the West has seen the development of a modern community of persons who profess to have no religious faith and to have no need of a deity to complete their understanding of the world and the cosmos. That community can trace its origins to the sixteenth century, at which time the pan-European Roman Catholic establishment was challenged by Protestantism. The intellectual world of Christian orthodoxy which had dominated Western thought for a millennium was shaken to its foundations by the rise of philosophical unbelief.

The initial unbelievers contested the Christian doctrine of God and offered radical re-interpretations of Christian dogmas concerning salvation, the manner of worship, and ecclesiology. The emergence of a non-trinitarian form of Christianity provided a new context for doing theology that easily combined with the unintended steps toward secularization taken by Protestants generally. These influences combined to lead toward even more radical forms of unbelief, represented in the eighteenth century by rational religion in general, including Deism in particular, which declared God irrelevant to the day-to-day management of the world and which specifically denied the efficacy of prayer and the existence of miracles.

Just as rational religion gained a popular following, at least among the literary elite of the eighteenth century, the first voice of a full-blown atheism was heard. Both Deism and Atheism would impact the revolutionaries in America and France. As Deism made its retreat in the nineteenth century, Atheism (under a variety of names) came to the fore in the presence of strong advocates and embodied in the first "atheist" (Freethought, Rationalist, Liberal, Secular) societies and associations.

Unbelief took a milder form in the nineteenth century with the rise of Unitarianism and Universalism, the former continuing the denial of the Trinitarian God and the latter rejecting the role of hell in Christian theology. Unitarianism and Universalism differed from almost all the other forms of Christian sectarianism in that supporters saw themselves casting off layers of supernaturalism and superstition that were out-of-step with the emerging intellectual climate. In addition, they rejected what they believed was the inhumane nature of the God of Calvinism, who arbitrarily consigned individuals to heaven or hell.

In the twentieth century, the evolving Unitarian-Universalist movement would nurture an innovative form of unbelief, Humanism, a new type of the religious life that self-consciously abandoned all supernaturalism while maintaining many of the functions traditionally served by religion, namely, guiding morals and ethics, forming of a comprehensive worldview, building community, and ritualizing and celebrating the major life-cycle events (birth, coming of age, marriage, death, and so on).

As it has evolved through the twentieth century, contemporary unbelief has become a broad community that includes a diverse set of belief systems that range from religious Humanism to Neo-Atheism, from Universalism to skeptical Rationalism. The community is tied together by a mutual affirmation of a worldview that lacks a deity (or deities) that interact with humans and/or act in history, the need for prayer, the existence of miracles or supernatural phenomena, and the value of ecclesiastical oversight within the human community. At the same, time the contemporary voices of unbelief affirm the need for moral guidance and discourse, life in community, the value of celebrating positive human values, such as love, beauty, intellectual endeavor, and life-affirming action. Leaders in the community differ on whether to call what they do religion.

While the development of the modern community of unbelief has been noted by many there is a relative lack of scholarly examination of the processes and phenomena of unbelief, as well as an absence of efforts to understand the overall historical development of unbelief. There is an accompanying lack of appreciation of the contributions of many who have played a role in the creation of the modern community. It is the purpose of this conference to develop such an overview and begin the work of drawing attention of the community to its own roots.

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