Building Something New on Top of the Old

A few years back, during the Spring of 2010, I visited the island of Rhodes, located in the Eastern Aegean Sea off of the coast of Turkey. Rhodes is an interesting crossroads between cultures and geography, as the island has been used throughout history as a major port between Europe and Asia Minor. One of the oldest settlements in Rhodes is the town of Lindos located in the Southeastern portion of the island.

Lindos has a prominent acropolis and harbor around which the old city was built:

The acropolis of Lindos

The acropolis at Lindos

The harbor at Lindos

The harbor at Lindos

The word “acropolis” comes from the Greek ἄκρος (“highest/top”) and πόλις (“city”), which literally translates to “the top of the city.” Ancient acropoloi were highly important to the ancient Greek city-state, as they served as the center of the political, military, and religious activities of the community. This is not hard to see why, as the acropolis was the highest, most defensible, and greatest lookout point of the city. Accordingly, many of the finest buildings in a Greek city-state were located atop of the central acropolis of the town.

The same is true of Lindos. Many of the most ancient and best preserved buildings of the city are located on top of its acropolis. What is further interesting about the acropolis at Lindos is that we also have many different layers of expansion where new edifices were built atop the old. As history progressed, Rhodes came under the dominion of various empires and religions. Despite these outside changes, the acropolis at Lindos remained the central focus of the city, as the acropolis was the natural center of the city’s activity. Accordingly, the acropolis at Lindos has examples of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine architecture, all built alongside and on top of each other.

Temple of Athena Lindia

The Temple of Athena Lindia

The Greek Orthodox Church of St. John

The Greek Orthodox Church of St. John

Among these structures are a number of well preserved religious sites. For example, Lindos has a Doric temple dedicated to Athena Lindia, which was constructed very early in the island’s history. Later, when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity and subsequently the Byzantine Empire came into possession of Rhodes, the acropolis at Lindos was converted to now serving the Christian purposes of the new ruling empire.

One of the changes to the acropolis was the construction of a Greek Orthodox Church dedicated to St. John, which was built alongside of the previous Pagan religious sites. Although the main religion had changed on Rhodes, the importance of the acropolis remained the same and served the same central role for the community. Rather than fully abandon the Pagan past, Christianity was instead built on top of it, where old sites that had served previous religions were not fully destroyed or abandoned, but were instead adapted and incorporated into the new religious system.

So how does all of this relate to Secular Humanism? As discussed in the previous post, Secular Humanism is a philosophy that is not dedicated to fully obliterating the memory of religion, but rather to building a new system on top of it.

Why is it that the Christians built their temples upon old Pagan sites? Part of the problem was that when Christianity first took over Europe, Paganism and old Pagan monuments were ubiquitous. It was simply far too expensive and would require far too much human labor to fully obliterate the memory of the old Pagan religions. Likewise, some of the old Pagan temples were among the greatest architectural achievements of their surrounding regions. To be sure, very many were destroyed, as Christianity was neither a tolerant religion nor one that fully appreciated the intellectual and technological achievements of the previous age, but even Christianity could not fully eradicate the Pagan past.

In the same way, atheists, naturalists, and secular humanists are working to build a new system in a world where Christianity is now ubiquitous. In most of the United States and Europe, Christian temples are located at every major street corner, Christian rituals are practiced throughout the year, and Christian mythology is taught to children. Secular Humanism will need to supplant this Christian indoctrination if it is to be successful in setting up a new secular culture in a post-religion future. However, Secular Humanism will not, I think, fully obliterate the memory of our Christian past. Rather, the new, secular society will be built on top of it.

I think that many people are hesitant to leave religion, because they feel like they will lose everything about their old lifestyle and culture when doing so. Often times, Secular Humanism is thought to involve some “brave new world” that is dramatically different from everything that came before it. But Secular Humanism does not need to be so radical. Secular Humanism will not destroy religion; it will only change it to becoming chiefly a part of our cultural-historical heritage, rather than a living system in the present.

Secular humanists, such as myself, do not wish to destroy Christian churches. Instead, we want to turn them into museums. There can still be beautiful Gothic cathedrals under Secular Humanism, as much as there are still many beautiful Pagan temples that are preserved and visited as historical sites today within our current Christian culture. Likewise, Pagan mythology has not ceased to exist under Christianity. We still have the Homeric epics and the Theogony of Hesiod; however, these works are no longer central to any present social systems but are considered beautiful literary works of a past age. In the same way, Christian mythology will not vanish under Secular Humanism. We can and will still tell stories about Abraham, Moses, or Jesus, but they will be only that: stories. Our current Christian culture will not fully vanish, but will be incorporated and grow into a new secular culture.

In many ways, we already live in a post-religion society. Nobody fully practices old religious rules, such as the Levitical Laws anymore, as we recognize that these outdated social constructs have very little place in our modern world. Many Christians likewise no longer defend the accuracy of many books of the Bible, such as Genesis, but have instead retreated into “minimal facts” arguments about just proving the Resurrection of Jesus. Secular Humanism will simply take us one step further in abandoning all of the mythology of the previous age, just as the Christians abandoned Pagan mythology. The Bible will become like the Homeric epics or the works of Hesiod. We will still study it and acknowledge it as an important part of the past, but its mythology will no longer be central to any of our important social systems, such as government, education, and our community values.

Secular Humanism will involve humanity coming to grips with the purely natural and atheistic world that we live in. It will involve our species growing past previous superstitions and mythologies, but it will not make us forgetful of them. The picture at the top of this blog in many ways serves as a symbol of humanity in a new secular world. The Adam in the picture is the same Adam who once saw god before him as his creator. This future Adam, however, has realized that god is only a delusion in a world that is instead governed by purely natural forces. Adam has not forgotten his old beliefs in the divine; he has instead grown past them.

Will we still have old religious temples under Secular Humanism? Certainly! Will we still have Hannukah, Christmas, Ramadan, and Easter? Certainly! I can’t imagine Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox holidays ever going out of fashion. What we won’t have are the outdated and barbaric social attitudes, rules, and institutions that are associated with the old religious systems. Instead, we will get our priorities straight and no longer focus on fictional religious concerns but rather on real human needs. This does not mean that we are going to radically turn the world that we live in upside down. Instead, we are going to continue to build on thousands of years of human progress, where getting past religion is just one new layer in the far more advanced and better future that we are working towards.

-Matthew Ferguson

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