I have no religious beliefs whatsoever, which clearly makes me an atheist. I simply have no need to explain the universe, humanity or any phenomenon by referring to a supernatural being. It is inconceivable to me that there could be a personal god (or gods) or even an impersonal “intelligence” behind existence.
I haven’t come to this position through a scientific means, weighing up competing explanations for the laws of nature. Nor have I lost faith in a pre-existing state of belief. It is not a matter of incredulity, either. Rather, I have no religious beliefs as a result of historical considerations.
What I mean by this is that, as an archaeologist, I see a huge variety of religious belief across time and across space, each of which has claims to be the ultimate truth, the sole route to salvation, eternal life, spiritual peace or whatever. I can also see how historical contingencies lead to the adoption of particular religions by particular societies, how some fall into senescence and obsolescence, how others metamorphose to adapt to social changes, how some swallow up competing beliefs while others suppress them ruthlessly. If there were a single, true religion, one means to worship the deity/deities responsible for human existence, why have different deities apparently spoken to the founders of human religions? It becomes obvious that these religions and the deities they are designed to worship, are purely human creations. There is no single One True God™: there are plentiful gods and goddesses created by human beings to help them understand and tame the world. They have no existence outside the imaginations of their creators.
When it comes to examine the claims of specific religions to universal truth, it becomes even more obvious that they are entirely mediated by human concerns. I choose to deal with Christianity because it is the dominant, state-supported religion of the culture in which I was raised and is therefore the most familiar to me. There is no doubt that Jesus (if he really existed, and a question mark must hang over his historicity) was a Jewish holy man, probably on one of the extremes of the religion. His was not the religion of the Temple as practised in first century AD Judaea, the religion of the Sadducean hierarchy or the Pharisaic legalists; nor does it seem to have been the moderate Rabbinic religion that survived the destruction of the Second Temple to become mainstream Judaism. Rather, it was something fiercer, more fundamentalist. It proposed a strict return to Mosaic law, would not accommodate with Hellenising tendencies, saw an unbridgeable gulf between religious observance and secular duties; not as worldly perhaps as the views of the Zealots, who could have no truck with Roman overlords, but proudly Jewish nevertheless, with its dietary laws, its abhorrence of Gentiles and its uncompromising view of the Jews as specially chosen and beloved of Yahweh.
It was not Jesus who created Christianity, a religion that claims to supersede the Mosaic Law with a new revelation, a god made flesh to redeem humanity through its own sacrifice, killed through the connivance of ‘The Jews’. It was Paul, who had never met Jesus, never heard his teachings, who arrogated to himself the authority to overrule those followers of Jesus – James, Peter and the rest – whom he portrays as the apostles to ‘The Jews’ while his mission is to the rest of the world. He alone gives himself the power to allow his followers to dispense with the need to obey Mosaic Law; he alone turns Jesus from an earthly prophet who urged Jews to return to the basic principles of their faith into a divine being, a purely spiritual creature who may never even have lived on earth and even if he did, whose life was of no consequence. Paul is interested only in the Risen Lord, an emanation of a god who is no longer the tribal deity of the Jews but a Power, the ultimate Power of this world and the world of spirit. Yahweh is transformed into a universal deity rather than one with authority over the Jewish people, in line with Hellenistic philosophers, who admired Jewish monotheism and suggested that their insistence on a single deity was an expression of a universal truth, with Yahweh an equivalent of the Hindu Brahman, the ultimate essence of which the different gods were merely manifestations. Judaism, of course, never suggested that Yahweh was the only god: why else would his first commandment exhort them not to put any other gods above him? If they did not exist, the commandment would be not to worship false gods; instead, his followers are threatened with dire consequences if they decide to put others above him. Indeed, he does not even seem to be saying that others cannot be worshipped, so long as they are acknowledged to be inferior.