Disbelieve it or Not, Ancient History Suggests That Atheism is as Natural to Humans as Religion
People in the ancient world did not always believe in the gods, a new study suggests – casting doubt on the idea that religious belief is a “default setting” for humans.
“Early societies were far more capable than many since of containing atheism within the spectrum of what they considered normal – Tim Whitmarsh”
Despite being written out of large parts of history, atheists thrived in the polytheistic societies of the ancient world – raising considerable doubts about whether humans really are “wired” for religion – a new study suggests.
The claim is the central proposition of a new book by Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture and a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge. In it, he suggests that atheism – which is typically seen as a modern phenomenon – was not just common in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome, but probably flourished more in those societies than in most civilizations since.
As a result, the study challenges two assumptions that prop up current debates between atheists and believers: Firstly, the idea that atheism is a modern point of view, and second, the idea of “religious universalism” – that humans are naturally predisposed, or “wired”, to believe in gods.
The book, entitled Battling The Gods , is being launched in Cambridge on Tuesday (February 16).
“We tend to see atheism as an idea that has only recently emerged in secular Western societies,” Whitmarsh said. “The rhetoric used to describe it is hyper-modern. In fact, early societies were far more capable than many since of containing atheism within the spectrum of what they considered normal.”
“Rather than making judgments based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren’t intuitively there in your world. The fact that this was happening thousands of years ago suggests that forms of disbelief can exist in all cultures, and probably always have.”
Battling the gods cover. ( Faber.co.uk)
The book argues that disbelief is actually “as old as the hills”. Early examples, such as the atheistic writings of Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570-475 BCE) are contemporary with Second Temple-era Judaism, and significantly predate Christianity and Islam. Even Plato, writing in the 4th Century BCE, said that contemporary non-believers were “not the first to have had this view about the gods.”
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Because atheism’s ancient history has largely gone unwritten, however, Whitmarsh suggests that it is also absent from both sides of the current monotheist/atheist debate. While atheists depict religion as something from an earlier, more primitive stage of human development, the idea of religious universalism is also built partly on the notion that early societies were religious by nature because to believe in god is an inherent, “default setting” for humans.
The Chariot of Zeus, from an 1879 ‘Stories from the Greek Tragedians’ by Alfred Church. ( Public Domain )
Neither perspective is true, Whitmarsh suggests: “Believers talk about atheism as if it’s a pathology of a particularly odd phase of modern Western culture that will pass, but if you ask someone to think hard, clearly people also thought this way in antiquity.”
Ancient Atheism Movement
His book surveys one thousand years of ancient history to prove the point, teasing out the various forms of disbelief expressed by philosophical movements, writers and public figures.
These were made possible in particular by the fundamental diversity of polytheistic Greek societies. Between 650 and 323 BCE, Greece had an estimated 1,200 separate city states, each with its own customs, traditions and governance. Religion expressed this variety, as a matter of private cults, village rituals and city festivals dedicated to numerous divine entities.
Procession of Twelve Gods and Goddesses. ( Public Domain )
This meant that there was no such thing as religious orthodoxy. The closest the Greeks got to a unifying sacred text were Homer’s epics, which offered no coherent moral vision of the gods, and indeed often portrayed them as immoral. Similarly, there was no specialized clergy telling people how to live: “The idea of a priest telling you what to do was alien to the Greek world,” Whitmarsh said.
Atheism in Greece
As a result, while some people viewed atheism as mistaken, it was rarely seen as morally wrong. In fact, it was usually tolerated as one of a number of viewpoints that people could adopt on the subject of the gods. Only occasionally was it actively legislated against, such as in Athens during the 5th Century BCE, when Socrates was executed for “not recognizing the gods of the city.”