Assembly of twenty gods, predominantly the Twelve Olympians, as they receive Psyche (Loggia di Psiche, 1518–19, by Raphael and his school, at the Villa Farnesina).

Disbelieve it or Not, Ancient History Suggests That Atheism is as Natural to Humans as Religion

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In Plato's Apology, Socrates (pictured) was accused by Meletus of not believing in the gods.

In Plato's Apology, Socrates (pictured) was accused by Meletus of not believing in the gods. (CC BY-SA 2.5 )

While atheism came in various shapes and sizes, Whitmarsh also argues that there were strong continuities across the generations. Ancient atheists struggled with fundamentals that many people still question today – such as how to deal with the problem of evil, and how to explain aspects of religion which seem implausible.

These themes extend from the work of early thinkers – like Anaximander and Anaximenes, who tried to explain why phenomena such as thunder and earthquakes actually had nothing to do with the gods – through to famous writers like Euripides, whose plays openly criticized divine causality. Perhaps the most famous group of atheists in the ancient world, the Epicureans, argued that there was no such thing as predestination and rejected the idea that the gods had any control over human life.

Woodcut depicting Anaximander and Anaximenes from the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Woodcut depicting Anaximander and Anaximenes from the Nuremberg Chronicle. ( Public Domain )

Rome’s Adaption to Religion

The age of ancient atheism ended, Whitmarsh suggests, because the polytheistic societies that generally tolerated it were replaced by monotheistic imperial forces that demanded an acceptance of one, “true” God. Rome’s adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century CE was, he says, “seismic”, because it used religious absolutism to hold the Empire together.

Most of the later Roman Empire’s ideological energy was expended fighting supposedly heretical beliefs – often other forms of Christianity. In a decree of 380, Emperor Theodosius I even drew a distinction between Catholics, and everyone else – whom he classed as dementes vesanosque (“demented lunatics”). Such rulings left no room for disbelief.

Whitmarsh stresses that his study is not designed to prove, or disprove, the truth of atheism itself. On the book’s first page, however, he adds: “I do, however, have a strong conviction – that has hardened in the course of researching and writing this book – that cultural and religious pluralism, and free debate, are indispensable to the good life.”

Proportion of atheists and agnostics around the world. ( Public Domain )

Battling The Gods is published by Faber and Faber. Tim Whitmarsh is A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture and a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

Featured image: Assembly of twenty gods, predominantly the Twelve Olympians, as they receive Psyche (Loggia di Psiche, 1518–19, by Raphael and his school, at the Villa Farnesina). Photos Source: ( Public Domain )

The article ‘ Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion ’ by University of Cambridge was originally published on and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.


A lot beliefs at the time were mixed. Folks did kind of have a concept but it all was disorganzied ( which became organized as a genre of anything - a google if you will on paranormal/ kings, actual evens,parables, zombies and alchemy ya know a biblio " many books"..As for imperialism, a lot of it had more to do with the Seljuk going for Constantinople cash because it was a huge export& barberry slaves, for "prophet" Muhammad inspired by a jewish rabbi bahira who believed Abraham an " athiest".......despite hard evidence of Jesus/ Rome existing including crown of thorns.

I wanted more of an explanation of why religion was not natural to humans. recently a neurologist, Dr. Newburg, proved that there was part of the brain that was hardwired to believe in god-not necessarily the christian god, just god(s)- it sounded like a studied and very plausible conclusion.

When the headline disagreed with the neurologist’s ideal I was excited. I’m always willing to hear the other side of an argument. I was hoping that this story would have gone over why the Prof. disagrees with the the other fellows science and what are his proofs. I didnt want to hear a history lesson that Atheism has always existed, of course it has. It’s silly to think that it hasn't. But to say that it is MORE natural to humans to be Atheist then to be religious requires proofs. Is this story just a plug for a book? 

--Still learning--

Xenophanes and Plato certainly express concerns about literalist interpretations of religious myth, but they are by no means atheists in the modern sense of that word. It takes some rather spectacular mental gymnastics to come to the conclusion that they were. If you want to claim that they were monotheists, you might find some support, but beyond that lies mere speculation.

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