Disbelieve it or Not, Ancient History Suggests That Atheism is as Natural to Humans as Religion
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.
- The true meaning of Paganism
- Candomble: The African-Brazilian Dance in Honor of the Gods
- The long goodbye to Scandinavian Paganism and the Christianization of three realms
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. ( 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 www.cam.ac.uk and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.