Atheism: the word that derives from the Greek word "atheos" was mentioned as a term for the first time in France in the 16th century in “A Woorke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian Religion” written in French: Against Atheists, Epicures, Paynims, Iewes, Mahumetists, and other Infidels, by Philip of Mornay Lord of Plessie Marlie, began to be translated into English by Sir Philip Sidney Knight, and at his request finished by Arthur Golding. And it wasn’t before the late-18th century that open admission was made to “strong atheism”. Nevertheless atheistic ideas and influences have a longer history than we can infer from this. For all we know philosophical atheistic views appeared for the first time in Europe and Asia in the sixth or fifth century BCE.
One of the First Atheist Thinkers
Diagoras from Melos, a greek poet that lived in the 5th century BCE was one of the first known atheists. After the violent occupation of Melos by the Athenians in 416 BCE, Diagoras became an atheist. He felt that the injustice committed by the occupiers was unacceptable and could not believe that the gods would accept this. He expressed his atheistic opinion about the Mysteries of Eleusis (a popular mystery cult which was celebrated at Eleusis.) and orthodox religion. There is a story that is described in Chapter 4 of A Plea for the Christians, written by Athenagoras the Athenian, in which Diagoras threw a wooden idol (a xoanon) in the fire. He stated that if the god was real he should perform a miracle to save himself from the flames. A friend of Diagoras tried to convince him of the authenticity of the gods by giving examples of people who survived heavy storms on the sea by praying to the gods to save their lives. Diagoras responded that there was no record of people in the same situation who prayed to their gods that became shipwrecked and drowned anyway. One day, Diagoras was on a ship when a heavy storm showed up. The crew believed that this was because of Diagoras, who was a godless man. Diagoras then wondered if there were godless people on the other ships that came into the storm too. After all why would they be punished otherwise? Diagoras was sentenced to death for the rejection of the doctrine of Orpheus, because he had revealed the mysteries of Eleusis and Cabeiri and because he cut a wooden statue of Hercules in pieces to cook his turnips. Diagoras fled after his conviction, and a reward was promised to he who could deliver Diagoras to the authorities. Diagoras fled to Corinth, where he probably died.
Theodorus the Atheist
Theodorus of Cyrene, who lived between c. 340 – c. 250 BCE, was a philosopher that can be linked to the Cyrenaic school. Before he returned to his hometown, Cyrene to die, Theodore lived both in Greece and in Alexandria. Being a Cyrenaic philosopher, Theodore taught that to obtain joy and to avoid sorrow were the main goals in life, and that joy is a result of knowledge, and sorrow the result of ignorance. But what Theodore was best known for was his atheistic worldview. He was usually described by ancient writers as "Atheus" the atheist. The good he defined as justice and prudence, the bad he defined as the opposite. Pleasure and pain, on the other hand, were indifferent. He made friendship and patriotism the noblest ideals in life, and saw the world as his country. He taught that there was nothing inherently shameful with theft, adultery, or sacrilege; if one ignored the public opinion that was formed with the consent of fool. Theodore was accused of atheism and was attacked because of that several times before. "He has no respect for the gods and waives any argument that justifies that respect," Laertius says. But some people say there is uncertainty whether he really was an atheist, or he just denies the existence of the gods from the popular belief. The accusation of atheism, nevertheless, is supported by his popular name of Atheus, by the authority of Cicero, Laertius, Pseudo-Plutarch, Sextus Empiricus, and some Christian writers. Others do refer to him as a man with some deviation from the popular theology of that time.
These are some examples of Atheism in antiquity, just to show that atheistic worldviews existed far more longer than many of us realize. But there are many, many more examples: too many to fit in one article. Because of that, I will end this article by saying; to be continued!