Atheism in ancient times

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Raminagrobis's picture
Atheism in ancient times

I've always thought atheism started roughly with the Age of Enlightenment. And maybe some precursors before that, like whoever wrote the treaty of the three imposters.

But I was surprised to discover this biblical verse

Psalm 53:1 (translation : 21st Century King James Version (KJ21))
1 The fool hath said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt and have done abominable iniquity; there is none that doeth good.

So the bible, in negative terms of course, attests that even back when the psalms were written (there is no schalarly consensus on when that happened, it may have, for this part of the psalms, around 6th century BC), some people said "there is nod God". in other words, atheists were around already.

Is there any other evidence of ancient atheism ?

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johnwmstevens's picture
Atheism is as old as man

Atheism is as old as man himself, and yes, there is evidence for it, depending on how you define atheism.

There are three broadly recognized "schools" or "ages" of atheism in the Western Tradition alone.

Remember, for most of human history culture, religion and the political order were all of one piece. To deny the existence of the god or gods your polity recognized as being the source of the authority for the government was to define oneself as seditious, probably a rebel, possibly a traitor.

Look, in that era, for any person executed for crimes against the state and then filter by the evidence, and you'll find 'em.

Quintus Simia's picture
It is important to first

It is important to first understand that there are two historical definitions for the term atheism; the contemporary definition, and the original definition. Our modern understanding refers to the explicit and total lack of belief in the supernatural and all that it entails. However, the term originates as a descriptor for wrong, or unorthodox belief, and thus was first used against those who held religious views contrary to the officially sanctioned version of a given religion. Of course, as John Stevens indicates, religion has always been bound up in one way or another with the administrative body of the civil order, so what religious views are considered orthodox or proper changes multiple times throughout history, depending on who is in power at a given time and place. Using the Bible as a historical reference for atheism is problematic for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the ambiguity of the passages you cited, which could as easily refer to a Pagan or other polytheistic religion as it could someone who lacks any kind of religious belief; typically, the former is more likely. Ironically, or perhaps not, the modern conception of atheism predates both the Bible and Christian monotheism, though the term "atheist" was not in use and did not yet exist in that context; nevertheless, the principle of rejecting all forms of supernatural belief appears in the philosophy of many ancient Greek philosophers, including Epicurus and Socrates.

Is god willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

Surely you do not believe in the gods. What is your argument? Where is your proof?

Long time men lay oppressed with slavish fear. Religion’s tyranny did domineer. At length the mighty one of Greece began. To assert the liberty of man.

Fear is the mother of all gods. Nature does all things spontaneously by herself, without their meddling.

In this subject of the nature of the gods, the first question is: Do the gods exist or do they not? It is difficult, you would say, to deny that they exist. I would agree, if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly. But in a private discussion of this kind, it is perfectly easy to do so.

charvakheresy's picture
The Hindu Manuscripts written

The Hindu Manuscripts written by Brihaspati (old indian sage some 1000, 2000 yrs BC) wrote of a school of thought within the prevalent culture at the time called as "Charvaka," it was called a "Nastika" (literally - atheist) school of thought. They believed in materialism. That which their senses can perceive as real and all else as illusory.
As usual the prevalent culture of that time destroyed their way of life and thinking and most of their manuscripts and their legend survives as just a passing reference to the folly of their beliefs and their fate in the afterlife for their disbelief. But it was an organised school of thought and a way of life in an ancient civilisation.

watchman's picture
"Is there any other evidence

"Is there any other evidence of ancient atheism ?"

Try this......

Check out the life of Alcibiades ....

Not sure it provides proof of ancient Atheism....but it certainly points to the ancients utilising charges of sacrilege and "blasphemy" to "close down" opposition .......

Pitar's picture
Man was not originally imbued

Man was not originally imbued with a sense of an overshadowing god, so to speak. He was imbued with an awe of his world that was inexplicable only at first, a wonderment as he began to question the details of nature and then only much later when individuals seeking power over others did gods and associated fealty come into being. With gods came atheism.

Once gods came into the picture, an argument against a god's credibility by one man lead to his labeling as an atheist by another. The conflict has always been alive and well.

Man's constant desire to categorize and label all aspects of his world grew to be the standard terms and conditions passed on and familiar to succeeding generations as they were developed. Atheism was no exception and it was cited and purposed contemporaneously with the creation of gods. For every thing, there's an opposite, and atheism has had a long and colored history in man.

That's all basic to man's nature, though. Historically, or rather what's printed into the archeological record, we see much pagan god worship and rejection. One man's god is another man's belly laugh and nothing has changed there since gods and man have grappled. If Yahweh was the god of gods to the Hebrews and Elohim was the same to the Israelites, then both sects were atheists in practice relative to their opposing gods. It's not semantics. To those people it was unspeakable to have their god renounced even if it was by a believer in a different god. Atheism was alive and accountable as such. It's just a matter of recognizing it in the archeological record.

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