Atheism is not a modern invention, but has ancient roots

21 February 2016
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A new academic book claims that atheism is not a modern invention, but actually dates back to the ancient world.

In Battling the Gods, Tim Whitmarsh, professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University, mentions many examples showing that atheism existed in polytheistic ancient Greece, as the Guardian writes.

His book disputes that atheism is “a modern invention, a product of the European Enlightenment” and a mode of thought that “would be inconceivable without the twin ideas of a secular state and of science as a rival to religious truth”.

As he writes, it is a myth, which is “nurtured by both sides of the ‘new atheism’ debate. Adherents wish to present scepticism toward the supernatural as the result of science’s progressive eclipse of religion, and the religious wish to see it as a pathological symptom of a decadent western world consumed by capitalism.

“Both are guilty of modernist vanity. Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills. It is only through profound ignorance of the classical tradition that anyone ever believed that 18th-century Europeans were the first to battle the gods.”

However, as the author mentions “early societies were far more capable than many since of containing atheism within the spectrum of what they considered normal,”.

Mr. Whitmarsh mentions Plato, as the philosopher imagines a believer chastising an atheist: “You and your friends are not the first to have held this view about the gods! There are always those who suffer from this illness, in greater or lesser numbers.”

However, there are many other examples which show that atheism has its roots in ancient times, ranging from Carneades, head of the Platonic academy in the second century BC, who argued that “belief in gods is illogical”, to the Epicureans, who were often called atheoi in antiquity, and the atheistic writings of Xenophanes of Colophon.

Also, other examples include texts found regarding the healing god Asclepius from around 320 BC, such as the case of a man who had lost the strength in his fingers, but who mocked the stories of the miracle cures found there, and refused to believe in them.

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