They were only athier, we’re the athiest!

Historical perspective certainly does change one’s views of our current little struggle with theism. Kieran Healy identifies the original atheists—those horrible people who were defying cultural mores and denying the traditional deities.

It was those uppity Christians.

Matters were very different with the Christians, who had ex hypothesi abandoned their ancestral religions … The Christians asserted openly either that the pagan gods did not exist at all or that they were malevolent demons. Not only did they themselves refuse to take part in pagan religious rites: they would not even recognize that others ought to do so. As a result … the mass of pagans were naturally apprehensive that the gods would vent their wrath at this dishonour not upon the Christians alone but on the whole community; and when disasters did occur they were only too likely to fasten the blame on to the Christians.

So, if they had a poll around 250AD, the most untrustworthy group in the Empire would have been those Christians? At least this is a historical example that shows the atheists can take over! Let’s just be sure we don’t make the mistake the Christians did.

Part of Ste. Croix’s larger argument is that pretty soon the boot was on the other foot, the persecuted became enthusiastic persecutors.


  1. Sean says

    Ahhh. But I have my secular jackboots all polished and everything.

    I figure we might as well engage in a little bit of retaliatory persecution once the revolution happens. Christians howl of incipient martyrdom if one looks at them wrong. Or if one disagrees with them. Or if one does not let them persecute their own victims.

    If we are going to be forced to listen to their wailing, why can’t we at least enjoy giving them something to wail about?

    And yes, yes, that is a joke for those with malfunctioning detectors.

  2. Caledonian says

    Well, let’s look at this rationally. There are certain societies where not only are the governments atheistic, but a majority of the people are as well.

    Have these societies begun enthusiastically purging the believers from their midsts?

    No. And a large part of why that’s the case is that atheism is not a religion. Christianity, however, is.

  3. says

    At least this is a historical example that shows the atheists can take over! Let’s just be sure we don’t make the mistake the Christians did.

    Part of Ste. Croix’s larger argument is that pretty soon the boot was on the other foot, the persecuted became enthusiastic persecutors.

    Hey, I think that when we take over we should pretend to persecute, and then say “Just Kidding.”

  4. Jeb, FCD says


    Hell yeah! I love that idea. Lots of crosses with foam nails at the ready.

    When can we start?

  5. llewelly says

    on the off chance that anyone is confused by PZ’s humorous misspelling, recall that ‘atheist’ is like ‘neighbor’.

  6. says

    Christians were persecuted for 250 years during the pagan period of the Roman Empire, but not consistently. It depended on the Emperor at any given time, and the governor of your province.

    Far from being a symptom of despotism, persecution of Christians was often in response to public demand. This was because disrespecting other people’s gods was considered rude, and interfered with the smooth tenor of everyday life. Also, it was felt that if you denied the existence of any god, that god was likely to punish you, and other people might experience some collateral damage. Entertainingly, Christians of a more thunderous persuasion often make similar arguments today.

    Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, persecution of Christians actually increased. This is because you got persecuted for tbeing the wrong kind of Christian. Whereas the pagans persecuted fitfully when they could be bothered, the Christians persecuted ‘heretics’ morning, day and night.

    Christianity is often considered an important factor in the decline and fall of the western Empire. Conflict between Christians and pagans, and between Christian factions, was a draining influence, and monks and priests were excused military service, which reduced the number of available conscripts.

  7. Protobiochemist says

    If I may be so bold:
    The history of atheism is really very interesting, and perhaps the single best book I have ever read on the subject is one that I never hear much mention of, called “Doubt: A History” by Jennifer Hecht. It chronologically recaps all the influential voices of atheism/doubt throughout history. The book also covers the martyrs of atheism, the non-theist and/or deist philosophical alternatives, and an objective history of the emergence of christianity and the fall of pre-christian religions.
    Anyway, cutting this rant short, it’s the single most informative/interesting book I’ve come across on the subject, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it.

    Has anyone read anything else by Hecht? She has a couple of books I haven’t picked up yet….


  8. says

    Healy’s blog post points out that the early christians pioneered “atheism” when they explicitly denied the existence of the pagan gods, not when they feebly “lacked belief” in them. This observation supports what I consider the proper definition of atheism, based on the real, street-level understanding of atheist.

    If you go up to people in the mall and ask them to provide examples of “atheists,” I would bet money that they will point to the nearest bookstore and indicate the names on the prominently displayed stacks of books by the currently hot atheographers Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. They wouldn’t point to babies in strollers in the mall, nor to feral children and the profoundly retarded in other places, even though these examples of humanity meet the “lack of belief” definition of atheist.

    In other words, given how people intuitively understand what an “atheist” means, it implies that “atheism” really means something like “the critical rejection of god beliefs.”

  9. says

    The consensus among historians I’ve read is that Christianity, at least in the form it took after Constantine, is an uneasy mix of the Jewish prophetic tradition, Greek philosophy, and the Roman imperial system with its practice of religious persecution. Of these three strands, the practice of persecution is arguably the main innovation; and lots of contemporary Christians think that it was also a fatal gift since it poisoned everything that came afterwards. Of course Christianity would probably never have triumphed except at the point of a sword. You win some. You lose some.

  10. Owlmirror says

    I’ve also read Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt, and it is quite a fascinating history.

    I had a philosophy course in college, but the teacher wasn’t very good. All I can really recall is vague memories of Anselm’s ontological arguments, and Paley’s argument from design, and something about relative moral systems of different cultures. Anyway, it was delivered very boringly.

    Hecht, on the other hand, gives the whole history of the different philosophical movements, and the many, many times that various learned people looked at the religion that they were supposed to be believing in and said, “Uh, why is this supposed to be true?”

    I also took away the realization that even though methodological naturalism is a comparatively recent idea, that particular philosophical view of the universe was implicit in some of the very early philosophical schools. In particular, for example, against the idea of a world created by the gods that was interfered with by the gods, some philosophers proposed that the world had always existed. While we now have the evidence that this is not correct, I think their intuitive realization was that the world could not be 6000 years old, and was not meddled with by supernatural forces. The fact that our world is billions of years old was not discoverable by them, and after all, from the point of view of the average human, “billions of years” might as well be forever.

    And so on. Anyway, I recommend the book.

  11. pallen says

    I’ll have to take issue with Jim Harrison, at least in part. Christianity did not “win,” which I would call the point at which it was taken over by the Romans, “at the point of a sword.” The earliest Christians were quite non-violent, and it was not until the Romans “captured” the religion that the sword was used. Christianity “won” because of their compassion and non-violence, not the sword. I will say this; what the Romans did to Christianity, for the most part, completely changed their original character, which is why so many Christians were killed after the “Romanization” of the faith. The Christianity we suffer today, for the most part, is so far removed from the original faith that it might be called an evil caricature. To Mr. Harrison, my apologies for the rant, but the concept of Christians living by the sword was just more than I could take. Too many years of Bush selling his “Christianity” will do that to you.

  12. Hank Fox says

    Re: Your heading for this post, and the use of “athiest.”

    It’s all too common, in talking to creationists in Yahoo chat rooms, that they will misspell “atheist” as “athiest.”

    Ditto for rendering Stephen Hawking as “Steven Hawkins.”

    Anytime I see either, I know I’m talking to someone who can’t be bothered to get the details right, even in their own arguments.

  13. Ichthyic says

    Hey, I think that when we take over we should pretend to persecute, and then say “Just Kidding.”

    or maybe instead of “just kidding”, say it was just “Street Theater”.

    (I plan to never let Dembski live that moronic bit down).

  14. curious says

    As an evil, persecuting, hate-mongering, and practicing Roman Catholic (and an intelligent design proponent, to boot!), I have to take issue with this…

    Early Christians were not “atheists.”

    a·the·ist -noun
    a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

    Explicit denunciation of the Roman theological structure did not make them atheists any more than saying your ice cream doesn’t exist, whereas mine is quite yummy, makes me an “a-ice-cream-ist.”

    A more accurate label, then, would be “infidel.” Christians most certainly did have a “supreme being”–namely, God. The phrase “Christian atheist” is an oxymoron, a logical fallacy. However, as they were in the minority at the time, their lack of belief in Zeus, Hera, et al. would classify them more as infidels.

  15. says

    Christianity was certainly a major cult before Constantine, and I guess it was possible that it would have eventually become dominant even without imperial sponsorship, though I doubt it very much since all the world’s great transnational religions, even Buddhism, were spread with the help of military force and the historical record is replete with sects that failed for want of political backing. Empires and universal churches go together.

    You are welcome to argue that “real” Christianity is about peace and love and that the church made a bad bargain when it threw in with the empire. Whatever the state of the primitive church, however, it certainly turned into a persecuting institution very quickly as baying mobs of believers enthusiastically seconded the efforts of the imperial bureaucracy to suppress the pagans and the heretics. Which makes me think that love and nonviolence had become rather notional values among the faithful even before Constantine. (Have you ever read Tertullian?)

  16. G. Tingey says

    There’s a very interesting quote, from a very well-known christian writer, and apologist, who nonetheless warns the christians.
    They do’t ever seem to have taken any notice:
    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” – C.S.Lewis

    And the christians are always doing it for your own good, and, like the muslim theocracies, make this exact mistake, and end up as the most terrifying dictatorships.
    This is also characteristic of communist regimes, who are. of course, doing it for your own good ……

  17. windy says

    “It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.”

    Isn’t that the whole premise of Christianity, that we live under the ultimate moral busybody? What is Lewis bitching about?

  18. says

    “…the persecuted became enthusiastic persecutors.”

    Yes, enthusiastic persecutors with the delusion that they are still being persecuted.

  19. Peter McGrath says

    Christianity became the dominant power in western Europe because it was strengthened by Roman oppression and its cult of the martyr and Constantine announced the toleration of Christianity through the Edict of Milan then moved the head of the Roman empire to Byzantium/Constantinople. This allowed Christians to come out of the shadows, and later left a political vacuum in Rome for them to move into. They effectively and bloodlessly (except that of the martyrs) captured Rome and with that the machinery to govern much of the empire. Plenty of bloodletting and oppression later on, of course: you want some theistic slasher flick script inspiration read about the goings on in early Byzantium.

  20. chris y says

    The charge against Socrates was atheism.

    Rather, “Heterotheism”, if there is such a word. He was charged with introducing gods alien to the state religion of Athens – not dissimilar to the charges against early Christians who refused to sacrifice to Roma et Augustus.

  21. paulh says

    I tend to the view that Constantine took over Christianity as means of “re-badging” selected parts (i.e. those pertaining to social and sexual discipline) of the mores of the old Catonian republic while being able to reject the inconvenient ones.

  22. William Hyde says

    The charge of Atheism leveled at early Christians, and a great deal more, is discussed in Robin Lane Fox’s “Pagans and Christians, a book I heartily recommend.

    William Hyde

  23. says

    Actually, several theistic ancient Greek philosophers were also labeled atheists by their critics. See, for example, the remarks of Socrates in the Apology, but the same is true of Anaxagoras (who was borderline) and the weird theism of the Epicureans.

    Heleen: Not quite. He was accused of that at the trial in the exchange, but it wasn’t one of the charges. Impiety was, which is something else.