The history of western atheism-1: The ancient origins

In the BBC4 TV program Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, host Jonathan Miller states flatly right at the beginning, “This series is about the disappearance of something – religious faith. . . The history of the growing conviction that god does not exist.”

(The full three hour, three-part series can be seen starting at the beginning here. The price you pay for it being on YouTube is that each hour is chopped up into six ten-minute segments in order to meet the time restrictions. But the video and sound quality are excellent.)

Miller did a nice job of summarizing the rise and fall and rise again of freethinking. Strictly speaking, his is a survey of atheism just in the western world. In the eastern world of two millennia ago, the widespread acceptance of Confucianism, which placed very little emphasis on a god, and Buddhism, which required no belief in god, suggests that atheism was not perceived as negatively as in the west.

The Miller documentary is structured quite traditionally. It is long on voice-over narration by Miller as he walks through various imposing historical churches, museums, and other buildings and gazes upwards at portraits and statues of the people he is talking about, interspersed with interviews with scholars. It is Miller talking to the viewer in an informal, chatty way, interweaving the history of disbelief with his own journey to a comfortable atheism. But what it lacks in drama and glitz, it more than makes up in the low-key, understated charm that is characteristic of good BBC documentaries. The second and third hours are especially good as the pace picks up.

Miller points out that many of the early Greeks philosophers were freethinkers, highly skeptical of the idea of a god. It is interesting that in those very early days, the Greeks had a much more sophisticated view of god and religion than we have even now, and the program provides many wonderful quotes about religion and god as evidence.

Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, the ultimate contradiction that believers in god face: How to explain the existence of evil.

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?

These questions are usually avoided by religious people by invoking ignorance, the ‘mysterious ways clause’, that says that god has reasons for allowing evil to occur which we are unable to comprehend, although it is not clear how they know that god does not want them to understand. But as the French philosopher Voltaire once said, “The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning.”

Lucretius (circa 99-55 BCE) proposed a theory of the origins of religion and articulates an early formulation of naturalism: “Fear is the mother of all gods. Nature does all things spontaneously by herself without their meddling.”

Cicero (106-43 BCE) points out that it is obvious that there is no god and that much public piety is hypocritical and based on fear. “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 will 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.”

In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon writes: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” But this has been misattributed to Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) as saying: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

It is interesting that even though the climate for freethinking was better in the time of the early Greeks, Cicero’s quote illustrates that people who were skeptical about the existence of god still had to be discreet for fear of repercussions, something that has continued to this day, explaining why so many atheists still are fearful about proclaiming their disbelief publicly.

The conversion to Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine (280-337 CE) led to the rise of Christianity being the favored religion of the Roman Empire and the beneficiary of state patronage. It also resulted in forcing freethinkers to lay low in society, and the suppression of those early Greek writings that supported atheism. Heretics were persecuted and this practice became institutionalized with the various forms of the Inquisition by the church beginning around the 12th century. Recall that most ‘heretics’ were not atheists, but religious people who had views different from that of Catholic orthodoxy. This effectively led to the forcing of specific religious beliefs on people, requiring public affirmations of religious orthodoxy, a practice that has remained in force to this day as we see with politicians routinely spouting pieties.

The arrival of the renaissance around 1500 CE signaled a new time. The birth of the new sciences with Copernicus and Galileo and Newton was coupled with the rise of Arab scholars who had preserved and now resurrected those early Greek skeptical writings. All this led to a flowering of new kinds of thinking. But those early days of modern science did not by themselves lead to a rise of disbelief or atheism. After all, those well-known scientists were all pious people, not skeptics. They simply felt that it was inconceivable that science would reveal anything that was incompatible with god’s work in the world so they did not seem to suffer any personal anxieties of disbelief about where their research would lead. They felt that any seeming contradiction between scientific knowledge and the Bible had to be due to a misinterpretation of the Bible. So they were far more sophisticated than current day Biblical literalists who lay the blame for the same conflicts at the feet of faulty science, not religious texts.

When Galileo was asked by the church to explain the conflict between his views and the Bible, he said, quite reasonably, that the church had no choice but to agree with whatever knowledge science was producing. He said it would be “a terrible detriment for the souls if people found themselves convinced by proof of something that it was made a sin to believe.” (Almost Like a Whale, Steve Jones, 1999, p. 26) Of course, the Catholic Church did not heed his views, putting him under house arrest, and it is amazing that it was only as late as 1984 that they officially apologized for their treatment of him.

So even during the period called the ‘enlightenment’ (roughly 1500-1800 CE), there continued to be a climate where freethinking was discouraged, with severe penalties for blasphemy. The Inquisition was also gaining strength around this time, forcing freethinkers to suppress public disavowals of god or even of Christian orthodoxy. In this climate, the re-emergence of skeptical beliefs necessarily had to be very cautious and incremental.

Next in this series: The beginnings of modern atheism.

POST SCRIPT: Question: What is a non sequitur?

Miss Teen USA 2007 finalist provides an illustration.


  1. dave says

    Mano, do you think it possible that a freethinker could arrive at the conclusion that there is a god?

  2. says

    Absolutely. A freethinker goes freely where the evidence, arguments, and reason takes him/her. A freethinker is unconstrained by te demands of dogma.

  3. says

    I watched this this summer when it ran on PBS. It is quite thought provoking.

    On a related note, Richard Dawkin’s latest series for Channel 4 has begun and the first two episodes are available online at
    Richard Dawkins -- The Enemies of Reason (part 1)
    “Prof Richard Dawkins tackles the epidemic of irrational, superstitious thinking which is blotting the light of logic and evidence…Dawkins attends a seance and confronts the medium…”

    Richard Dawkins -- The Enemies of Reason (part 2)
    “Prof Richard Dawkins looks at how health has become a battleground between reason and superstition. A third of us now spend a total of over 1.6 billion a year on superstitious alternative remedies, but 80% of them have never been subjected to properly conducted trials.”

    These can be watched online or downloaded for playback on iPods.

  4. says

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  5. says

    This has been one of the most illustrative posts i have ever read of atheism and its roots, although im a “believer” i like to investigate people’s opinion on its beliefs.

    I’m also writing an article related to atheism and christianity, and will be reading all of these posts. Thank you!,

    Liberar Blackberry

  6. says

    This has been one of the most illustrative posts i have ever read of atheism and its roots, although im a “believer” i like to investigate people’s opinion on its beliefs.

    I’m also writing an article related to atheism and christianity, and will be reading all of these posts. Thank you!,
    unlock blackberry

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