The New Atheism, same as the Old Atheism?

The Guardian had an interesting article about a new book.

Atheism is not a modern invention from the western Enlightenment, but actually dates back to the ancient world, according to a new book by a Cambridge academic – which challenges the assumption that humanity is naturally predisposed to believe in gods.

In Battling the Gods, Tim Whitmarsh, professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University, lays out a series of examples showing that atheism existed in polytheistic ancient Greece. It is, according to its author, partly “an attempt to excavate ancient atheism from underneath the rubble heaped on it by millennia of Christian opprobrium”.

Whitmarsh, a fellow of St John’s College, believes that the growing trend towards seeing religion as “hardwired” into humans is deeply worrying. “I am trying to destabilise this notion, which seems to be gaining hold all the time, that there is something fundamental to humanity about [religious] belief,” he told the Guardian.

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”.

It is a myth, he writes, 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.”

While I support the author’s attempt to counter the idea that humans have an inherent, biologically-driven need for religion, I have not subscribed for some time to the idea that atheism is a modern invention because there are so many quotes from the ancient Greek philosophers that suggested that they were deeply skeptical of the existence of gods.

For example, 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?

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) pointed 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.”

Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) argued that belief in god is a fraud perpetrated on the public in order to sustain a ruling class: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” [UPDATE: See the comment below that informs me that this quote is a misattribution constructed out of something that Edward Gibbon wrote in his book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.]

My feeling is that atheism did go into a period of decline during the time of religious ascendancy in the Middle Ages and that its emergence in modern times was not the creation of a new idea by the Enlightenment and science but the revival of an old one because of the more welcoming climate.


  1. doublereed says

    When you look at how religion spreads, it’s through descendants, war, migration, and missionaries (which often rely on violence and/or bribery). Conversions of religion are relatively rare, and are often done for marriage reasons.

    Further, religion has supported itself through the arm of the law for a very long time, enforcing conformity and obedience that way. Banishment and expulsion is very common for religious law. Literacy was also a relatively modern invention, so most people didn’t even know how to read the text they worshiped.

    When we strip away these tools of religion, when we let people choose without coercion or bribery, religion seems to fade away. I don’t think people are drawn to religion ‘naturally.’ I don’t even think people like religion very much, when it comes down to it.

  2. says

    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.

    Let me put a plug in for my main man Epicurus. He’s famous (justly) for skewering religion with his dilemma, but his focus was actually on a much more important problem: how to live. He delved into cosmology as many of the ancient Greeks did: by making stuff up. But he offers some heavy-duty wisdom in his answers to questions like: “why are some people unable to resist the urge to acquire more stuff?” or “why are the powerful such unpleasant people?” Those are my formulations of the questions, but I don’t think he’d disagree with them. His reasoning is clear and deep.

    2. Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.

    You have doubtless seen derivations of that in the form of David Hume’s “I miss the life I didn’t lead before I was born as much as I’ll miss the life I won’t lead after I am dead” or Christopher Hitchens’ variation on the same. Classically educated scholars like Hume and Sextus Empiricus would have studied Epicurus -- his skepticism clearly underlies a great deal of what we come to know as skepticism.*

    7. Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.

    Put a little differently: if you seek wealth and power to make yourself secure, that’s natural but once you get past a certain point there are diminishing returns and you’re more likely to make yourself miserable in your quest to protect your wealth and power.

    There is a good summary of Epicurean thinking here: by one of his many fans.
    Alain de Botton did a pretty good but slightly pretentious (hey, it’s Alain) series on Epicurean thinking, in which he paid entirely too much attention to his own thinking… But it’s good and it’s on youtube.

    Popkin, in his history of skepticism** argues that Epicurus was deliberately smeared as a bon vivant and sinner by the early christians, because Epicurean values lead one to live a good life without needing to feel guilty about what some mythical god wants. Indeed, Epicureanism demarcates the actions of the gods as largely irrelevant to human affairs. That’s not a little bit of wisdom, right there. The christians smeared “Epicureans” as wine-women-song-type partiers when in fact Epicurus argued that pretty much all a person needs is conversation with friends, wine, some cheese and olives, and good bread. He’s not saying you need to snort meth off a rentboy’s ass, christian fundamentalist-style.

    Epicurus was also an SJW: he accepted women into his symposium and encouraged everyone to speak as equals because he could see no reason why women’s opinions weren’t just as valuable as men’s.***

    Epicurus died as he lived. He apparently experienced an abdominal infection that was going to kill him with great pain. So he had a small party with a great deal of wine and conversation, and sat in a bathtub of hot water drinking wine until he finally passed out and slid under the surface and became as he was before he was born.

    (* primarily as weaponized by Sextus)
    (** hugely recommended: “history of skepticism, from savanarola to bayle” charts how skepticism was weaponized in the wars of religion and helped trigger the enlightenment)
    (*** this is atheism+ 101: once you reject the idea that the gods favor a gender or a race then social equality is rational)

  3. says

    When you look at how religion spreads, it’s through descendants, war, migration, and missionaries (which often rely on violence and/or bribery).

    Bernard Lewis, in “what went wrong” made an aside that has always stuck with me. It was that the relationship between religion and politics is that politicians have long relied on religion to grant the “divine right of kings” because it spares them having to come up with a rational excuse for why they should be empowered. And in return the kings grant the pharisees, priests, mega-pastors, or whatever -- special protection and wealth so that they can run around raping little boys or torturing and burning women or whatever (as long as they don’t turn on the empowered class) in safety. Furthermore, when the kings want to expand their territory, religion serves as good a causus belli as any other, and the pharisees or soothsayers are happy to go along with it because successful wars enlarge thier domains as well.

    It’s an evil interdependency, forged in nonexistent hell.

    When the first thug met the first conman, religion and political power became best friends.

  4. says

    PS -on my previous. Since I realized that, I’ve always wondered if humans’ ability to be suspicious is simply untrained at resisting a multi-person con. If someone comes up to us and tells us that the sky is falling we will easily blow them off. But if 3 people tell is that, we begin to wonder. It seems to be a basic mechanism in how humans learn to function. So, if you have a ruling establishment saying that the mutterings of the pharisees are important, and the parisees are saying the gods want you to obey the ruling establishment, they are both able to magnify their apparent importance and righteousness without actually having to do any of the work.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    There’s a certain sense in which I do think religion is innate, in a sense that has been discussed here at FtB before. An enormous proportion of our brains is wired to seek agency — from “that bush may be moving because it has a tiger in it” to “I wonder if the members of that strange tribe are going to become our friends or declare war on us.” Seeking agency, false positives were mostly harmless, whereas false negatives (in the case of the tiger) could be deadly. So when people heard thunder, considering the way their brains were wired to see the world in terms of social interactions, it was perfectly natural — even, perhaps, intelligent — to say “Boy, sure sounds like someone is angry about something. I wonder what?”

    And even if it isn’t innate — as Seneca said, it’s useful. I think that, whenever you see a trait that’s shared by just about every civilized group ever known, like religion, you have to hypothesize that it gave them a competitive advantage somehow, and that the groups with religion were able to out-compete the groups without it. It creates social cohesion, it makes it easier to build up large kingdoms out of small ones, it makes groups of people who don’t know one another personally more likely to trust each other due to shared culture — all of these things are key survival adaptations. And of course some people knew it was made up all along — the people who actually made it up, for one.

    Also, I haven’t read his books yet, but isn’t this kind of what our Richard Carrier argues? That the people who wrote about Jesus knew perfectly well that they were writing a work of fiction — they didn’t actually think that intelligent people would read it as true, just as a lengthy, elaborate parable.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    Marcus Ranum:

    I’d put a slightly friendlier cast on it. Intellectually, we all know that our mutual survival and progress depends upon pro-social behavior. But also intellectually, we tend to be selfish bastards, and we need all the encouragement we can get to work for the common good. (We’ve certainly seen in these parts how godlessness and being a ***hole can go hand in hand.) Religion tends to give people that encouragement.

    That’s probably why those ancient greeks kept their disbelief among their trusted friends, and didn’t go shouting it in the agora. Belief in the gods was silly, but if it motivated soldiers who were willing to die to protect you, and builders who created the beautiful cities you lived in, why mess with it?

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    All these ancient sources, and many others, are well covered in the book Doubt, A History. It’s where I first learned of the Carvaka, and a number of doubters from early Jewish history.

    I read that, and it’s a nice survey. Although:

    The scholarship is sometimes questionable. That book was also my first exposure to Carvaka/Charvaka, for which I am grateful. However, Hecht relied on a single source which built an anachronistic case that Carvaka was Marxist.

    As for the doubters of the Jewish scriptures (Job and Ecclesiastes), fine and dandy if that’s your thing, but I would have preferred a focus on nonbelievers, not believers who were merely doubtful.

  8. Numenaster says

    I do not recall any Marxism reference in the Carvaka entry. Will have to reread.

    As for your other objection: the title IS Doubt, not Unbelief.

  9. machintelligence says

    I suspect that susceptibility to religion, like any behavioral trait you care to mention, exists along a continuum and has a genetic component of about .5 (correlation coefficient of about .70). It may well have been more common in the past, before religious societies were so heavily into exiling and burning unbelievers. Remove that selection pressure and it may once again increase, because there should be a fitness advantage to being more rational. This is the long term evolutionary view, which may well be overshadowed by the cultural shift that allows atheists to come out of the closet.
    Dan Dennett introduced a fictitious group which he called the “McTavishite sect of the Church of Crypo-atheism.” No one in the organization really believes in God, but they all profess to do so because they think everyone else does.

  10. says

    That’s probably why those ancient greeks kept their disbelief among their trusted friends, and didn’t go shouting it in the agora

    Well, they also showed Socrates why shouting it was a bad idea.*

    (I know that Socrates was not really killed just because he was impious; he was an aristocrat and thought the ruling democracy was a scam. But it was too good a one-liner to pass up.)

  11. raven says

    Atheism is mentioned in the Old Testament. Barely.

    A favorite verse of xians is from the Psalms. The fool says in his heart that there is no god. To which the atheists agree and point out that the brave and wise say it out loud and often.

  12. kimsland says

    The question was: The New Atheism, same as the Old Atheism?
    Not, from whence atheism first came? Trying to imply that due to its vintage that makes it more respectful or natural or not. This is where skeptics tie themselves in knots.

    The question itself needs to define:
    Old atheism: Skeptical belief in a god just because we don’t know.
    New atheism: Skeptical belief in a god due to lack of evidence.

    Or what else is a ‘new’ atheist?
    Is an atheist a defensive position that continually asks for evidence to support a biblical or mythical god?
    (eg Homosexuals marrying are wrong by god -- What evidence do you have that supports this is true?)
    Or can an atheist ALSO voice positions and have a stance on their non beliefs?
    (eg Homosexuals are NOT wrong, actually science shows us that it is natural to many species including human)

    My interpretation of ‘new atheist’ is a person who DOES take a stand on religious and supernatural traditional subjects.
    Should churches close today? Yes
    Should religion be allowed to be taught to children? No
    Should we allow religious spokespeople a voice concerning any decisions in society? No
    Regarding a deity:
    Can anyone excuse themselves due to their unfounded beliefs? No
    Should science allow a mutual respect for god belief? (same quest for the truth) No
    Should people who state they believe in a god, be our leaders? No
    Anyway this list will go on for a long time, but you get the point.

    New atheists in my view should promote science over supernatural fundamentalists.
    Societies should not allow Museums that teach lies to children to exist.
    Is this at all secular? No

    We have come to an understanding through knowledge that religion should NOT be mandatory in schools. Our next step is to remove religion from the public. Religion similar to smoking, it is cancerous and should be publicly avoided, including governments putting commercials on tv for the same.

    New atheists need to be MUCH louder and condemn misguided unfounded beliefs in supernaturals, NOT defensive.
    Anyway that’s my interpretation, personally I feel I’m correct WITH REASON 😀

  13. springa73 says

    I don’t think that all people are predisposed to be religious, but I suspect that some people are predisposed to believe in supernatural things in general, things that are believed to be beyond the senses or empirical knowledge or reason. Even in the most non-religious societies on earth, a considerable portion of people have some kind of supernatural or superstitious beliefs. It doesn’t have to be organized religion -- it can be ghosts or psychics or astrology.

    I also don’t think that it makes much sense to see religion as simply a con job by a ruling elite. Religious beliefs are found in egalitarian societies that don’t really have much of a ruling elite, and many religions start out as small and unpopular groups that are opposed by the ruling elite of the societies that they spread through. Elites can certainly coopt religious belief and use it to strengthen their own power, but this is a side effect rather than a cause of religion.

  14. John Morales says


    I don’t think that all people are predisposed to be religious, but I suspect that some people are predisposed to believe in supernatural things in general, things that are believed to be beyond the senses or empirical knowledge or reason.

    Agreed. As I see it, we all default to magical thinking*, but it takes an authoritarian mindset to feel comfortable with organised religion.

    More to the point, I think that theism and religiosity only overlap.

    * As per brucegee1962 @5, the illusion of intentionality.

  15. Eric Riley says

    I think also we have a bit of provincialism here -- assuming that atheism is solely a western construct (examples of atheist thinkers can be found throughout history and around the world -- and not just atheist (disbelief in gods, but perhaps acceptance of other magical things, as in Buddhism or Jainism), but materialist philosophies abound as well.

    Yes -- the Greeks, but they are neither first, nor only.

  16. brucegee1962 says

    My favorite expression of this idea is by the poet William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He wasn’t exactly an atheist, but he was still absolutely right when he said:

    “The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.
    And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity;
    Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood;
    Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
    And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
    Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.”

  17. Johnny Vector says

    brucegee1962 @5:

    Here’s Patton Oswalt saying something very similar. Sky Cake!

    Have I posted that before? I probably have, but I like it so much I’m doing it again.

  18. DanDare says

    This is all just weird. When did atheism get claimed as a new thing and by who?
    The only difference is that atheism is more open and safer for atheists to declare than it has been for a long time.

  19. kimsland says

    Old atheism -- Passive in the community
    New atheism -- Active in the community

    I have been told that I can be a tad controversial at times. I feel this area in particular requires such strong public debate.

    It was the FFRF who played an active role (as well as many other secular/humanist/atheist/freethinkers groups and individuals); who actively removed religious instruction as mandatory in public schools. In my view this was one of the biggest turning points where atheism was at last heard and began to be understood.
    Science in schools should not be left with the responsibility of promoting all that there is to know about atheism. Our governments should also challenge negative views on atheists, especially in regards to natural homosexuality and marriage; health and immunization; education not ignorance; even war and peace. (There are many other areas too).

    Our leaders, presidents, spokespeople should encourage atheist viewpoints as an above all reasonable and rational status within the community -- and not promote negative aatheist (anti-atheist) things such as praying everything will be ok 😀

  20. John Morales says


    Old atheism – Passive in the community
    New atheism – Active in the community

    Close enough, and succinct.

    Personally, I think a major factor was the emergence of the internet: it catalysed the suppressed atheism in the wider community, ameliorating the isolation many atheists felt and providing an outlet for the previously inexpressible.

  21. theamateurphilosophysicist says

    “I suspect that susceptibility to religion, like any behavioral trait you care to mention, exists along a continuum and has a genetic component of about .5 (correlation coefficient of about .70)”

    I wasn’t laughing until you started giving us numbers.

    Come on man, it’s obviously a correlation coefficient of only about .40. Everyone knows that.

    Please leave numbers out of this, just…don’t.



  22. Mano Singham says

    coexistential @24,

    Thanks for the for pointing out the error and I have updated the post accordingly. But the link you provide does not suggest that Gibbon perpetrated the fraud but that something he wrote was modified and then attributed to Seneca by unnamed people. Can you please clarify?

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