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.