Ancient Atheism

In my last post, I wrote about the explosive growth of atheism in recent decades. As the menace of the religious right has become increasingly clear, atheists have been increasingly driven to speak out in response and have become more visible. Viewing this trend, some commentators have erroneously concluded that atheism is a modern movement. But this is not so. Atheism is not a recent innovation. If we travel back into history, we can find clear evidence of atheists in many cultures and many eras, though their voices were sometimes more scattered and harder to discern.

In a thought-provoking post, Diganta of The New Horizon provides evidence by telling us about the atheist philosophies of ancient India:

In Ancient Hinduism, there were a couple of schools who used to teach non-existence of God. The first one, Samkhya, used to believe in duality of existing things – as per the book, saamkhya kaarikaa. Prakriti (Nature) and Purusha (Consciousness) were thought to be the basic building blocks of everything.

As Diganta says, there were both theist and non-theist schools of thought within Samkhya. Even the non-theistic schools held a dualist rather than a materialist view of the world, considering human beings to possess a transcendental, supernatural spirit. However, in the strict sense of the word they were atheists, since they did not believe in a deity.

A more interesting development was the school of thought called Carvaka, which flourished around 600 BCE. Like many ancient belief systems that were denounced and reviled by religious majorities, none of its original texts have survived. We know of it through its Hindu and Buddhist opponents, who quoted its writings in order to attack them. But even the fragments that have been preserved are wonderful to behold.

Apparently, the Carvakas were materialists and skeptics, arguing that consciousness ends with the death of the body and that therefore we should take pleasure in this life while we possess it and practice compassion toward others. They also argued that direct observation is the only certain way to know anything, and thus the existence of supernatural forces and realities cannot be established and must be rejected. They even denounced the Hindu caste system as oppressive and self-serving, in the best tradition of anti-clericalists throughout history.

Despite the enormous gaps of time, language and culture, some of Carvaka’s writings have an amazing resonance with the principles of modern-day secular humanists. Consider the following verse:

Fire is hot, water cold,
refreshingly cool is the breeze of morning;
By whom came this variety?
They were born of their own nature.

This also has been said by Brhaspati:
There is no heaven, no final liberation,
nor any soul in another world,
Nor do the actions of the four castes,
orders, or priesthoods produce any real effect.

If a beast slain as an offering to the dead
will itself go to heaven,
why does the sacrificer not straightway offer his father?

If offerings to the dead produce gratification
to those who have reached the land of the dead,
why the need to set out provisions
for travelers starting on this journey?
If our offering sacrifices here gratify beings in heaven,
why not make food offerings down below
to gratify those standing on housetops?

While life remains, let a man live happily,
let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;
When once the body becomes ashes,
how can it ever return again?

If he who departs from the body goes to another world,
why does he not come back again,
restless for love of his kinfolk?
It is only as a means of livelihood
that brahmins have established here
abundant ceremonies for the dead -
there is no other fruit anywhere.

Hence for kindness to the mass of living beings
we must fly for refuge in the doctrine of Carvaka.

The principles of humanism are the same in every era, accessible to every rational person no matter when or where they lived, and Carvaka offers resounding corroboration of that. Brhaspati and Robert Ingersoll would no doubt have found much in common, had they ever met. Philosophers like Amartya Sen have even argued that there is more atheist and freethought writing in Pali and Sanskrit than in any other classical tradition, including societies like the ancient Greeks that are often looked to as models of rationalism.

Religion has always been a heavy burden on our species, but no matter the time or place, anyone who looks closely enough can find bright sparks of reason flickering in the darkness. Until now, the weight of religious oppression has successfully prevented those small flickers from joining together and kindling a lasting light. But the world today has vastly more opportunity for free speech and global communication than any society of the past ever did, and the ability of the orthodox to stifle dissenting voices is at its nadir. When atheists join together and speak in unison, we can accomplish great things. Who knows what the next few decades or centuries will bring about?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    What “explosive growth”?

    The explosive growth that I discussed in my previous post, as well as other posts before that one.

    AFAIK, the percentage of atheists has remained the same for a long time.

    You are incorrect. The percentage of atheist, agnostic or non-religious people has been growing in every generation since World War II.

    It has no pressing moral issue that will attract public attention…

    Are you serious? If anything, we have too many issues to choose from, and we certainly do not need unrelated political objectives trying to ride on the coattails of our success. You can take your recruiting elsewhere, thank you.

  • James Bradbury

    Ebonmuse,

    Thanks for this insight. I’m often impressed at the diversity of topics you find to write about within the context of atheism.

  • James Bradbury

    Ebonmuse,

    Thanks for this insight. I’m often impressed at the diversity of topics you find to write about within the context of atheism.

  • dhagrow

    There was very likely atheism amongst ancient eastern philosophers as well. I am a big fan of Socrates (who some say was an atheist but most don’t), but my favorite is Democritus, who at around 460 BC is thought to have been an atheist along with a few other pre-socrates thinkers. This quote of his has always been one of my favorites:

    In some worlds there is no Sun and Moon pie, in others they are larger than in our world, and in others more numerous. In some parts there are more worlds, in others fewer (…); in some parts they are arising, in others failing. There are some worlds devoid of living creatures or plants or any moisture.

  • siri

    Though I don’t believe in aethism, I think many people today confuse the terms non-religious and aethism. Personally, I have nothing against aethism however I feel that today aetism is becoming more of a fashion than a belief.

  • siri

    Though I don’t believe in aethism, I think many people today confuse the terms non-religious and aethism. Personally, I have nothing against aethism however I feel that today aetism is becoming more of a fashion than a belief.

  • James Bradbury

    siri,

    I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss atheism as a fashion. Please hang around and learn more.

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    “the explosive growth of atheism in recent decades”

    What “explosive growth”? AFAIK, the percentage of atheists has remained the same for a long time. The only difference is that people like Dawkins, Harris and the RRS, who have always been atheists, are becoming more militant. All they’re doing is setting up the inevitable backlash.

    Atheism as a movement is doomed to failure. It has no pressing moral issue that will attract public attention (separation of Church and State may have been a pressing issue a century ago, but not today- the relation between Church and State now is much too subtle), it has no clear position (which is fine for atheists, but not for a movement), and it has no plan, mainly because it has no issue to begin with. Atheists should join our movement, because we have a pressing moral issue, we have a clear position, we have a plan, and if we win atheists win too.

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    “the explosive growth of atheism in recent decades”

    What “explosive growth”? AFAIK, the percentage of atheists has remained the same for a long time. The only difference is that people like Dawkins, Harris and the RRS, who have always been atheists, are becoming more militant. All they’re doing is setting up the inevitable backlash.

    Atheism as a movement is doomed to failure. It has no pressing moral issue that will attract public attention (separation of Church and State may have been a pressing issue a century ago, but not today- the relation between Church and State now is much too subtle), it has no clear position (which is fine for atheists, but not for a movement), and it has no plan, mainly because it has no issue to begin with. Atheists should join our movement, because we have a pressing moral issue, we have a clear position, we have a plan, and if we win atheists win too.

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    Yes, it is true that the percentage of non-religious grows constantly, but non-religious does NOT mean atheist. You of all people should know that.

    What pressing moral issues do atheists address? All I’ve ever seen was the separation of Church and State. Are you going to rally atheists, who have wildly varying positions on most issues, to your pet cause and hope they’ll all follow you?

    “we certainly do not need unrelated political objectives trying to ride on the coattails of our success.”

    You are a braggart. Since the heyday of Ingersoll and other atheists more than a century ago, what has the non-existing “atheist movement” accomplished?

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    Yes, it is true that the percentage of non-religious grows constantly, but non-religious does NOT mean atheist. You of all people should know that.

    What pressing moral issues do atheists address? All I’ve ever seen was the separation of Church and State. Are you going to rally atheists, who have wildly varying positions on most issues, to your pet cause and hope they’ll all follow you?

    “we certainly do not need unrelated political objectives trying to ride on the coattails of our success.”

    You are a braggart. Since the heyday of Ingersoll and other atheists more than a century ago, what has the non-existing “atheist movement” accomplished?

  • Ric

    Great post. I always find it interesting to note how similar ancient people were in their thoughts and feelings to modern day folk.

  • heliobates

    You are a braggart. Since the heyday of Ingersoll and other atheists more than a century ago, what has the non-existing “atheist movement” accomplished?

    Well, that’s going to get me interested in your movement.

    Do you represent the International Association of Assholes, or something? Oh, you’re for Libertarianism. Forgive me if I can’t distinguish the two.

  • http://www.wayofthemind.org/ Pedro Timóteo

    Ebon, it seems you have a new troll here. Where do they all come from? :)

    Francois, this is probably wasted on you, but… have you heard the word “humanism”? That’s how atheists are moral. We believe we’re here to have a good life, to be free, and to make the world a better place. Not to please some vaguely defined being.

    That’s humanism. But even “mere” atheism, which is the simple lack of belief in gods, tells us something: that our lives belong to ourselves. That we’re not “sinners”. That using our mind is not “arrogant” or “evil”. That there is nothing “above reason” or “above reality”, which should of course be taken on faith.

    Christian “morality” tells women that they don’t own their own bodies, that embryos are more important than living adults whose wasting diseases could be cured, that women are inferior to men, that slavery is OK, that we should try not to be “too wise”, that sucking up to one being is more important than living a good life, that contradictions should be accepted “on faith”, much like arguments from authority, arguments from fear and emotion, arguments from ignorance, and so on.

    Christian “morality” made slavery and racism last decades more than they should. Christians were against anesthesia years ago, because it went against “God’s plan” (to punish Eve and her descendants for her “sin”). Christians hindered science for centuries, banning through appeals to ignorance, intimidation and torture anything that just might, possibly, show people that there just might be some worthwhile knowledge outside of the Bible, that it wasn’t perfect, that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, that priests didn’t have perfect knowledge.

    And, just by not being like the horrors above, the cause of atheism is already a “moral issue”.

  • CalUWxBill

    I don’t understand Francois. I didn’t read very strongly, but you look to be somewhat of an anarchist. I’m not sure how that relates to atheism. Sure non-religious is not necessarily atheist, but it’s just as well for atheists. I don’t think the goal is to get people to be atheists, but for people to think for themselves.

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    I am an atheist (although against any nonsensical “atheist movement”), so pardon me if your feeble attempt to equate humanism with secular morality does not leave me very impressed. I am not and have never been a humanist.

    Of course, you are completely missing my initial point and are just calling me a troll and an asshole. Standard reaction from people invested in a bankrupt “movement.”

    My initial point was that ATHEISTS as a whole do not agree on any moral point (except, as I noted, that they tend to agree on the separation of Church and State), and that therefore any “atheist movement” could not rally around any pressing moral issue.

    Do you have anything to say about this, or are you just going to insult me some more?

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    There are some points in common between atheism and Anarchy:

    * Both reject the existence of an immoral concept (God / the State) which is expressed concretely by immoral power-mongering, violent, anti-social organizations (the Church / government).
    * Both use the exact same arguments (burden of proof, their promotion of immoral principles, the desire for moral autonomy, the historical record, the lies of their dogma).
    * Anarchists reject organized religion because it necessarily leads to theocratic or church rule being erected as a moral standard over people’s freedom (even Christian Anarchists, like the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, are against organized religion).

    You may or may not see these as major similarities.

    Either way, my main point is that Anarchists, especially the Voluntaryist movement of which I am part, have pressing moral issues (war, anyone?), and have a cohesion of position. Atheists do not. This is why the Anarchist movement has been able to make great strides in furthering social progress, and atheism has not, in the same century.

  • Alex Weaver

    If it’s that difficult for you to understand the connection, why don’t you just pretend we said “Humanist” whenever we say “Atheist”? Will that help?

    And what strides would you claim Anarchism has been responsible for, realizing that you will be asked to support your claim with more than tautologies and shallow intellectual conceits?

  • OhioAtheist

    Francois,

    I don’t feel like entering into much of a discussion with you, since I doubt it would go anywhere interesting and you strike me as a rather unpleasant person, but if you would read the works of Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens, you would certainly see a common “pressing moral issue”: the fact that much of humanity is in the thrall of unreasonable religious dogma, and that these false beliefs have caused and are continuing to cause great harm to the world. Sure, atheists–strictly speaking, I should say antitheists, since we’re talking about a movement opposed to religion, and it’s possible for an atheist to support religion, or “believe in belief”–disagree about any number of other things, but they are in basic agreement on this fundamental issue, which is the whole point of the modern antitheistic movement.

    By the way, I’m curious about these “great strides” made by the anarchist movement in the last hundred years. Care to enlighten me?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Ebon, it seems you have a new troll here. Where do they all come from? :)

    Well, I can’t speak for other trolls, but this one I’m familiar with. :)

    I’ve dealt with Francois before, and as several people have already noticed, he seems to be a rather unpleasant fellow whose main goal in life is to provoke others. Since he apparently came here just to pick fights, drag this discussion off-topic and advertise for his own rather eccentric political aims, I think I’d be fully justified in banning him, and I will if he continues to make a nuisance of himself. However, in the interest of showing that he has said nothing we cannot answer:

    Yes, it is true that the percentage of non-religious grows constantly, but non-religious does NOT mean atheist. You of all people should know that.

    Why me of all people? No, not all non-religious people are atheists, but many of them are.

    What pressing moral issues do atheists address?

    We believe that decisions on matters of common interest should be made based on reason and not faith. We support science and oppose attempts to censor it. We support the rights of women and minorities that are oppressed by fundamentalist dogma. We defend free speech. We encourage people trapped in spirit-destroying, suffocating dogmas to walk away and discover a better path. For truth’s sake, man, all you have to do is read a book like The God Delusion or The End of Faith – that should make it very clear to you what atheists are fighting for.

    Since the heyday of Ingersoll and other atheists more than a century ago, what has the non-existing “atheist movement” accomplished?

    We have won numerous, important lawsuits defending the separation of church and state and pushing back against theocratic encroachment. We have contributed to the growth of atheist organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which recently surpassed the 10,000-member mark. We have created an alliance of freethought groups, the Secular Coalition for America, which has placed the first ever lobbyist for the rights of the non-religious in the U.S. Congress. We have published numerous best-selling, much-discussed books. We have aided in the successful fight against intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania which culminated in a court ruling that ID is religion and not science. We have gotten a member of Congress to announce himself as a nontheist, to my knowledge the first time that has ever happened. We have worked to defeat harsh laws like the South Dakota referendum overturning the state’s draconian abortion ban. Shall I go on?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I wondered why this thread had gathered so many comments, so quickly. I’m glad to see that we have plenty of articulate advocates of the atheist movement here. Frankly, it seems to me that the inadequacy of Francois’ arguments has been demonstrated perfectly well already, so I won’t add my own refutations.

    I’d never heard of the Carvaka before. What with them, and the Epicureans, and modern freethinkers, that’s a pretty impressive demonstration that atheists can end up agreeing across times and locations in a way that theists never could!

  • Alex Weaver

    You know, Adam, it occurs to me that you might add a post arguing against anarchism to your list of things to write. Somewhere far down…

  • Polly

    Wonderful! Truly, there’s nothing new under the sun! ;) (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

  • Mobius 118

    I knew there were great atheist movements back in the day, but they were stamped out by the dogmatic machine of religion.

    But yes, there always flickers of hope in this dark night. Now, we have the power to organize as a whole. We just need the right catalyst.

  • Alex Weaver

    We already have a medium via the internet. I think that may well prove to be the critical element. It’s never been this easy for like-minded people to come together to share ideas and speak out…

  • andrea

    Carvaka seems very interesting. I guess there can be people in all times that see the nonsense of worshipping deities.

    And speaking of nonsense, anarchy is indeed that. I have yet to see a self-described anarchist that was willing to do anything but whine about how bad “everything” else is, while enjoying the benefits of the society that they so bitterly decry.

    It seems to me a false dichotomy. Religon is based on deity. If you do not believe in religion, are “non-religous”, then by default, you are an atheist.

  • ex machina

    When I talk to people about what I believe, I usually tell people that I don’t di9smiss the possibility of some kind of transcendent reality, but I don’t’ like to use the word agnostic. I like to say that I’m an “operating atheist” meaning that while I don’t immediately dismiss spirituality, I will if it lacks merit, and will continue to make decisions based on information that is in front of me and not abstract spiritual ideas. In that way Samkhya always appealed to me, and I’m glad you’ve acknowledged it’s value.

    As for Francois, I’ll ask you what I ask most Christians/believers: What about your argument do you imagine is persuasive given the context of the debate (a blog/forum for atheists)?

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Hello All,

    I have not seen any serious consideration of the context of the passage in question, so I have critiqued it to promote discourse and discussion. I think Ebonmuse’s article is interesting and have no doubt that there have been atheists throughout the years. In fact there are some Bible verses which could allude to atheism, although some, perhaps many, will say the language is figurative. Here is my critique of the content of the passage by the Caravakans. I am interested to know what you think.

    1) Based solely on the text supplied above, I cannot say with certainty that the Carvakans were atheists. Are there other references that make the matter more clear? It seems that the author could be denouncing one form of religion in favor of his own.

    2) I also find the reasoning used to be somewhat odd. Observe:

    If a beast slain as an offering to the dead
    will itself go to heaven,
    why does the sacrificer not straightway offer his father?

    And again,

    If our offering sacrifices here gratify beings in heaven,
    why not make food offerings down below
    to gratify those standing on housetops?

    Of course I agree that it seems very silly to offer animal sacrifices to the dead, however these arguments against it seem equally strange. Thoughts?

    While life remains, let a man live happily,
    let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;
    When once the body becomes ashes,
    how can it ever return again?

    3) I also disagree with the seeming conclusion here. It appears that the author is saying that since there is no afterlife, we should live happily even if we have to do so irresponsibly. That is unethical behavior and I cannot support it. It is reminiscent of the concept of God being used to scare people into doing the right thing.

    Hence for kindness to the mass of living beings
    we must fly for refuge in the doctrine of Carvaka.

    It also sounds like this author was putting in a plug for his own belief system…anarchy perhaps…… :)

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • OhioAtheist

    Matt R,

    The Carvakas were almost certainly atheists in some sense. Materialism was one of the chief tenets of Carvaka, and no traditional god-concept is compatible with a wholly materialist ontology.

    I would agree with you that the reasoning in the passage is not always entirely logical. What is interesting about the Carvaka school to me is not that their philosophy was perfectly right (it wasn’t), but its historical significance as a forerunner of atheism, much like ancient Greek philosophy is important, not for Aristotle’s or Plato’s or Democritus’ actual thoughts (which contain a good deal of nonsense and specious arguments), but for the fact that the Greeks started philosophizing in the first place.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Ah, an on-topic comment – what a breath of fresh air. Thanks, Matt. :)

    Based solely on the text supplied above, I cannot say with certainty that the Carvakans were atheists. Are there other references that make the matter more clear? It seems that the author could be denouncing one form of religion in favor of his own.

    I believe there are other references (I’d have to track them down), but I think this excerpt is pretty decisive by itself. It says that the forces of the natural world were “born of their own nature”, which seems to me to be a clear denial that they were created by a transcendent being. It says that there is no soul and no afterlife, and that the actions of “priesthoods” have no effect. One would expect a religious believer denouncing other religions to at least leave an exception open for his own clergy. If this is a form of theism, it’d have to be one of the most peculiar I’ve ever seen or heard of. There’s not a single thing in it that an atheist could not agree with.

    Of course I agree that it seems very silly to offer animal sacrifices to the dead, however these arguments against it seem equally strange.

    The writer’s point, I believe, is that animals and other things sacrificed for the benefit of the dead go straight to heaven, where dead people can make use of them (similar to Egyptian pharaohs’ grave hoards). If that’s the case, he’s asking, why not sacrifice other people to ensure they’ll go directly to a blessed afterlife?

    This can be seen as similar to the argument atheists sometimes put forward against Christian pro-life activists: If you believe that a human fetus has a soul, and if you believe all ensouled persons are guaranteed admission to Heaven if they die before the age of accountability, then on what grounds do you oppose abortion? Aren’t the doctors who perform abortions doing those souls a favor?

    It appears that the author is saying that since there is no afterlife, we should live happily even if we have to do so irresponsibly.

    I don’t think the context supports such a negative interpretation. That passage can be understood as saying that since there is no afterlife, we should enjoy the pleasures of this life while we have the opportunity, even if we are poor; we should not deny ourselves happiness based on the belief that we’ll have time in heaven to do the things we couldn’t do on earth. (Note that this piece was written in the context of ancient India, where members of higher castes justified their social superiority by telling members of the lower classes that they had a karmic debt which they had to work through this lifetime to pay off, and that only once they were reborn into a higher caste could they expect a happy life.) I see nothing unethical about that.

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    You wanna ignore the facts, that’s not my problem. But other people won’t.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    I don’t think the context supports such a negative interpretation.

    Bah! You atheists! Every time someone criticizes your holy writings, you accuse them of neglecting context….wait a second….that’s Christians. Never mind. :)

    The writer’s point, I believe, is that animals and other things sacrificed for the benefit of the dead go straight to heaven, where dead people can make use of them (similar to Egyptian pharaohs’ grave hoards). If that’s the case, he’s asking, why not sacrifice other people to ensure they’ll go directly to a blessed afterlife?

    Certainly that is what he meant. I think that it is a poor argument because it disregards any sort of difference between an animal sacrifice and killing a human. It disregards the supposed order of things within the theological framework. The point of the animal sacrifice is not to get them to “heaven” but to make them available to those who had gotten to heaven.

    Let us take for example the idea of killing babies so they go to heaven in the Christian tradition. This is based on an incomplete understanding of the Christian tenets. It would not be good to kill the babies because God abhors killing babies (unless they are Amalekite, apparently :) ). Therefore although killing babies may seem like a means to an end, it is against the will of God and therefore it is wrong and does not make sense within the Christian framework.

    but I think this excerpt is pretty decisive by itself. It says that the forces of the natural world were “born of their own nature”, which seems to me to be a clear denial that they were created by a transcendent being. It says that there is no soul and no afterlife, and that the actions of “priesthoods” have no effect. One would expect a religious believer denouncing other religions to at least leave an exception open for his own clergy. If this is a form of theism, it’d have to be one of the most peculiar I’ve ever seen or heard of. There’s not a single thing in it that an atheist could not agree with.

    I think that the strongest indicator of atheism would be an assertion that there was no creator. I have my reservations on whether “born of their own nature” is referring to nature in general as creation or some other thing. The lack of afterlife is not foreign to some eastern religions which promote the idea of blending back into “the universe” after death. It is noteworthy, however, that these religions have aspects of atheism, I think. I do not think the things regarding the priesthood are conclusive. I think there are many religions in which the individual is encouraged to communicate directly to deity.

    In order for me to be convinced, I would have to see something a little more explicit.

    Cheers,

    Matt.

    P.S. How can we be sure there wasn’t later interpolation by subsequent redactors and editors? :)

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Francois,

    Just out of curiosity, what is your point?

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • Alex Weaver

    You wanna ignore the facts, that’s not my problem. But other people won’t.

    You don’t wanna present the facts when asked to, that IS your problem, especially if you object to your unsupported assertions being dismissed. You’ve had at least two separate requests to substantiate your claim of “great strides” on the part of the “anarchist movement” and instead choose to snipe like a petulant child. Why should anyone listen to a word you have to say?

    Based solely on the text supplied above, I cannot say with certainty that the Carvakans were atheists. Are there other references that make the matter more clear? It seems that the author could be denouncing one form of religion in favor of his own.

    They do seem to be “atheists” in the sense of lacking belief in gods, and also seem to be about as rationalist as one would expect prior to some of the discoveries of modern science (IE the nonexistence of a “vital spirit”).

    I don’t think the context supports such a negative interpretation. That passage can be understood as saying that since there is no afterlife, we should enjoy the pleasures of this life while we have the opportunity, even if we are poor; we should not deny ourselves happiness based on the belief that we’ll have time in heaven to do the things we couldn’t do on earth. (Note that this piece was written in the context of ancient India, where members of higher castes justified their social superiority by telling members of the lower classes that they had a karmic debt which they had to work through this lifetime to pay off, and that only once they were reborn into a higher caste could they expect a happy life.) I see nothing unethical about that.

    I was wondering about this too; the clarification helps. :)

  • OMGF

    Let us take for example the idea of killing babies so they go to heaven in the Christian tradition. This is based on an incomplete understanding of the Christian tenets. It would not be good to kill the babies because God abhors killing babies (unless they are Amalekite, apparently :) ). Therefore although killing babies may seem like a means to an end, it is against the will of God and therefore it is wrong and does not make sense within the Christian framework.

    It would certainly be good for the babies that get to go to heaven straight away, wouldn’t it? So, a person who truly wants to save others should see killing babies as a means to the end of getting babies into heaven. It’s a self-less sacrifice, unless that person repents for those sins and gets to go to heaven as well…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    How can we be sure there wasn’t later interpolation by subsequent redactors and editors? :)

    We can’t. That’s fine with me; I’m not basing my life on these writings or claiming them to be infallible truth.

  • Bechamel

    Matt R:

    It would not be good to kill the babies because God abhors killing babies (unless they are Amalekite, apparently :) ).

    Or Egyptian. Or Hittite. Or Girgashite. Or Amorite. Or Canaanite. Or Perizzite. Or Hivite. Or Jebusite. Or Midianite. Or Babylonian. Or Samaritan. Or from Ai, Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, Debir, Hazor, or Anab. Or anywhere in the time of Noah.

  • Polly

    While life remains, let a man live happily,
    let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;
    When once the body becomes ashes,
    how can it ever return again?

    Maybe this is an obvious point and that’s why no one brought it up, but this reminds me of the Epicureans (and Stoics) that the apostle Paul’s doctrines would conflict with. Refer to 1 Corinthians 15:32. The Epicureans were atomists in addition to being materialists. Even the “gods” were just superior men in their eyes, not divine.

    Another point of similarity is in the book of Ecclesiastes.

    Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

    Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

    Obviously not atheistic, but certainly mirrored the idea of the Carvaka. This same theme is repeated throughout Ecclesiastes. I would say that the writer did not believe in an afterlife of any kind. Only later Xian scripture wrenching would read any kind of afterlife into these writings. Also, the OT, except for Daniel, seems to be silent on the concept of an afterlife and focused on THIS life.

  • THX1138

    I abandoned Christianity 20 years ago, have flirted with various alternative/Eastern religions, and today I’m basically an agnostic. But I’d have to say that if atheists think they’re going to convert the world to rationalism and non-theism, and create a utopia centered around science and progress, they are seriously delusional. They’re not taking into account basic human nature.

    If we are just products of nature (and the evidence points that way), then evolution made a serious mistake in giving mankind self-consciousness and awareness of mortality. The human race is insane; all of us are to some degree. We all have desires and cravings that can’t be satisfied, we all want ultimate purpose and meaning that we can’t find. Most of us are selfish and ego-dominated, and it isn’t going to change.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Utopias are always suspect, that’s true. Still, I myself think atheism is the way to go, and I’m glad the proportion of nontheists is growing, even though I know there are limits to what can be achieved. Even without trying to take over the world, the atheist movement plays an important role — and, actually, I suspect nontheists can potentially grow to include a large majority of people around the world, given the right conditions (I suspect the right conditions are something like Sweden).

    The human race is insane; all of us are to some degree.

    Oh, you have discovered my secret! :) Too true, too true, insanity is rife and sometimes you just have to be patient with yourself and others on that count.

    We all have desires and cravings that can’t be satisfied, we all want ultimate purpose and meaning that we can’t find. Most of us are selfish and ego-dominated, and it isn’t going to change.

    Well, as a humanist I’ve found ways of working through those issues myself, without reference to gods or other unsubstantiated claims, and that’s generally enough for me. I’m not saying that such problems go away completely — let’s face it, no philosophical or religious belief can have that effect — but life is certainly beautiful and livable.

  • Polly

    THX1138, we’ll have to send you in for conditioning. :)

    The goal is not primarily to convert theists, but to get them to leave us alone and to stop interfering with science education. It would be nice to have everyone completely rational about their worldview, but acting rationally in the public sphere would suffice. (And theistic belief aside, I would say humans will always be more or less irrational in plenty of other ways.)
    And I don’t think it’s a stretch to achieve that. Eventually we can live in a world where people who believe, personally, that they are in touch with a spiritual dimension or god or whatever will naturally abhor the obviously nonsensical idea that they must try to push it on others by force. There are millions (if not billions) who live that way now.

    Just because Islam and Christianity (not Judaism) encourage proseletyzing doesn’t mean it’s a necessary part of the experience to give people that “meaning.”

    You can believe in the natural world and still have that “sprituality.” It won’t be defined by the supernatural, but the feelings are the same.

  • THX1138

    “You can believe in the natural world and still have that “sprituality.”"

    Polly, I agree. I think I would have been MUCH happier if I’d lived 10,000 years ago in a hunter-gatherer society. In fact, I think most of us moderns really yearn to return to those roots with nature, living a less-complicated, stressed-out life.

  • Shawn Smith

    THX1138,

    … I think most of us moderns really yearn to return to those roots with nature, living a less-complicated, stressed-out life.

    <offtopic>

    I’m sorry, I have to disagree. As someone who would have DIED before the age of three had I been born even 100 years earlier, I really, really prefer to live in my current time. After watching shows like Wilderness House and Colonial House, I believe most “moderns” would agree with me. Remember–the average lifespan in Western countries hasn’t increased because people are necessarily dying later, but because so many are not dying in childhood. The idea that parents shouldn’t bury their children is definitely a recent concept, and one I am glad for.

    </offtopic>

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    Matt wrote:

    1) Based solely on the text supplied above, I cannot say with certainty that the Carvakans were atheists. Are there other references that make the matter more clear? It seems that the author could be denouncing one form of religion in favor of his own.

    ===================================

    [G Riggs] Some term the school Carvaka, others Lokayata. I put up a brief backgrounder on extant writings on this earliest atheist school at

    where you can see why scholars take this to be an unequivocally atheist philosophy.

    ==========================================

    [Matt] 2) I also find the reasoning used to be somewhat odd. Observe:

    While life remains, let a man live happily,
    let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;
    When once the body becomes ashes,
    how can it ever return again?

    3) I also disagree with the seeming conclusion here. It appears that the author is saying that since there is no afterlife, we should live happily even if we have to do so irresponsibly. That is unethical behavior and I cannot support it. It is reminiscent of the concept of God being used to scare people into doing the right thing.

    ===========================================

    [G Riggs] EbonMuse has already addressed your point quite thoughtfully. I would like to add, though, that when EbonMuse stresses that the writer is saying that one can be allowed fun even when poor, I’d guess there is an implicit interpretation there that (and I may be wrong?) the state of poverty already obtains here prior to the choice for (however reckless) fun. Yet the word in the original Sanskrit here apparently signifies not just butter, but ghee, which was a particularly expensive type of butter familiar mostly to the upper classes and also used in some religious ceremonies. (Today, I suppose Westerners might view caviar in the same light.) This would seem(?) to imply that the upper classes can feel free to indulge themselves to the utmost without fear of retribution. I offer this interpretation for what it’s worth as one take on this passage that a fair number of scholars give, though not all.

    ============================================================

    [Matt] Hence for kindness to the mass of living beings
    we must fly for refuge in the doctrine of Carvaka.

    It also sounds like this author was putting in a plug for his own belief system…anarchy perhaps…… :)

    ============================================================

    [G Riggs] I’ve had a long and frustrating struggle with these final lines. EbonMuse presumably used the same Web page that I had come to view as quite reliable myself:

    http://www.humanistictexts.org/carvaka.htm

    This entire passage EbonMuse has cited here (and thank you for this, BTW) comes in turn from another citation inside a treatise written by an abbot roughly 700 years ago, a Madhava Acharya in the 1300s C.E., writing roughly 2000 years after Brhaspati. Madhava Acharya’s article is a conscientious summary (surprisingly so, given Madhava’s religious vocation) of the Lokayata/Carvaka philosophy that formed the first chapter of a complete book in which this abbot summarized all the circulating philosophies of the time, ranging from the most skeptical to the most devout.

    Unfortunately, some editions of the Cowell translation used here give these final lines on “kindness” to “living beings” as the concluding part of the quote from Brhaspati’s reflections of 2000 years earlier, while other editions place an unquote after the preceding statement, ending the Brhaspati quote after “[t]here is no other fruit anywhere”. The latter arrangement would make the remark about “kindness” a final summation by Madhava of the gist of the philosophy, rather than something coming from Brhaspati himself (the “kindness” remark comes at the very end of Madhava’s entire article on Lokayata/Carvaka).

    Very frustrated by this discrepancy among different Cowell editions, I eventually tracked down a 2002 edition that places the original (and believe me, I can’t read Sanskrit! — wish I could!) and Cowell’s translation side by side (Cowell’s appears to be the only one around). There I ascertained that thoughout the article there is the customary notation in the original Sanskrit of “Iti.” in the right margin of the concluding line of every quote that Madhava cites. There are a number of quoted passages that Madhava cites in addition to the one provided above, although I would agree with EbonMuse that the one he cites (above) is the most important.

    To cut to the chase, the “Iti.” notation appears after “[t]here is no other fruit anywhere”, making the remark on “kindness” a later extrapolation by Madhava. So Madhava evidently intends that “kindness” remark to be his own final summation of the ultimate rationale for the Lokayata/Carvaka philosophy — his attempt at evenhandedness, even though (in later chapters of the book) he himself indicates he is no subscriber to Lokayata/Carvaka thinking.

    Cheers,

    G Riggs

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    My regrets. Somehow the link for the backgrounder on Lokayata/Carvaka did not “take” in the previous post =================>

    Matt wrote:

    1) Based solely on the text supplied above, I cannot say with certainty that the Carvakans were atheists. Are there other references that make the matter more clear? It seems that the author could be denouncing one form of religion in favor of his own.

    ===================================

    [G Riggs] Some term the school Carvaka, others Lokayata. I put up a brief backgrounder on extant writings on this earliest atheist school at

    =================>
    http://www.geocities.com/Athens/7842/jbconv17.htm

    where you can see why scholars take this to be an unequivocally atheist philosophy.

    ==========================================

    Tha-tha-tha-that’s all, folks.

    Cheers,

    G Riggs

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    I’ve found a translation of an even earlier precis of Brhaspati’s/Carvaka’s thinking:

    Sarvasiddhantasamgraha by Samkara (ca. 750 C.E.)

    This contrasts with the Sarvadarshansamgraha by Madhavacarya (ca. 1350 C.E.), already referenced above.

    Another interesting contrast with Madhava’s precis is the series of suggestions for ways of living given in the Samkara precis of 600 years earlier. Unlike the tinge(?) of impracticality/recklessness(?) in the Madhava statement on melted butter/ghee, there is a no-nonsense tinge instead to the earlier Samkara precepts that suggest a slightly more responsible take on day-to-day living:

    [1] “Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings; gifts of gold and land, the pleasure of invitations to dinner, are devised by indigent people with stomachs lean with hunger.
    [2] “The building of temples, houses for water-supply, tanks, wells, resting places, and the like, please only travelers, not others.”
    [3] “The wise should enjoy the pleasures of this world through the proper visible means of agriculture, keeping cattle, trade, political administration, etc.”

    Thoughts?

    G Riggs

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    I’ve since consulted with a New York Public Library specialist in ancient Sanskrit, and she has provided a somewhat more precise translation of the third remark.

    “The wise should enjoy the pleasures of this world through the more appropriate available means of agriculture, tending cattle, trade, political administratrion, etc.”

    So it’s confirmed that this Samkara summary consistently comes off more prudent than the Madhava one. While both summaries address themselves to what the individual should do for oneself rather than for others, they don’t both imply the flouting of sensible behavior. Only Madhava seems to do that, making him not quite so even-handed after all……….

    Incidentally, the NYPL scholar did second that the “Iti.” notation does mean the conclusion of a quote, meaning that, in the Madhava, the final reference to “kindness for living things” comes from Madhava, not Brhaspati/Carvaka. But in any case, the Madhava shows this philosophy in such a caricatured and unfavorable light in most other respects compared to the earlier summation that I’m no longer inclined to give it the kind of close reading of the other one.

    Cheers,

    G Riggs

  • hinduwoman

    Hi everyone.

    The problem with Carvaka school is that hardly anything of their original texts survive so that what we know is what had been said by their opponents. This makes it difficult to distinguish about what doctrines the Carvakas actually held and what are caricatures. We cannot know much about their ethical system except that they favoured obedience to the state and laws, because religious people were more interested in accusing these godless people of immorality and anarchy. But there is general agreement that some Carvakas were pure hedonists while there were ‘Susikshita’ (well educated) who were more philosophical and moral.

    One Haribhadra summs up in twelve verses the pertinent Carvaka beliefs:
    There is no soul, no moksa (salvation), no dharma or adharma nor fruits of vice and virtue. That which is past does not reappear and so there is no rebirth. Consciousness is sponteneously generated. The world consists of only what can be perceived by our senses. For people to leave off what is seen for the sake of the unperceivable is stupidity.

    Carvakas also did not believe in any gods. Many great theologians in India had begun their treatise on God by stating that such discussions are neccessary because they have to refute Carvakas who do not believe in any god or creator. According to one source God is compared by Carvakas to son of a barren woman.

    Priests are considered by them to be cheats, destitute of ability to make a living which made them trick gullible people.
    And vedas of course is not considered by them to have any validity at all.

  • http://www.charlestonpeace.net Larry Carter Center

    Ancient Greek Atheism, Ancient Indian Atheism and Hypatia at Alexandria, all victims of the brutality of faith advocates. Faith fails. Faith only advances by violence, censorship and cultism which is to say brainwashing of children and the gullible. I am an American Atheist. Here in the United States we suffer under still virulent McCarthyism. As we rally more people to advance Green Policies to reduce carbon emissions, the bellicose religonists and theocrats pretend they must “stop Green tyrany?” I invite all Global Atheists to unite for reversing glacier and polar ice melt. Pollution is both material and intellectual. Peace, 843-926-1750 Larry Carter Center as praying/preying to alleged deities will not create the action needed to restore a garden sustainable earth.

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    “Pollution is both material and intellectual.”

    This blog is an excellent case in point.