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?

Atlas Shrugged: The Social Atom
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Atlas Shrugged: Objectivist Batman
Atlas Shrugged: Fiat Motors
About Adam Lee

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


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