The so-called ‘New Atheism’ of the early twenty-first century was never really ‘new’ since all atheistic expression can be traced back 2000+ years, where many themes and even the tone of atheististic critiques were originally minted.
See the book ‘Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World’ by Tim Whitmarsh (2015). Professor Whitmarsh, a respected classicist, says he wrote this book precisely to show there is no ‘new’ atheism.
Here’s a thumbnail review of ancient authors, and though not all were technically atheists, all critiqued the religion of their day and added to the atheist’s tool kit:
Relates of the history of the Greeks with the supernatural elements surgically removed. Insists on standards of plausibility: only natural explanations are believable; super-natural explanations are not. Says: ‘The stories of the Greeks are many and ridiculous.’
His histories do not attribute historical events to the Gods, unlike Homer. Herodotus derides as implausible all non-natural explanations of events.
His histories offer no divine interventions in human affairs.
Favors natural explanations of all phenomena, not super-natural explanations.
Offers natural, not super-natural, explanations for the emergence of the cosmos and life. Anticipates Darwin. Anaximander says: ‘Living creatures arose from moist elements as they evaporated in the sun. Man was like another animal in the very beginning, namely, a fish.’
Offers a thorough naturalism and materialism to explain phenomena: nothing is super-natural. Says: ‘You say God, I say wind or sun or material principle.’
All phenomena can be explained in physical terms without reference to spiritual entities. He doubts the widespread belief that the stars are divinities and is charged with ‘impiety’ therefore.
Everything is explained without reference to Gods, and all is formed by clusters of ‘atoms’ (a word he invented).
Calls the theological ideas of his day ‘the fictions of our predecessors.’ He identifies the human tendency to anthropomorphize Gods; that is, humans render God in human form with a human personality and human traits. This makes God a suspect idea. Says: ‘If oxen, lions, and horses had hands and could draw and paint: the gods of oxen would look like oxen, the gods of lions would look like lions, and the gods of horses would look like horses. Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed. Thracians say their gods have blue eyes and blonde hair.’
- Hippo of Samos
Says that what is called ‘soul’ is only corporeal and nothing but the brain. He was called ‘atheos’ for this.
Illness is traced to the human organism, not super-natural agents.
Famous playwright puts skeptical words into characters’ mouths. One character says: ‘There is no such being as God. Tell me, where have you ever seen rain come down without clouds being there? If God brings rain, then he should do so when the skies are clear and no clouds are in view.’ Another character says: ‘You swear by Olympian Zeus! What idiocy! To think that someone your age still thinks that Zeus exists!’ And yet another character says: ‘The old prophecies are fading and now people give them no value. Nowhere is Apollo glorified with honors. Religion is no more.’ (Note that playwrights can always say these statements are not their opinions but only the opinions of characters in their plays.)
Famous playwright has characters deliver sophisticated attacks on religion and critiques of the Gods. One character says to Zeus: ‘I am only mortal but I outdo you in virtue, though you are a great God … You are a stupid kind of God, or by nature you are unjust.’ In another play a character says: ‘Someone says there are Gods in heaven? There are not.’ (Note that playwrights can always say these statements are not their opinions but only the opinions of characters in their plays.
Says the very existence of multiple competing views about the Gods (various religions of various nations) already shows the impossibility of secure knowledge about Gods.
Says the sheer variety of religions in the world demonstrates that there is no universal truth about the Gods. Offers an early form of agnosticism and says: ‘As to the Gods, I have no way of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. Many things prevent this knowledge, especially the uncertainty of the matter and the shortness of life.’ His book was burned and he was exiled from Athens.
Writes a book ‘On Atheism’ that includes a collection of Greek atheists—with many names on this list you’re reading.
Offers a socio-political explanation for the rise of religion and writes a play wherein a character named Sisyphus says: ‘There was a time when the life of men was disorderly, beastly and ruled by force, when there was no prize for good and no penalty for the wicked. At that time men framed primitive laws in order that justice should be sovereign over all alike and should shackle wanton violence, and those who offended were punished. But since men committed secretly the acts of violence that laws restrained them from doing openly, some shrewd and cleaver man invented the dread of a God for mortals so that the wicked should be afraid, even if their deeds or words or thoughts were in secret. And so this shrewd man introduced the supernatural, saying that there is a God blessed with unceasing life who with his mind hears and sees and takes careful notice of all things. Even if you plan some wicked deed in silence, this would not escape the God. In this way did someone first persuade mortal men to believe in the existence of a God.’
Says conventional popular religion is based on error: early humans misunderstood phenomena and didn’t know natural explanations for things and therefore imagined super-natural explanations.
Offers a natural explanation for the rise of religion: the Gods are traceable to ancient human heroes.
Offers a natural explanation for origin of Gods: early humans attributed divinity to aspects of nature: sky = Zeus; air = Hera; water = Poseidon; fire = Hephaestus; earth = Gaia; agriculture = Demeter; wine = Dionysus. Etc.
Offers a natural explanation for origin of Gods: human inventions were divinized, and then their inventors were divinized: Wine is a God, then Dionysus is a God.
Mocks sacrifices to the Gods, since neither sacrifices nor the Gods are effective. Offers a critique of the immorality of religious leaders. Says: ‘When I look upon sea-faring men and men of physical science and philosophers––humanity is the wisest of all beings. But when I look upon priests and prophets––nothing is so contemptible as humanity.’23. Epicurus
Says religion is false but we should follow religion as a social custom. Offers a thorough materialism—a natural, not a super-natural view of phenomena and says: ‘Nothing can be created from the non-existent. This universe has always been such as it is now, and so shall it always be. Indestructible particles move without interruption through all time. This movement had no beginning and the primordial particles have always existed.’ Also, he is the first to raise what will be a permanent problem for the idea of God—the ‘problem’ is that human and animal suffering challenge the notion of a good and powerful God. This is the ‘problem of evil,’ where ‘evil’ means the following: diseases; genetic defects; tragic accidents; natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunamis, volcanoes, extreme cold and heat, species extinction; predator-carnivores and venomous animals; immoral actions by humans like murder, mayhem, cruelty. Note that, except for the last category of immorality, human free will has nothing to do with all these other evils. Epicurus summed up the problem of evil thus: ‘If God is willing to prevent evil but is not able, then God is not all powerful. If God is able to prevent evil but is not willing, then God is not all good. If God is both willing to prevent evil and able to prevent evil, then why is there evil? If God is neither willing nor able to rid the world of evil, then why call him God?’
Wrote enormously influential and beautiful Latin poem called ‘The Nature of Things’ in which he offers a thoroughly naturalistic view of the world while criticizing religion: Says: ‘Our world has been created by nature through spontaneous collisions and by a multifarious, accidental, random, purposeless congregation and coalescence of particles whose suddenly formed combinations served on each occasion as the starting point of substantial objects, like the earth and the sea and the sky, and all kinds of living creatures.’ Says: ‘We are bound to acknowledge that in other regions of the universe there are other planets with various tribes of men and various breeds of beasts.’ Says: ‘All religions are sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.’ Says: ‘Too often religion has brought forth criminal and shameful actions. How much evil religion has caused! ’
25. Pliny the Elder
Says: ‘I think of it as a sign of human imbecility to try to find out the shape and form of a God.’
Famous statesman and Latin stylist offers natural view of world, not super-natural. Says: ‘Not all things that have fixed and regular courses are to be accredited to a God rather than to nature. I fully acknowledge nature’s punctual regularity and what is termed nature’s concordant interconnection and correlation. But I cannot accept the assertion that this could not have come about were it not held together by a single divine breath. On the contrary, nature’s system of coherence and persistence is due to nature’s forces and not to divine power. Nature does possess harmony. But the more this is acknowledged as spontaneous growth, the less possible it is to suppose that order was created by divine reason.’
27. Sextus Empiricus
Composed many arguments against the Gods. Here’s one: ‘How shall we be able to reach a conception of God when theists themselves do not agree about God’s substance or God’s form or God’s place of abode? Let theists agree and consent together that God is of such and such a nature––and then let them demand that we skeptics form a conception of God. But as long as theists disagree endlessly, we cannot say what agreed notion of God we are to derive from them. For if God were obvious, and if God were impressed upon humans automatically, theists would agree together regarding God’s essence, character, and abode. Instead, the ceaseless disagreements among theists have made God seem non-evident and in need of demonstration to us skeptics.’
28. Lucian of Samosata
A satirist who mocks religion and the Gods and even Jesus. Says Zeus is very worried that unbelief is growing and people are abandoning the temples. He calls Jesus ‘an impaled sophist’ and ‘that crucified philosopher.’
29. Julianus Caesar
Offers a critique of theistic morality, saying that morality of the bible was not novel: ‘Let me write out word for word every one of the commandments that Moses says were written by God himself. [He quotes the Bible’s Ten Commandments: You shall not steal, You shall not murder, etc.] Now, except for the commands ‘Thou shall not worship other gods’ and ‘Remember the Sabbath,’ what nation is there that does not think it ought to keep these other commands? To such an extent as they do, punishments have been ordained against people who disobey. Some punishments are more severe than the punishments Moses commands, some are the same, but some are more humane than those prescribed by Moses.’
Composes a collection of arguments against God by unbelievers. Here’s one: ‘You say God is all powerful? Well, can God make black snow or cold fire? Can God eat himself? No? Then God is not all powerful!’
SUPPRESSION OF GREEK & ROMAN SKEPTICAL WRITINGS:
Christian Emperor Theodosius I:
In the fourth century after Jesus, Theodosius enacts a law saying Christianity is the official religion of the Roman Empire and non-Christians are ‘demented lunatics.’ Non-Christians can be branded on their bodies and driven from cities out into the countryside, and Christians invented the term ‘pagans’ (‘rustics’) as a label for people with the old Roman religion.
Christian Emperor Theodosius II:
In the fifth century after Jesus, the grandson of the first Theodosius creates new laws: laws against heresy (wrong ideas about Jesus and God), laws against apostasy (leaving the true faith of Christianity), laws closing the ancient Roman temples, laws banning public debate on religion, laws assigning the death penalty to those who practice the old Roman religion. Ancient skeptical writings of the Greeks and Romans are suppressed and taken out of circulation for Christian readers (and ironically shelved deep in the recesses of monastic scriptoria). Skeptical reading as well as any new skeptical writing disappears from Europe for a thousand years.
But then … religious skepticism re-emerges in Europe.
‘Renaissance’ means the ‘rebirth’ of classical ancient Greek and Roman art and literature, which means educated Europeans of the Renaissance are able to get their hands on ancient Greek and Roman skeptical writings, aiding and abetting a new round of religious skepticism that has lasted until this very moment.
Featured image ‘Poseidon’ by Erebos via Flickr