Why Atheism Is a Bad Time-Traveler

Why Atheism Is a Bad Time-Traveler October 18, 2015


| By Dale McGowan | 

Finding evidence of religious unbelief in the ancient world isn’t always easy, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Challenges to religious thought tend to quickly disappear from history for several reasons. Most of what people know today about the past depends on written records being passed down hand-to-hand over thousands of years and scores of generations. This process isn’t ideal, but it’s the only one we’ve got — and religious unbelief is among the least likely ideas to have made it through that gantlet.

Consider what it takes for any idea to get from an ancient mind to yours, and you can begin to see why ideas outside of the mainstream are so often lost in transit.

1.  Someone had to write it down in the first place.

Sure, there’s oral transmission, but we know what happens there. Written transmission is far from bulletproof, but it’s the best hope for an ancient idea to have any reasonable chance of reaching us intact. Most ideas are already out of the game at this point because they never left the heads of the people who thought them. Multiply that a hundredfold for ideas that were unpopular or even criminal in a given place and time. No matter how brilliant an ancient idea was, if it wasn’t written down, it isn’t likely to have reached us.

2.  The written document had to survive, in original or copied form, for over 2,000 years.

In order to reach us, the document obviously can’t have been destroyed by any person or thing — not just in its own time, but also in every year, decade, and century that followed. Surviving over a large span of time is an almost impossible challenge because most writing was on easily corruptible media like papyrus, paper, or parchment. Preserving such documents isn’t easy because our oxygen-rich atmosphere likes to set such things on fire, not to mention a hundred other unhelpful conditions like moisture, heat, light, war, natural disasters, malicious mischief, and the simple human need for a bit of kindling on a winter morning. Even the original U.S. Declaration of Independence, which after just two centuries now lives in a sweet titanium condo full of argon gas, isn’t doing too well. In most cases, a painstaking process of recopying by hand was needed, several times over.

So even the thoughts that were lucky enough to be written down in ancient times are now overwhelmingly gone. One of the greatest ancient scholars, Didymus Chalcenterus, earned the priceless nickname “Bronze Bowels” for sitting long enough to write more than 3,000 books — and not a single one has survived.

The 5th century literary historian Stobaeus compiled 1,430 quotations from the greatest authors of the ancient world — 1,115 of which are from works now completely lost.

And the revolutionary ideas of Democritus, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, survive only in glowing references by other writers.

3.  People naturally tend to preserve and recopy the ideas that they find most valuable.

Because religious unbelief was always a minority opinion, and a deeply disliked one at that, it’s astonishing that any hint of ancient atheism found its way to the present day. Every single generation has an opportunity to preserve or break the chain of transmission, and they tend to preserve ideas they like.

But in an odd (and really enjoyable) way, the reviled status of atheism actually helped preserve it in several cases. If an idea is disturbing enough to the mainstream, other writers often spend reams of paper recording just how wrongheaded that idea is. In the process, they provide strong indirect evidence that the idea existed in the first place. Because their own writing represents mainstream opinion, it’s carefully preserved and passed on — and the disturbing opinion rides the critic’s coattails down the centuries.

My favorite example: Around 177 CE, the Greek philosopher Celsus wrote The True Word, the earliest known comprehensive attack on Christianity. All copies of the book  were destroyed within a century.

But in 248, before they were all gone, the early church father Origen wrote Contra Celsum, a blistering attack on Celsus’s blistering attack. In the process, Origen re-copied nearly every substantive passage from the original in order to refute it, thereby preserving Celsus’s critique for posterity.

Despite those obstacles and the near-impossible odds they create, several ancient atheists made it through, staggering across the finish line into the 21st century — Diagoras, Theodorus, Euhemerus, Xun Zi, Mencius, the Cārvāka — and testifying to the existence of countless others whose religious doubt vanished along with them.

Dorando Pietri

Images from Wikimedia


Adapted from Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan.

DALE McGOWAN has written several books from the nonreligious perspective. He was Harvard Humanist of the Year in 2008 and founded the humanist charity Foundation Beyond Belief in 2010.

Dale is now Content Development Editor and Atheist Channel manager for Patheos. He lives in Atlanta.


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