Earliest evidence for atheism predates Jesus by at least 500 years, Cambridge professor argues

Earliest evidence for atheism predates Jesus by at least 500 years, Cambridge professor argues February 16, 2016

Quite often, one hears that atheism is a late arriver on the scene, that religion in some form or another prevailed universally back to the times of early animism. However, Professor Tim Whitmarsh, a leading Cambridge classicist, claims that the belief that there were indeed no gods was quite common in the ancient world, and only dissappeared under the auspices of Christianity in the early 4th century.

The Telegraph reports:

He sets out his findings in a new book, “Battling The Gods”, published on Tuesday, which collates evidence for atheism in the Greek city states.

It finds evidence for what he argues would now class as atheism in the works of a string of Greek thinkers from Xenophanes of Colophon – born around 570 BC – to figures such as Carneades in the 2nd Century BC, who was among the first systematically to compile arguments against the existence of the gods….

“There is evidence from the 5th Century [BC] onwards, initially quite sketchy but certainly from the 2nd Century BC people were compiling lists of arguments against the existence of the gods.”

In the book he argues that the idea that atheism is a modern idea, stemming from the Enlightenment, is a “myth” nurtured by both believers and non-beliers alike for their own ends.

“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,” the book explains.

“Both are guilty of modernist vanity. Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills.”

Tony Balze - Flickr - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/
Tony Balze – Flickr – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Whitmarsh refers to the trial of Socrates and to Xenophanes as early examples of atheistic thinking. Of Xenophanes, Whitmarsh states:

“He set himself against the anthropomorphic conception of god, so if you think a god is anything like a human being you’ve got it entirely wrong. He said in effect gods should be associated with nature and the way things grow. He was one of the first to move away from the idea of a moral god who you could pray to.

“In ancient terms what he was saying was quite radical, that all these temples and statues are useless.”

Sounds like an interesting book!


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