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How prevalent was atheism in ancient civilizations?
February 7, 2012 9:49 AM   Subscribe

How prevalent was atheism in ancient civilizations?

For instance, do we know if most ancient Greeks truly believed in their mythology as fact, or Egyptians, or Romans? Was there a large contingent of people in the ancient world who said, "Um, that's make believe."? If so, how were they treated? The image I have, and maybe many others too, is of the Ancient Greek and Egyptians as people who all believed in their gods and who all worshiped and feared them.
posted by Lownotes to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have read references to Jews and early Christians as 'atheists' because they didn't believe in everybody else's gods.
posted by bq at 9:53 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would guess that it was pretty rare. By rare, I mean that by the time we evolved the capability to even think of religion, we believed it as fact. I mean, think of all of the unexplainable thing. I would guess that atheism is only a recent phenom because we are finally having good science to compete for our mindspace. So in short, not. I don't think atheism was present at all in ancient civilizations.
posted by amazingstill at 9:59 AM on February 7, 2012


Of course there won't be a census or anything, but philosophically speaking, Atheism has a long history. The wikipedia article is extensive.
posted by Think_Long at 9:59 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's an About.com entry that quotes various Roman writers.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:59 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


IIRC, Epicurus (Greek) and Lucretius (Roman) avowedly disbelieved in the Graeco-Roman pantheon, and Epicurus founded a philosophical school. Neither seems to have been subject to any particular pressure to follow the crowd, but I have the impression that they were both regarded as unusual. Two data points don't prove anything though beyond establishing that in both Greece and Rome it was possible to be a religious non-conformist and get away with it.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:00 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't have any specifics, but I will say that yes, it is very, very hard for us to know that. There's a lot of evidence for religious permutation in most ancient societies, whether it's Dis Manibus on tombs, or images of gods, or ritual evidence. Unfortunately, it doesn't give us a lot to go on in terms of what people actually thought and how much of religion was just an absolutely essential part of society. In general, we don't know very much at all about the lives of most people in ancient societies at that kind of level. The Romans certainly play around with gods and mythology all the time, sometimes in very cheeky ways, but the emperors were supposed to be gods, as the pharaohs were, so disagreeing with the concept of any god at all was bound to be summarily unpleasant. I've certainly had professors who argued both for total blind faith (all those votives must mean something) and for cynical agreement (a Roman mummy with combinations of both Roman and Egyptian gods? Totally lying and didn't believe in anything!)
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:00 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Xenophanes: "the Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair: Yes, and if oxen and lions and horses had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produced works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds." (I'm quoting from Russell, Ideas that have helped mankind.) To me this reads as a claim that gods are invented by people. I suppose that it could be read as saying that gods don't really have physical form, but that would have gone against the whole Greek-gods-as-superheroes-living-on-a-mountain idea as well.

Of course, I have no idea how widely spread these ideas were. Also, IANAC.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:02 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Karen Armstrong's The Case For God includes a fascinating and persuasive argument that the way modern-day atheists understand "religious belief" — basically, as philosophically very similar to scientific belief, except with no need for any actual evidence — is a fairly recent way of understanding it. For ancient peoples it's entirely possible that questions like "yes, but do you believe that's literally true, or is it just a metaphor?" wouldn't have made any sense. So the distinction on which your question is premised is, at the least, potentially quite tricky.
posted by oliverburkeman at 10:03 AM on February 7, 2012 [17 favorites]


Echoing those who say this is probably impossible to know with any sort of accuracy but when I consider the factors that led to my atheism I have to say I would be astonished if there hadn't been a healthy proportion of ancients who regarded the religious stories with immense scepticism. There are reasons for doubting the reality of gods that have nothing to do with science, evolution etc and everything to do with just thinking about things deeply.

The following quote is widely-ascribed to Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
posted by Decani at 10:06 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not sure about prevalance, but there's a reference to atheists in the 14th Psalm:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
there is none who does good.
posted by BurntHombre at 10:08 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think we can have no way of knowing for certain how common atheism was in the ancient world; Egypt, for example, was a theocracy, and to declare lack of faith was a death sentence. Not going to find much evidence of disbelief.

I know a professor whose favorite subject is the tangling of religion and law. He will go to his grave pronouncing atheism an extreme rarity in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia because religion was so much the governing factor in their lives. I can't speak to the Greeks and Romans.
posted by jingle at 10:10 AM on February 7, 2012


There was an atheistic school of philosophy in ancient India, so I assume there must have been many atheists as well.

See also Atheism in Hinduism.
posted by Idle Curiosity at 10:11 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Carvaka was a materialist/atheist movement in classical India. I don't know how many followers they had though.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 10:11 AM on February 7, 2012


I can't find an exact source to point you to (perhaps someone else could back this point up), but belief in the Greco-Roman world was, as a general rule, not about correct belief so much as about correct action. Rituals had to be performed exactly, with the right words spoken and the right deeds performed. What you felt "in your heart" was generally immaterial, so long as you mouthed the right words and held the dagger the right way. It wouldn't surprise me if a great number of people followed religious observances not because of fervent belief but simply because it's what you, as an Athenian e.g., did.
posted by Bromius at 10:22 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just coming in to second that atheists at least existed in Hinduism -- there's a Hindu folk tale Larry Gonick quotes in one of his books about an atheist, at least, so I'm assuming that if it existed to make folk tales about, atheism was not totally unheard of.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:22 AM on February 7, 2012


There's a very good possibility a similar form of modern day atheism has always existed to some degree, but was rarely recorded or talked about..atleast not on the same level in recorded history as it is today. In other words, ancient civilizations could have also been very effective at squelching dissent when reaching into written knowledge. For some religions, much of our written knowledge was protected (perhaps selectively) by the churches...and there have been a plethora of book burnings and cycles of religious reform since those days.

The Greeks most certainly had a healthy amount of atheism, in fact the word Atheist is of Greek origin. Even in Greek culture being an atheist sometimes came with controversy, mostly dependent on the political and social structures at the times of accusation.
posted by samsara at 10:26 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, what are the reasons that people identify as atheists today? Living in the US Northeast, I'm familiar with two different kinds of atheism:

1. something along the lines of "cultural Judaism," in which people don't believe in a god but appreciate and participate in theistic rituals, and remain a part of a religious community. The morals of the atheist and the morals of the religious community don't directly contradict each other.

2. reactive atheism (usually practiced by people who grew up Christian or surrounded by Christians), in which all of religion, including both belief and practice, is rejected, usually on the basis of a fundamental moral incompatibility with religion.

I can only talk about Roman religion (which was very different from Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese, etc. religion in all but the fact of their polytheism and some overlap of deities), but Roman "atheism," such as it was, would have fallen more in the first category than the second. Because of this, it wouldn't have been as disruptive to religious communities (or such a bogeyman to believers) as modern reactive atheism, and, as others have pointed out, would be pretty invisible in the sources.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:31 AM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


The following quote is widely-ascribed to Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?


Well, this is really illustrates the problem. Epicurus wasn't an atheist, as in "I don't believe in ANY deity," he was something like a deist. That quote argues against a very specific kind of god, one involved in human affairs. Which would fit the bill for "um, that's a bunch of make-believe," without necessarily being atheism.

Now Carneades (who may actually be the one who originated that quote), might have been an atheist around 150 years later. He was sort of a "figure it out for yourself guy" to the point where he never really shared his beliefs about religion.

Earlier than Epicurus is this guy, who I don't know anything about other than having read in passing that he exists in passing. Which, if memory serves, is pretty much how anyone's heard of him. Diagoras is from around 450 BCE and may or may not have been a stone-cold "I don't believe in any gods" atheist, or may have been a deists like Epicurus.

So, there's a lot of people who may have been atheists or might have just disagreed with the religion of their day\area.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:41 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


For instance, do we know if most ancient Greeks truly believed in their mythology as fact, or Egyptians, or Romans?

oliverburkeman is right: the distinction between "facts" and other kinds of assertions is of relatively recent origin, and such a distinction would not necessarily have made any sense to ancient observers.

For example, Aquinas talks about four different ways that a particular assertion can be "true": historical/literal, spiritual/allegorical, moral, and analogical. He was discussing how we think about Scripture in particular, but the basic idea is that a particular proposition can be "true" in a variety of ways, and only one of them is what we would describe as "factual".

So would a person who believed that "the gods" were "real" in a moral or spiritual sense, but not a historical/literal sense be an atheist? I dunno. In one sense of the word, sure, but he might with good reason not describe himself that way. Historical/literal "truth" wasn't really privileged over other forms of "truth" until rather recently.

I mean, set aside theology and philosophy for the moment. Just look at the way the Greeks and Romans wrote and used history. A nineteenth-century historians were absolutely appalled at the way ancient historians played fast and loose with events, dates, and figures.* But the authors were frequently trying to make a political or moral point when they wrote history, not to set forth an exacting, mathematically precise retelling of a particular event. They wouldn't have thought that their versions were any less "true" as a result. Further, the readers of such history would generally have understood that the author was trying to make a that political or moral point and not been terribly upset with the idea that the numbers or dates weren't historically/literally accurate. Wasn't at all the point, and didn't diminish the overall "truth" of the account in their eyes.

In light of that, it's really hard to ascribe what most modern observers would recognize as "atheism" to anyone all that long before the eighteenth century. The idea that something was either historically/literally true or not true at all didn't really come up until then.

And what are we to make of things like pantheism? One might technically describe pantheists as "atheists," in the sense that they do not believe in a personal deity, singular or plural, but materialists they're certainly not.

*For example, one of the reasons it took so damn long to find Homer's Troy was because modern historians assumed that the Illiad was so obviously a work of fiction that it couldn't possibly contain historically-useful information. It was there all along.
posted by valkyryn at 10:58 AM on February 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


Your question made me go dig up this quote:

The single god of the desert and the religions that worship him stand between us and those who put up alters and gave sacrifices and festivals in the name of Antigonus or dedicated votives to Arsinoe Aphrodite. It matters little whether an individual still believes in these religions. They continue to define even unbelief. Not one of us would think that a self-proclaimed atheist or agnostic was expressing disbelief in the gifts of golden Aphrodite or the truth of Apollo's oracles.

Our understanding of the nature of religious experience itself is so shaped by the nature of Christian experience that we have great difficulty recognizing as religious at all any belief or practice that departs from our Judeo-Christian norm. Defining a religion in terms of personal belief is an idea we have imposed on a culture to which it is alien.


The author is talking about ruler cults there, but I thought it was a good way of looking at all ancient religion, as a reminder of how there's just so much of their mindset that it's so hard to grasp.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:00 AM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


@oliverburkeman nailed it. Your question pre-supposes that religious "belief" has been a stable condition throughout (human) history. The distinction between truth and faith posited by your question relies on a relatively recent epistemological paradigm.

I was reminded of the Buddhist word/concept "mu" (in its Japanese form). The answer to your question is mu.
posted by 0bvious at 11:12 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The big problem here, as others have said, is that all of the concepts you mention in your question - "atheism", "belief", "make believe", and even "worship" and "fear - are modern concepts. Furthermore, we can't help thinking about them as related and essentially interconnected — but that's as bound to our own culture as thinking of eggs and jam and toast and bacon and beans as essentially related and interconnected is bound to English culture.

Thinking about the language that ancient people would have used for what we would call "religion" now might be kind of helpful in grasping what I mean.

Wikipedia has a short etymology of "religion" that mentions, among other things, that some ancient cultures would literally have used the same terms for what we would distinguish as "law" and "religion". Put another way — most ancient cultures wouldn't have even had words you could translate as "religion" or "belief". (Many less ancient cultures, too).

(Basically, this is a more complicated way of saying what 0bvious said).
posted by bubukaba at 12:00 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thank you to all. Those of you who mentioned that ancient people may not have had any concept of belief/faith/ritual versus fact and metaphor and conscious non-belief. Could you point me in the direction of further reading?
posted by Lownotes at 12:19 PM on February 7, 2012


I would agree that (at least some of) the ancients seem to have had a much more integrated view of religion than we do, but there were movements which were explicitly naturalistic "long before the eighteenth century". Check out the Carvaka above, or look into Wang Chong's philosophy, as well as Yang Chu among others.

I find it interesting that the alien nature of (some) ancient perceptions of "religion" is often offered as proof that there was no atheism as we know it... but never that there was no religion! Assuming that one believes that the only answer to questions of ancient "belief" is "mu", a more even-handed conclusion would be that both "religion" and "atheism" were utterly unknown to the ancients.
posted by vorfeed at 1:38 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lownotes, nearly all of my knowledge of the subject comes from various works Jonathan Z. Smith. Looks like many of his books are available for preview on Google Books, so take your pick.
posted by bubukaba at 1:56 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Karen Armstrong's The Case For God includes a fascinating and persuasive argument that the way modern-day atheists understand "religious belief" — basically, as philosophically very similar to scientific belief, except with no need for any actual evidence — is a fairly recent way of understanding it.

There's a continuum as well for the importance of "faith", on the one end you have certain strains of American (mostly) Protestantism where belief in Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour is *it*, all you need to get into heaven. Obviously not believing is the negation of that principle and completely incompatible with it. You can't easily be a "cultural born again Christian" because the whole focus of the religion is belief and rituals are often ad-hoc (see also, non-traditional church designs, a lack of standardised "ritualistic" worship services, etc). It is more possible to be a cultural Roman Catholic on the other hand (but still tricky).

On the other end, many polytheistic religions emphasize rituals, ceremonies, and offerings. Would a Roman who made all the correct offerings to the gods have been considered irreligious, even if he didn't believe in the existence of the gods and just liked the ritual?
posted by atrazine at 3:41 PM on February 7, 2012


Charles Taylor's book A Secular Age addresses the idea of ancient people having a fundamentally different mind.

"Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed."

Here's a link to an excerpt:

http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/
posted by ljshapiro at 4:57 PM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?
posted by painquale at 8:53 PM on February 7, 2012


Incidentally, I want to point out that an awful lot of people here are committing a certain kind of fallacy. Previous cultures might not have shared our concept of belief, that does not imply that they did not have the sorts of states that we pick out with the term 'belief'. (Similarly, they might not have had a concept of short-term working memory, but that doesn't mean they didn't have short-term working memory.) If I ask whether someone believes in God and they respond, "well, not in the way you mean the word 'belief'," then my conclusion should be: "okay, according to the way I use the word 'belief' you don't believe in God... so you don't believe in God."
posted by painquale at 9:11 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Many less ancient cultures, too

Yes! This isn't just about "ancients." For a somewhat technical account, see linguistic anthropologist Webb Keane's work on Protestant missionaries in Sumba, Indonesia, and the way in which they introduced (and insisted upon) a particular model of religion as propositional, scripture-based belief system rather than a set of material practices.

Here's a group discussion of his book, also at the SSRC site.

You can see some of his take on secularism as the "moral narrative of modernity," building directly also on Taylor's work, in this freely available paper.

If you have library access your general question may be addressed in this review piece, but I can't check that just now.
posted by col_pogo at 4:11 AM on February 8, 2012


Previous cultures might not have shared our concept of belief, that does not imply that they did not have the sorts of states that we pick out with the term 'belief'... If I ask whether someone believes in God and they respond, "well, not in the way you mean the word 'belief'," then my conclusion should be: "okay, according to the way I use the word 'belief' you don't believe in God... so you don't believe in God."

Yes, this is clearly true in a strict sense — if the OP meant "how prevalent was [what 21st-century 'new atheists' mean by] atheism in ancient civilizations", then my and other commenters' points about the anachronistic nature of this meaning are rendered irrelevant by definition.

However, pointing out the possibility that this meaning is severely anachronistic is surely highly relevant in any even slightly broader interpretation of the question. If the dividing-lines between the "contingent[s] of people" (to quote the OP) were not the same as they are today, this has massive relevance for all the stuff in the [more inside] part of the post.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:27 AM on February 8, 2012


However, pointing out the possibility that this meaning is severely anachronistic is surely highly relevant in any even slightly broader interpretation of the question. If the dividing-lines between the "contingent[s] of people" (to quote the OP) were not the same as they are today, this has massive relevance for all the stuff in the [more inside] part of the post.

I agree, but that leaves us with the question of how these dividing lines should be drawn. Quotes like "a particular model of religion as propositional, scripture-based belief system rather than a set of material practices" and "belief in the Greco-Roman world was, as a general rule, not about correct belief so much as about correct action" assume that the ancient ways are still "religion" -- that they are part of the same continuum rather than separate ways of being. If we're going to be doing this with "religion" throughout history (and any fair reading of the situation must conclude that we do), then why can't it be done with "atheism" throughout history?

For example, the connection between ancient thinkers like Lucretius and modern atheism is far more clear and direct than the connection between, say, modern Protestants and Indonesian "material practices", or the caves at Lascaux. We have direct evidence that many of the founders of [what 21st-century 'new atheists' mean by] atheism were inspired by Lucretius' writings and considered him a kindred spirit; we have no evidence that the founders of [what 21st-century 'Protestants' mean by] Protestantism were inspired by or considered themselves to be connected with Indonesian or Paleolithic people. Given this, why should Protestantism, Indonesian cultural practices, and cave art be accepted as examples of "religion", if Lucretius' thought isn't accepted as an example of "atheism"?

Or, as Keane himself points out, "[J]ust as secularism turns out, at the limit, to be an impossible project, one that cannot be fully inhabitable in the terms it often seems to propose, so too religion itself may never have been quite as all-encompassing as we sometimes imagine it to have been. In fact, the assumption that religion was once a totalizing world view may itself be an outcome of the moral narrative of modernity, at least in some versions. [...] I think we should accept Taylor's conclusion that the foregrounding of belief and its optional nature is a defining feature of secular modernity. But I am less sure we need to take on board one of the premises behind it, that once all people had faith, and that faith was a more or less taken-for-granted matter of unselfconscious acceptance of a shared set of background assumptions -- that once everyone lived in an entirely naive relation to their possibilities. On the basis of ethnographic research in relatively isolated and homogeneous societies, as well as historical research in pre-modern ones, there is reason to think that every society has harbored the potential for heresies, unorthodox notions, and heterodox practices. But, one might counter, these can still be viewed as kinds of religious belief. More interesting are those people who are simply skeptical, cynical, or plain uninterested in the religious faith around them, or those who oscillate among different stances over the course of a lifetime." [emphasis mine]

In other words: if something a lot like what we call "religion" has existed across culture and time, so too has something a lot like what we call "atheism".
posted by vorfeed at 11:36 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Jonathan Z. Smith has done some great work on issues of developing a reliable but flexible polythetic approach to defining religion but his work is not definitive even in the sub-discipline of the history of religion. There is no consensus on a universal definition of religion.

Attempting to understand the worldview of entire civilizations is a huge job. Verifying the internal landscape of particular people and what they "really believe" is not possible.

Vorfeed is right that there is always a range of commitment to particular worldviews, that will shift over time and geography.

Keep in mind as you read above ancient people that only certain kinds of stories survive, and those usually serve a particular purpose for the teller and audience. Some things are remembered and analysed by us, but those things don't reflect the real people living in the times and places of the stories we tell.

There's a lot of politics and existential angst around atheism, so you're well served first researching the authors of anything you read and trying to see why they are talking about things the way they are.
posted by ServSci at 10:51 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


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