Atheism has ancient roots and is not ‘modern invention’, claims new text

Feb 17, 2016

Photo credit: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

By Alison Flood

Atheism is not a modern invention from the western Enlightenment, but actually dates back to the ancient world, according to a new book by a Cambridge academic – which challenges the assumption that humanity is naturally predisposed to believe in gods.

In Battling the Gods, Tim Whitmarsh, professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University, lays out a series of examples showing that atheism existed in polytheistic ancient Greece. It is, according to its author, partly “an attempt to excavate ancient atheism from underneath the rubble heaped on it by millennia of Christian opprobrium”.

Whitmarsh, a fellow of St John’s College, believes that the growing trend towards seeing religion as “hardwired” into humans is deeply worrying. “I am trying to destabilise this notion, which seems to be gaining hold all the time, that there is something fundamental to humanity about [religious] belief,” he told the Guardian.

His book disputes that atheism is “a modern invention, a product of the European Enlightenment” and a mode of thought that “would be inconceivable without the twin ideas of a secular state and of science as a rival to religious truth”.

It is a myth, he writes, which is “nurtured by both sides of the ‘new atheism’ debate. 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.

“Both are guilty of modernist vanity. Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills. It is only through profound ignorance of the classical tradition that anyone ever believed that 18th-century Europeans were the first to battle the gods.”

“We tend to see atheism as an idea that has only recently emerged in secular western societies. The rhetoric used to describe it is hyper-modern. In fact, early societies were far more capable than many since of containing atheism within the spectrum of what they considered normal,” said Whitmarsh.


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21 comments on “Atheism has ancient roots and is not ‘modern invention’, claims new text

  • @OP – Whitmarsh, a fellow of St John’s College, believes that the growing trend towards seeing religion as “hardwired” into humans is deeply worrying. “I am trying to destabilise this notion, which seems to be gaining hold all the time, that there is something fundamental to humanity about [religious] belief,” he told the Guardian.

    I think that a facade of “universal religion” is soft-programmed by indoctrination, into believers who then inflict it as far as they can, to dominate the societies they live in!
    While in some theocracies, they can kill or suppress non-believers, in more open societies they simply pretend their (assertedly default) beliefs, are more widespread and more dominant, than they really are! – Hence the dubious claims of membership numbers, quoted by assorted churches, when trying to claim political power.



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  • We’re all born atheist. To become religious we have to learn it as we grow up. I strongly suspect it is religion that is the new idea. Quite clearly all religions are different, and must therefore be wrong (well one could be right, but statistically unlikely). Whereas there can only be one atheism. There is only one way for there to be no gods, it makes perfect sense there really is no need to make it more complicated. Occam was right, why not start with the simple answer and only change it if it conflicts with reality.



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  • Perhaps the distinction between “atheism” and “theism” is becoming obsolete. Indeed, there are many atheistic religions today, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as the various nationalisms that actually are religions for vast numbers of citizens of modern nation-states (though they may not admit it). Most people follow some kind of religion today, be it “theistic” or “atheistic”.
    So what is a “religion”, actually? The best answer I know was provided by pioneer sociologist Emil Durkheim about a hundred years ago: Religion is the system of ideas that provides ongoing validation of the moral rules that prevail in a particular organized society. This ongoing validation is needed to provide stability to the prevailing set of rules, and this stability is necessary for maintaining a workable society. Change must occur, of course, but not so rapidly as to cause loss of a society’s sense of moral unity. And ongoing validation is needed because clever but fallacious “logic” is frequently used to undermine the moral consensus, by demagogues with a hidden agenda.



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  • J. Anschau #4
    Feb 17, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    Perhaps the distinction between “atheism” and “theism” is becoming obsolete. Indeed, there are many atheistic religions today, such as Buddhism and Confucianism,

    While these are technically “atheistic”, in the sense that they have no gods, there are supernatural beliefs and unevidenced claims involved in these, which are not compatible with scientific atheism.

    as well as the various nationalisms that actually are religions for vast numbers of citizens of modern nation-states (though they may not admit it). Most people follow some kind of religion today, be it “theistic” or “atheistic”.

    I think that it is confusing to describe “ideologies” as “atheistic religions”, as they are frequently held by jointly religious and non-religious subscribers.

    Religion is the system of ideas that provides ongoing validation of the moral rules that prevail in a particular organized society.

    Religions certainly try to dominate laws and moral codes in societies, but the claims that their dogmas are “validated moral rules” is some what of a stretch of wishful thinking.
    (Aztec and Inca human sacrifices??? Xtian witch burnings??? Islamic honour killing of women and apostates??)

    New Atheists are supporters of science and reason, so their thinking should not be conflated with the unevidenced assumptions and religious preconceptions of “faith”!

    Change must occur, of course, but not so rapidly as to cause loss of a society’s sense of moral unity. And ongoing validation is needed because clever but fallacious “logic” is frequently used to undermine the moral consensus, by demagogues with a hidden agenda.

    Except in repressive theocracies and political ideologies, there is usually no consensus. Free thinkers have, tolerate, and resolve, different views.

    The most dictatorial demagogues throughout history, have been religious and ideological dictators, who used fallacious thinking and force, to prop up their flawed ideas!



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  • It was nice to see Tim Whitmarsh, getting a good slot on BBC2 Newsnight last night, intelligently probed by Evan Davies. (Much as I like Paxman, whose books are substantially better than his intervirews, I find Davies a far better revealer of another person’s thinking.)



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  • Roedy #2

    The people who run the churches are con men. Surely they don’t believe their own spiel.

    Con men like advertisers are more effective if they eat their own dog food and show they enjoy it. The real trick is to con yourself if you don’t have the full psychopath disconnect.

    Method actors sometimes lose themselves in their part. This becomes easier when you see your schmooze actually work.



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  • bonnie #8

    Religion ain’t the problem. It’s more basic. Its rationalism, its science. I hope his editors test him out with some well selected items.

    Maybe these are simply untested tenets of his?



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  • Phil

    Con men like advertisers are more effective if they eat their own dog
    food and show they enjoy it

    In the 80’s when the new religion of Amway came about, my friend Smithy’s main selling point was that you could eat the cleaning products. He would stick two fingers into a tub, scoop up and eat a large dollop of the stuff. You could not go out of your house without some Amway evangelist trying to add you to their pyramid.



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  • Olgun,

    I remember, Amway! I only ever saw it in boxes, never under the sink or in the bathroom cabinet actually being used. It went ballistic in China.

    I was a very successful con-boy at the age of ten. (And I apologise if I am repeating myself. I’ve said this a couple of times here over the last nine years.) I claimed that with a rather impressive induction coil (it sparked, buzzed and gave powerful shocks) I could make marbles roll straighter by re-arranging the centre of balance if it were not perfectly round. I charged one marble per ten treated. I thought I might cheat a few until they discovered the emptiness of the hoax. They all came back for more. They saw what they wanted to see. They also wanted to be shrewed investors rather than fools and recommended me. Everyone threw good marbles after bad until I was rich beyond a con-boy’s wildest dreams.

    It was one of the most powerful life lessons I ever got. It alerted me to people like me and the unadultered gullibility of folk and their role in their own fleecing. Later, confronted by a teacher with the guilty truth about my actions (a desk so full of marbles it would no longer close) I swore never to use my powers for evil again… A year or so later my father sold me the collective and accumulating genius of science and my brother sold me the critical and moral importance of truth to the endeavour.



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  • How about other civilisations, China, India, etc.? I don’t suppose anyone would be able to find out about the Aztecs, Incas and Myans, would be interesting to know if they had doubters.



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  • Alan4 responded @#5, to my entry #4 above:
    I wrote: “Religion is the system of ideas that provides ongoing validation of the moral rules that prevail in a particular organized society. ”
    Alan responded: “Religions certainly try to dominate laws and moral codes in societies, but the claims that their dogmas are “validated moral rules” is some what of a stretch of wishful thinking.”

    I believe that Alan misconstrues my statement. My view is based on Durkheim’s view that every established society must have, in order to be viable, a consensus of moral rules. These often include rules against such activities as murder, theft, arson, kidnapping, rape, financial fraud, etc. Often these rules evolve out of Golden-Rule intuitions that seem to be present in most humans without formal learning. Thus these rules are adopted without a-priori logic (non-circular logic), since they are the result of normal moral intuitions rather than conscious reasoning at the verbal level.
    Clever people with subversive intentions can undermine respect for these rules by demanding logical proof of their validity. Such logical proof often does not exist; the public’s certainty of their validity is based on intuitive processes within the Unconscious sectors of the mind. To forestall such subversion, these basic rules need ongoing validation by established social institutions. Some validation may be via coercion– by the police, the courts, and other forces. Non-coercive validation is generally by persuasive validation, and Durkheim pointed out that the central institution for such validation is known as religion. Thus the key role of religion is upholding the social morality by ongoing persuasive validation of the generally-accepted rules of that morality. Thus the society’s religious institutions often discern the needed rules and then affirm them, rather than first inventing such rules and then persuading the public to accept them.



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  • J. Anschau #17
    Feb 18, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    My view is based on Durkheim’s view that every established society must have, in order to be viable, a consensus of moral rules. These often include rules against such activities as murder, theft, arson, kidnapping, rape, financial fraud, etc.

    There may be a consensus, or at least a majority among powerful law-makers, but that does not imply a consensus in the population as a whole.

    Often these rules evolve out of Golden-Rule intuitions that seem to be present in most humans without formal learning. Thus these rules are adopted without a-priori logic (non-circular logic), since they are the result of normal moral intuitions rather than conscious reasoning at the verbal level.

    That is so in terms of ideological approaches to law-making. However the devious human nature in elites, seek to build in biased loopholes and exceptions for themselves, while some members of the wider population will subvert rules in the absence of effective enforcement.

    Clever people with subversive intentions can undermine respect for these rules by demanding logical proof of their validity.

    Where that is so, it may well be that there is bias for or against particular sectors of societies, so an evidence based logical evaluation would be a reasonable approach to checking validity. Emotional appeals to particular interest groups, would not.

    Such logical proof often does not exist; the public’s certainty of their validity is based on intuitive processes within the Unconscious sectors of the mind.

    The lack of evidence based reasoned understanding based on equality of opportunities, avoids the errors of uncritical acceptance of preconceived notions inherited from past cultures.

    To forestall such subversion, these basic rules need ongoing validation by established social institutions.

    On-going validation and up-dating by reputable institutions is indeed needed, but the dangers of subversion are only part of the risks. Inheriting outdated and flawed traits from past ages of greater ignorance also need to be addressed.

    Some validation may be via coercion– by the police, the courts, and other forces.

    Coercion is not validation. It is enforcement, and as such has no bearing on the validity of a set of rules. Addressing a balance of conflicting personal and group interests is a separate issue, as is the practicality of enforcement systems.

    Non-coercive validation is generally by persuasive validation, and Durkheim pointed out that the central institution for such validation is known as religion.

    Durkheim (April 15, 1858 – November 15, 1917) was trying to put sociology on a scientific basis, but he lived at a time when European states were dominated by religion – mainly versions of the Christian ones.

    Societies have advanced and diversified since then as science education has replaced religions as a source of answers to the big questions, and informed judgements, on moral issues.

    The term “validation” is inappropriate in describing religious beliefs in relation to the accepted laws of of modern states.

    Many religions and their followers, dispute the objective science based civil laws under which they live, and actively try to subvert them in favour of their own preconceived dogmas. (eg. Cannon Law, Sharia Law)

    Thus the key role of religion is upholding the social morality by ongoing persuasive validation of the generally-accepted rules of that morality.

    Not at all! That is simply an asserted claim by {insert religion} that their dogmas ARE morality! As history shows, religions frequently obstruct, subvert, and flout, objectively devised secular civil laws, and deny science, in favour of their antiquated, and often abusive, destructive, theocratic dogmas, which have no evidenced basis, and no benefit to the societies where they are asserted.



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  • I appreciate Alan4’s participation in this discourse. At this point I would invite other readers to review our interchange, by reading entries #4, #5, #17, and #18 above, and contemplate the different points of view that are expressed therein. I expect that perusal of the viewpoints expressed will have great heuristic value, and perhaps lead to new insights.
    Thank you,
    J. Anschau



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  • I haven’t read all the comments but surely Atheism came ‘before’ mankind invented gods to answer the unknown questions that early man conceived of. It makes sense that they invented gods to answer things that they had no knowledge of. Only when we invented gods did we need the term Atheism to describe those who didn’t believe in them. Before we invented gods there was only acceptance of what is, whether they understood it or not. Only Science helps us actually understand the world we live in.



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