Atheism is likely as old as Religious thinking - thinkers often doubted the existence of supernatural beings.

by fulltimestudent 7 Replies latest jw friends

  • fulltimestudent

    I've only just discovered an important book on the topic of atheism was published in 2015. It's title is, "Battling the Gods: Atheism in the World." by Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture at the UK's University of Cambridge.

    Whitmarsh reviews a 1000 years of Greek/Roman writings and can demonstrate that the surviving writings of many famous ancient authors discussed disbelief in the God(s).That alone casts doubts on the concept many 'believers' today promote, that a belief in divinities is hard wired into the brain. Clearly it is not! And, just as clearly, atheism is not just a modern view.

    Whitmarsh argues, " that early societies were far more capable than many since of containing atheism within the spectrum of what they considered normal."
    "Rather than making judgements based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren't intuitively there in your world. The fact that this was happening thousands of years ago suggests that forms of disbelief can exist in all cultures, and probably always have."
    The book argues that disbelief is actually "as old as the hills". Early examples, such as the atheistic writings of Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570-475 BCE) are contemporary with Second Temple-era Judaism, and significantly predate Christianity and Islam. Even Plato, writing in the 4th Century BCE, said that contemporary non-believers were "not the first to have had this view about the gods."
    Read more at:

    You can inspect the chapters etc on the Amazon web-site:

    Whitmarsh suggests that the structure of Greek society, that is, a multitude of semi-independent city states, each with its own set of divinities and no over-riding authority that enforced belief encouraged independent thinking. He notes that this changed when, in the 4th century CE, Roman emperors accepted Christianity, and ...

    Quote: the polytheistic societies that generally tolerated it were replaced by monotheistic imperial forces that demanded an acceptance of one, "true" God. Rome's adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century CE was, he says, "seismic", because it used religious absolutism to hold the Empire together.
    Most of the later Roman Empire's ideological energy was expended fighting supposedly heretical beliefs – often other forms of Christianity. In a decree of 380, Emperor Theodosius I even drew a distinction between Catholics, and everyone else – whom he classed as dementes vesanosque ("demented lunatics"). Such rulings left no room for disbelief.

    In the course of my studies, I found that, according to surviving documents, ancient Indian thinkers sometimes expressed doubts as to the existence of imagined supernatutural beings.

    And in early China, in the mid-third century to early-fourth century CE, A Chinese thinker Guo Xiang, expressed these thoughts on the topic, after a discussion on the topic of whether there is a creator or not, concludes:

    Hence everything creates itself without the direction of any creator ... This is the norm of the universe.

  • slimboyfat

    Yes I've got this book. Not read it I must admit. But I didn't find the proposition surprising, so far as I gather. I had anyway thought that belief and non-belief have a long and paired history. I think some atheists have this notion that at one time everyone believed in God(s) but that with the advent of the enlightenment atheism has steadily grown and will eclipse belief.

    In actual fact there are a number of problems with this. At the moment the proportion of atheists appears to be going down not up. This is because believers have much higher fertility than atheists. Plus when most people turn away from religion (as many are in the west) they tend toward mysticism, apathy and agnosticism, rather than atheism. In fact Steve Bruce boldly argued that atheism is a symptom of religions societies, and that as society secularises we can expect the proportion who identify as atheist to go down rather than up.

  • Finkelstein

    Human ignorance created all the gods in mankind's history, ancient mythology is verifiable evidence to the fact, the writings in the bible being just one example of physical evidence.

  • Bungi Bill
    Bungi Bill


    As always, very interesting!

  • Annon

    I am reading a book on physics by Carlo Rovelli and it has some interesting information about early Greek thinkers, but the bit that struck me was that most of their original writings are gone, often only references to what they wrote remain. The reason was the "Christians" destroyed all the books that they did not agree with.

  • Bungi Bill
    Bungi Bill


    Unfortunately, that is all too believable.

  • fulltimestudent
    slimboyfat: I had anyway thought that belief and non-belief have a long and paired history.

    I'm inclined to agree with you, as generally we agree/disagree once a proposition is placed before us. Sounds a bit silly arguing that there is no god, if no-one around us is proclaiming a belief in a god.

    Since we have absolutely no idea as to when the concept of a god first arrived in human thought during the long process of human evolution, we really cant argue as to when a denial of that proposition was first argued. All we can do (in archaeology) is examine the first traces of belief in some form of god.

    SBF: I think some atheists have this notion that at one time everyone believed in God(s) but that with the advent of the enlightenment atheism has steadily grown and will eclipse belief.

    Yes, maybe, but I've also seen some 'believers' argue in a similar way. Generally, west Asian religion makes that claim. God(s) created men, they believed, and then possibly rebelled. In Christian mythology, surely Adam and his family always believed in a 'god.'

    SBF: At the moment the proportion of atheists appears to be going down not up. This is because believers have much higher fertility than atheists.

    An interesting claim.Of course, the numbers accepting the truth of any claim has little to do with the truth of the claim. Even if there was only one dissenter to any claim, he could still be correct, and those who accepted the claim wrong.

    Do you have statistics for that? I would genuinely be interested in knowing as to how the statistic collectors arrived at that conclusion. Was it a world-wide survey? Did they attempt to measure the cognitive skills of the believers at the same time.

    If the statistical survey included Islamic and Indian believers, I could see a certain truth in the stats, although the concept of divinity would vary widely. And, if it included buddhists, and since buddhists may have very strange concepts of what a god is (e.g. they can die) are they really theists? Although, I guess their claim that humans can become supernatural beings and can 'save' others, as in the Pure land beliefs of Mahayana buddhism. Therefore I guess that buddhist teachings have to be seen as a form of theism.

    Buddhists who follow this form may believe that if you call on the name of the Amitabha buddha when you are dying, he will come to you and take you to his 'Sukhavati Pure Land' (Actually it may be that every buddha has a pure land) I just happen to have focused on the Amitabha buddha in my studies. because his pure land is very much like the 'city of god' in Revelation 21 and 22. When I studied this and found that the concept of a 'pure land' actually preceded Christianity and that Buddhists had visited the west, I couldn't help wondering whether the author of Revelation had heard of this buddhist teaching and decided to incorporate it into that christian document.

    The Amitābha buddha and his attendant bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara (on the right) and Mahāsthāmaprāpta (left)

  • slimboyfat

    This book about seculatisation.

    It seems robust methodologically and has been praised by other social scientists of religion such as Steve Bruce.

    It uses social attitude surveys and compares them with a security and development index (from memory, I can't remember the exact term) to conclude that: religion thrives in societies that are unstable and insecure and it diminishes in peaceful societies with strong social security provisions.

    So it concludes religion is declining in the west but is robust elsewhere. And because of demographic patterns in poor countries compared with wealthy countries, the percentage of atheists is going down globally while the number of believers is increasing.

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