I had a Classics professor in college that sharply altered my view of religion and atheism. Up to that point in my life, like most Americans, the only religions I ever came in contact with were Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, and while it’s not a religion, you can count atheism/agnosticism in as common responses to religious affiliation that I was familiar with. By this time, I was very much an atheist.
One remark he made in a class one day took me aback, and I came to his office to ask him about it. He said that atheism as we know it today did not exist until the last few hundred years. According to him, atheism was a modern philosophical development.
The first thing I had to ask him about was the Greek word “atheos,” and philosophers who were labeled as such, like Epicurus. He explained, first, that “atheos” was a term meaning something very different to Greek speakers in the ancient world than the word “atheist” means today to us.
He pointed out that early Christians labeled pagans as “atheos,” and vice versa, with pagans calling Christians “atheos.” In Greek, “atheos” translates as “against gods,” not “without gods.” Therefore, to a Christian, a pagan was acting “against God,” while to a pagan, Christians were “against the gods” of their pantheon. “Atheos,” therefore, did not mean one who did not believe in gods, but more accurately translates to “impious.”
He pulled out the collected works of Epicurus, a truly sad affair, because the man wrote several books, but his writings were largely destroyed by Christians and Muslims as heretical over the millennia. All his surviving works fit in what looks like a brochure. He pointed to several instances where Epicurus clearly acknowledges the existence of gods, and that the primary reason for people attributing early atheism to Epicurus is due to a proof ascribed to him.
There is a philosophical concept called a “theodicy,” which is a proof which seeks to reconcile how God is omnibenevolent (all-good) and omnipotent (all-powerful), yet there is still evil in the world. Epicurus is sometimes credited in Western Civilization for being the first to formulate this dilemma, the record of which we only have through Christian critiques of his “paradox.”
Or rather, the Christians saw it as a paradox; Epicurus saw it as a proof. Many people today call it, “the problem of evil.” It goes like this:
The gods either want to eliminate evil, or they do not.
If they want to remove evil, but cannot, they are weak.
If they can remove evil, but will not, they are cruel.
There is still evil in the world, so the gods either cannot or will not remove it.
The conclusion that Epicurus comes to is that gods are distant and uninvolved in this world, being neither our friends, nor our enemies. Epicurus does not disprove the existence of gods with this, it just redefines them as being unworthy of praise (which earned him the label, “atheos”). Despite what my professor might say, I see this as an important first step towards what atheism is, even if it is not atheism itself. He’s right that Epicurus was not an atheist as we would define it today, but he certainly flung the door wide open for later atheists.
Then I asked him a question similar to one I was asked by a blogger just recently.
“How is believing 1,000,000 years ago that Creator God doesn’t exist different from believing it today?”
That was how the blogger phrased it; I don’t know how I phrased it. I think I remarked something like, “Surely there was a time between when we descended from the trees and we developed religion where we both exhibited intelligence and lived without gods.” My assertion is hard to disprove (though I feel confident it can be), so we’ll start with answering the question from the very obviously Christian blogger.
I need not go back a million years to see that people were not atheists before Jews came up with the idea of worshipping the storm god Yahweh as the only true god and Creator of the universe, let alone when Christians took the next step and openly denied the existence of other gods (a marked change from Judaism at the time, which saw Yahweh as the god of the Jewish people; other gods are even mentioned in the Bible, something Christians don’t seem to notice). Atheism is not a rejection of the very comparatively new religion of Christianity, atheism is the rejection of the idea that there are any gods at all.
I don’t recall all of the details of my professor’s answer to my question (let alone the question/remark itself), but he did point out that as we descend deeper and deeper into the history of mankind, the evidence of what their lives were like does not point to less and less religious, but rather, shows a continually stronger link to religion. The oldest human remains we find tend to be ritually buried. The monuments that survive the ages are built for religiously-linked purposes. It is likely that as we go back, humanity saw more and more of the world as divinely controlled, and that the trend as we go forward has largely been towards demystification.
Even though it goes against our view of religion (which has developed over thousands of years, so of course it is too complex to imagine primitive man practicing it that way), it is likely that the first beings who we might call our human kin saw the world quite religiously, but in such a foreign way that we might not even possess the language to adequately describe it.
The one thing I really remember was he told me this: even animals cower to the whim of the god of nature. He told me to take the time to sit down and really think about what earthquakes must seem like to a hypothetical, primitive, pre-religion man. And I did think about it. I came to the conclusion that if you had no other knowledge of how the world worked, unusual natural phenomena (be it an earthquake, hurricane, or otherwise) would make a believer out of anyone, and that’s if the regular cycle of thunderstorms didn’t get to you first.
We can all remember moments from our childhood when we were ignorant of how something worked, so we filled in the gaps with our imagination. That’s all religion is: we imagine how we think something mysterious happens, we share it with others, we pool our theories… and you end up with the proto-science we call “religion.”
This view has existed long before I was ever born, and has greatly shaped the study of religion as a social institution that is evolving through time. Initially, humanity was likely composed of animists, seeing all things as imbued with something reminiscent of a spirit (but remember, this is a clumsy modern terminology). Concurrently, there was also inevitably some degree of ancestor and hero veneration or worship. Are these views atheist? I would argue they are not, while someone with a rigid view of what constitutes “gods” as we think of them today might. It really comes down to what constitutes “atheism.”
Is it atheism if you believe a giant eagle flaps his wings in the west in order to cause the wind? That eagle isn’t a “god,” in the sense most people today may think of it, and yet, in many ways, this mystical creature seen to have control over a powerful aspect of nature is almost indistinguishable in any meaningful way from gods, especially when one considers the animal gods of so many older religions, from Egyptian mythology to those of the native tribes of North and South America.
Strictly speaking, “atheism” as we know it today only means, “lacking a belief in gods.” For me, however, and for millions of other atheists, this also includes not believing in spirits or other supernatural phenomena. In addition, for me at least, atheism is incompatible with worshipping people, living or dead, especially if one aggrandizes and raises them up to a level beyond human.
For me, atheism has evolved, much like religion. First, atheism was aligning oneself against religion and/or the gods. Then, after monotheism opened the door to denying the existence of certain gods, atheism was armed with this new concept and was able to deny the very existence of all gods. Today, I see atheism as potentially moving beyond this simplistic stance to include more than what I see as simply “non-theism.”
Atheism can be seen as a rejection of religion and the supernatural as a whole. In this respect, atheism needed one final development: science. With the advent of answers being collected that rely on no imagined abstractions and only verifiable observations, atheism has a world view to turn to. While it is true that one need not have the answers in order to lack a belief in gods, I believe that without an alternative, one is largely relegated to agnosticism.
Imagine trying to explain rain and thunder without science or gods. Socrates is reported to have tried, and his attempt was mocked and ridiculed by Aristophanes in his play, “The Clouds,” where the very name of the play comes from his explanation that the Clouds make rain and lightning, not Zeus. True, the explanation presented in the play is indeed spurious (thunder is not caused by clouds bumping into each other, or causing atmospheric indigestion), but to be sure, I think it is more accurate to point to the clouds as the root cause of storms than to think Zeus has anything to do with it.
Getting back to the original proposition, early man could, conceivably, have been an “atheist” out of ignorance, but today’s atheist is not an atheist because of a dearth of knowledge, but because of a wealth of it. The idea of gods were an ideological development that undoubtedly took time to refine, but the subsequent development of modern atheism was another innovation, one which can afford to confidently shrug off not only the gods, but also their attending spirits, angels, demons, and even the human prophets and demigods.
That is ultimately the difference between animalistic atheism and atheism in the context of modern scientific discovery.