A Short History of Atheism
As an atheist, I have always felt it important to understand my own position as well as that of the religions I reject. This has sparked a keen interest in a subject which is labelled “RMPS” (Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies) in Scottish schools. It’s a great subject which is brilliantly taught at my school- and it is completely distinct from religious observance (I have found it to be taught with neutrality or a bias towards a secular position). I have now taken this subject to the furthest possible level in high school, and as part of this it is necessary to write a 4000-word dissertation on a relevant topic. I haven’t ironed out the specifics yet, but the subject I have chosen is essentially “atheism versus classical theism”, and I thought some of the research I’ve done on the history of atheism might be interesting to Teen Skepchick readers! It’s nothing that can’t be found on the internet if you look hard enough, but I thought it might be useful to have a formal, condensed version. It’s interesting, I swear. Enjoy!
Although atheism in its current form has its roots in the Enlightenment, one can see the emergence of atheistic thought in ancient Greek and Roman society. Greek philosopher Diagoras is commonly cited as the “first atheist”- and it is argued that even if he is a fictional figure he serves as a symbol of the early intellectuals who first doubted the existence of any God who could not be seen. Democritus denied the existence of any spiritual beings in favour of a materialistic view of the world and Critias saw religion as a tool which society used to oppress its members and force them to follow a specific moral code. Prominent philosopher and Sophist Prodicus is said to have believed that “the gods of popular belief do not exist nor do they know, but primitive man, [out of admiration, deified] the fruits of the earth and virtually everything that contributed to his existence”. Such clearly defined atheistic thought had never before been seen, but these philosophers created a culture of inquiry which lasted until the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire- and which re-emerged with the Renaissance.
Epicurus contributed to the discussion of theism versus atheism- he drew on the ideas of Democritus; arguing that divine creators and rulers were unnecessary as the world was governed by chance alone. This continues to be a position defended by atheists; although he also shares the view of some modern theists that whilst deities may exist, they are uninterested in human existence and activity. Epicurean thought denied the existence of an afterlife and the idea of divine punishment; removing one of the primary motivations for early theists.
Throughout the course of classical antiquity, the term “atheist” took on new and diverse meanings. It was initially applied to those who denied the existence of the plethora of Greek and Roman pagan gods; when Christians were labelled heretics. However, when Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion of Rome in the 3rd century CE, the roles were reversed and those who revered the pagan gods were considered atheists. The term is a complex one which continues to evolve- currently referring to those who deny the existence of any god; not simply the gods of other religions.
It was rare to see atheist views during the Early Middle Ages, with the dominant interest and area of study being religion and theology. Some forwarded different versions of the Christian god, questioning various aspects of His existence. However, these views tended to be held alongside a belief in Christianity. Nicholas of Cusa asserted that any God which may exist would be beyond human understanding and categorisation- rendering belief in such a deity essentially pointless due to its unknowability.
The Renaissance changed the nature of inquiry and allowed the kind of free thought and scepticism which had been impossible during the Early Middle Ages. Experimentation was sought as a means of explanation rather than the automatic attribution of scientific phenomena to God. For the first time since the classical period, intellectuals such as Da Vinci and Machiavelli were able to question the superiority of organised religion.
However, with the rise of dissent there also came a resurgence in religious observance and piety. New religious orders were appearing- the Catholic Church was fracturing and increasingly strict Protestant doctrines were being established. The rivalry between Christian sects which existed during the Renaissance and Reformation periods actually served to advance a secular world-view, as it opened religion to inquiry and doubt in a way which had never previously been faced.
Religious criticism continued to rise in Western Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, when contemporary sources suggest that people were dissatisfied with Christianity. Three writings by Matthias Knutzen in 1674 place him as the first known explicit atheist of the period- followed within fifty years by Polish philosopher Kazmierz Łyszczyński and French ex-priest Jean Meslier. Throughout the course of the 18th century, a number of intellectuals became open –and even outspoken- about their atheism. Ludwig Feuerbach’s 1849 work The Essence of Christianity labelled God a human invention and called religious activities nothing more than a method of wish-fulfilment- an assertion which would greatly influence later philosophers such as Marx and Nietzsche.
The French Revolution sought to restructure religion- favouring atheism and anti-clerical deism over Christianity. The chaotic political situation of revolutionary France allowed the Jacobins to seize control and establish the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being as the state religion. However, some atheists sought to establish a Cult of Reason- an atheistic pseudo-religion with a goddess personifying reason, reminiscent of the modern Pastafarianism. The Napoleonic era removed the deistic religion of the revolutionaries and made the French state officially secular- which had repercussions throughout Europe.
In the late 1800s, rationalist and sceptical philosophers such as the aforementioned Marx and Nietzche brought atheism to prominence in society with their outspoken denial of deities and critiques of religion. Atheism became more accepted as a social position within Europe- with 18% of the European population now professing a lack of belief in any deity.
Amen to that!