As reported by John Bingham of the London Daily Telegraph, February 16, 2016:
To its adherents it is the ultimate modern belief system, the antidote to centuries of ignorance and superstition, while to its detractors it is the product of latter-day decadence and materialism.Professor Whitmarsh's findings wouldn't come as any surprise to David, who wrote the passage from Psalms cited above. For the Holy Spirit to inspire David to write that, there must have been such fools in existence. However, atheism certainly doesn't extend all the way back to the beginning of history--the earliest chapters of Genesis indicate that Adam and Eve were aware of God's existence, especially before the fall.
But a new Cambridge University study argues that atheism is in fact one of the world’s oldest religions – long predating Christianity and Islam.
Far from being the result of scientific breakthroughs or modern mass education, the belief that there were no gods was relatively common in the ancient world, research by Prof Tim Whitmarsh, a leading Cambridge classicist, concludes.
But the “ancient atheism” was effectively written out of history after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire after the reign of Constantine in the early 4th Century, heralding a new era of state-imposed belief, Prof Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, argues.
The study is potentially bad news for believers and non-believers alike.
On one hand it breaks the widely assumed link between atheism and progress or modernity but it also rejects the idea that faith is a natural, instinctive impulse.
He sets out his findings in a new book, “Battling The Gods”, published on Tuesday, which collates evidence for atheism in the Greek city states.
It finds evidence for what he argues would now class as atheism in the works of a string of Greek thinkers from Xenophanes of Colophon – born around 570 BC – to figures such as Carneades in the 2nd Century BC, who was among the first systematically to compile arguments against the existence of the gods.
“Atheism is, of course, a Greek word,” he explained.
“It started out as a negative term but I think there is evidence that people positively identified as that, using that word.
“There is evidence from the 5th Century [BC] onwards, initially quite sketchy but certainly from the 2nd Century BC people were compiling lists of arguments against the existence of the gods.”
In the book he argues that the idea that atheism is a modern idea, stemming from the Enlightenment, is a “myth” nurtured by both believers and non-beliers alike for their own ends.
“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,” the book explains.
“Both are guilty of modernist vanity. Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills.”
He also points to the trial of Socrates, who was accused of “not recognising the gods of [Athens]” – as evidence that a form of atheism was common at the time even if Socrates denied the accusation.
He added: “Xenophanes is the earliest person on might associate with the broad penumbra of atheism.
“He did express a belief in a type of god but it was radically different.
“He set himself against the anthropomorphic conception of god, so if you think a god is anything like a human being you’ve got it entirely wrong. He said in effect gods should be associated with nature and the way things grow. He was one of the first to move away from the idea of a moral god who you could pray to.
“In ancient terms what he was saying was quite radical, hat all these temples and statues are useless.”
Prof Whitmarsh explained: “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.”
“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.”