Dangerous Ideas: Chapter 1 – The Ancients

The opening section of my forthcoming book, Dangerous Ideas.

Of those, then, who have inquired as to the existence of God some say that God exists, some that he does not exist, some that he has existence “no more” than non-existence. That he exists is the view of most of the Dogmatists and the general preconception of ordinary folk; that he does not exist is the view of those who are designated “atheists,” such as Euhemerus—A hoary braggart, penning wicked books—and Diagoras of Melos, and Prodicus of Ceos, and Theodorus, and a host of others.

~ Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians IX. 50-51

Chapter 1: The Ancients

Many people are under the mistaken impression that expressions of disbelief are a relatively modern occurrence that started with the Enlightenment.[1] Surviving examples of atheist thought in ancient history are few, but there are a handful that have come down to us across the millennia. One reason for the scarcity of evidence is because, obviously, atheists built no temples or statues to their disbelief. Another is because there was no accepted canon of atheist literature that was passed down from generation to generation, as with the religious writings of many cultures that were considered sacred. Further, a number of ancient writings have been lost, and in many of the cases to be presented here, we have only fragments or what has been preserved in the writings of others by doxographers,[2] such as Plato, who recorded the supposed sayings of Socrates and others.

To those who would claim there were no atheists in antiquity, why should they be mentioned in the Bible if they could not have existed so long ago? ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.’[3] Surely, the author of this verse would not have written it unless there was a large enough segment of the population expressing views of non-belief at the time to warrant its composition. Also, note the ad hominem attack and the deliberate insinuation that atheists are immoral people. This unfair character assassination still plagues the minds of theists today, and this passage is definitive proof as to where such prejudices arose, and which continues to taint the perspectives of those who believe such nonsense.

While this book mostly covers the European philosophers who shaped the development of secularism, some relevant examples from non-European cultures will be presented, as elements of other philosophies came to influence the Greeks and the later Enlightenment ideals. Some studies of philosophical history have often taken a narrow view and only looked at a single perspective, missing the bigger picture, a deficiency which this survey attempts to correct. As will be documented below, Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic thinkers played a major role in influencing some of their European counterparts; and vice versa.

One of the earliest examples of skeptical thinking appears in the Rigveda, from circa 1300 BCE, in what could be considered the first recorded instance of agnosticism and which comes from the Hymn of Creation:

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?’[4]

Another example comes almost one thousand years later, from the Charvaka school that emerged during a period of Hindu reformation in the 600s BCE. This school of thought rejected the Vedic tradition and much of what are standard theistic beliefs, such as the afterlife and any supernatural explanations. Instead, they favored empirical observations and perception as the source of knowledge. Consequently, one of their adherents harshly dismisses traditional religious ideas, writing:

There is no other world other than this;
There is no heaven and no hell;
The realm of Shiva and like regions,
are invented by stupid imposters.[5]

Around the same time in Persia, the dualistic Zoroastrians made the concept of truth (asha) and its counterpart, falsehood (druj), a core tenet of their system of belief. As the Persians expanded west and began butting up against Greek territories, elements of Zoroastrian philosophy began to be absorbed into surrounding cultures. For example, the Zoroastrian influence on Second Temple Judaism is well-documented by scholars who note the dualistic shift in Jewish dogmas following the exposure to Persian religion after being freed from the Babylonian Exile by Cyrus the Great.[6] The Zoroastrian influence on the development of Brahmanism and Buddhism will be discussed in this chapter in the section covering Pyrrho.

Among European cultures, evidence for atheist thought only survives in the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers and the later Romans who took their inspiration from the Greeks. For those who think atheism arose as a product of the Enlightenment, Cambridge Professor Tim Whitmarsh, an expert in the classics and Greek culture, notes this misconception is primarily caused by a ‘profound ignorance’ people have for the Greco-Roman classics.[7] These references from Classical Antiquity will be the subject of this chapter, documenting the beginnings of philosophical atheism in this survey of atheist thought.

Some contextual background on ancient Greek society will be useful to put things in perspective, especially given the tendency of people to project modern perspectives back into antiquity. Unlike Catholic priests in the Middle Ages, priests in ancient Greece did not have any say in secular matters and served one purpose: to make sacrifices. Ethical and legal matters were none of their business; nor was speculating on the nature of things, which was the domain of the philosophers.[8] There was also no conventional uniformity to Greek religion to which all were expected to subscribe, nor were there any writings regarded as sacred scripture. Epic tales of the gods, such as Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey or Hesiod’s Theogony, were just that, literary tales not theological works.[9] Consequently, in pluralistic and polytheistic Greece, which had no centralized ecclesiastical authority, disbelief was a more palatable alternative than in later monotheistic societies. In a monotheistic culture, such as Europe in the Middle Ages, with its strong, centralized Church that exercised a high level of socio-political control, the atheist position was a direct rejection of the party line and was inherently dangerous. But in ancient Greece, atheism, while at times repressed, was generally accepted.[10]

The first philosophical stirrings emerged during the sixth century BCE among a group that has been labelled the pre-Socratic Ionians, the first of whom was Thales of the Milesian school. The iconic British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, commented on the importance of this school:

The Milesian school is important, not for what it achieved, but for what it attempted. It was brought into existence by the contact of the Greek mind with Babylonia and Egypt. Miletus was a rich commercial city, in which primitive prejudices and superstitions were softened by intercourse with many nations.[11] Ionia, until its subjugation by Darius at the beginning of the fifth century, was culturally the most important part of the Hellenic world. It was almost untouched by the religious movement connected with Bacchus and Orpheus; its religion was Olympic, but seems to have been not taken very seriously. The speculations of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes are to be regarded as scientific hypotheses, and seldom show any undue intrusion of anthropomorphic desires and moral ideas. The questions they asked were good questions, and their vigour inspired subsequent investigators.[12]

A History of Western Philosophy

The pre-Socratics were noteworthy for challenging the epic tales of the gods in their questioning of tradition. By rejecting supernatural explanations, and being amongst the first recorded written seekers of rational answers to the workings of the natural world, they ushered in the era of philosophy and skeptical questioning, if not outright atheism. Many of these inquiries into the natural world did not do away with the gods altogether, but just reimagined them as part of nature in a form of embryonic pantheism. By recasting the gods into the role of designers of an orderly universe, yet ones wholly disinterested in human affairs, these early attempts to understand nature and our place in it began the long process of relegating the gods to history.


[1] In two books, (The Blind Watchmaker 1986, 5-6; Brief Candle in the Dark 2015, 144) Richard Dawkins recounts a conversation with philosopher Alfred Wykeham where he expresses his doubts that anyone could have been an atheist before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. While Dawkins concedes it is ‘logically tenable’ to have been an atheist before Darwin, Dawkins thinks it was Darwin’s explanation that would give an atheist an intellectual satisfaction for their disbelief.

[2] This work is an example of a doxography that records the thinking and words of another.

[3] Psalms 14:1; 53:1.

[4] Mandala 10.129.

[5] Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha, Verse 8.

[6] The Exiles returned to Jerusalem with Zoroastrian concepts, beginning the period of theological evolution characteristic of the post-Exilic Second Temple Era. It was towards the end of this era where Satan had begun to emerge in the apocalyptic literature as an independent character in direct opposition to God, a distinctly Zoroastrian concept. Only a single verse in the Hebrew Bible, 1 Chronicles 21:1, describes Satan with a proper noun as an individual. In the older, pre-Exile book of Job, the term used is an article not a noun, hassatan, the adversary, and he is controlled by God. Chronicles was one of the last books of the Hebrew canon to be written, capturing this dualistic evolution. These ideas were then transmitted to the later Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Islam, both of which incorporated dualistic ideas of God and Satan into their theology.

[7] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 8; 11; 241. The EBSCO online version of this book displays related content by numbed sections, and citations are noted accordingly. Whitmarsh’s book, Battling the Gods, provides the starting outline for many of the thinkers covered here, with additional material primarily referenced from The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and the relevant entries from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Where a translation of an original work from antiquity is available, every effort has been made to cite it directly from an online, open-source version.

[8] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 21-22; 52.

[9] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 26-31.

[10] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 11; 26.

[11] Steven Pinker (2018, 450-51) makes the same point in Enlightenment Now: new and innovative ideas accumulate in crossroads cities, where they can be expanded upon and traded onward, enriching and enlightening those repositories of knowledge with incoming fresh perspectives.

[12] Russell 1945, 29.


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Filed under Cultural Anthropology, Philosophy, Religion, Secularism

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