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 – Early Skeptics: Thales to Ibn Rushd (~600 BCE to 1200 CE)

Introduction

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 from antiquity are few, but there are a handful of ancient freethinkers who 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 and subsequently preserved. 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] This verse in all likelihood was not directed towards actual non-believers at the time when the Psalms were compiled (~400s BCE), but as will be shown throughout this work, it was often an insult directed at people with different opinions. Also, note the ad hominem attack and the deliberate insinuation that atheists are immoral people. This unfair characterization of atheists continues to plague 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 blatant misrepresentations.[4]

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 take a narrow view and only look 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 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?’[5]

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.[6]

Around the same time in Persia in the 500s BCE, 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. Biblical experts note the dualistic shift in Jewish dogmas following their exposure to Zoroastrianism after being freed by Cyrus the Great.[7]

Contextual Background

An understanding of the socio-political effects the Persians had on the cultures they conquered requires a detailed introduction. This background will be of critical importance for a full understanding of the philosophies of Parmenides and Pyrrho to be reviewed, given that there are aspects of Greek and Indian philosophy which overlap.

 Scholars debate the exact nature of possible intellectual cross-pollinations, as ideas from Greece and India are thought to have each influenced the other. For example, Thomas McEvilley, an expert in Greek and Indian culture, distinguished linguist, and philosophical historian, asserts that the monadic[8] concept influenced the Greeks via India; and the Greeks brought formalized logic and dialectic to Indian philosophy.[9]

McEvilley devoted the entirety of his second chapter of The Shape of Ancient Thought to examples of the monadic development in the late Bronze Age in Egyptian and Sumerian mythologies, the latter which influenced the Indians beginning in the Middle Vedic period, around 1000 BCE. As polytheistic mythologies ran out of explanations for the natural world, concepts began evolving towards ideas of oneness, creating a new philosophical monism. Indian writings from the Middle Vedic on began to reflect this new monism, while the Greek literature of Homer and Hesiod maintained its polytheistic hold on Greek mythology for several more centuries before elements of monism began appearing in Greek thought and writing.[10]

Both McEvilley and Christopher Beckwith, a philologist and expert in Central Eurasian studies, commented on the nature of common ideas. Anthropologists have long noted this curious tendency, and professor of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, discussed the two possible origins: cultural diffusion, or independent development which Jung characterized as archetypes of the collective unconscious.[11] McEvilley speculates that these Jungian archetypes of independent development were involved in the interchange of ideas between India and Greece.[12] On the other hand, Beckwith suggests the cultural diffusion option is the likely candidate. Beckwith asserts that a network for diffusion was created by the trade and diplomatic links that followed Darius I’s conquest of the Indus Valley in 515 BCE, and the addition of Thrace and the resubmission of Ionian Greece by 510.[13] Given these strong ties, there would be no need to invoke Jasper’s premise of separate development which characterized what he coined as the Axial Age—the period around 500 BCE when several spiritual thought leaders emerged contemporaneously from China to Greece, such as Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius.[14]

The influence of Zoroastrianism also played a role in the development of Buddhism and Brahmanism in India. The Persian soldiers and government functionaries administering the Gandhāra region, the northwest corner of India corresponding with modern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, brought with them their Zoroastrian religious beliefs.[15] It was in the Indus Valley where Buddhism was born in opposition to the dualistic absolutism of Zoroastrianism, as Buddha rejected the premise that things are either truth or falsehood. Early Buddhism also rejected the Zoroastrian concepts of a creator deity, heaven, hell, and karma; ideas that Brahmanism accepted and incorporated. Some of these beliefs would be absorbed into what Beckwith calls Normative Buddhism, the set of beliefs that evolved in later centuries and which people still associate with the philosophy, but were not part of the original tenets of Early Buddhism.[16] This development will play a decisive role in the philosophy of Pyrrho, and upon the Greek schools which were infused by his ideas.

McEvilley and Beckwith both note Buddhism’s similarity to Pyrrhonism, and connect their origins to the Indus Valley where Alexander’s expansion stopped, and Hellenistic culture had made the strongest inroads.[17] McEvilley notes that cultural diffusion of philosophical ideas was the norm, and asserts that maintaining a ‘pious Indian’ purity stance to their cultural heritage is inappropriate, particularly as later Pyrrhonist skepticism is speculated to have informed the development of Mahayana Buddhism.[18]

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.[19] These references from Classical Antiquity will be the subject of this chapter, documenting the beginnings of philosophical atheism in this catalogue of atheist thought.

Additional contextual background on Greco-Roman 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.[20] 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.[21] Consequently, in pluralistic and polytheistic Greece, which had no centralized religious 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.[22]

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, writing:

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.[23] 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.[24]

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 that would ultimately lead to expressions of outright atheism. Many of these inquiries into the natural world did not do away with the gods altogether, but just reimagined the gods as part of nature in a form of embryonic pantheism—a complex concept that could, in an overly simplified view, be stated that the universe is inseparable from God. 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 within it began the long process of relegating the gods to history.


[1] In two books, (The Blind Watchmaker, 5-6; Brief Candle in the Dark, 144) Richard Dawkins recounts a conversation with philosopher Alfred Wykeham where Dawkins 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 the intellectual basis for their disbelief, an opinion which demonstrates a lack of awareness of the evidence from antiquity.

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

[3] Psalms 14:1; 53:1. The composition of the individual Psalms are difficult to date as they span a long period of time, but are generally thought to have been compiled in the 400s BCE.

[4] In the book Is the Atheist My Neighbor?, the author Randall Rauser (a Christian apologist) speculates that this verse is more likely aimed at Jews who claimed to be observant and faithful practitioners of Mosaic Law, but who failed to act as such in their daily lives. Further, Rauser notes that this verse is precisely the one most frequently used by believers to reinforce their prejudice of the immoral atheist. Rauser also incorrectly claims there were no atheists in the region at the time the Psalms were compiled, an assertion clearly demonstrated to be false in this chapter.

[5] Mandala 10.129.

[6] Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha, Verse 8.

[7] 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 when 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 and as an individual. In the older, pre-Exile book of Job, the term used is an article not a noun, hassatan, the adversary. Hassatan is a role, not an individual, and one that 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. For a fuller understanding of the evolution of the concept of Satan, see The Birth of Satan by Wray and Mobley.

[8] See the Glossary for a definition of the monad. The concept is elaborated in more detail in the section on Parmenides.

[9] McEvilley 2002, 649.

[10] McEvilley 2002, 60-61. Obviously, Hinduism never evolved into a monotheistic religion, but maintained its plurality of gods. Regardless, monadic ideas appear in Indian writings centuries before the Greeks.

[11] Campbell 1988, 51-52.

[12] McEvilley 2002, 59.

[13] Beckwith 2015, 124; 173.

[14] Jaspers 1951, 98. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was a German-Swiss psychiatrist who developed his concept of the Axial Age while attempting to explain the seemingly simultaneous emergence of several diverse great thinkers of many religious systems. Steven Pinker (2018, 23; 411) notes that the Axial Age may have been the result of agricultural advances that freed people from subsistence farming, providing an increase in caloric intake and facilitating the development of a priestly class. Further, humanist ideals begin to emerge in these new belief systems with thinkers who have spare time to contemplate.

[15] Beckwith 2015, 15; 68.

[16] Beckwith 2015, 8-9; 169.

[17] McEvilley 2002, 502-04. Beckwith 2015, 7-13; 19-21.

[18] This will be covered under Sextus Empiricus below.

[19] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 8; 11; 241. The EBSCO online version of this book displays related content by numbered 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.

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

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

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

[23] Pinker (2018, 450-51) makes the same point: 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.

[24] Russell 1945, 29.


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Filed under Cultural Anthropology, Philosophy, Religion, Secularism

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