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Atheism older than Christianity or Islam, but Romans erased it from hi

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People in the ancient world did not always believe in the gods, a new study suggests – casting doubt on the idea that religious belief is a “default setting” for humans. Despite being written out of large parts of history, atheists thrived in the polytheistic societies of the ancient world – raising considerable doubts about whether humans really are “wired” for religion – a new study suggests.  The claim is the central proposition of a new book by Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture and a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge. In it, he suggests that atheism – which is typically seen as a modern phenomenon – was not just common in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome, but probably flourished more in those societies than in most civilisations since.


via Cambridge

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It's an interesting article, although in my view it's not as original as Professor Whitmarsh believes. I agree with him that skepticism did exist in the ancient world - yet this is something classicists have known for a long time. If I remember rightly, the Dominician priest and philosopher Andre-Jean Festugiere admitted this quite openly in his study of personal religion in ancient Greece (Personal Religion Among the Greeks, California, 1954). He noted that what many people think of as 'Greek religion' was actually state religion, and not everyone believed in state religion. After all, it was more about political unity and patriotism than religious belief. This was why Socrates was killed, and why doubt must have existed in the minds of some Greek people. Robert Parker (On Greek Religion, Cornell, 2011) has also noted that state religion was more political than religious, and that a number of Greeks did not really believe the rituals they were partaking in. 


Yet Festugiere and Parker also emphasise personal religion among the Greeks. While Festugiere's discussions on the Athenian dramatists are a little far fetched at times (he wants their beliefs to be as close to Christianity as possible) his talk about sailors and soldiers raising temples and shrines out of piety rather than compulsion, and the evidence showing religious belief among ordinary Greeks, is interesting. The mystery cults of Dionysus etc. also reveal a strong religious impulse among many Greeks. 


I hope the Professor will discuss these aspects of popular religion, rather than discussing only the philosophers, who, while interesting, only represented a minority. 


Still, seems like a worthy book. I'll try and read it. 

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Then of course, there was Diagoras of Melos.




He is the guy who put a wooden statuette of Hercules on his fire, and said that as a thirteenth labour, Hercules could boil his beans.

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