In the previous two parts of this series we covered why prescribing words for others does not work, and had a brief look at various definitions of atheism. This part will cover, in brief, the history of atheism and atheists in Ancient Greece. It is not uncommon for some atheists to argue that they are using the ‘original’ definition of atheism based on its Greek root, atheos (ἄθεος). We see this in Aron Ra’s argument for atheism being defined as ‘a lack of belief in gods’. Aron Ra argues that ‘the original definition of atheism was simply “godless”, being in some sense “without god(s)”’ (Aron Ra, 2020). However, a brief look at how the term atheos was used in Greek antiquity shows us that this is not truly the case.
An etymological fallacy
It is first important to understand that deriving the meaning of the word simply from its etymology is faulty in and of itself. To argue that ‘a’ in terms of the Greek suffix is ‘without’, and theos in classical Greek was ‘gods’, therefore the original definition of atheos was ‘without gods’ or ‘godless’, may not give us the original definition. As Baggini (2003) argues, thinking like this commits the etymological fallacy. It is a mistake to think we can best understand what a word means by looking at its origin. Baggini (2003) uses the example of the Italian word ‘tagliatelle’. If we understood that the word means ‘little boot laces’, we would probably be a bit shocked when we saw it on the menu at an Italian restaurant. So, in the case of something like atheos, we cannot derive its entire meaning simply be breaking down the etymology of the word.
Instead, just as in the case of the word tagliatelle, we must understand its usage in order to understand how it was defined. In order to do this, we must look at how the word was used during those periods in order to understand how it was defined. So, how was the term atheos used during that period? And who was considered an atheist during that period?
Projecting atheism backwards…
Atheism during that period was a vastly different thing to how we understand it today, and how atheists are understood today. Our understanding of atheism comes from what it became in the modern era. Who we now consider atheists were rare in ancient Greece. Many atheists tend to take the modern understanding of atheism and atheists, and project it backwards onto ancient Greece. Atheism today is generally understood as ‘belief there are no Gods’ or ‘the lack of belief in Gods’. This understanding is then read into atheos. So ‘without gods’ and ‘godless’ is seen in terms of not believing in gods. This was not really the case though, not when understood with nuance anyway.
Non-believers were rare
As stated, atheists as we understand them now were rare in those times. Atheism did not develop into a popular way of thinking (Bremmer, 2007). What we find during those periods were individuals that questioned the existence of the accepted gods, the origins of the accepted gods, and common religious thinking (Bremmer, 2007; Walters, 2010). Those who were labelled atheist may not necessarily have not believed in any gods, they just did not believe in the gods of the state (Bremmer, 2007; Walters, 2010). Generally, when thinking of the evolution of the word atheist during those times we can break it down into three periods:
1) The Classical PeriodBremmer, 2007
2) The Hellenistic Period
3) The Roman Period
Philodemus classifying atheists
It is in the Hellenistic period (323 BCE-31 BCE) that we see earlier thinkers being labelled as atheists (Bremmer, 2007; Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2011). Philodemus (110 BCE-35 BCE), an Epicurean philosopher writing near the end of the Hellenistic period, gives us some indication of how atheism was thought of during that period (Bremmer, 2007). The first type of thinker Philodemus classified as atheist were ‘[t]hose who say that it is unknown whether there are any gods or what they are like’ (Bremmer, 2007, p12). So, those who we would consider agnostic today were seen as atheist by Philodemus.
The next two classifications more resemble those who we would consider to be atheist today. The second classification that Philoodemus gives is ‘[t]hose who openly say that the gods do not exist’, the third being ‘[t]hose who clearly imply it’ (Bremmer, 2007, p12). This gives us some indication that by the end of the Hellenistic period, atheists were seen as those who argued that the gods did not exist, not just those who did not believe in gods. There are some important details missing from Philodemus’ classifications though. Philodemus does not mention the use of atheism as a slandering device for religious and philosophical opponents, nor does it mention what gods (Bremmer, 2007). In order to understand more fully the kind of ‘godlessness’ that Philodemus was labelling we must delve further into those being labelled.
It was around the middle of the second half of 5th century BCE that we find atheism in Greece becoming visible (Bremmer, 2007). Protagoras (490-420 BCE) was the first prominent philosopher that was categorised later as ‘atheist’ (Bremmer, 2007, p12). Protagoras’ books were burned in public and charged in Athens on a charge of atheism, and sentenced to death for it (Bremmer, 2007; Bonazzi, 2020). This charge of atheism was based on his work Concerning the Gods. This work opened with:
‘Concerning the gods I am unable to discover whether they exist or not, or what they are like in form; for there are many hindrances to knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life’ (Bremmer, 2007; Bonazzi, 2020).
Protagoras and agnosticism
This, of course, is not actually a statement of denial for the existence of gods, it is more akin to what we would consider an agnostic stance. Protagoras was arguing for the unknowability of the gods, rather than about their existence. It could be considered an epistemological stance, rather than an ontological stance (Bonazzi, 2020). Protagoras can be seen as being the first thinker in that period to take what we would now consider to be an agnostic stance (Bonazzi, 2020). However, this does not necessarily lead to him being atheist as we would now consider it. This argument says nothing about whether or not he believed in the gods, just that he considered that their existence was unknowable.
According to Bonazzi (2020) some of those that interpret Protagoras have denied that Protagoras is even doubting the existence of the gods in this passage. Though he did confess to disbelief in the folk religions of his time (Walters, 2010). Protagoras was mostly interested in the way in which the gods were and how they presented themselves. Rather than in their presumed existence or non-existence. If Protagoras was arguing here for the non-existence of the gods, rather than just knowability, it seems odd that his statement about knowability would be followed by a statement about their form.
Knowability, not non-belief
It seems here that Protagoras was not arguing for their possible non-existence, but instead about their possible knowability. Unfortunately, few of his works survive today, and much of what we know comes from interpretations (Bonazzi, 2020). So, we cannot say with any certainty whether or not Protagoras was a non-believer, and it would be dishonest to label him as such simply based on this charge of atheism. We will see later that the charge of atheism was not always laid because an individual did not believe in gods.
Socrates (469-399 BCE) is also another philosopher of the time to have been brought up and executed on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens (Nails, 2020). It is in Plato’s Apology that we can find such information (Bremmer, 2007; Wikipedia, 2020a). In the Cambridge Companion to Atheism we find the relevant passage translated as:
‘There is a wise man called Socrates who has theories about the heavens and has investigated everything below the earth, and can make the weaker argument defeat the stronger. It is these people, gentlemen of the jury, the disseminators of these rumours, who are my dangerous accusers, because those who hear them suppose that anyone who inquires into such matters must be an atheist’ (Bremmer, 2007, p14).
The Complete Works of Plato, using a translation by Benjamin Jowlett, gives us a slightly different interpretation of the passage:
‘Telling of Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. The disseminators of this tale are the accusers whom I dream; for their hearers are apt to fancy that such enquirers do not believe in the existence of the gods’ (Plato, 2012).
Was Socrates a non-believer?
As we can see, the translations are slightly different, but both contain the same kind of idea and accusation. While the translation used by Bremmer uses the term atheist, the translation by Jowlett speaks only in terms of not believing in the existence of the gods. However, both translations give us indication that Socrates accusers believed he was an atheist, especially as we would use the term now. He was accused of not believing in the existence of the gods. Was Socrates a non-believer though?
Socrates actually believed in the gods
No, according to Xenophon, Socrates was a firm believer that God arranges everything for the best (Wikipedia, 2020b). He is also found to be saying in the Apology, the same dialogue the above quotes are from, that he does believe that there are gods, in a higher sense than his accusers believe in them (Apology). So, it would be wrong to label Socrates as an atheist in the sense that we would now label someone an atheist. Socrates could not even be considered an agnostic in the sense that we may tentatively label Protagoras. For Socrates was a believer, just not a believer in the gods of the Athenians. As stated by Richard Janko, ‘most Athenians confused belief in new gods with belief in no gods at all’ (Janko, 2002, p1).
Atheists were not strictly non-believers
So, as we can see, the charge of atheist so far is not one levied at the non-believer. It is not clear that Protagoras was a non-believer completely, and there are arguments like Richard Janko’s (2002) that argue that Protagoras was in fact a believer in a singular God. It is also clear that Socrates was a believer. Meaning that the use of the term atheist in these cases was not about non-belief, it was about questioning or denying the existence of the folk gods. As Bremmer (2007) states, ‘speculating about the heavens was indeed already connected with atheism by Socrates’ contemporaries’ (Bremmer, 2007, p14). So far it appears that Aron Ra’s claim that he is using the original definition seems to be on shaky ground, for Aron Ra argues that the original definitions were about the ‘godless’. That atheist and atheism originally referred to those ‘without gods’. Yet, Socrates was not ‘without gods’ and was still considered atheist by the Greek polis.
There are others too from this period who were classed as atheist. Prodicus of Keos (465-395) is one such person (Bremmer, 2007, p14). Though little is known about Prodicus, and what we do have comes from other sources, he was a philosopher with a reputation for ‘speculating about the heavens’ (Bremmer, 2007, p15). We can see from the cases of Protagoras and Socrates that when current atheists simply declare that atheos just meant ‘godless’ to the ancient Greeks they do not give the whole picture justice. With Prodicus we can see that declaring that atheos was simply a way to describe those considered ‘godless’ does not do the thinkers of the time justice.
Prodicus on Polytheism
For example, Prodicus argued a two-stage theory on the origin of polytheism (Bremmer, 2007). His argument was that primitive man first started to call the elements that they most relied on ‘gods’ (Bremmer, 2007, p15). They then began to describe those humans that created things such as bread and wine, and made good use of the earth and its fruits, ‘gods’ (Bremmer, 2007, p15). So, people like Demeter and Dionyso were elevated to the status of ‘gods’ and worshipped as such (Bremmer, 2007). Meaning that Prodicus located the beginnings of religion in the time of agriculture. For contemporary atheists interested in the history of atheism, and the history of arguments, Euripides, Diagoras and Critias are also worth looking into.
Atheists were also those who questioned the gods
There are many philosophers from the era that put forward theories and arguments about the local gods, about the existence of gods, and ‘speculated about the heavens and the earth’. Some of them appeared to believe in something like the monotheistic god, putting forward ideas about a ‘prime mover’ and the like. All were considered atheos. Many would not be considered atheist according to the way we use the word now. This means that those who argue they are ‘using the original definition of atheist/atheism’ are not using it in the way it was originally, they are simply translating the words and applying a definition based on that translation and mixing it with current understanding. More will be said on that later, for now let us continue our exploration.
Theodorus and Diagoras
After the death of Socrates many philosophers of the time ‘got the message’, and were careful in the expression of their views (Bremmer, 2007, p19). There were exceptions of course. One such exception being Theodorus of Cyrene (340-250 BCE), who is mentioned with Diagoras as ‘the atheist par excellence’ (Bremmer, 2007, p19). However, as Bremmer (2007) states, it is hard to reconstruct his theology as the evidence we have consists mostly of anecdotes.
The Hellenistic Period
It is in the Hellenistic period that we find some interesting developments. The one important to us here is that we start to find a listing of atheists in an index atheorum (Bremmer, 2007, p19). The earliest example is from Epicurus (341-270 BCE) in the twelfth book of On Nature (Bremmer, 2007, p19). In his book Epicurus included criticisms of many of the above-mentioned philosophers (Bremmer, 2007). In a slight twist of irony though, Epicurus was later described as atheist by philosophers that followed after him (Bremmer, 2007). Epicurus was not an atheist, but his theory about the physical system inferred that the gods had no necessary place (Bremmer, 2007). This is what led to later philosophers labelling him as an atheist.
Bremmer (2007) goes on to tell us that at the end of the second century BCE the list was extended by Clitomachus, an Academic sceptic, in his treatise Concerning Atheism. He was followed by Cicero in De naturum deorum, then Pseudo-Aetius (50-100 AD), and then Sextus Empiricus in his Adversus Mathematicus at the end of the second century AD.
Atheism as a pejorative
It is important to note that even with this expanding list of atheists, there were no practicing atheists mentioned in the sources for this period (Bremmer, 2007, p20). The Jews were known to accuse the Egyptians of atheism, showing us that atheism was mainly a label used against religious and philosophical opponents (Bremmer, 2007, p20). Showing us again, that simply translating the word and taking its definition from that translation does not give us an idea of its usage or actual definition. It also shows us again that those claiming that ‘a lack of belief in gods’ was the original definition are simply applying the modern usage to that translation erroneously. There may have been those that our modern definitions fit, but many did not fit our modern definitions.
Some interesting reading material
This article is obviously not an exhaustive exploration of atheism in Greek antiquity of course. To do that justice would take a multi-part series in an of itself. While I will generally try to draw from multiple sources, as can be seen from the referencing most of the material has been drawn from a singular source. That source being Jan M. Bremmers (2007) chapter ‘Atheism in Antiquity’ in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. The reason I did this was to make it easier for the reader to look at the information, and begin their own research into atheism in Greek antiquity, as well as arguments about atheism, for atheism, and against theism. It is a highly recommended introductory book, along with Julian Baggini’s (2003) A Very Short Introduction to Atheism and Kerry Walter’s (2010) Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed. For those interested in exploring deeper into atheism these are excellent starting resources.
However, to wrap this part up let us sum up some of what is mentioned here. An argument often made by some atheists is that ‘the original definition’ of atheism was ‘without gods’ and was used to describe non-believers, so the ‘lack of belief in gods’ is the ‘original definition’. As can be seen from this article, there are problems with doing that. If we look once again to Baggini’s (2003) argument regarding translating the term tagliatelle. The word tagliatelle translates to ‘little boot laces’. If we were to translate that word as a means of getting its original usage, then we would fail. It would not tell us that it was used to describe a form of pasta, and we would be shocked by the menu at an Italian restaurant.
Just as we would have to look at how the term tagliatelle was, and is used, we must do the same with the term atheos. As we have seen from our brief exploration of those labelled atheists in that time, it was not used just to describe those that ‘lacked a belief in god’. The term was used to label those who did not believe in the local gods, or believed in different gods, and was used as a tactic against political and philosophical opponents. When we argue that ‘lack of belief in gods’ was ‘the original definition’ we are applying a modern definition, and our own outlook, onto a word used thousands of years ago. We are looking at antiquity through a modern lens, which does not entirely work.
We also ignore interesting developments in religious and atheist thought. There were many interesting arguments put forward by the Greek philosophers, which shows that ‘atheists’ of the time were arguing against the existence of the local gods. They were not simply ‘not believing’, they were articulating arguments against the existence of commonly accepted gods. They were attempting to describe how belief in the gods came about, and attempting to convince people why the beliefs were faulty. Atheism, for those Greek philosophers at least, was an attempt to ‘question the heavens and the earth’. Rather than simply demanding evidence, or arguing about being unconvinced. There is much that contemporary atheists can learn from their actions and their arguments.
As stated, this was a simply a brief romp through atheism and atheists in Greek antiquity. With a specific focus on various figures described as atheist, and how the word was originally used. We saw that claims about the ‘lack of belief in gods’ being the original usage are not strictly true, and the error comes from the etymological fallacy. This false belief comes not from study, or understanding of how the word was used, but from bad argumentation. In the next part of this series we will have a brief exploration similar to this one of the development of atheism in modern times.
Aron Ra (2020) ‘What is Atheism?’, forum message to League of Reason, 14 August.
Baggini, J. (2003) A Very Short Introduction to Atheism [ebook reader], Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Bonazzi, M. (2020) ‘Protagoras’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition) [Online]. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/protagoras/ (Accessed 9 October 2020).
Bremmer, J. N. (2007) ‘Atheism in Antiquity’ in Martin, M. (ed) Cambridge Companion to Atheism, New York, Cambridge University Press.
Janko, R. (2002), ‘God, Science, and Socrates’, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Vol. 46, pp. 1-18.
Nails, D. (2020) ‘Socrates’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition) [Online]. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/socrates/ (Accessed 9 October 2020).
Plato (2012) Delphi Complete Works of Plato [ebook reader], Kindle, Delphi Classics.
Simonin, A. (2011) Ancient History Encyclopedia [Online]. Available at https://www.ancient.eu/Hellenistic_Period/ (Accessed 9 October 2020).
Walters, K. (2010) Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed, London, Continuum Publishing.
Wikipedia (2020a) Apology (Plato) [Online]. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apology_(Plato) (Accessed 9 October 2020).
Wikipedia (2020b) Socrates [Online]. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates (Accessed 9 October 2020).
Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism
Rockin’ Atheism Pt. 1: The Wrongness of Aron Ra
Words are funny things!
In response to Ra’s ‘What is Atheism?’
Julian Baggini (2003) A Very Short Introduction to Atheism
Michael Martin (2007) A Cambridge Companion to Atheism
Kerry Walters (2010) Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed