Any evidence of ancient athiests?

I was thinking last night about our primitive ancestors and their different religious beliefs.

I got to thinking - is there any record, archeological or otherwise, indicating any group of primitive athiests at any time?

I was discussing this with a coworker, and he said that the ancient Greeks believed in gods, but didn’t believe themselves to have any immortal soul.

However, I have no idea if there was ever a tribe or society that did not have a creator myth or form of worship.

Any armchair archeologists or sociologists out there?

There are a few ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who are often considered atheists (Epicurus and Lucretius spring to mind), but not in the strict sense of denying the existence of god/gods. Rather, they allowed for (and based on their writing, probably assumed) the existence of supernatural beings but denied these beings had much of (if any) role in human affair.

Plato and the Stoics advanced the notion of an immortal soul, but IMO they did this as a result of philosophizing rather than as a reaction to a clear belief. Epicurus is far more radical (at least for his time) when he denies the immortality of the soul.

“Atheist” in ancient times often meant, “someone who denies the dominant religion” rather than “someone with no religion”, so in that sense there were a lot of “atheists”.

Does “atheist” mean strictly not believing in a god or gods, or not believing in anything “supernatural”? If it’s the latter, I’m not even sure how you could distinguish atheism from theism before the invention of the scientific method. I mean, if I invent an idea that the Sun is a god, and you invent the idea that the Sun is a ball of glowing gas, and neither is based on empirical observation, is my explanation more “theistic” just because it happens to be less consistent with the reality that was discovered centuries later?

If we’re going with “didn’t believe in a god or gods”, how do you define gods? Would ancestor-worship be theistic?

As for creation myths, I’m not sure I’d consider lack of speculation about the origins of the universe to be a precursor to modern atheism. I mean, atheists have very definitive beliefs about where the universe came from, they just involve ideas like the Big Bang that are unlikely to have close analogues in the beliefs of ancient people.

Regarding the Ancient Greeks, if they didn’t believe in some kind of life after death, then who were all those folks filling up the underworld?

Semantics aside, I’m interested in any people that had no religion vs. those that were called athiests by their contemporaries. Specifically, I wonder if there were complete cultures that didn’t have a belief system.

I imagine there would have been individuals in any culture at any time that privately had their doubts but I’m more interested/curious if there were completely religion free groups. I tend to think there were not.

Hmm, to clarify my last post, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m suggesting that atheism is a form of religion.

I’m saying “Modern atheists believe things. Specifically, they believe in a description of the natural world that is consistent with modern science, and they disbelieve claims about the natural world that aren’t consistent with modern science (or simply aren’t supported by scientific evidence).” You aren’t likely to find ancient atheists that meet that definition, since modern science hadn’t been invented yet. So that raises the question “What did it mean to be an ‘atheist’, thousands of years ago?”

This is what I’m getting at: atheists today do have a belief system. It’s just one based on modern scientific principles.

I doubt you’re going to find whole cultures at any time who don’t have any beliefs about questions like “Where did we come from?” – at least not once the invention of agriculture gave people time to sit around and ponder these questions.

RE the sun, good point. Now that I’m thinking about it and being forced to articulate it, it’s difficult. That’s not really satisfying, but I think we can agree that sun worship is definitely a religion, whereas half-assed “scientific” theories based on the available evidence of the time, whether right or wrong. Suppose the theory wasn’t “glowing gasses”, but something later revealed to be wrong (say for example the sun was thought to be made from, I don’t know, a whole bunch of far-away fireflies), it would, in the absence of any anthropomorphization (is that a word) of the sun fail to be a religion.

I don’t know much about ancestor worship. I suppose if they thought the deceased ancestors had some eternal soul or were in some way affecting their present lives, I’d call that a religious belief system. If they simply had reverence for their ancestors, but didn’t think they existed in any form, I’d say “not a religion”.

With respect to the Greeks, I have no idea - I was just repeating what a coworker said.

Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror about the 1300’s, mentions one bishop complaining in a letter that some of the people he talks to don’t believe in God or a soul, believe that “we are no different than donkeys, we just live our life and die and that’s it” or words something like that.

Actually, I can’t think of anything in Lucretius that suggests that he does allow for the existence of supernatural beings. His De Rerum Natura comes down hard against human conceptions of deities, and I don’t recall him moderating this by suggesting that gods might exist, nonetheless.

Socrates (at least as written by Plato) was cagey about the existence of the gods, saying that the study of man was more important, but he acts and philosophizes as if the gods don’t exist. He might have been trying to cover himself from accusations of atheism. It didn’t help – he ended up convicted of Impiety. (Maybe Plato, who wrote up Socrates’ stuff, had this in mind, in fact, and had Socrates not give not make a definite statement precisely because of that sentence)
Thales asserted that the sun wasn’t a god, but a hot stone. To quote Wikipedia:

Pythagoras was supposed to have said “God is a Number”. A lot of these philosophers don’t sound like they allow for th existence of Gods, but rather as if they perceive some impersonal principle, rather than a personified God, keeping the Universe going. You can interpret that either theistically or atheistically. The philosophers probably appreciated the wiggle room.

Interesting that there are so many people who equate believing in a god with having an immortal soul. Why should one necessitate the other? If I believed in a god, I could easily see our consciousness not continuing after death. And I could also see an afterlife as a purely natural, mechanistic occurrence without any divine intervention. Not that I actually believe any of it.

Nonsense. There is all the difference in the world between believing that the Sun is an inanimate ball of gas, and believing that it is a god, a being with desires and motivations, and whose actions you can, in principle at least (but probably in practice too) influence by symbolic acts such as prayer and sacrifice. The belief that it is an inanimate object that will not listen to your prayers or deliberately seek to benefit or harm may not amount to science, but it is an example of the type of first step that put humankind on the road that leads to science (the sort of step which was actually taken by the earliest Greek philosophers).

If there were, we don’t know and are very unlikely to ever know. Frankly, everything that we do know about both ancient cultures and preliterate cultures that survived into modern times suggests that it is massively unlikely that there were ever any such cultures that did not have a strong and pervasive belief in the supernatural.

Well, it may perhaps be the case that all modern atheists “believe in” the teachings of modern science – I am sure most do (often ratehr uncritically) – but it is certainly no part of the definition of atheism that they should do so. There is absolutely no contradiction involved between being an atheist and rejecting most or even all of the theories of modern science. In that respect there is no logical reason why atheists should not have existed in prehistoric times (although there are good anthropological reasons why they almost certainly didn’t).

Well, he was a loyal follower of Epicurus, who went to some lengths to insist that gods do exist (although his conception of the nature of the gods diverges so far from traditional conceptions that one could make a case that it amounts to atheism). Epicureans (including Lucretius) did not have a tradition of criticizing The Master, only explicating, so we should not expect his views to diverge significantly from those of Epicurus himself. See here for a scholarly account of Lucretius’ views on gods and religion. It is not theism in any usual sense (and, like Epicurus, he certainly rejected traditional religion and all vestiges of the supernatural), but it does not seem to be straightforward atheism in anything much like the modern sense either.

He also said “All things are full of gods.”

Thales seems to have kicked off the tradition of naturalistic thinking about natural phenomena that eventually led to modern science, but to have a naturalistic account of the Sun (or anything else) is not to be an atheist. Science involves the seeking of naturalistic explanations, but if you have to be an atheist in order to do this, and thus to be a scientist, there would have been almost no scientists before the mid-twentieth century (and, thereby, modern science would not exist).

Pythagoras probably did not say that: according to contemporary scholarship, almost every dictum attributed to Pythagoras by writers in later antiquity is spurious, and as we have no contemporary accounts of him, we know very little indeed about his actual views. (Even Aristotle, just a couple of centuries later, seems to have been very uncertain as to what the real facts were about Pythagoras, and almost all our other sources are much later than that, from a time when Pythagoras was much more myth than man.) Even the association of Pythagoreanism with mathematics seems most probably to have developed after his own time, amongst one faction of his followers. Pythagoras seems to have been more of a charismatic religious leader of some kind than anything else, and he seems to have founded a cult (with rituals and taboos, and probably a belief in transmigration of souls) that attracted quite a few followers over the next few generations before petering out. Some of those followers seem to have developed philosophical and mathematical interests, and to have made the mathematical discoveries (such as the right-angled triangle theorem, and the irrationality of root two), that are associated with his name. The other ancient figures he resembles most are people such as Zoroaster and Jesus. One could hardly imagine a less suitable candidate for being an ancient atheist.

I agree, atheists have a belief system, just not a religious belief system. I always object when people say that atheism is a religious system…my typical rejoinder is that an empty bowl is not a flavour if ice-cream.

From what has been cited so far, I haven’t seen any support for atheist cultures, just atheist individuals inside otherwise religious cultures. I suspect that there have always been atheists, but that many of them kept quiet from fears of persecution.

For all I know though, there may have been atheists in ancient Zaire or something. It’s an interesting (to me at least) notion - some ancient people having the wisdom to admit that they don’t know the answers and deigning not to make something up to cover their bases.

I asked about it from an archeological standpoint because typical finds of ancient ruins include religious artifacts and/or places of worship/sacrifice, etc. This led me to wonder if they ever found any places completely lacking in the evidence of any such stuff and further got me onto the original subject.

I doubt it–or I doubt that archaeologists would ever see it that way. My hunch is that fragmentary evidence tends to be organized around the researcher’s desire to discover or extrapolate belief systems from ruins and artifacts. I hope a real archaeologist or three will weigh in, but I’m thinking about things like Neanderthal burials. Some see evidence in them of religion and a belief in an afterlife, some don’t, but the scientists who don’t find persuasive evidence of religious belief don’t therefore argue that Neanderthals were atheists.

Good point…that would be downright unscientific, wouldn’t it?

The oldest atheist civilizations I’ve been able to find are two schools within Hinduism - Mimamsa and Samkhya. They don’t really reject god, but Mimamsa doesn’t believe in a god who created the world or a personal god, and Samkhya doesn’t believe the Vedas was written by a god.
As is mentioned above, the main difficulty with detecting atheism among ancient civilizations is that a lack of something is hard to confirm. There’s always the possibility that the supposedly ‘atheist’ culture just has religious artifacts that haven’t been found.
Also, religion is a very natural thing for humans to have. We want explanations: until recently, when scientific instruments have revealed some of the logic behind natural occurrences, the best explanation for why the river didn’t flood this year or why the crops all died was just “God/ the gods wanted it to happen because of x.” If there ever was a truly atheist ancient civilization, it wouldn’t have been too popular. By having gods, we have reasons for the bad things that happen: once we have the reasons, we have the power to avoid them.

I guess the Pirahã don’t fit the OP because they’re not ancient.

I bet there have always been skeptics who didn’t buy the stuff people told them about the spirits or gods or whatevers that caused things to happen. Does one have to have an alternate explanation (e.g., scientific naturalism) to qualify as an atheist? I don’t think so.

Euripedes (480–406 BCE), from his play Bellerophon:

For most of human history the religionists would murder the non-believers, so while they were certainly out there, I wouldn’t expect too much remaining hard, archaeological evidence of nonbelievers.

I don’t believe there’s an “atheistic philosophy,” a set of beliefs that all atheists subscribe to. Defining us by what we don’t believe says nothing about what we do believe. There are atheistic Rationalists, atheistic socialists, atheistic nihilists, atheistic libertarians, atheistic mystics, even (by some definitions) atheistic Jews.