Any evidence of ancient athiests?

I don’t imagine pre-historic atheists would have left much in the way of house idols or sacrificial altars behind. Or have constructed temples or the like either.

I just read up on them and was fascinated until I got to the part where they believe in spirits. Well, they’re still fascinating, but the supernatural beliefs disqualify them from what I’m looking for.

I’d call them ancient…like the way sharks and crocodiles are so called - unchanged from ancient times.

In general, the Buddha didn’t deny the existence of gods - he just denied that they would be useful for attaining enlightenment. Wikipedia linked me to this online article: In Buddhist literature, the belief in a creator god (issara-nimmana-vada) is frequently mentioned and rejected, along with other causes wrongly adduced to explain the origin of the world; as, for instance, world-soul, time, nature, etc. God-belief, however, is placed in the same category as those morally destructive wrong views which deny the kammic results of action, assume a fortuitous origin of man and nature, or teach absolute determinism. These views are said to be altogether pernicious, having definite bad results due to their effect on ethical conduct.

[That said]… a theist who leads a moral life may, like anyone else doing so, expect a favorable rebirth.

…Although belief in God does not exclude a favorable rebirth, it is a variety of eternalism, a false affirmation of permanence rooted in the craving for existence, and as such an obstacle to final deliverance.

…Buddhism is not an enemy of religion as atheism is believed to be. Buddhism, indeed, is the enemy of none. “Buddhism and the God-idea”, by Nyanaponika Thera.

It would seem to me that religion, or belief in the supernatural, is a desire to explain the seemingly random and capricious nature of the world around us. Early man had no better explanation than “maybe the spirit of the river was mad at us so she flooded us - you know how women are.” Or “the sky gods are angry so no rain this month”. Animals appeared to have quasi-human motivation, why should inanimate objects operating through magic? Anthropomorphism…

Today’s atheism relies on the vast background of scientific discoveries to help explain the world. I imagine earlier societies were more comforted by “you will get better luck by offering to the gods”, than by “shit happens, it’s random, I got no explanation.”

From what I’ve read about history in late antiquity, when we start to have copious contemporary written sources, there were always plenty of people who didn’t have any genuine belief in the local religions, or any others.

In other words, until modern times, atheists were content just not to believe. It’s only now that we have too much time and education to leave it at that, that we have sophisticated theories of our lack of belief, and have the freedom and opportunity to discuss them interminably on internet message boards.

And existence continuing after death does not require a soul, the Greeks had a lot of stories about Hades which simply don’t make a distinction between the person and “the bit that survives after moving there”.

Lucretius has a long “prayer” to Venus in the proem–though of course that can be explained as a literary device–and there are other hints:

Now, there is some debate as to whether Lucretius is really conceding the gods are real in some sense, or if passages like these are just glosses, or they refer to a more abstract notion of “gods”. I doubt we’ll ever know for sure, but it seems odd that a work dedicated to the defeat of religion would hesitate to use the non-existence of gods as an argument if he truly believed that.

This play exists in fragments, and the fact that the title character is one who tried and failed to storm Olympus makes it possible these lines were not to be taken positively, i.e. they were meant to illustrate the title character’s tragic flaw. Aristophanes does call Euripedes (along with other Athenian intellectuals) atheists (in his comedy The Clouds, but the broad stroke seems more like a blustering insult than an accurate biography, and Arisophanes himself often caricatured the gods and religious ritual.

Please don’t mistake me; I’m not trying to write atheism out of the ancient world. Rather, IMO there seems to be a clear, historic evolution in atheist thought. It rejected religious ritual first, then the notion of divinity, not the other way round.

Socrates, the main villain and the butt of most of the jokes in ***The Clouds ***was also depicted blithely telling his client “You really should know better- there is no Zeus.”

Plato certainly doesn’t portray Socrates as an atheist, but Aristophanes’ work suggests that Socrates WAS perceived as such by many of his contemporaries.

Atheism is/was a pretty big school of thought in Hindu philosophy

Here is a quote from the Indo-Aryan Rig-Veda that may show a nascent scientific attitude questioning received wisdom, written down around the time of Homer. Could this be called atheism?

Who truly knows, and who can here declare it?
Whence It was born and how this world was fashioned?
The gods came later than the earth’s creation:
Who knows then out of what the world has issued?

Whether he made the world or did not make it,
He knows whence this creation came, he only
Who in the highest heaven guards and watches;
He knows indeed, but then, perhaps, he knows it not!

Taoism is essentially a godless religion, and it dates back to the 4th century BC. It assumes that all things are neither good nor bad; they simply are.

I think it is a misconception to equate secular, skeptical, science-oriented belief systems with atheism. I am such an atheist, but I know plenty of atheists who believe in ghosts, all sorts of woo and quackery, and even “spiritual” ideas such as demons and fairies, or the power of crystals. The only thing that we have in common is the simple lack of belief in gods.

Of course you’re not going to find modern, skeptical, science-based beliefs in the ancient world. But there are certainly examples of people who didn’t believe in god, no matter how far back you go, and many have already been named in this thread.

Mmm. That’s true of the Tao Te Ching. Once you get out into practical Taoism, it gets a bit… um. Let’s just say it loses a bit of the beautiful, simple purity of the source material.

I had thought that it wasn’t uncommon for upper class Romans to be privately agnostic or atheist even as they went through the motions in public, but all I could find was a few lines attributed to Cicero quoted in Atheism for Dummies, which I then was unable to find in the actual text.

Do you have a single piece of evidence for this ever having happened at any time in human history?

Of course, there are lots of cases of people who got put to death or otherwise punished because they believed in a different god, or because they believed that what their god wanted people to do was different from what the people in power said he wanted them to do, but that is not killing or punishing someone for being an unbeliever, an atheist.

I have asked this before in a thread on a similar topic whether anyone can provide a single historical example of someone being killed or otherwise cruelly punished for their atheism. I got no answer, because the notion is complete and utter bullshit!

For one thing, atheists (in anything like the modern sense of the word) did not exist before about the 19th century. The nearest thing we have to an example of ancient atheism is Epicurus and his followers (including Lucretius). Epicureanism survived as a belief system with small numbers of followers for many centuries. I am aware of no instance of anyone ever being persecuted, much less murdered, for being an Epicurean.

The earliest example I have been able to find of someone unjustly treated ostensibly on account of his atheism, is the poet Percy Shelly, who was expelled from Oxford University (not murdered) in 1811 as a consequence of having published a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. (Most likely, however, it was Shelley’s very radical political views rather than his atheism per se that were the main reason for his being expelled).

The historical ignorance of some people who like to think they are superior to religious believers because their beliefs are “evidence based” is sometimes quite breathtaking!

There is a lot of ground between not taking the official state religion very seriously (which is indeed probably how many educated Romans, and perhaps even quite a few less educated ones, felt during the Empire period) and being an agnostic or atheist. It is no accident that this was precisely the period when Christianity took hold and began to spread through the Roman Empire, and not just Christianity! In its first couple of centuries the Roman Empire was in an absolute ferment of religious activity and experimentation, with all sorts of religious traditions being imported from the far reaches of the Empire and beyond its fringes. These religious traditions underwent all sorts of mixing and matching, and many found large numbers of (sometimes fanatical) followers. Just because Romans did not very seriously believe in Jupiter any more, it by no means followed that they were not religious (or even that they completely disbelieved in Jupiter).

Moderator Note

Relax, dude.:wink:

General Questions Moderator

You might ask the Albigensians.

Oh, wait, we can’t. The Catholic church slaughtered them back in the early 1200s because they wouldn’t play the religion game according to Rome’s rules.

I believe the stark difference in atheists and “believers” is more of a western phenomenon.

As I understand the Hindu “religion” clearly demarcates in the Vedas that there maybe God or no God - it states this as unknowable and leaves for the person to discover his/her beliefs.

You’ve missed the point. The Albigensians were not non-believers, but believers in something other than Catholic orthodoxy.

Okay, I’ll bite. It’s a very complicated case and the actual charges were desecration, but Jean-François de la Barre’s “impiety” was a major factor that lead to his rather brutal execution. His copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, which contains harsh criticism of religion, was used as evidence against him and burned along with his body. So, given the historical context, somewhat close.