Atheism is not a modern invention, nor is it a product of the European Enlightenment, or for that matter, inconceivable without the Western Secular States and/or science. That is a myth! A myth nurtured by some on both sides of the debate. On one side some atheists wish to present their skepticism toward the supernatural as a result of science’s progressive eclipse of religion, and on the other side the religious wish to see it as a pathological symptom of a decadent western world consumed by capitalism.
Disbelief of the supernatural is as old as time itself. There have been many throughout history who have resisted the march of religion . The problem lies in societies propensity to see religion as the default state of affairs. Too often religion is imagined to be the norm, needing no explanation, The only way!
Atheism on the other hand is seen by many as weird and remarkable. This underpins the religious mythology, the post-enlightenment west is seen as an exception, completely unlike anything seen before. This is a dangerous concealment of the truth.
Religious Universalism – is the notion that belief in a god is essential, that we all possess a magical ‘god gene’ and so, to project a supernatural belief is fundamental to humanity. This, of course is a nonsense, and about as cogent as saying, all normal apples are red and the green apples are unnatural.
There are and always have been skeptics, it is not a strange or exceptional phenomenon, theists have just been indoctrinated over time into a false impression of their human identity, a pseudo identity if you will.
The idea of a single unified Europe, a none faith community – is a mirage, there had always been a wide spectrum of faith, belief and non-belief. If we move away from the ecclesiastical texts which are specifically designed to perpetuate the idea of doctrinal unity, and look towards how a religion was practiced we see many cases of non-beleif.
One case in thousands you can find in England alone in the Middle Ages, is of one Thomas Tailour of Newbury, who was punished in 1491 for calling pilgrims fools, denying the power of prayer and doubting the afterlife.
When looking at Medieval life it makes sense to go through the court records to show the real stories of ‘blasphemy’ that were a regular occurence.
THE HISTORY OF ATHEISM MATTERS
It matters not only for intellectual reasons but also on moral and political grounds. History confers authority and legitimacy ( This is of course one reason why ISIS destroy the history of the people it oppresses) Indeed, Christianity did the same thing as it frog-marched through Europe on the coat tails of Roman Legions.
There are slim pickings in the Bible that talk of non-beleif, but as a rule religious texts exist to advertise their own agenda and not that of the opposition. The ruling classes forced religion for reasons of control in order to manipulate the masses into thinking they would never go against their ‘divine right to rule’ – you can see the pomp and pageantry of this when you see Royal coronations.
The history of atheism in antiquity suggests that although atheism was not always approved of, it was tolerated. Priests were there to manage ritual and temple finance, not to influence people in their beliefs.
Greek myth was folk wisdom, the glue that bonded communities together, not the hectoring of a priest seeking to dictate how, what and why you should believe in the gods.
The Christianisation of the Classical world changed things fundamentally. Christianity marked the end of a long period during which many thinkers had explored radical ideas about the gods, even to the point of dismissing them altogether.
The reason for the collective blindness towards the acknowledgement of Greco-Roman thought in shaping modern western secular societies we now enjoy, is down to christian mythology being allowed to take root.
It is through the profound ignorance of classical tradition that anyone ever believed that the 18th century Europeans were the first to battle against religion.
The arrival of Catholic Christianity – that’s Christianity joined with imperial power – meant the end of ancient atheism. A skeptical mind was unthinkable to the theists outside the framework of monotheism. The rise of atheism in the last two hundred years, is not a historical anomaly; what is, is the global domination of monotheistic faiths.
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
The Courts Of Classical Athens – A Lanni
The Illiad – Homer
Priests and Power in Classical Athens – R Garland
Coping With The Gods – H. S. Vesnal
Greek Religion – J Bremmer