‘New Atheists’ and religious conservatives are both wrong — atheism is much older than you think
Plato and Aristotle, in a detail from Raphael's 'Scuola di Atene' (The School of Athens)

A new book attacks the notion that religion is "hardwired" into humanity.


Tim Whitmarsh, professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University in Britain, argues in his book, "In Battling the Gods," that atheism dates back to at least polytheistic ancient Greece, reported The Guardian.

“I am trying to destabilize this notion, which seems to be gaining hold all the time, that there is something fundamental to humanity about [religious] belief,” he told the newspaper.

Whitmarsh strongly disputes the belief that atheism is a product of the European Enlightenment, which he said “would be inconceivable without the twin ideas of a secular state and of science as a rival to religious truth.”

The professor said this myth is “nurtured by both sides of the ‘new atheism’ debate."

Some atheists promote this myth to demonstrate how science has triumphed religious belief, Whitmarsh said, while some religious adherents make the same claim to argue that science had led humanity astray.

“Both are guilty of modernist vanity," Whitmarsh said. "Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills. It is only through profound ignorance of the classical tradition that anyone ever believed that 18th-century Europeans were the first to battle the gods.”

Whitmarsh said early societies were actually more capable of accommodating atheists than most modern-day societies.

“Rather than making judgments based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren’t intuitively there in your world," he said. "The fact that this was happening thousands of years ago suggests that forms of disbelief can exist in all cultures, and probably always have.”

He cites writings by Plato during the fourth century BC, in which a religious believer reminds an atheist that he is "not the first to have held this view about the gods."

The head of the Platonic academy in the second century BC taught that "belief in gods is illogical," and Whitmarsh said other ancient Greeks were known as atheists and mocked myths about miracles and other supernatural events.

Whitmarsh said the religious diversity of ancient Greece's polytheistic societies made room for atheism because there was no religious orthodoxy, and clergy lacked the influence to codify moral laws.

However, that does not mean atheism was generally accepted.

He pointed out that Socrates was executed around the fourth century BC in Athens for “not recognizing the gods of the city."

“Most cultures in human history have had a form of supernatural belief, of one sort or other. It would be hard to deny that that is the norm," Whitmarsh said. But that’s not to say that every person in every culture has subscribed to that."