Far from being the result of scientific breakthroughs or modern mass education, the belief that there were no gods was relatively common in the ancient world, research by Prof Tim Whitmarsh, a leading Cambridge classicist, concludes.
But the “ancient atheism” was effectively written out of history after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire after the reign of Constantine in the early 4th Century, heralding a new era of state-imposed belief, Prof Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, argues.
“Atheism is, of course, a Greek word,” he explained.
“It started out as a negative term but I think there is evidence that people positively identified as that, using that word.
It finds evidence for what he argues would now class as atheism in the works of a string of Greek thinkers from Xenophanes of Colophon – born around 570 BC – to figures such as Carneades in the 2nd Century BC, who was among the first systematically to compile arguments against the existence of the gods.Contrast these with the popular images of much of the approach to God and worship in the Western church.At one end of the spectrum, you have the cerebral, coldly formal, extremely wordy and ritualised worship; at the other end of the spectrum you have the extremely emotional and shallow worship which focuses on the experiential, the fleeting and the here and now.Does it not seem eminently sensible, and wise even, to incorporate the best elements of Buddhism into Christianity?This, however, is unfounded optimism and ultimately leads to a practice of Christianity that bears little resemblance to historic Christianity.The study is potentially bad news for believers and non-believers alike.