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Despite being written out of large parts of history, atheists thrived in the polytheistic societies of the ancient world – raising considerable doubts about whether humans really are “wired” for religion.
Atheism – which is typically seen as a modern phenomenon – was not just common in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome, but probably flourished more in those societies than in most civilisations since.
Atheism is not a modern point of view. The idea of “religious universalism” – that humans are naturally predisposed, or “wired”, to believe in gods is not true.
We tend to see atheism as an idea that has only recently emerged in secular Western societies. The rhetoric used to describe it is hyper-modern.
Rather than making judgements 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. The fact that this was happening thousands of years ago suggests that forms of disbelief can exist in all cultures, and probably always have.
Disbelief is actually as old as the hills. Early examples, such as the atheistic writings of Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570-475 BCE) are contemporary with Second Temple-era Judaism, and significantly predate Christianity and Islam. Even Plato, writing in the 4th Century BCE, said that contemporary non-believers were “not the first to have had this view about the gods.
Because atheism’s ancient history has largely gone unwritten it is also absent from both sides of the current monotheist/atheist debate. While atheists depict religion as something from an earlier, more primitive stage of human development, the idea of religious universalism is also built partly on the notion that early societies were religious by nature because to believe in god is an inherent, “default setting” for humans.
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