Atheism in Pagan Antiquity

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Asebeia Publisher's Summary

From the Preface, the author explains the scope of his classic study: The present inquiry is the outcome of a request to write an article on “Atheism” for a projected dictionary of the religious history of classical antiquity. On going through the sources, I found that the subject might well deserve a more comprehensive treatment than the scope of a dictionary would allow. It is such a treatment that I have attempted in the following audio.

A difficulty that occurred at the very beginning of the inquiry was how to define the notion of atheism. Nowadays the term is taken to designate the attitude which denies every idea of God. Even antiquity sometimes referred to atheism in this sense; but an inquiry dealing with the history of religion could not start from a definition of that kind. It would have to keep in view, not the philosophical notion of God, but the conceptions of the gods as they appear in the religion of antiquity. Hence, I came to define atheism in Pagan antiquity as the point of view which denies the existence of the ancient gods. It is in this sense that the word will be used in the following inquiry.

Even though we disregard philosophical atheism, the definition is somewhat narrow; for in antiquity mere denial of the existence of the gods of popular belief was not the only attitude which was designated as atheism. But it has the advantage of starting from the conception of the ancient gods that may be said to have finally prevailed. In the sense in which the word is used here we are nowadays all of us atheists. We do not believe that the gods whom the Greeks and the Romans worshipped and believed in exist or have ever existed; we hold them to be productions of the human imagination to which nothing real corresponds. This view has nowadays become so ingrained in us and appears so self-evident, that we find it difficult to imagine that it has not been prevalent through long ages; nay, it is perhaps a widely diffused assumption that even in antiquity educate

©2020 MSAC Philosophy Group (P)2021 David Christopher Lane
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