Early Atheists

Aug 2018
Southern Indiana
I think there is tendency is to assume all early peoples had some sort of god they worshiped or religion of some sort. Did the idea of atheism develop with the progress of science? Are there any early atheists cultures? Any ancient atheist philosophers?
Jan 2017
Italy, EU
The early "atheists" were people accused of not venerating the Gods and therefore responsible for bringing calamities to society. People were expected to pray the Gods for their well-being and this would reflect in the well-being of society as a whole. Ancient religions were primarily a cult system rather than a belief system. Example: I venerate Venus so she makes that person fall in love with me; I venerate Mars so we win the war. Etc. etc.

Socrates was accused of being an atheist, but denied. The Epicureans were accused to be atheists altough they mantained that Gods existed but they lived out this world (in the "inter-mundia") and didn't have interest in world affaires. So they denied too. No person would have proudly said "i am an Atheist": the term implied a negative connotation. Like "heretic" in the middle ages.

That being said, there were many Epicureans. And to a large degree you can say that they were Atheists that couldn't/wouldn't go around claiming that they were.
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Sep 2019
Well modern or more modern atheists are claiming many times that many atheists were present in history but it seems to me that they are exaggerating. Many times for example they claim that atheists existed in acient India but many were no real atheists because they were searching for god in humans through meditation. Contrary to the claims of some atheists also Epicureanism was not in fact atheism because they believed in gods which exist but do not intervene in this world or reveal themselves to humans. And also they believed in soul yet it was really not imortal for them. Epicureans were also sceptical about bodily passions because they can trick you in loosing pleasures. Others were more pantheists than atheists like Baruch Spinoza.

It seems that some kind of atheists existed in India in school Charvaka and Cyrenaics school in Greece. The last was hedonistic and short lived because of the problem of pain and suffering they got close to Buddhism and was replaced by Epicureans which tried to give to the philosophy of pleasure more sense. Charvaka also held a position that Atman or true self is human body itself. So one should enjoy life in individualistic sense. They were accused of being without ethics. It is questionable if this is really atheism in modern sense because human body is viewed in special godly like way not as basically unimportant.

In 18th century you had a strong movement of deism but atheists were still rare. As i see it atheism is more or less modern invention and it was generally speaking not satisfying for the people in the past.
Jun 2017
Dr. Whitmarsh of Cambridge University has published a book on just this subject: Battling the Gods. He argues that atheism goes back as far as Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570-475 BC). IMO atheism is a term that has often been used to describe those who reject the sanctioned gods of a culture; this, then, would include early Christians who were regarded as atheists by a Roman culture which was dismayed by a rejection of its gods.
Nov 2016
Atheism is the denial of the existence of gods, whether plural or singular.

According to this definition, the first known atheist in the Occident is clearly the Greek philosopher Anaximander (611-547), who lived before Heraclitus, who can also be considered an atheist.

The fact that Anaximander was an atheist does not mean that he was a materialist. Rather, he was convinced of the existence of an a-personal substance founding and penetrating the universe, which he called the 'Apeiron', the boundless.

This Apeiron has no theistic features, i.e. it is an a-theistic concept. Anyone who doubts this confuses atheism with materialism, which would be a gross philosophical-historical mistake.

Philosophy historically begins where thought turns away from the mythological constructs of religion and introduces abstract concepts that do not involve anthropomorphism or naive metaphorization.

Anaximander of Milet is the first to do this step. He entered the stage in the early 6th century BCE, at the time of the Solonic Reforms, as a metaphysician who approached Brahmanic and Buddhist insights like hardly anyone else after him in the Occident. His idea of the primordial cause of all things is completely free of mythological associations, as can still be felt in his teacher Thales, who believes that the world is filled with gods. Anaximander describes this cause or origin as Apeiron:

Everything is either origin or from an origin, but the Apeiron has no origin. That would be the boundary for him. Furthermore, it is both unfathomable and imperishable, since it is origin (...) Therefore, as I said, there is no origin of this origin, but this origin seems to be the origin of the other things, encompassing and directing everything. And that is the divine, immortal and imperishable.

Of course there will be some here who claim that this is pantheism and thus also a form of theism. But this is wrong, because Anaximander's concept has no common features with any form of theism. One must not be misled by the term 'pan-theism' - what matters is the concept that denies gods, and not the written word with the syllable 'theism'.

Those who doubt that, as I said, commit a confusion between atheism and materialism.
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Sep 2019
@duncanness according to such definition every 'heretic' in a theocratic society was an atheist. This makes no real sense.

@Tammuz i doubt that Apeiron was really without divine attributes.

Xenophanes writes that this God "sees all over, thinks all over, hears all over. He remains always in the same place, without moving; nor is it fitting that he should come and go, first to one place then to another. But without toil he sets all things in motion by the thought of his mind."

The apeiron of Anaximander and the air of Anaximenes pointed, Xenophanes claimed, to a force greater than either concept which could be behind, or simply be, both: God. Apeiron directs movement of all things.

apeiron is the infinite and boundless, a philosophical and theological ( ! ) claim.

Also some deists do not believe that God is person but rather that it is a principle, but they should be distinguished from atheism.
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Nov 2019
1st century BCE poet/philosopher Lucretius – an Epicurean – was by today’s standards an atheist in that he rejected the idea of gods in his On the Nature of Things. I understand that Polycarp the Martyr, a 2nd century CE Christian martyr, was martyred not for his Christianity as such but technically for atheism, because he rejected the divinity of the Roman Emperor.
Sep 2019
Lucretius believed in gods but on an unorthodox way.

De Rerum Natura ( on the nature of things ) discusses the gods, their nature and their relationship with us on more than one occasion, offering us a decent glimpse of Epicurean theology. In the Epicurean universe, there undoubtedly are gods. Humans perceive the gods – they receive images of them – and those perceptions are true. They do not, however, indulge in any of the bed-hopping, hissy fit-throwing and meddling in human affairs that characterise the gods in Homer or Greek tragedy. The images we receive are of beautiful and untroubled creatures, a model of the repose that Epicurean humans are aiming for. However, our minds often leap from a perception that is true to an opinion that is false, and that happened in the case of the gods: trying to explain earthquakes, thunderbolts and the like, early humans decided that the extraordinary and beautiful gods whose images they received must be the ones shaking the Earth or rending the sky.