We take atheism for granted today; the ancients took theism for granted.
Of course, that’s a sweeping generalisation. But the first part holds true for most university students today, and it has often led students to assume that the greatest ancient philosophers, politicians and authors were atheists at heart too. That is, until they find evidence to the contrary. The assumption – and I may be treading on some toes here – even pervades scholarship, particularly in studies on Roman religion, where well-respected scholars have treated Roman religion as little more than a convenient charade for the elite, a tool they cynically used to manipulate the masses.
But how prominent was atheism in Greek and Roman thought?
For this brief study I’ll focus on the place of atheism in philosophy. Admittedly, philosophers made up just a small proportion of Greek and Roman society, and consequently their views may not have been representative of the entire community. However the philosophers would not have written in a complete social vacuum. Feminists often cite philosophical works to gain some understanding of broader societal attitudes to women. In a similar way, I will quote philosophers in the hope that some of their reactions and attitudes towards atheism might indicate broader societal concerns. I will start with the known Greek atheists, then I will look at how Plato and Cicero presented their attitudes to atheism.
Posterity has preserved the names of two outright atheists, Diagoras of Melos (5th cent. BC) and Theodorus of Cyrene (c. 300 BC). It is also worth mentioning the agnostic Protagoras of Abdera (5th cent. BC), who famously professed, “So far as gods are concerned, I cannot know whether they exist or not, nor what they are like in appearance; for many factors impede our knowledge – obscurity and the shortness of life.” Unfortunately the written works of these three have largely not survived, and even worse, the common feature of them all was that they faced serious hostility from the community. Diagoras, a lyric poet, had been sentenced to death for his professed godlessness and for having desecrated the rites of the Eleusinian mysteries. Mere agnosticism was enough to get Protagoras banished from Athens, and according to Cicero he “had his books publicly burnt.” Theodorus had allegedly been exiled from Cyrene in his youth (though the reason for it was not explicitly stated in this source). Given the reports of Diagoras, Theodorus and Protagoras, it is probably safe to say that there were professed atheists and agnostics in Greece, and that they had been exiled or executed for their unbelief on at least two occasions.
At this point I will pause and say that not everyone within a community has to have the same views. It would be wrong to make a sweeping statement that all Greeks were theists or that all Greeks were atheists. But it is sometimes possible to get a sense of which group was larger and more politically or socially acceptable. In this case, the fact that the atheists and agnostics were often exiled from their communities strongly suggests that the supporters of theism had greater political power and social approval than the atheists. And this assessment flies in the face of scholars who have labelled (and somehow continue to label) the development of atheism in Greek thought as the “Greek Enlightenment.” I would argue, rather, that there is hardly anything “Enlightening” about the burning of books or the banishment and execution of atheists. Moreover, as we will see below, the intellectual posterity was not very kind to these atheists either. If this was the time for a great atheist awakening in the Greek intellectual world, it seems to have been quite limited in its effect.
Plato was particularly strong in his disapproval of atheism. The following passage is admittedly a long quotation, but a valuable one at that. In book ten of Plato’s Laws, an Athenian character in the dialogue was asked how he might prove that the gods exist. Needless to say, the character did not even like the fact that he should even be asked this question. The Athenian citizen burst out with a barely suppressed mix of incredulity and disdain for anyone who might happen to be atheist.
Who can be calm when he is called upon to prove the existence of the Gods? Who can avoid hating and abhorring the men who are and have been the cause of this argument; I speak of those who will not believe the tales which they have heard as babes and sucklings from their mothers and nurses, repeated by them both in jest and earnest, like charms, who have also heard them in the sacrificial prayers, and seen sights accompanying them – sights and sounds delightful to children – and their parents during the sacrifices showing an intense earnestness on behalf of their children and of themselves, and with eager interest talking to the Gods, and beseeching them, as though they were firmly convinced of their existence; who likewise see and hear the prostrations and invocations which are made by Hellenes and barbarians at the rising and setting of the sun and moon, in all the vicissitudes of life, not as if they thought that there were no Gods, but as if there could be no doubt of their existence, and no suspicion of their non-existence; when men, knowing all these things, despise them on no real grounds, as would be admitted by all who have any particle of intelligence, and when they force us to say what we are now saying, how can anyone in gentle terms remonstrate with the like of them, when he has to begin by proving to them the very existence of the Gods? Yet the attempt must be made; for it would be unseemly that one half of mankind should go mad in their lust of pleasure, and the other half in their indignation at such persons.
– Plato, Laws, 10. 887c-888a (emphasis added)
After this outburst, the Athenian citizen seemed to calm down a little. His next paragraph was so patronising, though, that while I am theist, I could not help but cringe at just how heavy-handed and presumptuous this exhortation was.
Our address to these lost and perverted natures should not be spoken in passion; let us suppose ourselves to select some one of them, and gently reason with him, smothering our anger: “O my son,” we will say to him, “you are young, and the advance of time will make you reverse many of the opinions which you now hold. Wait awhile, and do not attempt to judge at present of the highest things; and that is the highest of which you now think nothing-to know the Gods rightly and to live accordingly. And in the first place let me indicate to you one point which is of great importance, and about which I cannot be deceived: You and your friends are not the first who have held this opinion about the Gods. There have always been persons more or less numerous who have had the same disorder. I have known many of them, and can tell you, that no one who had taken up in youth this opinion, that the Gods do not exist, ever continued in the same until he was old; the two other notions certainly do continue in some cases, but not in many; the notion, I mean, that the Gods exist, but take no heed of human things, and the other notion that they do take heed of them, but are easily propitiated with sacrifices and prayers. As to the opinion about the Gods which may someday become clear to you, I advise you go wait and consider if it be true or not; ask of others, and above all of the legislator. In the meantime take care that you do not offend against the Gods. For the duty of the legislator is and always will be to teach you the truth of these matters.”
– Plato, Laws, 10. 888a-d (emphasis added)
Plato knew that adult atheism was possible, since he sometimes accused his philosophical opponents, the Sophists, of atheism. But it did not stop him from writing such a patronising speech, as if theism was self-evident to every sane and reasonable person. That does not mean that Plato’s photogenic picture of a 100% theist society was accurate. Rather it shows that Plato could get away with saying this. People received Plato’s works well, and Plato wasn’t afraid that his peers would find his heavy-handed attacks on atheism offensive. This is consistent with the earlier evidence that theism had the larger share of social and political power in ancient Greek communities.
Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods
Cicero also has some interesting things to say about atheism, especially in his work On the Nature of the Gods. Unlike Plato, Cicero did not write a heavy-handed rant against atheism. One of his characters in the dialogue, Cotta, even delivered a powerful series of arguments against the existence of the gods. What is particularly interesting in the characterisation of Cotta, however, was the fact that he was a priest and a professed theist. When Balbus, a Stoic, told Cotta that he should not argue against the existence of the gods since he was a priest, Cotta replied,
Cotta: I am rather moved by your authority, Balbus, and by what you said, when you exhorted me at the end of your speech to remember that I am not just Cotta but a priest; I believe this was the gist of it, that I should defend the opinions [opiniones] we have received from our ancestors about the immortal gods, and also our sacrifices, ceremonies and religious obligations. Indeed I will defend these views and I always, always have, and no speech either of a learned or unlearned man will ever budge me from the opinion which I have received from our ancestors about the cult of the immortal gods.
– Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 3.5
The character Cotta made it clear that he really did believe the gods existed, and it was important for him to state his allegiance to the opiniones (opinions or beliefs) about the gods which he had inherited from the ancestors. He reaffirmed this in several more passages, where he explained that he, a philosophical Sceptic, only wanted to criticise the philosophical (particularly the Stoic) arguments that the gods existed. He raised these arguments for the sake of showing that the philosophers had not proven the gods’ existence.
Cotta: And so up to this point, as far as what was in your arguments, Balbus, I haven’t come to know that the gods exist; in fact I believe [credo] they do, but the Stoics do not prove it. (3.15)
… Carneades used to say these things, not to abolish the gods – for that would less than appropriate for a philosopher – but to show that the Stoics have explained nothing about the gods. (3.44)
… This is all I have to say about the nature of the gods – not to abolish them, but so that you would understand how obscure their nature is, and how difficult the explanations are. (3.93)
It is quite telling that Cotta had to carefully excuse his Sceptic arguments in this way. None of the other characters in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods felt they should apologise for presenting philosophical arguments in defence of theism. In contrast to this, Cotta had self-consciously repeated his claim that he was bringing up Sceptic refutations only for the sake of the argument, and not to deny the actual existence of the gods.
It is also interesting just how many characters in this dialogue repeated the argument that runs “it is natural to believe that the gods exist, since pretty much everyone everywhere believes they do.” It was the first claim about the gods to be mentioned in the entire work, when the narrator Marcus noted:
Marcus: Most philosophers have said that the gods exist, which is the most probable notion that we all come to by nature’s guidance. (1.2)
Velleius the Epicurean brought out this argument as well:
Velleius: Now when the natural bent of all people agrees on this, it must be true; therefore one must acknowledge that the gods exist. (1.44)
And Balbus the Stoic also promoted this attitude:
Balbus: It is consistently held among all people of every nation… the notion that the gods exist is innate for everyone and, as it were, inscribed on the mind. (2.12)
Marcus and Cotta both quickly explained that it was false to claim that everyone believed there were gods, citing Protagoras, Diagoras and Theodorus as counter-examples. In addition, Cotta speculated that there were tribes “so monstrously barbarous that they have no suspicion among them that the gods exist,” and argued that people who committed sacrileges and perjured themselves demonstrated they did not believe in the gods. It is notable that those lists of atheists failed to make any mention, however vague, of atheism among law-abiding Romans. The atheists Marcus and Cotta mentioned were famous ancient Greek individuals, barbarous tribesmen, or out-and-out criminals. And so while the final speaker, Cotta, acknowledged that theism was not universal, he still found it reasonable to say that the notion of the gods’ existence was “agreed among everyone except the completely impious.”
All of these features in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods tend to suggest that, to Cicero at least, theism was normalised and atheism was seen as something marginal and suspicious. If the intellectual discourse about atheism was anything like our own, the characters who argued for the existence of the gods would have been more cautious about stating that the belief in the gods was a natural assumption common to all decent people. But the opposite was true. Even the character Cotta, who said he was not an atheist, felt he had to repeatedly excuse himself for bringing up arguments against the existence of the gods.
It must be admitted that this study was mostly limited to philosophical sources, and philosophers represented only a small proportion of the society as a whole. However, no ancient writer wrote in a social vacuum. It is reasonable to expect that philosophers were, to an extent, socially conscious, and this awareness of societal approval affected the way they presented their views about atheism and the existence of the gods. If that is a sensible premise, then it is fair to suggest that atheism was probably not very well approved of by Greek and Roman communities. Moreover, the fact that repressive actions were taken against atheists in Greece suggests that the people who disapproved of atheism held a greater share of the political and social power in the community. In the centuries after Diagoras and Theodorus were made famous for their statements of unbelief, atheism does not seem to have gained very much appeal within intellectual circles. This should serve as a warning about studying classical societies with modern assumptions. Plato, Cicero and many other ancient intellectuals thrived on a very different set of assumptions from those of our own society.
Runia, David T. “Atheists in Aëtius Text, Translation and Comments on “De Placitis” 1.7.1-10.” Mnemosyne 49.5 (1996): 542-576.
Scheid, John. An Introduction to Roman Religion. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Kyle Conrau-Lewis for his help on atheist-like characters in epic poetry, even though I unfortunately didn’t have enough space or time to discuss the god-despising heroes, Mezentius (in Virgil’s Aeneid) and Capaneus (in Statius’ Thebaid).
 John Scheid, in his Introduction to Roman Religion (1998), is particularly prone to treat Roman religion as something which the elite Romans – the ones in the know – saw as a convenient pretence: “In consultation of the auspices, it was not the god who expressed himself: the consulting magistrate, helped by a few assistants, provided both the questions and the answers,” p149. In another part of his Introduction, Scheid linked his cynicism of Roman religion to his contempt of religion in general:“It would not be too misleading to suggest that the elite also played upon the irrational fears of the common people, so as more easily to bend them to its will. But the same can be said of all religions,” p152. He even supported his assessment by quoting Tertullian, an ancient Christian apologist who strongly disapproved of Roman religion: “Among you (pagans) a god’s divinity depends on man’s decision. Unless a god please man, he shall not be a god at all; in fact, man must look kindly on god,” (Tertullian, Apologeticus 5.1) p148. The irony here is that Scheid claims he is offering a view of Roman religion which is not derived from mistaken Christian ideas. If he was truly cynical of religion, or used his common sense, he should not have expected that a Christian apologist would give anywhere near a fair assessment of Roman paganism, especially on the question of its validity as a religion.
 Vorsokr. 80B4.
 According to the Scholiasts on Aristophanes’ Birds (1073) and Frogs (320).
 Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 1.63.
 Diogenes Laertius, 2.103.
 David T. Runia, “Atheists in Aëtius Text, Translation and Comments on “De Placitis” 1.7.1-10,” Mnemosyne 49.5 (1996): 542.
 Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 1.2; 1.63.
 ibid. 1.62.
 ibid. 1.63-4; see also 1.86.
 ibid. 3.7.