He sets out his findings in a new book, “Battling The Gods”, published on Tuesday, which collates evidence for atheism in the Greek city states.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.The study is potentially bad news for believers and non-believers alike.On one hand it breaks the widely assumed link between atheism and progress or modernity but it also rejects the idea that faith is a natural, instinctive impulse.He was one of the first to move away from the idea of a moral god who you could pray to.“Atheism is, of course, a Greek word,” he explained.
He added: “Xenophanes is the earliest person on might associate with the broad penumbra of atheism.
“He did express a belief in a type of god but it was radically different.
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.
“There is evidence from the 5th Century [BC] onwards, initially quite sketchy but certainly from the 2nd Century BC people were compiling lists of arguments against the existence of the gods.” In the book he argues that the idea that atheism is a modern idea, stemming from the Enlightenment, is a “myth” nurtured by both believers and non-beliers alike for their own ends.
“Adherents wish to present scepticism toward the supernatural as the result of science’s progressive eclipse of religion, and the religious wish to see it as a pathological symptom of a decadent Western world consumed by capitalism,” the book explains. Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills.” • All pupils at non-faith schools must study atheism, judge rules • Religion can make you happier, official figures suggest He also points to the trial of Socrates, who was accused of “not recognising the gods of [Athens]” – as evidence that a form of atheism was common at the time even if Socrates denied the accusation.