Atheism has been seen all throughout the ages as having been something bad, evil; something to stay away from. It has come to have a negative connotation. Today, with the prominent atheist writers and scientists such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett; atheism and materialistic thinking based on reason is being revived from dormancy. But has it been dormant? Or has atheism always been around?
These ‘four horseman’, as they have been called, have awoken atheism from the time of The Enlightenment and from the time of the Roman poets such as Epicurus and Lucretius. The Enlightenment thinkers Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were deists and held religion with contempt. Paine was vocal about his criticism of religion and published a pamphlet called, The Age of Reason; where he criticized every bit and piece of the bible. We now know from Jefferson’s letter to William Short that he was a follower of Epicureanism. “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” a quote from Isaac Newton, who was also a fond admirer of Epicurus, showing in his letter to Robert Hooke. The giants that I’m alluding to are Epicurus and Lucretius. This Greek and Roman duo laid the foundation for modern atheistic thought, reason, and science. These two authors criticized religion and the religious authority of their time and looked for answers through natural and scientific means instead of by supernatural means.
Religion, as Karl Marx put it, in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people,” and then continued with, “Criticism [of religion] has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.” “It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for which he can attain by his own power,” as put by the philosopher Epicurus, born on the island of Samos in the year 341 B.C.E. Though Epicurus was not an atheist, he did not accept organized religion as truth but as falsity. Epicurus was a deist and believed that the gods were too perfect to mingle in human affairs. A god or supreme being, as Epicurus envisions, “…neither has trouble itself nor does it cause trouble for anyone else; therefore, it does not experience feelings of anger or indebtedness, for such feelings signify weakness.” As we begin to see, Epicurus’s views were highly atheistic regarding a personal deity. Epicurus was the founder of Epicureanism, a philosophy which was materialistic in its approach to reality. He prescribed to atomism, the theory first invented by Democritus that says that all things in the universe, even gods, are made of small bodies known as atoms. And that these atoms can be destroyed and that the soul dies when the body does; “When the whole body is destroyed, it no longer possesses sensation, because the soul is dissolved and no longer has the same powers and motions”, Epicurus wrote, in his letter to Herodotus. This kind of thinking was revolutionary during his time when most believed in religion and a life after death. “We have been born once and there can be no second birth. For all eternity we shall no longer be”, showing that this is the only life we have to live and to make the best of it, which is principally, in my opinion, why he focused so much on pleasure because he knew of our short and singular existence. Epicurus rejected the fear of death as it was, “…nothing to us, because a body that has been dispersed into elements experiences no sensations and the absence of sensation is nothing to us,” and stated that an eternity of life after death was not desirable, “life is not improved by adding infinite time; removing the desire for immortality is what’s required.” In his letter to Pythocles, Epicurus tries to emphasize to Pythocles to, “…resist the explanations that are inconsistent with the evidence, and not give them credibility without basis.” Which shows that at all costs, if the evidence is not in front of you then you shouldn’t accept the claim.
The scientific method shines through in Epicurus’s evidence based philosophy. Epicurus sought to explain the world and the universe in materialistic and naturalistic terms instead of explaining them through scripture or myths passed down generation after generation. He then went on to say later in his letter to Pythocles as recorded in, Lives and Opinions of Famous Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, “The regularity of celestial motions must be accounted for like events on earth: without introducing the need of the gods,” and he then scrutinized the narrow-mindedness of believers to just say that the gods did it, “by rejecting other possible causes, they are driven to unreasonable explanations.” The only way to understand reality is to base our understanding on what we see based on evidence and not on what we hear that’s based on myths and stories. Epicurus was a great mind and philosopher. He challenged the pre-conceived notion of the gods and made his own mark on history as being one of the first scientists and philosophers to come to conclusions through the study of nature without the need for a revelation handed down from a god. Though he wasn’t an atheist, he surely contributed to atheistic thinking with his charge against dogmatism and superstition while cautioning many that it’s best to have their opinions conform to the evidence of reality than the other way around.
Following Epicurus, one Roman poet and philosopher would take the torch and carry on Epicurus’ teachings and articulate them into a masterpiece of poetry known as, On the Nature of Things, which was written for a Roman aristocrat, Memmius, in hope to win his friendship. The author of this work was Titus Lucretius Carus and lived during the first century B.C.E, during a time of brute religious revival in Rome. He was a devoted Epicurean, atomist, and naturalist. Although little is known of this poet, he certainly left a mark on poetry and also on criticism of religion. Like Epicurus, he believed that things could be known through the study of nature and that religion gave a false picture of nature and couldn’t be trusted. Lucretius’ poem, On the Nature of Things, was written in 7,400 dactylic hexameters and was divided into six untitled books. He died before it was finished. A rumor ruminated through St. Jerome, a Christian writer, that Lucretius was driven mad by a love potion and later killed himself. This arose probably in part because Lucretius was vilified by the Christian writers of his time because of his contempt for religion. But, no evidence has come to justify the claim that he was driven mad by a love potion, not to mention that his 200 line denunciation of sexual love seems to contradict this claim altogether. Lucretius attacked religion because he thought that religion could make people do horrible and awful things. To take from a quote made by the American physicist Steven Weinberg on religion, “with or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This sums up Lucretius’ point that religion can sway the reason of good people to commit horrors for some ritualistic tradition trying to please the gods. Lucretius, in his poem warns Memmius, “Herein I have one fear, lest perchance you think that you are starting on the principles of some unholy reasoning, and setting foot upon the path of sin. Nay, but on the other hand, again and again our foe, religion, has given birth to deeds sinful and unholy.” Later in his poem, Lucretius goes on to tell of the virgin Iphigenia of the story Agamemnon and her fate upon the altar, “…all trembling was she led to the altars, not that, when the ancient rite of sacrifice was fulfilled, she might be escorted by the clear cry of ‘hymen’, but in the very moment of marriage, a pure victim she might foully fall, sorrowing beneath a father’s slaughtering stroke,” and then went on to finish, “Such evil deeds could religion prompt.” Sacrificing a human being was evil according Lucretius. And this example he brings up of Iphigenia is parallel to the story of Abraham and his son Isaac (or Ishmael if you are a Muslim); where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to show his devotion to God. The prospect that good can come from religion is well-intentioned but from what Lucretius warns is that though we concede that religion can be a force for good, it can also be one of the worst adversaries for evil. Lucretius believed that Epicurus helped destroy religion with his scientific investigations. For example, “His it should first be to shiver the close-bolted portals of Nature. Therefore his soul’s live energy triumphed, and far and wide… from realms of space he comes back victorious,” and then he describes religion as being trampled on by the discoveries of science, “Then how in turn underfoot religion is hurled down and trampled, then how that victory lifts mankind to high level of heaven.” He’s saying that the more we explore nature and discover our world the less and less we will need religion to explain things. Religion would get smaller and smaller the more we know about the universe and soon will be trampled beneath our feet.
These two great philosophers dared to explore the realm of science with such beauty and poetry while at the same time, disregard and show contempt and sometimes hatred for the stories of religion, finding consolation within nature even with matters of death with which we all fear. Looking back at what they’ve accomplished in the time they lived is surprising. They were, to many, a light in the dark and a guide to help steer away from superstition and dogmatism. Though they weren’t atheists, they sure made a lot of atheists throughout the centuries.