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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 pages.

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 educated and unbiased persons held the same view of the religion of their people as we do. In reality both assumptions are erroneous: our “atheism” in regard to ancient paganism is of recent date, and in antiquity itself downright denial of the existence of the gods was a comparatively rare phenomenon. The demonstration of this fact, rather than a consideration of the various intermediate positions taken up by the thinkers of antiquity in their desire to avoid a complete rupture with the traditional ideas of the gods, has been one of the chief purposes of this inquiry.

Though the definition of atheism set down here might seem to be clear and unequivocal, and though I have tried to adhere strictly to it, cases have unavoidably occurred that were difficult to classify. The most embarrassing are those which involve a reinterpretation of the conception of the gods, i.e. which, while acknowledging that there is some reality corresponding to the conception, yet define this reality as essentially different from it. Moreover, the acknowledgment of a certain group of gods (the celestial bodies, for instance) combined with the rejection of others, may create difficulties in defining the notion of atheism; in practice, however, this doctrine generally coincides with the former, by which the gods are explained away. On the whole it would hardly be just, in a field of inquiry like the present, to expect or require absolutely clearly defined boundary-lines; transition forms will always occur.

The persons of whom it is related that they denied the existence of the ancient gods are in themselves few, and they all belong to the highest level of culture; by far the greater part of them are simply professional philosophers. Hence the inquiry will almost exclusively have to deal with philosophers and philosophical schools and their doctrines; of religion as exhibited in the masses, as a social factor, it will only treat by exception. But in its purpose it is concerned with the history of religion, not with philosophy; therefore in accordance with the definition of its object it will deal as little as possible with the purely philosophical notions of God that have nothing to do with popular religion. What it aims at illustrating is a certain if you like, the negative aspect of ancient religion. But its result, if it can be sufficiently established, will not be without importance for the understanding of the positive religious sense of antiquity. If you want to obtain some idea of the hold a certain religion had on its adherents, it is not amiss to know something about the extent to which it dominated even the strata of society most exposed to influences that went against it.

It might seem more natural, in dealing with atheism in antiquity, to adopt the definition current among the ancients themselves. That this method would prove futile the following investigation will, I hope, make sufficiently evident; antiquity succeeded as little as we moderns in connecting any clear and unequivocal idea with the words that signify “denial of God.” On the other hand, it is, of course, impossible to begin at all except from the traditions of antiquity about denial and deniers. Hence the course of the inquiry will be, first to make clear what antiquity understood by denial of the gods and what persons it designated as deniers, and then to examine in how far these persons were atheists in our sense of the word.