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Atheism and atheist are words formed from Greek roots and with Greek derivative endings. Nevertheless they are not Greek; their formation is not consonant with Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos and atheotes; to these the English words ungodly and ungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactly the same way as ungodly, atheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation; this use is an old one, and the oldest that can be traced. Not till later do we find it employed to denote a certain philosophical creed; we even meet with philosophers bearing atheos as a regular surname. We know very little of the men in question; but it can hardly be doubted that atheos, as applied to them, implied not only a denial of the gods of popular belief, but a denial of gods in the widest sense of the word, or Atheism as it is nowadays understood.

In this case the word is more particularly a philosophical term. But it was used in a similar sense also in popular language, and corresponds then closely to the English “denier of God,” denoting a person who denies the gods of his people and State. From the popular point of view the interest, of course, centred in those only, not in the exponents of philosophical theology. Thus we find the word employed both of theoretical denial of the gods (atheism in our sense) and of practical denial of the gods, as in the case of the adherents of monotheism, Jews and Christians.

Atheism, in the theoretical as well as the practical sense of the word, was, according to the ancient conception of law, always a crime; but in practice it was treated in different ways, which varied both according to the period in question and according to the more or less dangerous nature of the threat it offered to established religion. It is only as far as Athens and Imperial Rome are concerned that we have any definite knowledge of the law and the judicial procedure on this point; a somewhat detailed account of the state of things in Athens and Rome cannot be dispensed with here.

In the criminal law of Athens we meet with the term asebeia literally: impiety or disrespect towards the gods. As an established formula of accusation of asebeia existed, legislation must have dealt with the subject; but how it was defined we do not know. The word itself conveys the idea that the law particularly had offences against public worship in view; and this is confirmed by the fact that a number of such offences from the felling of sacred trees to the profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries were treated as asebeia. When, in the next place, towards the close of the fifth century B.C., free-thinking began to assume forms which seemed dangerous to the religion of the State, theoretical denial of the gods was also included under asebeia. From about the beginning of the Peloponnesian War to the close of the fourth century B.C., there are on record a number of prosecutions of philosophers who were tried and condemned for denial of the gods. The indictment seems in most cases the trial of Socrates is the only one of which we know details to have been on the charge of asebeia, and the procedure proper thereto seems to have been employed, though there was no proof or assertion of the accused having offended against public worship; as to Socrates, we know the opposite to have been the case; he worshipped the gods like any other good citizen. This extension of the conception of asebeia to include theoretical denial of the gods no doubt had no foundation in law; this is amongst other things evident from the fact that it was necessary, in order to convict Anaxagoras, to pass a special public resolution in virtue of which his free-thinking theories became indictable. The law presumably dated from a time when theoretical denial of the gods lay beyond the horizon of legislation. Nevertheless, in the trial of Socrates it is simply taken for granted that denial of the gods is a capital crime, and that not only on the side of the prosecution, but also on the side of the defence: the trial only turns on a question of fact, the legal basis is taken for granted. So inveterate, then, at this time was the conception of the unlawful nature of the denial of the gods among the people of Athens.

In the course of the fourth century B.C. several philosophers were accused of denial of the gods or blasphemy; but after the close of the century we hear no more of such trials. To be sure, our knowledge of the succeeding centuries, when Athens was but a provincial town, is far less copious than of the days of its greatness; nevertheless, it is beyond doubt that the practice in regard to theoretical denial of the gods was changed. A philosopher like Carneades, for instance, might, in view of his sceptical standpoint, just as well have been convicted of asebeia as Protagoras, who was convicted because he had declared that he did not know whether the gods existed or not; and as to such a process against Carneades, tradition would not have remained silent. Instead, we learn that he was employed as the trusted representative of the State on most important diplomatic missions. It is evident that Athens had arrived at the point of view that the theoretical denial of the gods might be tolerated, whereas the law, of course, continued to protect public worship.

In Rome they did not possess, as in Athens, a general statute against religious offences; there were only special provisions, and they were, moreover, few and insufficient. This defect, however, was remedied by the vigorous police authority with which the Roman magistrates were invested. In Rome severe measures were often taken against movements which threatened the Roman official worship, but it was done at the discretion of the administration and not according to hard-and-fast rules; hence the practice was somewhat varying, and a certain arbitrariness inevitable.

No example is known from Rome of action taken against theoretical denial of the gods corresponding to the trials of the philosophers in Athens. The main cause of this was, no doubt, that free-thinking in the fifth century B.C. invaded Hellas, and specially Athens, like a flood which threatened to overthrow everything; in Rome, on the other hand, Greek philosophy made its way in slowly and gradually, and this took place at a time when in the country of its origin it had long ago found a modus vivendi with popular religion and was acknowledged as harmless to the established worship. The more practical outlook of the Romans may perhaps also have had something to say in the matter: they were rather indifferent to theoretical speculations, whereas they were not to be trifled with when their national institutions were concerned.

In consequence of this point of view the Roman government first came to deal with denial of the gods as a breach of law when confronted with the two monotheistic religions which invaded the Empire from the East. That which distinguished Jews and Christians from Pagans was not that they denied the existence of the Pagan gods the Christians, at any rate, did not do this as a rule but that they denied that they were gods, and therefore refused to worship them. They were practical, not theoretical deniers. The tolerance which the Roman government showed towards all foreign creeds and the result of which in imperial times was, practically speaking, freedom of religion over the whole Empire, could not be extended to the Jews and the Christians; for it was in the last resort based on reciprocity, on the fact that worship of the Egyptian or Persian gods did not exclude worship of the Roman ones. Every convert, on the other hand, won over to Judaism or Christianity was eo ipso an apostate from the Roman religion, an atheos according to the ancient conception. Hence, as soon as such religions began to spread, they constituted a serious danger to the established religion, and the Roman government intervened. Judaism and Christianity were not treated quite alike; in this connexion details are of no interest, but certain principal features must be dwelt on as significant of the attitude of antiquity towards denial of the gods. To simplify matters I confine myself to Christianity, where things are less complicated.

The Christians were generally designated as atheoi, as deniers of the gods, and the objection against them was precisely their denial of the Pagan gods, not their religion as such. When the Christian, summoned before the Roman magistrates, agreed to sacrifice to the Pagan gods (among them, the Emperor) he was acquitted; he was not punished for previously having attended Christian services, and it seems that he was not even required to undertake not to do so in future. Only if he refused to sacrifice, was he punished. We cannot ask for a clearer proof that it is apostasy as such, denial of the gods, against which action is taken. It is in keeping with this that, at any rate under the earlier Empire, no attempt was made to seek out the Christians at their assemblies, to hinder their services or the like; it was considered sufficient to take steps when information was laid.

The punishments meted out were different, in that they were left solely to the discretion of the magistrates. But they were generally severe: forced labour in mines and capital punishment were quite common. No discrimination was made between Roman citizens and others belonging to the Empire, but all were treated alike; that the Roman citizen could not undergo capital punishment without appeal to the Emperor does not affect the principle. This procedure has really no expressly formulated basis in law; the Roman penal code did not, as mentioned above, take cognizance of denial of the gods. Nevertheless, the sentences on the Christians were considered by the Pagans of the earlier time as a matter of course, the justice of which was not contested, and the procedure of the government was in principle the same under humane and conscientious rulers like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius as under tyrants like Nero and Domitian. Here again it is evident how firmly rooted in the mind of antiquity was the conviction that denial of the gods was a capital offence.

To resume what has here been set forth concerning the attitude of ancient society to atheism: it is, in the first place, evident that the frequently mentioned tolerance of polytheism was not extended to those who denied its gods; in fact, it was applied only to those who acknowledged them even if they worshipped others besides. But the assertion of this principle of intolerance varied greatly in practice according to whether it was a question of theoretical denial of the gods atheism in our sense or practical refusal to worship the Pagan gods. Against atheism the community took action only during a comparatively short period, and, as far as we know, only in a single place. The latter limitation is probably explained not only by the defectiveness of tradition, but also by the fact that in Athens free-thinking made its appearance about the year 400 as a general phenomenon and therefore attracted the attention of the community. Apart from this case, the philosophical denier of God was left in peace all through antiquity, in the same way as the individual citizen was not interfered with, as a rule, when he, for one reason or another, refrained from taking part in the worship of the deities. On the other hand, as soon as practical refusal to believe in the gods, apostasy from the established religion, assumed dangerous proportions, ruthless severity was exercised against it.

The discrimination, however, made in the treatment of the theoretical and practical denial of the gods is certainly not due merely to consideration of the more or less isolated occurrence of the phenomenon; it is rooted at the same time in the very nature of ancient religion. The essence of ancient polytheism is the worship of the gods, that is, cultus; of a doctrine of divinity properly speaking, of theology, there were only slight rudiments, and there was no idea of any elaborate dogmatic system. Quite different attitudes were accordingly assumed towards the philosopher, who held his own opinions of the gods, but took part in the public worship like anybody else; and towards the monotheist, to whom the whole of the Pagan worship was an abomination, which one should abstain from at any cost, and which one should prevail on others to give up for the sake of their own good in this life or the next.

In the literature of antiquity we meet with sporadic statements to the effect that certain philosophers bore the epithet atheos as a sort of surname; and in a few of the later authors of antiquity we even find lists of men almost all of them philosophers who denied the existence of the gods. Furthermore, we possess information about certain persons these also, if Jews and Christians are excluded, are nearly all of them philosophers having been accused of, and eventually convicted of, denial of the gods; some of these are not in our lists. Information of this kind will, as remarked above, be taken as the point of departure for an investigation of atheism in antiquity. For practical reasons, however, it is reasonable to include some philosophers whom antiquity did not designate as atheists, and who did not come into conflict with official religion, but of whom it has been maintained in later times that they did not believe in the existence of the gods of popular belief. Thus we arrive at the following list, in which those who were denoted as atheoi are italicised and those who were accused of impiety are marked with an hyphen:

Xenophanes.
# Anaxagoras.
Diogenes of Apollonia.
Hippo of Rhegium.
# Protagoras.
Prodicus.
Critias.
# Diagoras of Melos.
# Socrates.
Antisthenes.
Plato.
#
Aristotle.
Theophrastus.
# Stilpo.
#
Theodorus.
# Bion.
Epicurus.
Euhemerus.

The persons are put down in chronological order. This order will in some measure be preserved in the following survey; but regard for the continuity of the tradition of the doctrine will entail certain deviations. It will, that is to say, be natural to divide the material into four groups: the pre-Socratic philosophy; the Sophists; Socrates and the Socratics; Hellenistic philosophy. Each of these groups has a philosophical character of its own, and it will be seen that this character also makes itself felt in the relation to the gods of the popular belief, even though we here meet with phenomena of more isolated occurrence. The four groups must be supplemented by a fifth, a survey of the conditions in Imperial Rome. Atheists of this period are not found in our lists; but a good deal of old Pagan free-thinking survives in the first centuries of our era, and also the epithet atheoi was bestowed generally on the Christians and sometimes on the Jews, and if only for this reason they cannot be altogether passed by in this survey.