Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

If atheism is now to be taught in schools in the RE slot, the Greek essayist Plutarch (46-120 AD) would want to teach superstition as well - to warn against it even more vehemently.

In the ancient world, atheism was associated with the fifth-century BC Greek intellectuals known as the sophists. Claiming to be able to teach men how to make a success of their careers, they encouraged them not to be constrained by normal social conventions but to use logos ('reason, argument') to advance their cause, whatever the implications for traditional belief (nomos). As a result, religion in particular, which the Greeks acknowledged rested entirely on nomos, came under attack.

When the famous sophist Protagoras stated that one could not know whether the gods were or were not, since the evidence was lacking and life was short, the cat was out of the bag. The sophist Prodicus speculated on how the gods came to be invented (early man called by the name of 'god' natural phenomena that were useful, like the sun and water; and then revered men who invented useful things, like wine and agriculture, as gods); Democritus thought phenomena like thunder and eclipses, and natural laws controlling e.g., the succession of seasons, persuaded men to think in terms of higher powers; Critias argued that the gods were invented by a clever man to control people by the fear of unseen forces. …

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