ATHEISM

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ATHEISM, Accusation of. Accused of atheism in the Greco-Roman world were those who, for various reasons, refused to acknowledge the existence of the gods and their benevolent intervention in human life in this world and, behaving accordingly, assumed attitudes contrary to the common religious beliefs and refused to offer to the gods the prescribed worship. Given the deeply rooted public dimension of pagan religion, the accusation of atheism meant, besides moral disapproval, an explicitly political censure that could lead to extreme punishments like exile or condemnation to death. Atheism was perhaps the most important result of the great scientific and spiritual revolution that took place in the Greek world in the 5th c. BC. The rejection of the traditional gods was affirmed as the logical consequence of Sophist political doctrines on the conventional character of religion and of the physical theories on the material nature of the heavenly bodies introduced by Anaxagoras. The law of Diopeithes the seer sought to check the spread of these dangerous innovations. Besides Socrates, who was condemned under the accusation of not acknowledging the city’s gods, the most famous atheists of antiquity were Diagoras of Melos and Theodore of Cyrene ample collection of sources ed. by M. Winiarczyk, Diagorae Melii et Theodori Cyrenaei reliquiae, Leipzig 1981. The Epicureans, who denied providence and were critical of the traditional cults, were likewise accused Lucian, Alexander or the False Prophet 25. Lucian’s text also attests that, besides the Epicureans, the accusation of atheism was leveled at the Christians during the mid-2nd c., and in fact this accusation was clearly documented for the first time during that period, in Justin Martyr’s Apol. 6,1; 76,1-2 and in the Mart. Polyc. 3,2 and 9,2. A few years later it reappears in the events of the martyrs of Lyons of 177 Eus. HE V,1,9-10. Tatian tells how, to the pagans, the Christians were atheists to the highest degree Ad Graec. 27,1, and Athenagoras devotes many chapters of his Presbeia Concerning the Christians 4-30 to arguing precisely against this accusation, which was in some sense much more serious than the other widespread accusations of cannibalism and incest. The pagan Cecilius, portrayed by Minucius Felix in Octavius 8,2, compares the atheism of the Christians to the well-known atheism of Diagoras of Melos and Theodore of Cyrene. Jews were also categorized as atheists, in the pagan meaning of the term, for their rigid monotheism that rendered them misanthropic thus Apollonius Molon according to Flavius Josephus, C. Apion II,15. Atheism and Jewish practices were the reason for Flavius Clement and Flavia Domitilla’s condemnation under Domitian, according to Cassius Dio’s account LXVII,14,1-3. Julian the emperor cites the wickedness of the Jews as the real source of the atheism of Christians C. Gal. 43 B. Still in the early 4th c., the accusation of atheism was an integral part of the polemical baggage used by pagans against Christians, as the convergent testimonies of Eusebius of Caesarea Praep. evang. I,2,2 and Arnobius of Sicca Adv. nat. I,29; III,28; V,30; VI,27 show. Arnobius Adv. nat. I,26,3 and Eusebius Praep. evang. III,13,4 also refer to a similar accusation by pagans Porphyry certainly among them against Christians, that of being profane bebeloi, i.e., unitiated in the mysteries. For the Neoplatonist Iamblichus, their contemporary, atheists among whom Christians were certainly numbered deny the divinely inspired value of oracular divination and of theurgy De myst. III,31. The Christian apologists broadly rejected the accusation of atheism, not only by emphasizing the strictly monotheistic character of their faith but also by turning this accusation against their polytheistic opponents. In Christian parlance, in fact, the accusation of atheism was used to stigmatize the traditional polytheism that kept pagans from accepting the Christian revelation of the one true God. The Jewish Philo of Alexandria had already defined Egyptian idolatry as atheism Leg. ad Gaium 25; Post. Caini 2. Beginning with the letter to the Ephesians 2:12, the Christian tradition was unanimous in attributing all pagan religious and moral perversion to their atheism. According to Theophilus of Antioch Ad Autol. 2,4; 3,2-3 and 6-7, the Greek philosophers had taught the atheism that was the cause of the aberrant behavior of pagans. Origen returns more than once to the paradoxical expression atheist polytheism or polytheistic atheism see Exh. mart. 5 and 32; C. Cels. I,1; III,73. At the school of Caesarea, where all Greek philosophers and poets were intensively studied, the writings of atheist philosophers who, like the Epicureans, denied providence, were rigorously excluded see Gregory Thaumaturgus, Thanksgiving to Origen 13. A special mention is due here to the contributions of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. The former admits that the pagan accusation of atheism is valid only in the sense that Christians do not recognize the supposed gods of the traditional pantheon Apol. 6,1, but adds that for Christians, since they worship the one true God, the accusation of atheism which, like Socrates, led to their death is unjust Apol. 5,3-4. For Justin, all those who, like Socrates, Heraclitus and others, lived according to the logos are Christians in every respect, even if they were considered atheists by the pagans Apol. 46,3. Their atheism was judged positively from a Christian perspective, since it arose from the reasoned rejection of polytheism. This reevaluation of the atheism of the pagan philosophers, first proposed by Justin, was then taken up and developed by Clement of Alexandria Protr. II,24,2. For him, the pagan philosophers who had denied the existence of the gods, while they had not grasped the truth in its fullness, had at least the merit of suspecting the error of polytheistic belief. In this sense they were the precursors of the true religion, sent by God to enlighten the darkened spirits of the Greeks, just as the prophets were sent to the chosen people to prepare the way for the gospel. A. von Harnack, Der Vorwurf des Atheismus in den drei ersten Jahrhunderten TU 28, NF 134, Leipzig 1905; A.D. Simpson, Epicureans, Christians, Atheists in the Second Century: TPAPA 72 1941 372-381; W. Nestle, Atheismus: RAC I 1950 866- 870; E. Fascher, Der Vorwurf der Gottlosigkeit in der Auseinandersetzung bei Juden, Griechen und Christen, in O. Betz – M. Hengel – P. Schmidt eds., Abraham unser Vater. Juden und Christen im Gespr¤ch ¼ber die Bibel. Festschrift f¼r O. Michel AGSU 5, Leiden-Cologne 1963, 78-105; N. Brox, Zum Vorwurf des Atheismus gegen die Alte Kirche: TTZ 75 1966 274- 282; M. Winiarczyk, Wer galt im Altertum als Atheist?: Philologus 128 1984 157-183; M. Winiarczyk, Methodisches zum antiken Atheismus: RhM 133 1990 1-15; J.J. Walsh, On Christian Atheism: VChr 45 1991 255-277; P.F. Beatrice, L’accusation d’athisme contre les Chrtiens, in M. Narcy – ‰. Rebillard eds., Hellnisme et Christianisme, Villeneuve d’Ascq 2004, 133-152 with additional bibliography.What People Don’t Understand About Atheism Odyssey holidaymapq


ATHEISM

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