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apologetics, atheism, Early Christianity

On the Alleged Atheism of Early Christians

apologetics-romanIt is interesting to note that modern atheists of the internet-infidel variety share much with Pagan counterparts in the first few centuries after Christ. “How can this be?” one might ask. Well, the charge of atheism against Christians is shared both by the common internet-infidel comment that “We’re all atheists, I [the atheist] just take it one god further” and Pagans in the Roman Empire. Oddly, some atheists have gone so far as to suggest that the Pagan accusation is somehow evidence for their position.

The early Christians, it is true, were accused of being atheists. However, to suggest that this is somehow synonymous with contemporary usage of the term “atheist” is ahistorical and anachronistic. Frances Young notes several facets of the charge of atheism leveled against Christians:

What the charge [of atheism leveled against Christians] really amounted to was an expression of dismay and distaste over the fact that people were abandoning conventional ritual practices… The charge of atheism against Christians focused on their refusal after conversion to continue to participate in traditional religious customs… Religion, embedded in the ethnic cultures, was a matter not of belief but of loyalty. (99, 101, cited below)

The charge against Christians, then, was that they were abandoning the ways of the Romans. They were outsiders, outcasts, and, by extension, atheists. By refusing to worship the gods of Rome, they became targets. The fact that the Christians did this conscientiously–they intentionally abandoned the gods–led to the charge of atheism. It was a charge related not to belief in deity, but rather to rejection of shared societal practice, with a culturally charged impetus for making it.

In fact, others who yet believed in the gods were also charged with atheism. The Epicureans were accused of atheism, despite believing that the gods existed:

It is significant that these ‘atheists’ [Epicureans] did not question the existence of the gods. Rather, they liberated people from religion by suggesting that the blessed immortals were not the slightest bit interested in what goes on among human beings… (ibid, 100)

Thus, when modern atheists continue to perpetuate the claim that “we’re all atheists,” and then move on to argue that Christians should agree with them because, after all, Christians were considered ‘atheists’ by the Romans, it is difficult to take them seriously. The Pagan charge was made for cultural reasons, and is tied up in the notion of rejection of the societal norms of the time. It was also made even against those who acknowledged those gods existence. This last point is very important, because one attempted rebuttal I have seen from the modern atheist is that “You are an atheist to other religions.” Well, according to ancient Pagans, you could even be an atheist to your own religion! Of course, the point is that Christians are not atheists, but theists.

The word “atheism” was used back then as a damning charge of societal blasphemy–rejecting the ethnic practices of your own society in pursuit of another’s. Now, modern atheists attempt to forcibly include others in atheism with this kind of pithy phrase. The historical charge is interesting, but clearly entirely different from the modern one. Either charge, however, is inaccurate. Christians, by definition, are not atheists–theists cannot be atheists. The ancient cultural charge is of interest for its historical implications, but it is hardly evidence for the modern use of the charge of atheism against Christians.

I suspect that this post won’t silence many who will continue to persist in saying Christians are atheists. At that point, I suggest to others the following: the people who persist in this mislabeling should be written off as being just as irrelevant as the ancient Pagans with whom they share at least this part of their worldview.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

On the statement that “We are all atheists”– I evaluate the claim that atheists make which say that “we are all atheists.” I evaluate it from a philosophical point of view here.

On the Shoulders of Giants: Rediscovering the lost defenses of Christianity– I have written on how we may discover these enormous resources historical apologists have left behind for us. Take and read!

Source

Frances Young, “Greek Apologists of the Second Century” in Mark Edwards, Martin Goodman, and Simon Price, eds., Apologetics in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford, 1999).

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

25 thoughts on “On the Alleged Atheism of Early Christians

  1. It (the charge of atheism) was a charge related not to belief in deity, but rather to rejection of shared societal practice, with a culturally charged impetus for making it.

    This is the essential premise to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

    The atheist statement (from Dawkins) is We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

    Note the bold. The observation is that all of us – theists and atheists – share the same reason for not believing in most of the gods. And this is important when we look at the shared reason for this non belief (synonymous with atheism): we do not believe because we have no compelling reasons to do so. That is the commonly held position all of us share regarding most of these gods.

    The complaint used by theists about this point Dawkins articulates is that they do believe in a god, so they cannot be atheists. Well, yeah. Dawkins isn’t suggesting otherwise. This complaint, however, misses the point raised: no one is suggesting that a theist is an atheist regarding all gods. Obviously the theist makes an exception. That’s how theism is born – belief in a god. In regards to that god, a person who believes in it is a theist. But this doesn’t change the fact that regarding all those other gods not believed in (that’s why the term ‘most’ was used rather than ‘all’), there is no difference between the non belief of the theist and the non belief of the atheist. This was Dawkins’ point. The difference occurs when some people make the exception and do believe in a particular god. It is that difference, that making of an exception, that is the topic of criticism between atheists and theists.

    When we flip it around and look at a society steeped in gods, we can easily understand why those who rejected most of them but with a single exception, were called ‘atheists’. Sure, this would entail a rejection of shared societal religious practices, but that rejection is a religious one. Where I take issue with the author’s claim for motivation for criticism is when he claims a ‘cultural’ charged impetus for making it. No doubt that would be a part of it, but so too would be the religious differences separating those who believed in the pantheon of gods with those who believed on a particular one only… one that assumed absolute supremacy that classified all others as idolatry with a profound moral cost. The point is that these early Christians were differentiated from the norm by their steadfast non belief regarding the pantheon of gods typically worshiped. Non belief defines atheism, and so it’s not unreasonable to understand why the early Christians were called this name nor unreasonable today to be called atheists in the same way regarding the historical pantheon of gods we do not believe in. That’s why it’s a mole hill: it is used to define those who have no belief regarding the gods being talked about. It is not used to try to redefine theists in the belief they hold towards a particular god; the quote from Roberts Dawkins borrows finishes with “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

    So when you recommend that this point “should be written off as being just as irrelevant as the ancient Pagans with whom they share at least this part of their worldview, ” what you are doing is trying to avoid recognizing the common value of non belief we share (as distasteful as that may be to any theist) regarding most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in (but obviously not the exceptional belief that defines why a person is a theist).

    Posted by tildeb | February 2, 2015, 4:37 PM
    • The observation is that all of us – theists and atheists – share the same reason for not believing in most of the gods.

      But is this true? If someone is convinced that some higher power is responsible for aspects of reality, he/she might search for the religion—if there is any—which best captures these intuitions. The reasons for such a person’s rejection of some religions would seem to be quite different than your average atheist’s.

      There are also philosophical arguments for why some gods make no sense, while others do. A person could reject some religions (or sects of religions) based on such an argument; I doubt an atheist would allow for the “while others do”.

      It strikes me that you, and Dawkins, have extremely naive views of why many people hold religious beliefs. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are accurately describing some set of religious people, but you didn’t restrict your analysis to this (such as a scientist would); instead you employed ‘some’ ⇒ ‘all’ reasoning.

      Posted by labreuer | February 3, 2015, 1:11 PM
      • But the subject isn’t about the different objects of belief as you present in your criticism whereby you accuse me of conflating some with all: the subject being talked about by Dawkins and others is simply non belief. And if you do not believe in whatever – for whatever reasons – then you fall into the category ALL of us share called non belief (synonymous with ‘atheism’ in this context).

        I don’t know why this idea is troubling to theists: it seems self-evident: you do not believe in all kinds of gods (again, for whatever reasons).

        Posted by tildeb | February 3, 2015, 1:38 PM
      • tildeb: The observation is that all of us – theists and atheists – share the same reason for not believing in most of the gods.

        tildeb: And if you do not believe in whatever – for whatever reasons – then you fall into the category ALL of us share called non belief (synonymous with ‘atheism’ in this context)

        Are you backpedaling on your claim of “share the same reason”?

        Posted by labreuer | February 3, 2015, 1:55 PM
      • And again, saying I don’t believe in, say, the Greek pantheon because I think polytheism is indefensible hardly makes me an atheist. As a monotheist, I reject (hopefully rationally) polytheism; but being a monotheist does not somehow make me an atheist, nor does having a single shared notion make me an atheist.

        I’m sure there are 9/11 conspiracy theorists who also don’t think aliens were ever dissected at Area 51. That hardly means that because I also reject the notion that aliens were dissected at Area 51 I am a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, even if we have the same reasons for not believing aliens were dissected in Area 51.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 3, 2015, 2:05 PM
      • “Ah, HA! But you ARE a 9/11 conspiracy theorist to other conspiracies!”

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 3, 2015, 2:06 PM
      • And it should be noted it’s worth going the other direction too. Perhaps, epistemically, the 9/11 conspiracy theorist is convinced that 9/11 conspiracy theories hold water. Does that mean that they are “non-9/11 conspiracy theorists” to all other conspiracies? Hardly.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 3, 2015, 2:09 PM
      • JW, saying I don’t believe in, say, the Greek pantheon because I think polytheism is indefensible hardly makes me an atheist.

        But it does in regards to the Greek pantheon. And I say that not to be difficult or trivial but because it accurately reflects your non belief regarding the Greek pantheon. Both you and I do not believe in the Greek pantheon and the reason we don’t believe can also be accurately summed up to be because neither you nor I find the reasons to do so compelling. That’s it. That’s the mole hill many theists try to turn into a mountain.

        You have certain specific reasons not to believe. I have certain specific reasons not to believe. These specific reasons don’t matter as far as understanding the purpose of the me. But, again, the common reason is that neither has any compelling reasons to do so. That’s all the meme means. When you understand that I reject the god you believe for the same reason that you reject the Greek pantheon – a lack of compelling reasons to believe (regardless of other reasons you privilege TO believe in some other god), now we have common ground. And once this common ground of shared non belief is better understood, only then will this arbitrary vilification of atheists finally be recognized for the hypocrisy it is.

        Posted by tildeb | February 3, 2015, 4:42 PM
      • Nope, it doesn’t make me an atheist to the Greek Pantheon. I remain a theist. I am simply a rival theist. I am not an atheist to anyone. I am a rival theist to those who have differing concepts of deity.

        By definition, if I believe in any deity, I am not an atheist. To say otherwise is to affirm a contradiction. Feel free to do so, but don’t expect me to take it seriously.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 3, 2015, 4:44 PM
      • What defines an atheist is non belief in gods or a god. That’s why atheists insist that you, too, are an atheist regarding MOST other gods. Like any other atheist you do not have any belief in these other gods or god. But, unlike atheists, you do make an exception for a particular god. No atheist is denying that. In regards to the god you make an exception for, you are a theist. In regards to the state of your non belief regarding most other gods or a god different from your own you fit the identical definition of what constitutes an atheist: non belief.

        Posted by tildeb | February 3, 2015, 4:52 PM
      • Wrong again. I am a theist. Therefore, I cannot be an atheist.

        x =/= ~x. According to you, however, x = ~x.

        I am now done with this conversation. If you want to affirm contradictions, you may continue. I’ll not argue with such nonsense.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 3, 2015, 4:57 PM
      • What defines an atheist is non belief in gods or a god.

        Let’s look at WP: Atheism:

        Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.[1][2] In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.[3][4][5] Most inclusively, atheism is the absence of belief that any deities exist.[4][5][6][7] Atheism is contrasted with theism,[8][9] which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.[9][10]

        That’s a lot of citations which goes against your use of ‘atheist’. How about dictionary.com: atheist:

        1. a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

        This pedant can find three ways to read this:

        (A) … disbelieves in the existence of a supreme being, but possibly believes in supreme beings.
        (B) … disbelieves in the existence of supreme beings, but possibly believes in a [single] supreme being.
        (C) … disbelieves in the existence of any and all supreme beings.

        I’m pretty sure most people understand ‘atheist’ to be (C). After all, (A) and (B) inherently conflict with each other, and there’s no way to prefer one over the other. That you have picked (A) or (B) is just ridiculous; it shows that you’re more interested in rhetoric than truth. You’re actively trying to obscure the “reasons why” for belief and disbelief, by treating them as irrelevant. No, they are quite relevant. This meddling via “atheist with respect to ___” adds nothing and subtracts much from rational conversation.

        Posted by labreuer | February 3, 2015, 6:03 PM
      • A –

        Tildeb does not believe in Agdistis or Angdistis
        Lab does not believe in Agdistis or Angdistis
        JW does not believe in Agdistis or Angdistis
        Tildeb does not believe in Ah Puch
        Lab does not believe in Ah Puch
        JW does not believe in Ah Puch
        Tildeb does not believe in Ahura Mazda
        Lab does not believe in Ahura Mazda
        JW does not believe in Ahura Mazda
        Tildeb does not believe in Alberich
        Lab does not believe in Alberich
        JW does not believe in Alberich
        Tildeb does not believe in Allah
        Lab does not believe in Allah
        JW does not believe in Allah
        Tildeb does not believe in An
        Lab does not believe in An
        JW does not believe in An
        Tildeb does not believe in Anahita
        Lab does not believe in Anahita
        JW does not believe in Anahita
        Tildeb does not believe in Anansi
        Lab does not believe in Anans
        JW does not believe in Anans
        Tildeb does not believe in Anat
        Lab does not believe in Anat
        JW does not believe in Anat…

        and the very, very long list continues save for one exception only Lab and JW make.

        Why am I the only one pointing out a rather obvious and recognizable pattern here? Not once in this list does anyone then assume that our shared non belief somehow affects our moral character or purpose in life. You guys save that for those who don’t believe only in your exception.

        Posted by tildeb | February 3, 2015, 10:53 PM
      • Find me a single, self-respecting philosopher with at least one serious peer-reviewed journal article in philosophy, who would publicly back your claim, that you’re uttering anything particularly meaningful right now.

        My suspicion is that you’ll fail, because you’ve framed the problem in a naive, surface-level manner which serves not to elucidate points of view or delve into the depths of philosophy or reality, but instead to score rhetorical points.

        Posted by labreuer | February 4, 2015, 2:30 AM
      • “You have certain specific reasons not to believe. I have certain specific reasons not to believe… But, again, the common reason is that neither has any compelling reasons to do so.”

        You [probably] reject the notion that aliens were dissected at Area 51. Some 9/11 conspiracy theorists reject the notion that aliens were dissected at Area 51. You have specific reasons not to believe. They have specific reasons not to believe.

        To the Area 51 dissectionists, you are a 9/11 conspiracy theorist..

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 3, 2015, 4:55 PM
      • When you understand that I reject the god you believe for the same reason that you reject the Greek pantheon – a lack of compelling reasons to believe (regardless of other reasons you privilege TO believe in some other god), now we have common ground.

        I could easily disbelieve in the Greek pantheon because I find Christianity to be more likely to be true (and mutually exclusive with the Greek pantheon). In that case, the very reasons I employ for disbelief are those I employ for belief. But you want to paper over this and assert much deeper commonality than necessarily exists.

        What you’ve probably done is [implicitly] presuppose that you have beliefs A = { b1, b2, …, bn }, while I have beliefs T = { b1, b2, …, bn, bn+1, bn+2, …, bn+m }. This means that I have these additional beliefs, over and above yours. We would therefore have much common ground, viz. beliefs A. My religious beliefs, T – A (that is, {bn+1, bn+2, …, bn+m }), would then be something like a garnish upon the set of non-privileged beliefs, A.

        Unfortunately for you, it is not required that our belief structures be related in this way. Therefore, we may not have nearly as much commonality as you make it seem. I don’t see how your argument can survive with only skin-deep commonality.

        Posted by labreuer | February 3, 2015, 5:55 PM
      • No because the common reason – a lack of compelling reasons to believe in whatever – really is shared.I’m not trying to turn theists into atheists; I’m trying to point out that all of us share this supposedly dastardly ‘thing’ called non belief albeit to different extents and this element is far more predominant than the exception on which the religious identity is based. The category selected to differentiate thee and me – theist and atheist – is arbitrarily done on the single exception most theists make as is the resulting vilification so many theists then impose on their brethren for not likelwise making this singular exception. That’s why the notion enunciated by Roberts and furthered by Dawkins is towards the common non belief rather than the singular exception. In other words, the emphasis on privileging the exception as the defining characteristic loaded with supposed benefits to morality and standards of behaviour and eternal life gifting is rather silly when theists don’t vilify themselves to the same extent for all those gods they do not believe in.

        Theists don’t claim they themselves must be nihilists, for example, for not believing in Quetzalcoatl nor do they claim themselves to be without purpose in life because they don’t believe in the nebulous version of the Mool Mantar. Theists non belief is relegated to be of no consideration whatsoever regarding all these gods because the one exception they make magically turns them into theists inoculated from charges of non belief!

        Posted by tildeb | February 3, 2015, 2:17 PM
      • Incredible, isn’t it? Theists are actually theists! And, thinking that without an ontological grounding for things like meaning, they believe that those who are atheists do not have this ontological grounding, which they themselves believe they possess. I’m not sure this is such an astonishing claim–theists actually are theists!

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 3, 2015, 2:21 PM
      • No because the common reason – a lack of compelling reasons to believe in whatever – really is shared.

        You aren’t saying anything. “I have a reason for not believing X. It is because I do not find X compelling!” That’s a tautology. What you need to do is argue that the theist is special-pleading, but you haven’t provided an actual argument to that effect.

        You are welcome to do something like introduce John Loftus’ The Outsider Test for Faith if you would like. Should you do so, I will ask you why you are privileging some set of beliefs, P, and using those to evaluate whether religion ri has epistemic warrant. The only valid response I know of is that using privileged beliefs P instead of P’ is somehow “better”—perhaps P gives us nicer smartphones than P’. I will then go on to criticize whether this is true for all known P’, as well as whether this is actually a good metric for choosing between Ps.

        Posted by labreuer | February 3, 2015, 2:54 PM
      • It seems to me you’re just redefining the term “atheism” to just mean “non-belief.” That’s one way to try to make your argument work, but it seems a rather extraordinary move just in order to try to make Christians into atheists. Cooking the definition does little to convince me, and I think that labruer’s comments thus far are essentially correct.

        At the most basic level, however, I as a Christian am not an atheist to another religion. As a theist, it is impossible for me to be an atheist.

        Finally, I think the contention itself is very question begging. It assumes that the theist has just arbitrarily chosen not to examine his or her own faith with the same standard they use for other faiths. Well, no doubt that is true for some, but for many it is not true whatsoever. I at least believe that I am consistently analyzing various worldviews–naturalistic atheism is included here–and accepting the one I think is the most plausible. To then say “Ha, you’re an atheist to other religions” with some sort of sliding definition seems, well, patently absurd, if not childish.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 3, 2015, 2:02 PM
      • To clarify: the reasons are lumped in this context under a single heading of those we do not find compelling. They are many and varied.

        Posted by tildeb | February 3, 2015, 1:48 PM
      • You just eviscerated your entire argument.

        (1) Atheists reject religions Q = { q1, q2, … qn } for reason R.
        (2) Theists reject religions Q except for qi for reason R’.
        (3) Therefore, the theist ought to also reject religion qi.

        This is only the case if R = R’. But you just admitted that it could be that R ≠ R’.

        Posted by labreuer | February 3, 2015, 2:43 PM
  2. I wonder if part of the atheism criticism might be due to how different YHWH and Jesus were, in comparison to the popular deities? Perhaps they were not recognized as being ‘deities’, on this basis?

    Posted by labreuer | February 3, 2015, 1:11 PM

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