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Saturday, February 2, 2008

A little ancient history of atheism and evolution

A friend of mind (on the right, the taller one; yes, he purports to be a llama, albeit one that blogs) holds the view that it wasn't possible to be an atheist before Darwin discovered how species evolved by natural selection of the fittest. His reason seems to be simply that before Darwin the only explanation for the apparently designed creatures constituting nature was that a god had designed and created them. Humans had to account for that design and the only way to do it before the discovery of the law of evolution was to suppose a designer god. Quod erat demonstrandum. ("Designer god," by the way, is apt, seeing as how we've got the Yahweh brand, the Jehovah brand, the God brand, the Allah brand....)

However, there were some known atheists more than two thousand years before Darwin, and very likely others unknown, the survival rate of written documentation from those times being what it is. And of course there were those "fools" referred to at least once in the Bible and many, many times ad nauseum in the Qur'an. You know, the ones who said, "There is no god." Unfortunately, since they were fools and therefore of no account, the Bible writers and The Prophet Muhummad didn't provide their names. Mentioning them at all seemed to serve the purpose of putting the stick about to warn people away from immitating them.

Anyway, to get back to some known atheists, one, according to Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, was the Greek Anaxagoras [circa 500-428 BCE]:
Whenever he can, he gives a mechanical explanation. He rejected necessity and chance as giving the origins of things; nevertheless, there was no "Providence" in his cosmology. He does not seem to have thought much about ethics or religion; probably he was an atheist, as his prosecutors maintained. [p. 63]
I acknowledge the "probably."

Another possibility is Socrates [469-399], although I myself doubt it:
The indictment [Socrates was, remember, tried for impiety, convicted, and executed] had said that Socrates not only denied the gods of the State, but introduced other gods of his own; Meletus, however, says that Socrates is a complete atheist, and adds: "He says that the sun is stone and the moon earth." Socrates replies that Meletus seems to think he is prosecuting Anaxagoras, whose views may be heard in the theatre for one drachma (presumably in the plays of Euripides). Socrates of course points out that this new accusation of complete atheism contradicts the indictment, and then passes on to more general considerations. [p. 87]
Whether or not Socrates "believed in god," he didn't (from my readings of Plato's depiction of him in his dialogues) do so as an explanation of apparently designed nature.

Another is Diagoras, a Greek poet and Sophist "active in Athens in the last decades of the 5th century BCE" (that is, his life somewhat overlapped those of Anaxagoras and Socrates). (I found the photo of "The statue of Diagoras in Rhodes in the sunset light" on the web.) To quote the nearest source to hand (Wikipedia), "He became an atheist after an incident that happened against him went unpunished by the gods." What a refreshingly common, down-to-earth reason! So many people have doubts and some eventually lose their faith altogether out of considerations of all the injustice and cruelty in the world allegedly "created by god." Diagoras's story (at least as told by Wikipedia) is pretty interesting:
He once threw a wooden image of a god into a fire, remarking that the deity should perform another miracle and save itself....[Note the pronoun "it."]

The Roman philosopher Cicero, writing in the 1st century BCE, tells of how a friend of Diagoras tried to convince him of the existence of the gods, by pointing out how many votive pictures tell about people being saved from storms at sea by "dint of vows to the gods," to which Diagoras replied that "there are nowhere any pictures of those who have been shipwrecked and drowned at sea." And Cicero goes on to give another example, where Diagoras was on a ship in hard weather, and the crew thought that they had brought it on themselves by taking this ungodly man onboard. He then wondered if the other boats out in the same storm also had a Diagoras onboard.
Like Socrates, "Diagoras was condemned to death at Athens and a price was put on his head." Unlike Socrates, however, "He fled to Corinth...."
....with reason did the Athenians adjudge Diagoras guilty of atheism, in that he not only divulged the Orphic doctrine, and published the mysteries of Eleusis and of the Cabiri, and chopped up the wooden statue of Hercules to boil his turnips, but openly declared that there was no God at all. [emphasis mine]
Though the evidence is sparse, it doesn't appear that either Anaxagoras or Diagoras had discovered the law of evolution. Perhaps they'd read or heard about the Greek astronomer and philosopher Anaximander of Miletus [circa 611 to circa 547]. Russell again:
[Anaximander taught that] there was an eternal motion, in the course of which was brought about the origin of the worlds. The worlds were not created, as in Jewish or Christian theology, but evolved. There was evolution also in the animal kingdom. Living creatures arose from the moist element as it evaporated by the sun. Man, like every other animal, was descended from fishes. He must be derived from animals of a different sort, because, owing to his long infancy, he could not have survived, originally, as he is now. [p. 272]
So, my friend might be right!
  1. Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1996
  2. Russell also says that "Anaximander was full of scientific curiosity. He is said to have been the first man who made a map...."


  1. Good job, Moristotle. Some thorough research on your part.

    A comment on Anaxagoras, who is said to be, and you agree, "probably" an atheist:

    Whenever he can, he gives a mechanical explanation. He rejected necessity and chance as giving the origins of things; nevertheless, there was no "Providence" in his cosmology.

    whenever he can What happened when he could not? Lot's of positions are a synch to prove if you ignore evidence to the contrary.

    Still, time for a compliment here. You are a worthy representative of the no-god camp. Your research is thorough, your arguments persuasive, yet generally presented with a touch of humor, not taking yourself too seriously. After all, if these questions were easily resolved, they would have been resolved long ago, and at a higher level than you or I.

    There's a lot of wearisome pit bulls in the atheist camp, IMO. You are not among them. (I think it's a function of age....the younger the person, the more intolerant they are) And you needn't remind me that Jehovah's Witnesses have a reputation for being....um....persistant; I well know it. Hopefully not pit bull, however, or at least not mean pitbull.

  2. Thanks for dropping by. I'd been looking for you all day! <smile>

    I suppose that Anaxagoras, being a mechanical man and clearly a worthy scientist, figured (when he couldn't find a mechanical explanation) that he just hadn't found it yet and was patient. Maybe he hoped that some of his scientific colleagues would figure it out someday?

    You're not suggesting that he must have felt duty-bound to cave in and say some unhelpful nonsense like "It must be god!," are you? <wink>

    This reminds me of your belief (I believe it's your belief) that if something appears designed but we can't think of a way it came about, then we HAVE TO suppose that god did it! (That seems to be the basis for your further apparent belief that it was "impossible" to disbelieve in God before Darwin.)

    I don't think that people are constrained in that way at all. That is, they don't HAVE to take the easy way out (which is how I see the "god did it" option). Scientists are patient folks who rather like a mystery; it keeps them employed.

    And thank you much, my friend, for the compliment. I'm immodest enough to think I deserve it.

    You're a fine man, too, and I enjoy your company.

  3. Thanks for sharing information on atheism and evolution.

  4. Morris, excellent compilation of interesting information.

    Tom, where is this atheist camp you speak of with the wearisome pit bulls, and how do I get there? In my life it has been my experience that ALL the wearisome pit bulls are in the pro-god, pro-belief, religious dogma camp. I'm not personally aware of ever encountering a single circumstance in 58 years where an atheist tried to rudely or insistently convert me into "non-believing" in a god - while I have encountered pushy to rabidly persistent "pro-god" types on a frequent basis. Have you ever been forced to sit through a "non-prayer" against god? I haven't.

    My apologies in advance if I am forgetting something obvious, but off the top of my head I also can't think of a single circumstance in all of history where non-believers persecuted or killed people for believing in a god. There are plenty of cases where believers persecuted or killed others for believing in the "wrong" god, or for not believing in a god at all, but I'm not aware of any such actions by atheists. Please enlighten me about these atheist pit bulls you speak of.


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