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Researcher: Atheism natural to humans


From UCambridge:

The claim is the central proposition of a new book by Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture and a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge. In it, he suggests that atheism – which is typically seen as a modern phenomenon – was not just common in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome, but probably flourished more in those societies than in most civilisations since.

As a result, the study challenges two assumptions that prop up current debates between atheists and believers: Firstly, the idea that atheism is a modern point of view, and second, the idea of “religious universalism” – that humans are naturally predisposed, or “wired”, to believe in gods.

The book argues that disbelief is actually “as old as the hills”. Early examples, such as the atheistic writings of Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570-475 BCE) are contemporary with Second Temple-era Judaism, and significantly predate Christianity and Islam. Even Plato, writing in the 4th Century BCE, said that contemporary non-believers were “not the first to have had this view about the gods.” More.

The book, Battling the Gods, sounds like a timely challenge to recycle bin research and pop science religion news.

The underlying message of the fungible research and news is that religion is somehow a “hardwired” automatic response to life as opposed to an inference from evidence—like all other inferences, with varying relationships to reality.

The pop science news approach mainly props up authoritarian atheism by pretending that atheism is not just one answer among others to questions like “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” Just what we need in an age of rampant authoritarian government.

Bad for science journalism too, as it adds to the growing heap of evidence-free rubbish about evolution, while getting many basic present-day facts wrong.

But in an age when a war on falsifiability is being waged, maybe facts don’t matter so much. Readership, however, might matter to some publications that sponsor that sort of thing.

This book is showing good initial stats:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,563 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

See also: Early human religion: A 747 built in the basement with an X-Acto knife

If naturalism can explain religion, why does it get so many basic facts wrong?

Evolutionary conundrum: is religion a useful, useless, or harmful adaptation?

Imagine a world of religions that naturalism might indeed be able to explain

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Most studies have shown that people believe in higher power. I have no idea how Tim Whitmarsh concludes otherwise. May be Greek research is different! Me_Think
This is a curious angle. It seems to me that modernity is so often equated with "good." And thus, another bolstering proposition for atheism, is that it is a modern phenomenon, thus more advanced, evolved and better. Doubt is surely as old as belief. The ancients assuredly had doubts, as any human does, in the absence of X. And it would have been much easier in general to believe in spontaneous generation and abiogenesis before we learned there is no such thing. Hebrew mythology believed wholeheartedly that the first two humans walked with God in person and still doubted his sovereignty in his bodily absence. So, I don't think some form of atheism is modern at all. A lot of our interpretation of prehistoric man does hinge on the errant expectation that he must've always been this supernaturalist simpleton. We find clay figurines of fat naked women and it's automatically assumed that this is proof of Goddess cults. Nevermind that the average contemporary elementary school classroom has kids drawing fat naked ladies with NO RELIGIOUS implication whatsoever. Long story short: I agree with the premise. Atheism is ancient and likely prehistoric. This does not consequently mean that atheism is the default or natural or a BETTER interpretation of the facts. Like I said, our expanded modern understanding of biology and physics points very strongly to intelligence which one could take to be gods, a God, or the Designer. jw777
Yes. And that lesson began long long ago. Even Aquinas in the first article of his Summa Theologica stated the following: "Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that is the earth, for instance is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by matter itself." That was in the year 1258. Robert
A belief that the earth is flat is natural to humans. One has to be educated away from that erroneous belief. mike1962
Atheism is vestigial. No longer useful to a human. Non belief is ok for a monkey I guess. ppolish
Disbelief is as old as the hills. Disbelief in what? And I wonder how he manages to dismiss the results from cognitive science of religion. https://mitpress.mit.edu/nat-theology Mung
Laughable. We know that Neanderthals not only buried their dead but covered them in flower petals. So belief in The Deity is 10s of thousands of years older than some silly Greek philosophers. More importantly, all of the experience of "civilized" (i.e., people who dwell in permanent cities) explorers, traders, and missionaries who wrote reports about the first contacts with "primitive" people record that in EVERY CASE, the primitive people already believed in an afterlife and a Creator. And since this "universal" human belief in God and Heaven was so similar from the Bushmen of the Kalahari to the Yagans of Tiera del Fuego, the most obvious explanation is that humans migrating out of Africa 100,000 years ago already held these beliefs and took the beliefs with them as they colonized the Earth. This undoubtedly makes Religion the oldest piece of human culture. Atheists arrived VERY much later, and Atheism is a feature of city-dwelling people. mahuna

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