Why were atheists so silent for so many millennia?

My answer to Why were atheists so silent for so many millennia?

Answer by Vishu Menon:

If you do not wish to see, you close your eyes. If you do not wish to know, ignorance comes as a bliss.

One of the oldest surviving religions we know is Buddhism. Buddha, upon his enlightenment, declared that the laws of nature – and of Karma – needed no supervisor called God. (Stephen Hawking said the same thing, omitting the Karma factor, 2700 years later). Buddha said, “Gripped by fear people go to sacred mountains, sacred groves, sacred trees and shrines.” (Dp. 188). Jainism, which is as old as or older than Buddhism, which propounds righteousness, non-violence towards man or any other living being, kindness and charity, professes no belief in God. Epicurus who lived in the third century BC had proclaimed that things happened in this world by chance; there was no need for a divine intervention.

Jews of the pre-Christian period were an intolerant people, or fantasized intolerance and annihilation of people of other Gods; hence there was no room for a free-thinking Jew of the times to air his views on the concept of a cruel and intolerant God. As we all know the one who expressed a slightly different view was crucified in the midst of two notorious thieves. When the same Jews – at least some of them- became Christians – they carried forward the intolerance. By the second century, they became a powerful force, incapable of tolerating any view other than of the clergy. Yet there were atheistic views, otherwise there was no need for Gregory of Tours to proclaim his ‘creed’ starting with I believe. At the dawn of the second millennium, Thomas Aquinas found it necessary to prove, albeit with lame reasoning which are flaunted by believers even today. In the early history of Christianity, Romans, who were polytheists with human-like gods, accused Christians of atheism and persecuted them; a treatment Christians returned with greater cruelty in later years.

To Abrahamic religions, God is the only God known to them and other Gods are non-capitalized gods. Hence one must think that Greeks, ancient Egyptians and Romans (who ruled over Jews with aplomb despite the jealousy of their God), Hindus are all heathens or pagans – hence equal to atheists. The great philosopher Confucius of China taught good social order without resorting to the threat of curse from a God; Shintoism of Japan, which sustained Japan through scores of centuries, worshipped elements, should be counted among atheists if theism meant the Abrahamic God. One charge against Socrates was that he did not believe in gods of the Greeks; Socrates neither denied not accepted this charge. He said if there was a soul, he will have a chance to debate great minds of the past; if there was none; death would be an eternal night of sleep. For Plato religion meant social order; he neither argued in favour or against a God or god. Only Aristotle, in his logical inference, thought of a prime mover. The Hrafnkels saga from Iceland, written probably in the thirteenth century, the chief character says there is no need to depend on an unknown God, but one should depend on oneself. Many Norsemen are said to have held this view; they depended on their physical strength rather than an unseen God.

Unlike in the rest of the world, the labour force and slaves in ancient China questioned the unfair deal meted out to them by the gods of their masters. This is probably why Chairman Mao Zedong did not have to try too hard to make the common man shed his religious superstitions. In ancient China, Zichan from the state of Zheng, who was the first to publish a code of laws, wrote: "The Way of Heaven is distant; while the Way of Man is near, since we cannot even reach Heaven, how can we claim to know so much about it? What do you know about the real Way of Heaven that you can say so much about it? How can people ever believe you?" (The Rise of Atheism in Ancient China). The ready acceptance of Buddhism by Chinese was due to the fact that it demanded no complicated rituals from the common man nor belief in a jealously malevolent God like the Abrahamic God.

Among the 18 Shastras that ancient Hinduism mentions is Mimamsa Shastra, the one that questions the existence and need for a God. Bārhaspatya-sūtras is a compendium of logical arguments to negate the concept of God. Charvaka demonstrated the transformation in herbal chemicals into something new when they were combined to explain how life originated. Vedas, which were the works of many, though Hindus might claim that the verses are revelations from God, have lines that say: “Only God knows how this universe began – or does He even know?” Lord Krishna is and was believed to have been the Supreme Godhead, yet when he displayed his universal form (which is supposed to have held the million suns, planets and stars and living beings), king Suyodhana said he was not impressed by the illusion. Jesus claimed that with a mustard-sized faith one could move mountains; but the great Hindu epics say that Krishna lifted a mountain to protect his people (Every God has ‘His’ people) from rain and hailstorm. When this story was retold in a public meeting, Krishna’s own nephew said jeeringly: “He lifted an ant-hill.” Krishna’s response was to kill the questioning nephew. The celebrated king Yudhishthira of the Mahabharata epic on his coronation was confronted by Charvaka, the argumentative atheist who listed out the latter’s misdeeds. The king, accepting the arguments, agreed to step down; it was the jealous Brahmins who were waiting for their gifts after the coronation who set him on fire.

Manusmriti, the scrupulously organized Hindu social code and probably the most comprehensive compendium of laws and penal code ever written (and which contains an ancient Hindu version of Jim Crow laws) says that people who speak dialectics and atheists are not to be invited to any sacred gatherings or funerals’ but does not prescribe death punishment for atheism. In Ramayana, a low-caste is beheaded by God-incarnate Rama for practicing asceticism, but the atheist who persuades the same Rama to disobey his father in the cause of righteousness is let off with a benign apology.

Galileo, who proved the Bible wrong, went into house confinement whimpering “earth still goes around the sun.” He feared for his life. 17th Century Philosopher Baruch Spinoza was expelled from Judaism for questioning the Mosaic origin of the Penteuch, but refused to join Christianity. By the 18th century, when Christian vindictiveness that led to burning on stakes, breaking wheels, quartering and beheading subsided, atheism raised its head again. Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith in America said there could indeed be a superior power, but scoffed at the Biblical God, as did Laplace, who denounced the divine intervention theory of Newton. Thomas Paine, who wrote the ‘Rights of Man’, denounced the Christian doctrine. At the turn of the 19th Century (1811), Poet Shelley wrote “Atheism”, the logic for negating the concept of God. Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism became a philosophy for the working man; atheism received a political backup for that philosophy.

Einstein refused to believe in a personal God despite abuses and threats heaped on him. It is said that at least 70% of the Physicists and 90% of Cosmologists are either atheists or agnostics. In independent India, where Hindus who claimed to be a spiritual people had no qualms in electing Jawalharlal Nehru, who openly professed atheism. 51% of Jews in Israel claimed to be atheists or agnostics in a survey. In America, an ambitious politician might not disclose his atheistic views, but in the more enlightened Europe and Britain, atheism has become a way of life; Church attendance dwindling to 7%. Catholic clergy in Europe and even Vatican find the need to import priests and nuns from less developed parts of Africa and India.

The rise in atheism and agnosticism among scientists can be seen in the results of a mailed survey conducted by James H. Leuba:

BELIEF IN PERSONAL GOD 1914, 1933, 1998

Personal belief 27.7, 15, 7.0
 Personal disbelief 52.7, 68, 72.2
 Doubt or agnosticism 20.9, 17, 20.8


Personal belief 35.2, 18, 7.9
 Personal disbelief 25.4, 53, 76.7
 Doubt or agnosticism 43.7, 29, 23.3

(The columns adding up to more than 100 is possibly due to reporting overlaps)

Source: Percentage of atheists)

In present day China, 90% of the populace profess to be atheists. I never hear a Chinese, even one who goes to church, using such phrases as “Oh my God, or God Bless you.” China has trouble with only one province – the province of Xiangyang, where they granted religious autonomy to Uyghur Muslims.

Atheists were never silent. The religious found it convenient to try and muffle them through threat, torture and murder.

Why were atheists so silent for so many millennia?

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