By James Haught
Ancient Greece, birthplace of Western civilization, was contradictory. It produced the first known thinkers who tried to understand the world through logic and observation, instead of through supernatural explanations. Yet Greeks also sacrificed thousands of animals to imaginary gods on Mount Olympus, and gave gold to mystical “oracles” who babbled in trances. Greeks even fought “Sacred Wars” over treasure stolen from the Oracle at Delphi.
Surrounded by so much religion, one of the foremost logical thinkers was Epicurus (341–270 BCE), who taught that there’s no actual evidence for gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, prophecies and the like — so people simply should lead rewarding lives here and now. He also speculated that all matter consists of invisible atoms swerving endlessly, and that creatures change through evolution. His scientific hunches later proved amazingly valid.
Epicurus was first to articulate the philosophical quandary called “the problem of evil.” If God is all-loving and all-powerful, he wrote, why does he allow horrible suffering and cruelty in the world? Either God cannot prevent the agony, or he callously doesn’t want to, Epicurus reasoned. There’s no other possible conclusion. In all the centuries since, clergymen have been unable to refute this clear logic.
Epicurus called religion “irrational fancies” and “credulous belief in the reality of phantoms.” Instead of wasting time on such nonsense, he said, people should seek the best possible lives while they have ability to do so.
A couple of centuries later, Roman thinker Titus Lucretius Carus (99–55 BCE) wrote a long tribute to Epicurus titled De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). His classic Latin poem was filled with sneers at supernaturalism.
“Fear was the first thing on Earth to make gods,” it says.
“The universe has not been made through divine power, seeing how great are the faults that mar it.”
“How many evils has religion caused,” Lucretius wrote, commenting on King Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter to induce the gods to favor his attack on Troy.
“Not they who reject the gods are profane, but those who accept them,” he said.
“There is no murky pit of hell awaiting anyone…. When the body has perished, there is an end also of the spirit diffused through it.”
The great Lucretius poem was cited by various other ancient writers, but all copies of it later became lost. Then, nearly 15 centuries afterward, a scholarly papal clerk, Poggio Bracciolini, visited a German monastery in 1417 and found a long-forgotten copy covered by dust on a remote shelf. Elated, he began distributing handwritten copies to European intellectuals, who discussed the Lucretius work in learned forums. It spurred a breakthrough for scientific thinking.
Distinguished Harvard University professor Stephen Greenblatt contends in a significant book — The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, W.W. Norton & Co. — that rediscovery of the lost Lucretius poem helped trigger the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and the six-century upsurge of science and democracy that catapulted the West into today’s advanced civilization.
His book won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. It created a buzz in intellectual circles. A New York Times review said:
“On the Nature of Things was filled with, to Christian eyes, scandalous ideas. It argues eloquently, Mr. Greenblatt writes, that ‘there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.’ Religious fear, Lucretius thought, long before there was a Christopher Hitchens, warps human life.”
Of course, nobody thinks the rediscovery of one lost Latin poem single-handedly transformed international culture — but the 15th century episode obviously was a factor in the great mental shift that grew with the Renaissance. It was a milestone on the vast journey humanity has traveled — a journey away from magical thinking, toward scientific reality.
As Western society steadily evolves to embrace values of secular humanism, it’s intriguing to ponder how we got here.
(from Free Inquiry, Dec-Jan, 2012–13)
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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Image Credit: James Haught.