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I'm not obviously talking about small groups or individuals but about an actual civilization that never believed about the existence of a supreme essence. Is atheism just a modern concept?

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Define "civilization" and "supreme essence". –  Yannis Rizos Jan 22 '13 at 20:51
I once asked one the defunct Atheism Stack Exchange, and the consensus was that there weren't any that we were aware of. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 23 '13 at 7:26
@AndrewGrimm But we are History, we can do better! –  astabada Jan 23 '13 at 11:36
Many Romans didn't actually believe in their own gods either –  Sam I am Mar 19 '13 at 20:32

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

From Wiki:

Will Durant explains that certain pygmy tribes found in Africa were observed to have no identifiable cults or rites. There were no totems, no deities, and no spirits. Their dead were buried without special ceremonies or accompanying items and received no further attention. They even appeared to lack simple superstitions, according to travelers' reports

Also, Jainism seems to be a kind of a "no "supreme essence" type of religion, but I'm not an expert.

A pretty good set of sources on the history of atheism and some analysis can be found here: Investigating Atheism (affiliated with University of Cambridge)

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Yes, you're right. Jains don't believe in creator.Accoding to the Jains universe never had any beginning. –  user774025 Jan 28 '13 at 14:52
I always thought Richard Dawkins was an intellectual pygmy. –  Eugene Seidel Jul 16 '13 at 20:03

There are many, many different directions this could go. You want an example of an ancient society which didn't believe in a single over-arching "supreme essence"? The Greeks and then the Romans immediately come to mind. Sure, some gods were more powerful than others, and had bigger and better positions, but the Greeks did not believe that Zeus had the same level of omnipotence/omnipresence that the Judeo-Christian god does, and they would very often choose to worship one of the supposed "lesser gods" that dealt in arenas that mattered more to them instead.

Or, for that matter, the god of the Old Testament doesn't really seem to be a "supreme essence". The Bible seems to indicate that YHWH was better than the other gods that were out there but I don't get the sense from the OT that they ever considered him to be all that there was out there. The first commandment itself doesn't say "don't worship other gods because there aren't any other gods and that's just stupid", it says "don't worship other gods because I'm jealous and I don't like it".

If you meant to include polytheistic religions, that is not without its issues either. One thing about atheism, particularly skeptical, science-based atheism, is that it tends to answer "I don't know" to a lot of questions. That's something that causes enough discomfort when we ask questions like "what happens to the mind after we die?" or "how did life first occur on this planet?"; when your level of technological advancement is such that the non-theist has to answer questions like "where does the sun go at night?", there are so many uncomfortable questions that a lot of people simply aren't going to accept not knowing and will create deities and such to explain this.

On top of that, how do we get to the question of knowing and not knowing? We have the scientific method now as well as a lot of other heuristics to help lead us to knowledge, but we've had to build these up over thousands of years. What's to stop a perfectly reasonable person who doesn't have access to these heuristics from coming to an incorrect conclusion (from our perspective)? Heck, it wasn't that long ago that learned men really thought you could turn lead into gold, as silly as that sounds to the modern scholar.

Finally, humans are really, really good at recognizing correlations, and our creativity helps us to align those with causes. It's what we do. We've got millions of years of living in the bush and determining whether a rustling in a nearby patch of grass was a lion or if it was just harmless rustling to help shape our brains to perceive these. We can create small mountains in the sand, therefore it is perfectly reasonable to think that some bigger version of us created the mountains in the distance. Eating the meat of the pig can make you very sick in some parts of the world, therefore whatever god we have created to answer some of those other discomforting questions doesn't want us to eat pig meat. And so on and so forth.

Where I'm leading with this is that in a large sense asking if there are examples of ancient peoples who lived without "gods" is basically asking in one way or another if there are examples of ancient peoples who lived with the same sense of the universe that we have today. And the answer is "no, of course not". That's impossible. If our viewpoints today are more enlightened, it's because we stand on the shoulders of giants who themselves stand on the shoulders of titans.

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-1 : "but I don't get the sense from the OT that they ever considered him to be all that there was out there." Very incorrect: "They angered Him with Non-Gods, enraged Him with their vacuous idols" - Deut. 32 - directly from the Hebrew: one of hundreds. –  Vector Aug 5 '13 at 1:51
That's not true Deut. 32 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. 17 They sacrificed to [b]demons that were no gods[/b], to [b]gods they had never known[/b], [b]to new gods[/b] that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded. –  Jim Thio Nov 27 '13 at 7:40
How do you make things bold anyway? –  Jim Thio Nov 27 '13 at 7:41

I'd say most primitive groups, practicing nature worship in its simplest forms, have no concept of "god". They revere nature itself, its processes and phenomena, but don't usually personify them. That comes later, when society grows.

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That'd be open to lots of interpretation. –  Felix Goldberg Jan 24 '13 at 11:27
of course. As is everything related to religions. Define "god" for example. If a tribe makes offerings to the sun in order to get it to rise again in the morning, is the sun a god or not to them? Now they make offerings to their ancestors, are they now gods? –  jwenting Jan 24 '13 at 11:30
There's a very blurry line here. For instance, most of us would classify Lucas' "The Force" as a belief in some kind of supreme essence, but not personified in any way. Traditional Siouxan religons believed in Wa-Kon-Da, which is a very similar concept. However, it was easily Christianized as "God" (or often "Great Maker"), and many modern Christians (Siouxan and non) think of the concepts as equivalent. So how different is it really? –  T.E.D. Jan 24 '13 at 20:10

Atheism is definitely not a modern concept.

Wikipedia states that the word itself become popular in 18th century, but throughout the history for sure there were individuals without any belief system which included spiritual beings, or any supernatural phenomena.

Also, common sense tells us that without teism or some other more complex form of belief in supernatural, there is no real atheism in today's sense. In other words, we can conclude that modern atheism could not exist before organized religion emerged. Religion, as a concept emerged very early, probably in parallel with civilizations themselves serving multiple cohesive roles within group, tribe or clan helping early civilization to emerge in the first place. So, atheistic civilizations are highly unlikely to have ever existed.

In prehistoric times, before first civilizations emerged, the pseudo-religious practices included animal worship or totemism, ancestral worship, worship of natural phenomena etc. In that case in practice you could worship or not, but you couldn't not believe, because the objects of worship were real, not imaginary and as such did not require belief itself.

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