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I would like to know if there are any documents telling us how common (or if it even existed) among people in polytheistic societies (like ancient Greece, Rome, etc.) it was to believe that there is only one, or no god.

In a few so-called historic movies I've seen situations in which character states that there are no gods. I'd like to know if that's just a fiction or people in the past really weren't that sure about gods' existence as I thought so far.

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

A quick google on Judaism might address whether there were monotheists. In any society that tolerated Jews, there were monotheists. The other trivial example is Akhenaten.

There is also a Hindu teaching story about a man who so vigorously and vehemently denied the existence of god that upon his death he transcended. (Sorry cannot find a cite, and I fear I may have botched my recollection; I welcome corrections from those more knowledgeable).

Google reveals results like this

Of course you may really have intended to ask whether there is a history of intolerance by polytheistic religions against members of their societies that chose to deny the polytheistic nature of the religion. I think that question is impossible to answer; there are too many polytheistic societies, and what may be true in one generation may be different 50 miles or 50 years away.

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Aten worshippers were persecuted after Akhenaten's rule ended. The religion, the very name, was wiped out. – jwenting Feb 8 '13 at 13:56

This week's episode of In Our Time on Epicureanism suggested that Epicurus and many of his followers could be valid examples of "atheists" in "polytheistic" ancient Greece.

According to one guest Epicurus' atomic theory (which build on Democritus') insists that each and everything, and thus including gods, is made of material atoms. Now whether this supports or rejects a belief in the existence of deities, as in atheism, is perhaps a question of interpretation. (Lucretius' On the Nature of Things certainly contains many references to "gods".)

However, one of the books on the accompanying reading list (Catherine Wilson: Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity) includes the following description in its summary:

The target of sustained and trenchant philosophical criticism by Cicero, and of opprobrium by the Christian Fathers of the early Church, for its unflinching commitment to the absence of divine supervision and the finitude of life, the Epicurean philosophy surfaced again in the period of the Scientific Revolution, when it displaced scholastic Aristotelianism.

This would suggest that there effectively was at least element of atheism (or deism) in Epicureanism.

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Great question - but it is actually a complicated subject. The polytheistic society of the Roman Empire was, so to say, in active search for "the meaning of life" for which the standard pagan cults were not sufficient. This led to philosophical/intellectual movements like Neoplatonism which while not explicitly rejecting paganism and the Olympic gods more or less supplanted them by a notion of a Supreme Being. And this was just one movement among many (others have mentioned Epicureanism, for instance), coming as they always do in higbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow versions (the later Neoplatonism became heavily involved with "magic" and astrology).

The Church was later to tap with great success into this potential for religious yearning and transformation.

Like I said, it's a huge subject and one that I am not an expert about so I'll stop here. I've learnt a lot about it from this book but I guess it's a bit outdated. One day I'll find the time to read this one which is waiting for me on the shelf.

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+1 for included book recommendations (esp. 2nd) – Drux Feb 8 '13 at 12:41

In the Roman empire it was quite common to worship only a subset of all the myriad gods and goddesses on the menu (so to speak).
At the same time every god or goddess that came knocking was accepted into the pantheon with open arms as long as (s)he was willing to accept the existence of all those other gods (many with overlapping powers and responsibilities).
Over time gods would also merge, sometimes near identical gods from different areas would quickly become blended and merely be known by different names to different people (the blending of Greek and Roman gods is a prime example of this in action).
The major except to this is Christianity, and then only because the god of Christianity explicitly states there is no other god, Christians were iow not willing to accept the existence of other gods (nobody would have forced them to worship those gods). This was both sacrilege and treason, rebellion against the state (as the state was closely linked with the religion at several levels).

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