We tend to think of religious scepticism as a modern outlook but in fact it is very old. As with most great ideas, the Greeks got there first. I have already mentioned Epicurus but only in passing. As he is something of a hero of mine, I would like to say a little more about him.
These days, we tend to think that all the Ancient Greeks believed in Zeus and Hera and the whole panoply of gods and goddesses who have come down to us as mere legends but who in those days demanded sacrifice and human obedience, but even among the Greeks, the more serious thinkers knew doubt and scepticism.
The name of Eipcurus has come down to us but many are ignorant as to what he stood for. These days, “Epicurean” tends to denote a lifestyle of luxury and gluttony, which was not at all the message that Epicurus wanted to put across. The goal of Epicurus was two-fold, firstly to save mankind from fear of the gods and, secondly, the pursuit of well-being. I use the term “well-being” in the hope of avoiding the misunderstandings that come from the more usual assertion that he preached “the pursuit of happiness”.
The human organism evolved to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In a harsh environment, an unlimited hunger for pleasure is probably the key to a healthy life but in the developed West, where the search for pleasure is all too easy, it causes problems. Our society today only too clearly suffers the consequences of over-indulgence. An unbridled lust for pleasure has become a liability rather than a life-enhancing instinct.
Epicurus was aware of the dangers. Contrary to modern misunderstanding and the slanders of his philosophical rivals, Epicurus promoted a frugal and sensible lifestyle, eating and drinking with moderation – it is said that he himself always drank water – looking after one’s health and generally living a healthy life.
Today, we may find the phrase “fear of the Gods” a little over-dramatic. Why should we? Agreed that modern churches tend to play up the loving father aspect of God and play down the law-giver who punishes those who disobey. A church under pressure from declining membership doesn’t want to frighten off possible customers. Not so long ago, the “God we fear” was a much more common figure. Children were taught to obey the king, love their country and to fear God. Even today you will find plenty of people, members of different religions, who are only too ready to assure you that if you do not toe whatever line their God lays down, you will spend eternity roasting in the flames of Hell. The warm, fluffy, benevolent God may be popular in Western urban society but the vengeful tyrant is never far away. Ask your friendly neighbour priest and watch him gag on this one.
Epicurus taught that the gods had no part to play in human life and no interest in human behaviour. Religious believers like to try to undermine his importance by pointing out that he did still believe that there were gods. This is true. In those days, belief in the existence of the gods was so usual that it was difficult to escape from it. We are all limited to a greater or lesser degree by the assumptions embedded in our culture. Remember also that the two modern religions that are commonly cited as being atheist, Jainism and Buddhism, also believe in the existence of gods. Their atheism consists in believing that the gods have no part to play in human destiny so that we can ignore them. This was the view of Epicurus and to those of his contemporarties whom he convinced that the gods neither reward nor punish human behaviour, this must have come as a huge relief.
Religious believers would of course riposte by asking “Where then, does the world come? How was it created?” Epicurus set out to provide an answer. Everything, said Epicurus, develops from atoms, indivisibly small particles of matter, that by moving and combining form everything that is. The entire theory was quite elaborate but we cannot go into that here (see suggested sources below).
The importance of Epicurus’ atomic theory was that it supplied a rational answer to the question “If the gods did not create the world, where did it come from?”, thus showing that alternative answers were in principle possible. Epicurean atomism may not satisfy us today but we have to see it in context: it was a noble effort within the framework of what was known at the time. All scientific theories need refining as we answer the questions that they raise.
The religious apologists of Epicurus’ day probably insisted that atomism didn’t prove that the gods didn’t create the world, just a religious apologists in our day are fond of saying that Darwinian Evolution doesn’t prove that God did not create our world. I would like to think that Epicurus would have answered as modern scientists answer: “No one ever said it did. That isn’t the point of it.”
The point of these theories is that, within the limits of our knowledge (and no one claims our knowledge is complete and will not increase as time goes by), these theories are good models with great explanatory power. This is why at least some religious believers fully accept Darwinian evolution, but try to bring it into the religious fold by claiming that it is the mechanism God uses to carry out his plans. From the rationalist point of view, God is superfluous: the theory has no need of God. The importance of Evolution Theory and of Epicurean atomism in its day is that they show that it is in principle possible to find mechanisms and processes that satisfactorily explain the world which are entirely rational and do not require divine intervention.
If Epicurus were alive today, I think he would be fascinated by the developments in modern “atomic theory” and an enthusiastic student of Darwinian evolution and Big Bang theory. (I would love to hear a conversation between Epicurus and Stephen Hawking!) I think he would also be heartened to know that the thread of rational theory that he began to spin about 2300 years ago has become a silken ladder by which we will one day climb to the stars.