Western atheism has its roots in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, but did not emerge as a distinct world-view until the late Enlightenment. The 5th-century BCE Greek philosopher Diagoras is known as the "first atheist",and is cited as such by Cicero in his De Natura Deorum. Critias viewed religion as a human invention used to frighten people into following moral order. Atomists such as Democritus attempted to explain the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Other pre-Socratic philosophers who probably had atheistic views included Prodicus and Protagoras. In the 3rd-century BCE the Greek philosophers Theodorus Cirenaicus and Strato of Lampsacus also did not believe gods exist.
Socrates (c. 471–399 BCE), was accused of impiety (see Euthyphro dilemma) on the basis that he inspired questioning of the state gods. Although he disputed the accusation that he was a "complete atheist", saying that he could not be an atheist as he believed in spirits, he was ultimately sentenced to death. Socrates also prays to various gods in Plato's dialogue Phaedrus and says "By Zeus" in the dialogue The Republic.
Euhemerus (c. 330–260 BCE) published his view that the gods were only the deified rulers, conquerors and founders of the past, and that their cults and religions were in essence the continuation of vanished kingdoms and earlier political structures. Although not strictly an atheist, Euhemerus was later criticized for having "spread atheism over the whole inhabited earth by obliterating the gods".
Atomic materialist Epicurus (c. 341–270 BCE) disputed many religious doctrines, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity; he considered the soul purely material and mortal. While Epicureanism did not rule out the existence of gods, he believed that if they did exist, they were unconcerned with humanity.
The Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99–55 BCE) agreed that, if there were gods, they were unconcerned with humanity and unable to affect the natural world. For this reason, he believed humanity should have no fear of the supernatural. He expounds his Epicurean views of the cosmos, atoms, the soul, mortality, and religion in De rerum natura ("On the nature of things"), which popularized Epicurus' philosophy in Rome.
The meaning of "atheist" changed over the course of classical antiquity. The early Christians were labeled atheists by non-Christians because of their disbelief in pagan gods. During the Roman Empire, Christians were executed for their rejection of the Roman gods in general and Emperor-worship in particular. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome under Theodosius I in 381, heresy became a punishable offense.
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
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