"Pagans" and atheism
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians
(Knopf: New York 1986)
"atheism" 30; Christian, 425-8, 551-2, 259; Epicurean, 168-9, 259; Jewish,
In practice, religious overinsurance spanned the social boundaries and was
evident, perhaps as it always had been, in members of the upper class too.7 Its
other, more sceptical members tended to follow the majority and pay the civic
worship which their fathers had paid before them.8 A degree of agnosticism did not lead to outright atheism, except, perhaps, among a few of the most dogmatic astrologers: we hear of one, but only in a fine Christian fiction, the "Recognitions," whose core probably goes back to the early third century.9
Perhaps this Christian text was exaggerated, for the astrologers whose books
survive were not so extreme: astrology and cult were not mutually exclusive.10 In the early Christian period, atheism, in our sense, was not an option.
"Atheists" were either Epicureans who denied the gods" providence, but not their existence, or Jews and Christians who worshipped their own God, while denying everyone else's. 30
At a popular level, Christians attracted blackmail and slander: in Rome, as early as 64, it was plausible to accuse them of morally outrageous conduct. Who knows how many heirs and neighbours wanted a condemned Christian's goods? ...
Secondary motives are present in any persecution, but they do not account for the continuing outbursts in the cities or the particular form of the governors'
trials. Here, the Christian "atheism" was the basic cause of their
maltreatment. Some intellectual pagans decried the forms of contemporary cult,
but almost all concurred with them when necessary; the Christians refused to
concur, and their lack of respect was intolerable. It was also dangerous. ... "No rain, because of the Christians," had become proverbial by the mid-fourth
The primary role of "atheism" helps to explain the course of
the governors' trials. Nobody minded too much what Christians did or did not
believe. A gesture of honour to the gods and conformity to tradition was all that was required of them.18 As a governor told Bishop Dionysius, there would be no objection if the bishop would only worship the pagan gods as well as his
... The whole procedure was lacking in religious zeal. The fear of "atheism"
in the abstract was not so strong that governors or Emperors before the
mid-third century ever tried to stamp the Christians out.19 Some of the
philosophers dismissed belief in the "anger" of the gods as mere superstition, an attitude which one Emperor, Marcus, certainly professed to share. Persecution occurred nonetheless in his reign, at a local level where the fear of "atheism" had been brought to life by particular events. Particular ignitions were necessary if a city or a crowd were to call for Christians to be arrested. 426
Christians disturbed the peace of a province, and detracted from the gods'
honours and most governors would agree that "atheists" might provoke
anger in heaven. ...
These conclusions risk becoming circular, as if Christians were persecuted
because they were Christians. They raise a more difficult problem: why were
Christians persecuted, whereas Jews, meanwhile, were not? The Jews, too, were exclusive "atheists." ...
Jews, however, could not be brought to trial for their atheism, or their "name," a fact whose explanation begins where Gibbon sought it, in the antiquity of the Jews' worship. Romans respected the old and venerable in religion, and nothing was older or more venerable than Jewish cult: "the Jews were a people which followed, the Christians a sect which deserted, the religion of their fathers."24 Unlike the Christians, they had a Law whose wisdom, as we have seen impressed Apollo at Didyma. 428
Before Decius's edict [249 ce], the cities had initiated their own arrests and
accusations of Christians: they feared, or were reminded to fear, these
"atheists" who would not participate in the cults which averted the anger of the gods. 551-2
Oracles united respect for "ancestral practice" with a strong awareness of the
awe and potential anger of the gods. These attitudes, as we shall see, underlay
the cities' persecutions of Christian "atheists." When the oracles
diagnosed divine anger, they prescribed archaic rites of sacrifice and hymns for
an appeasement by their clients, but Christians, in these same cities, could not
participate in these divine "commands." The origins of cities' local outbursts
against their Christians is usually concealed from us, but it may owe something
to the prior advice of an oracle on rites and honours. At Abonouteichos, it
seemed plausible to Lucian to allege that the "false" prophet told his crowds to
throw stones at "atheist" Christians and Epicureans. 258-9