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5 - Ancient Greece

from Part II - Atheisms in History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 September 2021

Michael Ruse
Florida State University
Stephen Bullivant
St Mary's University, Twickenham, London
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The modern word ‘atheist’ derives from ancient Greek – theos means ‘god’, and the prefix a- denotes absence. The word atheos is first encountered in poetic texts of the fifth century BC, where it means something like ‘god-forsaken’ or ‘impious’, and is used of those who are thought to be uncivilized or in some other way beyond the pale. For example, in Aeschylus’ earliest surviving play, Persians (472 BC), the defeat of Xerxes’ army is said to be requital for ‘their outrageous actions and godless (atheos) arrogance’ (808). In later Greek literature, however, particularly in prose texts, the word took on an additional meaning close to the modern one – that is, ‘lacking in belief in the gods’.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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