When Christians Were Atheists
Early Christians were atheists! At least, that’s how some people of the time viewed them in the earliest centuries, and it’s not difficult to see why. Most importantly, they refused to worship the traditional gods. But also, judged by Roman-era criteria, they didn’t even seem to practice a recognizable form of religion. In the crucial first couple of centuries at least, they had no shrines or temples, no altars or images, and no sacrificial rites or priesthood.
Granted, early Christians were accused of various things. There were the wild claims that Christians engaged in cannibalism and sexual orgies, claims that circulated mainly among the rabble. More sophisticated critics, however, portrayed them as deeply subversive of the social, religious, and political structures of the Roman world. One of the other labels hurled against Christianity was that it was a superstitio, a Latin term that designated bad religion, the kind deemed stupid, even dangerous. But “atheist” was probably the accusation that most directly reflected the sharply distinctive, even troublesome, nature of Christianity in the earliest centuries.
Unlike the emphasis today, however, in the Roman world atheism wasn’t primarily a matter of belief or unbelief. Instead, what counted then as “piety” or being religious was mainly participation in worshiping the gods. In that setting, to refuse to do so was atheism. Ancient philosophers speculated about the gods, where they came from, what they really were, and even whether they really existed, but that wasn’t so much a problem. What mattered was taking part in the traditional rites devoted to the gods. And the philosophers who speculated about the gods didn’t particularly try to discourage participation in the traditional rites, or even withdraw (at least publicly) from taking part themselves. But Christians (who by the second century were mainly converted pagans) were supposed to desist from worship of the gods . . . all of them. Also, Christian teachings ridiculed the gods as unworthy beings, and what most people thought of as “piety”—participation in the traditional rites to the gods—was designated in Christian teaching as “idolatry.”
To appreciate what this rejection of the traditional gods meant, we also have to understand that gods and reverencing them were woven through every aspect of life. Families had household deities. Cities had their guardian gods. The Roman Empire at large rested upon the gods, such as the goddess Roma. Practically any social occasion, such as a dinner, included an expression of reverence for a given deity. Meetings of guilds, such as fishers, bakers, or others, all included acknowledging their appropriate god.
So, to refuse to join in worshiping any of these deities in a thorough-going manner was a very radical move, and a risky one too, with wide-ranging social costs. People understandably took offense, and Christians could be in for a good deal of anger and hostility that might include verbal and physical abuse. In some cases, the Christian rejection of the gods led to arraignment before Roman magistrates, resulting in punishments, even executions. By the third century, there were occasional spasms of imperial persecution against Christians that could include confiscation of possessions and death sentences. And from at least the late second century, there were full-scale literary attacks on Christianity, the one most well-known today by the pagan writer Celsus.
In these circumstances, it should not be surprising that Christians often made various compromises, negotiating their existence to avoid conflict where they could do so. But the pagan critiques about Christians suggest that they were known more often for refusing to honor the gods rather than bending to social pressures to do so.
Ironically, however, this early Christian atheism had a profoundly religious basis. It was a radical critique of traditional religion that was driven by powerful theological convictions. Christians who forsook the traditional gods turned to a different kind of deity. Their deity could not be represented in an image. This one deity was creator and ruler of all things and all peoples, and was alone worthy of worship. But Christians characterized this one all-powerful deity, perhaps above all, as motivated by an almighty love for the world and its inhabitants. This was an unprecedented claim in the pagan religious environment of the time. Moreover, the proper worship of this Christian deity was mainly verbal, in prayers and songs; and the piety that this deity demanded was particularly shown in love, for fellow Christians to be sure, but also, remarkably, even for enemies.
Of course, there was obvious indebtedness to the Jewish tradition in which earliest Christianity first emerged. Judaism, however, was always closely tied to its own ethnicity. To be a full convert to the God of Judaism meant changing your ethnic identity too. But early Christianity quickly emerged as a trans-ethnic movement, aggressively proclaiming its message and recruiting former pagans to its peculiar message on a scale that made it a threat in a way that was never true of Judaism. In religion, as in some other matters, early Christianity helped to destroy one world and create another. And the effects of this early Christian “atheism” linger to this day. Modern atheism as we know it is shaped by the Christian faith against which it reacts. For even modern atheists assume that there’s only one god to doubt!
Larry W. Hurtado, author of Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).
 Granted, early Christian texts liken the Eucharistic meal to the altars of pagan deities (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:21) and to the altar of the Jerusalem temple (Hebrews 13:10). But there were no actual altars or actual sacrificial rites. By the third century there were church structures used for regular worship, the most well-known being the excavated church in Dura Europos (Syria).