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When Christians Were Atheists

December 13, 2016

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.[1]

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).

[1] 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).

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  1. Dr Hurtado, what do you mean by saying the early Christians had no priesthood? Surely local congregation bishops and presbyters fulfill the priesthood role?

    • There’s no reference to local elders or “episkopoi” as priests until the second century, and even then it’s a simile (Ignatius of Antioch). There were no altars, no animal sacrifices (which priests served).

      • Paul Jackson permalink

        I’m not looking to nit-pick your post as I hold you in the highest possible esteem, but you have written “first couple of centuries”. Nevertheles, what about the Didache’s mention of “prophets”?

        Clearly dating the evolving (?) Didache tradition is complicated, but it appears to me at least that the sections which pre-suppose these “prophets” are earlier than the sections which talk about appointments of Bishops and Deacons, which seems to belong more to the late 1st/early second century consitent perhaps with 1st Timothy. After all, in the absence of a “proto priesthood” of some kind, who would have administered the Eucharist and Baptisms?

        I’m obviously not trying to start an argument, rather I’m extremely interested in your views.

      • I’m not clear what you’re trying to say, Paul. Christian prophets are mentioned in Paul’s letters, in the 50s, so they’re an early phenomenon. Christian priests come much later. The early eucharists were meals, not the formal ceremonies of later times. The host of the home in which the meal was held could “preside” likely.

      • Paul Jackson permalink

        Yes, I clearly haven’t expressed my question very well, but I’m interested in how the preisthood was established, and how the informal early eucharists morphed into the “outward mystery typical of the Church” in the Didache 11.17. I assume that refers to a more formal eucharistic ceremony, performed by a peripatetic prophet. Is it your opinion that the eucharist, the consumption of wine and bread as a religious ceremony, a distinct perfomed religious action with symbolic meaning, was not a part of the very earliest churches? If not, how and when did it evolve?

        Likewise, I’m fascinated in your view as to how the priesthood grew out of the earliets apostles and prophets, and the processes and rough chronology involved. And indeed, whether these two factors, the forrmalising eucharist and evolving prieshood, had any type of causal relationship to each other.

        I know these may be very large questions, so feel free to ignore them altogether or point me to some reading.

      • Paul, I presume that you mean Didache 11:11, and the reference to a prophet who ποιων εις μυστήριον κοσμικον εκκλησιας (“who does something with a view to portraying in a worldly manner the symbolic meaning of the church,” trans. Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of their Writings 2nd ed.). I see no reference in the wording to the “mystery” being the Eucharist. Didache 9–10 gives prayers to be recited at the eucharist meals, and then allows “prophets” to pray as they wish. So, we seem to have reflected here a somewhat mixed setting in which there are both local leaders and itinerant prophets. No priests!

  2. What a good read, dear Dr. Larry. How much we need these articles in Spanish. I will translate some ideas from this writing, if you will allow me.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is fascinating, Larry. Point of clarification: so do we not have evidence of Jews being accused of atheism during this period?

    • The accusation of “atheism” goes back as far as Socrates, to my knowledge. It was hurled at anyone who was seen as denying the gods their proper honor. But in the case of early Christianity, we have a different kind of social project: Jews didn’t try to persuade pagans to refrain from their gods. But early Christianity was aggressively trans-ethnic and evangelistic. It’s one of the points of difference I discuss in my book, Destroyer of the gods.

  4. Great post, Dr. Hurtado. Note that this use of “atheism” is ambiguous – it concerns belief and/or practice. But one might believe in many deities and worship none. (e.g. ancient Egyptian who is a religious slacker) And one might (for family reasons) believe in none but ceremonially worship many. (e.g. modern Hindu who is actually a naturalist) We can disambiguate by separating atheism (belief there is no God) from “aoloatry” (not worshiping any deity) and from “adeism” (no deities of any sort). Interestingly, the early modern philosophers who popularized “atheism” in English spoke of most “polytheism” as a species of atheism, as such ancient people believed in what I would call many deities, but not in any god. Quotes from them and a suggested revision of the whole monotheism-polytheism-atheism scheme here:

    • Dale, You’re engaging the matter in the current/modern context. I make the historical point as to what “atheism” was in the Roman period.

  5. tomdawkes permalink

    This is a very apposite blog, in light of Martin Scorsese’s newly released film of the novel “Silence” by Shusaku Endo, where the turning point is whether the captured Jesuit missionary will bend just a little to trample on the “fumie” or crucifix as a sign of renunciation — and so save the Japanese converts from excruciating death.
    All the early Christians needed to do was offer a pinch of incense — so little and yet so much.

  6. Larry, the term atheist, is very interesting. Who first used that term, and when and why was it used? In the context of an early Roman, it is a term, which to me, means a person who does’nt believe in a physical god. That is very significant. It could for example, mean a person who believes that god is a spirit.

    • Geoff: “Atheism” in Roman antiquity = denying the gods their due worship. You’ve got the wrong end of the stick, and are imposing a modern notion on the ancient world. See, e.g., Anders B. Drachmann, Atheism in Pagan Antiquity (London: Gyldendal, 1922); Adolf von Harnack, Der Vorwurf des Atheismus in den drei ersten Jahrhunderten. TU, no. 13/1 (Leipzig: J. C. Heinrichs, 1905); Jan N. Bremmer, “Atheism in Antiquity,” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 11-26


      • Larry, when a Roman thought or spoke about a god or the gods what exactly would have been going through his or her mind. The Pantheon was a place for statues of the gods who all had names. It seems as though a Roman couldn’t think a god would be without a physical form. And what exactly does superstitio mean in this context? This is close to the modern idea of superstition, meaning then something like it is all in your imagination, which they could say about the concept of a spirit.

      • Geoff: You’re still waaay off-base. I can’t give a seminar on Roman religion/gods in the comments to a blog site. If you want to learn about the matter, here’s a place to start: Beard, Mary, John North and Simon Price. Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
        After you’ve read the book, you can get back to me with any questions.

  7. Dr. H,
    Thanks for the insight! I continue to be amazed at the radical religion that Christianity was at the beginning.


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