Birth of an Origin Myth
An origin myth is a myth that purports to describe the origin of some feature of the natural or social world. One type of origin myth is the cosmogonic myth, which describes the creation of the world. . . . Every origin myth is a tale of creation: origin myths describe how some new reality came into existence.
Few early Greek philosophers delved into origin myths. Most of them tried to discover truth regarding some aspect of the world. They observed the physical world and speculated on what they saw.
For example, Heraclitus of Ephesus lived from around 535 B.C. to 475 B.C. In antiquity, he was best known for his belief that everything is in a state of flux. According to Copleston, his original contribution to philosophy is “the conception of unity in diversity, difference in unity.” He is best known today for saying, “It is impossible to step twice into the same river. . . .It scatters and regathers, comes together and dissolves, approaches and departs.”
Anaxagoras provides another example of an early Greek philosopher. He lived from around 510 B.C. to 428 B.C. The center of Anaxagoras’ philosophy is Nous or “mind.” In the beginning, according to Anaxagoras, all matter was mixed together. Mind set matter in motion and the world was formed.
However, Anaxagoras set no limit for the smallness of matter. Matter could be infinitely small. A finite thing, such as a man, is made up of an infinite number of ingredients. Thus, his theory was illogical as a finite entity cannot be composed of infinite parts. His belief could be seen as an origin myth but it included belief in Nous, a god-like principle.
Origin myths most commonly are found in religions. But when atheism began to dominate the Western world-view, more and more origin myths popped up in science. The dominant origin myth accepted by the scientific community today is evolution by random, chance selection.
You might think this origin myth began with Charles Darwin. Actually, the myth began more than two millennia before Darwin. It was dreamed up by a couple of ancient Greek philosophers named Leucippus and Democritus. They also are known as the atomists. Their origin myth was not based on science. It was a work of speculation.
The Atomic First Steps of Leucippus
Now we come to the atomists. Leucippus and Democritus were the Greek atomists. Little is known about Leucippus. Some ancients, such as Epicurus, denied that Leucippus even existed. The ideas of Leucippus and Democritus were so similar that it is hard to determine where one man’s ideas start and the other’s stop.
Diogenes Laertes wrote, “Leucippus was the first to set up atoms as first principles.” Leucippus took the first steps toward constructing the origin myth of atheism. According to Bertrand Russell, “The fundamental ideas of the common philosophy of Leucippus and Democritus were due to the former.” So Leucippus dreamed up the fundamental ideas. Democritus brought the ideas together and formed a coherent theory.
Leucippus believed that both corporeal and non-corporeal entities exist. He believed that “what is not” is just as real as “what is.” The corporal entities are the atoms. The non-corporeal is called “the void” and is necessary to account for the movement of atoms. As atoms fall through the void they collect together and become entangled with each other. In this way the earth and everything else is formed.
Leucippus did not believe in the existence of any moving force that set atoms in motion. Aristotle later chides him in Metaphysics, saying,
“Leucippus and Democritus carelessly said nothing about the origin of movement and how things have movement”
Leucippus also declared that the striking together of atoms is totally by chance. Leucippus did not believe in any God.
The Logical Conclusions of Atomism
Democritus is the central figure in our story of the atomists. He was born in Abdera in Thrace (part of Greece) around 460 B.C. although some say his birth was as early as 490 B.C. Democritus did not die until around 370 B.C. According to Diogenes Laertes, he may have lived to the ripe old age of one hundred and nine years. His father was so rich that he entertained the Persian king Xerxes during his attempted conquest of Greece.
Democritus traveled and studied extensively. He wandered as far as Persia, Ethiopia, the Red Sea, and some say as far as India. He lived during the time of Socrates and Plato. Plato hated him and wanted to burn all of Democritus’ books but Democritus wrote a lot of books. He was known as the laughing philosopher.
The basic premise of Leucippus and Democritus is this: all that exists is matter and void. Matter is composed of an infinite number of very tiny particles called atoms. Void exists as the space in which atoms move. No void, no movement. No movement, no combining of atoms to produce the world and everything in it. Matter (atoms) and void are eternal.
Atoms have no qualities of their own except size, shape, position, and arrangement. To these Democritus added weight. All other qualities, such as color, are secondary qualities that arise when atoms cluster together.
Atoms combine through collisions as they fall through the infinite void. Worlds form and come into being through these collisions. Democritus believed there have been innumerable worlds. All of these worlds and all of the creatures that inhabited them were the result of the chance collisions of atoms. This also is true for our world today. Throughout eternity an infinite number of worlds were generated and then dissolved. One day our world will dissolve.
However, throughout eternity the combining of atoms failed to produce a single entity. In other words, being does not exist. As Aristotle said of the atoms,
“These things [atoms] are in motion in the void (for the void exists), and their coming together constitutes generation, while their dissolution constitutes destruction. They act and are acted upon wherever they happen to come into contact, but their coming into contact does not make them a single entity.”
Although these atoms cluster together, their clusters do not generate any new entity. Leucippus (as quoted by Aristotle) said, “No plurality could arise from what is truly single, nor could a singularity arise from what is truly multiple—that is impossible.” According to Democritus “it is perfectly stupid . . . to think that something which was two or more could ever become one.”
What does this mean? According to Leucippus and Democritus you and I do not exist. We do not think. We have no soul or spirit. We cannot love or hate. We live until we die. There is no purpose to life. Nothing matters. According to Bertrand Russell,
“Democritus was a thorough-going materialist; for him, as we have seen, the soul was composed of atoms, and thought was a physical process. There was no purpose in the universe; there were only atoms governed by mechanical laws.”
Why would these two philosophers come up with such an illogical and unsubstantiated myth? Was it science? No. Bertrand Russell calls their theories “good luck,” saying,
“By good luck, the atomists hit on a hypothesis for which, more than two thousand years later, some evidence was found, but their belief, in their day, was none the less destitute of any solid foundation.”
There was no physical or scientific evidence to support their claims.
Why did their irrational theory gain support? For two millennia it did not. It was continued by Epicurus and then Lucretius. Then their myth virtually disappeared until it was revived in the Late Middle Ages. It was established when atheists gained control of science.
Why did atheists revive it? What advantage does this creation myth have for atheists? First, this myth explains the existence of the world by chance using mechanical forces. No God is required. The world is self-creating, according to these two philosophers. Copleston adds,
“Leucippus and Democritus are noteworthy for having carried previous tendencies to their logical conclusion, producing a purely mechanical account and explanation of reality.”
Democritus also carried atomism to its logical conclusion regarding the existence of gods. He stated that when men encounter graven images or idols, these images are “endowed with divinity” (according to Cicero). The images are considered divine because they represent the future, that is, many of them are large and virtually indestructible (made of stone). But their divinity resides only in the minds of men. In other words, men create the gods through the ignorance of their minds.
Men also create gods due to fear of the natural forces around them. According to Sextus Empiricus,
“There are those who believe that our conception of the gods is due to the awesome things that happen in the world. Democritus seems to have been of this opinion, since he says that in ancient times men were frightened of celestial phenomena such as thunder, lightning, thunder bolts, conjunctions of heavenly bodies, and solar and lunar eclipses, and imagined that the gods were responsible for these things.”
Why do modern atheists adhere so closely to the archaic theories of the atomists? Because this theory suits their world view in two important ways. First, Democritus explained away the existence of the gods. Second, he opened the door for the pursuit of pleasure. This is another product of atheism. When the commands of God are stripped away, ethics becomes a plaything in the hands of the most powerful tyrant or the most influential idea.
When we think of “the pursuit of pleasure” today our minds conjure up images of lust and gluttony and greed. Democritus did not consider these activities as pleasure. According to Russell, “In ethics he [Democritus] considered cheerfulness the goal of life, and regarded moderation and culture as the best means to it.” Consider these quotes from Democritus (as recorded by Stobaeus):
“Contentment comes from not doing too much, in either one’s private or public life, and from keeping, in whatever one does, within one’s own capabilities and nature. . . . A balanced load is safer than a heavy load.”
Regarding lusts of the flesh and the desire for more . . .
“Unless a point of satiety is reached, the desire for money is far more cruel than the utmost poverty, because the greater the desire the greater the need.”
Moderation is best according to Democritus: “Moderation increases pleasure and exaggerates enjoyment.”
Democritus did not endorse licentiousness. But his origin myth paved the way for it.
Atheism’s Origin Myth
Thus atheism’s origin myth was formed. The myth has changed very little during the last 2,500 years. The myth contains four “scientific” statements:
- The universe is eternal
- Only matter exists.
- All matter is composed of tiny elemental particles called “atoms.”
- Atoms produce every physical item from worlds to people to microbes through random collisions. There is no creator, nor is there need for one.
What does this mean to us? How does this affect our lives? Democritus did not stop with science. He knew these ideas could change the world.
- If these scientific statements are true, there is no need for any god. The world and everything in it are the product of natural forces. If there is no God, there is no reason for people to live in fear of God. We can be as nasty as we want without fear of divine retribution. No one can tell us how to live.
- There is no set ethical guideline to tell me how to live my life. We can make up the rules as we go along.
Democritus did not agree with these ideas but, as I said, he opened the dorr for them.
This is atheism’s origin myth. Why does atheism need an origin myth? Because atheism is a belief system.