The #NormalizeAtheism Campaign was started by Mark Nebo in the fall of 2014. Originally just a hashtag it has evolved into something greater. In 2016 the camaign added two new managers, Steve Shives and Sincere Kirabo.
Atheism has been a part of human thought for as long as humans have been here to think. In the earliest days of our species, before there were gods to believe in, it could be said that, in a sense, we were all atheists. And once the first gods had been conceived in the minds of believers, there were surely always those who didn’t actually believe, whether or not they felt at liberty to voice that disbelief.
So, it’s impossible to say who was the first atheist, really. But we do know the name of the first person who was notable for their atheism – in western culture, at least. That person was Diagoras of Melos.
We don’t know much about Diagoras. He was born sometime in the mid-to-late 5th century B.C. on Melos, a small island in the Aegean Sea. Melos was the site of extensive conflict during the Peloponnesian War. Though originally settled by Spartans, the island was independent and officially neutral territory during the war. Athens wanted control of Melos, which led to several attacks on the island by Athenian troops, culminating in a massive invasion and siege in the year 416 B.C. that led to Athens taking control of the island. The adult men of Melos were executed; the women and children were forced into slavery. Diagoras himself wasn’t on the island – he was living in Athens by then. According to a later history he was imprisoned at one point during the siege of Melos, and was bailed out by Democritus, the great natural philosopher who was among the first to propose that all matter was composed of atoms.
Diagoras was a poet, and also involved himself in politics. He was an associate of renowned legislator and statesman Nicodorus of Mantineia and reportedly assisted Nicodorus in writing a constitution for Mantineia that doesn’t survive today, but that Aristotle and Polybius apparently found quite impressive.
And Diagoras was an atheist. We don’t know much about his atheism, but we know he didn’t believe the gods existed and was a critic of the Greek religion. A few hundred years after the time of Diagoras, Cicero, the celebrated Roman politician and writer, recorded a story about a friend of Diagoras trying to persuade him that the gods were real. The friend brought up the votive paintings depicting people who survived storms at sea after asking for help from the gods. Diagoras responded by asking his friend why there weren’t any paintings of the people who had been shipwrecked and drowned.
Cicero tells another story about Diagoras, about a time he was on a ship that ran into rough weather, and the blamed him, saying the storm was their punishment for allowing this nonbeliever aboard. Diagoras replied, “I wonder if the other boats caught in this storm have a Diagoras aboard.”
In 415 B.C. Diagoras was accused of impiety, which was a fairly serious charge at the time. According to Athenagoras of Athens, writing centuries later, Diagoras published an essay revealing the secrets of the Eleusinian mysteries, one of the most popular ceremonies of the time. Diagoras is also said to have chopped up a wooden statue of Hercules and used it to boil turnips – which he declared was the thirteenth labor of Hercules. I think that’s pretty funny. The Athenian authorities did not. Diagoras was forced to flee the city. A reward was offered for his capture – dead or alive – but he was never caught. Eventually he settled in Corinth, where he spent the rest of his life.
Two-thousand-four-hundred years later, the story of Diagoras the Atheist is tragically familiar to many of us, even if we’ve heard of him. He was chased from his home and hunted for the crime of blasphemy – for being too critical of religious authorities, too outspoken about his rejection of the gods. He was shamed, insulted, threatened, and ostracized for being an atheist. Luckily, most atheists who watch this video aren’t at risk for being imprisoned or executed for their lack of belief, but in 13 countries atheism is still a crime that carries a potential death sentence. And even in countries without such laws, atheists still face violent persecution. For example, since 2015 at least six atheist bloggers have been murdered by Islamist extremists in Bangladesh.
Compared to that, atheists in the west have it easy. But even in countries where church and state are kept separate and mainstream religious practice is fairly moderate, atheists are marginalized, stigmatized, or simply ignored. And that’s a problem. Because if we want our society to be just, pluralistic, and inclusive, there needs to be space not only for the many varieties of religious believers, but also for those of us who don’t believe. This isn’t an easy problem to solve – as the story of Diagoras shows us, it’s a very old problem. Solving it will require changing the way atheists are perceived by the societies in which we live. And the first step toward realizing that change is reminding everyone else that we’re here. It doesn’t demand any particular political affiliation, it doesn’t necessitate the acceptance of a specific ideology. All it requires is for all of us who are able to speak up and say, “I’m an atheist. And I think it’s time for us to #NormalizeAtheism.”