A Grand Illusion and Old Atheism: The origins of the God debate in Ancient Greece

Patrick O'Sullivan, School of Humanities, University of Canterbury, NZ

Co-presented with the Department of Classics and Ancient History, the University of Sydney

27 August

Terms such as ‘The God Debate’ and ‘New Atheism’ attract a good deal of attention these days as hot topics in public discourse. This talk looks at how questions about the existence or non-existence of the divine were raised and discussed in ancient Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. From this period we hear for the first time in western history of critics of conventional religion, such as Xenophanes and Heraclitus, early Ionian philosophers, whose scepticism did not make them renounce all notion of the divine; we also hear of the first self-proclaimed agnostics and atheists such as Protagoras and Prodicus, leading figures of what is often called the Intellectual Enlightenment of the fifth century BC.

Far from falling into simplistic categories of being ‘pro-religion’ or ‘anti-religion’, these and other writings show considerable nuance and sophistication in their response to the issues raised by belief in the divine. The talk will finish with an analysis of a dramatic text, usually ascribed to Critias, a student of Socrates and relative of Plato, which presents religion as a socially constructed lie, but one which brings about law, order and justice: in other words, a grand illusion.


Patrick O'Sullivan is a graduate of Melbourne and Cambridge Universities and is Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Canterbury, NZ. He has published on many aspects of Archaic and Classical Greek language, literature and cultural history, and his expertise includes Greek theatre, ancient aesthetics and literary criticism as well as athletics, religion and atheism in the Greek world; he has also published on Greek and Roman art, and their reception in antiquity and beyond. He has won awards for his research and teaching, and was translator, co-director and actor in a full production of Euripides' satyr-play Cyclops, produced in Christchurch in 2008. Most recently, he is the author (with Chris Collard) of Euripides' Cyclops and Major Fragments of Greek Satyric Drama (2013).