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In ages past, an ‘atheist’ was the one unsure of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman pantheons. He doubted the fairies and the forest elves too. No matter the time period, the atheist’s theological suspicions were aroused.

And time after time, time proved the atheist right.

Suppose an ancient Egyptian doubted the existence of his epoch’s deity-packed pantheon. Suppose this skeptical person was subjected to a barrage of criticisms from defenders of the Egyptian faith. Suppose he had to support his own position and offer reasons for his incredulity. Suppose defenders of the ancient faith offered credible arguments and he offered weak arguments.

No matter how marginal this man’s skeptical ideas were, no matter how inept he might have been in presenting his views, no matter how he mishandled the internal dissonance and public isolation resulting from his rejection of childhood indoctrination, no matter if he was indeed the only skeptic in the entire four-thousand-year epoch of Egyptian religion, we know from the distance of two thousand years since Egyptian religion died that this ancient Egyptian ‘atheist’ was correct. No Gods actually graced the ancient Egyptian pantheon.

We could imagine another such ‘atheist’ during the four-thousand-year epoch of ancient Sumerian-Akkadian-Babylonian religion. He too was right. And if there was a person immersed in ancient Norse religion but doubting it—that person was also right. And on and on—all those skeptics past were correct when they disbelieved the deities of their era.

Ancient skeptics doubted because there WAS something incredible in the theologies of their epoch, though most people at the time could never espy a cause for incredulity when those religions were in full flourish.

I speak of individual ‘atheists’ in the epochs of ancient religions, but there could have been hundreds or thousands of ancient skeptics. For all we know, there might be a steady state of five percent or ten percent or twenty percent of a population in any epoch that is skeptical about their epoch’s idea of God.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said one epoch’s religion is the next epoch’s literary entertainment. We enjoy ancient Greek religion as a literary event called mythology. But ancient Greeks didn’t call their religion mythology, did they? They called it theology. They believed in those Gods.

Visit Greece today and you’ll see it in ruins—and the ruins are the very real remains of ancient temples to Greek Gods that we know did not exist. And yet the epoch of ancient Greek religion existed for two thousand years before it died out. Plato thought it the utmost sacrilege for his contemporaries to deny the Gods of Greece, little knowing that a few hundred years after he died everyone everywhere would deny the Gods of Greece.

Let us come to questions for our own era, our own epoch.

Aware as we are of the fate of ancient religions, should our epoch be any different than epochs past? Is it part of our temporal myopia to think our religions will escape judgment thousands of years from now? Won’t a distant future prove our current atheists are correct? Don’t atheists of all epochs offer hints about the future of religion? Don’t all atheists divine the future of God?

‘Time’ personified in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale says this: “So shall I do to the freshest things now reigning, and make stale the glistering of this present.”

What is an atheist, really, but a person who anticipates the future staleness of his epoch’s God?

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...