Ethnographic Evidence for Unbelief in Non-Western Cultures: Unbelief in Ancient Israel, Egypt, and Babylon,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

In the past sixty years or so, historians and theologians have pointed to what one of them has termed “the biblical sources of secularization.” Others believe that at the time of the Protestant Reformation, the recovery of the Hebraic worldview did much to foster the growth of a naturalistic outlook in the West. “Hebraic culture rejected the older mythology by radically separating nature both from the transcendent god who created it and from man, whom it regarded simply as god’s steward over his creation. [Here we have] the true beginning of that desacralizing of natural processes [which is] the necessary prelude to the growth of scientific naturalism.” An utterly transcendent god leaves mankind free to explore the world in a naturalistic way without any reference to divine interference.

In Psalms 53:1 we are told, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Thus, there were evidently some who questioned the existence of God. The remarkable collection of books in the Old Testament known as the Wisdom Literature—that is, the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles—reveals a doubting, skeptical attitude not found anywhere else in the Bible.

In the Hebrew bible, we have a book known as Qoheleth. In the Septuagint, this is translated as ’Eκκλησιασής, in the Latin tradition Ecclesiastes. In Christian literature, Qoheleth belongs to the Wisdom Books, sometimes called the Poetical Books. It was written in the Hellenistic period (third to second century BCE) and is one of the latest books in the Old Testament. Qoheleth seems to have been a wisdom teacher who addresses his pupil. The philosophy of life that emerges from this book has been variously described as atheistic, pessimistic, skeptical, and Epicurean—but also as optimistic and god-fearing. Antoon Schoors in his great work of exhaustive scholarship on Ecclesiastes characterizes the Teacher in this way:

He is certainly a non-conformist and the best characterization of him is that he is a skeptic or even an agnostic in the etymological sense of the word: somebody who confesses human ignorance of a number of ultimates and undermines all sorts of certainties (not a freethinker or an atheist). He is at the edge of faith but remains a searching believer; he asks many questions but gives few answers. But all this is meant for the best: he speaks honestly with a feeling of compassion with tormented humankind. His book often sounds very modern.

Schoors summarizes Qoheleth’s teaching as follows:

A human being lives only once, today, there is no morrow. Life is fixed in the laws of the world, in the inevitable, it is impossible to speak about future or hope. Therefore his practical advice is to enjoy life, for that joy is the gift of God.

Qoheleth denies the immortality of the soul:

9:1 So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them.

9:2 All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, [a] the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good,

so with the sinful;

as it is with those who take oaths,

so with those who are afraid to take them.

9:3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.

9:4 Anyone who is among the living has hope[b]—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

9:5 For the living know that they will die,

but the dead know nothing;

they have no further reward,

and even their name is forgotten.

9:6 Their love, their hate

and their jealousy have long since vanished;

never again will they have a part

in anything that happens.

9:7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.

9:8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil.

9:9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.

9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

Here [9:1–10], Qoheleth clearly does not believe in a worthwhile life after death. Already he had announced (in 2:14–16) the idea that the wise person and the fool are equal in their deaths. At 3:19–21, Qoheleth also expressed the same sentiment but left the question of what happens to humans’ life-spirit once we die open:

3:19: “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.”

3:20: “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”

3:21: “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

As Crenshaw put it, “Qoheleth saw no basis for optimism about the next life, either in its Hebraic expression, the resurrection of the body, or in its Greek expression, the immortality of the soul. For Qoheleth, Sheol (the realm of the dead) was a place of nonbeing.”

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” or, as Schoors translates it, “Utterly absurd, utterly absurd; all is absurd,” is the phrase that opens the book of Ecclesiastes and sums up the Teacher’s philosophy. There is an all-pervasive mood of skeptical pessimism running through it. But it is nonetheless a philosophical work that tries to make sense of human experience through the application of reason. “Revelation is excluded,” as Thrower argues, “and reason’s verdict on the human condition is that there is no meaning to human life beyond the momentary enjoyment of pleasure.”

Proverbs 30, verses 1–4, denies the possibility of religious knowledge with words put into the mouth of a non-Israelite, words that are then refuted. But as Thrower points out, such views must have been current in Israel for such refutation to have been thought necessary. Thus, we have another example of a fool who has said “there is no God.”


The idea that life here and now is the most we can hope for and we should enjoy it while it lasts is also found in Ancient Babylon in The Epic of Gilgamesh, probably composed as early as the beginning of the second millennium BCE:

Gilgamesh, whither are you wandering?

Life which you look for, you will never find.

For when the gods created man, they let

Death be his share, and life

withheld in their own hands.

Gilgamesh, fill your belly –

day and night make merry,

let days be full of joy,

dance and make music day and night.

And wear fresh clothes,

and wash your head and bathe.

Look at the child who is holding your hand,

and let your wife delight in your embrace.

These things alone are the concern of men.


Similar sentiments to those expressed in The Epic of Gilgamesh are found in documents from the end of the Old Kingdom in Ancient Egypt in about 3335 BCE. One finds the same despair, pessimism, and skepticism. A man’s soul, his ka, advises a man contemplating suicide to forget his cares and seek sensual enjoyment in the immediate present.

In the past sixty years or so, historians and theologians have pointed to what one of them has termed “the biblical sources of secularization.” Others believe that at the time of the Protestant Reformation, the recovery of the Hebraic worldview did much to foster the growth of a naturalistic outlook in the West. “Hebraic culture …