Atheism and cynicism

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Bust of Diogenes of Sinope (3rd century B.C. - The Vatican Museum, Rome.)

Antisthenes (445-365 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher and was the teacher of Diogenes of Sinope, who founded (perhaps with Antisthenes) the philosophy of the Cynics.

In relation to atheism and cynicism the article Atheism and Skepticism in Ancient Greece declares:

Diogenes of Sinope (412?-323 BCE) is the Greek philosopher who is generally considered the founder of Cynicism, an ancient school of philosophy. Practical good was the goal of Diogenes' philosophy and he did not hide his contempt for literature and the fine arts. For example, he laughed at men of letters for a reading of the sufferings of Odysseus while neglecting their own.

This disdain carried right over to religion which, for Diogenes of Sinope, had no apparent relevance to daily life:

"Thus does Diogenes sacrifice to all the gods at once." (while cracking a louse on the altar rail of a temple) "When I look upon seamen, men of science, and philosophers, man is the wisest of all things. When I look upon priests, prophets, and interpreters of dreams, nothing is so contemptible as a man."

This contempt for religion and gods is shared by many atheists today. Indeed, it's hard to describe this contempt as any less harsh than the criticism of religion which so-called "New Atheists" express today.[1]

Atheism, cynicism and nihilism

See also: Atheism and meaninglessness

Nihilism is the belief that life is, overall, meaningless. A true nihilist would have no loyalties, and no purpose. The atheist Friedrich Nietzsche argued that moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions lead to nihilism's corrosive effects; cause the collapse of meaning, relevance, purpose, and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history.[2] See: Atheism and meaninglessness

Author Greg Ganssle in his essay Cynicism and Affirmation declares:

Beside suspicion, cynicism brings a kind of nihilism with respect to value. We are hesitant to admit that some course of action has value on its own terms. Rather we tend to exert our energy to undermine whatever value is being recommended. As a result, we are quick to “debunk” any recommended value. In public discussions, we see this cynicism with what can be called the “Yes, but…” response. When someone with whom we disagree raises a good or important point, we rarely stop and think about what she contributed to the discussion. We hardly ever say, “Wow, you made some good points. I will have to think hard about this and get back to you.” Rather, we tend to respond, “Yes, but …” That is, we pretend to acknowledge the other person’s contribution but we race over it to get to our other points of disagreement.

Cynicism is corrosive to my eyesight. It makes it difficult for me to see the true, the good and the beautiful when it is right in front of me. It makes it hard to see even the plausible and the promising and the okay looking. It makes me quick to dismiss and slow to listen. It allows me to react to other voices rather than to hear them.

I want to propose one practice that can help reverse the development of a cynical mind. This is the practice of affirmation...

Paul lays out the practice of affirmation in his letter to the Philippians:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil. 4:8 ESV)

Paul tells us to think about those things that are commendable, excellent and true. We practice this kind of thinking, first of all, in our relationships with the people with whom we engage.[3]

See also


  1. Atheism and Skepticism in Ancient Greece
  2. Nihilism
  3. Cynicism and Affirmation by Greg Ganssle