Notes on the history of disbelief – An early atheist manifest
In the second half of the 5th century BCE Critias wrote a play, Sisyphus, which one could assume to have as a topic, morale. Critias, who was the uncle of Plato, was according to the sources a man of many talents. He was politically active, wrote poems, treatises, tragedies among other things. He became a central figure in the struggle between democrats and anti-demorcrats of the ancient Athens, being against democracy. Among his strong opinions, he had a very critical view on religion as an instrument in society. In other words he was “an Athenian Oligarchic leader, who towards the end of the fifth century asserted that religion was a deliberate imposture devised by some cunning man for political ends.” (Polybius, 1979: Introduction p. 25). In the following quote, probably in the words of Sisyphus and probably what Critias personally thought of religion, is what must be one of the earliest extant manifest of atheism.
There was a time when the life of human beings was disordered and beastly, and life was ruled by force, when there was no reward for the virtuous nor any punishment for the wicked. It was then, I think, that humans decided to establish laws to punish [wrongdoers] so that justice might rule and be master over crime and violence. And they punished anyone who did wrong. Then, since the laws held public deeds in check and prevented men from open acts of violence, but they committed them secretly, then it was, I believe, that a shrewd and clever-minded man invented for mortals fear of the gods, so that there might be a deterrent for the wicked, even if they act or say or think anything in secret. Hence from this source the divine was introduced [with the claim] that there is a deity who enjoys imperishable life, hearing and seeing with his mind, his thought and attention on all things, his nature so divine that he will hear whatever is said among mortals and be able to see whatever is done. If ever you plot some evil deed in silence, even this will not escape the gods, for they have knowledge.
It was such stories that he told when he introduced this most delightful teaching and hid the truth with a false tale. He said the gods dwell there and placed them where they might make the greatest impression upon human beings, there where he knew that fears come to mortals and benefits also [to relieve] the miseries of life, from the vault on high, where they beheld the shafts of lightning and fearful blows of thunder and star-filled gleam of heaven, the beautiful design of Time, that clever builder, parade-ground for the brilliant mass of the sun and source of rainfall moistening the earth below. Such were the fears with which he surrounded humans and by which this clever man established the deity in the proper place, with a handsome story, and extinguished lawlessness by means of laws. (…) It was thus, I think, that someone first persuaded mortals to believe that there is a race of gods. (van der Horst, 2006: 242ff)
Polybius (1979): The Rise of the Roman Empire. Edited by Frank William Walbank and translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. Penguin Classics. (Partly online)
van der Horst, Pieter Willemm (2006) Jews and Christians in Their Graeco-Roman Context. Mohr Siebeck. (Partly online)