Although many modern Epicureans are atheists, and although Epicurus increasingly is being claimed by the secular movement as a culture hero and predecessor, in reality Epicurus of Samos was not an atheist. His interpretation of the gods occupies a unique place in the history of theology. Ancient atomists rejected the idea that humans were the apex of all creation. They believed in a doctrine of innumerable worlds, which was based in the view that atoms were innumerable but their possible combinations were limited, a paradigm which allows us to discern the laws of nature, and which leads to the hypothesis that in every direction in space we will eventually see replications and variations of the same things we see nearby, which are produced everywhere by the same laws of nature. This line of thinking is explained in the Epistle to Herodotus.
The doctrine of innumerable worlds is no longer pure speculation or science fiction. Exoplanetary research is now vindicating the ancient atomist doctrine. Ultimately there must be beasts and human-like creatures in other worlds, if we follow the line of thinking of the ancients. This is because the same laws of nature apply everywhere, and in an infinite universe the possibilities are also endless. The “gods” that exist within the Epicurean context are entirely natural beings within an ecosystem made up on innumerable worlds. They are not supernatural, for nothing exists beyond or outside of nature: they are naturally evolved beings.
These “gods” should be sentient beings, but they do not answer prayer. They do not need our worship, service, or devotion. They would dwell in perfect, imperturbable pleasure and peace in order to properly qualify as divine beings. They do not fit the traditional conceptions of gods, much less of “THE God” that cultural corruption leads mortals to believe in. Speculation based on the study of nature does not produce such supernatural beings: it merely leads us to conclude that there is likelihood that beings much more advanced than we are, exist out there.
Discussions about the Epicurean gods and their nature have resurfaced in recent discussions in the Epicurean Philosophy group on facebook. The discussions arise from the problem of misuse of words: almost invariably when non-initiates use the term “god” or “gods”, they are not referring to an Epicurean and naturalist understanding of the gods but to their own fancy. So there is great need to clarify the term “gods”.
We have also published a Dialogue on the Epicurean Gods which took place last November among us, and New Epicurean has recently published Lucretius: Proving That The Standard Definition of Gods Is Wrong By Appealing to the True Epicurean Gods, which includes many of the sources on the subject.
The recent explosion of exoplanets discovered by the thousands by astronomers, some of which are Earth-like, as well as the multiplication of such worlds by the innumerable moons that in all likelihood orbit around them, makes this a highly relevant and fascinating topic for our generation. Hopefully within the next few decades, when the next generation’s season of Cosmos is made, we will have clear images of exoplanets and a much more accurate understanding of our place within the universe.