|Frieberg Cathedral ex nihlo or "out of nothing"|
Atheism in the ancient world was largely a product of fear, in particular, of fear of the gods. The classical religious myths told stories of the gods fighting with one another, of their envy of man, and of their arbitrarily punishing him. Likewise, the gods lived pretty loosely. The good were often punished in the stories, while the bad were rewarded. The gods, in other words, were unfair. But why be fair, if it meant nothing and had no consequences? As a result, Plato’s brothers, in the Republic, wanted to hear justice praised, whether or not reward or punishment followed for living— or not living—rightly. One way to escape this understanding of the world was to deny the validity of the gods of the city that embodied and preserved all these aberrations in the civic liturgies. A good and a justice higher than the city existed. The philosopher was more authentic than the politicians or the priests. In fact, ultimately the philosopher judged the city that rejected him. The crimes that were not punished in the city would be requited in the rivers of Tartarus. The soul was immortal. No one could escape his crimes without forgiveness and punishment. The world was not created in injustice, as it seemed just from looking at the ways men lived in any existing city. This proposal of judgment and punishment after death was Plato’s philosophic solution that saved the world from being a massive sea of injustices.
But the classical atheists, like Epicurus and Democritus, did not accept this philosophical alternative either. The ancient atheists, unlike the modern ones, were anti-city. They found what contentment they could find, not by being social, but by withdrawing from every city. They preferred a garden. There they could keep all such disturbing thoughts out of their hearing.
If stories of gods and philosophers always ended up in causing worry, then ignore or deny both. Be happy in a very quiet and pleasant way. “Eat, drink, and be merry,” yes—but in moderation—as too much of even these pleasures could upset us. Human happiness could not care about the cosmos or the city. What went on in them only upset us if we worried about them in relation to our lives and conduct. Peace of mind depended on disregarding everything but what was immediately at hand. Modern atheism did not think it could ignore the world, especially a created world that somehow expressed or reflected a creative mind that was not of the world.
No one could deny that the world seemed to betray some kind of intelligible order. That is why the Greeks called it a cosmos and not a chaos. The trouble with this approach, particularly with its Christian origins, was that we can imagine a world coming from nothing.
Indeed, the Creed itself implied that the world was created ex nihilo, from nothing. In this sense, believers themselves had to think the world out of existence even to appreciate what it was.
Once we understand that the world is not, in fact, itself everlasting, we can also postulate that everything evolved by chance. Even things that seemed always to appear in a definite order or sequence could supposedly be said to be “caused” by chance. This approach seemed, perhaps, plausible up until scientists recently began to notice that the world seems to have had a finite, temporal origin. Estimates were developed based on several approaches that the cosmos is some 13 to 14 billion years old.
Moreover, such estimates were made because the cosmos manifested certain constants within an order. All of these stable constants seem to have been operative from the beginning. What has happened seems more like an unfolding of what is already there—rather than chance—though what chance there was seemed part of the same order.
Link (here) to read the lengthy piece by Fr. James Schall, S.J. at the HPR entiled, On Thinking the World out of Existence