Atheism has gotten more attention recently, with books by Richard Dawson and Christopher Hitchens. Atheism has a very long history though, and quiet atheism has probably been the belief of a lot of people through time.
The original atheist maybe was Epicurus. The word “epicurean” means enjoyment of fine pleasures, but that wasn’t what he believed in. Epicurus was interested in what could be considered the good life. The Greeks began to think self-consciously about 2500 years ago or so, and mostly philosophized about nature and human civilization. The hedonists- hedon being Greek for pleasure- came to the quick logical conclusion that maximizing pleasure was the goal.
This can be true for most people, because the sources of pleasure- food, sex, rest or leisure- are the components of simple physical survival. Some people, however, can obtain these things in excess, to their destruction.
The idea of having too much food, or too much sex, or too much rest, would have been amusing to a typical farmer or craftsman in old times. A small portion of the wealthiest people would however been able to obtain these in excess, the kind of people with enough free time to think about these things. In addition to this, people would have seen that very rich people with access to these excesses who did overindulge were behaving badly, and offending the gods.
Epicurus had an answer for both of these problems. First, one should maximize pleasure but avoid pain, and overindulgence caused pain. Second, the gods had no interest in humans, and did not punish them or award them. There is no afterlife and death was not to be feared because it was simply the end of existence, without pain or punishment.
So you can see- or at least it seems to me- that this sort of materialist atheism is a very functional philosophy for a person with a good life. Someone who has material plenty, social status and security. Such a person has a good level of enjoyment and little pain. The world he can see, touch and feel is good to him and seems sufficient. This is just the way our elites live- they enjoy food, but rather than eating a lot, they eat small to moderate quantities of expensive food. Rather than drinking a lot, they enjoy small to moderate amounts of expensive alcohol. They will have multiple sexual partners over a lifetime, but usually one at a time, and rather than the super sexy type of person you see in pornography, they will be moderately attractive, healthy and intelligent people of their own social class.
What if you don’t have this level of status and affluence? What if your life is, like most people’s, a struggle? I think paganism, not of the lesbian witches type, but of the Norse or Greek type, is pretty functional. The ancients had a more sophisticated understanding of things than they are generally credited for. They believed life was controlled by fate, the totality of one’s circumstances and the caprices of the gods. A person had no control over these things, only how he responded to them. The only way to cope with bad circumstances was to face them bravely. Courage was their primary, and maybe only real virtue. This moves the center of power from outside circumstances to inside the person. You can work hard if you must, face circumstances calmly, steel yourself against adversity, and fight to control fear, panic and despair. The Spartans were the exemplaries of this model of behavior- their country was called Laconia, so a person who was always calm and unemotional despite the circumstances came to be called “laconic”. In urban circles where hedonism or epicureanism are the rule, a person with a laconic personality will be thought of as dull but in more traditional or rural circles this type of behavior has more status and respect.
What if your life is not bearably, manageably grim, but unbearably grim? What if you don’t have the bravery and fortitude to make a decent go of it? I think in that case, Christianity is the best answer. A God who loves and cares for the weak is a comfort to people crushed under the burden of life.
Frankly, I think most traditional Christianity, whether it is Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant tends toward the pagan view of things. The believer is supposed to use his internal resources of behavior or belief to respond to the circumstances of life. How exactly he is to do this is the matter of a great deal of debate, but to me it amounts to the same thing.
I don’t think this is the case because Jesus helped many people of marginal belief, but in the most important case, the man with the legion of demons, one with no belief, no ability to respond to Jesus or ask for help. Catholics have a concept of “anonymous Christianity” that a person can decide and respond appropriately to God without actual Christian instruction, but for Protestants you have to believe or you’re damned. Neither of these ideas is helpful to a large portion of the population that is beyond the reach of any kind of normal Christianity.
I’m not a universalist but I believe many people with no experience of Christianity will be saved.
My primary point here is just sociological, or anthropological- affluent people are likely to be epicureans, people of modest circumstances functionally pagan, and people of difficult circumstances functionally Christian.