Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

  • By Tim Whitmarsh
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Beth Kingsley
  • January 12, 2016

A compelling argument that the roots of non-belief sprouted millennia ago.

Battling the Gods takes on “a myth nurtured by both sides of the ‘new atheism’ debate” — that atheism is a modern invention that could not exist without scientific inquiry and a secular state, both products of the Enlightenment. Tim Whitmarsh makes a compelling case that atheism is not an invention of the 18th-century enlightenment, but rather that its roots lie deep in the classical era. Indeed, it is striking how often the ancient arguments for and against the existence of gods mirror contemporary discussions of those issues.

This examination of the existence, development, and treatment of atheism in the ancient world is organized into four major sections, focusing in turn on archaic Greece, classical Athens, the Hellenistic era, and Rome. Of necessity, recounting the story of disbelief over more than 1,000 years requires presentation of historical context and the many changes that took place over that time. Whitmarsh always places his narrative in this context — an approach that readers who have not studied ancient history since high school will appreciate. No scholarly background is required; the book is easily accessible to the average reader.

It may come as something of a surprise to learn that for much of antiquity, atheism was not generally treated as dangerous or heretical. One might guess that denying the existence of many gods would be a more grievous affront to social norms than denying one god, if only because of the sheer numbers of deities whose existence one could deny. And the trial and execution of Socrates for impiety is probably one of the few events from ancient history that the not-since-high-school reader will easily recall.

However, Whitmarsh argues that, at least initially, such trials are more readily explained by political motivations than a genuine concern with atheism as a threat to societal norms. Pagan polytheism was more flexible than the monotheistic religions and inherently allowed for a diversity of beliefs and practices.

“There was little interest in generating religious orthodoxy…This meant that for much of Greek antiquity atheism was not treated as a heretical position, the ‘other’ of true belief; it was seen rather as one of the many possible stances one could take on the question of the gods (albeit an extreme one).” The early Greeks “had no theologically canonical sense of what a god had to be like; there was no scripture to prove that one person’s definition of divinity was better than another’s.”

Whitmarsh employs a somewhat flexible threshold for what to include under the rubric of atheism — or perhaps his approach merely reflects how that word is actually used. The atheist thinkers of this book are not an ancient Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. They are not so much bothered that other people believe as they are interested in working through explanations for what happens in the world and how best to live in it.

Certainly some of the thinkers profiled would more readily be described in our contemporary parlance as secularists or naturalists rather than atheists. Though, to be sure, identifying explanations for natural events that depend on laws of nature rather than divine forces, while not explicitly atheistic, does tend to sideline the gods. As the author notes, “Each of these explanations is also an implicit denial of divine activity.”

At times, Whitmarsh’s analysis is hampered by the incomplete historical record. Evidence is sometimes scant, and often key thinkers left no direct record of their works. A picture can be created by gathering multiple tiny points of information, which in some cases is enough to provide a fair degree of certainty. In other sections, the author is forced to draw heavily on speculation and inference.

To his credit, he is always clear with the reader when guesswork is involved. The arguments are reasonable and always grounded in the available evidence, yet, as he notes, “The evidence is often complex and elusive.” For instance, the prevalence of atheistic ideas is at times demonstrated by the fact that someone found it worth his while to counter them. Nonetheless, in the face of this challenge, Whitmarsh makes a solid case for the existence and evolution of atheist schools of thought in the ancient world.

So why, you may wonder, should we care about this beyond mere historical curiosity? “If the terms of the debate seem arrestingly modern, that is no coincidence. We are still, in the twenty-first century, grappling with issues that are at least two and a half millennia old.” And grappling with them in astonishingly similar ways. The arguments against the existence of the gods and the explanations for the phenomenon of religion set out in this volume bear an almost eerie resemblance to discourse one can find today in innumerable Internet discussion forums.

It is also intriguing to contemplate a society in which religion plays an important role in public life yet is not threatened by nonbelievers. The contrast to the hegemony demanded by monotheism is stark. And there is a cautionary tale, as Whitmarsh portrays the development of forces that would suppress atheism and any unorthodox thought in the coming centuries — the idea that the law should regulate belief rather than conduct.

“The dangerous idea that heterodox religious belief is enough to threaten the foundations of the state had been born and was available for unscrupulous political manipulation.” And in that intersection of law, religion, and political designs lies the foundation of much trouble, as much in the modern world as centuries ago.

Beth Kingsley is a lawyer for nonprofit organizations. She serves on the boards of the National Capital Area Skeptics and Capital Fringe.

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