Battling the Gods (2015)

A book on ancient atheism by Tim Whitmarsh

Tim Whitmarsh’s book challenges the modernist notion that atheism is a post-Enlightenment phenomenon and traces the ancient history of those who “battled the gods”.

Matthew Lloyd

Atheism, in the modern imagination, is typically conceived as an Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment phenomenon. Where an ancient history is seen for atheism, it lies in Lucretius, whose Epicurean poem On the Nature of Things is also presented as the inspiration for modern, materialist, scientific atheism.

Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, which was shortlisted for the Anglo-Hellenic League’s Runciman Award in 2016, takes on this misconception.

Atheism, Whitmarsh argues, has a long history, and all cultures have included those who showed scepticism towards received belief and traditions. In showing the longevity of disbelief, Whitmarsh grants it not only a kind of legitimacy through history, but also shows how diverse a concept atheism can be.

Battling the gods

Whitmarsh’s opening “dialogue” sets out his agenda: to show the antiquity of atheism and thus to lend this viewpoint the proper authority and legitimacy denied to it by an understanding of atheism as a by-product of the Enlightenment.

Whitmarsh describes the idea that atheism is something modern – espoused both by the religious who present it as an aberration and by sceptics who believe atheism the result of science eclipsing religion – as “modernist vanity”, a form of “delusional self-congratulation”.

In reading this book, I found a new respect for the necessity of a history of atheism. To my delight, he is abundantly clear that this agenda is both moral and political, not just an intellectual curiosity. When we view atheism as the preserve of middle-class white men (as, it’s fair to point out, both Whitmarsh and I are) it is easy to forget that there are those in the world who are persecuted for their atheism, and that non-belief carries a death sentence in certain parts of the world.

The book is divided into four chronological parts. Part one is titled “Archaic Greece”, although in setting out the background to his discussion Whitmarsh covers much more ground than the period from ca. 800 to 479 BC.

The first chapter, “Polytheistic Greece”, gives a brief history of early Greece and early Greek religion. He explains how what we call “Greece” was loosely connected through certain broad cultural ideas but was also characterized by widespread variety – a variety encouraged by the notion of polytheism (p. 24):

[Polytheism] was an articulation, in the idiom of religion, of that sameness-but-difference that characterized the kaleidoscopic culture of Greece as a whole.

The upshot of this history is to establish how polytheism differs from monotheism as atheism was not an existential threat to it; according to Whitmarsh, atheism was one (extreme) stance among many that one could take on the gods.

In these early chapters, Whitmarsh assumes that his audience has a background in one of the major modern monotheistic religions, and thus presents the ancient world in contrast to that. In the second chapter, “Good Books”, he contrasts the textual basis of these monotheisms to the role of the Homeric and Hesiodic epics in Greek culture.

Central to this discussion is how the epics influenced the ancient Greek concept of the gods as essentially anthropomorphic, and how later thinkers, such as Xenophanes of Colophon, reacted to this characterization. Whitmarsh also introduces the idea that Greek civilization was capable of diverse ways of thought because there was no concept of blasphemy against the foundational texts of this culture – they were just poems; partially historical, or so it was believed, but not god-given truth. The freedom to be skeptical of these epic constructions, Whitmarsh argues, stimulated the desire to explain the world in naturalistic – even atheistic – terms.

From here, Whitmarsh moves on to the conceptual idea of a world without gods, expressed in myth through theomachy, “Battling the Gods”. A world without gods, he argues, was readily conceivable in early Greek myth – albeit one in which the gods were killed and replaced, rather than a cosmology in which they are unnecessary.

A key point of this chapter is to emphasize that “battling the gods” was not sinful or blasphemous, qualities that are non-existent in archaic and classical Greece, but rather that they were foolish and arrogant: “If theomachy was ‘wrong,’ that was not because it contravened any heaven-sent rule book but because it was (at least in myth) a horrible misjudgement of the odds” (pp. 46-47).

With much of this background in place, Whitmarsh moves into his discussion of pre-Socratic philosophy in chapter 4, “The Material Cosmos”. There are two key points to this chapter. The first is the question of what is meant by “supernatural” and “natural” occurrences in the archaic period – i.e. how could one be an “atheist” in the ancient world. On the one hand, these notions are not that distinct from modern atheism: naturalism, the idea that the physical world is all there is, and the questioning of received beliefs are ideas central to modern atheism.

But the second point shows us how different the world still was: in this “scientific”, materialistic atheism, “although there were methodological and observational dimensions to pre-Socratic reasoning, there was also a lot of wild guesswork too”, and “if they occasionally approximate to what we know from science this is a matter of luck rather than intuition” (pp. 52, 58). Nevertheless, these philosophers were approaching the world in a radical, new way, based on the world around them rather than mythology.

Part two focuses specifically on Classical Athens. Whitmarsh begins with a short introduction covering the general history and some of the difficulties with it, before launching into a chapter on the question of “Cause and Effect”: how do things happen if it is not a god that moves them?

This question goes far beyond atheism, but allows atheism through denial of the gods’ centrality. This chapter lays the groundwork for the rest of this section, then takes the case study of Herodotus and Thucydides – historians who tried to explain events without divine causes. In this case, Whitmarsh is less showing ancient atheism than the intellectual environment that permitted something like atheism; the intellectual history behind atheism.

In chapter 6, we come to the first figures with a reputation for atheism in the ancient world. First there is Protagoras, from whose work the title is taken: “Concerning the Gods, I Cannot Know.” Protagoras appears to have denied the existence of the god through relativism: they cannot be observed, and where they are imagined, the vary from place to place. Therefore, they are “nonevident”.

This relativism provides the basis for two other atheist takes of the fifth century: Democritus and Prodicus’ arguments that religion emerged as an aspect of human civilization. Whitmarsh approaches the ways in which these ideas made it from the philosophers into the mainstream consciousness: through the theatre, and idea explored further in the next chapter, “Playing the Gods”. While tragedians worked out the ideas of pre-Socratic philosophers on a mythical canvas, comedian Aristophanes regularly made jokes at the expense of contemporary intellectuals like Socrates – especially associating them with disbelief in the gods.

Chapter 8, “Atheism on Trial”, builds upon the idea that intellectuals were increasingly associated with challenges to the gods through the decree of Diopeithes in the 430s BC, which aimed to criminalize unorthodox religious (dis)belief. Whitmarsh goes through three of the four well-known trials under impiety laws – Anaxagoras, Diagoras of Melos, and Theodorus of Cyrene – to do two things: show that the Athenian state was far less liberal than some imagine it to be and to suggest that through its prosecution atheism in the ancient world may have begun to recognize itself as an appealing counterculture; that battling the gods could be a source of personal identity.

Chapter 9, “Plato and the Atheists”, focuses on Socrates and his pupil, or rather the myth of Socrates and Plato’s attempts to grapple with it. Whitmarsh argues that our evidence for Socrates’ life and viewpoints is largely the result of mythmaking by Plato and Xenophon in their attempts to rehabilitate their teacher after his execution for impiety in 399 BC. He then goes on to suggest that Plato’s theistic worldview, which he developed through his dialogues and a literary Socrates, was a reaction to the accused atheism of his mentor. Whitmarsh is careful not to say that Socrates was an atheist, in the modern sense, but argues that his worldview, as presented in Plato’s Apology, can at least be understood as humanist.

Whitmarsh begins his third section, on The Hellenistic Period, with another brief historical overview before diving into one of the period’s new theological development (at least from a Greek perspective): divine kingship. In “Gods and Kings” he explores the difficulties some faced when presented with the idea that a mortal might become a god: “Kings are not gods: they die” (p. 149).

But the problem is not always with believing a figure right in front of you is a god: for Hermocles of Cyzicus, the existence of Demetrius, the son of Antigonus who liberated Athens in 308 BC, was self-evident. The Olympians, meanwhile, are distant figures who did nothing to liberate Athens.

In “Philosophical Atheism” Whitmarsh explores three of the four principle schools of philosophy in the Hellenistic Period. He begins with the Stoics’ theistic worldview, which largely denies an atheist interpretation, before moving on to the Cynics, who, while holding an agnostic or even atheistic stance toward life, saw metaphysical reasoning as pretentious and irrelevant.

As might be expected, therefore, the Sceptics make up most of this chapter, particularly Sextus Empiricus’ Against the Mathematicians 9, which collects many arguments against the existence of gods – but only because Sceptics believed that every argument must have a counterargument, not because they were espoused atheists.

The most famous ancient atheists get a chapter all to themselves. Whitmarsh starts his chapter on “Epicurus Thomakhos” with what Epicurus actually had to say about gods – that they do exist, but not as they are usually worshipped – and the difficulties these ideas had within Epicurus’ materialist philosophical framework.

Whitmarsh offers a solution that is as material as Epicurus’ philosophy: Epicurus saw what happened to those like Socrates who were perceived to be impious, or atheists, and tried to avoid that fate for himself. The second half of the chapter focuses on Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, which begins with the image of Epicurus leading an assault on religio, and follows it with a disturbing example of the horrors to which false belief can lead with the example of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, “Such is the terrible evil that religion was able to urge” (Whitmarsh’s translation). And yet despite his powerful descriptions of the falsehood of beliefs and the power of nature, still Lucretius allows for gods that do not fit easily in the Epicurean worldview.

The final section, “Rome”, focuses on Greece under Roman rule. First up is how Rome conquered the world “With Gods on Our Side”: the belief that divine providence led to Roman conquests and thus how atheism became a kind of resistance to empire. In this chapter Whitmarsh must focus not on atheists, but rather those who felt it necessary to argue against atheists – Dionysius of Halicarnassos, Plutarch.

The reason for this focus is made clear in chapter 14, “Virtual Networks”. Whitmarsh argues that ancient doxographies of atheism – that is, later writers who put together lists and summaries of atheists and their arguments – created a coherent tradition out of thinkers disparate in place and time. These were put to both pro- and anti-atheist use, notably by Epicureans to (unsuccessfully) protest accusations of atheism and by others to suggest that Epicureans were (no better than) atheists, but reveal the conception of atheism that was current in the early Roman Empire.

The penultimate chapter, “Imagine”, looks at how widespread atheism was in Rome, using the example of Pliny the Elder, who expressed a naturalist view of the world, to show that atheist opinions could be held even by the least radical of intellectuals. References to atheism and atheists by writers such as Lucian of Samosata and Plutarch suggests that it was a widespread, acceptable philosophical position in a religious and political system that allowed a diversity of philosophical and religious positions.

The final chapter is concerned with what happened when these religious and political systems changed into something less willing to allow dissent. Despite its title, in “Christians, Heretics, and Other Atheists” Whitmarsh largely dismisses the factoid that Christians were called “atheists” because they did not worship the Olympian gods; rather, this was a rhetorical device used by Christians to reverse the charges of atheism toward polytheists. He proposes instead that the absolute nature of Christianity meant that, upon its adoption by the Roman Empire, serious philosophical atheism disappeared from historical records.

Conclusion: a modern atheist doxography

It is worth emphasising that at no point does Whitmarsh argue that atheism was a dominant belief in the ancient world. What he is tracing here is a minority position, one that does not appear in official inscriptions and the texts of which have rarely survived, but that exists in shadows where more prominent positions have felt the need to argue against it.

The book is often a history of unorthodox religious positions as much as it is of atheism, with the caveat that in a polytheistic system, unorthodoxy is widespread. It is worth reflecting that, in many ways, Whitmarsh’s book is exactly the kind of doxography that he describes in chapter 14: an attempt to show the antiquity of atheism in order to emphasize its legitimacy as a movement. There is more to ancient atheism than the Epicureans who tried so hard not to be identified with it.

Whitmarsh interprets religion as a political force, one used to create unity across a diverse region. From the beginning of the book he emphasizes the diversity of Greek culture and myth, and how polytheism worked in this scenario as an ever-expansive system of religion – one that started to fail once the Mediterranean was unified under Rome. The emphasis of diversity and plurality, sameness-but-difference, throughout Greek culture is one that I was excited to see in a book on the ancient world for a popular audience, although I might have preferred a more social approach to religion than the top-down use to which Whitmarsh ascribes it.

Another aspect of Whitmarsh’s approach that I found interesting was how he (inadvertently, or at least without emphasis) shows how arbitrary our divisions within ancient history are. His discussion of the pre-Socratics falls into “Archaic Greece”, even those of the fifth century, while the tragedians and historians they inspired belong to the classical; while Plato is in the classical his contemporary Diogenes of Sinope is discussed with his fellow Cynics in the Hellenistic. We draw these distinctions because compartmentalization helps us to digest history; nevertheless, they are not always the best way to discuss the development of certain ideas. Whitmarsh appears to feel no need to apologize for this chronological discrepancy, and I appreciated that.

It is in this that I find my main praise for this book: it is readable and insightful whether one knows that material or not. Whitmarsh provides context in measures that I always felt were sufficient – neither too little nor too much – and thus serves a good introduction to ancient religion as a whole. He builds up the information the reader needs to understand where the argument is going gradually, so that one is not overwhelmed by information all at once. An excellent popular history book on the ancient world.