Review of: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, by Tim Whitmarsh

How do we define atheism today? What exactly constitutes an atheist? Although I am not a believer in magical sky gods, I avoid describing myself as an atheist, which not only has a Battling the Gods Atheism in the Ancient Worldbit of an arrogant ring to it but these days is additionally burdened by the negative fallout from the militant atheism – actually “anti-theism” – of a Richard Dawkins or a Bill Maher, as of late further tarnished by blatant Islamophobia. On the other hand, agnostic sounds a bit tentative, so I coined my own term, “dogmatic skeptic,” to sum up my outlook in this regard. My point here is that while there are lots of variations of the religious experience, there may be just as many varieties and degrees of non-belief (un-belief?). Armed with a stunningly encyclopedic knowledge of ancient times, renowned Classicist Tim Whitmarsh sets out in Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World to establish that atheism is not only a post-Enlightenment phenomenon but has as well a solid foundation in the remote past.

There are problems almost from the very start. Once more, how do we define atheism? If one rejects established religion, does that establish them as atheist? Hardly.  Plato rejected the Olympian pantheon, but he believed in mysterious perfect forms and a vague supreme being, so he was hardly atheist. And we know a lot about Plato from the relatively large body of his work that has survived. In contrast, most of what we know about the rest of the ancient world is fragmentary, so much interpretation is required, and whenever possible Whitmarsh interprets to suit his thesis. What if all we had were portions of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses challenging the Roman Catholic Church on indulgences? We might conclude that Luther was an atheist, but we would of course be very wrong.

I would take this one step further: there remains a heated debate in some circles of twenty-first century American historiography as to the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, of the various Founders, with some even asserting that Jefferson or Madison were atheists, and others vigorously challenging that notion. In this case, we have a vast collection of writings both by the subjects in question and by those who knew them intimately, yet much dispute remains. This is further complicated by the fact that spiritual beliefs can change dramatically over a lifetime; many become more devout as they grow older and mortality looms. A perfect example is Hamilton, a devoted Presbyterian in his youth who seemed to lose interest in religion entirely during the Revolution; he later briefly flirted with Deism (according to biographer Ron Chernow), and yet on his deathbed spoke with great passion about his commitment to a loving god.  These men lived only a little more than a couple of centuries ago, yet there remains great ambiguity.  How can we then reach back thousands of years with fragmentary evidence and make pronouncements with such certainty?

Whitmarsh takes us on an extremely well-written and often delightful tour of the philosophical and religious realms of the ancient Mediterranean in his studied attempt to turn up committed atheists, but leaves me mostly unconvinced, not because they did not exist but because after all he presents little incontrovertible evidence of their presence. The author himself hints at them more than locating them in their respective haystacks.  At one point, Whitmarsh cites the famous rhetorical flourish of the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes: “Now if cows, horses or lions had hands, and were able to draw with those hands and create things as humans do, horses would draw gods in the form of horses, and cows in the form of cows, and create bodies just like they had.” Yet, on the very next page he concedes that Xenophanes, a believer in “one god, greatest among gods and mortals, not at all like mortals in body or thought,” is hardly the atheist the former quotation might suggest. [p60-61] Battling the Gods is replete with such material.  I have no reason to doubt that there were atheists at the very dawn of the human experience, but I remain unconvinced that they ever comprised more than a very tiny minority. I would also grant that this number may have been greater during the heyday of ancient Greek and Roman scientific inquiry, but if in the twentieth-first century at the height of modern science and medicine so many billions stubbornly cling to supernatural beliefs, we should not be surprised if these numbers were dramatically larger in the days when the forces of earthquakes and lightning remained objects of some great and terrible mystery.

I was a bit troubled by the treatment of Socrates in this work, whom Whitmarsh buzzes around tenuously in dozens of references.  We all know that Socrates was charged with impiety (More specifically according to Xenophon’s Memorabilia for “refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young.”) but there is a consensus among historians that this was but a pretext to punish the great gadfly for his former association with members of the “Thirty Tyrants,” the Spartan-supported reactionary regime that came to briefly rule Athens after her defeat in the Peloponnesian War, and especially his one-time pupil, Critias, their cruel leader.  Whitmarsh makes much of the fact that the existence of the capital charge of impiety had to imply that there was a wealth of the impious, but I find him careless in failing to underscore that Socrates was hardly an example of the same.

The charges levied against Socrates, however, do raise an issue that Whitmarsh barely explores but perhaps buttresses his thesis: if you could likely be put to death simply for challenging religious orthodoxy – never mind atheism – in an unusually open society like the Athenian polis, few would advertise such proclivities nor leave written confirmation of the same. Thus, as they say, absence of evidence is hardly evidence of absence.  Susan Jacoby’s marvelous book Freethinkers resurrects the relatively large cast of agnostics that publically populated nineteenth century America, but they lived in a free society where they could perhaps be shunned but not jailed or burned at the stake.  You would hardly expect to find something similar elsewhere on the globe back then, or in such places as Saudi Arabia today.  Atheist remains a dirty word in the United States in 2016, but at least in Massachusetts you cannot be stoned to death for proclaiming yourself one.

Remarkably, while I often found Battling the Gods to lack focus and ultimately concluded that Whitmarsh failed to substantively make his case, I still enjoyed reading this book for the author’s wide acquaintance and articulate commentary upon philosophy, religion and ancient history. I would caution that some background in these disciplines is requisite in order for the reader to properly place the narrative in context, as this volume is hardly suitable for the general audience.  Finally, I would note that while I agree with Whitmarsh that atheism is not purely a modern phenomenon, I would maintain that in the past its adherents likely remained lurking quietly at the periphery, even much more so than they do today.

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

2 thoughts on “Review of: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, by Tim Whitmarsh”

  1. Stan has asked me to respond, and I will.

    I find this review odd. It implicitly criticises me for claiming Plato and Xenophanes as atheists, when that wasn’t the claim anywhere in the book. Xenophanes is included because he is part of a larger philosophical trend towards undermining conventional ideas about the gods, and towards more materialist / mechanist modellings of the cosmos, which could – but didn’t always (the book is crystal-clear on this point) – issue in a god-free materialism (cf Hippo of Samos). Plato is included because (a) he legislates in his imaginary world against atheism, and speaks as though there is what David Sedley has called an ‘atheist underground’ in Athens (cf. p. 125); and (b) because he moves throughout his career away from depicting a ‘free-thinking’, ‘rationalist’ Socrates towards high metaphysics. So both are part of a bigger story about atheism, but neither is atheist.

    The people who were atheists were people like Diagoras, Prodicus, probably Protagoras, the author of the ‘Sisyphus fragment’ and so forth. We also have the philosophical compilations of atheistic ideas from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, which give us a substantial insight into how ancient atheists thought and argued: how a debate on the existence of gods like that dramatised in Lucian’s Zeus the Tragedian might have proceeded. I find it strange that you don’t mention any of the positive evidence I adduce for atheists in the ancient world, while criticising me for including people whom I don’t claim to be atheists at all!

    On Socrates: I don’t of course just ‘buzz around him in dozens of references’; I devote a whole chapter to him (and Plato). My position, which I think is sensible and coherent, is that Socrates is largely lost to us. Whereas most people think (early) Plato is our best evidence for the historical Socrates, I think Plato was engaged in a large-scale defensive project of reclaiming his hero from the odium heaped on him by the Athenian people, including the accusation of atheism. It is absolutely undeniable that Socrates was associated (rightly or wrongly) with disbelief in the gods. Plato, like Xenophon, tries his hardest to come up with a ‘religious’ defence of Socrates. P’s own journey culminates in the Laws, where he imagines severe, punitive legislation against atheists.

    You say that ‘there is a consensus among historians’ that Socrates was put to death because of his association with the thirty tyrants, as if that is countering my position; but that political explanation for Socrates’ execution is actually the one I offer at the start of chapter 9, and it intersects with my wider point about the political instrumentalisation of impiety laws in Athens. The point is that in Athens the question of whether someone believed in gods or not was partly a question of philosophical conviction, but partly also (by this stage) a politically ‘weaponised’ juridical charge. So we can’t simply say ‘Socrates was’ or ‘wasn’t’ an atheist; we have to ask ‘by and for whom is this question being asked, and for what purposes?’

    Your review raises the bigger question about the definition of atheism. I decided to avoid getting bogged down in what ultimately was more likely to distract people from the central issues. Perhaps that was the wrong decision. My view is that we have to remember that ‘atheism’ is understood in a pretty narrow sense now, and that in classical antiquity it was much more broadly conceived (hence the Epicureans being atheoi despite having a certain kind of what I call thin divinity). My aim in the book wasn’t just to find the Dawkinses of yore, but also to map out the varieties of religious scepticism that the Greeks and Romans themselves conceived of as atheism. So ancient dogmatic skeptics like yourself would certainly count! It’s the same when you use any concept like sexuality, art, economy etc in relation to antiquity: rather than simply plonking our own modern categories on the top, you have to make allowances for the ways in which the ancients themselves conceived of these things, which is often more inclusively than we do now.

    1. When Tim emailed me his rebuttal I encouraged him to post here because while I devote a lot of time and effort to writing my reviews, I am cognizant of the fact that writing a book like this takes far more effort than reviewing it. I always feel that authors should have an opportunity to comment, which is sadly typically not the case in most media forums.

      I actually didn’t mean to imply (and I didn’t think I did …) that I thought Tim was claiming Plato and Xenophanes as atheists – I realize that he never said that; I was only citing these two as way of examples for larger points.

      I am grateful for Tim’s lengthy response to my review. I especially appreciate the last paragraph – I think he was wrong to to excise the material on the definition of atheism in this volume, for I believe that would have clarified his thesis. I also think he should have added a final chapter that could have better summarized his conclusions, as well.

      His comments in his final sentence about “modern categories” is spot-on! I had intended to include in the review by way of example a juxtaposition of how homosexuality was understood in the classical world and how it is understood today, which of course bears almost no comparison. I gather he would say the same about ancient and modern atheism, which was to be my point in this regard.

      Despite my quibbles, I do believe the book is well worth reading for his learned exploration of the material!

Leave a ReplyCancel reply