What Am I Reading?: "Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World"

This book is an interesting history of the origins of Atheism in the ancient world.  Most people think that no one was an atheist in the ancient world. Whitmarsh gives examples of modern proponents of both religion and Atheism arguing that Atheism is a modern development. Whitmarsh's purpose is to show that this is not the case, that Atheism was alive and well in the ancient world. Before he gets to more theoretic forms of atheism he discusses aspects of Greek culture that made fertile soil for Atheism. By the Ancient world Whitmarsh means ancient Greece and Rome. Greece laid the intellectual foundations for the rise of Atheism for two reasons: i) The nature of Greek Polytheism and ii) the "secular"nature of greek religion.

Whitmarsh gives a very helpful explanation of why Greek polytheism gave rise to Atheism. The deities of ancient Greece were not the same as the monotheism that would arise later in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The God(s) of the Abrahamic religions is transcendent, perfect, and wholly other. The gods of the Greek pantheon were not any of these things. The best that can be said about the God's of polytheism is that they are quantifiably more powerful than humans, but the monotheistic conception of deity is qualitatively different. More can be said on this point than Whitmarsh discusses, but he makes the differences clear enough:

Even the deities themselves were different in kind to their monotheistic cousins. The defining feature of the god of the modern monotheisms- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- is that he is transcendent and remote. Christianity grappled since its very inception with the question of Christ's transcendence... This was not a problem that presented itself in traditional Greek religion, since the gods were thought (except by a few philosophers) to be entirely of this world. They may have dwelled on the most remote, elevated mountain in Greece, they may have been capable of flight, but they nonetheless belonged to the same ecostystem as we do. 
This is actually a good way of putting the difference. The gods of polytheism do inhabit the same existential plain as human beings. The gods are actually contingent in the polytheistic schema. They usually arise out of some pre-creation chaos, this makes the deities of the greek pantheon contingent. The God of Christianity, as an example, is a necessary being (not a contingent being). In essence, for the Christian, God is at the root of all other existences. Everything in the world we can sense, experience, and come into contact with everyday may not have been. Any thing that could possibly not exist is contingent. The Christian God is not like this, if God exists then he exists of necessity. This is a very different concept.

This conceptual difference gave rise to what Whitmarsh describes as "Theomachy", which is the contest of men versus the gods. He gives many interesting examples from greek mythology of characters like Sisyphus, Odysseus, and Diomedes who injures a god in the Illiad. The contingency of the gods made theomachy possible, because a being that is merely contingent, may not exist, and could go out of existence. Hence, the God's are not viewed as necessarily always existing. This made conceptual space for criticisms of the god's and whether or not they existed.

Another issue that potentially undermined belief in the gods was the immoral nature of many of the gods. Whitmarsh notes the use of allegory in Greek writers who tried to cover over many wicked actions of the gods. The contingent and immoral nature of many stories about the Greek gods gave rise to what I would call "intellectual theomachy". Intellectuals began to ask difficult questions about whether or not the gods should be worshipped or believed in. This gave conceptual space for Greek science to arise in the writings of the pre-socratics.

The pre-socratics questioned the nature of the world, because they had become unsure about the traditional gods. So we have some pre-Socratics believing in unifying principles like water, strife, fire, and other elemental explanations of reality. The Pre-socratics were looking for naturalistic (not appealing to supernatural explanations) explanations of the world. This desire to find naturalistic explanations for everything continued over into classical Athens (after the wars with Persia and much fighting amongst the members of the Peloponnese) where Herodotus and Thucydides applied it to history. Whitmarsh notes:
The most visible and influential sign of this new "forensic" approach to the world came in the of the writing of history. The desire to record the past is a feature of all literate societies, but what distinguished fifth century history from other ancient narrative traditions- those found, say, in the Iraqi epic Gilgamesh, in the poems of Homer, or the Hebrew Torah- were the excision of any mention of direct divine involvement in human affairs and the idea that the truth about the past needs careful sifting from competing reports. 
The two writers that used these methods of naturalizing history were Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus was the first to do away with anthropomorphic deities in his histories. If there is a divinity it exists "to make sure that there is retribution for wrongdoing (sometimes several generations later) and that the fortunes of individuals and communities both wax and wanes... As in the pre-Socratic cosmologies, then, "god", in this sense means not the god of traditional religion but an abstract, underlying system that the author claims to disclose thanks to his painstaking research." In other words, these gods are not supernatural in the sense of constant intervention in human affairs.

The second historian of this period, Thucydides, excludes supernatural explanations full stop. There are no gods who intervene in history, and there is no over arching moral arc that the gods enforce. Thucydides overlooks religion, unless it plays a part in the political history of Greece.

Another thread that Whitmarsh weaves into his history is the secular nature of Greek religion. What I mean by this is that religion did not play an all dominating role in Greek life. It is noted again and again that we should not confuse devotion in monotheistic religions to polytheistic religions. That seems exactly right to me. I also think that this played a significant role in the Greeks ability to question divinity. If there is not much invested in the religion, then it is easier to change, amend, and even add deities (or subtract deities).

The two streams of "theomachy" and "secularity" of Greek religion gave rise to intellectual challenges. The first challenges came from the Sophists who emphasized rhetoric and logic in public speaking.  Protragoras is the first example, he argued that since the gods are represented so differently by religions that they most likely do not exist. He even became a foil for one of Plato's dialogues. Whitmarsh gives many more examples: the account of Prodicus in On Piety, Democritus who envisioned the world as made of atoms and the void, Philodemus who developed a theory of religious development which could be traced etymologically, and many play writes ridiculed the gods and even questioned their existence and justice (see Euripides, Sophocles).

Whitmarsh gives plenty examples of pre-Platonic examples of atheism or impiety. He also strengthens the case that many of the pre-Socratics rejected anything like a theistic notion of God. When Whitmarsh comes to Socrates and Plato his account is pretty standard. Socrates probably did deny the Athenian gods and sought to replace that religion with his own religion of the Daimonion, and he also took the Oracle of Delphi seriously when she told him that there is no one more wise than Socrates. In a sense Socrates was an Atheist  (pg.133), but in another sense that did not exclude something divine in the world for Socrates. Whitmarsh sums up the evidence well in discussing Socrates examination by Meletus in the Trial of Scocrates:
This Socrates is still following in pre-Socratic footsteps, rejecting the epic conception of the gods warring and cheating one another. But what is striking is that although he claims to have divine approval for his action, his program is anything but religious. It calls for no worship, no acts of devotion: the only requirement is that the individual live her or his life in the most moral way possible. Socrates himself would probably not have understood it in this way, and Plato certainly would probably not have done so, but to all intents and purposes this is what we would now call humanist ethics. Do not accept inherited wisdom about anything, question everything, live only according to principles you can justify rationally: in this sense, Meletus was right about Socrates' atheism. 
Further, Plato becomes the first Greek theist in its more modern or monotheistic incarnation. In Plato God is the creator of the world, the metaphysical foundation for morality, and Plato also practices an early form of Natural Theology because he gives arguments for God's existence.

After Plato the evidence for a more philosophical atheism gains steam. There are the skeptics, Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, Lucretius, and many others. Up until the rise of Christianity both Greek and Roman Polytheism had room for some forms of atheism and non-belief. Piety was viewed as socially cohesive and not necessarily requiring the devotee to believe in the deity. Whitmarsh argues that this was the state of things up until Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Whitmarsh recycles the familiar viewpoint that Christianity brought millenia of intellectual darkness, before the modern age rediscovered atheism.


Whitmarsh has done us all a service in giving a one stop shop for a history of Ancient Atheism. This book will be helpful to students of philosophy and theology. The style is extremely enjoyable, and Whitmarsh gives clear explanations of concepts. He tells the story of the pre-Socratic story in an engaging way, which is missing in many textbooks of the History of Philosophy.

When he gives historical arguments that run counter to received scholarly wisdom he notifies the reader and gives a argument for his own reconstruction. There are also plenty of little facts about ancient thinkers that the non-specialist wouldn't get from an undergraduate or even an Masters degree in philosophy.

I can agree with Whitmarsh that Atheism did exist in the ancient world, and that Polytheism is very different from Monotheistic forms of religion. It is also true that monotheism tends to demand orthodoxy over orthopraxy unlike the various forms of paganism. Whitmarsh's book gives a fascinating history of the thought and beliefs of many ancient people, and shows that non-belief is not a modern invention. He shows that his initial point is correct: Atheism is not a modern invention, and there was plenty of doubt in the ancient world as well. Not sure how helpful the proof of this thesis is, but he makes his point convincingly. At the end of the day though many will demur that Theism still has the better philosophical case over Atheism. 

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