BATTLING THE GODS: ATHEISM IN THE ANCIENT WORLD

By Tim Whitmarsh

Faber & Faber (2016) h/b 290pp £25 (ISBN 9780571279302)

This book brings together the scattered evidence for deviant thinking, from mild scepticism to outright rejection of religion, throughout the ancient Greek world. It ranges through history in four main sections: archaic Greece, classical Athens, the Hellenistic era and Rome (up to the acceptance of Christianity). Classicists will recognise familiar faces: the pre-Socratics, the Sophists, Aristophanes, Plato (of course), the Stoics, Epicurus and Lucretius. But others may be less well known: Diagoras of Melos, Prodicus of Ceos, Euhemerus of Messene, Carneades and Clitomachus, and many others, plus recently discovered evidence such as the Sisyphus fragment from Critias (or possibly Euripides). It is useful to have all these sources brought together in a single, easily readable narrative, and the substantial notes attest to wide reading around the subject.

W. claims to be writing not for classicists but for a wider readership, and has a declared purpose: to show that atheistic tendencies have existed in all periods of history and are not merely a product of post-Enlightenment scientific rationalism. He says he does not wish to proselytise, but his colours show. In his introductory chapter he says: ‘Accounts of Greek religion and culture have almost always been written from the point of view of the believers. The result is a misleading impression of ancient religion as a smoothly functioning system, with no glitches.’ This seems a very sweeping statement, which does not seem to be substantiated, as far as one can tell, in his voluminous notes, and it is not the reviewer’s impression much more limited reading in e.g. Burkert and Parker on Greek religion. And even those with faint knowledge of classical sources will have come across the dubious myths, the freedom to criticise gods in tragedy and mock them in comedy, the striving of philosophers to construct other visions of the world. W. here does seem to be setting up a straw man to knock down.

A key point for W. is that the Greeks had no orthodoxy: citizens participated in communal rites ‘to foster local identity within the polis’, but apart from this people could freely form their own views. No doubt he is right, but it leads him to some odd overstatements. For example, he spends several pages arguing that Homer and Hesiod are not sacred ‘scripture’. But who has ever suggested they were—any more than the Divine Comedy or Spenser’s Faerie Queen are ‘scripture’? Again, discussing Greek tragedians’ questioning of the gods, he says (p.114) ‘Is there any synagogue, mosque or church where the ideas of Richard Dawkins… are expounded seriously and constructively?’ But of course not—one goes to a church to worship, not to have academic debates. Who has ever suggested that going to the theatre of Dionysus was like going to church?

What is missing in all this is any idea of what people actually thought when they did go to the equivalent of ‘church’, i.e. visiting the temple, taking part in the city’s rituals. The sceptics have left their traces, but the devout (and there surely must have been some) have not. Can we really assume that nobody in fifth-century Athens thought certain ideas blasphemous? Or that known reactions against them, as in the decree of Diopeithes or the trial of Socrates, were solely political? To work politically, they must have been based on an appreciation of popular feeling.

It is reasonable to think, as W. argues and indeed on good evidence, that all societies, even the most oppressively orthodox, contain a range of individual responses, including tendencies to doubt. A theologian would say that indeed we all doubt, and it is through doubting that we grow; as Chesterton put it, to attack reason is bad theology. But W., applying his scalpel to religion as a dispassionate observer, can see reason only leading rightly in one direction. So, considering the theomachy described in Hesiod and others, he speculates that this shows that the gods were seen as imperfect, and a desire to replace them with something else which is not god. But the same perception might, one could speculate with equal force, lead to replacing this easy target with a better, more sophisticated concept of god. On W.’s own showing, this appears to be what Epicurus was trying to do, and what Plato’s Socrates certainly succeeded in doing, even though this does not make him a ‘re-imagined Christian martyr’.

The trap for the atheist is always to assume that his is the only rational position, which all intelligent people cannot help but adopt, and that alternative views must be based on illusion born of wishful thinking. He cannot see that his adversaries may have the very same perception about him. I fear that W. does not escape this trap, much as he wishes all positions to be given equal respect. That said, the book is good value for the detailed information that W. has collected together about Greek sceptical thinking.

Colin McDonald

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