Book Review: Battling the Gods by Tim Whitmarsh.

Battling the Gods by Tim Whitmarsh

Battling the Gods explores the ancient origins of atheism. Most of the book deals with ancient Greece. Most other civilizations of the ancient world were decidedly not fertile grounds for nurturing atheists, but the culture of ancient Greece bred philosophy, and some of the strains of Greek philosophy allowed for questioning and debating the nature of the gods. A few of the Greek philosophers dismissed the gods altogether and were actually spoken of as atheoi-atheists. Some of the pre-Socratic philosophers such as Anaxagoras and Diagoras of Melos were quite likely considered atheoi by their contemporaries.

The religion of ancient Greece was polytheistic. The gods were very different from our omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent Abrahamic deity. The Greek gods were thought to have human form, and to display human-type behaviors such as anger, jealousy, and lust. Intelligent Greeks may have found it difficult to take them seriously. The Greeks never fought wars over religion (although when they did fight wars they might have asked one or more gods for help, and they might have believed that one or more gods was one their side and perhaps others favored the enemy.)

Battling the gods in ancient Greece was known as theomachy. It could have dire consequences. Asebeia, or impiety was sometimes prosecuted as a crime. Atheism was generally frowned upon, but it seems that there were some philosophers who were openly atheists.

Two rather prominent schools of philosophy that arose in Ancient Greece departed from the normal Greek concept of divinity. One of these was Epicurianism. Epicurus was a philosopher who lived in the fourth and third century B.C. He urged his followers to strive for ataraxia, that is freedom from pain and anxiety. The Epicurians denied that they were atheists, perhaps because they did not want to suffer religious persecution, or perhaps, wanting to build a community they found it easier to recruit adherents if they did not deny the existence of gods. However, they did not believe that gods, even granting their existence, had any influence upon human affairs. Whitmarsh states that they had “thin gods.” A statement attributed to Epicurus is often quoted by modern day atheists:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

This would seem to indicate that Epicurus and his followers had little use for gods. After all why bother worshiping or sacrificing to a god who can do nothing for you?

The other philosophical school founded in ancient Greece was the Skeptics. They flourished in the late second century B.C. The Skeptics believed that nothing could be proven. In their writings they debated the pros and cons of the existence of the gods. One might classify them as agnostics. One of the Sceptics who is widely considered to have been an atheist was Clitomachus, who succeeded Carneades as head of Plato’s Academy. He was actually a Carthaginian named Hasdrubal. (Whitmarsh makes a minor historical error which should be corrected. He says that Hasdrubal was the name of Hannibal’s father. Hannibal’s father was named Hamilcar. Hasdrubal was the name of Hannibal’s younger brother.)

Whitmarsh writes “During the early third century A.D. a man named Sextus wrote several huge works in Greek on Skepticism. ‘The Skeptics’ he opines ‘have declared that, because the arguments on either side are equally strong, the gods exist no more than they do not.’ ‘The skeptic’ he asserts, ‘follows the ancestral practice of public ritual but finds he cannot commit philosophically to believing in any form of deity.’”

Both Epicurianism and Skepticism seem to modern sensibilities to skirt very close to flirting with atheism.

What about Socrates and Plato? Neither of them could be considered atheoi, although Socrates was sentenced to death for his unorthodox religious views as well as for “corrupting the youth” of Athens. It was, unfortunately for Socrates, a time when Athens was deranged by having lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta and having suffered under the Rule of Thirty, a brutal dictatorship, so the traditional Athenian tolerance had worn thin. Socrates was definitely not an atheist. In fact, I recall that his last words were “I owe a cock to Asclepius, Crito, please see that the debt is paid.” Asclepius being the Greek god of health. Plato, for his part, frowned upon atheism.

Whitmarsh points out that once Christianity, and eventually Islam came to dominate civilization, there was no longer any place for atheism in the public realm. It was only with the advent of the enlightenment that atheism re-appeared within the spectrum of philosophical thought.


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