Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

Written by Tim Whitmarsh Reviewed By Matthew Keil

Professor Whitmarsh has given us a compendious range material from the ancient world. Indeed, atop his treatment of the enormous figures of Greek thought, his lively discussions of such thinkers as Diagoras of Melos, Stilpo of Megara, and Hermocles of Cyzicus (names which are, at least to this classicist, far from household) together assure that all who come to this book, whether scholars or the casually interested, will learn much and be pointed in new directions.

This book is similar to recent popular books pitting classical philosophical ideas against Christianity, such as Stephen Greenblatt’s bestselling book about Epicurean philosophy, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: Norton, 2011), or Charles Freeman’s, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Vintage, 2002) and A.D. 381 (New York: Overlook, 2009). Like these works, Whitmarsh’s book brings a general sense of admiration for the putative openness of classical culture, its rationalism in debate, and its latitudinarian tolerance, which all these authors maintain were unfortunately crushed by the narrow-mindedness of Christianity and the ruthlessness of the imperial-backed Church.

The essential premise of Whitmarsh’s book is that atheism is not a modern phenomenon, a creation of Enlightenment thinking in the 18th century, but rather that it is as old as theistic belief itself. Specifically in terms of the western intellectual tradition, atheism began among the ancient Greeks who feature in the majority of this book. He writes, “There have been many throughout history and across all cultures who resisted belief in the divine” (p. 4). This is the nearest Whitmarsh comes to a definition of “atheism”—blanket disbelief in the divine. However, a fundamental problem with the book as a whole, especially its first half, is that the author uses “atheism” with varying connotations, with the result that the term loses almost all coherent meaning. At times, for instance, he uses it to mean a skeptical bent of mind towards matters involving the supernatural or mythological. But such skepticism surely is not what is meant under the commonly accepted definition of atheism in the West.

Whitmarsh goes on to label certain of the ancient Greeks as atheists who displayed similar misgivings about the extraordinary or troubling elements of Greek mythology. Even characters inside the myths themselves who battle against the gods, or who try to deceive them, suggest that such “theomachy expresses a kind of atheism, through the narrative medium of myth” (p. 47). Indeed, the very plotline of the Athenian drama Prometheus Bound is viewed along similar lines, based on the idea that “Zeus will one day bear a son who will overthrow his father. In other words, atheism was a narrative possibility within Greek myth” (p. 43).

Such statements leave the reader with a distinct sense of special pleading and cast great doubt on the author’s sweeping generalizations like “atheism was an integral part of the cultural life of Greece” (p. 27). This was simply not the case for how we understand the concept of atheism today. The author could have extricated himself from such imprecision by explaining at the outset that the ancient Greek word atheos has a much wider semantic valence than our English word “atheist,” and it was typically used to refer to one who held beliefs about the gods that were not in the mainstream. Such for instance was the case with the Epicureans in antiquity who were labeled as atheoi because, although stating in many extant writings that they absolutely believed the gods existed, they nevertheless held to the doctrine that the gods do not hear the prayers of mortals or exercise any providence over the earth. Many of Whitmarsh’s atheoi by these lights were consequently not atheists in the modern sense. Yet it is not until page 116 that he delineates these different denotations of the word, and even then only cursorily, all the while labeling many thinkers who did indeed profess belief in God as “atheists.”

Early philosophers ridiculed the traditional, anthropomorphic gods of Greek mythology, and yet affirmed one God over all. The Ionian Pre-Socratics Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, likewise all made reference to God, but not the gods of the poets. Rather they envisioned an overruling divine presence that permeates the natural world and is the ultimate principle of existence. Another Pre-Socratic, Anaxagoras, would in time call this the Mind governing the universe with reason and order. These are opinions of atheoi to be sure, but not atheists, and it was because of such “intimations of Christianity among the ancient Greeks,” to borrow the words of Simone Weil, that many early Church fathers enthusiastically praised the philosophers of antiquity. As Clement of Alexandria put it in a celebrated passage: “This was a schoolmaster to bring the Greek mind to Christ, as the Law of Moses was for the Hebrews. Philosophy was a preliminary education (propaideia) preparing the way for him who is to be perfected in Christ” (Strom. 5.5).

This nuance does not fit with Whitmarsh’s biases, and so he attempts to explain away these references to the divine by means of speculation and verbal gymnastics. Xenophanes’s one God becomes accordingly “a conceptual placeholder in the absence of any secure definition” for the laws of nature (p. 61), and the references to God made by Anaximander and Anaximenes are merely “a metaphorical extension of the traditional language of divinity” used to express the “interconnected whole of the cosmos” (p. 59). It is significant here that because the famous doctrine of Thales on divine imminence that “all things are full of gods” (Aristotle De Anima 411a7) does not fit with Whitmarsh’s strained and tendentious interpretations, he simply avoids mentioning the quote altogether. Furthermore, these speculations on his part harden into facts with each repetition of them, and he makes them the basis for further atheistic readings of thinkers who allude to the ideas of these Pre-Socratics. What is being missed in all of this is the simple fact that many ancient Greek philosophers did not reject the mythological gods out of a spirit of atheism but out of a deeper spiritualization of their conception of divinity. This process that is observable in so many of the pre-Socratics culminated in the divine “demiurge” of that ardent monotheist, Plato, and in the “unmoved Mover” of Aristotle (whom Whitmarsh ignores almost entirely).

Of course, none of this is to say that there were not atheists in our sense of the word in antiquity, and Whitmarsh is on much firmer ground in the second half of the book when he deals with texts that express atheism in a more forthcoming manner (although even here he still engages in excessive speculation to get the facts to square with his ideological commitments). It is in this way, ultimately, that Whitmarsh’s thesis that atheism is as old as the hills is entirely uncontroversial. Yet on the other hand, the “atheism” of antiquity, when it can be properly called that, is of so qualitatively different a sort than the atheism of the post-Christian West that a real organic unity between the two is difficult to imagine.

This is where Whitmarsh is fundamentally mistaken. Christianity with its claims to absolute truth, with its monopoly on metaphysics and prerogatives on transcendent reality, is not the same as the paganism of our ancient European forbears. To reject the deities of Mount Olympus, who from Homer on down were thought to be neither omniscient nor omnipotent and made no claims on transcendental reality, is tantamount to rejecting the proposition that “there are fairies living in my garden.” But to reject the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the incarnate God in whom “all things consist” (Col 1:17) and who is the ground and source of being, is to embrace fully the nihilistic belief that there is no transcendent reality, no moral absolutes, no metaphysical basis for goodness, beauty, and truth. The only reality that remains in such a barren landscape is the will to exert one’s own power over others, as Nietzsche understood, and among the fruits of post-Christian atheism the most bitter has been the violence and savagery with which its adherents have attacked those of faith.

This is no accident, but is rather the logical step once the nihilism of post-Christian atheism has been embraced. Consider for instance the atheist regimes of the twentieth century, with their massacring of Christian clergy and lay believers for no reason other than their faith, and it becomes clear that this “militant atheism” is of a piece with both the vitriol and the ultimate goals (though admittedly not the tactics) of such contemporary atheists who have striven to “break the spell” and deracinate religion from the very fabric of our society. Even Whitmarsh’s own title partakes on some level of this militant ideology.

But there never was any such atheism in antiquity, as Whitmarsh himself acknowledges, although he tries, unsuccessfully, to explain this fact away by stating that the clergy of the ancient world were not as culturally powerful as was once the case in early-modern, European societies (pp. 205–6). If this were really the deciding factor, why then would we not see similar patterns of militant atheism in, say, Indian society where the Brahman class held supreme authority, or elsewhere likewise where there have been rigid structures of religious control? The historical truth is that militant atheism has only come into existence in Christian societies (and even societies that were not predominantly Christian, such as communist China and Cambodia, nevertheless received their ideology of militant atheism from the West). This is a fact that requires explanation, but it would seem to be an exact playing out of the paradigm outlined above, that the rejection of Christianity is ontologically different than the rejection of any other belief system.

The moral pathos which Christianity engenders to stand up, even to the point of death for what is right and just, once it is divorced from its true source in God and in Him Who came into the world so as to “bear witness unto the truth” (John 18:37) mutates into the most pathological and militant atheism that is of an altogether different order than the flippantly subversive speculations of one who has not yet known the truth. This is, I believe, the current state of western culture at large, and it marks the essential difference between contemporary atheists and those of former ages and different cultures.

Matthew Keil

Matthew Keil
Queens College, City University of New York
New York, USA

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