Battling the Gods

Atheism in the Ancient World

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Tim Whitmarsh
  • New York, NY: 
    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
    , October
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It isn’t hard to distinguish two tendencies in attempts to historicize atheism in the West. On the one hand, there are those like Gavin Hyman, Michael Buckley, and Charles Taylor, who see atheism as a modern political position emerging only as recently as the eighteenth century in Enlightenment Europe. On the other hand, there are those like Jan Bremmer and Michael Martin, who see atheism as a philosophical position emerging with the ancient Greek skeptics and materialists. Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World separates these tendencies into two camps and declares its allegiance firmly with the latter, offering an ambitious and groundbreaking “archaeology of religious skepticism” (11). The largely unmentioned conceptual distance between “skepticism” and “atheism” represents the book’s simultaneous strength and weakness. The looseness with which Whitmarsh categorizes attitudes under the umbrella term “atheism” raises the sticky theoretical question of what is meant by the term in the first place. Leaving this question unanswered, at least explicitly, makes this book a useful historical primer for both camps in the debate over the history of atheism. For those who regard atheism as a philosophical position, Whitmarsh’s book offers a useful and thorough compendium of the ancient origins of ideas that weave in and out of modern atheism. And for those who regard atheism as a subject position defined in opposition to religious belonging, the book offers an unending series of qualifications reminding the contemporary reader that ancient atheism wasn’t very much like the atheism of today. 

Whitmarsh’s first insight is to recognize that the existence of atheism in ancient Greece hinges on the question of whether religion itself can be said to have existed then. Whitmarsh positions himself in almost polemical opposition to classicists who see Greek religion as “unproblematically embedded” in society, invoking a familiar debate to historians concerned with the category of religion. For Whitmarsh, the theory of religion’s embeddedness in the cultural institutions of ancient Greece is “demonstrably wrong” (9). Yet, Whitmarsh’s take on the “embeddedness” theory wavers between hyperbolic rejection and begrudging acknowledgment. He acknowledges, for example, that the Greek distinction between sacred and secular was primarily spatial rather than metaphysical (20) and that there was virtually no concept of transcendence (32). He concedes that belief in the existence of the gods was mainly a non-issue in Greek religion (23), and that Greek religion was “not designed for personal communion with the divine” (24). Finally, he describes Greek religion as “an articulation of local identity within the community” (24) – a characterization that sounds an awful lot like embeddedness. Nonetheless, Whitmarsh remains committed to the idea that there was something in ancient Greek society that was exclusively religious. This commitment serves a necessary ground-clearing function for his treatment of ancient atheism. Maintaining the existence of ancient religion allows Whitmarsh to point to atheism as an ancient category defined in opposition to religion, while his begrudging acceptance of many of the claims of religion’s embeddedness foreshadows the necessity of nuancing any simple conclusions about “atheism in antiquity.” At the same time, arguing the conceptual existence of categories like religion and atheism also enables Whitmarsh to work loosely with historical material.

Battling the Godstraces virtually every thread of the most atheistic attitudes prevalent in ancient Greece—an exercise tempered throughout by the difficulty of drawing solid conclusions from scant physical evidence. At times, Whitmarsh’s takes on particular textual scraps tread close to the limits of historical speculation. For example, his extended treatment of Diagoras as the first self-identifying atheist relies on a dizzying chain, over the course of two chapters, of incomplete scraps, potential references, educated guesses, and logical suppositions. The repetition of probabilistic qualifiers and invocations of plausibility at least indicates to the reader the difficulties of drawing historical conclusions based on scant evidence. Whitmarsh writes: “If this is right, then perhaps we can suggest, tentatively, that Diagoras was the first person in history to self-identify in a positive way as an atheist” (124). Many of the book’s claims end up sounding like this: simultaneously bold and tentative. The theoretical conviction that religion and atheism constituted coherent intellectual categories in antiquity provides a kind of safety net for the book’s speculations—a conviction that atheism was at least not literally unthinkable.   

But the abstract thinkability of atheism in antiquity does little to generate conceptual clarity. Human experiences rarely deign to be captured in neat articulation or even conceptualization, but it is striking that Whitmarsh never provides even a heuristic definition of either atheism or religion. As a result, the book’s historical claims are particularly slippery, and it is unclear whether this slipperiness is by design. Throughout the book, Whitmarsh invokes terms that might better describe the phenomena in question without dragging in the baggage of modern atheism. There is, for example, a chapter devoted to theomakhia (44)—the idea that mortals could battle the gods—as a kind of atheism. In another chapter, we read about apistousi—disbelief (115). It is unclear whether the term atheism helps us understand these attitudes or gets in the way of understanding them on their own terms. Does an “archaeology of skepticism” (11) require an invocation of atheism at all, or do we run the risk of imposing foreign and unnecessary categories on the culture of ancient Greece? 

But again, perhaps this conceptual opacity is one of the strengths of Battling the Gods. In the end, Whitmarsh provides a highly nuanced portrait of a range of attitudes in ancient Greece that may or may not convincingly cohere under the term “atheism.” Whether the book was intended to beg the question of the meaning of atheism or not, it provides ample fodder for anyone interested in the historical consistency of the term. Battling the Gods provides enough historical material to defend the existence of ancient atheism and enough nuance to explode the concept of ancient atheism altogether.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Chalfant is an Independent Scholar in Portland, Oregon.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tim Whitmarsh is currently the A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. He has published widely on ancient prose fiction, including Narrative and Identity in the Ancient Greek Novel: Returning Romance, and edited The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel.

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