Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh

You might think Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World would count as advanced reading. It sounds like a difficult book, a history of philosophies looking for evidence that Atheism existed as an accepted point of view in classical Greece and Rome. It probably sounds fairly dry at first glance. (“Sounds” at “glance”? Does that count as a mixed metaphor?)

While I can’t qualify Battling the Gods as easy reading–it’s an unlikely choice for your next plane ride–taken in two or three-chapter doses, it’s a very entertaining and informative read. Not just about atheism either.

The author is not pushing an agenda regarding atheism one way or the other, which he states in the first chapter. Rather, his purpose is to examine the evidence to discover how and to what extent atheism existed at a time when everyone worshipped a panoply of deities. Were there people who didn’t believe in Zeus et. al. back in the days when people were actively making sacrifices to the gods in the Parthenon’s temples?

The answer is yes there were, quite a few actually. Right up until the full-bore arrival of Christianity in the late third century when it became more or less impossible to live in the Roman world unless you believed in Yahweh in some form or another. (There have been many forms of monotheism to choose from over the centuries.)

As I said above, Battling the Gods is a study of philosophy. As a study of philosophy, I feel I learned a lot from reading it. Mr. Whitmarsh presents the major players, Plato and Socrates for example, along with a host of minor actors or at least people I’d never heard of before reading Battling the Gods. He gives the reader enough background, both about the philosophy in question and the history of the ancient world, to help the reader understand what it took to oppose the majority opinion, how people argued against the existence of gods and how others argued in favor of them.

What surprised me the most about this, other than the fact atheism existed at all in the ancient world–I thought everyone more or less went through the motions at least–was that for the most part atheists were just another line of reasoning. With some notable exceptions, you could hold any views of the gods that you wanted without too much consequence. They were a subject open to debate. For example, Mr. Whitmarsh makes the point that there were no holy wars in the ancient world. The gods may favor one side over another, but that could turn. The wars themselves were not fought for religion the way they would be later in history.

This ceased to be true after the Nicene Creed came into being and Christianity gained a firm hold on the Western world. Prior to that it was possible to consider yourself a Christian and still participate in the worship of Venus, for example. It was something of a crazy hodgepodge back in the day.

Mr. Whitmarsh’s focus in on the classical western world, which is what it is. He does explain that this is in part because there are so many surviving documents for Classical Greece and Rome. While he doesn’t say this, I suspect it is also true that most, if not all of them, are available in English if you look hard enough. I would like to know what the situation was for the rest of the planet. This is probably impossible for large swaths of history. There are very few written records about ancient religions for four continents let alone records about disbelief. But I suspect a similar study could be done for Asia. It’s one I would be interested in reading if it’s out there.