Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

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By: Tim Whitmarsh (Faber & Faber (2016))

Review by: Norman Bacrac

Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, has compiled a most valuable record of atheist thought in the ancient world of Greece and Rome. Humanists need to know this early history – it will prevent their believing that supernatural explanations of the world and religious morality predated naturalist and atheist outlooks. It may even give pause to churchmen and critics like John Gray, forever bleating that humanism ‘lives off religious capital’, where one could argue that the contrary is the case. Tim Whitmarsh begins his book with an entirely fictitious dialogue between two Greek thinkers, possible in 500 bce, about religion and atheism in their society. This contains the substance of the arguments that have subsisted for the past 2500 years. The atheist says: “Humans created gods. Primitive humans saw divinity in the sun, moon and stars, in the cycles of the seasons. They lacked scientific understanding of matter, the cosmos, and nature. In time, politicians and rulers realized the power of religious belief and cynically twisted it to their own ends. There are no gods overseeing the social order, punishing wrongdoing; that is simply what our leaders teach us, to keep us in check.” Whitmarsh explains why and how religion consolidated its power and influence at around 200 ce and dominated the intellectual landscape of Europe until the Renaissance. Today we may be witnessing a proper re-evaluation, to which this book contributes, of just how innovative and important were Greek (and Roman) thinkers to Western culture. A very partial list includes Thales, Anaximander, Xenophanes, Democritus (only atoms and the void exist), Carneades, Epicurus, Thucydides (Harold Blackham’s favourite writer for dismissing the role of the gods in history), Protagoras (agnosticism), Lucretius (only the fittest animals survive to evolve). So many of the ideas current in today’s philosophical discussions (matter, mind, chance, scepticism) were first broached in the period covered by Whitmarsh’s book, which is now in Conway Hall’s Humanist Library.

Atheism & Secularism

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