By Will Barber Taylor
How old is Atheism?
In Battling the Gods, Tim Whitmarsh journeys into the ancient Mediterranean to recover the stories of those who first refused the divinities. Long before the Enlightenment sowed the seeds of disbelief in a high Christian Europe, atheism was a matter of serious debate in the ancient world.
But history is written by those who prevail and the age of faith mostly suppressed the lively free thinking world of antiquity.
Tim Whitmarsh brings to life the fascinating ideas of Diagoras of Melos, perhaps the first self-confessed atheist; Democritus, the first materialist and Epicurus and his followers. He shows how early Christians came to define themselves against atheism and so suppress the philosophy of disbelief.
Battling the Gods is the first book on the origins of the secular modern values at the heart of the modern state. Authoritative and bold, provocative and humane, it reveals how atheism and doubt, far from being modern phenomena have intrigued the human imagination for thousands of years.
In our modern world, the topic of belief has for many become a sore point. Between Richard Dawkins, the Pope and other figures connected with religion and the lack thereof, the subject of belief has always caused arguments and problems. However, Tim Whitmarsh’s book avoids that by looking not at the truth of atheism but how a society that grew up in the wild mountains of Athens mixed early atheism with belief in the gods of Mount Olympus and how that would affect the way the Romans thought of “lack of belief”.
Indeed, the contrite and difficult nature of early investigation into thought about atheism makes the subject not only difficult but confusing. Yet Whitmarsh inspires confidence in his analysis of this contentious subject by looking at it as an outsider; he never questions how many early Athenians still believed in the gods of Mount Olympus but did not see The Odyssey or The Iliad as reliable sources for the power of the gods.
Whitmarsh expertly explores how the questioning of belief eventually, through the pursuit of thinkers like Diagoras and writers like Socrates and Aristophanes, became a lack of belief. By never simply attempting to analyse each development to full atheism in microscopic detail, Whitmarsh focuses on the entire process and looks at the bigger picture of the development of atheism in Athens in conjunction to and in contrast to the development of democracy. The interlinked story Whitmarsh tells is enthralling to say the least.
Overall, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World is a detailed and entertaining look at the development of atheism in the classical world. Whitmarsh’s book will not only expand your mind, it will deepen your understanding of the Greco Roman world.
With thanks to Faber and Faber. You can order Battling the Gods directly from them here.