No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

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

An interesting survey of Greek thought through the lens of 'atheism' from the earliest Greeks to the advent of Christian Rome.

The religion of the Greeks was a very different kind of thing than Christianity, so 'atheism' or 'impiety' meant something very different as well. For the Greeks religion was more practice and performance, rather than theological litmus tests.

Atheism was not really a word that people self-applied, but it (like now) was used more to denigrate your political or philosophical enemies. For that reason, and the lack of complete sources, Whitmarsh has to pick his way through the surviving bits and epitomes and satires to try to draw a picture of ancient Greek philosophical atheism. There's not much there there, but he does a good job showing the threads that remain.

Anyway, some of my random notes:

It is said that while another man was marveling at a series of temple dedications put up by survivors of sea storms, Diogenes retorted that there would have been many more if the nonsurvivors had also left dedications.

Atheists: snarky jerks for 2500 years.

What the Greek epics were not, however, were theological or liturgical works. Excerpts might be performed at festivals, but there is no evidence that they were used in a specifically ritual context. The performers themselves were not priests but rhapsodes, specialist singers known for their showy dress and gesture. These might claim to be divinely inspired (as the rhapsode Ion does in Plato’s dialogue of the same name), but their aim was to thrill, inspire, and instruct, not to fill their audiences with a sense of the godhead. Relative to Israel and other cultures of the ancient Near East, Greece handled its national literature in a strikingly secular way (from a monotheistic perspective).

Theagenes associated Apollo, Helios (the sun god), and Hephaestus with fire, water with Poseidon and the river god Scamander, Artemis with the moon, Hera with the air (the two words are anagrams in Greek: ēra and aēr). He also saw gods as oblique ways of talking about human faculties: Athena signifies the intellect, Ares folly, Aphrodite desire, Hermes reason. In the fifth century BC, Metrodorus of Lampsacus decoded Homer’s text systematically into a symbolic representation of the world. The original texts of Theagenes and Metrodorus are now lost, but in 1962 an allegorical commentary on a now lost mystical poem based on Hesiod, dating to the late fifth century, was discovered near Thessaloniki: the surprise discovery of the so-called Derveni papyrus opened a window onto the ingenious practices of the early allegorists.

While not necessarily atheistic, Whitmarsh points to some healthy skepticism: 

Here he is, for example, on centaurs: What is said about the Centaurs is that they were beasts with the overall shape of a horse—except for the head, which was human. But even if there are some people who believe that such a beast once existed, it is impossible. Horse and human natures are not compatible, nor are their foods the same; what a horse eats could not pass through the mouth and throat of a man. And if there ever had been such a shape, it would also exist today.

"This is the grave of Hippo, whom Fate made equal in death to the immortal gods."

Was Anaxagoras an atheist? There is nothing anachronistic about this question. In the late 430s, he was put on trial for “impiety,” on the grounds that he denied the divinity of the heavenly bodies (which he undoubtedly did). This may have been the first time in history that an individual was prosecuted for heretical religious beliefs. Although he escaped, he retained a reputation for impious thought. Socrates, at his own trial, had to remind his jurors not to confuse him with Anaxagoras.

On the Sacred Disease, however, argues that the illness can be explained by factors that are entirely internal to the human organism. “It appears to me,” writes the author in the introduction, “to be in no way more divine or sacred than other diseases; it has a natural cause, from which it originates, like other illnesses. People consider its nature and its cause as divine out of ignorance and wonder.”

In the case of the first book of On Piety, the scroll had also been cut in two, and the halves had been catalogued separately, and later generations had been unaware that the two belonged together. To make matters worse, several fragments, and all the early drawings, had been spirited away from Italy to Oxford. The reunited and reconstructed text, which was published in 1996 by Dirk Obbink, is one of the great achievements of modern classical scholarship

Religion as social control:
There was a time when humans’ life was unordered, Bestial and subservient to violence; When there was no reward for the noble Or chastisement for the base. And then, it seems to me, humans set up Laws, so that justice should be tyrant And hold aggression enslaved. Anyone who erred was punished. Then, when laws prevented them From performing open acts of force, They started performing them in secret; and then, it seems to me, Some shrewd man, wise in his counsel, Discovered for mortals fear of the gods, so that The base should have fear, if even in secret They should do or say or think anything. So he thereupon introduced religion, Namely the idea that there is a deity flourishing with immortal life, Hearing in his mind, seeing, thinking, Attending to these things and having a divine nature, Who will hear everything said among mortals, And will be able to see everything that is done. If you plan some base act in silence, The gods will not fail to notice.


The specifics of Diopeithes’s decree probably came (via Craterus or someone like him) from the records in Athens’s own official archive. It seems genuine enough.6 The decree targets two kinds of criminality. The first is not recognizing (nomizein) the gods. The Greek word is ambiguous and can suggest either their ritual worship or belief in their existence. Perhaps this ambiguity was intentional, so that prosecutors could use the law to sweep up both those who were derelict in their fulfilment of religious obligations and those who held heterodox beliefs. This would fit with the corresponding extension of impiety from the sphere of ritual into that of belief. The second activity outlawed is “teaching doctrines regarding the heavens,” which might seem at first sight a completely different issue.


As the narrative progresses, we come ever closer to the beating heart of Panchaean society, the temple of Zeus Triphylios (“of the Three Tribes”) that stands on an acropolis. Euhemerus has much to say about the beauty and the grandeur of the temple. But, he says, it concealed a surprise: a golden pillar, inscribed with a record of the deeds of Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus. The inscription revealed that the Olympian gods were originally human beings and an exceptional generation of rulers of Panchaea. It was Zeus himself who traveled around the world and instituted his own cultic worship. In other words, Panchaean society is sustained by a religion based upon the worship of a “god” who is no more a god than you or I.

Lucretius’s Epicurus is a crusader not so much against rituals and state institutions as against the false beliefs that oppress us with fear of death, punishment, and the afterlife. Liberation will be found not in smashing organized religion (no Epicurean ever suggested that) but in rejecting the received, mythical view of the gods as aggressively vengeful and accepting that in the materialist view of things they have no influence over our lives.

In the myth, his fleet had been stayed by a calming of the waters, which Artemis had imposed because Agamemnon had killed a deer on land sacred to her. “Such is the terrible evil that religion was able to urge,” concludes Lucretius: “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,” one of the poet’s most famous lines (Voltaire, for example, sent it to Frederick II of Prussia in 1737 when urging the cause of secularism). Lucretius’s point is that this misunderstanding of the shifting nature of wind (which he explains elsewhere in purely material terms) is more than simply an error. When we fail to understand the truth about nature, and more particularly when we substitute religious for scientific understanding, terrible consequences can ensue.


Essentially, Stoicism taught that happiness is achieved not by pursuing appetites but by living according to nature: one’s own nature, but also that of the universe itself. Everything that happens in the universe is directed toward the best outcome; our duty as individuals is to discern, as best we can using our rational powers, what that outcome is and to bend our lives toward facilitating it.

The doxography of atheism is particularly significant because of the relative marginality of atheism in antiquity. To be an atheist was, for most, to be a member of a virtual rather than a face-to-face community. There were no real-world schools of atheism that allowed one disbeliever to engage in dialogue with another. It was doxography alone that offered that network, linking together disparate individuals and weaving together their disparate beliefs into a shared set of doctrines that collectively made up a philosophy of atheism.

As a whole, Pliny’s disquisition suggests that the idea of deity is a human construction. “God,” he says at one point, “is one mortal helping another.” We make our own divinity through our behavior toward others.









Tags: atheism, book, history, religion

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