Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Atheism in Antiquity: A Review of Tim Whitmarsh's "Battling the Gods"

Over the past decade or so, much screen space has been consumed by hand-wringing over the “New Atheist” movement. This cabal, so goes the trope, led by the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, is injecting a novel and venomous form of atheism into our discussion about religious faith. I have my own problems with the most outspoken and prominent atheists all being privileged white Western men, but I don’t buy into most of the critique of the “New Atheist” movement. 

Atheism is as old as the hills. But atheism evolves as time goes on, due in some part to the fact that scientists are constantly making new discoveries that fill the gaping holes left by vapid religious explanations. Lighting used to be the realm of the divine; meteorology snuffed that out. Disease was once God-inflicted; now we have germ theory. Neuroscience shows us all sorts of fascinating things about how we incorporate new ideas into existing paradigms. Contrast this with theology, the only –ogy field of study that never receives new data. Theologians riff on other theologians’ take on other theologians’ take on Holy Scriptures. But it’s all copies of copies of copies. Nothing new, just the same things said in (sometimes) novel ways. 

Maybe atheism seems “new” because more and more people are stepping out of the shadows and saying publicly (and, yes, sometimes loudly), “No. I don’t buy this.” 

I’ve been fascinated by skepticism for many years, and I’ve often wondered what it would’ve been like to be a doubter, a skeptic, an atheist in ancient times. Sure we have Enlightenment thinkers, who faced their own tribulations, but what about further back? Like way back — Ancient Greece, perhaps? 

This is where Tim Whitmarsh’s book “Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World” comes in. It is a fascinating foray into the ancient roots of skepticism and atheism. Whitmarsh is a professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, and this is where he focuses his dissection of religious disbelief. “This book thus represents a kind of archaeology of religious skepticism,” he writes. And it’s a wonderful archaeological dig.   

According to Whitmarsh, the notion that atheism is new is a “modernist vanity.” 

The history of atheism matters because, as Whitmarsh puts it: “History confers authority and legitimacy.” He continues: “The deep history of atheism is then in part a human rights issue: it is about recognizing atheists as real people deserving of respect, tolerance, and the opportunity to live their lives unmolested.” 

I like Whitmarsh’s nuanced approach in almost everything he analyzes. He seems like a seasoned explorer posing questions to Greek history and trying to answer them as best he can, as opposed to someone vigorously defending a thesis and cherry-picking evidence to support it. As far as the scope of his analysis, Whitmarsh kicks off with pre-Socratic philosophers and ends around the Third Century AD. He deals largely with partial first-sources (recordkeeping of ancient atheism wasn’t very good) and secondary sources. 

Much of the book focuses on how atheists relate to the fluid belief systems of Greek polytheism. These Olympian views, he explains, were diverse and maintained unique regional qualities, leaving much open to interpretation and, also, dissent. Greek polytheism, he says, was “not designed for personal communion with the divine,” and, “legal judgment was never theologized in Ancient Greece.” 

Contrast this with the theocratic monotheism of later Christendom, which “puts up firm barriers between insider and outsider: the one god demands absolute loyalty.” Only in Christian late antiquity did atheism begin to be, “constructed in systematically antithetical terms, as the inverse of popular religion.”’ 

Epic poems of Homer and Odysseus were revered but were not considered scripture; they were hotly debated and playfully satirized. This led to the freedom to explore the texts without fear of blasphemy or state-sponsored retribution for heresy. Whitmarsh explains how, “the nonscriptural nature of Greek epic poems had a significant effect on the development of logical thought,” as Greeks felt free to doubt the historicity of some of the more unrealistic elements of the myth. But all was not well for religious doubters. There was definitely some pushback from religious and state institutions, although nothing like the persecution that would be meted out by Christendom. Whitmarsh writes: “What the Athenian example shows is that even within Greek polytheism, a flexible and adaptive system, the mixture of religion, law, and imperialism was a potentially toxic one.” 

It’s impossible to label the first prominent atheist, but Whitmarsh offers up more than a few suggestions of Greek skeptics, doubters, and those who question the existence of the gods. The pre-Socratic philosopher Hippo of Samos certainly gained a reputation as an atheist. (Aristotle blasted him for being a strict materialist.) The Skeptic Sextus is fascinating, and Whitmarsh claims he supplied the, “most important evidence for a sustained, coherent attack on the existence of gods in intiquity.” Lucretius the Epicurean was a strict naturalist and pointed out that heinous acts committed in the name of religion would be condemned in any other area of life. Lucian came later (AD 120-180) and skewered and mocked the new cult of Christianity. All of these free-thinking heroes offer modern-day atheists a lot to ponder.
“By the second century AD atheism, in the full, modern sense had acquired full legitimacy as a philosophical idea,” the author writes. 

Unfortunately, this trend toward more open criticism of religion would be crushed. Constantine did his part to make the Roman Empire a Christian one, while later emperors like Theodosius I forced all Romans to worship in the specific Nicaean Christian context. “The Christianization of the Roman Empire,” writes Whitmarsh, “put an end to serious philosophical atheism for over a millennium.” 

Over the next centuries, there were surely countless skeptics, doubters, blasphemers and other rabble-rousers who did their part to fight back against authoritarian theocracy. But they likely did not survive; the same goes for any of their writings. 

And this is where Whitmarsh ends his analysis. I’ll leave him to finish off with a closing remark: 

“Individuals surely experienced doubt and disbelief, just as they always have in all cultures, but they were invisible to dominant society and so have left no trace in the historical record. It is this blind spot that has sustained the illusion that disbelief outside of the post-Enlightenment West is unthinkable. The apparent rise of atheism in the last two centuries, however, is not a historical anomaly; viewed from the longer perspective of ancient history, what is anomalous is the global dominance of monotheistic religions and the resultant inability to acknowledge the existence of disbelievers.”

I highly recommend this book to both theists and atheists with curiosity in these matters.

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