Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World review – disbelief has been around for 2,500 years

  • 2016-03-25
  • The Guardian

It seems likely that there will be a female president of the US well before there is a self-professed atheist in the Oval Office. Ted Cruz declared last year that someone who does not begin every day on “his knees” (sic) is not fit to be commander-in-chief. Atheism is controversial, in the US as in many other countries around the world. But both its detractors and its supporters tend to portray lack of faith in a divine power as a possibility or danger available only in modern times.

Those in the Cruz camp often view atheism as a marker and a cause of the degeneration of contemporary society; Cruz’s father famously declared that it is the cause of sexual abuse. The defenders of religion point to the fact that all human cultures throughout history seem to have had religious beliefs and practices, and therefore religion is sometimes said to be an essential feature of human nature.

Those on the other side may celebrate “our” freedom from the superstitions that were rampant before the Enlightenment. Christopher Hitchens argued that “religion comes from the period of human prehistory when nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made of atoms – had the slightest idea what was going on”.

Tim Whitmarsh’s brilliant new book about ancient atheism makes a compelling case that various forms of religious disbelief have been with us for the past two and a half millennia, with greater and lesser degrees of cultural prominence. Atheism has had a distinguished and varied lineage. It seems likely that doubt about religion is just as old as religion itself, although there is no way to prove what people believed or did not believe in cultures that have left us no literary evidence.

Whitmarsh makes the illuminating observation that modern, post-Enlightenment atheism has a particular social function: it draws authority away from the clergy, towards the secular “priests” of science. In the ancient world, the conflict between science and religion did not exist, at least not in these terms. But it does not follow that nobody in antiquity ever questioned the traditional stories about the gods, which were often patently ridiculous.