Book Review: Battling the Gods
by Tim Whitmarsh
So insistent and coat-tugging has been the tone of the so-called “New Atheists” of the early 21st Century that some readers might initially be befuddled by Tim Whitmarsh’s fantastic new book Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. Atheism, those readers might wonder, before Richard Dawkins? Before Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett? Is it possible that atheism even existed before the late Christopher Hitchens started spilling whiskey all over it while mopping the floor with pious morons in televised debates?
And yet, a moment’s thought yields the obvious conclusion that atheism and religious faith must be coevals. The earliest humans could gang up, kill a woolly rhinoceros, and see what happened to it: it ceased to be a conscious, feeling creature, and its various parts were carved up and parcelled out. Likewise the earliest humans who were killed by a woolly rhinoceros: their mangled bodies lay on the ground – they were no longer themselves, and their selves would never be returning to talk and joke and walk around. Indeed, if you don’t somehow dispose of that person’s dead body, you get to see it, too, get parcelled out, with dogs, birds, and maggots each taking their share until nothing was left. The human yearning for a continuation of selfhood after death was against a wall, since there obviously, visually is no such continuation for any living thing. It can’t have been long before the first human started imagining an invisible fantasy world where people keep being themselves even after their bodies have died – and simultaneously, there had to be humans asserting that if something isn’t visible, it isn’t real.
And so, the great divide – the root of Whitmarsh’s book:
But what does it mean to say that gods are real? They are obviously not real in the sense that you could choose to visit them or touch them. They are not empirically testable or tangible. For a philosophy predicated on the idea that reality consists entirely of matter and void, this is a serious problem.
That allusion to “matter and void” is one of the book’s many references to Epicureanism, and that school of thought is naturally the prime example of atheism in the classical world, although there are many others. Whitmarsh finds nonbelievers in the strangest places, and despite the fact that you’d think living in an entirely theocratic world would make them very cautious, some of them, delightfully, aren’t – as in the case of Diagoras of Melos, the author of Arguments That Knock Down Towers, a man viewed by ancients as “the fifth century atheist par excellence:
He is said to have lost his belief in the gods after a poet swore a solemn oath that he had not plagiarized one of Diagoras’s compositions; when Diagoras saw him perform the piece, and that the gods had not punished him for his oath breaking, he drew his own conclusions. He once declared he was cold and threw a wooden statue of Heracles on the fire (“This is your thirteenth labour” he quipped). In a sea storm the crew of his ship blamed him for incurring the gods’ displeasure; he pointed out another ship that was struggling and said, “Do they have a Diagoras too?”
And in a world that sometimes seems to be slipping back into the depths of theocracy (children in the American South being taught that the US Constitution is based on laws given to Moses by God, radical-Islam groups committing daily atrocities in the name of their faith, etc.), Whitmarsh’s larger point is well-taken too – namely, that, as his book clearly shows, atheism is every bit as venerable as the fantasy cults it has always sought to ignore:
If religious belief is treated as deep and ancient and disbelief as recent, then atheism can readily be dismissed as faddish and inconsequential. Perhaps, even, the persecution of atheists can be seen as a less serious problem than the persecution of religious minorities. 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.
Amen to that.