Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World
By Tim Whitmarsh
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 304 pp., $27.95 (hardcover); $16.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by BAS Staff
A common assumption is that atheism—a lack of belief in gods and the supernatural—is a recent phenomenon, brought on by the advent of science during the Enlightenment. In Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, argues otherwise.
In clear prose, Whitmarsh explores the history of atheism from its beginnings in ancient Greece in the eighth century B.C.E. through the fourth century C.E., when Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire. Whitmarsh says up-front that he is not interested in proselytizing atheism—but rather in studying its first thousand years. He argues that the history of atheism is an issue of human rights because denying the history of a tradition helps to delegitimize it and paint it as “faddish.”
The book is divided into four time periods: (1) the origins of atheism inspired by Homer, Hesiod and the pre-Socratics through the Archaic period (eighth–fifth centuries B.C.E.); (2) atheism in Athenian history, writing and theater, and the origins of its condemnation in the Classical period (fifth century–323 B.C.E.); (3) the development of atheism among philosophical schools in the Hellenistic period (323–first century B.C.E.); and (4) the rise of atheism in the Roman period (first century B.C.E.–fourth century C.E.) through the Christian-inspired decline of atheism beginning in the Byzantine period (fourth century C.E.). Each section describes how atheism was regarded in that period through the atheistic, or at least heretical, tendencies of select intellectuals and society’s reaction to them.
Battling the Gods demonstrates that for as long as humans have believed in gods, some have doubted them. Whitmarsh deftly presents—in accessible English—an alternate and underrepresented view of the past.
Read “The Archaeology of Atheism in Ancient Athens” by Tim Whitmarsh in Bible History Daily.