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That Old Time Irreligion



Rob Hardy


In ancient Athens two slaves are complaining about their lot, and one of them proposes that the best relief would be to get to a statue of a god and prostrate themselves before it. The other is surprised that the first believes in gods: "What's your proof?" he demands. "The fact that I'm cursed by them," comes the reply. This is an exchange from Aristophanes's comedy Knights, and it is quoted in Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (Knopf) by Tim Whitmarsh. The author is a professor of Greek culture, and in this fascinating volume undertakes to show that disbelief in various forms was a distinct school of thought among the ancients; Whitmarsh writes, "Atheism has a tradition that is comparable in its antiquity to Judaism (and considerably older than Christianity or Islam)." Whitmarsh has not written a discourse supporting or denying atheism, but only an appreciation that its roots are far deeper than even the New Atheists usually consider. Atheism is modern, we are usually told, born of the Enlightenment and the advance of science and the secular state. This is simply not so, and Whitmarsh's book amply proves it.



Whitmarsh has drawn on many texts of the ancient Greeks, inscriptions, plays, essays, and poems. One of the problems of such work is that there are many remarks about disbelievers (such as in Aristophanes, above), but few texts from the disbelievers themselves. The voluminous writings of the Greeks do include comments about skeptics, and while not all the comments are critical, accounts of Greek religion and culture are almost always written from the point of view of those who believe in gods, normative accounts painting a normative picture of the society. But Whitmarsh shows that the polytheism of the Greeks was usually far more accepting of disbelief than was the monotheism that followed it. Atheism was sometimes forcibly repressed by the Greeks, but usually not. There was no religious orthodoxy and no scripture; the priests managed rituals and the affairs of the temples, but did not tell people how to believe. Beliefs within the city-states were always different, anyway, with different gods and different emphases. Atheism might have been considered an extreme position to take about gods, but it was one of many acceptable ones. Built into the Olympian myths was the idea that the gods, even Zeus, could be overthrown or thwarted; atheism was a possibility within this narrative.




The paucity of texts specifically on belief or disbelief is a problem often confronted here. We have Anaximander and Anaximenes who spoke of gods, but we don't have their own words. Their ideas that air is the same as god, or that the infinity of the cosmos surpasses any individual manifestation within it may reflect a here-and-now view of gods, or god as nature. This was the view of Xenophanes, who wrote that humans try to explain the as-yet inexplicable in nature by proposing that gods perform the mysteries, but that the wonders of the world are physical phenomena, not supernatural. He wasn't an atheist, but he redefined deities as not being those Olympian beings but rather the ebb and flow of matter and life. Whitmarsh posits that nothing would be lost if whenever Xenophanes writes "the one god" we substituted "nature." This anticipates Spinoza, and Einstein's affirmation of belief in Spinoza's God, not a personified deity but instead the beautiful comprehensibility of nature.



The idea of no gods being in charge was fit for discussion in plays not just by Aristophanes. In a fragment of Bellerophon, the playwright Euripides poses the classic Problem of Evil, pondered then and now, unsolved then and now:



Someone says that there really are gods in heaven?


There are not, there are not... I reckon that tyrants


Kill very many people and deprive them of their property


And break their oaths to sack cities;


And despite this they prosper more


Than those who live piously in peace every day.



The stage was a venue for examining the workings of gods, or their absence. Interestingly, Athenian courts, while they might take up an occasional charge of crimes that were religious in nature, never saw themselves as instruments of the will of the gods. "Athenian law was not theological. It existed solely to determine human responsibility for human action; those who tried to shift the blame onto the gods were mocked." Nonetheless, if you were suspected of disbelief, bad things might happen; some philosophers were taken to court for disbelief or impiety, particularly during times of social turmoil. The most famous, of course, was Socrates. What he really thought cannot be known, as his ideas come to us from descriptions by others. What threatened the citizens was that he claimed access to a direct communion with an unspecified deity, which would have left conventional religion as a mere also-ran. Socrates might have had a sort of humanism, with his insistence on questioning everything and living according to what you can justify rationally, and this may well have appeared close to atheism.



Although there was general toleration of disbelief in Greece, this did not hold so true within the Roman Empire because to question the gods was to question the divine conquering power they especially granted to the empire. This is one of the many points which ring with present day tones; many of my fellow citizens are certain that their particular deity has a particular interest in the advancement of our nation. Also, Greek and Roman citizens sometimes fretted that those who do not believe in gods could not do their part to promote a just society; I wonder if my contemporary believers will insist that ancient Greek atheists were wrong to believe that Zeus and Mars and the rest did not exist, and were bad citizens because of such disbelief. The general point Whitmarsh makes is a useful mirror to our times. In all societies, even those of thousands of years ago, you can expect to discover people who find that believing in supernatural gods raises more mysteries than it resolves, and that attempts to understand the physical world are sufficient.




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