Book reviews / History

Book review: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

Oh hi. I’ve been kind of occupied by PhD land.

But this book is part of PhD land so I’ve decided to review it.

I first heard about Time Whitmarsh’s book last year, when I helped organise a history conference on atheism, secularism and humanism. It was the talk of the conference! But it took me awhile to get to it as it was in hardback, and well, I was still doing other bits of PhD.

So the book is exactly as the title suggests – examining the evidence for atheism in the ancient world from the pre-socratic philosophers to the start of Christianity.

And its so good. So intellectually satisfying. No doubt in part because it supports the same type of argument I’m making in my Phd, just several thousand years later.

battling the gods

So even with my classics knowledge taught over a decade ago, I still could follow along and knew the touch points of history. However, what was new was so many of the thinkers that Whitmarsh sets into classical atheist history. Some of them I’m sure I was taught about as a stoic or cynic but Whitmarsh puts their writing into the political context of the time but also the intellectual traditions of ancient Greece.

My favourite bits are basically where he eviscerates some really lazy intellectual reasoning, that was put up with for so long because of how religion is seen as a pervasive force in our history. Also near the end, the various take-downs of Christianity’s early persecutive and the deconstruction of the myth that Christians themselves were called atheists. For example, he points out that all the texts declaring that are early Christian texts themselves and use language more associated with Christian writing than Greek or Roman.

He acknowledges where he’s venturing into speculation when the evidence is lacking but hints exist. What was really fascinating was piecing together the potential arguments that these classical atheists would have made from what those defending religion had to counter.

One of the most interesting comments (for me) came at the very beginning of the book: “It is only through profound ignorance of the classical tradition that anyone ever believed that eighteenth-century Europeans were the first to battle the gods” (p 12).

I think this is really important for how atheism is perceived today: often the preserve of scientists or ‘the four horsemen’ – when its roots are fundamentally deeper.  As well, as Whitmarsh points out, understanding classical atheism shows how deep the intellectual roots of atheism really are – and therefore can’t be dismissed as something faddish and modern.

More importantly for me, is how by ignoring the classical atheists, the idea of religion being normative has been so pervasive. Definitely something that will aid my own arguments in my PhD!

It was an absolute delight to read – even if you don’t have much of a classical background. It’s a pretty quick read and does a good job of explaining some of the context. If you have any classical history in your past, you’ll be fine.

Seriously if you like any sort of intellectual history of atheism, this is a book you definitely need to pick up!

One thought on “Book review: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

  1. Pingback: Book review: The Darkening Age | Blogendorff

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