Battling the Gods by Tim Whitmarsh

Atheism didn’t start with Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell¬†or Richard Dawkins in the modern era.¬†Neither¬†can any¬†of¬†Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Voltaire,¬†Arthur Schopenhauer,¬†or Friedrich Nietzsche¬†take full credit for exposing the delusion of theism.¬†Atheism began way back in antiquity, and has a long and distinguished pedigree. This superb book by Cambridge Professor of¬†Greek Culture¬†Tim Whitmarsh (¬†traces these deep roots admirably. Few scholars are better equipped for the task.

Battling the Gods covers the millennium that separates Homer from Theodosius the Great. Naturally, there are starring roles for those who were¬†particular heroes¬†for the Enlightenment: Lucretius, for example.¬†There is¬†also Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who first inspired On the Nature of Things, and whose atomistic vision of the universe delighted scientists in the 17th century. Other great names from antiquity are placed in eye-opening perspective by Whitmarsh‚Äôs narrative. Thucydides, whose project of explaining human affairs without reference to divine interference provides historical practice today with its ultimate model, is given due acknowledgement for his originality and boldness. His account of the Peloponnesian War, Whitmarsh writes, ‚Äúcan reasonably be claimed to be the earliest surviving atheist narrative of human history‚ÄĚ.

The great Athenian tragedians, too ‚Äď despite the gods and prophecies that frequently featured in their plays, and the religious festival that provided the setting for performances of drama notwithstanding ‚Äď are shown to have been fascinated by atheistic ideas, if not necessarily atheists in their own right. Most notably, Euripides, whom Aristophanes openly accused of promoting disbelief in the divine, repeatedly portrayed his heroes as ruined by their trust in the beneficence of the gods. A play such as The Trojan Women, in which the women of fallen Troy struggle fruitlessly to find meaning in the annihilation of their city, is one where atheism comes to seem almost a palliative. ‚ÄúO vehicle of the earth and possessor of a seat on earth,‚ÄĚ Hecuba, the Trojan queen, prays, ‚Äúwhoever you are, most difficult to know, Zeus, whether you are the necessity of nature or the mind of men: I offer you my prayers.‚ÄĚ Predictably, Zeus does not answer her; and, throughout the play, misery follows swift upon misery. Either the gods do not exist or else, like wanton boys, they kill for sport.

The most revelatory aspect of Battling the Gods is a product of Whitmarsh’s detective work in tracing lines of evolution from the first philosophers to the networks of atheists which had come to exist across the Roman empire by the time of its heyday in the 2nd century AD.  A few decades after the death of Hadrian, a philosopher named Sextus listed the most prominent atheists in history, but the only one whose influence was destined to endure into the Enlightenment was Epicurus.

Doubly condemned to oblivion, first by their more god-fearing contemporary opponents and then by Christians, philosophers who promoted disbelief in the supernatural rarely survived as much more than a name. Whitmarsh‚Äôs accomplishment is to give to some of these ghosts at least a semblance of solidity. When he hails Diagoras of Melos as ‚Äúthe first person in history to self-identify in a positive way as an atheist‚ÄĚ, or describes Clitomachus, a sceptic from Carthage who ended up leading a philosophical school in Athens, as ‚Äúthat prodigious figure in the history of atheism‚ÄĚ, it is a measure of his scholarship that we are able to accept the force of these descriptions. The great achievement of Battling the Gods is to trace in a manner that can be followed readily the evolution of sceptical attitudes towards the divine across the whole span of ancient history.

Nevertheless, Whitmarsh is too good a scholar not to acknowledge that the fragmented and ambivalent nature of the evidence is such that it remains hard to pin down the precise character of disbelief in antiquity. His own preference is to emphasise the similarities between ancient and modern atheism, and to see Clitomachus and Lucretius as the forebears of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. ‘Atheism, in my opinion,’ he declares, ‘is demonstrably at least as old as the monotheistic religions of Abraham.’ This is to cast it as the equivalent of Judaism or Christianity; a recognisably coherent tradition that has evolved unbroken over the millennia, so that Christopher Hitchens can be viewed as the heir of Diagoras and ancient philosophy as the seedbed of modern secularism. In other words, atheists no less than believers can feel pride in the sheer pedigree of their beliefs. Who knows, in reading this book you may come to share in those same beliefs. May the spirit of Epicurus be with you.

Enquire at your local library or consult for full bibliographic detail.

If interested by atheism, follow up with this short selection of key works:
People believe in god/gods for a host of different motives and reasons. If you’re at all concerned with the intellectual credibility of belief in god, reach for Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990,¬† Martin painstakingly and comprehensively demolishes all the arguments which have been offered over the centuries in support of belief.
A shorter exercise in the assessment of the arguments is found in J.L. Mackie’s 1982 book¬† The Miracle of Theism. (reviewed by me here¬† ) Mackie’s view is that, given the arguments and evidence, it is a miracle that theism (in any of its guises) can survive.¬†This book¬†has the reputation of having rattled three decades of Divinity students.
For an account of the loss of faith from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century get hold of A.N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral (reviewed by me here¬†
For an account of the history of scepticism, a reliably informative guide is¬†Doubt: A History¬†by Jennifer Hecht (2004, An entertaining romp through science, philosophy and literature from Socrates to the present day, Hecht’s book opens up many avenues for further reading and research. A great pleasure.
For an accessible, cool polemic first published 2007, turn to Professor Anthony Grayling in Against All Gods. ( Grayling disposes of the argument that atheism is just another form of religion. He then unsparingly exposes the dangerous unreason at the heart of all religion, and pleads for a set of values based on reason, sympathy and reflection.
Dated in style, but not diminished in quality of argument, is Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. (First published 1927, Russell’s was a bold proclamation given that to say one was an atheist at that time was practically synonymous with saying one was the devil incarnate.
Also recording the history of sceptical stances, and the personal cost suffered by those brave enough to express them, is Ludovic Kennedy. In All in the Mind: A Farewell to God. (1999, Kennedy examines the origins of gods from the earliest times, and questions the reliability of both Old and New Testaments. He records the growth of European atheism from before the Reformation to the present day. Interspersed with this, the author offers his often witty insights into how his own upbringing affected his thinking; and, in the final chapter, tells how he has found his own way to non-theistic spiritual fulfilment.
Don’t miss reading the wonderful Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007, Eighteen of the world’s leading scholars, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Gale and Keith Parsons¬†present original essays on various aspects of atheism. They cover¬†its history, both ancient and modern. The topic is examined in terms of its implications for a wide range of disciplines including philosophy, religion, feminism, postmodernism, sociology and psychology.
For something a whole lot more polemical the obvious choice is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006, Though lacking the sophistication of other proponents of atheism, this book upset and worried believers a great deal more because it reached a huge audience, and was widely discussed in the media.
Should you prefer those more subtle (and I think on that account more devastating) arguments turn to Nicholas Everitt’s The Non-Existence of God (2003, Everitt argues that the very concept of God is incoherent.
Should you wish for an impassioned, yet still fully reasoned, full frontal attack on religion РChristopher Hitchens is your man. Treat yourself to God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007,
Sam Harris writes along similar lines in¬†The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004, This is a stark analysis of the clash of faith and reason in today’s world. Harris offers a vivid historical tour of mankind’s willingness to suspend reason in favour of religious beliefs, even when those beliefs are used to justify destruction and heinous crimes. He asserts that in an era of nuclear weapons we can no longer tolerate views that pit one ‘true’ ‘god’ against another. He argues that we cannot even¬†afford moderate lip service to religion. This is a¬†concession that only blinds us to the real perils of fundamentalism. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris also draws on new evidence from neuroscience and insights from philosophy to explore spirituality as a biological, brain-based need. He calls on us to take a secular humanistic approach to solving the problems of this world. This is the only way we can save ourselves.
For a generous parcel packed with insight, and entertainingly written, no bookshelf should be without The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens, first published 2007, 528 pages Includes pieces by Lucretius, Benedict de Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Emma Goldman, H. L. Mencken, Albert Einstein, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A treasure and a pleasure one returns to time and again.
Why is belief in gods and the supernatural¬†so hard to shake? Despite our best attempts to embrace rational thought and reject superstition, people appeal to unseen forces that guide their destiny, worry about the invisible policeman in the sky, and imagine a fluffily happy afterlife if they’re good. For answers turn to The Belief Instinct¬†(¬†by Jesse Bering.¬†In this lively and masterfully argued book, psychology professor Bering (, and unveils the psychological underpinnings of belief.
If you can shake yourself free of these ancient impulses you may not be happier but you’ll be less deceived (book reviewed by me here¬† Battle the gods and win.
For a lifetime of reading and thought in atheism, follow the bibliographies in the titles discussed above. Also follow the leads in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy here¬†¬†¬† Also listen to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ episode on materialism (the bedfellow of atheism) here¬†
Further online resources concerning a naturalistic world view can be found at secular web  here , the Brights website  here,  and The British Humanist Association here
Battling the Gods

304 pages in Faber & Faber

First published 2016

ISBN 978-0571279302


Professor Tim Whitmarsh

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