Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World


EXCERPT: The philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, beloved by generations of Columbia University students (including me), was known for lines of wit that yielded nuggets of insight. He kept up his instructive shtick until the end, remarking to a colleague shortly before he died: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” For Morgenbesser, nothing worth pondering, including disbelief, could be entirely de-­paradoxed.

The major thesis of Tim Whitmarsh’s excellent “Battling the Gods” is that atheism — in all its nuanced varieties, even Morgenbesserian — isn’t a product of the modern age but rather reaches back to early Western intellectual tradition in the ancient Greek world.

The period that Whitmarsh covers is roughly 1,000 years, during which the Greek-speaking population emerged from illiteracy and anomie, became organized into independent city-states that spawned a high-achieving culture, were absorbed into the Macedonian Empire and then into the Roman Empire, and finally became Christianized. These momentous political shifts are efficiently traced, with astute commentary on their reflection in religious attitudes.

But the best part of “Battling the Gods” is the Greek chorus of atheists themselves, who speak distinctively throughout each of the political transformations — until, that is, the last of them, when they go silent. If you’ve been paying attention to contemporary atheists you might be startled by the familiarity of the ancient positions....

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