Cambridge academic’s new book disputes that atheism is a ‘modern invention’ and sets out evidence that ‘disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills’
Atheism is not a modern invention from the western Enlightenment, but actually dates back to the ancient world, according to a new book by a Cambridge academic – which challenges the assumption that humanity is naturally predisposed to believe in gods.
In Battling the Gods, Tim Whitmarsh, professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University, lays out a series of examples showing that atheism existed in polytheistic ancient Greece. It is, according to its author, partly “an attempt to excavate ancient atheism from underneath the rubble heaped on it by millennia of Christian opprobrium”.
Whitmarsh, a fellow of St John’s College, believes that the growing trend towards seeing religion as “hardwired” into humans is deeply worrying. “I am trying to destabilise this notion, which seems to be gaining hold all the time, that there is something fundamental to humanity about [religious] belief,” he told the Guardian.
His book disputes that atheism is “a modern invention, a product of the European Enlightenment” and a mode of thought that “would be inconceivable without the twin ideas of a secular state and of science as a rival to religious truth”.
It is a myth, he writes, which is “nurtured by both sides of the ‘new atheism’ debate. Adherents wish to present scepticism toward the supernatural as the result of science’s progressive eclipse of religion, and the religious wish to see it as a pathological symptom of a decadent western world consumed by capitalism.
“Both are guilty of modernist vanity. Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills. It is only through profound ignorance of the classical tradition that anyone ever believed that 18th-century Europeans were the first to battle the gods.”
“We tend to see atheism as an idea that has only recently emerged in secular western societies. The rhetoric used to describe it is hyper-modern. In fact, early societies were far more capable than many since of containing atheism within the spectrum of what they considered normal,” said Whitmarsh.
“Rather than making judgments based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren’t intuitively there in your world. The fact that this was happening thousands of years ago suggests that forms of disbelief can exist in all cultures, and probably always have.”
In the fourth century BC, he points to Plato, as the philosopher imagines a believer chastising an atheist: “You and your friends are not the first to have held this view about the gods! There are always those who suffer from this illness, in greater or lesser numbers.”
“We may balk at his disease imagery,” writes Whitmarsh, “but Plato was surely right in his general point. There have been many throughout history and across all cultures who have resisted belief in the divine.”
These range from Carneades, head of the Platonic academy in the second century BC, who argued that “belief in gods is illogical”, to the Epicureans, who were often called atheoi in antiquity, and the atheistic writings of Xenophanes of Colophon.
Other examples are texts found regarding the healing god Asclepius from around 320 BC, including the case of a man who had lost the strength in his fingers, but who mocked the stories of the miracle cures found there, and refused to believe in them.
“When he slept in the sanctuary (a common type of ritual activity, known as incubation), Asclepius appeared to him in a dream. His fingers were cured, but the god chided him: ‘Because you disbelieved things that are not unbelievable, your name from now on shall be Disbeliever (Apistos).’ Aside from the story’s wonderful self-consciousness – a miracle inscription about someone who didn’t believe in miracle inscriptions – it also provides precious evidence for religious scepticism in practice, as espoused by a regular, everyday Greek,” writes Whitmarsh.
Whitmarsh argues that the diversity of ancient Greece’s polytheistic societies meant there was no such thing as religious orthodoxy, and no clergy laying out how people should live. This meant, he said, that while atheism could be viewed as mistaken, it was usually tolerated – although not in the case of Socrates, who was executed in Athens for “not recognising the gods of the city”.
While Whitmarsh is not setting out to take a stance on the truth or falsehood of atheism itself, he does state in his preface, his “strong conviction – that has hardened in the course of researching and writing this book – that cultural and religious pluralism, and free debate, are indispensable to the good life.
“Most cultures in human history have had a form of supernatural belief, of one sort or other. It would be hard to deny that that is the norm. But that’s not to say that every person in every culture has subscribed to that,” he writes.