Battling The Gods by Tim Whitmarsh

by stephenpalmersf

Battling The Gods: Atheism In The Ancient World.

As an atheist seeing this book in the British Museum shop, I was very pleased to buy it! The author is a specialist on Ancient Greek literature, and has an engaging, bracing writing style. Although the subtitle suggests a general overview, in fact the book focuses on Ancient Greece in three phases (archaic, Hellenistic and Classical), and on the Roman Empire. The thesis of the book in fact is to show that atheism is not a post-Enlightenment social construction, rather one with a much longer history.

Much of the book is given over to a study of Greek religion and philosophy, pointing out the complete lack of centralisation, and the status of religion in typical Greek city-states. It’s fascinating stuff, deeply informed by the author’s understanding of Ancient Greek society, and by his grasp of sources in particular. A delight of this book is how, instead of relying on standard public sources, the author teases meaning out of secondary and contextual sources. This is a scholarly work, yet very readable.

The section on Rome emphasises the relationship between emperor and monotheistic god, while the superb and too-short final chapter shows how christianity, having become a Mediterranean state faith, turns into an aggressive, brutal, authoritarian, anti-science dogma – the religion we know today.

All in all, an enlightening and very enjoyable read. The author, for all that he is a recognised scholar, has a light touch and is in full command of his material. The enthusiastic quotes on the front cover and inside are all well-deserved.