A frustrating quest to find history’s first atheists

Zeus honoured in Athens: Greek gods were by turns ‘weak, stupid and comic’ (AP)

The nub of Tim Whitmarsh’s argument is that “disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills”. This, Whitmarsh suspects, may come as a surprise to the New Atheists and their theistic sparring partners since both camps tend to regard atheism as a “modern invention”. For some, it is to be lionised as a novel product of the Enlightenment: the happy consequence of the rise of scepticism, science and secularism. Whitmarsh regards this as “delusional self-congratulation” rooted in the myth that “21st-century middle-class Westerners have been the only people throughout history capable of finding problems with religion”.

Not that Whitmarsh is any more impressed by those who dismiss atheism as “a pathological symptom of a decadent Western world”. Whitmarsh cautions against seeing widespread disbelief as a modern aberration or talking about the universality of religious faith in the past. This book, Whitmarsh assures us, is a “work of history, not of proselytism”.

He does not set out to “prove the truth (or indeed falsehood) of atheism as a philosophical position”. He simply wants to demonstrate that atheism has always been a significant factor in human affairs, not least in ancient Greece and Rome. I write “simply” but, despite Whitmarsh’s best efforts, the task proves to be rather formidable.

Whitmarsh first homes in on pre-Classical and Classical Greece. Polytheism was apparently “infinitely more hospitable towards disbelievers than monotheism”. Greek religion was distinctly regional and had nothing comparable to canonical sacred scripture – tales from Hesiod and Homer had to suffice. Persecution of “impiety” flared up from time to time but there was no sustained attempt to impose a rigid orthodoxy. Religion mattered – in Athens, 120 days every year were given over to sacred festivals – but there was ample space for daring speculation.

Those who challenged assumptions about the divine apparently possessed other advantages. The Greek gods were a curious bunch: sometimes impressive but “disturbingly immoral” upon occasion and “by turns weak, stupid and comic”.

As early as the 6th century BC Hecataeus of Miletus was declaring that “I write things as they seem to me to be true … for the stories of the Greeks are many and ridiculous.” The quest for alternative explanations in the realms of science, philosophy, history and morality was afoot.

Did all of this result in a numerically significant atheist presence, however? In some cases, Whitmarsh is able to make confident pronouncements. On Prodicus, who regarded religion as an invention of human culture, it “seems to me likely that [he] was an out-and-out atheist”. In other cases, Whitmarsh is obliged to be more cautious. Hippo of Samos “may well have denied the existence of God” though the evidence is “sketchy”. Xenophanes avidly described the natural world in terms of physical matter but he was “not an atheist in any straightforward sense”. For the famed Democritus, the cosmos was composed of nothing but atoms and void, but he continued to speak of gods and souls.

Whitmarsh does locate some fully fledged atheists but, by my reckoning, they were something of a rarity and, as Whitmarsh concedes, it is hard to know how far their “ideas percolated beyond a narrow circle of wealthy intellectuals into popular culture”.

Similar obstacles arise in the later Hellenistic era. The Stoics usually embraced theistic ideas, and we can’t really know much about the Cynics because they didn’t have an “explicit doctrine of anything”. The Epicureans are also rather confusing: they were materialists to the core and had no time for concepts of the afterlife, but neither Epicurus nor Lucretius gave up talking about gods.

The Sceptics are more promising. In the 2nd century BC Carneades devised formal arguments against the existence of gods, though this may have been more of an intellectual parlour game than a reflection of his personal beliefs, and Clitomachus produced a compendium of philosophical atheists. This text, now lost, had a significant impact, not least in ancient Rome, and when discussing the Roman empire Whitmarsh feels able to make increasingly bold statements about atheism’s popularity. He claims that it carved out a “habitable intellectual space” and, “in the full, modern sense” of the word, atheism “acquired full legitimacy as a philosophical idea”.

Whitmarsh displays extraordinary scholarly skills in his search for ancient atheism and his book contains outstanding sketches of ancient society, philosophy and religion. I remain unconvinced, however, that atheism in the ancient world was as widespread as he suggests.

The book ends with a lament about the arrival of Christianity as an empire-sponsored faith which “put an end to serious philosophical atheism for over a millennium”. If atheism was really as popular and dynamic as Whitmarsh believes, would it have been silenced with such rapidity and ease?