Tim Whitmarsh and Abdalrahman Abulmajd on Battling the Gods
Atheism in the Ancient World. revised.
We have a fresh opportunity to reflect on Atheism in the Ancient World. At this point Tim Whitmarsh isn’t going to speak only about Atheism as it appeared in ancient Greece and Rome, but he also speaks about modern atheism, too.
Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. He's also held professorships in the universities of Oxford and Exeter, and a visiting professorship at the University of Chicago. He's written for the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, the Guardian, the Observer and the Huffington Post, and has appeared on BBC TV and radio. He lives in Cambridge with his partner Emily, and has two children.
He works on all areas of Greek literature and culture, specialising particularly in the world of Greeks under the Roman Empire. He has also written a book on atheism in the ancient world, which was published by Faber and Faber in 2015.
Q: In Battling the Gods you counter the idea that atheism is a new phenomenon,
TW: Yes, that’s right, but I would distinguish between atheism as a social movement and atheism as an idea. The first is largely modern (although there were occasional times in the ancient Greek world when there may have been groups of atheists, as perhaps in Athens in the fifth century BCE). The atheism we see spreading over the world today is the result of a particular set of historical circumstances: the rise of science with its demands for evidence-based proof, globalisation, the western separation of ‘church and state’ as separate entities, and so forth. But the idea of atheism is, I think, universal. Anyone at any time can say ‘wait, I just don’t believe in these stories you’re telling me’, or observe that religion has more to do with human society than divine truth. That’s what the ancient Greek and Roman material shows us.
Q: Atheism is controversial, in the US as in many other countries around the world. Could you elaborate on the history of atheism?
TW: It has become controversial in the last two hundred years because of the historical circumstances I mentioned above. We are sailing into new waters: we don’t know what a largely secular world will look like, and that has caused a lot of anxiety. Yet secularism is absolutely necessary if we are going to have nations that accommodate multiple faiths, as well as people with none. In Britain, where I live, the Queen is the head of state, but she is also the supreme governor of the Church of England. Where does that leave her subjects who are not Christian? But in ancient Greece and Rome, atheism wasn’t always controversial (although there was a period in Athens when people were prosecuted for ’not believing in gods’: that was the law under which Socrates was executed). That, I think, is because they had a different kind of religion: many gods, many kinds of gods, no sacred texts, a very limited role to priests - so there was no real interest in controlling people’s ideas about the gods.
Q: Ancient atheism makes a compelling case that various forms of religious disbelief have been with us for the past two and a half millennia, what is the different between ancient atheism and new atheism?
TW: Modern atheism is in effect a form of activism built around the idea of displacing religion: it is a position that our world would be better off without religion. There’s very little of that sense of campaigning for social reform in Greece and Rome: it’s all about the ideas. Usually in antiquity atheism was the product of philosophical belief systems. Take the Epicureans, who were often called ‘atheists’. They did in fact believe in a kind of god, but these gods were made out of physical matter, and lived outside our world and had no real substantial influence on it. They were driven to this conclusion by the coherence of their philosophical system: if you believe that all perceptions are true, then you have to account for the fact that some people claim to see gods, so there must be gods; but if you also believe that physical matter and void are the only forms of reality, then gods must be made of matter not spirit. We have to remember that Epicureanism was a huge movement in the Greek and Roman worlds, for over 600 years. The biggest surviving stone inscription written in Greek was in fact an exposition of Epicurean doctrine set up in a small town in Turkey in the second century CE (AD). These huge, international philosophical movements had a massive influence on people’s ideas about the gods.
Q: I remember in Noah's time there was a massive influence on people’s ideas about the five gods.(And said, 'Never leave your gods and never leave Wadd or Suwa' or Yaghuth and Ya'uq and Nasr).71:23: And [mention] Lot, when he said to his people, "Do you commit immorality while you are seeing? Do you indeed approach men with desire instead of women? Rather, you are a people behaving ignorantly." 27:54-55
Do you think Noah's people and Lot's people were seen as atheists in antiquity?
I don’t know about that! Personally I think Noah didn’t have a ‘time’, any more than the heroes of Greek myth did: these are legendary figures. Their stories aren’t meant to be taken historically. But these are fascinating texts, nonetheless, and very good prompts for thinking about issues here and now, in the modern world. Are you suggesting that atheism might be thought of as a form of homosexuality? I am comfortable with that, but maybe not in the way you are suggesting! I don’t understand prejudice against gay people – especially as a specialist in the ancient Greek world, where same-sex love was celebrated (for both sexes). I do think that the single most important task for us as humans, collectively, is to try to get over all these differences, and learn to live together. It’s depressing that the last 50 years have seen reductions in world poverty and warfare, and huge progress in terms of the sharing of technology and communication – yet we have also found new ways of creating division and hostility. Sexuality is one of them, but of course it’s not the only one.
Q: Could you elaborate on Atheism has ancient roots and is not‘modern invention’?
TW: Well, as I mentioned I think in one sense atheism is a universal feature: all cultures have people who by nature are prone to scepticism. So in that sense it’s not a question of ‘roots’, which is to say a tradition that began in ancient Greece and continued into the modern world. But having said that, if you accept that modern atheism is a product largely of the European Enlightenment, then a certain amount of the intellectual energy in that era came from reading the ancient Greeks (instead of or alongside the Bible). It was also because my discipline, Classics (the study of Greece and Rome), encouraged scholars to take a critical, historically distanced approach to ancient texts - and people began to apply those interpretative techniques to the Bible. Exactly the same arguments were used to analyse the texts of Homer and of the Bible in the eighteenth century, and you can see how nervous it made the religious establishment to have their sacred texts treated analytically. So yes, classical scholarship was pivotal in the creation of modern atheism.
Q: I don’t know how Ancient atheism was received, and if it spread powerfully as new atheism.
TW: I think you’re right that atheism was less widespread in the ancient world, and this goes back to the points I made above about atheism as a social movement. There weren’t organisations of ancient atheism; there were no meetings, clubs, Facebook groups and so forth. Atheism was also understood in a more diverse sense in antiquity, including people like the Epicureans who did have a sense of the divine (however unusual). There were however books written about atheists throughout history, and collecting atheist arguments: they did understand that there was a thing called atheism, which exists across time and space. But let me come back to another point I’ve made: there may have been just as many individual atheists then as now, but we just don’t know about them because for most of the time our evidence doesn’t let us get inside the heads of real people. We don’t have surveys or censuses from antiquity!
Q: Atheism as a social movement. I don’t know if you think (slaying the Prophets of God,2:91) seen a case of atheism as a social movement.
I don’t feel I can comment there. I’m a professional scholar, and probably a bit too conservative in terms of what I feel comfortable talking about. I follow developments in Islamic scholarship, of course. I spent 7 years teaching at the University of Exeter, where my field had very close ties to Arabic and Islamic Studies. I studied Arabic for a year, and loved it. But I hope you will think that it’s out of respect, and out of awareness of my own ignorance, that I don’t feel I can speculate about the social reality of atheism in a historical context I don’t know very well. But let me just say at this point that some of the most interesting, transformative discussions I have had have been with scholars of early Islam. I think if we are going to move forwards collectively as a global civilization we should have these conversations all of the time. The Greeks were not ‘Europeans’: of course they weren’t. They had no interest whatsoever in France, Germany or Britain. Their ideas were shaped by interactions with the Egyptians, the Lebanese Phoenicians, the inhabitants of what we now call Iraq, Iran and Turkey. And Greek thought was massively valued in the ‘Abbasid caliphate too: Islamic philosophy was shaped by interaction with Plato, Aristotle and Galen, in exactly the same way that Jewish and Christian thought was. I don’t mean to say that Greek ideas were the only or the most important influence on any of these traditions, just that that ‘secular’ (a difficult word!) school of thought is what binds together the three great monotheisms. But my point isn’t even that everyone should be acclaiming the Greeks as heroes; it’s that talking carefully, creatively and interesting about the ancient world (in its infinite variety) helps us imagine a world that is not dominated by the weaponised identity politics that trouble us now.
Abdalrahman: Thank you very much, professor Tim.
Tim Whitmarsh: shukraan, ‘Abdalrahman.
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