— The Erimtan Angle —

Battling the Gods (2016)

The A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University, Tim Whitemarsh argues in his book that disbelief in divine causality and/or intervention was rather commonplace in the ancient world, more commonplace than monotheism at the very least he would argue. Illustrating this point, the Independent columnist Boyd Tonkin reasons that if “we accept that the Israelites in Jerusalem dumped all other gods in favour of the jealous, unique Yahweh sometime after 539BC, then by that period Xenophanes of Colophon had already recorded his scepticism. In other words, atheism may be ‘at least as old as the monotheistic religions of Abraham’. Let no one brand a non-believer as some post-Enlightenment freak, or atheists as modern weirdos who are ‘incomplete in their humanity’ . . . “.[1] Were it not that Xenophanes of Colophon actually “claimed that there was only one God, an eternal being, who shared no attributes with human beings” in the 6th century BCE, as related by the freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark.[2] Still, Professor Whitemarsh “suggests [in his book] that atheism – which is typically seen as a modern phenomenon – was not just common in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome, but probably flourished more in those societies than in most civilisations since”.[3]


Professor Whitemarsh argues that “[w]e 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 . . . Rather than making judgements 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”.[4] And he goes on that “[b]elievers talk about atheism as if it’s a pathology of a particularly odd phase of modern Western culture that will pass, but if you ask someone to think hard, clearly people also thought this way in antiquity”.[5] But this period of apparent leniency came to an end with the Roman adoption of Christianity in the 4th century CE: “The age of ancient atheism ended . . . because the polytheistic societies that generally tolerated it were replaced by monotheistic imperial forces that demanded an acceptance of one, ‘true’ God. Rome’s adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century CE was . . . seismic’, because it used religious absolutism to hold the Empire together. Most of the later Roman Empire’s ideological energy was expended fighting supposedly heretical beliefs – often other forms of Christianity. In a decree of 380, Emperor Theodosius I even drew a distinction between Catholics, and everyone else – whom he classed as dementes vesanosque (‘demented lunatics’). Such rulings left no room for disbelief”.[6]

Emperor Theodosius

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[1] Boyd Tonkin, “Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh, book review” The Independent (18 Feb 2016). http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/battling-the-gods-atheism-in-the-ancient-world-by-tim-whitmarsh-book-review-a6881636.html.

[2] Joshua J. Mark, “Xenophanes of Colophon” Ancient History Encyclopedia (02 September 2009). http://www.ancient.eu/Xenophanes_of_Colophon/.

[3] “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion” University of Cambridge Research (16 Feb 2016). “http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/disbelieve-it-or-not-ancient-history-suggests-that-atheism-is-as-natural-to-humans-as-religion#sthash.DpC54PeT.dpuf.

[4] “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion”.

[5] “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion”.

[6] “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion”.


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