Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

How new is atheism? Although adherents and opponents alike today present it as an invention of the European Enlightenment, when the forces of science and secularism broadly challenged those of faith, disbelief in the gods, in fact, originated in a far more remote past. In Battling the Gods, Tim Whitmarsh journeys into the ancient Mediterranean, a world almost unimaginably different from our own, to recover the stories and voices of those who first refused the divinities.

Homer’s epic poems of human striving, journeying, and passion were ancient Greece’s only “sacred texts,” but no ancient Greek thought twice about questioning or mocking his stories of the gods. Priests were functionaries rather than sources of moral or cosmological wisdom. The absence of centralized religious authority made for an extraordinary variety of perspectives on sacred matters, from the devotional to the atheos, or “godless.” Whitmarsh explores this kaleidoscopic range of ideas about the gods, focusing on the colorful individuals who challenged their existence. Among these were some of the greatest ancient poets and philosophers and writers, as well as the less well known: Diagoras of Melos, perhaps the first self-professed atheist; Democritus, the first materialist; Socrates, executed for rejecting the gods of the Athenian state; Epicurus and his followers, who thought gods could not intervene in human affairs; the brilliantly mischievous satirist Lucian of Samosata

“A seminal work . . . to be studied, reread, and referenced . . . With a nonprofessorial, relaxed style . . . Whitmarsh delves deeply into the many philosophers who felt gods were invented by humans or saw laws, in addition to religion, as merely imposition of order . . . The author’s erudition is impressive.”
—Kirkus (starred review)

“Battling the Gods is a timely and wonderfully lively reminder that atheism is as old as belief. Skepticism, Whitmarsh shows, did not slowly emerge from a fog of piety and credulity. It was there, fully formed and spoiling for a fight, in the bracing, combative air of ancient Athens. That the fight was never decisively won — or lost — only makes its history, as this book shows, all the more gripping.”
—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

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