An interview with Tim Whitmarsh, author of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

Tim Whitmarsh, author of shortlisted work Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, kindly agreed to an interview.

The title of your book conveys less than it might. You say a lot about belief as well as disbelief: the nature of the ancient Greeks’ belief in their gods, and about their practice of religion, and about “putting the gods in their place”. Could you expand on the title for us in a few lines to convey this wider range?

Yes, it’s a book about both continuity and difference. That’s to say, there are aspects of ancient Greek atheism that are certainly very recognisable now: the centrality of the argument from evil, for example (how could a benevolent, omnipotent deity permit suffering?) But as you imply, the ancient Greco-Roman religious context was very different to anything we find in the modern world, and that does affect the forms in which atheism was expressed. Ancient religions were polytheistic, largely local, based in communal ritual rather than scripture; and priests had less of a hold over personal morality.

You emphasise that the ancient Greeks, by contrast with the Abrahamic religions, had no sacred text and no central religious authority, and you suggest there could be links between that and the amazing freedom of intellectual activity that the Greeks showed from very early times. Are there any other cultures in which such a link can be detected?

There’s a very good question, which has (I think) two components to it. First, were there other ancient cultures where sacral and intellectual authority (and writing – I do think that is crucial too) were generally distributed rather than centrally controlled? I am no expert here, but I fancy that China in the later Zhou period (8th-3rd centuries BCE – the time that saw Confucianism emerge) was one such. Another such culture may be late Vedic India (10th-5th centuries BCE). The other component to your question is whether that link can be detected; and here I think that the Greek material is both more plentiful and more usable (because better studied through the ages) than that of any other culture. The story we can tell for Greco-Roman antiquity is richer and more colourful.

Where is the dividing line between agnosticism and atheism in Ancient Greece? Did the terms have the same implications as today?

Well actually, many today, like the philosopher Julian Baggini, would deny that difference anyway: if you live your life without reference to divinity, they would say, you are a de facto atheist. But be that as it may, yes the ancients were aware that the epistemological problem – how can you know whether there are gods, and if so what they were like – is separable from other kinds of assumption about the (non-)existence of the supernatural. The fifth-century BCE sophist Protagoras in particular took the view that you couldn’t have any certain knowledge about gods. My own view is that that was in fact meant as an atheistic statement, given his own philosophical position that things do not exist unless they exist for you (e.g. the moon does not exist unless you can perceive it). And certainly he was ranged among the atheoi by ancient commentators. Actually Diogenes of Oenoanda, the author of the longest surviving inscription from antiquity, specifically discusses the question of whether Protagoras was an agnostic or an atheist, and comes down on the ‘atheist’ side. But for an interesting reason: according to Diogenes, ‘I don’t know whether gods exist’ is an atheist argument, while ‘I don’t know whether they don’t exist’ would not be! Presumably Diogenes thought Protagoras’ atheism consisted in starting from the default position of non-existence, and demanding proof of existence, rather than the other way round. Which is interestingly close, in fact, to Baggini’s argument.

You did some very detailed detective work in sifting through ancient writings to find evidence of atheism. What was your favourite part of this work? 

Actually it was very hard to write this book, in terms both of the spadework and the more conceptual side of things. It may not show, because I ended up leaving a lot of the methodological reflection out of the final version, but I really had to get my story very straight on matters like whether belief and disbelief are categories we can use of non-Christian cultures, on whether ‘atheism’ is a term that operates across all cultures, whether everything that the ancients called atheism (at root an ancient Greek word, of course) was what we would call atheism, and so forth. So – my favourite part of the book was definitely the final rewrite, when all of that was behind me, and I could focus on bringing the story I wanted to tell to the surface.

You had to unravel and interpret various authors and periods of history because, as you say, the signs of atheism were often buried beneath the surface. Did you make any discoveries in the course of this that took you by surprise? Did you ‘recover any voices’ that you had not expected?

For me the most surprising discovery was that texts I’ve been reading all my adult life are actually full of reflections on atheist ideas. I’m thinking particularly of Greek drama. We tend to think of tragedy as heavy on the gods, and it is. But the characters are often struggling to break free from that divine control, and in doing so they channel the ideas of contemporary atheist thinkers. In the book I explore the idea that the most famous tragedy of all, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, is actually exploring the theoretical question of what the world would look like if prophecies did not come true. ‘No more shall I go to the oracles in reverence’, sing the chorus at one point, ‘… religion is dying’. Wow. My view is that the play reflects a very specific religious debate in the early 420s BCE. I’m looking forward to discussing these ideas with Oliver Taplin at the Hay Festival this weekend.

The papyri have opened all sorts of new windows on Greek history, literature and everyday life. You quote the Derveni papyrus as key support for one part of your analysis. Is there any particular piece of new evidence that you particularly hope may yet be found on papyrus? A letter by Socrates, perhaps?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Unfortunately if we did discover a letter by Socrates, noone would believe it was actually by him …! I talk a lot about Socrates in the book, because he is the most famous victim of Athens’ disastrous legislation against those who do not ‘believe in’ (or ‘worship’ – the Greek is ambiguous) the gods. But he is sadly lost to us: we have only the parody of Aristophanes, which presents him as a materialist who doesn’t believe in conventional gods at all, and the fan-fiction of Xenophon and Plato, writing in the aftermath of the execution and very keen to rescue him from the charge of impiety. I would love to recover what the real Socrates said about the gods – possibly more than anything else – but as I say I fear that won’t happen. So as a second-best I’d say Clitomachus’ On Atheism, a compendium of atheistic arguments written by the head of Plato’s Academy in the second century BCE.

Why do you think the Ancient Greeks’ polytheistic religion and mythology hold such lasting appeal?

The short answer is Homer, the wellspring of many narrative traditions, and a constant source of inspiration for writers, poets, artists and cinematographers. A longer answer is that the Christian-influenced culture of Europe, and to an extent Islamic culture, have been in a dialogue with the Greek world from their very inception – even when they have not realised it. Christians in particular have been taught that their religion emerged as a rejection of Greco-Roman polytheism. But nothing is ever rejected absolutely: it always reappears in a different form, the return of the repressed. We in Europe turn to the Greeks and the Romans when we tire of the superficialities, platitudes and constrictions of modern living.

What do you think makes your book relevant to the modern-day reader? 

The book could be read as an allegory of the future, or at least a future. My view is that polytheism is the only workable answer to the toxicity of religious absolutism. In fact, the world that we live in now is polytheistic. Globalisation has done that to us. You may be Jewish, your neighbour a Hindu, the person who delivers your post an atheist. There is an implicit tension there, if you all hold unshakeable but incompatible metaphysical views. Of course usually this doesn’t issue in violence: you have a coffee with your neighbour and the post drops through the letterbox as usual. But it can do, particularly when combustible issues like sexuality present themselves. My view is that we need to relearn how to be polytheist. (And of course having coffee with the Hindu neighbour is a good start!)

Have you plans for further work on any aspects of the ground covered in this book? What subjects might you turn to next?

After this book I immediately started working on two projects, one on the history of Greek fiction – exploring the dialogue between Greek and other cultural traditions – and one a commentary on an ancient Greek novelist. I think that after the post-book whirlwind I retreated, almost without thinking about it, into more academic territory. It has been a bizarre ride over the last year. I’ve had interviewers ask me about alien visitations, Buddhism, whether atheism is the same as homosexuality, all sorts. But yes, inevitably there will be another book, although I’m not absolutely sure what yet. Maybe something more accessible than Battling the gods, along the lines of ‘How to be a polytheist’. Battling the gods for people who missed the allegory!

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