In Battling the Gods Tim Whitmarsh counters the idea that atheism is a new phenomenon, a result of the 18th century European Enlightenment, by using reason, history, and a careful examination of written works from the classical ages of Greece and Rome. Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge, states in the Preface that his book is a work of history and that his goal isn’t to prosthelytize for or against atheism as a philosophical position, and I found that to be true, though he does believe that dismissing atheism as a recent fad can make the persecution of atheists seem like a less serious problem than the persecution of religious minorities.
In the opening chapter Whitmarsh argues convincingly that adopting a skeptical attitude toward miracles or supernatural beings would not be a strange, unheard of position at any time in history, and that there would have always been a spectrum of belief and unbelief. After this initial chapter the book is divided into four sections–Archaic Greece, Classical Athens, The Hellenistic Era, and Rome–and it’s in these that the author delves deeply into the written works of ancient poets, philosophers, historians, and playwrights, looking for evidence of atheism from the time of the pre-Socratic philosophers in early Greece to the rise of Christianity during Constantine’s rule of the Roman Empire.
As a history I found the book fascinating, but because I’m less invested than the author in dissecting texts to discover which particular people from the ancient past may have held atheist views, my interest flagged at times. Obviously the author needed to do these close and considered readings to support his contention that atheism has been around since at least the dawn of history, and considering the scholarly slant and serious subject matter, it’s a highly readable book and far from dry. Like any well written history, more than a few parts are deeply moving–the chapters on the death sentence imposed on Socrates and the long ranging repercussions of that act, for instance.