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Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  461 Ratings  ·  78 Reviews
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 ...more
ebook, 304 pages
Published November 10th 2015 by Knopf
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Feb 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: netgalley
Fascinating exploration of the role and relevance of atheism from the time of Homer to the Christianised Roman Empire. Whitmarsh provides a readable and convincing case that atheism was not only evident in, but important to, ways of thinking in the Ancient World. He works chronologically through the extant evidence, primarily textual works of tragedians, philosophers, historians and more, that deal with the form and meaning of the divine in Greece and Rome.

The Greeks had no sacred texts or dete
Peter Mcloughlin
Pssst.... Atheists have been around a lot longer than Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Atheism existed in the ancient world. Anyone familiar with Epicurus knows this fact but the author brings into focus Atheists that existed in the classical world. I knew a lot of this history but it is nice to see it the focus of book. With talk about God genes and natural propensities to religion, could it be that a small varying minority of humanity had a "natural" predisposition to disbelieve. Unbelievers se ...more
An excellent portrayal of atheism in antiquity covering more than a thousand years of free thinking and disbelief. The author wishes to prove that the rise of atheism as it evolved in the last two centuries is not a phenomenon of the modern era, and he does so by exploring writings of several ancient scholars, philosophers and scientists. The ancient Greeks had no sacred texts, no particular moral codes invested in religion, while priests and priestesses were there only for the occasional ritual ...more
Apr 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: religion, history
While this was a bit more of a polemic than I'd anticipated – Whitmarsh claims in his Preface that “it is not my aim to prove the truth (or indeed falsehood) of atheism as a philosophical position,” but he then practically ties himself in knots trying to work out ways in which the most unlikely of the ancients (Sophocles?) might be construed to be atheists – it is, nevertheless, interesting and entertaining. Whitmarsh writes nicely, only occasionally slipping into flippancy or inserting too many ...more
Philip Koslow
Dec 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Professor Whitmarsh has brought an erudite and thorough narrative to light in researching a subject that has been seemingly neglected by mainstream historians primarily focused on the story of antiquity. His recent tome, aptly entitled "Battling the Gods; Atheism In the Ancient World" draws on a variety of partial and secondary texts in philosophy, drama and political screeds to highlight the voices of theistic doubt that pervaded the Greek and Roman world environment of pantheism.

Of immediate
Otto Lehto
Nov 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the reading of the book, and couldn't put it down. I gobbled it up surprisingly quickly, voraciously, because it is written in a very engaging style that immerses you in the ancient history of ideas. But you should know a few things about it before you judge whether you want to read it:

1) It is streamlined and clearly written for a lay audience. It rushes through hundreds of years of Greek and Roman (and a bit of Christian) history, and it is impossible to tell the whole story in only
Dec 08, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Chris by: Michelangelo Signorile
Battling the Gods meets its design, which, according to the author " for a broad deals with a millennium of history in a small compass and cannot be comprehensive." I will be more critical: in 242 pages there is room enough only for a summary historical sketch, elaborating only when necessary to connect all the mentioned people and ideas into some topical thread. I get the feeling the author had written a larger book that was severely cut down for publication.

Tim Whitmarsh i
Peter Caron
Dec 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is an approachable book for non-academics which, while I enjoyed the style and readability of the text, do not think it quite lived up to its promise. It is clear that atheists clearly lived and sometimes thrived in the ancient world, "battling" seems far too active a word for the denial of theism and the gods. What was even clearer, was that as important as non-believers were in Greece and Rome, they were marginalised once Catholicism was adopted as the Roman state religion and for the fir ...more
Feb 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
If Greek philosophy 101 for me represented a kind of a musty attic, this book makes for a really strong flashlight and many things begin to make sense in its beam. Gets a bit longish in the middle with repetition of ideas, but more than worth it for the synergistic effect and explanatory power. Regarding imperial power and religion, the sad truth of "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" shines through as a central idea.
Rafe'e Helmy
Dec 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Very interesting book, graceful and entertaining, Battling the Gods relates the fascinating history of atheism in Greco-Roman antiquity, setting contemporary debates about religion and secularism in much needed context.. highly recommended !
May 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Adults.
Recommended to Helen by: No-one.
This is an extremely well-written and easily accessible to the general reader book about atheism in the world of classical antiquity. The one suggestion I would make to the reader is that it may be handy to take notes or create an outline as one is reading the book, to keep philosophical schools' membership and general beliefs handy (although it's not that complicated to remember the main points, it could help in terms of referring back to the belief systems later).

Consider classical antiquity
Tim O'Neill
Jun 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent history of a neglected element in Classical thought and culture - atheism and scepticism about the gods in the Greek and Roman world. Whitmarsh not only manages to present an analysis of this subject from Archaic Greece to the Christian emperors of the fourth century, but he also does so in a way that is highly accessible to the general reader. Each period and movement he discusses is presented with enough historical, social and political background for readers to understand ...more
Jason Wilson
Nov 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book’s mission statement is to show that atheism is not a new thing , but was prevalent in the ancient world . Whilst I don’t think this is as new a thesis as all that ( meaning that it’s not as urgent as it’s reviewers suggest ) this is A fascinating survey of the classical world .

Issues such as fragmentary texts in the presocratic Period however mean that it’s not always clear whether ancient writers are challenging all belief in a god or higher force or just moving on from the old class
Al Bità
May 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This rather superb, erudite and lucidly written text is pretty much a godsend (pardon the pun) not only for atheists but also for anyone at all interested in the history and development of critical thinking and intellectual curiosity regarding our dealings with the natural world we live in.

Whitmarsh’s scholarship is concentrated specifically on the Western tradition, and covers roughly the period from the 7th century BCE until the 5th century CE, when Rome and Christianity took over the Western
Nov 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A very interesting and in depth look into ancient religion, mainly focused on Greek and Roman, and atheism and non belief around those times.
Not for the casual reader, you need to have a good understanding of Greek and Roman texts before delving into this as there are a lot of references that are not explained, there is a lot of presumed knowledge on the part of the reader. If you don't have the presumed knowledge then this could prove a difficult read.
It explores very well how different the con
Tadas Talaikis
May 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
What is(are) "god(s)"? Randomness, basically. And all people have tendency to be Fooled by Randomness. People don't control random events ("fierce gods") and people are awarded by random events ("god's "love"). With the only difference that people, as an evolution programmed safety measure, also have tendency to invent an agency in randomness ("personification"). Everything said it means, believers should grow up finally, it's 21st century, we're not kids believing in Santa and other imaginary f ...more
With an ample amount of evidence to back up his arguments, Tim Whitmarsh not only discusses the idea of atheism existing in the ancient world but also the differing aspects of ancient Greek (and Roman) religion itself.

I, for one, had never before considered that ancient Greek religion was any different from the religions of today aside from the fact that multiple Gods were worshipped. I learned a lot in that aspect.

Discussion of religion was allowed, as was theatrical productions of the Gods. Th
Jul 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Fascinating! I had no idea atheism existed in the ancient world to the extent presented in this enlightening book. Mr. Whitmarsh definitely knows his subject and explains the various strains of philosophy and religion in a compelling and adroit manner. I like the way he takes the history of non-belief all the way from the ancient Greek and Hellenic world up to the conversion of the Roman empire into a Catholic, Christian state. Anyone interested in the history of religions should appreciate this ...more
Doug Newdick
Jan 07, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-of-ideas
Whitmarsh draws together disparate evidence from a range of sources (mainly literary and philosophical) to show that atheism was a live part off the intellectual scene in ancient Greece and Rome. His aim is to show that atheism is not just a recent, western phenomenon, but a widespread response to rational questioning of conventional religious beliefs and practices. At the same time he illuminates those religious practices and contrasts them with contemporary western culture. He shows that there ...more
Kathy Chumley
I was looking forward to this book but found it too academic and textbook-ish. It's obvious the author is passionate about the subject, but in my opinion he would have reached more people if it had been written in a less scholarly manner.

The only reason I finished it is because I was interested in the subject and there really aren't any books out there that cover atheism among the ancients. I would not recommend it for general reading.
Doctor Moss
Mar 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Tim Whitmarsh wrote this book, at least in part, to counter the idea that atheism is a modern invention — an outcome of the ascendancy of science. He calls this idea the “modernist mythology”. The book is written in accessible terms, not exclusively for academics, classicists or otherwise.

The book certainly makes a good case that atheism did exist in the classical Greek and Roman worlds. I think it also demonstrates that atheism took some distinctive forms, forms that are unlike the positions an
Dec 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Interesting read. Although I was already aware of the differences between the ancients (Greek and Roman) and modern attitudes toward religion, it was interesting to be exposed to those that were atheist and agnostics.
Andrea Way
Feb 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Really enjoyed this book. I really enjoy anything based on history.
Stan  Prager
Dec 12, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Review of: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, by Tim Whitmarsh
by Stan Prager (4-17-16)

How do we define atheism today? What exactly constitutes an atheist? Although I am not a believer in magical sky gods, I avoid describing myself as an atheist, which not only has a bit of an arrogant ring to it but these days is additionally burdened by the negative fallout from the militant atheism – actually “anti-theism” – of a Richard Dawkins or a Bill Maher, as of late further tarnished by
Jan 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Everyone should read this book. Whitmarsh offers a masterful survey of atheism that covers all of antiquity. Beginning with archaic Greece and concluding with the Christianization of the Roman empire, he offers concise, readable summaries of the ancient contexts in which one can consider atheism. The range of the contexts is as broad as the timeline. Whitmarsh considers religious ritual, art, philosophy, law and politics. This book doubles as a general introduction to the ancient world, so if yo ...more
Isaac Baker
Jan 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: library-books
Over the past decade or so, much screen space has been consumed by hand-wringing over the “New Atheist” movement. This cabal, so goes the trope, led by the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, is injecting a novel and venomous form of atheism into our discussion about religious faith. I have my own problems with the most outspoken and prominent atheists all being privileged white Western men, but I don’t buy into most of the critique of the “New Atheist” movement.

Matthew Lloyd
I'm writing something longer on this book for Ancient World Magazine , but here is a quick summary of my thoughts. Tim Whitmarsh has written an accessible, readable, popular history book on the ancient world that focuses on atheism but provides a lot of context - although never more than I felt was necessary - so that one can understand what he is talking about with only the barest of knowledge of ancient history. What I found most interesting was his discussion in chapter 14 of the "Virtual Ne ...more
Excellently Researched and Written

Battling the Gods is a very well-researched and excellently written account of atheism in pre-christian Greece and Rome, mostly as it appears in philosophy. In light of the fact that most people tend to think that atheism is something new, something that never existed pre-Enlightenment, I found the book to be very educational. I was happy to read a book that so thoroughly debunked this utterly false 'common knowledge,' especially as it did so in such an accesibl
Dec 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found Battling the Gods to be a fascinating account of how atheism was an accepted world view in the ancient world sitting alongside the polytheistic classical pantheon. I learned that atheism could quite legitimately be debated publicly in the classical world. I particularly enjoyed reading about how many of the famous philosophers using all their skills of critical thinking went about questioning the existence of the gods, some with quite humorous flourishes.
The book finishes with chapters o
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Tim Whitemarsh is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University. 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 will be out with Faber and Faber in 2015.
“Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is the culmination of the fifth-century tendency toward the exclusion of divine explanation. Not only does he refuse to admit non-naturalistic causality, but he cynically skewers any attempts on the part of the actors in his story to invoke the gods. Whatever his own personal beliefs were, the History can reasonably be claimed to be the earliest surviving atheist narrative of human history.” 1 likes
“In a sense, scattered dots are exactly what one would expect to see in a pre-Enlightenment, pre-mechanized world. There were disbelievers in Greek antiquity just as there were everywhere, but there was no obvious role for mass-movement atheism in a culture where ensuring the stability of the state—which depended on the favor of the gods—was prized above all else. Atheism has prospered in the West since the eighteenth century because society has a role for it: in an advanced capitalist economy based on technological innovation, it has been necessary to claw intellectual and moral authority away from the clergy and reallocate it to the secular specialists in science and engineering. It is this social function that has allowed atheism to emerge as a movement composed of individual atheists.” 1 likes
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