Review: ‘Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World’ by Tim Whitmarsh

Battling the Gods

Atheism in the Ancient World

by Tim Whitmarsh


Long before the European Enlightenment and the Darwinian revolution, which we often take to mark the birth of the modern revolt against religious explanations of the world, brave people doubted the power of the gods.

Religion provoked scepticism in ancient Greece, and heretics argued that history must be understood as a result of human action rather than divine intervention. They devised theories of the cosmos based on matter, and notions of matter based on atoms. They developed mathematical tools that could be applied to the world around them, and tried to understand that world in material terms. Their scepticism left a rich legacy of literature, philosophy and science, and was defended by great writers like Epicurus, Lucretius, Cicero and Lucian.

Tim Whitmarsh tells the story of the tension between orthodoxy and heresy with great panache, a story that ended – for the moment – with the imposition of Christianity on the Roman Empire in 313 CE.


My Review

The blurb is a little overexcited but essentially correct in its description of the contents of this book.

I would characterise the writing style as accessible academic; you don’t have to be a specialist to read it but it helps if you have some idea of Greek history and philosophy. The author explains the philosophies of generally accepted atheoi well, and makes a good argument for those who were possibly/possibly not being if not atheists then getting close to that. Political considerations are taken in to account – some philosophers were put on trial in Classical Athens for impiety based on their writing, later philosophers may have been hedging their bets to prevent the same thing happening to them. There is extensive consideration of surviving texts which may throw light on the thoughts of atheists in antiquity, especially the dialogues of later Greco-Roman philosophers.

This is a great book for those interested in the history of western philosophy, Greek and Roman history, and atheism.



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