Denying the gods in ancient Greece

The Greek goddess Athena pours a drink for Heracles, who wears the skin of the Nemean Lion.
The Greek goddess Athena pours a drink for Heracles, who wears the skin of the Nemean Lion. Courtesy photo

“Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World” by Tim Whitmarsh (Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $27.95)

Socrates died for allegedly denying their existence. Aristophanes drew laughs by dramatizing their foibles. Prometheus endured endless torment after stealing fire from their midst.

They are the ancient Greek gods, often thought of as a central part of Greek society, the focus of ritual and rite, of cult and libation — a pantheon whose influence spread from stolid statues to great sailing ships, from towering temples to the hearth.

But naysayers of the gods’ importance flourished in more corners of the mainland and islands than many of us might expect. Indeed, the arguments made by Greek atheists in the fifth century BC ring as current as those of Richard Dawkins and Co. in the 21st century: religion as a source of primitive fear, comical anthropomorphism, unparalleled cruelty perpetrated in the name of the gods. From Athens to Delphi to Olympus, exceptions to the commonplace portrait of the devout Greek abound: Not everyone sacrificed to the gods, invoked their blessings in the home, prayed for their might on the battlefield, or explained the cosmos in terms of Zeus’ whims and wiles.

It is the great service of Tim Whitmarsh’s erudite and accessible book to enlighten us on the presence and persistence of ancient atheists. No pun intended. Today, we trace the denial of religion and deity to the 18th-century European Enlightenment with its reliance on natural science and logic, jettisoning superstition and credulity in all things supernatural, and putting in their place the idea of rational progress and secular values. But questioning the gods has had a much longer legacy than, say, Voltaire’s “Candide.” At least 2,500 years, according to Whitmarsh, the A.G. Levintis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge.

The ineffectiveness of the gods

Part of the reason is that Greek gods didn’t do much. They handed down no sacred revelation or scriptures. Their character and exploits were chronicled in Homer’s epic poems, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” and in Hesiod’s “Theogony,” works known more for their narrative drive than for their religious zeal. Indeed, Zeus, Hera, Athena and Apollo come across as fickle and fawning, toying with mortals for their own amusement, for instance, now favoring the Greeks, now the Trojans in the long-standing Trojan War.

Likewise, the gods didn’t play much of a role in regulating morality or promising immortality. Humans had to battle with them to even approach the threshold of their blissful existence, “immortal and unaging, liv(ing) a life of luxurious abundance without toil.” Despite their affluence, the gods come across as capricious caricatures: Zeus turns himself into a bull to capture Europa and swim her from Tyre to Crete. Couldn’t he have crossed the sea in a much easier and more efficient manner? one ancient pundit asked.

Most important, without providing religious direction for investigating nature or even for laying down ethical codes, the Greek gods showed the worst traits of anthropomorphism: lust, jealousy, greed, the will to power. Once these characteristics were dismissed as beneath the dignity of a deity, it left the pre-Socratic Greek mind free to displace the gods and explore the world around it on its own terms.

Where “god” had reigned in the Greek consciousness, “nature” forcefully took its place. This has been a position that has thrived in Western philosophy for centuries. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Baruch Spinoza in the 1600s: For him, God is nature, at least the intelligibility of its regular laws.

Lucretius, in the sixth century BC, likely was the first to articulate this point of view: For him, the gods had little, if any, explanatory power. Nature could be confidently understood without them; they contributed nothing to the discussion of first or final causes. As such, he and the new philosophers “defined themselves against the archaism of the epic poets, accounting for the world in new terms, using explanations drawn from the world around them rather than from mythological deities.”

All this did not happen without impunity, of course. “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense of what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere; and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature of the gods to radical questioning.”

Impiety laws protected the foundation of the state

But Athenians were still tried for atheism under impiety laws, since heterodox religious beliefs threatened the foundation of the state, which was held together primarily by consistent religious practice. Witness the case of Socrates.

Things changed dramatically once the vast majority of the Greek-speaking world was subordinated to Roman rule after 146 BC. The imperial authority proposed ritual observances, and its political centralization paved the way for a type of theocracy.

Atheists remained on the fringe of society, founding no schools of thought. And once Rome became Christianized under Constantine in the fourth century AD, traces of atheists disappeared altogether, not to return for 1,000 years, according to Whitmarsh. The battlefield had shifted to polytheism vs. monotheism, and left minimal room for the nonconformist outsider.

Though skepticism was always a vital part of the Greek character, forming its own brand of philosophy, it’s important to note that some of Athens’ greatest minds still saw the need for a god. Aristotle, the eminent naturalist, posited the Unmoved Mover. And Plato, the metaphysician par excellence, “proposed (in Timaeus) a transcendent deity who presided over an unchanging, ideal world, separate from our own earthly one. For Plato, gods had to be perfect, remote, and untouched by the decadence of our own existence: the polar opposite of the divinities presented by Homer and Hesiod.”

Not an advocate of atheism

At times Whitmarsh’s remarks fall on the catty side, showing a lack of philosophical nuance, but he claims that he is not advocating atheism, just documenting its history to underscore the plurality of points of view in a society we often think of as homogeneous. And in the process, he gives us a much needed ancient perspective on today’s religious quarrels.

Comparisons to today don’t hold completely, however. The Greek and Roman atheists were not really obsessed with destroying the gods, just with the ease of “replacing the traditional, epic conceptions of a cosmos dominated by anthropoid deities with newer, ‘scientific’ models based on the properties of material substances.” Nothing serious was lost; the gods had simply become irrelevant.

Whitmarsh’s book is pleasingly relevant, proving to be challenging, humorous and eye-opening. He shows us again the perennial urge to make man the measure of all things. And for that, we can only guess that Zeus and his pantheon would not be pleased.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256.