Interview – Professor Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture on Atheism in History


Tim Whitmarsh, Greek, Ancient Greece, Atheism

Professor Tim Whitmarsh is the A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge, Professor of Ancient Literatures at the University of Oxford, and an honorary fellow at the University of Exeter. He is a leading classicist. He has been the A.G. Leventis Professor since October 2014. His research focuses on the Greek life under the Roman Empire, as well as atheists in the ancient world. Here Scott Jacobsen sits down to discuss atheism and its history.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I want to distinguish between two streams of thinking. First, the common historical conceptions of atheism. Second, the deep history of atheism outside of  “common” narrative. When is atheism assumed to have started?

Professor Tim Whitmarsh: These are the crucial questions to begin with. I think if you ask most people, they would say atheism is a product of the modern West. It has its roots in the European Enlightenment, in the rise of science and the Industrial Revolution, and in the formation of modern secular democracies like the United States. There is much truth to this picture of course: atheism as we understand it today is a modern phenomenon. But it’s that qualification ‘as we understand it today’ that is critical. Why should we understand atheism only from a modern perspective? The words atheos (‘atheist’) and atheotēs (‘atheism’) are over 2000 years old. The job of someone like myself, a classicist, is to try to change the angle of vision, and to jolt people out of their assumptions that their own categories of analysis are the only ones possible.

“There’s a peculiar vanity – at once self-serving and self-hating – to this idea that the modern West is fundamentally different in kind to everything that is not it. I am fully with the French philosopher Bruno Latour on this: ‘we have never been modern.'”

Jacobsen: What are some of the earliest historical records of atheism in the ancient world? And how does this change the conversation from the common perspective?

Whitmarsh: The word atheos is first used in the sense of ‘one who doesn’t believe in the gods’ in a text of Plato from the early fourth century BCE. It was in a speech supposedly given by Socrates at his unsuccessful defence against charges of introducing new gods and corrupting the young. The context suggests it was routinely used in Classical Athens to describe a fashionable philosophical movement. We know for sure that there were people in this era who argued that religion is a human construct designed by legislators to control societies; or that the idea of gods was rooted in a primitive misunderstanding of the natural elements; or that the existence of widespread injustice in our world proves that there can be no divinities. Whether these people called themselves atheoi (literally ‘the godless’ ones) or whether it was a slur on them by others, we don’t know – perhaps a mixture of the two, just as labels like ‘queer’ are now used in both ways. Anyhow, over time, these ideas inspired many among the Greek people to come up with many different forms of arguments against the gods, some earnest, some playful. I argue in the book that the idea of atheism – of a coherent set of non-theistic beliefs that define a cogent worldview – first appeared in the second century BCE, when philosophers were taking stock of their predecessors’ views and trying to organise them more systematically. There was a strong librarian’s mentality during this era (the Library of Alexandria is only the most famous example of a widespread phenomenon): and thinkers tended to generate new ideas in part by putting together pre-existing ideas into new packages. You asked how this changes the conversation: well, it shows for a start that you don’t need the modern West to have an idea of atheism. And more importantly, for me at least, it challenges the presumption that human beings are by default religious, and have been throughout history until the modern West. There’s a peculiar vanity – at once self-serving and self-hating – to this idea that the modern West is fundamentally different in kind to everything that is not it. I am fully with the French philosopher Bruno Latour on this: ‘we have never been modern.’

Jacobsen: By how long does atheism predate Abrahamic faiths such as Christianity and Islam?

Whitmarsh: There are two ways to answer this question. First, I can give you a literal answer, in terms of the story I tell in this book. The story of ancient Greek atheism begins in the fifth century BCE, although its roots lie earlier, in the sixth century, when new structures of scientific and philosophical thought were challenging the established mythologically-based views of the world. So, broadly speaking, Greek atheism emerges around the time of monotheistic Judaism (although some would date that earlier), half a millennium before Paul and his colleagues were establishing the first churches, and just over a millennium before Gabriel revealed his prophecy to Mohammed. But let me stress my second point, which is crucial. The story I tell in the book is just one possible history of ancient atheism, an important one for sure, given that the word ‘atheist’ is Greek in origin, and Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and Voltaire were steeped in the Classics. But it is only one possible history. If you take seriously the idea with which we started, that shifting the angle of vision opens up new ways of looking at the world, then you have to acknowledge that there are other versions of the history of atheism, which remain to be mapped out systematically. An Indian school of philosophical materialism known as Carvaka flourished, and indeed, early Hindu and Buddhist thought was largely free of deity. The same has been said of Confucianism. And indeed, the more you start looking, the more new possibilities open up. The crucial point is, I think, that we should not assume that humans are by default ‘religious’ (whatever we mean by that – but that is a different question). There are different personality types in every culture. It’s particularly important to stress this, since many will want to spin this story as a Eurocentric one, about how those clever old proto-European Greeks got there before the Enlightenment. That is a complete misreading: there was nothing ‘European’ in antiquity about the Greeks, who in fact had their most enriching cultural dialogues with Egypt and the lands we now call Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

“That is a complete misreading: there was nothing ‘European’ in antiquity about the Greeks, who in fact had their most enriching cultural dialogues with Egypt and the lands we now call Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.”

Jacobsen: How was atheism, in essence, wiped out of history after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire?

Whitmarsh: It’s a more complex story than that. In fact, some of the evidence I use for pre-Christian atheism comes from Christian sources. At one level, the earliest Christians embraced the atheists warmly, because they assumed that their arguments applied only to pagan deities. ‘Look!’ they said ‘Even the Greeks themselves didn’t believe in their gods!’ It never occurred to these Christians that there might be more troubling implications in these atheistic ideas for their own faith (or at least if it did, the thought was swiftly repressed). Another aspect to bear in mind is that Christianity was not a monolith. It was fundamentally reshaped as it was adopted by the Greco-Roman elites, and took on a lot of philosophical ideas. All of the big arguments in the fourth and fifth centuries about the nature of Christ – how could he be both divine and human, and in what proportion, and so on – came out of a dialogue with what was a fundamentally materialist strain in Greek thought. So in a sense (a very, very extended sense) a form of atheism survived Christianity. Christology was a kind of schizophrenic debate between absolute faith and a philosophical realism that could never be fully adapted to the idea of a god made human. But I am not arguing that the Church fathers were crypto-atheists! You are right, fundamentally, that the Christianisation of the Roman Empire (and the concurrent Romanisation of Christianity) changed everything. You see it in the late-antique law codes, which show an unprecedented desire to impose Christian belief on everyone. And not just Christian belief, but the right kind of belief. The imperial law-makers reserved their harshest strictures for Christian heretics. Atheistic views can still be glimpsed in the penumbra, as I have said, all societies have their sceptics, but it became much harder to express them in public. In fact, the word atheos was cooped for a different meaning in this period: to mean one who didn’t believe in the Christian god, irrespective of whether they believed in other gods.

Jacobsen: What was life like for Greek people living under the Romans during the time of the Roman Empire?

Whitmarsh: Mixed. By and large, the Empire raised living standards massively, and ensured peace in the heartlands. How much the economic benefits of Empire actually changed life for peasants and slaves is open to question, but many would say that these people were now in drier, warmer houses, using imported goods of higher quality and so forth. For the elite, Romanisation gave new opportunities for travel and cultural enrichment. The Romans weren’t always perceived by the Greeks as an occupying power, in the same way that the British were in India or the Russians in Afghanistan. Identities were not exclusive in antiquity, nor were they racialised. It was perfectly possible to be Roman and Greek simultaneously: there was no contradiction at all, since they referred to two different aspects (they were respectively legal and cultural identities). Over time, Roman citizenship was extended, until in the early third century it was offered to all free male inhabitants of the Empire. And remember, most people operated in local contexts, in city-states, which still functioned in the same way as before, with Greek people taking decisions and publishing their decrees on Greek inscriptions. But of course it wasn’t rosy, far from it. The Romans were unforgiving when it came to insurrection and insubordination, and their response was often arbitrary and brutal. There are stories of Roman soldiers beating up male peasants; and no doubt, it was worse for the women. And the Roman policy-makers could be particularly harsh towards ethnic groups they viewed as trouble-makers, like Jews, particularly after the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which the Flavians spun as a triumph over a monstrous foe. It was Jews who resisted Rome the most fiercely, both on paper and militarily. And remember – since you were asking about Greeks – that many Jews were also Greeks, and (again) that did not have to be a contradiction. Some, like the apostle Paul, were Roman, Greek, and Jewish, all at once. Aside from the Jews, others tended to be more acquiescent, although you can find plenty of resistance to aspects of Roman rule, to the idea of one-man rule, to the cult of the emperor, and so forth. Christianity absorbed a lot of that Jewish sense of being fundamentally opposed to the Roman state, but there was also a powerful, contradictory, belief that their faith was entirely compatible (‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s’ – all of that).  Again, remember that the vast majority of Christians, for the first two hundred years, were also Greek. So it is a tangled, complex picture, which would take a long time to paint properly; what I have given you is just a snapshot.

“It was Jews who resisted Rome the most fiercely, both on paper and militarily. And remember that many Jews were also Greek, and that did not have to be a contradiction.”

Jacobsen: You have classified some work as atheistic, or straight atheism, including those found in Xenophanes of Colophon, or Carneades. Was the term “atheism,” and its associated ideas and relationships, seen as good or bad, positive or negative, in the ancient world?

Whitmarsh: Actually, I wouldn’t classify either of those two as a straight atheist. Xenophanes claimed that the Homeric gods are nonsense, so he was powerfully opposed to traditional ideas of divinity. But he did say there was a single god, who was a cosmic principle. Why he belongs in the story is because he redefined divinity: he said that a ‘god’ is not an anthropomorphic deity, nor a being that humans can interact with, but a single and coherent explanation for all of the diverse features of observable nature. It was that intellectual shift that created the space for a kind of naturalism, i.e. a belief that there is nothing in our world but material nature (what the Greek call physis), which has regular principles that can be explained rationally – which is, I think, a fundamentally atheistic principle. Few ancient thinkers actually went so far as to argue that nature is all there is, but some did. And it would be good to be able to quiz people like Xenophanes directly on the question of what kind of god he was positing, and whether ‘nature’ would do just as well as a substitute. We just don’t know, and modern philosophical terms like ‘naturalist’ or (even worse) ‘deist,’ are in any case misleading. But certainly one of Xenophanes’ intellectual successors, Anaxagoras, was prosecuted in Athens for ‘not believing in the gods’ and for having materialist views of the celestial bodies. So … sorry for another complex answer, but it’s important to be precise in these matters! Carneades, meanwhile, was a Sceptic philosopher: he believed that you cannot make dogmatic assertions about anything in the world. So him and his successor Clitomachus, head of the Platonic Academy, went about inventing and compiling arguments both for and against the existence of gods. What is particularly interesting is that the arguments against the existence of gods were then separated off and circulated independently, and used by groups who defined themselves by their non-belief.

Jacobsen: What was one of the more powerful arguments compiled by Carneades?

Whitmarsh: Clitomachus was the compiler, if we’re thinking about written texts; Carneades didn’t write anything himself. But yes, we can think of them as a kind of double-act. My favourite argument is one that proves that gods cannot be associated with morality. Human morals imply a choice between at least two alternatives, and usually to be ‘moral’ implies that you take decisions that are right but which cost you. So if you are faced by a terrifying enemy in battle, it is easier to run but harder and better to stay and fight. That is an example of the moral quality of bravery. Similarly, defending the poor against the depredations of the rich and powerful – an instance of ‘justice’ – involves personal effort and risk. Yet gods, as perfect beings, are never faced by such decisions. Gods would never feel fear in battle, since there is no chance of them losing. They would never even contemplate making an unjust decision on the part of the rich, since it costs them nothing to weigh decisively on the right side. So we should accept that morality exists only in the human sphere, and reject any claim that associates it with divinity. Not only does this attack an important component of conventional theistic argumentation (‘how can you have morality if you do away with religion?’), but it is also an insightful comment on the nature of morality: being moral is not just about avoiding wrongdoing, it’s also about putting yourself on the line.

“I would speculate that atheism in the stronger form emerges, historically speaking, out of a kind of relativism, when cities protected by local deities began to interact and compete.”

Jacobsen: What about ‘pre-history’? Should we reasonably extrapolate into the past the existence of atheists in times with little or no recording found to date?

Whitmarsh: Good question! We are in the realms of complete speculation here, but it is fun, and even sometimes useful to speculate. Let’s zoom out a little, and try to reconstruct the history of religion as a whole. None of what I am about to say is ‘true’ in the sense of being provable, and I am far from being an expert in prehistoric religions. So please run with this, and take it in the spirit in which it is intended. The evidence for something that we might call religious worship begins to appear around the time of the end of the last ice age, around 11,500 years ago. That is when we begin to see signs that survival into some kind of afterlife is on the cards, and that humans may be able to broker some kind of deal with higher powers. But what that ‘religion’ – if that’s the right word – was like in practice is very hard to know, as is what was going on in people’s heads, because all we have are material remains. So of course, it is impossible to say whether it was universally accepted as obviously true, or whether it was sometimes resisted. I personally believe, as I have said, that humans are diverse, and that some form of scepticism is probably found in all cultures: that animates our questing inventiveness. There is certainly plenty of anthropological evidence from modern pre-industrial cultures for people who dispute the efficaciousness of deities and their human ambassadors. But for prehistory, who knows? Something closer to what we understand today as religion – an organised, reflective, ritual system, with clerical hierarchies, based around places deemed holy and certain times of the year, honouring gods who exist in comfort independently of humanity – seems to come with settled habitation, and particularly with urbanisation. In particular, you now begin to get the strong sense that the community who inhabit a particular place is protected by a special deity that has a special care for that people and that city. That process began, very roughly, 6,000 or so years ago: Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) has the best evidence in the region covered by West Asia, Europe and north Africa. I would see Greek antiquity as a late manifestation of that process, by and large. Greek gods are not so very different from their older cousins in the near east: the Olympians are primarily gods who care for human cities. But with urbanisation comes imperialism too, real or desired: this is when one city or locale becomes or wants to become dominant over others, and so you get a sense of hierarchy or even transcendence in the divine sphere too. One deity is better than the others, or superior in kind. That military-political hierarchy may or may not map onto familial hierarchies: sometimes you get a top imperial god who is also a patriarchal father-god or a matriarchal reproductive deity, but sometimes not. Somewhere in this competitive world emerge both the idea of a ‘top god’ (or even ‘the one true god’), the awareness that gods come and go, and that divine power is not necessarily cosmic. I would speculate that atheism in the stronger form – the conviction that deities are human social constructs (as opposed to the weaker form of scepticism in the effectiveness of ritual) – emerges, historically speaking, out of a kind of relativism, when cities protected by local deities began to interact and compete. But as I stressed at the start, this is a very schematic map: the reality was much messier and more complex! Once again … Schematic maps are useful for navigation, but the world always looks very different at ground level. And let me stress again that the pattern will look very different elsewhere in the world.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time today, Professor Whitmarsh.

About Scott Jacobsen 318 Articles
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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