The Deep History of Atheism And Why It Matters…



From Tim Whitmarsh

There has never been a more important time to be a humanist; to make our voices heard. The standoff between secularism and religion is becoming increasingly entrenched – and thanks in large part to the echo-chamber of social media, increasingly reduced to facile but powerful identity politics. Political parties in Europe, Turkey, Australia and the Americas risk the secular foundations of modern politics when they play the demographic game and go off in search of the religious vote.

But for all its urgency now, there is a long story to tell about atheism too. I’m a historian of Greco-Roman antiquity, of a polytheistic culture that was squashed in the fifth century AD (or CE, as many of us prefer to say) when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity and forcibly outlawed its alternatives. Today I want to convince you that it matters – and in particular it matters now – to think about the deeper history of secular ideals.

All of the arguments used today against the existence of gods were first raised by the philosophers of ancient Greece. All of them: from the problem of evil (how can a just god permit suffering?) through the omnipotence paradox (could an all-powerful god create an unliftable stone?) to the idea of religion as a human social construct designed to repress dissent. They had some wackier arguments too, which I’ll save for discussion at the bar this evening. But the crucial point is this. Our modern word ‘atheist’ comes from the Greek atheos, meaning ‘without god’; and with the word comes our entire sense of what it is to be independently-minded, critical, questioning of religious dogma. Take, for example, the most famous Greek philosopher of all, Socrates, who was executed in 399 BCE for ‘not believing in the gods of the city’ and ‘corrupting the young’. His motto was that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, and he insisted that all society’s values, ideologies and beliefs had to be justified rationally; if they couldn’t be, then they weren’t worth following.

The Greeks also came up with the idea of the material, atomic basis for human life. The word ‘atom’ is Greek in origin (it means ‘indivisible’), and was apparently coined during the scientific revolutions of the fifth century BCE. Leucippus and Democritus (Nietzsche’s favourite ancient philosopher) argued, as Epicurus would do later, for the atomic basis of all existence – one of the four fundamental scientific principles that Brian Cox relayed to John Humphreys on the Today Programme earlier this week.

Now, atheism wasn’t always uncontroversial in antiquity: I’ve already mentioned the execution of Socrates for not believing in the city’s gods, although that is an isolated case in extreme circumstances (Athens had just got rid of a brutal military dictatorship, and Socrates had been closely associated with some of its leading lights). Even so, for most of the time in Greco-Roman antiquity up until the time when the Roman Empire converted Christianity, atheism simply was not problematic. To be sceptical about the existence of gods was, for many, part and parcel of being an enquiring human being. Take Pliny the Elder, for example. This is Pliny the Roman military and naval commander, best known for dying in Naples bay as a result of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 (his nephew, Pliny the Younger, recorded the event). Pliny was no left-field radical; in fact you couldn’t get much more ‘establishment’ than him. In his Natural History, however, he promoted a materialist view of the world as united by a single, all-pervasive cosmic nature. This, he argued, might be called god, but it didn’t in fact matter what you called it since it was not a sentient being. ‘I think of it as a sign of human imbecility to try to find out the shape and form of a god … Whoever “god” is – if in fact he exists at all – he consists in pure sense, sight, sound, soul, mind: he is purely himself’. The idea that of an anthropomorphic deity (that’s to say, a god that thinks or acts like a human), Pliny goes on to say, is pure absurdity. We don’t need gods to have human morality, he says: (this is one of my favourite quotations from antiquity) ‘God is one mortal helping another’. We make our own divinity through our behaviour towards others.

It is, I think, no exaggeration to say that we owe our modern sense of atheism to the Greeks and the Romans: it was the rediscovery of the ancient secular-humanist tradition in the renaissance and the enlightenment that was instrumental in the making of modern humanism. When Voltaire wanted to criticise Frederick the Great’s religious policy, he sent him a single line of Lucretius’ poem about Epicurean thought: tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, ‘that’s how much damage religion can do’. The Greco-Roman philosophical heritage is our heritage as humanists, as much as the Bible is for Jews and Christians and the Qur’an is for Muslims.

But I’m not here today to give you another lecture on how great the Greeks and the Romans were, and how they invented everything. What I want to explore is the question of why this culture was so open to the idea of atheism. What were the aspects of ancient Greek society that facilitated this intellectual freedom? How did they manage to experiment with radical ideas without being bludgeoned of state religion? It’s by asking that kind of question, I think, that we get the full value out of ancient history. I want to argue in the course of this talk that there are aspects of ancient society that help us better understand the nature of the problems facing us today – and may even point towards the solutions.

Two weeks ago I was tramping around the island of Ikaria, looking for classical sites. At one point I found myself at the top of a monopati, one of the ancient footpaths that connect the mountain villages scattered throughout the sierra, the spine of this long, thin island. As I looked down from this great height into the massive canyon below, I thought of the myth of Icarus, for whom the island is named. You know the story, best-preserved in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The legendary craftsman Daedalus and his son Icarus are imprisoned in a tower on Crete by King Minos. They escape by fashioning wings out of feathers and wax and flying away. But the playful boy Icarus (with whom Ovid very clearly identifies) fails to follow his father’s advice to ‘keep to the middle path’. When in the eastern Aegean he flies too close to the sun, the warmth dissolves the wax and he plummets to his death.

Part of the reason why this story was in my mind is that (and this is absolutely true) Olympic Airlines, who will fly you from Athens to Ikaria, have in their wisdom decided to call their frequent flier programme ‘Icarus’. Not the most reassuring of names!

But the more serious reason was that when you visit Greece a lot you come to realise that the ancient myths are all about the experience of landscape. No human being in antiquity, of course, actually flew. The story of Daedalus and Icarus will have been inspired by the giddying experience of looking down from mountainous heights.

There is a sacred dimension to this too. Greeks thought gods – they had, of course, many gods – lived on mountain-tops. This was a belief they inherited from the ancient near east, where typically a royal couple commanded the elements from a lofty peak. When in the Biblical Exodus story Moses encounters God on Mount Sinai, it is an echo of that connection (for, as Francesca would have been able to tell you, the Israelite Yahweh was in many ways still a regular near-eastern deity). Specifically, the Greeks thought that the gods lived on Olympus, the highest mountain on the peninsula. In a way this made them remote from humanity, since the peak of that mountain – which stands at just under 3000 metres – was inaccessible in antiquity, and in fact first scaled only in 1913. But in another sense it meant that gods are part of our world, part of the same eco-system. The Greek gods breathe the same air as us, even if it is a little thinner. They are born like us, and sometimes they are even said to have died. What’s more, they come among us, sometimes in disguise, sometimes openly. They can advise us, they can block us, they can fight us and impregnate us. For all I know, they can even break into the house of Muslim activists and steal their shoes.

My point is this. Greek antiquity presents an alternative religious configuration, an entirely different way of organising the relationship between the divine and the mortal. In particular, they didn’t have that concept, so central to the Abrahamic faiths (particularly Christianity and Islam), of a fully abstract, transcendent deity who permeates all of existence. Divinity is an extension of the human world.

To describe the difference between ancient polytheisms with their many gods and the monotheism of the Abrahamic religions, the German Egyptologist Jan Assmann coined the phrase ‘the Mosaic distinction’. ‘Mosaic’ in this context has nothing to do with floors made out of different coloured pebbles (that word in fact derives via Italian from ‘Muse’). What Assmann refers to is the set of innovations ascribed to Moses in biblical tradition, when the legendary patriarch left polytheistic Egypt behind to found a monotheist theocracy. According to Assmann, the central differences between an ancient polytheist worldview and a monotheist one are as follows. Firstly, as I’ve already indicated, polytheist gods belong to our world, whereas the Abrahamic god does not. Secondly – and this is the biggie – polytheism is an infinitely elastic religious system, whereas monotheism insists on absolute fidelity to the one god. In other words, once you’ve accepted the idea that ‘the world is full of gods’ (as Thales, the earliest Greek philosopher, is thought to have said) then the more the merrier.

Ancient polytheists never denied the realities of other people’s gods: they thought of the pantheon as infinitely expandable. Olympus was roomy and accommodating. Foreign gods could easily be added to the roster: the Greeks happily incorporated the Egyptian Isis, for example, or the Persian Mithras. Alternatively, foreign gods could be seen simply as alternatively named versions of their own. ‘The Assyrians’, writes Herodotus, ‘call Aphrodite “Mylitta”, the Arabians “Alilat” and the Persians “Mitra”’. The same goddess, just different names. This would be unthinkable within Abrahamic monotheism, at least till relatively recently. No ancient Jew, for example, said ‘the Muslims call Yahweh “Allah”, the Greeks call him “Zeus”, the Babylonians “Baal”’; and the same is true of Muslims and Christians. Abrahamic monotheism puts up firm barriers between insider and outsider. The one god demands absolute loyalty. It is this absolutism and inability to include alternative perspectives that has made for monotheism’s inglorious history of holy war.

Polytheism, on the other hand, was by design pluralist, capacious and flexible; no one ever fought a war in the name of Zeus, Baal or Amun (although plenty of wars were, of course, fought in antiquity all the same).

Ancient history helps us see the options for the world. It helps us realise how the categories we take for granted aren’t the only possible ones. A religious culture does not have to be an absolutist one. Gods don’t have to demand absolute fidelity – in fact, they don’t have to demand anything at all. The destabilising sensation of looking at the deep history of religion and feeling your certainties crack is, or so I find, another form of vertigo – rather like the fearsome thrill of gazing on a huge canyon from a great height.

But I’ve said nothing yet about ancient atheism. Or, rather, I’ve said nothing explicit. The story of Daedalus and Icarus is, in a way, implicitly about atheism. It locks into a network of myths about humans usurping divine privileges, and in particular the power of flight, which they the gods alone were thought to have had. Greeks called such mythical figures theomakhoi, ‘battlers against the gods’ – a phrase I’ve borrowed for the title of my forthcoming book on ancient atheists. In this kind of myth, a human being typically confronts the divine order and seeks to take something for him or herself: it might be fire (as in the Prometheus myth), or immortality, or entrance to the halls of Olympus. Because myth is designed to preserve the established order, it also usually tells of the defeat of the theomakhos, the ‘god-battler’: and so the threat to the gods’ supremacy is removed. But it’s very easy to misread this story pattern in Protestant terms as a parable of transgression and punishment. The moral is not ‘stay in your place, little person’. The Greeks thought it was natural for humans to reach for the stars, to envy the gods their privileges. This is what, all the heroes of epic try to do: think of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, striving against the river god Scamander in his virile exertion. Rebelling against the gods is expected of us.

Let us be clear on this point. In ancient Greece, the idea of humans encroaching on the gods’ territory was not inherently blasphemous. It was expected that certain charismatic individuals came closer than most of us to divinity. Homer’s Iliad regularly describes the effulgent heroes in their prime as ‘godlike’. Many of the heroes of myth, indeed, received real cult honours, as Helen and Menelaus did in the Menelaion at Sparta from the seventh century onwards. Hero-worship was more than a metaphor in ancient Greece. Real-life figures too – athletes, politicians, military heroes – could be worshipped: Alexander the Great is only one example. Once again, the lesson is that we should not be misled by monotheist models of a god who is impossibly remote from the human realm. Greeks saw immortality as a sliding scale, not as an absolute point.

This, I think, is part of the reason why Greeks accommodated atheism: because even the religious did not see a clear distinction between human and divine. It is natural for humans to want to become godlike, and outstanding individuals could do just that. Indeed, one ancient philosophical tradition explained the worship of the gods exactly in these terms. Prodicus of Ceos, Euhemerus of Messene and others speculated that a long time ago certain individuals may have been commemorated for certain actions or discoveries, and society elevated them to divine status for that reason: so there was a woman called Demeter who worked out how to make bread, a man called Dionysus who discovered wine, and so forth – and that is the reason why today we speak of Demeter and Dionysus as gods.

Let me give you another example of an Icarus-like figure with a more explicitly atheistic colouring. The mythical hero Bellerophon was known for beating up monsters like the chimaera, and in particular for taming the winged horse Pegasus (who also, incidentally, has an airline named after him). Bellerophon was one of a number of ‘culture heroes’, humans whose mastery of savage animals and beings marked him as a bringer of human civilisation to wild parts of the world. But the ability to fly also set him above other humans, and flush with this new power he decided to fly up to the gates of Olympus. As he was about to enter the gates of Olympus, however, the horse bucked, and he tumbled back down to earth.

The great Athenian dramatist Euripides wrote a play about Bellerophon. Only fragments survive, but one in particular is fascinating: it shows how the flying hero coupled his assault on heaven with a philosophical argument that the gods don’t exist:

Does someone say there are indeed gods in heaven? There are not, there are not! Not, at least, unless you rely foolishly on antiquated reasoning. Consider for yourselves, do not base your opinion on words of mine. I say myself that tyranny kills very many men and deprives them of their possession and that tyrants break their oaths to ransack cities, and in doing this they are more prosperous under heaven than men who live quietly in reverence from day to day. I know too of small cities doing honour to the gods which are subject to larger, more impious ones, because are overcome by a more numerous army.

This is the first recorded instance in human history of the ‘problem of evil’ used to argue against the existence of gods: Bellerophon claims that there can be no deities because there is no justice; otherwise wicked tyrants would always be punished, and the virtuous poor would prosper.

To get the full force of this play you have to imagine yourself on the slopes of the Athenian acropolis, looking out over the city below. Most Athenians lived in single-storey houses down there on the plain, and spent their lives in the shadow of the Acropolis (which is in fact still by far the most impressive landmark in the modern city). When they went up to the Acropolis for sacred occasions – and the drama festival was indeed a sacred occasion, dedicated to the god Dionysus – they must have felt, in a way, godlike themselves, or at least touched by the divinity of their city’s sacred heart. When Euripides depicted Bellerophon flying in the air, and seeking to access the gods’ mountain Olympus, the Athenian citizens themselves must have thought about their own godlike position, suspended in the air with their entire world spread out before them.

This was one reason why ancient Greeks were receptive to philosophical atheism: they thought of their gods not as eternal, invincible and remote, but as in principle open to challenge. Gods were imagined as like humans, only better: stronger, wiser, more beautiful, more accomplished. They served as models to which we mortals should aspire. And that’s why young Icarus burned his wings.

But there were also aspects of the social organisation of Greece that encouraged tolerance of atheism. One was the limitations on the power of human clerics. The job of priests was to make sure sacrifices were performed, and to manage the temple finances, not to pronounce on ethical or spiritual issues. The idea of a Greek priest or priestess using his or her influence to sway public debates on (for example) the definition of marriage or the treatment of the poor was unthinkable. Priesthood was a role within the community like any other one, not a spiritual calling. There was no formal religious training, no convents or seminaries. Another crucial social factor was the absence of sacred books. Sacred scripture is one of the major reasons why monotheism can demand orthodoxy. When gods reveal their thoughts to mortals in written form, then mortals can be held to account by reference to fixed texts. Jews, Christians and Muslims have of course argued endlessly over the interpretation of specific passages of their scriptures; but their texts themselves are imagined as non-negotiable contracts with the divine, inspired or authored as they are by God himself. Even as a physical artefact, the sacred book is inviolable: it should never be besmirched, let alone damaged. From antiquity onwards, the idea of material book as the ultimate source of truth has persisted. The Roman Emperor Justinian passed a law in AD 530 requiring the presence of ‘holy scriptures’ in court throughout proceedings; in the United Kingdom, as recently as 2013 the Magistrates’ Association reaffirmed the need for witnesses in courts to swear on a sacred text. For Greeks, by contrast, the idea of a text having magical properties was fundamentally alien. Writing was not considered a highly specialised skill, as in Egypt; nor was it the preserve of scribal elites, as in Israel. Anyone could write, providing she or he had the skills and the money to afford expensive materials. Although literacy levels were low by modern standards, writing was much more widespread than in other parts of the ancient world.

For religious oppression to exist you have to have the social mechanisms to enforce it. These simply didn’t exist in ancient Greece. With no sacred texts, and so no idea of religious orthodoxy, no priesthood with a mandate to enforce religious ideas anyway, Greek society instead fashioned a secular space for the exploration of ideas about ethics and the natural world, through philosophy. And so, in a sense, the idea of the modern university was born, and with it the idea of the pursuit of truth for its own sake.

The last reason why Greece did not persecute atheists lies in the very nature of polytheism itself. Ancient Greece was not politically unified: it consisted of some 1200 city-states, some autonomous and some subject to other states. This diversity replicates the geophysical complexity of the Greek peninsula, which is situated at the point of collision between the European and the African tectonic plates: as a result, it is transected by mountains and gulfs, and thousands of islands have broken off from the mainland. Greek polytheism reflects this regional diversity. In almost every case, a god was associated with a particular building in a particular location. The Olympians, whose worship was common to the Greeks, were regionalised by the addition of a surname. Apollo, for example, was called ‘Pythian’ at Delphi, ‘Sminthian’ at Hamaxitus, ‘Cynthian’ on Delos, and ‘Acraephian’ in Acraephius. ‘How shall I sing of you’, runs one hymn to the god, ‘you who are sung of in so many ways?’ Sometimes these simply described the town in question. On other occasions, the surnames were more oblique and mysterious even to the Greeks themselves: so Zeus was called Apomyios (‘the fly-repellent’) in a cult at Olympia, and Apollo Lykeios (‘the wolf-god’) in one area of Athens – inadvertently lending his name to Aristotle’s Lyceum, and hence to French lycées and Italian licei. Each of these manifestations of the god was different in the sense that the traditions, rituals and clergy were wholly specific to that particular site.

Why does this matter? Because it shows you very neatly that whatever else it is, religion is also at the structural level an allegory of political power. If all of these diverse Greek cities were to be held together in a single framework, they needed a religious model that expressed their sameness-but-difference. This is exactly what polytheism did. Inhabitants of the Peloponnesian town of Argos knew that their Hera was both the same as and different from the goddess worshipped on the island of Samothrace – just as they knew that they were culturally united with the Samothracian people even though they lived in a different part of the Greek world and under a different political constitution. As a religious system, polytheism is ideally suited to this kind of complex, highly regionalised world.

Monotheism, on the other hand, is an allegory of centralised imperial power. The one god with power over the cosmos is a direct reflection of the earthly rule of an emperor. When the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in the early fourth century CE, he did so (amongst other reasons) because he was desperate to hold together an Empire that had come perilously close to fragmentation. To reinstate the authority of imperial rule, he did three things: he built a new capital (Constantinople, modern Istanbul); he instituted a new form of pure gold coinage, the solidus; and he became the champion of the Christian god, and even the arbiter of Christian theology. Each strategy reinforced the other: symbolically, economically and religiously, the Roman world one again revolved around a single ruler.

Although the Christianisation of the Empire was a huge success in political terms, it came at a cost. Within 100 years, imperial edicts had forbidden on pain of death or exile not just the practice of non-Christian religions (with some exceptions for Jews), but also heresy, the holding of the wrong kinds of beliefs about Christianity itself. One imperial law insisted that you weren’t allowed even to call to mind the heretics. This new culture of orthodoxy and heresy led to massive theological splits, and indeed to huge waves of religiously inspired violence. Brent Shaw of Princeton University recently published a book about attacks by Christians on heretics: although Shaw limits himself to the evidence from a single generation in a single province of the Roman Empire, his book comes in at over 800 pages.

We have to face this fact, I think. The monotheistic religions are all designed to do a very specific job: to bind together disparate communities within a single imperial-political framework. Judaism, which was already multiply reinvented in antiquity itself, is perhaps a more complex case; but Christianity and Islam are in this respect directly comparable. Both religions focus their adherents’ gaze on a remote, transcendental deity, who in his ineffable abstraction cannot be questioned. The sacred book becomes a portable token of submission to a distant authority. The problem we face now is that colonisation, globalisation, information technology and mass migration have brought these two sacro-imperialist systems into direct collision. The chances of reconciling Christianity and Islam are practically non-existent, because each system was originally designed as to create a single, uniform belief system in subjection to a single political authority. Of course it has never worked out like that: both Christianity and Islam have been riven with schisms right from the very start. But in political-structural terms, that is what both are for.

The lesson I draw from the giddying view down into the canyon of ancient history, then, is this. What we need now in our world is, in fact, something much closer to the Greek polytheist model. We need to re-enact the Mosaic distinction, but in reverse. Our interconnected global archipelago has much more in common, structurally, with the classical Greek world than it does with the centralised hegemony of the Roman Empire: we have a broad, capacious global culture, which holds together multiple different internal cultures in a kind of loose affiliation. What we need in terms of religion is, therefore, a new global polytheism: one that accommodates the regionalised, pluralistic nature of world religions – and, of course, one accommodates the existence of non-religion on equal terms. This will mean fundamentally reconceiving the nature of religion itself, on the polytheistic model: we need to treat is as a ritualised expression of local identity, and not as a philosophical system with transcendental claims to truth. It will take a long journey to get there. But the fact that it has been done before should give us courage and hope.


Interesting that the author revolved his argument around ancient Greece, considering what is going on over there in present time. Our “new global polytheism” actually seems to be made from a pantheon of multinational corporations and financial institutions, complete with super-hero powers, and whose members are only one step removed from the mass of common humanity. And with the apparent victory of the TPP now almost assured, their march to domination takes another big step forward.

    Just as I was skimming this piece (and one would have to be disposed of an enormous time slot to perform careful perusal: it contains lot of info that even a classical ed. background might have passed over in another more leisurely day) I thought of the contemporary Greek scene, the people demanding a rejection of the very “pantheon of — financial institutions” Izzy uses as metaphor, the people insisting that this financial Olympus will not be their mountain to climb. The commandments handed down from THAT peak are shekel bound, and full of dualism (thou shalt pay back thine debts, or all hell will rise and swallow your families). And here on our mundane Ukiah Valley Floor, or any similar venue in Euro-America (add entities, ad lib), its the people who mill about among themselves, who mirror each other so they don’t have to think, because the modus operandi is MOMENTUM, and re-inforcement by repetition and daily comfort. WE all BELIEVE, and “thinking” just happens for us via social media and news gossip. In the end, Humanism, too, is doomed to the fate of an “ignoble ignoring”. Education, as a “leading forth” process, is perishing miserably in our schools, in a long lingering death. As I finish this little piece, an email has just floated in – Obama’s TPP has passed by ONE vote. Interesting illusion that, who is the “ONE”, or are we all “ONE”?