Athens’ Atheists: Tim Whitmarsh on Religious Doubt in Ancient Greece

February 01, 2016

In ancient Greece, did everyone unquestioningly believe in the gods of Olympus? Was there no one in classical Athens to write the equivalent of “The Zeus Delusion”? According to our guest this week, the Greeks’ religious beliefs were as varied and nuanced as they are today. Tim Whitmarsh is a classicist and professor of Greek Culture at University of Cambridge. In his newest book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, he explores the skeptical aspects of ancient history that are often left out of common retellings.

Like so many other cultures, ancient Greece went through its own periods of enlightenment and reform, times when religion and irreligion, and superstition and rationalism, coexisted. Whitmarsh argues that we moderns shouldn’t be so quick to tie the ancient Greeks to their mythology, because along with the myths and gods there is a rich history of secularism, critical thinking and even atheism.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, February 1st, 2015. 

Hello and welcome to a point of inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. 

I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Tim Whitmarsh. Tim is a classicist and not just any classicist. He’s the A.G. Levant is professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University. He’s the author of a new book, Battling the Gods Athie ism in the Ancient World. We tend to think of the ancients as a very pious lot with their glorious temples and captivating myths of gods and heroes. But that’s not the whole story. A rich tradition of skepticism, doubt and even outright Athie ism has been edited out of classical history. And Tim is here to restore it to its rightful place. Tim, welcome to the program. 

Thank you very much. 

What’s the traditional view of religion in the ancient world that you’re setting your book against? 

What’s the traditional, very traditional view would be that this is a world in which religion pervades all aspects of culture, that you can’t do anything from getting up in the morning and going downstairs to go into a courtroom to going out to battle without some sort of religious gesture. That’s I mean, in some sense that’s true. It’s it’s clearly a much more religious environment than our modern secular world. But I’m really trying to contest the idea that there was no possibility of anything like critical as as disbelief of gods before the European Enlightenment, which is really the point of which most histories of atheist himself. 

The ancient Greek relationships to epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey is a major theme. In the book, you talk about how the ancient Greeks related to those myths and how that was similar to or different from the role of scripture in more recent traditions. 

Yeah. Well, okay. So scripture is comparable to the Greeks. The Greeks nuances of Delia noticed. In one sense is I think, which is that absolutely everyone in the Greek world had some awareness of the area in The Odyssey. And many people knew large parts of it off by heart. So the cultural centrality of these texts was absolutely critical. And that the Iliad, Neal, to see and another poet called Heathfield, who is also extremely influential. Together, these poems formed the basis of people’s ideas, people’s standards, ideas about the gods. But that’s where the similarity ends. Because for Greeks and Romans, these texts weren’t on a pedestal. They weren’t texts that were non-negotiable. They were. There was certainly one text with divinely revealed that may come as a surprise to some listeners because the one they have or knows about men and women particularly said it comes from the muse and the muse is at this divinity and in the sentence. So there is a kind of divine legacy there. But the crucial point about is that these poems are thought to be by most receivers as the poems they thought to be authored by humans. And they also thought to be essentially about human concerns, about what it is to to travel, to love, to fight, to be a member of a community and so forth. So firstly, they exist at the human level and they answer they respond to human needs. And secondly, they are negotiable. There’s no ability of being to those that have done for blasphemy, for criticizing the poem as a whole was absolutely alien. I think it’s one of the great advantages physically culture. And I’m not one of the people that thinks that the you know, the Greeks are innately better than any other people in antiquity. What is the one? The great difference is that they did have as a culture was that they were never held back by any belief that you have to cleave to the path that’s already been set in scripture. They were always willing and indeed prompted to move forward from the model of the gods. They were given in the idea and the to. 

Did they understand their ideas of God as having come from the Iliad and the Odyssey? Or did they feel like they had been a separate tradition of worship that these poems were just writing about? 

Well, I would say that The Iliad notices certainly were deeply influential. And of course, I mean, they really need to be armed. There’s a staging post and they say, I mean, they were they were capturing a view of society at the time. But for later, Greeks, yes, they were deeply influential sets of stories about what gods were like. And I think if you’d asked most people on the street what’s it felt like, they would have what you know, what the area’s like with Athena, like say that the first thing, though, to put into their mind would have been something like a description from Homeric poem. 

But people wouldn’t have said Homer was the guy who brought us our knowledge of the guys that we know because it was channeled through him or would they wrote us assist. 

The historian Robert says something very similar to that. He said that Homer and he Saillard taught us about the gods and tells us what the and the how to honor them. So, yes, there is a sense that they provide a canonical model. But again, I come back to the point that is not scripture and it’s not a spiritual based society. The Homeric poems signify at the. Skill level. That’s to say to be a Greek is to be a particularly to be literate, educated. But actually to be any sort of elite as well, is to know the Homeric poems in a great detail. But that’s not really the same kind of thing as having a correct belief about the gods. There was nobody going round saying, does your belief in the gods match up to Homeric belief? And that’s that. As I say, a coconut can’t stress this enough. You know, the idea that that this really isn’t a scriptural based society. 

Can you talk a lot about how the ancient Greeks conception of God was vastly more concrete than even the most thundering fundamentalist of our era? That gods could be, could walk among us, could eat, could drink, could have sex, could have sex with humans and reproduce. If you happen to be in the same place. What implications that have for the philosophical development of thought about gods? 

Well, OK, so yes, you’re absolutely right that this is not just me. This is a number of people have made the distinction between the gods of monotheism that tend to be remote, abstract, transcendent, not of our world and the gods of polytheism. Let’s say the gods of societies that believe in multiple gods, where there’s got to do tend to be part of our environment in a double sense. I think, you know, you can imagine that the abode of the gods being on Mount Olympus and the Greeks couldn’t get to the top of Mount Olympus. It was Ellerton until the early 20th century that people scaled Mount Olympus. So in a sense, they were still a little bit related, is still on the top of the mountain, but they were sort of basically part of our ecology. But also, the other point I wanted to make, really, was that the Greeks source of gods is inhabiting temples within their cities. These were actually the homes of the gods. They were where they lived. So in that sense, the gods really were part of the human environment. And I don’t want a simplistic way of putting this would be to say that they were they serve humans rather than humans have gotten over them. I didn’t think that would be quite right. But there certainly is a sense that gods and humans coexist. And of course, they say, of course, but the with the Greeks believed a mythically in a time before the Trojan War, before the age of heroes, when humans and gods did actually live in close proximity to each other, when they dine together, they held political meetings in common and they reproduced with each other. So gods and humans are not separated by some huge divide in the regular world. I think that has great repercussions as well for the ways in which the Greeks think of God. They’re not necessarily on massive moral or metaphysical pedestal. 

I do think that opened up more space, this idea of people battling the gods, both physically and for power and intellectually. Do you think that opened up space for philosophers to talk about alternatives to believing in God? 

Yes, I do. Or to put it another way, I think that that meant the book is one of the claims that I make in the book is that forms of racism are found in all societies. So, I mean, I could see the Greeks wouldn’t necessarily had any greater predisposition towards atheist than other people whose ideas are perhaps less represented in this this fear the state. We didn’t know what the Phoenicians the thought of. We know very little about what the early Israelites thought about disbelief and so forth. But what what do you think it meant is that it changed the way that Greeks expressed their idea of racism. And the book is called Battling the Gods. And it’s built around this central mythical story of the human who goes to war with the gods. And it’s not just physical conflict. It’s figures like in myth, in Greek myths. There’s this figure of Bellerophon. He flies up to Mount Olympus of mythic gods on the winged horse Pegasus, and tries to enter the halls of Olympus himself and to become a God himself. I think this is the the way in which Greeks sort of they’re atheist. I mean, this is incense. It’s just a myth. It’s just a story. It’s nothing to do with a philosophical argument against the belief in gods. But they say they didn’t necessarily think that there was this massive separation between human and divine, and they thought that in a sense, it was positive. What if we were motivated? Every human, least ambitious human was to want to reclaim that portion of them that was divine, that wanted to go up to Olympus. This is sort of part of the reason why they were so into, for example, the warriors, the shining warriors of the idea. These sort of super mortal figures, these people who achieved amazing things. This is why they were so into sport. For example, they idolized the festivities because they did think there was something godlike about these individuals. So, as I say, I see the Greeks particular manifestation of ageism as emerging out of a kind of human jealousy for the prerogatives of the gods. 

So many famous ancient Greek text fictions are about warning people to stay in their proper place vis a vis the gods that Oedipus shouldn’t ignore the. Already, the Oracle Icarus shouldn’t fly because that’s for the gods and that sort of thing. Where’s that impetus coming from where people in authority are telling their audiences that they should really get over their DLC of the gods? 

Well, it’s coming from, as I say, that I think it’s coming from the fact that there was such a society to organize around a Newtonian force and now they have sort of a force in one direction as an equal, not set forth in the other direction. I think that this this deep, deep seated desire of Greeks to to take on some of the toughest of the gods, to enter the worlds, the gods with the force of the TNC needs. 

That was a very strong set of mythical narratives and so forth that were, as you say, precisely attacking the side of humans who told Poppy, as you know, people that that’s the outside of the normal realm. We often enemies. We often use the word hubris to refer to this Greece idea that certain people will put themselves up above other people and and aspire to divine divine station. And then they’re knocked down by the gods, as we were, who didn’t actually mean that as such. But E.K. capture, I think, some of the conservative impulse to try and restrain this desire to to deify oneself. 

But I don’t think that’s the entirety of it. I think that I think we need to give a lot of weight also to the let’s say this is what I see as fundamental and atheistic attempts to break down the distinction between humans and gods. 

Can you talk a little bit about the development of Naturaliste thought in the Greek tradition? 

Okay, so the Homeric poems are composed in around the 7th century B.C. from the 6th century B.C. onwards. The Greeks come into contact with ideas from the Near East about, say, the regularity of the heavens and the predictability of eclipses and so forth. They become very excited by the idea that features in the heavens this celestial put the movement to the celestial bodies and so forth, and not simply impromptu improvizations of the deities, but they are actually things that are part of the natural order and that they can be. So from the 5th century to the fifth century. You’ve got this group of philosophers called the well, we tend to call the police the classic philosophers. They haven’t for obvious reasons. They don’t call themselves the freedom loving philosophers, but they were the sulcus, the philosophers before Socrates. And yeah, they developed models that sometimes actively rejected actively position themselves against the Homeric ideas. So one goes and often these rights that essentially the problem with Homeric explanations for the world is that they’re based on an anthropomorphic God. And that’s simply a projection of human actually, Butte’s into the divine sphere. So it’s often who famously says if horses had hands, they would draw gods like horses. And if Cuttle had hands, they would draw gods like cattle and so forth. So our conventional understanding of the world is a silly one. Xenephon is would explain the way in which some cloud formation occurs, the way which lightning arises. He’s also talks about Saint Elmo’s fire. He talks about marine fossils and so forth. He’s been quite incredibly wide ranging individual. And he tried to say in all of this, in terms of a combination of the material world and the powerful force of nature, nature which he identifies with a God. So in a sense, Zen, often these people like him were theists, but they were also, as well as your question, I think, rightly said they were primarily naturalists. This idea of the God that was developed by the priest. Christ is nothing like anything that preceded in the complete world, because this wasn’t a God that you could worship. This wasn’t a God that you could name. It wasn’t the God that you could pray to. You can go to a temple of this God. This God was the embodiment of that organic principle that makes things grow. And the principle that makes the heavens rotates in an orderly fashion. So in the book, I try to push the idea that this God is actually simply a way of talking and not simply, but it’s a way of talking about what I call the hidden coherence of things. That’s to say it’s a way of in this amazing moment of cultural change when they’re discovering new new languages, new ways of conceiving of the world. They revolutionized the idea of God and take it away from these sort of the arbitrary figures of Homeric myths. These figures who, you know, sometimes want to do one thing, sometimes want to do another thing, and they they take the idea of God and put it into a need. They make it as sort of the mind of the universe. 

Is that essentially the same thing as the Enlightenment idea of ideas of the watchmaker guy, the guy that set up the laws of the universe and kind of stood back? Or is it even more abstract than that? 

I think in in context, it’s very different in the sense that from our perspective, it is easy to see the similarities. I would say this in antiquity itself. 

I think that there’s something more more powerful and more revolutionary not to do down the thoughts of the death toll, but because where this line of naturalism and materialism leads to ultimately is people who can conceive of a world without any deity whatsoever. So in the fifth century B.C., there’s this physical pain of Samos, who seems to have believed in an entirely materialistic world and seems to believe in that the human soul, these coextensive with a material brain and so forth, and slightly better known figures like Democritus and later Lucretius and Epicurus, who conceive of a world that’s made it out of an atom of the Greek word atom means indivisible, so that the smallest unit. And it’s a matter of atoms and void. And the play between these two explains the entirety of the world. As I say, I can see the similarities there with with Deism, but really that that direction of travel is rather different. 

Can you talk a bit about the great historians of that period and how how they essentially created the genre of secular history in which gods are not the motor of the universe in which things happen within this Starkel narrative for naturalistic reasons? 

Right. Okay, so let’s think of a of a linear chronology here. So we would sooky, first of all, about Homer in the seventh century, spin off Anees in the sixth century. And by the time we get to the fifth century, the fifth century is the century Athenian sentry, if you like, because this is the century of Athenian democracy. But it’s also the century when Athens, in response to the Persian wars, divests this huge network of allies and manages to milk it for all sorts of financial reports. And as a result, wealth pointed to Athens and intellectual life really flourishes in Athens as a result. And Athens is at this stage the largest city in the Mediterranean, possibly in the world. So it really is the hub of an awful lot going on. 

And Athens attracts a number of people coming from different intellectual angles. 

But, yeah, these the figures, the historians, we tend to think now of history as a self-evident category. But it really wasn’t. It was generated through the two through two pivotal figures in the fifth century Athenian contest. One is Horrendousness, who is actually from Hallock Onasis originally, which is on the Turkish coast. But he comes he seems to have written in Athens and the other is Vicinities. Now Herodotus tries to write a history of the Persian War stretching back into other sea years before the Persian wars. He’s heisted to write a story with a kind of pre Socratic tinge to it. That’s to say it’s still a world in which there are there is a hidden coherence of things. That’s to say everything makes sense. And in particular, what’s this? Is that he’s captivated by the idea of compensation, that if you do badly one day you might see better. The next day, if you are prosperous, then you’re destined for a fall and so forth. And he seems to think of this, this, even though he doesn’t really see to it very rarely and only very ambiguous ways about divine intervention in general. It’s an entirely naturalistic narrative. But he does nevertheless think he believes in oracles, for example, and he believes in, as I say, the sort of self-correcting pattern of human history that seems to suggest in a vague, nonspecific way seems to suggest some sort of divine hand on the handle of the lever. But as his successor vicinities, that really creates. I mean, it’s something Apsey revolutionary in world history, I think, which is a narrative of military and political conflict. This is a story of the war between Athens and spots of these so-called Peloponnesian War. But it has no divine action in it whatsoever. Not only that, but you entirely rejects the idea of symmetry and order in Heute in the patenting of human affairs. And he presented with the picture of a human sort of lurching from disaster to disaster with no guidance whatsoever. It’s rather depressing bleep view of the world. But in fact, this is also this is a view of the world in which those who believe in religious authorities tend to come off very badly indeed. So the classic example of this is nothina general called Nikkatsu Statistics. It says over scrupulous about religious matters and delays an expedition that he undertakes because of the kips. And as a result of it, the he loses the initiative and the expedition is disaster. Vicinities paints a picture of the world in which not only are the no design forces at play, the people that believe in divine forces end up becoming a cropper. 

Was that the story that involved the vandalism of the herms? 

It did. Part of that cluster of stories. Yes, that’s right. Yes. So in about 416 B.C., just before the expedition I was talking about, there was a mass outbreak of desecration of statues outside of the Athenian houses that they called. That sort of the huge male bust figures that were desecrated. And no one really knows what went on there. But it was a funny moment in the Fenian history, because I’m sure for many people it was seen as a religious element. It was seen as a sign that the expedition to Sicily was going to do terribly badly. 

Either that or he was seen as an up to the impiety against the gods that would then lead the gods to to punish these unions by making the expedition do badly. Brilliancy acidity is a telling of it. That’s not what happens to it. Nothing to do with divine agency. What happens is simply that people use that. Sort of that story, that they use it as a cover essentially for political attacks on those and that they want to associate with impiety. So, again, it becomes a story of human motivations and human manipulations of that rhetoric, the language that divides in order to get people to very human reasons. 

In the book, you say that these the Herm’s were phallic symbols, but they were also busts. How did that work? Visually. 

So if you imagine a rectangular block of stone with a relief figure carved out of it with no arms and no legs but a face and an upper torso and an erect father’s memory. 

Yes. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to put that in your mind. 

Athens has a very reputation as being a very tolerant place for most of its history. But then there’s also Socrates, who is put on trial for four impiety. How did they get from being a reasonably open society? At least four people of a certain social stratum to getting to the point where they’re putting the world’s greatest philosopher to death for denying some gods? 

Yeah. This was a really funny moment in Athenian history, which happened around 432 B.C. when no bit of historical context is Athenian system, the cool parties, who has an awful lot of authority within the public assembly that there are no he’s not an elected official in the assembly or anything like that. But he’s just he’s somebody who commands a lot of attention and he’s seen as the natural leader of the Athenian democracy. 

But he has lots of enemies like everyone and that sort of position. 

And perthes when he’s not doing things like getting money to pay for the Paul Fidalgo, which is being built at this time, and to the amazing sculptures that surround himself with intellectuals. And one of these was the physical, unaccept grass, who’s one of the very last of that movement. I was talking earlier the piece of graphics and unacceptance argues that heavenly bodies are made out of rocks and that they are entirely material in nature. 

No parodies of enemies use this as a pretext to attack Iraqis. 

In effect, they managed to get a law passed which condemns those that don’t believe in the gods or and it’s an interesting second source. They those that don’t believe in ghosts or teach and that the heavenly bodies will teach things about the heavenly bodies. So this law seems to be designed very specifically to attack one philosopher. He’s in the train of Parallelize. But what the offensive this is, is to create a world that’s had I mean, the huge effects, really, but it’s to create a world in which you can be prosecuted for having wrong beliefs about the gods. 

How many people were actually prosecuted under this law is not absolutely clear. There was an antiquities most famous atheist with a chap called Digressive M.O.s who was prosecuted at some point ten, fifteen years later. Somebody who’s not a household name now. We don’t we have very little information about a bit in antiquity. If you’d said he was the most famous atheist of all, it would have been this guy, Digressive Meals, and he was almost certainly prosecuted under this law. But as you say, it was Socrates himself who was the most famous victim of this particular law, and he was prosecuted for not believing in the gods of the city and introducing new ones. So, yes, there’s a funny, intemperate strain in Athenian politics and you can put it down to political machinations. And there certainly was something in that. But Athens was, I suppose, old. All cultures have their paradoxical moments. But Athens was both, as you say, the the most, you know, to put in anachronistic terms the most enlightened, freethinking city of the ancient world at the time, and also a place where there were other forces that were worth trying to control these things. The person who’s behind this law that we’re told that was introduced and forcefully to the one against teaching that the gods don’t exist. And this person is said to have been a an obsessive religious maniac. We would put it now. He’s somebody who the comic poets teased mercilessly for dancing around to drumbeats. And somebody who obsesses with religious practice and so forth. So this very familiar kind of person, somebody who just say obsesses about religion, somebody face familiar format. A modern era, unfortunately, did exist in classical Athens as well. 

Was Socrates in? If you just go by the letter of the law in terms of his philosophy and his teachings, or was it even trumped up within the standards of the preceding? 

Well, it always suddenly was trumped up. Socrates was again in the wrong place at the wrong time. And fortunately for him, he’d been teaching a lot as the Athenian elite in the late 5th century when Athens fell to Sparta and fought and won the Peloponnesian War. And they imposed a sort of a military junta in that period. And it was incredibly bloody and brutal. And one of the leaders of this was a guy called Christmas who was, in fact, Tito’s uncle, this place who as he’s a student. So Socrates was too close to this military junta. So when democracy was restored, he everyone said the time will forget what happened in the past will issue a general amnesty. There’ll be no retributions whatsoever. But people and I think they were very suspicious about this. They thought that Socrates was done away with for political reasons. So, yeah, I’m sure he was was framed in one sense. But on the other hand, he now. And one thing one should say about Foxy’s, that’s the thing that one always says about Socrates, which is that we don’t have Socrates in his own words. We only have Plato incentive in this. And one is two other people’s reconstructions of Socrates. Bettany Hughes once described Socrates to me as like a ring donut tacy on the outside. But there’s nothing in the middle that really is the paradox of Socrates that we don’t really know what Socrates himself thought. But as insofar as one can reconstruct it, it seems that his ideas about certainty, about where you get morality from would have been pretty heterodox in society’s time. What he was saying was that you need to use your own critical skills and question everything and not take received wisdom for granted. And that was certainly not the kind of picture that was painted by the guy to introduce the law against impiety who seems to have wanted a very pietistic approach to things. So I thought whilst Socrates was framed, there was no smoke without fire. And in a sense, he was a threat to the established Athenian ideas of religion. 

The picture of the sort of vibrant, somewhat secular tradition in the ancient world was lost to academics. Do you feel like there is also a through line from skepticism in the ancient world to enlightenment ideas of secularism? 

Okay, well, that’s a very difficult question. 

I don’t think there’s a direct line. And the reason I didn’t think that’s a direct line is because there was a very clear historical break that occurred in about the third century of 80 or perhaps the fourth century A.D., which is when Christianization began to take root and ideas about racism were sort of buried. Racism, the language of racism changed completely. An atheist was no longer somebody who didn’t believe in the gods, had a philosophical position. 

But an ACA atheist was now the term that used to throw against those people who don’t share the same belief system as you and any Christians use the word atheist, not just of people who believe in the Greek and Roman gods, but they even use it of other Christians who don’t share their own particular configuration of belief, who who we would call heretics. So that the whole the whole legacy of this vibrant and I mean, I should should add that after Athens, it gets more vibrant, the result in the Hellenistic than what we call the Hellenistic period. There are people compiling books about atheistic augmentation, localism, APSEY, wonderful arguments for the nonexistence gods. So by the time we get to the Christian era, there’s actually a huge store, powerful store of arguments against the existence of God, which we can talk about in this book, if you like. But yeah, I’d say, unfortunately, the Christians bring the guillotine down. 

Now, what happens in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is a gradual, partial rediscovery of the richness and the vibrancy of the Greco Roman world. And it’s absolutely clear that cities like Lucretius, for example, the epicurean poets who Epicurus believes in gods, but he thinks that this impossibly remote figure is probably made of matter. They have no influence in our world whatsoever. What really counts is the structure of reality as it’s composed of matter and volumes. For Discovery of Lucretius, the great poet of Epicurus was certainly a pivotal moment in the European Renesys. And this is what student greenbelts but the swerve is all about. So yeah, I did. It’s a continuous tradition, but I think there’s a process of sort of rediscovery of this material that has an Apsey pivotal effect on European and later Western ideas of secularism and materialism. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the program. 

Thank you very much, Linda. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.