Peter Jones

After Democritus

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World


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By the fifth century AD, Christianity had emerged as the predominant force in the Roman Empire, forging for the first time in the Graeco-Roman world an alliance between supreme power and religious absolutism. Polytheistic religion, largely a matter of ritual, had embraced worshippers of gods of all shapes and sizes, but what counted now was correct belief in the one true God, measured against prevailing standards of orthodoxy. In 438 the emperor Theodosius II clarified exactly what that meant. His Codex Theodosianus, a compilation of imperial laws under the Christian emperors, contained no fewer than sixty-five decrees against heretics – mostly those from other Christian sects – with punishments ranging from banishment and fines to death.

Perhaps the most striking fact about the Codex, however, is that it never mentions atheism. It’s not that the word had disappeared from usage; it had come instead to mean belief in fast-declining paganism. The Codex implied that there were only two options when it came to belief: either true religio or false, polytheistic superstitio. The consequence was that the concept of atheism, as the ancient philosophers had formulated it, disappeared from the intellectual table for some thousand years. If the only paradigm was true versus false religion, there was no place for atheism in the Western mental map.

‘New atheism’ is now all the rage. In his beautifully written and highly persuasive account of the origins of atheism in the West, Tim Whitmarsh, who holds the A G Leventis Chair of Greek Culture in Cambridge, rightly denies that this phenomenon is ‘new’ in any significant sense. Modern atheists, he suggests, merely wish to claim atheism as another triumph for the advance of rationalism and science; believers, meanwhile, want to portray it as the consequence of Western decadence. In fact, both sides are doing little more than reheating arguments that go back 2,500 years to the ancient Greeks.

Even Greek mythology, Whitmarsh argues, provides some examples of characters hinting at the idea that there might be no gods, although they generally receive short shrift from the purple-faced deity in question. But things started to warm up in the seventh century BC, when Greeks began to think about the nature of the material cosmos. It was then that a split appeared between those who thought of gods as creators of the universe and those who conceived of them as simply a way of describing nature. Xenophanes went a step further, arguing that gods were nothing but men’s projections of themselves (‘if cows, horses or lions had hands, and were able to draw … horses would draw gods in the form of horses and cows in the form of cows’), and that if there were deities there would be ‘one god … not at all like mortals in body and thought’, animating the cosmos, causing growth, decay and so on. The idea of god as a cosmic ‘mind’ in some sense took hold.

The crunch came with the fifth-century atomist philosopher Democritus. He proposed that the universe consisted of nothing but tiny, indivisible, indestructible particles of matter, combining and recombining in the void to create this world and thousands of other worlds, of which some, including earth, by tukhe (‘chance’) became habitable.

Sceptical thinkers of the fifth century BC developed Democritus’s argument. Protagoras asserted that the existence of gods was ‘non-evident’. Doctors queried whether diseases really were heaven-sent. Thucydides denied that history owed anything to divine causation (humans’ belief in the divine was a different matter). Prodicus suggested that humans invented gods to explain natural phenomena. Critias made a character in a play maintain that someone came up with the idea of gods to terrify men into behaving. Drama raised awkward questions – for instance, why do gods have so little control over evil?

The conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC left Hellenistic kings dotted round the Greek world and it became common to assert a ruler’s divinity. That immediately suggested that the divide between man and god was not really all that great. Philosophical schools – Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans and so on – sprang up. Building especially on Socrates’s interest in a basically humanistic ‘good life’, they insisted on the importance of the ethical values underpinning everyday existence. To that extent, philosophy provided the self-fulfilment and consolation that ancient religion never did before Christianity took root. Stoicism conceived of a deity infusing the cosmos, but Epicureanism, building on atomic theory, saw no role for gods in human life. In the second century BC, a Carthaginian named Clitomachus wrote On Atheism, for the first time outlining the notion of the non-existence of deities as a distinct philosophical position, describing its history and giving it a name (the work does not survive, alas).

After its conquest of Greece in the second century BC, Rome absorbed much of this debate. On the one hand, the belief that Rome had been divinely ordained to rule the world was strong. On the other, Epicureans were highly influential – Lucretius’s marvellous poem On the Nature of Things showing that atomism explained everything without recourse to divine agency. Even someone as conventional as Pliny the Younger could be sceptical on the matter, while intellectuals such as Aëtius asked hard questions. If god is omnipotent, could he make fire cold? Where was god before the universe was created? If god was moral, why was there wrongdoing in the world?

This was the world that the arrival of Christianity effectively suppressed for more than a thousand years, until the beginnings of the Enlightenment. So the atheistic squawkings of Dawkins and co simply replay a very old and scratched record. But that is what happens when connection with the classical past is lost. It makes one mighty Dunciad of the land.

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