Colombo Telegraph

Battling The Gods: Atheism In The Ancient World

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

The “Socratic dialogue was never aggressive; rather it was conducted with courtesy, gentleness and consideration. If a dialogue aroused malice or spite”, it had failed (Karen Armstrong, The Case For God).

At root, I think my opposition to militant atheism is based on a commitment to the very values which inspire atheism: “an open-minded commitment to the truth and rational inquiry”. Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others combined with a dogged conviction of the certainty of one’s own beliefs is antithetical to such values (Julian Baggini, Atheism).

Tim Whitmarsh, Battling The Gods: Atheism In The Ancient World, London, 2016.

It has been suggested that human beings created god(s) out of fear, ignorance and wishful-thinking: fear because we were confronting fierce animals, armed only with primitive weapons; ignorance because we couldn’t understand and explain most of natural phenomena; wishful because we couldn’t face the thought of our individual, final, extinction, plus other temptations such as justice in another world, and reunion with loved ones. As both our domination and understanding increased, so god decreased in size. However, as this book’s dustjacket states, “Long before the Enlightenment sowed the seeds of disbelief in a deeply Christian Europe, atheism was a matter of serious public debate in the Greek world. But history is written by those who prevail, and the Age of Faith mostly suppressed the lively free-thinking voices of antiquity.” History being written by the winners, the author aims to recover the suppressed voices of the minority (p. 8).

Generally, polytheism is more hospitable and accommodating than monotheism with its sacred scripture which is seen as a non-negotiable contract with the divine (p. 29) demanding orthodoxy – and with orthodoxy comes the politicization of religion. (The Greeks had no sacred texts.) But in ancient Greece, the work of priests was to carry out religious rituals: the idea of priests trying to “sway public debates” (p. 21) was unthinkable. “Legal judgement was never theologized in ancient Greece” (p. 22): Whitmarsh is Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. Philosophy celebrates the critical spirit, the willingness to question received beliefs and values: when the Greeks pondered the nature of the world, they did so through philosophy and religion, and not through organized religion (pp. 54 & 52). Religion was not used by the Greeks to drive and justify historical events. “No war was ever fought for the sake of a god, no empire was expanded in the name of proselytization, no foe was crushed for believing in the wrong god” (p. 193).

Thucydides, author of the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ (432 BCE), is known as the father of Western “scientific history” because of his strict standards of evidence-gathering, and his analysis of cause and effect without reference to intervention by the gods. Ancient Greece was an honour-based society, and honour was generated through success in competition, be it physical or mental and verbal. Competition led to theomakhia, battling the gods, which could mean the gods battling it out among themselves or a mortal challenging one of the gods: for example, in Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, Pentheus (“Sorrowful”) rejects the divinity of Dionysus. However, battling the gods was a crisis of power, not a manifestation of sinfulness. (For sin, see my review of Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin in Groundviews, 13 February 2016.)

The earliest “philosophical articulations of scepticism toward traditional religion” (p. 7) are in the writings of Xenophanes, circa 570 BCE: “atheism has a tradition that is comparable in its antiquity to Judaism (and considerably older than Christianity or Islam)”. Xenophanes argued against the anthropomorphic idea of god: if horses could draw, their god would have the shape of a horse. (The followers of Pythagoras thought human beings could be reincarnated in animal form. This accounts for their strict vegetarianism: p. 63). Socrates urged his listeners not to accept inherited wisdom about anything: question everything, and live only according to principles you can justify rationally (p. 133). This chimes in well with the attitude the Buddha advocated, namely, not to believe or accept anything simply because he said it but to exercise our independent judgement so that it becomes our truth. The Skeptics also took aim at belief-systems: religion is a form of dogma (p.133). “The formative role of Skepticism in the creation of philosophical atheism cannot be overstated” (Ibid). Though not atheists, the Epicureans were strict naturalists: “When we die, our souls immediately dissolve, as the body will in time. There is, therefore, no afterlife. Death is nothing to us for that which is dissolved has no feelings” (p. 173). The gods live remote from our lives: we must take responsibility for the choices we make, and not blame some external factor (ibid). When Christianity became the state religion; when religion conjoined with imperial power, it marked the end of ancient atheism. Religion being one of the pillars of society, an attack on religion was now viewed as an attack on society and the state. Atheism, in Orwellian language, became a “thought crime”.

Turning from the West to the East, the classification of Buddhism is not uncontroversial. Since there is no creator god, nor the existence of a timeless soul, is Buddhism an atheistic religion? Or is it nontheistic, rather than atheistic? Are Buddhists believers or agnostics? – see the Buddha’s famous parable of the man wounded by a poisoned arrow. Be that as it may, given that the Buddha is reputed to have been born circa 563 BCE, his thinking was remarkably revolutionary, albeit that Buddhism has now been made into a form of henotheism, with the Buddha being at the head of the hierarchy. Hinduism too has its strand of atheism. For example, the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, deals with, inter alia, significant skepticism around the fundamental question of a creator God and the creation of the universe.

To conclude, the author states that it is not his aim to prove or disprove the validity of atheism: “I do, however, have a strong conviction […] that cultural and religious pluralism, and free debate, are indispensable to the good life”.


As for polytheistic societies being tolerant, I quote (having got his permission) lines from a message written to me by Graham Fuller, author of A World Without Islam:

“I have been interested for some time in the Sri Lankan case. Despite my Christian upbringing, it is ultimately Buddhism which has contributed to my personal, most basic world and spiritual views today (although I don’t claim I am Buddhist as such.)  I had initially tended to think that Buddhists were of course something of an exception to the bloody links between religion and violence. Yet I discovered in later years that in Sri Lanka Buddhists too (not really surprisingly) still fall prey to the same human instincts…”

Mr. Ranjan Fernando in a paper presented in Sinhala to the Kandy Rationalist Association, October 2013, recounted the following incident. I thank Mr Fernando for sending me the English translation:

“A French nuclear physicist who had become a monk told me that when he came to Sri Lanka in July 1983, he was shocked by the annihilation of Tamils. ‘Once in Colombo I saw a gang led by a well-known priest attacking the Tamils. I left your country thinking that this is not the Buddhist country I wanted to visit.’”

During the riots between Hindu and Moslem (Sikhs too) that accompanied the ‘Partition’ of India, it is thought that as many as two million were killed, often in a horrible, revolting, manner. About 14 million were displaced, making it “the largest forced migration in human history”. As always, it’s not religious teaching in itself but our interpretation and, of the utmost importance, our expression of it. As Gandhi said, the essence of religion does not lie in the label (Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim etc.); not in vehement protestation but in the actual practising of morality.

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