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Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 10, 2015

4.4 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Sweeping and stimulating…as learned as it is intellectually thrilling… Battling the Gods fills a gap that probably few of us had even been aware of, and does so comprehensively.”
–Tom Holland, New Statesman
“Illuminating, lively, learned and cliché-busting… a work of openly committed scholarship…Whitmarsh aims to rescue ancient doubt and disbelief from a long tradition of slander and opprobrium…and he has an eye-opening story to tell.”
  –Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

“Brilliant….This is an invigorating, urgent book that makes an important contribution to a central contemporary debate. Whitmarsh makes a compelling case that atheism has had a distinguished and varied lineage.”
—Emily Wilson, The Guardian

“[A] beautifully written and highly persuasive account of the origins of atheism in the West.” 
 – Peter Jones, The Literary Review 

“Excellent . . . Whitmarsh argues convincingly that . . . [atheism] isn’t a product of the modern age but rather reaches back to early Western intellectual tradition in the ancient Greek world  . . . The best part of Battling the Gods is the Greek chorus of atheists themselves . . . If you’ve been paying attention to contemporary atheists you might be startled by the familiarity of the ancient positions.”
—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, The New York Times Book Review
“Remarkable . . . a sophisticated and nuanced account of a fascinating and too often overlooked world . . . as impressive for its breadth and erudition as for the concision, clarity and ease with which it conveys . . . a complex story. Mr. Whitmarsh’s book is a delight to read.” 
—Christopher Carroll, The Wall Street Journal

“A seminal work . . . to be studied, reread, and referenced . . . With a nonprofessorial, relaxed style . . . Whitmarsh delves deeply into the many philosophers who felt gods were invented by humans or saw laws, in addition to religion, as merely imposition of order . . . The author’s erudition is impressive.”
Kirkus (starred review)

Battling the Gods is a timely and wonderfully lively reminder that atheism is as old as belief.  Skepticism, Whitmarsh shows, did not slowly emerge from a fog of piety and credulity.  It was there, fully formed and spoiling for a fight, in the bracing, combative air of ancient Athens.  That the fight was never decisively won -- or lost -- only makes its history, as this book shows, all the more gripping.”
 —Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
"If you have ever wondered about premature skeptics who questioned beliefs held sacrosanct in their own time--such as religion or slavery in the ancient world--this is the book for you. In plain English, classics scholar Tim Whitmarsh explores the minds of those who doubted the existence of gods more than 2500 years ago and got into trouble because of their doubts. It is a pure delight to be introduced to people who questioned the supernatural long before modern science provided physical evidence to support the greatest insights of human reason."
—Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

“In the face of many crude modern discussions of atheism (both pro and anti), it's great to have Tim Whitmarsh's sophisticated exploration of various versions of ancient disbelief. It brilliantly opens up all kinds of issues, from the roots of religious conflict and the alliance of religion and politics to (some) virtues of old-fashioned polytheism.”
—Mary Beard, author of Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations

“Erudite and sweeping, graceful and entertaining, Battling the Gods relates the fascinating history of atheism in Greco-Roman antiquity, setting contemporary debates about religion and secularism in much needed context.”
—Danielle Allen, author of Why Plato Wrote

About the Author

TIM WHITMARSH is currently the A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. He has published widely on ancient prose fiction, including Narrative and Identity in the Ancient Greek Novel: Returning Romance, and edited The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (November 10, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307958329
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307958327
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,615 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In Battling the Gods Tim Whitmarsh counters the idea that atheism is a new phenomenon, a result of the 18th century European Enlightenment, by using reason, history, and a careful examination of written works from the classical ages of Greece and Rome. Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge, states in the Preface that his book is a work of history and that his goal isn’t to prosthelytize for or against atheism as a philosophical position, and I found that to be true, though he does believe that dismissing atheism as a recent fad can make the persecution of atheists seem like a less serious problem than the persecution of religious minorities.

In the opening chapter Whitmarsh argues convincingly that adopting a skeptical attitude toward miracles or supernatural beings would not be a strange, unheard of position at any time in history, and that there would have always been a spectrum of belief and unbelief. After this initial chapter the book is divided into four sections--Archaic Greece, Classical Athens, The Hellenistic Era, and Rome--and it’s in these that the author delves deeply into the written works of ancient poets, philosophers, historians, and playwrights, looking for evidence of atheism from the time of the pre-Socratic philosophers in early Greece to the rise of Christianity during Constantine’s rule of the Roman Empire.

As a history I found the book fascinating, but because I’m less invested than the author in dissecting texts to discover which particular people from the ancient past may have held atheist views, my interest flagged at times.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Most of our contemporaries think about ancient spiritual and religious beliefs - if they think about them at all - as an amalgam of quaint literary superstitions involving gods and goddesses whose exploits are known from films such as the Percy Jackson series, television shows like Hercules and Xena or books about mythology. It is rarely appreciated by residents of the modern world just how strong and all-pervasive religious belief was amongst the ancients. In the Hellenic and Roman worlds, temples and shrines meant to honor figures of religious veneration were ubiquitous throughout the countryside and were often densely packed in the cities. Religious belief for the ancients inhabited just as much of an individual's spiritual core and formed just as great of a universal sociological phenomenon as our belief in the great religions of the modern world. What we call Paganism was a religion as intellectually and emotionally gripping for the ancients as any of the subsequent belief systems. The notion that atheism was a significant phenomenon amongst the ancients, therefore, has great resonance for us when we examine our own core beliefs. It strikes me as intrinsically remarkable that belief in ancient gods and goddesses was less than universal in the ancient world. Cults of veneration were everywhere and gods such as Zeus, Apollo, Athena and their Roman analogues were considered to be intimately involved in the daily lives of believers. Yet religious non-belief was an aspect of the ancient world from the very beginning. When an entire belief system is denied, it suggests an inevitable question: what world view can possibly replace such an integral part of the human psyche?Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Most of us probably think that atheism and skepticism about supernatural powers are relatively recent phenomena, and that before the Enlightenment and certainly in the ancient world everybody believed whatever the dominant society presented as its official religious belief. Tim Whitmarsh's study of atheism (mainly in the classical world) affirms otherwise. He starts the book with a chapter that presents the argument that skeptics toward the supernatural and miracles or supernatural beings have been present throughout history, and that there was always variety of unbelief, belief, and undecidedness (which we now call agnosticism).

He goes on to present various authors and episodes of out and out atheism (mainly from plays or other art plus a few court records and philosophical treatises), belief in a different type of god than the society offered (Socrates and his personal daimon versus the ritualized sacrifices that the Greek polis performed publicly for one example), and other recorded evidence of skeptical or atheistic belief. His learning is evident, and the scope of the inquiry is broad. The book will be a valuable reference and roundup and guide for people interested in classical beliefs and in whatever skeptical or atheistic or unusual attitudes were reflected in literature, philosophy, and whatever court records and histories we have - ranging from pre-Homeric Greece through the classical period and on through Constantine. Whitmarsh carefully distinguishes between the various types of unbelief and skepticism, and reminds us that the term and position of "atheism" means something different in the age and culture where monotheism is the religious norm than it did in ancient polytheistic times.
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