'Battling the Gods'

Our Atheism Is Different

Buried in the pages of this short, disappointing book is a shorter, better book; and, had Tim Whitmarsh confined himself to writing simply as a classicist and historian, the latter is what he might have produced. Unfortunately, he chose to pursue a grander purpose, and that one occasioned by those voguish volumes of popular atheism that have been burdening bookshelves with their unbearable lightness for a decade now. As a result, he has turned what should have been a quick, engaging narrative about ancient intellectual culture into a sluggish catalogue of confused judgments, procrustean readings, and arguments occasionally achieving a banality worthy of the New Atheists themselves. Again and again, just as the story threatens to become interesting, its flow is dammed up by some attempt to conscript a recalcitrant text into Whitmarsh’s larger project, or diverted by some logical error into marshes of vagary. And, in the end, Whitmarsh’s larger argument—about the perennial persistence of atheism and skepticism, the birth of philosophical “naturalism” in ancient Greece, and so on—rests upon conceptual misprisions so fundamental as to render it quite beyond rescue.

Again, it need not have been so. That buried text is quite enjoyable. It relates facts not nearly as obscure as Whitmarsh imagines, but does so in lucid prose and with a judicious eye for detail. It tells of the variety of views in the ancient world regarding the nature of the divine, the relation between the divine and the world, and what we can know of either. And it contains good surveys of Skepticism’s exquisite art of suspended judgment, Epicureanism’s winsome metaphysical eccentricities, Cynicism’s glorious loucheness, and so on. Mind you, Whitmarsh occasionally exerts himself needlessly trying to make these schools look even more atheistic than they were; his treatment of Epicureanism manages to weaken an inherently strong case by refusing to rest content with the actual evidence. But his depictions of certain individual thinkers—Protagoras, Prodicus, Democritus, Lucretius, Sextus Empiricus, Carneades—are good specimens of solid schoolboy history.

These, though, exhaust the book’s virtues. And its vices are many. The most discreditable of them is simple prejudice: both an obvious intellectual prejudice, of considerable philosophical crudity, that modern metaphysical “naturalism” is self-evidently the most rational of worldviews; and a more concealed but unmistakable cultural prejudice, verging on casual bigotry, regarding the things he imagines the developed monotheisms believe. Whitmarsh certainly seems to think that any substantial faith in God involves a combination of childish anthropomorphism and fatalistic determinism, and whenever he talks of Jewish or Christian (or Muslim) Scriptures or traditions his obvious lack of acquaintance with the sources produces only silly caricatures. At times the result is just a scholarly lapse, such as his apparent projection of late antique and rabbinic Judaism’s lofty monotheism back over the whole corpus of Hebrew scripture. At other times the result is more sordid, as when he accuses the Apostle Paul of “derision leveled at those poor, benighted fools who do not belong” to his group: a remark that, quite apart from being wholly uncorroborated by the texts, is a boorish slander of arguably the first “Western” thinker to articulate a spiritual and moral universalism—surpassing even anything the Stoics envisaged—in which there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, man nor woman.

All this might be tolerable if Whitmarsh’s larger argument were coherent, but it is not. In part, this is because his insatiable desire for proof of a larger antique intellectual movement away from religion leads him to find atheism where there is no sign of it. For him absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Does Demosthenes’s failure to invoke the gods frequently in the courtroom indicate disbelief? Perhaps, perhaps not. Does Metrodorus’s denial that the Roman empire is a providential dispensation secretly advance an atheist agenda? If so, it is very secret indeed. “Was Anaxagoras an atheist?” Certainly not in any modern sense.

And some of Whitmarsh’s conclusions are not merely suppositious, but are in fact explicitly contradicted by the evidence. The pre-Socratic philosophers, he proclaims, inaugurated Western thought’s long journey toward modern philosophical “naturalism,” and when they speak of “divinity” we should substitute the word “nature.”  Where to begin? The anachronism of speaking of modern “naturalism” (a mechanistic materialist metaphysics unimaginable in antiquity) is bad enough. As is the tacit assumption, belied by the whole history of classical theism, that belief in active divinity must be a belief in finite cultic deities. As is the equally tacit assumption, belied both by plain logic and by all of Western intellectual history, that speculation on the material constitution of the cosmos necessarily militates against belief in the divine. But still worse is Whitmarsh’s univocal understanding of “nature,” as if a late-modern materialist and a pre-Socratic philosopher of “physis” are talking about the same thing. When Thales says that all is full of gods, or Heraclitus that “logos” pervades everything, or Parmenides that being is a perfectly realized divine plenitude of rational order, they may not be describing the anthropomorphic divinities Whitmarsh thinks “properly” define theism, but neither are they describing a mindless mechanical order.

In short, Whitmarsh habitually mistakes any philosophically refined concept of divine transcendence for an abstraction leading toward unbelief. And this habit reaches a point of consummate absurdity when he attempts to drag Xenophanes into his narrative. Xenophanes, he says, “was in part a naturalist”; and he asks whether “anything would be lost in Xenophanes’ account of the world if we substitute ‘nature’ for ‘the one god’?” Well, if by “nature” one happens to mean an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, limitless divine mind possessed of rational intellect and will, immanent within and transcendent of all things, then I suppose not. But to me the question just suggests a profound ignorance of the logical implications of any developed belief in divine transcendence. Thus Whitmarsh thinks it significant that Herodotus speaks more of “the god” or “the divine” than of any particular cultic deity, and seems to be referring to a universal power of moral order. Somehow, Whitmarsh sees this as indicating a weaker, more metaphorical—rather than stronger, more robust—understanding of divine reality. And he does his damnedest to insinuate that Socrates, contrary to the testimonies of those who actually knew him, truly denied the divine. Whitmarsh notes, for instance, that in Plato’s earlier dialogues Socrates seems concerned mostly with how to live a virtuous life in this world, but in the later has turned his thoughts to the immortal soul’s escape into a transcendent realm. Why Whitmarsh sees these emphases as contradictory rather than complementary he does not say.


IN THE END, the most debilitating conceptual limitation in Whitmarsh’s story is a simple unawareness of what “theism” is—or, rather, of how what philosophers call “classical theism” differs from polytheistic myth and devotion. And yet this difference constitutes one of the most significant truths about the development of classical culture, both East and West. It belongs to the very essence of that immense cultural shift often called the “Axial Age.” Where Whitmarsh thinks he sees an intellectual fatigue with the divine, he is often actually looking at an invigorating conceptual revolution away from polytheism, not toward atheism, but toward theism. A touch of metaphysical sophistication would have served Whitmarsh well here. The philosophical discovery of the logic of transcendence leads to classical monotheism, which is not merely a numerically more constricted version of the same kind of thing as polytheism, but a radically different claim about the structure of reality, the relation between the absolute and the contingent, and the relation between being as such and contingent beings. In the West, Xenophanes is the first figure known to have effected this transition, but one sees the same pattern in ancient Persia’s movement from the cults of the ahuras and devas toward early Zoroastrianism, in the Indian movement from the Vedic gods toward the Brahman of the Upanishads and the Bhaktic monotheisms, in the rise of Chinese speculation on the Way of Heaven, in the Greco-Roman emergence of high Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic theologies, even in the quite gradual evolution of Jewish monotheism.

This same conceptual failure causes Whitmarsh also to misunderstand the difference between ancient and modern atheism. His argument is that there is a far broader commonality between pre-Christian ancient culture and post-Christian late modernity than is often imagined, and that the period of Christian ideological and social dominance was really an interruption of a more natural cultural situation. This is extravagantly wrong. Ancient “atheism” was a private skepticism toward certain received religious and mythic narratives; modern “atheism” is the cultural embrace of an unprecedented metaphysical, anthropological, and social vision. And this latter is an historical possibility only at the far end of a twofold cultural disenchantment: first, Christianity’s “atheistic” forsaking of a sacred realm of local gods embraced within cosmic nature in favor of the total metaphysical, spiritual venture of classical theism; and, second, Christendom’s gradual turn inward of the critical power it had deployed against polytheism, which led inevitably to a complete rejection of transcendence as such, and the birth of a truly mechanistic vision of reality. And this rejection required the creation of something new: the secular, which is not simply the “real” world out there discovered when a thin layer of “supernaturalism” is stripped away, but an ideological, social, political, moral, and metaphysical invention.

In every age and land there have been skeptics and unbelievers, but modern secularism has nothing to do with that. Most modern post-religious persons are not rationalists; they lack faith precisely because they are no less credulous than most peoples throughout time have been, and so no less prone to accept the prevailing prejudices of their age. Post-Christian culture is most definitely not a reversion to the intellectual pluralism of antiquity, or the revival of a long suppressed tradition of “secularist” thought (an anachronism of the wildest sort). It is what Nietzsche—whose understanding of Christianity’s epochal self-subversion was exquisitely, if biliously, precise—called the Death of God: that time when the whole horizon of the transcendent has been evacuated, when an unprecedented absence has appeared at the heart of human experience, and when the self has been progressively reduced to an isolated center of desire and will confronted by a universe of strictly immanent ends.

Let me put it this way: If you want a sense of what the ancient world was like religiously, visit India. Modernity has left its marks everywhere there, true, but secularism rests like a faint mist upon the surface of a fathomless ocean of religious belief, intuition, and longing. Once the whole world was like that: all things were full of gods, all things were pervaded by God. When one gazed out at nature, another gaze—mysterious, fitful, terrifying, enticing—met one’s own. And the self belonged to a spiritual story as ancient as time and touching upon eternity. There was the realm of the sacred (the temple) and that of the profane (literally, what lies “before the temple”), but of a “secular” realm there was none. All was “religious.” Now our cultural situation is very different indeed. We can never be ancient persons, precisely because the whole history of the rise and decline of Christian culture took that possibility away forever. We look out at a world composed from mindless mechanical forces and sheer blind chance, and absolutely nothing looks back. We now belong to a kind of humanity altogether without precedent, inhabiting a world that never before existed. For a historian of Western culture not to understand this is, frankly, to have missed just about everything.

Published in the June 17, 2016 issue: 

David Bentley Hart is a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His most recent book is Roland in Moonlight (Angelico Press).

Also by this author
Christ's Rabble

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads