All Time Rating : 88% ★★★★
4.4 out of 5 (Based on 55 Reviews)
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* Ratings & Reviews last refreshed on 2016-08-02 (see below)

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Recent Reviews

★★★★★ Bold, Mostly Clear, Well-researched And More Often Than Not Fallible Prof. Whitmarsh (hereafter W.) is a renowned authority on the novel in the ancient world and, in general, Greek Imperial Literature: Galen; Plutarch; Lucian. Having succeeded the dry-witted Paul Cartledge as Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in 2014, we now get the products of his yearly sabbatical whilst still at Exeter, 2012-2013. On balance, whilst certainly reaching out to a wider non-classical audience, here W. perhaps over reached himself.I found much of interest and much that was new in this book. That said W., I feel, is constantly straining the evidence to gain enough material for an argument. We read of Aeolus' offspring - the indefatigable trickster Sisyphus and his brothers - who respectively defy and imitate the gods (47-51 and 94ff.). Their action - theomachy - according to W. 'expresses a kind of atheism'. The problem with this line, and it is one W. pushes for theater performances too, is that the status quo is repeatedly upheld and the power of the gods vindicated. W. is aware of this. Therefore he is forced to focus on the challenging ideas and questions asked within the frameworks of theater and myth, and less on the plot’s arc itself. Hence his dubious claim that ‘rebelling [against the gods] seems expected of us’ (45): if you want to have your liver pecked per saecula saeculorum, sure.To try and broaden his argument, W. shuffles with syntax to get the semantics he wants. For example, during a roughshod ride over pre-Socratics - Thales et alii - we read that Hippo was 'an atheist in the modern sense' (63). Getting there we have to accept that the epitaph in which 'perhaps Hippo [claims] to have slain the gods himself' is not spurious and the translation is indeed deliberately ambiguous (W. like Pelling prefers to tease texts, looking for holes in wholes, than accept a straightforward reading). Another example: a man in 320 BC went to the healing god's, Asclepius, sanctuary which he then proceeded to mock, refusing to believe the healing process. As benign retribution, Asclepius simultaneously healed him but stamped him with being an apistos. W. translates this as ‘disbeliever’. Convention - which W. continually argues against - see belief as a Christian phenomenon and therefore hardly applicable to Ancient Greece (a thorny issue). Regarding apistos in John. 20. 27., Jesus commands John: 'do not disbelieve, but believe’; matters are further complicated as apistos could also mean untrustworthy as in Odysseus' retort to the swinherd Eumaeus (Od. 14. 391). W. only discusses the semantic range briefly in stages; he should have set out his linguistic stall early on. Back to Asclepius, Harris (2008: 108) is more cautious - and prudent - when he translates apistos in the inscription as 'incredulous'. Nor, on other language matters, am I totally convinced that the epithet ‘godlike’ in Epic blurs the line between god and man, with man ‘encroaching’ on the gods’ terrain (45): it might well be translated brilliant, show how short humans are from the divine ideal or indeed showcase the thrift of Homer’s epithet system.W. contents there is a ‘deep history of Atheism’ (p7). During the course of the book, however, he constantly qualifies his statements and, I felt, relies heavily on the works of Sedly and Winiarczy, the former of whom argues for an atheist underground in Athens. Whilst aware of alternatives, W. presses each ancient author’s narrative very hard to find signs of an (proto-) atheist. He has much of worth to say about Herodotus but it is surely too far to argue that Thucydides’ narrative can be ‘claimed to be the earliest surviving atheist narrative of human history’ (86). First, this ignores Thucydides’ panoply of abstractions (Hope, Fear, Greed) which act as god-like motivating factors and find their basis in Hesiod’s Theogony; second, Thucydides’ view of oracles was more conciliatory than W. allows: oracles foresee but humans interpret wrongly (see Marinatos: 1981).Each reader will find many points on which to dispute the depth with which W. seeks to place an atheist-stake. Certainly the book gets weaker as it moves through the Hellenistic and Roman times. During the course of the book, W. makes some broad observations: the gods in Greek epic presents no coherent moral parameters, and the works’ moral messages are not complex (contra W. Allan; and what, then, about Hesiod’s wheelbarrow full of injunctions in his W&D?); the critical, competitive environment in ancient Athens (Lloyd) allowed Greek epic to be a ‘huge cultural stimulus’ on which anyone could comment with relative impunity [contra Islam]; Greek civil life had secular spaces, religion was not altogether ‘embedded’ in the fabric of society and ‘legal judgments were never theologized’ (p22 and contra Connor); that Atheism was ‘widespread and well understood’ in the Early Empire but drowned by the arrival of Catholic Christianity. In short, W. seeks to place a cigar-pincered, brandy-swirling, raffish Hitchens into what we consider the pious Ancient World.W.’s premises and arguments are sometimes bold, mostly clear, well-researched and more often than not fallible: I for one was left unconvinced. That said, in the spirit of the ancients, he has made me want contest his arguments further, an outcome with which he – I imagine – would not be displeased. Beszelek ( UK ) on Sat 23rd Jul, 2016

★★★★ Distinctive Strains Of Classical Atheism Tim Whitmarsh wrote this book, at least in part, to counter the idea that atheism is a modern invention — an outcome of the ascendancy of science. He calls this idea the “modernist mythology”. The book is written in accessible terms, not exclusively for academics, classicists or otherwise.The book certainly makes a good case that atheism did exist in the classical Greek and Roman worlds. I think it also demonstrates that atheism took some distinctive forms, forms that are unlike the positions and arguments of current popular atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.I think there are three strands of atheism in Whitmarsh’s account.“Atheism" per se means not only what we now mean by the word, denying the existence of god (or the gods), but also maybe a more original meaning of “without god” or “god-forsaken.” Barbarians, for instance, living outside the practices and worship of the Greek gods, were “without god” in this sense.Impiety appears as another kind of atheism, a failure to worship or care properly for the gods. This is a more legalistic conception in tone.And the strain of atheism that I found most interesting is the one that supplies the title of Whitmarsh’s book, someone who battles against the gods (theomakhos). Greek myth is full of interactions between the gods and humans, including humans challenging the gods, aspiring to godhood or godlike attributes and abilities, or calling the gods to account for their actions. It’s an odd sort of atheism, at least to modern ears. It doesn’t deny the existence of the gods, but it does challenge their difference from us and their authority over us.The differences may derive in part from the differences between Greek polytheism and our own monotheistic religions. The Greek gods shared many human attributes, including weaknesses, competitiveness, jealousy — the whole works. What’s more Greek religion, at least in the early centuries of Greek civilization, was not so much an authority over the Greek people as later Christian and other Western and non-Western religions. The gods of the Greek myths seem fluid in character, especially since the idea of a unified Greek culture is itself doubtful. To oppose the gods in some way (Socrates’ fate notwithstanding) doesn’t carry the burden that opposing the Christian God did, or does.Also, Greek religion lacked a definitive canon — a single text, like the Bible or the Koran, against which beliefs could be measured as conforming or failing conformity. Whitmarsh describes Greek religious culture as “an infinitely extensible network of local cults,” rather than the kind of unified belief structure, or unified church, later exemplified by Catholicism. The nature of Greek empire itself contributes to this fluidity or extensibility, with expansion being a matter of absorbing new and different communities rather than compelling conformity.But the link between religion and authority does assert itself. Numerous Greek figures were tried for various forms of atheism, including the philosophers Anaxagoras and Socrates. Diopeithes’ decree (in the 430s BC) criminalized atheism of two sorts — failure to recognize the gods (which could mean either atheos or asebes) and "teaching doctrines regarding the heavens”. Both could be, and were, used as political weapons, not just purely enforcements of religious conformity. The decree appears to be the first time religious orthodoxy was legally compelled, with the risk of death as a punishment.It isn’t until much later though, in Roman culture, that we get something more legalistic and codified. Diopeithes’ decree could be broadly or narrowly interpreted, and didn’t really supply a standard against which to measure conformity. By contrast, the Theodosian Code, in 380 AD, unifies political and religious authority under a code of belief and behavior.One of the reasons I was attracted to Whitmarsh’s book was curiosity about the forms that religious disbelief may have taken before the age of science, and scientism. Contemporary atheism, thinking again of Dawkins or Harris, or some of the others, seems built on this picture of the progress of science, little by little chipping away at the authority and scope of religious belief and religious accounts of reality. In this picture, atheism is even seen as a measure of progress. This is part of the “modernist mythology” that Whitmarsh talks about.There is, of course, a strain of naturalism running through Greek atheism, as Whitmarsh describes. Pre-Socratic philosophers account for the regularities and structure of reality without apparent need for the gods. In some cases, like Anaxagoras or Parmenides, what “god” is seems much like the very intelligibility, or the rational structure of reality — its sense. This is hardly a god figure, like Zeus or Yahweh. Marginalization of the gods does seem to be at work.There are also philosophical rejections of the very conception of the gods. Carneades, Sextus Empiricus, and Aetius especially construct logical challenges to the idea of a god. Those are not arguments we get from the popular atheists of today.The other strain I don’t especially find, despite the naturalistic marginalization of the gods, is what strikes me as an arrogance of modern scientistic atheism — a faith that science will explain anything and everything, leaving not only no room for gods but no room for the unknown or the mysterious. Seems a shame. Doctor Moss ( US ) on Thu 7th Jul, 2016

★★★★ An Intriguing Exploration Into The History Of Atheism An intriguing exploration into the history of atheism with a particular focus upon the ancient Greeks. It provides a very in depth look at this part of history, as recommended by another reviewer, I would also recommend Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson for a much broader view.Whitmarsh puts forth the case that atheism has been an essential and important aspect of thinking in the ancient world. He explores the Ancient Greeks use of theatre to test religious ideas and experiment with notions of tragedy and divine downfall.Whilst many may believe atheism to be an modern phenomenon, or at best an ancient underground one, this book gives a fascinating new look at the history of atheism, and believe me, it's a long history! Geekly Reviews ( UK ) on Mon 27th Jun, 2016

★★★★★ This Book Is A Proof That I Had A Good Teacher At The University. Who cares about atheists? Even in 21st century activists don't care about the lives of people with no religion. There are human rights campaigns to defend Christians, Muslims, Jews, but rarely anyone wants to defend people who define themselves as atheists. Atheists always had this unfortunate destiny. In his work Whitmarsh explores the birth of the first atheists or non theists (those with no belief in the divine powers). It is a necessary read for us (humans) in a century when everyone is trying to force religion on our minds. Vashik Armenikus ( UK ) on Thu 23rd Jun, 2016

★★★★★ Top Notch Work! Excellent book. Very even handed on a subject which is not often dealt with. Ann Robertson ( UK ) on Tue 21st Jun, 2016

★★★★ Conceptually Confused, And Ultimately Quite Banal Anyone who thinks Xenophanes was a precursor of modern "naturalism" is obviously too conceptually confused about what words like "theism," "atheism," "nature," "God," or "gods" mean to be taken seriously. This is a book almost entirely composed of anachronisms. Yes, there were indeed atheists and skeptics in the ancient world, as well as materialists, but they were not very much like modern atheists or skeptics or materialists, and they certainly were not "naturalists" in the philosophical sense. He seems to think that ancient philosophers of nature conceived of "physis" or "natura" the same way that modern heirs of the mechanical philosophy think of "nature." Whitmarsh, for a classicist, has a surprisingly poor grasp of the history of ideas. Most disastrously, he simply does not know enough about classical theism to distinguish it from cultic anthropomorphisms, and so he often thinks he has discovered atheism where in fact he has simply stumbled across a more sophisticated philosophical account of divine transcendence. The most absurd instance of this, as I have said, is his suggestion that Xenophanes (about as high classical a monotheistic thinker as the ancient world produced) was some kind of naturalist because he insisted that God should not be conceived as some sort of large human being. Bradley Metzner ( US ) on Wed 15th Jun, 2016

★★★★★ Five Stars My friends dad wrote this. Amazon Customer ( UK ) on Thu 12th May, 2016

★★★★★ Who Knew? The world is changing. I am a 72-year old man who cannot remember even being anything but an atheist. There were atheists around when I was young, but not very many and belief in God was taken for granted by my society and I encountered a lot of verbal abuse and condescension for questioning religious belief. To put my opinions most concisely, "I am an empiricist. There is not the slightest bit of empirical evidence to support the belief that Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, or Easter Bunny (or supernatural being of your preference) really exists." To put it most provocatively, "I suspect that religious belief is evidence of mental illness. Does it make sense to suggest that 80 or 90 percent of our species is mentally ill?"I an an eclectic reader. I read history, science, science fiction. I have read about ancient Greece. I have a sister who learned to read ancient Greek in middle age "just because she felt like it." I am not that crazy and or talented as my sister Deborah. I am not going to study Greek at the age of 72.I saw this book at the library. As a life long atheist and a life long curious person, I thought, "Who new?" The book perhaps told me more than I really wanted to know about ancient Greek philosophy and history than I really wanted to know, but kept my interest throughout and I was not tempted to stop before I finished. Your mileage may vary. Modesty Press ( US ) on Thu 12th May, 2016

★★★★★ WHAT'S NEW IS OLD..... AGAIN... This is a book of value for both scholars and lay readers. Whitmarsh (prof., Greek Culture, Cambridge) has parsed the vastly deficient ancient record (many documents and artifacts are missing, much that we do know is related at second hand, and the surviving record was largely written by the winners who used it to express their perspective over other competing views) to show that, contrary to much modern opinion, denial of the gods and other theist views can be found in many places in the classical world. Whitmarsh argues persuasively that only intermittently were there attempts to squelch heterodox views on gods, the immortality of the soul, and related issues. In so doing, he provides a useful corrective to current views that either (1) see atheism emerging for the first time in European history only with the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment and (2) argue that man is religious by nature (see Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [2007].) Whitmarsh’s argument is detailed, often suppositious but exceedingly well presented: working with a fragmentary record like the heritage of the classical world requires imagination, the courage to risk leaps of thinking, and great sensitivity to nuances in texts that are now 2000 to 2500 years old and written in obscure dialects of now almost dead languages. I found the book fascinating but it won’t satisfy the reader seeking absolute certainty because that kind of certainty is no longer possible with what has survived for us to interpret. This is a good book. No, it’s more than that, it’s an important book, not earthshaking but substantial and addressing an issue that grows in importance as our country slides backwards away from an acceptance of the coexistence of disbelief and toward a mindless Biblical literalism. It’s salutary to be reminded that our issues are not all new issues. Serious people argued about the same things two millennia ago. David Keymer ( US ) on Tue 10th May, 2016

★★★★ Excellent Account Of Atheism Thinking In The Western World Excellent account of atheism thinking from the classic and pre classic times. You think it twice and it makes a lot of sense: the Greeks who by sheer power of mental analysis came with the idea of atoms, naturalistic philosophy, of course arrived to the obvious conclusion, and were atheists. The end of the book, at the end of Roman imperial times (west Empire) just lines up with the end of the classic times, the end of the Empire and plus thousand years until the enlightment brought back the atheist ideas back in the western world. The books deserves a continuation: how the ideas kept under during medieval and theocratic times and how they appeared again in the 1600's. And what about the rest of the world? Similar ideas? Amazon Customer ( US ) on Mon 2nd May, 2016

★★★★★ Really Excellent Book. Packed With Knowledge And Yet Very Easy ... Really excellent book. Packed with knowledge and yet very easy to read Taal Burke ( UK ) on Mon 25th Apr, 2016

★★★★★ A Wealth Of Insight An excellent work. Most rewarding. A real wealth of insight into to origins of the atheistic world-view. Michael J Reynolds ( UK ) on Sun 24th Apr, 2016

★★★★★ Atheism Not Modern Was Well Entrenched In Ancient Times. Well written account detailing the spread of atheistic thinking in the ancient world, this book makes a case that skepticism about divine interference in the world is not modern, rather integral to the pre-industrial world. Donna M ( CA ) on Thu 21st Apr, 2016

★★★★★ We Are "Greeks", We Are Not Christianity Based Tim Whitmars offers deep insight into ancient Greek and Roman philosophy (sometimes to theology and to moral philosophy). He describes atheism that did not probably existed as continuous philosophical schools - but it went underway in a reach stream of thoughts, ideas, attitudes. The final sentences of the book shows precisely what he had wanted to offer: Atheism in the last 200 year is not a specific diversion in European thoughts. Rather, 2000 of monotheistic tradition was/is a diversion of natural way of European thoughts.I study history of European ideas for several years and more and more a new picture of European culture is growing in my mind: Europe (and much wider - Western, Euro-Atlantic culture) is based much more on ancient Greek societal values, on Green democracy, on Greek notions of humanity, on Greek moral philosophy, on Greek objective reasoning, on Greek way of life - that it would be based on Christian moral norms, on Christian idea of humanity, on Christian submission to god.Europe is not a Christian continent. Well, Christianity helped in distributing ancient Greek ideas but did not bring nearly anything new to it. Ancient Greek worldview is basement of European thoughts. Therefore, Homer seems to be of much greater importance to Europe than Bible.Tim Whitmarsh did not express this, but his books support such a way of thinking in a wonderfull way. Erich Mistrik ( US ) on Wed 20th Apr, 2016

★★★★★ Five Stars Excellent book. Mark Antony Heath ( US ) on Tue 19th Apr, 2016

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Battling the Gods Atheism in the Ancient World

* Reviews last refreshed on 2016-Aug-02 *

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