Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Unmoved by the Prime Movers

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Unmoved by the Prime Movers

Article excerpt

Candida Moss on a work tracing the history of thinkers who saw no place for deities

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

By Tim Whitmarsh

Faber & Faber, 304pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780571279302

Published 4 February 2016

Almost every religious group, sect or denomination utilises the same sincerely felt rhetorical trick: that they can trace their origins to the beginning of their parent religion or even time. Catholics stand on the rock of St Peter, Protestants claim to retrieve the meaning of Jesus' own words, and Jews, Christians and Muslims alike trace themselves back to Abraham and the creator of the universe. So we are due for a revival of atheist history, self-consciously grounded not in Voltaire but in the great thinkers of the ancient world.

In Battling the Gods, Tim Whitmarsh offers a well-written and fascinating glimpse of the Greek philosophers and writers who are the founding fathers of modern atheism. Set over a thousand years, this history begins with the dawn of literate society and traverses the rugged terrain of Greek and Roman history towards the Christianisation of the Roman Empire.

Whitmarsh is an adept historian, but perhaps a better matchmaker, as he introduces us to entertaining, savvy and sometimes raucous ancient thinkers who can be easily paired with the new atheists of the 21st century. Many will seem familiar to devotees of modern atheism. The 5th-century philosopher Democritus, who coined the word "atom", hypothesised that the world was nothing but swirling particles and conjectured (as many of his time did) that god-talk was for those who could not grasp more complicated theories of the universe. And there is no shortage of philosophers who criticise the moral failings of intemperate deities such as philandering Zeus and jealous Hera. …

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