Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Disbelief in the ancient world

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World review – disbelief has been around for 2,500 years | Books | The Guardian

This is quite an interesting topic:  the forms that doubt, agnosticism and/or atheism took in the ancient world.  Here are some extracts from the review:

Classical scholars may turn to Whitmarsh’s book, as I did, with
questions about whether the term “atheism” is really the right one for
discussing pre-Judaeo-Christian religious doubts and resistance to
religion. It is an academic commonplace to distinguish between the
“orthopraxy” of Graeco-Roman religion – the focus on collective rituals,
sacrifices and festivals – and the “orthodoxy” of modern monotheistic
religions. No ancient Greek or Roman ever recited a Creed. Besides, in
classical Greek, the word atheos (“not-god”) is usually used to
mean “godless” or “against-the-gods”, rather than a person who does not
believe that gods exist. But Whitmarsh builds a case that stories about
“battling the gods” are actually ways of articulating doubts about
traditional religious teaching. He argues that classicists have gone too
far in presenting ancient religion as primarily concerned only with
action, not faith. As he rightly notes, this historical claim relies
heavily on public sources, such as inscriptions, which may teach us a
lot about ritual practices but much less about what individual
worshippers thought was true and false. Public documents can only give
the “official, ideologically sanctioned versions of events”. For this
reason, much of Whitmarsh’s work is a careful teasing out of the
literary and philosophical sources, including those that exist only in
fragmentary form, as he searches for hints of people in antiquity who
questioned the gods’ existence.

The ancient Greeks certainly did not assume that the gods are likable or
lovable, and hostility to the gods is a familiar trope in Greek
literature. The Homeric poems
which were never treated with the reverence afforded to the holy books
of the Islamic or Jewish traditions, but which were by far the best
known texts of Graeco-Roman antiquity – depict anthropomorphic gods who
are very much of this world, and who interact with humans, even fighting
with them on the battlefield. Battling the gods was a common enough
trope in the Greek imagination that they had a word for it: theomachia.
One might think that stories about gods as threats to humans must imply
a strong belief in their existence. But Whitmarsh argues that theomachy
stories express “a kind of atheism, through the narrative medium of
myth”. One key example is the archaic tale of Salmoneus, who claimed to
be Zeus, demanded sacrifices to be offered to himself, and created
thunder by dragging kettles around behind his chariot. Whitmarsh
suggests that this story raises disturbing questions for believers in
the gods: “If gods can be fashioned by mortal imitation, how real can
they be?”
 (Go on Jason - you know you want to link to that review.)

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