A Quixotic Search for Ancient Atheists

Nov. 11 2016

In Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, Tim Whitmarsh examines the evidence that there were ancient Greeks and Romans who denied the existence of the gods and professed their nonbelief to others, even if they did so cautiously. Richard F. Thomas calls the book “stimulating and learned,” and praises its combination of scholarly seriousness with lucid writing, but ultimately concludes that its author is looking for something that isn’t there:

Not everyone will go along with [Whitmarsh’s] conclusion . . . that “[b]y the 2nd century CE, atheism in the full, modern sense had acquired full legitimacy as a philosophical idea.” [Much more convincing is the scholar Jan Bremmer’s opinion] “that in historical reality no practicing atheists are mentioned in our sources for [this] period. In the first two centuries of our era, atheism had mainly become a label to be used against philosophical opponents but not to be taken too seriously.” . . .

Pre-Socratic [philosophers] or sophists could be labeled atheist, comic playwrights called philosophers atheists, the character Sisyphus could utter atheist doctrine on stage (but we know where he ended up), Stoics called Epicureans atheists, and in due course pagans would call Christians atheists (no temples or statues). . . . That is, charges of atheism, whether in the law courts or the comic poets, cannot easily be taken, in the absence of other evidence, to indicate the widespread practice of atheism—whatever that would have looked like. . . .

Whitmarsh seems to want his Greeks to be more modern, more fully rational and materialist, competing in their atheism with modern atheists. He is driven by a desire to push back against the “modernist mythology” that atheism is an invention of the European Enlightenment. But, again, it is generally accepted that atheist doctrine was a topic of ancient philosophical debate. Where there is doubt [is about whether there were actual avowed atheists] beyond that debate. In the introduction he proposes an “archaeology of religious skepticism . . . in part an attempt to excavate ancient atheism from underneath the rubble heaped on it by millennia of Christian opprobrium.” It is, however, in the pre-Christian evidence, from Plato to [the 2nd-century CE philosopher] Sextus Empiricus, that there is such paucity of evidence. He is therefore driven to see atheism as more widespread than the evidence will support.

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More about: Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Atheism, History & Ideas, Philosophy

Iran’s Defeat May Not Be Immediate, but Effective Containment Is at Hand

Aug. 20 2018

In the 1980s, the U.S. pursued a policy of economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union that led to—or at least hastened—its collapse while avoiding a head-on military confrontation. Some see reasons to hope that a similar strategy might bring about the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Frederick Kagan, however, argues against excessive optimism. Carefully comparing the current situation of Iran to that of the Gorbachev-era USSR, he suggests instead that victory over Tehran can be effectively achieved even if the regime persists, at least for the time being:

What must [an Iran] strategy accomplish in order to advance American national security and vital national interests? Regime change was the only outcome during the cold war that could accomplish those goals, given the conventional and nuclear military power of the Soviet Union. Iran is much weaker by every measure and much more vulnerable to isolation than the Soviets were. . . . Isolating Iran from external resources and forcing the regime to concentrate on controlling its own population would be major accomplishments that would transform the Middle East. . . .

It is vital to note that the strategy toward the Soviet Union included securing Western Europe against the Soviet threat and foreclosing Soviet efforts to pare America’s allies, especially West Germany, away from it while simultaneously supporting (in an appropriately limited fashion) the Solidarity uprising in Poland and the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. It is not meaningful to speak of a victory strategy against Iran that does not include contesting Iranian control and influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while strengthening and hardening the Arab frontline states (including Oman and Qatar) against Iranian influence.

Syria is Iran’s Afghanistan—it is the theater in which Iranian forces are most vulnerable, where Iranian popular support for the war is wearing thin, and where the U.S. can compel [Iran] to expend its limited resources on a defensive battle. Iraq is Iran’s Poland—the area Iran has come to dominate, but with limitations, and a country Iran’s leaders believe they cannot afford to lose. The U.S. is infinitely better positioned to contest Iran’s control over Iraq than it ever was in Poland (and similarly better positioned in Syria than it was in Afghanistan).

A long-term approach would focus on building a consensus among America’s allies about the need to implement a victory strategy. It would deter the Russians and Chinese from stepping in to keep Iran alive. It would disrupt the supply chain of strategic materials Iran needs to advance its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. And it would force Iran to fight hard for its positions in Iraq and Syria while simultaneously pressing the Iranian economy in every possible way. Such a strategy would almost certainly force the Islamic Republic back in on itself, halt and reverse its movement toward regional hegemony, exacerbate schisms within the Iranian leadership and between the regime and the people, and possibly, over time, and in a uniquely Iranian way, lead to a change in the nature of the regime.

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More about: Cold War, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Soviet Union, U.S. Foreign policy