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.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at New Rambler

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

The Reasons for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Staying Power

Nov. 20 2018

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have narrowly avoided the collapse of his governing coalition despite the fact that one party, Yisrael Beiteinu, withdrew and another, the Jewish Home, threatened to follow suit. Moreover, he kept the latter from defecting without conceding its leader’s demand to be appointed minister of defense. Even if the government were to collapse, resulting in early elections, Netanyahu would almost certainly win, writes Elliot Jager:

[Netanyahu’s] detractors think him Machiavellian, duplicitous, and smug—willing to do anything to stay in power. His supporters would not automatically disagree. Over 60 percent of Israelis tell pollsters that they will be voting for a party other than Likud—some supposing their favored party will join a Netanyahu-led coalition while others hoping against the odds that Likud can be ousted.

Opponents would [also] like to think the prime minister’s core voters are by definition illiberal, hawkish, and religiously inclined. However, the 30 percent of voters who plan to vote Likud reflect a broad segment of the population. . . .

Journalists who have observed Netanyahu over the years admire his fitness for office even if they disagree with his actions. A strategic thinker, Netanyahu’s scope of knowledge is both broad and deep. He is a voracious reader and a quick study. . . . Foreign leaders may not like what he says but cannot deny that he speaks with panache and authority. . . .

The prime minister or those around him are under multiple police investigations for possible fraud and moral turpitude. Under Israel’s system, the police investigate and can recommend that the attorney general issue an indictment. . . . Separately, Mrs. Netanyahu is in court for allegedly using public monies to pay for restaurant meals. . . . The veteran Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman maintains that Israelis do not mind if Netanyahu appears a tad corrupt because they admire a politician who is nobody’s fool. Better to have a political figure who cannot be taken advantage of than one who is incorruptible but naïve.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Jager File

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics