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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.

Read more at New Rambler

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

 

Why a Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza Is Unlikely

Feb. 16 2018

High-ranking figures in the IDF, along with some Israeli and foreign officials, have been warning that economic troubles combined with severely deficient public works could lead to an outbreak of starvation or epidemic in the Gaza Strip; their warnings have been taken up and amplified in sensationalist stories in Western media. Hillel Frisch is skeptical:

The most important factor behind real humanitarian crises—mass hunger and contagious disease—is first and foremost the breakdown of law and order, and violence between warring militias and gangs. This is what occurred in Darfur, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. In such situations, the first to leave are the relief agencies. Then local medical staffs evacuate, along with local government officials and anyone professional who can make it out of the bedlam. The destitute are left to fend for themselves. Hospitals, dispensaries, schools, and local government offices are soon abandoned or become scenes of grisly shootouts and reprisals.

Nothing could be farther from such a reality than Gaza. Hamas, which is the main source of [misleading reports] of an imminent humanitarian crisis, rules Gaza with an iron fist. Few developed democracies in the world can boast the low homicide rates prevailing in the Strip. Nor have there been reports of any closings of hospitals, municipal governments, schools, universities, colleges, or dispensaries. . . .

Nor have there been news items announcing the departure of any foreign relief agencies or the closure of any human-rights organizations in the area. Nor is there any evidence that the World Health Organization (WHO), which rigorously monitors the world to prevent the outbreak of contagious disease, is seriously looking at Gaza. And that is for good reason. The WHO knows, as do hundreds of medical personnel in Israeli hospitals who liaise with their colleagues in Gaza, that the hospital system in Gaza is of a high caliber, certainly by the standards of the developing world. . . .

Hamas, [of course], wants more trucks entering Gaza to increase tax revenues to pay for its 30,000-strong militia and public security force, and to increase the prospects of smuggling arms for the benefit of its missile stockpiles and tunnel-building efforts. How Israel should react is equally obvious. You want more humanitarian aid? . . . Free the two mentally disabled Israelis who found their way into Gaza and are imprisoned by Hamas.

Read more at BESA Center

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian economy