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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

How the U.S. Can Strike at Iran without Risking War

In his testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Michael Doran urged the U.S. to pursue a policy of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, and explained how this can be accomplished. (Video of the testimony, along with the full text, are available at the link below.)

The United States . . . has indirect ways of striking at Iran—ways that do not risk drawing the United States into a quagmire. The easiest of these is to support allies who are already in the fight. . . . In contrast to the United States, Israel is already engaged in military operations whose stated goal is to drive Iran from Syria. We should therefore ask ourselves what actions we might take to strengthen Israel’s hand. Militarily, these might include, on the passive end of the spectrum, positioning our forces so as to deter Russian counterattacks against Israel. On the [more active] end, they might include arming and training Syrian forces to engage in operations against Iran and its proxies—much as we armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Diplomatically, the United States might associate itself much more directly with the red lines that Israel has announced regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. Israel has, for example, called for pushing Iran and its proxies away from its border on the Golan Heights. Who is prepared to say that Washington has done all in its power to demonstrate to Moscow that it fully supports this goal? In short, a policy of greater coordination with Jerusalem is both possible and desirable.

In Yemen, too, greater coordination with Saudi Arabia is worth pursuing. . . . In Lebanon and Iraq, conditions will not support a hard rollback policy. In these countries the goal should be to shift the policy away from a modus vivendi [with Iran] and in the direction of containment. In Iraq, the priority, of course, is the dismantling of the militia infrastructure that the Iranians have built. In Lebanon, [it should be] using sanctions to force the Lebanese banking sector to choose between doing business with Hizballah and Iran and doing business with the United States and its financial institutions. . . .

Iran will not take a coercive American policy sitting down. It will strike back—and it will do so cleverly. . . . It almost goes without saying that the United States should begin working with its allies now to develop contingency plans for countering the tactics [Tehran is likely to use]. I say “almost” because I know from experience in the White House that contingency planning is something we extol much more than we conduct. As obvious as these tactics [against us] are, they have often taken Western decision makers by surprise, and they have proved effective in wearing down Western resolve.

Read more at Hudson

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen