The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods. As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“. Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.
In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction. For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer. Inevitably the gods win. It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.
Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief. In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.
Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!). Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians. The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.
This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself. Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized. It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.