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Who were the first atheists?

Atheists, like believers, can feel pride in the pedigree of their beliefs, as Tim Whitmarsh's new book on atheism in the ancient world shows.

When Memoirs of Hadrian was published in 1951 it included a postscript in which its author, Marguerite Yourcenar, explained why she had fixed on the 2nd century AD as the setting for her novel. “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”

These words were not her own, but a quotation from Flaubert, whose aestheticisation of atheism was deeply appealing to Yourcenar and had exercised a strong influence on her portrayal of Hadrian. Flaubert in turn was heir to assorted philosophes, libertines and natural philosophers whose daring rejection of Christian orthodoxies had been much seasoned with allusions to classical precedents. Voltaire, in a celebrated early poem, had consciously modelled himself on the Roman poet Lucretius, whose materialism and contempt for religion had been exciting freethinkers ever since the rediscovery of his masterpiece On the Nature of Things back in the Renaissance. “How admirable he is,” Voltaire wrote, “in his encomia, in his descriptive passages, in his ethics, and in all his criticisms of superstition.”

Nowadays, when the place of classics in the school curriculum is a spectral shadow of what it was in Yourcenar’s time, let alone during the Enlightenment, there are few atheists in the habit of looking back to Lucretius to sustain their own scepticism. Indeed, Tim Whitmarsh worries there are many who believe that atheism is an exclusively modern phenomenon, a fruit of the 18th century. But few scholars are better equipped to combat this misapprehension than he. Although his specialisation is the culture of the very period that Flaubert identified as the one “when man stood alone”, his appointment to the professorship of Greek culture at Cambridge in 2014 was due recognition of his mastery of the whole sweep of ancient history. Thus, unsurprisingly, his new book on atheism in the ancient world is as learned as it is intellectually thrilling. Covering the millennium and more that separates Homer from Theodosius the Great, Battling the Gods fills a gap that probably few of us had even been aware of, and does so comprehensively.

Naturally, there are starring roles for the particular heroes of the Enlightenment: Lucretius, of course, but also Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who first inspired On the Nature of Things, and whose atomistic vision of the universe delighted scientists in the 17th century. Other great names from antiquity are placed in eye-opening perspective by Whitmarsh’s narrative. Thucydides, whose project of explaining human affairs without reference to divine interference provides historical practice today with its ultimate model, is given due acknowledgement for his originality and boldness. His account of the Peloponnesian War, Whitmarsh writes, “can reasonably be claimed to be the earliest surviving atheist narrative of human history”.

The great Athenian tragedians, too – despite the gods and prophecies that frequently featured in their plays, and the religious festival that provided the setting for performances of drama notwithstanding – are shown to have been fascinated by atheistic ideas, if not necessarily atheists in their own right. Most notably, Euripides, whom Aristophanes openly accused of promoting disbelief in the divine, repeatedly portrayed his heroes as ruined by their trust in the beneficence of the gods. A play such as The Trojan Women, in which the women of fallen Troy struggle fruitlessly to find meaning in the annihilation of their city, is one where atheism comes to seem almost a palliative. “O vehicle of the earth and possessor of a seat on earth,” Hecuba, the Trojan queen, prays, “whoever you are, most difficult to know, Zeus, whether you are the necessity of nature or the mind of men: I offer you my prayers.” Predictably, Zeus does not answer her; and, throughout the play, misery follows swift upon misery. Either the gods do not exist or else, like wanton boys, they kill for sport.

The most revelatory aspect of Battling the Gods, however, is a product of Whitmarsh’s detective work in tracing lines of evolution from the first philosophers to the networks of atheists which, he convincingly demonstrates, had come to exist across the Roman empire by the time of its heyday in the 2nd century AD. A few decades after the death of Hadrian, a philosopher named Sextus listed the most prominent atheists in history, but the only one whose influence was destined to endure into the Enlightenment was Epicurus.

Doubly condemned to oblivion, first by their more god-fearing contemporary opponents and then by Christians, philosophers who promoted disbelief in the supernatural rarely survived as much more than a name. Whitmarsh’s accomplishment is to give to some of these ghosts at least a semblance of solidity. When he hails Diagoras of Melos as “the first person in history to self-identify in a positive way as an atheist”, or describes Clitomachus, a sceptic from Carthage who ended up leading a philosophical school in Athens, as “that prodigious figure in the history of atheism”, it is a measure of his scholarship that we are able to accept the force of these descriptions. The great achievement of Battling the Gods is to trace in a manner that can be followed readily the evolution of sceptical attitudes towards the divine across the whole span of ancient history.

Nevertheless, Whitmarsh is too good a scholar not to acknowledge that the fragmented and ambivalent nature of the evidence is such that it remains hard to pin down the precise character of disbelief in antiquity. His own preference is to emphasise the similarities between ancient and modern atheism, and to see Clitomachus and Lucretius as the forebears of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Although Whitmarsh declares in his preface that it is not his aim “to prove the truth (or indeed falsehood) of atheism as a philosophical position”, his distaste for theism is evident throughout the book, as is his admiration for the ancient philosophers who dared to battle it. “Atheism, in my opinion,” he declares, “is demonstrably at least as old as the monotheistic religions of Abraham.” This is to cast it as the equivalent of Judaism or Christianity; a recognisably coherent tradition that has evolved unbroken over the millennia, so that Christopher Hitchens can be viewed as the heir of Diagoras and ancient philosophy as the seedbed of modern secularism. In other words, atheists no less than believers can feel pride in the sheer pedigree of their beliefs.

Yet it is possible, even in the light of this book, to interpret ancient atheism in a rather different way. The more we know about those philosophers whom the ancients described as atheoi, the less like contemporary sceptics they seem. Epicurus, for instance, though he featured in Sextus’s list of famous atheists, not only believed in gods but was an initiate of the local mysteries, and went as far as to demand sacrifices from his followers “for the care of my holy body”. His materialist convictions were not, as his 17th-century admirers liked to imagine, bred of a scientific cast of mind, but of the precise opposite: a conviction that they would help him to attain inner peace. The only value of research into the natural world, so Epicurus believed, was to enable the philosopher, by properly appreciating the pointlessness of superstition, to attain the state of tranquillity that was, so he taught his disciples, the ultimate goal of life. The closest modern parallel is probably not Richard Dawkins but rather Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

That there are Catholic and Protestant atheists is an old joke. The lesson that Whitmarsh teaches in Battling the Gods – though it is one he seems reluctant to draw for himself – is that there are monotheist and non-monotheist atheists, too, and that they are often very different beasts. When he claims that belief in the supernatural has been shadowed throughout history and across the world by disbelief, he may well be right; and yet, if so, the implication is that atheism, in its origins and manifestations, is just as likely to be multiform as is religion. Epicurean atomism may have intrigued Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, but it did not inspire their scientific breakthroughs, which derived from very different causes, and in the context of a world-view that was decidedly Christian.

To draw on a fittingly Darwinian analogy, ancient atheists and their modern successors resemble one another in the way pterosaurs resemble bats: an example of similar features developing in unrelated species. Whitmarsh may not have intended it to do so, but Battling the Gods – learned, sweeping and stimulating as it is – stands as a monument above all to that recurrent phenomenon in history, convergent evolution.

Tom Holland’s most recent book is “Dynasty: the Rise and fall of the House of Caesar” (Little, Brown)

Batting the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh is published by Faber & Faber (304pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?

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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.