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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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood