Atheism has a long history
The title of a book review in Biblical Archaeology Review caught my eye, “Ancient atheism.” I read, “A common assumption is that atheism – a lack of belief in gods and the supernatural – is a recent phenomenon, brought on by the advent of science during the Enlightenment.” I ordered the book immediately: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).
Bumbling, staggering, veering and lurching: these are the words that come to mind when I think of my path towards a Jewish identity. As the product of a secular household, my only contact with Judaism was my brother’s bar mitzvah and a yearly Passover seder at a family friend’s home. I was born in 1939, the beginning of the Second World War, yet the word “Holocaust” was never mentioned during my childhood or adolescence. The topic of God was not broached. The exception to the rule was that my brother and I were sent for seven summers to a Jewish camp in the Adirondacks, in New York state. There, we became familiar with Friday night services, which included singing Jewish songs and a few prayers in Hebrew.
Fast forward to 1970, after 12 years of marriage, the birth of four sons and a sincere attempt at keeping a kosher home (it lasted three years), creating Passover seders and Chanukah parties and the decision to prepare our sons for bar mitzvahs, my husband and I divorced.
I enrolled immediately in courses at Concordia University. English and French literature introduced me to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This led to a bachelor’s in French literature, which was followed by many courses in a master’s program called The History and Philosophy of Religion.
My search was on. I was determined to find out what religiosity and devotion to God entailed. I studied Judaism (modern and medieval), Jewish mysticism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. I wrote scholarly papers on these subjects. Later, I would take up the study of Modern Hebrew at McGill University. Upon moving to Vancouver, I studied Biblical Hebrew for three years and enrolled in the Judaic studies program at the University of British Columbia. Jewish law, Jewish ethics, Proto-Hebrew, I loved it all; but I was no closer to feeling comfortable during the High Holiday services at any synagogue.
I tried Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal congregations. I could not make that leap of faith required to pray to God. The secular humanist group had replaced Hebrew with Yiddish. I wanted my Hebrew! The result is that, every year, during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I felt uneasy, out-of-step and different.
I continued studying Modern Hebrew. I became editor of Jewish Seniors Alliance’s magazine, Senior Line. Studying, writing, volunteering and participating in the Jewish community were rewarding and gratifying activities, yet I felt like a second-class Jew. Was there something wrong with me?
Then along came Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. As the May/June 2017 Biblical Archaeology Review notes, “In clear prose, Whitmarsh explores the history of atheism from its beginnings in ancient Greece in the eighth century BCE through the fourth century CE, when Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire. Whitmarsh says up-front that he is not interested in proselytizing atheism – but rather in studying its first thousand years. He argues that the history of atheism is an issue of human rights because denying the history of a tradition helps to delegitimize it and paint it as ‘faddish.’”
In reading this book, I came to understand, as Stephen Greenblatt is quoted on the back cover as saying, that “atheism is as old as belief. Skepticism did not slowly emerge from a fog of piety and credulity. It was there, fully formed and spoiling for a fight, in the bracing, combative air of ancient Athens.” And I agree with Susan Jacoby’s comments – also cited on the back cover – that it “is a pure delight to be introduced to people who questioned the supernatural long before modern science provided physical evidence to support the greatest insights of human reason.”
I devoured Battling the Gods, relishing the research and the historical insights. Homer’s epic poems of human striving, journeying and passion were ancient Greece’s only “sacred texts,” but no ancient Greek thought twice about questioning or mocking his stories of the gods. Whitmarsh states that “this book thus represents a kind of archaeology of religious skepticism.…This loss of consciousness of that classical heritage [the long history of atheism] is what has allowed the ‘modernist mythology’ to take root. It is only through profound ignorance of classical tradition that anyone ever believed that 18th-century Europeans were the first to battle the gods.”
Whitmarsh writes, “The Christianization of the Roman Empire put an end to serious philosophical atheism for over a millennium. The word itself, indeed, acquired an additional meaning, which was wholly negative: rather than the rational critique of theism as a whole, it came to mean simply the absence of belief in the Christian god.”
With Whitmarsh’s sentence, “The conclusion seems inevitable that the violent ‘othering’ as atheists of those who hold different religious views was overwhelmingly a Judeo-Christian creation,” my self-respect was restored. I now understand that I come from a longstanding tradition of atheists. My beliefs have history and credulity behind them. I will continue to study Hebrew, write, volunteer and participate in the Jewish community. In accepting my skepticism, I join the minds and hearts of the ancient Greek and Roman skeptics and atheists who came before me.
Dolores Luber, a retired psychotherapist and psychology teacher, is editor of Jewish Seniors Alliance’s Senior Line magazine and website (jsalliance.org). She blogs for yossilinks.com and writes movie reviews for the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library website.