On atheism and the objective understanding of society

Atheism, says Tim Whitmarsh, is a “tradition that is comparable in its antiquity to Judaism (and considerably older than Christianity or Islam).” In his fascinating book Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, he conducts what he calls an “archaeology of religious skepticism,” digging out evidence of atheism in ancient Greece and Rome from hints and scraps in various sources.


He is not trying to argue that the classical world was some kind of freethinkers’ paradise, or a hotbed of religious skepticism. Greek and Roman polytheism frowned on those who denied the reality of the gods, and often repressed them. The philosopher Socrates was famously charged with committing the crime of “not recognizing the gods the state recognizes,” and when found guilty chose to drink poison rather than accept exile. But Whitmarsh does think that atheism was tolerated much more than it would be in later centuries:

There were no social mechanisms whose jobs were to create consensus in the matter of religion, and in any case society as a whole invested little in defining the nature of divinity precisely. This meant that for much of Greek antiquity atheism was not treated as a heretical position, the “other” of true belief; it was seen rather as one of the many possible stances one could take on the question of the gods (albeit an extreme one). It was only in Christian late antiquity that atheism began to be constructed in systematically antithetical terms, as the inverse of proper religion, a threat to the very foundations of human civilization.

In Whitmarsh’s view, this relative tolerance–or to put it more precisely, the fact that the power of the state was generally not used to enforce religious orthodoxy–had important intellectual consequences. The speculations of the pre-Socratic philosophers are often seen as precursors to modern science because they tried to explain natural phenomena in terms of its physical properties rather than the actions of the gods. History and social science–which explain events and institutions in terms of human rather than divine actions–were also products of this intellectual climate:

According to his ancient biographer, Thucydides studied philosophy with the pre-Socratic materialist Anaxagoras and “as a result was whispered to be an atheist.” Some modern scholars have agreed with the latter assessment. We will of course never know about the personal beliefs of the historical Thucydides who wrote the words, but his History of the Peloponnesian War … is the culmination of the fifth-century tendency toward the exclusion of divine explanation. Not only does he refuse to admit non-naturalistic causality, but he cynically skewers any attempts on the part of the actors in his story to invoke the gods. Whatever his own personal beliefs were, the History can reasonably be claimed to be the earliest surviving atheist narrative of human history.

One of the many fascinating fragments that Whitmarsh quotes is a speech from a drama attributed to Critias, Plato’s uncle, which gives a cynical account of the origins of religion. More elaborate version of this type of cynicism–religion is the “opiate of the masses,” or a tool of oppression–should be quite familiar to us today:

Here was a time when humans’ life was unordered,
Bestial and subservient to violence;
When there was no reward for the noble
Or chastisement for the base.
And then, it seems to me, humans set up
Laws, so that justice should be tyrant
And hold aggression enslaved.
Anyone who erred was punished.
Then, when laws prevented them
From performing open acts of force,
They started performing them in secret; and then, it seems to me,
Some shrewd man, wise in his counsel,
Discovered for mortals fear of the gods, so that
The base should have fear, if even in secret
They should do or say or think anything.
So he thereupon introduced religion

The fact that such views can once again be openly discussed in the modern world is, in Whitmarsh’s account, a return to the historical norm after the millennium-long diversion of Catholic Christianity. If there is a villain to his story, it is the Roman emperor Theodosius, who in 380 AD declared Christianity the official religion of the empire and required all subjects to follow it. Traditional Roman polytheism was banned, and heresy became a crime against the state (as it also was for Socrates, but this time with a much more effective and aggressive state).  This “alliance between absolute power and religious absolutism” essentially made objective inquiry into the functioning of human society illegal.

There is reason, then, to think that the toleration of atheism is part of the intellectual framework necessary for the objective understanding of human society, and thus for the practice of social science and economics. If social institutions are the creation of divinity and cannot be questioned, neither can they be analyzed or changed. Many of the founding figures of European social science in the nineteenth century were in fact militant atheists.

Yet the cynical atheist’s take on religion–that it is “just” an invention of the powerful, or the cloaking of baser realities in high-flown language–itself is hard to sustain under objective scrutiny. The complexity and richness of religion as a human institution can only be reduced to such simple terms by doing violence to the facts.

Timothy Larsen’s excellent book The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith shows that some of the greatest analysts of religion as a human institution were themselves strongly religious. (Thanks to Tyler Cowen for alerting me to the existence of this book). The early anthropologists Edward Tylor and James Frazer were skeptics who viewed Christianity and “primitive” religions as equally wrong, and their writings functioned more as polemics against belief than as plausible accounts of religion. Their work has, quite justly, been largely forgotten.


By contrast, three of the greatest anthropologists of the twentieth century–E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner–whose work very much has endured, were themselves believers. All were aware that this separated them from the majority of their colleagues. Another prominent British anthropologist, Edmund Leach, once even called Mary Douglas’ work “Roman Catholic propaganda.”

Yet it seems clear that these anthropologists achieved a depth of understanding and insight that escaped many others, in part because they had sympathy with the religious believers they studied. Larsen says that Evans-Pritchard thought Christian theology to be “sophisticated, insightful, and true”–and that the theology of the Nuer people he worked among was no less so. This sympathy was not simple credulity. In Evans-Pritchard’s classic Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, he writes that “witches, as the Azande conceive them, clearly cannot exist.” But he was not preoccupied with demonstrating the falseness of their belief in witchcraft, but in understanding how it worked and why it made sense.

Atheism thus seems like a necessary but not sufficient condition for the understanding of human social institutions, including religion. A society in which belief cannot be questioned will not produce accurate histories of those beliefs. But a religious skeptic is also not necessarily the person best equipped to enter into the thought-world of religious believers. Producing convincing accounts of religion seems to require a peculiar combination of objectivity and sympathy, which itself is rather difficult to explain.

It seems that neither religiosity nor skepticism on their own will always prove reliable guides to understanding. The anthropological approach is not to privilege either one, but to see both religiosity and skepticism as normal social phenomena that themselves can be explained. Mary Douglas, who was perhaps the most brilliant of the figures in Larsen’s book, attempted to do just this in her book Natural Symbols.

But since the back-and-forth between religiosity and skepticism itself has such a long history, it should also not be surprising that she was not the first to make this intellectual move. The early American anthropologist Paul Radin, whose 1927 book Primitive Man As Philosopher was a recent and surprising choice for reissue by New York Review Books, argued passionately that a diversity of beliefs and attitudes is the norm for all human societies:

It is a matter of common experience that in any randomly selected group of individuals we may expect to find, on the whole, the same distribution of temperament and ability. Such a view, I know, has certain terrors because of national and class prejudices but I do not think it can be really seriously questioned. Primitive peoples are, we have seen, quite as logical as ourselves and have perhaps an even truer sense of reality. …

I feel quite convinced that the idealist and the materialist, the dreamer and the realist, the introspective and the non-introspective man have always been with us. And the same would hold for the different grades of religious temperament, the devoutly religious, the intermittently, the indifferently religious man. If individuals with specific temperaments, for instance the religious-aesthetic, have always existed we should expect to find them expressing themselves in much the same way at all times. And this, it seems to me, is exactly what we do find.


One Comment

  1. The difficulty is that we cannot agree on what constitutes a position of “objectivity” with respect to things that are not themselves objects of possible experience (Kant). For example, we’re unable to achieve objectivity, and therefore unable to achieve agreement, about “goodness” because goodness ITSELF (rather than as an attribute of something else) is not an object of possible experience.

    Religion attempts to address our questions about things that are not objects of possible experience. It attempts to answer questions about the nature of “goodness,” in itself, for example. (Not “goodness” as a property of something else, or as a characteristic of a thing or action, but “goodness” ITSELF.)

    But, though such thinking is needed by all people, we cannot agree about it because “objectivity” is impossible with respect to things that are not objects of possible experience. (Kant’s “Prolegomena” is very helpful here.)


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