Whitmarsh (Greek Culture/Univ. of Cambridge; Beyond the Second Sophistic: Adventures in Greek Postclassicism, 2013, etc.) explores the evolution of atheism from Homer to the Roman Empire.
With a nonprofessorial, relaxed style, he first explains that ancient Greece had no real religion. They had no centralized political or religious hub and no sacred texts. Their mythical, polytheistic gods were regionalized to suit geographic needs, and the myths were an expression of community through shared sacrifice and feasting. They revealed values and explained why things were as they were. The gods were not omnipotent, and the myths illustrated theomachy, wherein man confronts and tries to usurp the gods—e.g., the tale of Prometheus. The pre-Socratic philosophers pondered the nature of the world through philosophy rather than religion. Whitmarsh delves deeply into the many philosophers who felt gods were invented by humans or saw laws, in addition to religion, as merely imposition of order. The author’s erudition is impressive as he thoroughly explains the works of Plato, Diagoras, Anaxagoras, Theodorus, and Xenophon; however, less-informed readers may be overwhelmed. Whitmarsh examines the works of the dramatists, including Sophocles and Euripides, of the Hellenistic world, who introduced the idea of a king as god. The work of the Sophists, Stoics, Epicureans, and Lucian all contributed to what was still an evolving thought process. While the narrative can be exhausting, it is never dull, and the author clearly explains the idea that atheism wasn’t truly a concept until the arrival of established religion. To disbelieve in a god, you must disprove him. However, as the author writes, “this is a work of history, not of proselytism. It is not my aim to prove the truth (or indeed falsehood) of atheism as a philosophical position.”
Though not for those seeking a light read, this is a seminal work on the subject, to be studied, reread, and referenced.