I will answer the question in the title very simply right now: of course, Ragnar was not an atheist. This post will not even discuss this question, because I think, it is practically sure, beyond reasonable doubt that if Ragnar Lothbrock (I will write his name in this form, just because I like it more) even lived, he believed in the Viking gods, or maybe he could been converted to Christianity. Ragnar – if he lived – was raised as a Viking in the heydays of the Viking era. At that time it was even more true than now, that most of the people believed what they were raised to believe in, or, if they changed religion, they converted to another one. Not to believe in any gods was at that time not really a possibility. Long before, among the ancient Greeks and Romans there were some very few philosophers, who could imagine something, like atheism and maybe even were atheists. Actually explicit atheism was even rare at the Romans or Greeks. Also, at that time, the term “atheist” was quite often used to name adherents of different religions, so for the Romans, the early Christians were atheists, and vice versa.
Why then this question? Because Michael Hirst depicted Ragnar Lothbrok as being an atheist, or as almost arriving at this point. Especially at the end of the series and his life. There are three episodes and three scenes, where this is emphasized.
This first one is season 3 episode 1, when Ragnar speaks with Kwenthrith and concludes:
“I have been deceived many times, but magic was not the cause of it”.
The second is in season 4 episode 14, when Ragnar and king Ecbert discusses about religion.
Ragnar arrives in the end to a pretty much atheist conclusion. King Ecbert claims that without gods nothing has meaning. This is not true. A believer may feel, I emphasize, feel like this. And Ragnars answer is that “or maybe without gods everything has meaning”. Which may be well felt by an atheist. Because meaning is subjective. We are creating meanings ourself. Not gods create the meanings and meanings are not something objective out there to be discovered. We are creating the meanings, and we may create this or that meaning as we happen to feel.
Then king Ecbert kind of admits that the belief in gods is absurd, but he still maintains that it is necessary. He actually reproduces the argument known from Voltaire: “if there was no god, we should invent him“. And though it might have been true that religion was needed in old times to keep society together, but this is not true anymore. And here the counterargument of Ragnar (Michael Hirst) is actually great. Ragnar says, if there are no gods, we have to learn to deal with it. And the thing is, that today we actually arrived here: we have learnt to have meanings without gods, to have ethics without gods and have states (countries) without gods. We do things on our own, we avoid to do unethical things, because of our own reasons, and we do not need religion to run a state. We grew up, we learnt to deal without religions. By “we”, I mainly mean the developed, mainly “western”, secular world.
The third scene is right after this in season 4 episode 15, the episode, where Ragnar is executed. He speaks with the carriage driver, who is a transfiguration of the seer. But the discussion is also kind of imaginary. Actually, Ragnar speaks with himself, he sums up his life, his believes, or actually disbelieves.
Here Ragnar states explicitly, that he does not believe in god:
I don’t believe in the gods’ existence.
Man is the master of his own fate, not the gods.
The gods are man’s creation, to give answers
that they are too afraid to give themselves.
This is a quite good short formulation of an atheists worldview in relation to the religions. I find it also amusing, how Ragnar is proud of, that he was not commanded by the gods or by the prediction of the seer, because he will die one day later. Although I find this to be exaggerated and funny. Actually, if the seer could predict his death with one day mistake, then that would still be a strong confirmation of at least the seers divining ability. Here I have to admit that the series is not entirely and clearly atheist, because of the divinations, that become true, and some visions, sometimes. But the wordview of Ragnar is in the end very accentuated. Michael Hirst depicts the life of Ragnar as kind of a struggle, to rebel against the gods, the Viking religion. And this does not even point in the direction of Christianity as it was in real history. Michael Hirst here kind of superposes the situation of our time to the Viking era, and ignores the Christian era. It seems, as if the most important for Ragnar were, what he says, in this last excerpt: to be independent from the gods or religion, to become the master of his life. And this already starts with the scene about magic, where the motive is the same, but not yet so elaborated. This is actually one of our present day problems worldwide.
When I was watching it, I liked the series Vikings. It is a historic series, based on some truth. I did not want to spoil the series, so I had not checked its historical authenticity before finishing it. According to my not so detailed knowledge about the Vikings at that time, the story of the series could have been true, at least broadly speaking. The series was also not loaded with too much sex, or action, fight, there was no kung-fu in it, so it seemed to be a serious attempt to show a true historical story with a little bit of imagination in the details.
Successively, the series became more and more dealing with actual, modern day life problems. Like Ragnar becoming a drug addict and Lagertha becoming lesbian. This was obviously too far fetched. Still, I liked the setting and the play of the actors, especially the little bit sceptical/sarcastic/ironic character of Ragnar, how it was played by Travis Flimmel. Although in the beginning, the character of Ragnar was not totally sympathetic to me, because he was not reliable and not rational, and I could not retrace why would he do exactly what he did. But at the end, this atheistic kind of background motivation and his pride became very sympathetic to me, while the authenticity of the series dropped.
The last episodes with these atheistic dialogues were obviously far-fetched and it was obvious, that here Michael Hirst wants to represent his own worldview. This was obviously not authentic any more, but I liked at least the direction it departed from reality.
After the end I checked what was the true history and then I was even more disappointed, how far the story got from reality. If you check the Wikipedia page of the series, where you can expect a chapter about authenticity, they do not even criticize very harshly the series. But then, if you check more into the historical details, it turns out, that Ragnar Lorthbrok was a mytical figure, who was rather the combination of several real persons, among them a certain Reginherus, who besieged Paris, but also several Danish kings. In this respect Ragnar Lorthbrok is similar to Jesus, who is probably also an assembly of maybe a prophet, a possible rebel, a possible healer, a leader of the Nazarene cult, maybe an Essene monk, and even more ancient myths and tales.
It also turns out, that Athelstan was rather a Danish king, who converted to Christianity, and though Rollo was a real person, but only a kind of king of Normandy, and not living in Paris. It turns also out that Ecbert was living a little bit earlier, at least not at the siege of Paris. Lagertha is also rather mythical, but at least the sons of Ragnar are real. Now, there, the series actually ends.
I was disappointed of all of these, because I do not like if a film or a series is not authentic. I can tolerate some artistic freedom in filling up the unknown details. I can tolerate that the persons do not look like the historical ones, if this is known. I could have tolerated that a mythical figure is treated as real, since that is the topic of the series. But actually I do not like if a film departs from history at a well established and quite clear fact, like time, geography, family relation and well-known facts about acts and happenings. I also think that an atheist should not tolerate such lies, because they are very similar to the lies of religion. If we criticize religion to make up a story to tell a moral, how could we accept the same on our side? I know, the important difference is that the made up story of Michael Hirst is at least physically possible. It could have been true. But it is not.
Now, on the other hand, being an atheist, I think, that what Michael Hirst tells with the story is quite great. It is actually as much philosophical, as it can be done in a series, and it reaches a lot of viewers. That is also, how he himself justified his altering of the true history. It is also good to see that in Great Britain atheism seems to be so spread and established that a film-director may put his atheistic thoughts into such a popular series. Of course, this is good news, I just wished, the series was at least more authentic in its main line.