Atheism from Greece to the Modern World

This lecture will be divided into two sections:

Atheist History from classical times to the present, and Atheist History in America from colonial times until the present day.

Atheist History from classical times to the present.

Theories that there was not the concept of atheism as we define it currently until the late 1700’s, and the biased historians who influenced such thinking. Atheism’s probable beginning in the Ionia of ancient Greece in the 6th Century BCE. Thales and other philosophers. Their philosophy was more naturalistic than atheistic.

Democritus in 5th Century Greece and his atomic theory.

Post classical ameliorating philosophies in Greece and the Roman Empire: stoicism, epicureanism, and the great skeptic, Sextus Empiricus. Middle Ages produced mainly Christian philosophy, with Thomas Aquinas borrowing from Aristotle, the Greek philosopher. Dons Scotus and Ockham’s theology put theology dependent on faith and weakened it.

 Renaissance- 15th, 16th, 17th Century Europe.

The Padua School, known for atheism. Machiavelli, Montaigne, texts from Aristotle widely known, Lucretius becoming known among the educated classes. Emphasis shifting from religious salvation to man’s flourishing in the natural world. An explosion of classical thinking. There were scientists such as Galileo and Bacon whose work helped promote knowledge and doubt among the scholarly.

Enlightenment – 18th Century

 Three important principles: rights of the individual, reason, and relativity. Newtonian gravity and other sciences opening the doors of free inquiry. Diderot and the Encyclopedia, Baron D’Holbach and his openly atheist text, as well as La Mettrie’s posthumously published atheist work. Hobbes and his theory of the social contract. Hume and his skepticism. In England, the atheist tract in 1782, Answer to Dr. Priestley’s Letter, probably composed by Matthew Turner and a friend.

The explosion of science and the doubt filled thought of the 19th and 20th Centuries:

Darwin’s Origin of Species, 1859, Einstein and relativity, quantum theory and the onset of uncertainty. The British Romantic poets questions and Shelley the atheist. Matthew Arnold. Dover Beach. Feuerbach the atheist author, Marx the socialist, Nietzsche and the death of god. English Ppolitics and Charles Bradlaugh. Existentialist philosophy and Jean Paul Sartre. Sigmund Freud and atheism- Future of an Illusion. The Logical positivists and A.J. Ayer’s atheism. Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not A Christian. 1927.

Atheism in American history from colonial times until the present.

Overstated history of Christian history of colonial America. Most colony leaders, governors favored a deistic Protestantism. The Founders of the United States, such as Jefferson and Madison, deists and freethinkers. Ethan Allen’s Reason, 1787 and the widely read Age of Reason by Thomas Paine in 1795. Utopian colony leaders and publishers Fanny Wright and Richard Owen.

Influx and influence of the German freethinkers around 1848.

Golden Age of Free thought and Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic. 1870’s to about the beginning of World War I. Science undermines religion, as well as critical biblical studies: Charles Lyell in geology, Darwin and Huxley in biology. The resurgence of free thought in the 1920’s- Clarence Darrow and Haldeman Julius’s Little Blue Books. Some famous atheist leaders and organizations: Charles Lee Smith, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, Freedom from Religion and more. The Murray vs Curlett Case and the victory for free thought. Increase in critical biblical studies, decline in church attendance in America, scientific explosion. New resurgence of free thought in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

Atheism in Classical Western Antiquity

The Preface glances at the long history of atheism, agnosticism, and freethought through the ages. But a few cautions are necessary for the atheist reader.  As with atheism in American history (see Atheist History in the United States), the worldwide history of atheism until the late 1700’s has been ignored, suppressed or denied.  The difficulty for the atheist reader and the historian is in ascertaining to what extent atheism, in the sense of the word as it is understood in the present day, was prevalent in the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.  David Berman lists several instances in which the existence of early atheism is flatly denied in learned British journals of the 1700’s.[1] Berman is convinced that many atheists, fearing to identify themselves as non believers because of the danger to their lives and property from the Church and Inquisition, developed writing strategies for conveying their atheism[2] and frequently wrote by insinuation.[3] Some well regarded historians have denied that there was any genuine ability for the minds of men to disbelieve in god before the late 1700’s, because religious truth was taken for granted. Such scholars hold that to become atheists, men would have had to have access to the biblical criticism and experimental science of the 19th Century.  In his erudite 1942 volume about Rabelais and the problem of belief in the 16th Century, the distinguished Lucien Febvre combined effective polemic strategies with immense scholarship to claim that there was no early unbelief. His view has had a lingering and non-salutary effect on attempts to write atheist histories.[4] It will be important for the atheist reader to keep in mind, as the Preface moves across centuries of atheist history, that charges of atheism were made against people who criticized some aspect of religion or government.  It is a very difficult task for historians of atheism to tease out which of the thinkers and writers charged with atheism really did not believe in the existence of god, and if so, how the fact could be inferred from studying their published works and statements.

James Thrower locates the very beginnings of unbelief in the Ionian region of ancient Greece in the early 6th Century B.C.E.  He maintains that in the Greek colony of Miletus, the philosopher Thales and his successors, Anaximander and Anaximenes, began to be concerned with physical nature. They were interested in the question of “becoming,” or how the world works, its origins, and if there were a primary substance from which all things came.[5]  In some instances, the Ionian philosophers’ concepts led to a refined theism, but their ideas were also utilized in helping form Democritus’ atomistic theories in the 5th Century.  Many of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers were accused by later generations of atheism or impiety.  Some of the names are well known in the history of philosophy, such as Xenophanes, Anaxagoras, Diogenes, Protagoras, Prodicus, Critias and Diagoras of Melos.[6]  None of these thinkers were atheists in the sense of our contemporary usage of the word, no belief in a god or gods, but many of them were critical of the ancient polytheist religion, of both its anthropomorphism and its egregious moral system.  Most of them believed in the continuing search for naturalist explanations for material phenomena.

The Socratic period (5th Century B.C.E. Greece) was the age when the conflict between the naturalistic view of the universe and religion became explicit. The old myths began to come under attack by leading playwrights, such as Euripides, who seemed to write about certain myths in his dramas only to discredit their falsehoods.[7] The philosophers, Socrates and Plato, were not atheists, and while they had immense influence on later philosophy, our interest lies in the sophists, who were teachers of the young.  They were criticized by Plato, but it is unclear how much of his commentary on them is valid. The sophists were cultural relativists who believed that religion and cultural practices were invented by men. During the same period of 5th Century Greece, the interesting figure of Democritus emerges.  He was not a sophist, but a man who rejected divinity either in or outside nature. He conceived “nature as interplay of countless atoms in empty space, ruled by the power of chance, which left no room for teleology and the deification of any moving forces or single primal ground.”[8] Democritus believed that man’s own inner self-respect would be a sufficient moral force in the absence of a belief in god.  He did not believe in the immortality of the soul, and conceived of naturalistic causes for religion, such as dreams and the awe man feels in the presence of natural phenomena.  Democritus’ opinions influenced Epicurus, the Hellenistic Greek founder of the later Epicurean school of philosophy.

Aristotle was a philosopher of immense consequence during the 4th Century of Greece, but his work was also important to Medieval and Renaissance thought in later centuries during the Common Era. Aristotle’s thoughts on divinity are closely in alignment with the deism of a later period.  James Thrower calls Aristotle’s idea of god a concept of an “Unmoved Mover.” He maintains that for Artistotle, god was merely a metaphysical postulate.[9] Aristotle was an important influence on the irreligion of the Renaissance and his practical and worldly philosophy is still embraced by some contemporary ethicists. (See Ethics.)

The Hellenistic period of Greece, which extended from roughly 323 B.C.E. and 146 B.C.E, gave rise to the philosophies of stoicism, epicureanism, cynicism and skepticism. This period began after the conquests of Alexander the Great, when Greek thought spread across the known world. The Stoics believed in a god, but god was another name for fate or fortune in their conceptual system.  The Epicureans claimed to believe in the gods, but their philosophy was concerned primarily with attaining a happy and virtuous life here on earth.  Epicureans liberated themselves from the idea of immortality, fear of the gods, of death, and did away with belief in superstition.  The Cynics tried to live life according to nature and were probably practical atheists, who gave little thought to the existence or non existence of god.

The skeptical school of philosophy can be traced back to the time of Aristotle.  Its founder, Pyrrho of Elis (360 B.C.E. – 270 B.C.E.), was attempting, as were most of the Hellenistic schools of philosophy, to find a stance that would provide people with mental tranquility.  His ideas were recorded by Timon of Philius. Pyrrho believed that since nothing can be known with certainty it is important to neither confirm nor deny anything.  Sextus Empiricus would take up and refine the pyrrhic philosophy in 2nd Century Rome, C.E. (see Below.)  Plato’s Academy embraced skepticism in its middle period.  Carneades, (214/3-128/9 B.C.E.), its director, was a skeptic who stated important points concerning religion. Carneades asked if belief in god were really universal, why bother to debate it and risk the chance that it might be disproved? He pointed out that belief by plebiscite does not prove the truth of any concept.  Carneades raised many of the objections to arguments for the existence of god that we still use in the present day.  He objected to the ontological argument, the argument from design, and raised the problem of evil, which is often convincing evidence against god’s existence. (See Arguments for and against the Existence of god.)

Ancient Rome was the locus of both traditional polytheist religion and of religions imported from the East, and newer religions, such as Christianity. Two important figures with respect to atheist history were Lucretius, the poet/philosopher, and Sextus Empiricus, the physician/philosopher. Lucretius (circa 99 B.C.E. – 55 B.C.E.) was an epicurean, whose famous poem, On the Nature of Things, was a statement of complete atheism.  Lucretius believed in the natural laws of the universe and in the abolition of all religion, which he saw as harmful. He maintained the gods did not exist, and that life ends in permanent death. He was an important influence on later ideas of atomism, and on concepts of humanist morality. Thrower states that Lucretius was the only European author who put a philosophical system, as distinct from a theological one, into poetry.[10]

The final important figure with regard to non belief in ancient Rome was Sextus Empiricus, from the period of the late 2nd and early 3rd Centuries C.E. Two titles of his works are The Pyrrhonic Institutes and Against the Dogmatists.  (See Atheist Philosophies- Skepticism) Empiricus saved pyrrhonic thought from extinction and refined it with his polished style and erudite thought.  He maintained that since nothing could be known with certainty, one should neither confirm nor deny anything.  Pyrrho had stated the same idea, but Sextus perfected it with his elegant prose.  Montaigne and Hume were influenced by him, in later centuries, as well as Sir Walter Raleigh. “All Greek Skepticism, all that was important in the most thorough and consistent development of agnosticism which has appeared in the world, seems to have been preserved in Sextus Empiricus’ works.”[11] 

When the last of the pagan philosophical schools was closed by the Christian emperor, Justinian, in 529 C.E., it was the end of the classical age of freethought and doubt.  The platonic and neo platonic schools would live on in Christian theology and its vision of reality.  In the 11th and 12th Centuries C.E., Arabian and Jewish translations of Aristotle would emerge to change the direction of Christian thinking and to once again open the way for freethought.

James Thrower has made some astute observations concerning Greek and Roman classical thought.  He maintains that much of the conceptual framework of freethought that was articulated in the ancient world was repeated again over the centuries with each resurgence of irreligion and then finally with explicit or avowed atheism. The first concept that emerged again and again was a naturalistic conception of the world. There was also a flourishing agnosticism accompanied by the moral criticism of religion. There was a growing naturalistic explanation of religion, as well, and finally an emergence of a materialist view that has come down to the 21st Century.[12] Agnosticism and atheism were present in the classical age and those first stirrings of irreligious thought culminated in later centuries’ avowed atheism.

The Middle Ages- the 12th and 13th Centuries, C.E.

The historian, David Knowles, makes the point that the evolution of medieval thought was very similar to that of the classical period.  There was an unexplained explosion of intellectual awakening, the growth of dialectical and speculative philosophy, and near the end of the 14th Century, C.E., the weapons of logic and dialectic were turned against venerable institutions and doctrines.[13] There is one important difference between the two eras, however.  The rise of doubt was not hampered as much in the classical world as it was in the Middle Ages, and skeptical thinkers, as a rule, were less persecuted in Greece and Rome.  In the Middle Ages, the institutions of church and state continuously attempted to quell speculative thought and freethought.  Thinkers were often in peril of their lives for expressing opinions counter to established religious views.  The church controlled the universities and had every weapon of suppression in its power to quench unorthodox opinions.

The translations of Aristotle by the Arab translator, Averroes, had considerable influence in the rise of an earthbound humanism when they reached Western Europe in the early part of the Middle Ages. Thinkers began to consider concepts such as “matter is in motion perpetual and also eternal.” They were exposed to such ideas as there was never any creation in time, that there was one world soul existing in all living things, and that there was no personal immortality.  They began to consider whether faith and knowledge must be kept apart. They realized that theology is not a science.[14] In other words, they were dealing with ideas that heralded a modern world view.

In the 13th Century C.E., St. Thomas of Aquinas was temporarily able to integrate Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian thought.  He employed a great deal of his formidable intellect to demonstrate that faith and reason were not contradictory, and that such concepts as the existence of god could be proved by natural reason, using man’s observances of the natural world.  However, he also began to develop some distinctions between faith and reason. We now turn to two thinkers in the 14th Century who worked very diligently to separate faith and reason.  The 14th Century was one of upheaval, and the power of papal and imperial authority was waning.  Man’s faith in speculative reason was also on the decline.

Dons Scotus (1220-1308 C.E.) and William of Ockham (1300-1349 C.E.) were brilliant theological thinkers who successfully separated faith from reason.  Their attempt to save religion with philosophical reasoning was ultimately devastating for its consequences to theology and eventually to religion as well.  They not only separated reason from faith, but emphasized that “they had a radical lack of confidence in the ability of the mind to transcend the natural world, and to establish knowledge of that which lies beyond sensory experience.”[15] Theology now rested solely on faith by the end of the 14th Century and the dawning of the Renaissance.

The Renaissance- 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries

The Renaissance falls into two movements that are not unconnected. There was an early Renaissance that was aristocratic and classical, with a taste for Greek and Roman art and literature, and nostalgia for what was considered a past Golden Age.  There was a later movement that was much more popular, empirical, less traditional and more scientific and forward looking than the earlier Renaissance.[16]  George Buckley, a theist proponent, says of the period: “Aside from the great body of pure literature, most of which had little religious significance, there was in addition a considerable body of works of a skeptical and inquiring nature-works which had an agnostic if not an atheistical import and which could not be reconciled with the tenets of Christianity.”[17] Buckley is writing about atheism in England, but Italy and France experienced the same worldly exposure.  Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) wrote his famous Essays during the period. (See Atheist Philosophies- Skepticism.) He was a pyrrhonist, but he was ever careful of the Inquisition, which confiscated his writings at one point, inspected them, and returned them. Montaigne left the concept of god to the theologians, but assayed into all worldly concerns with an impressive, elegant and provocative style.  Tullio Gregory writes of Charron, who was a friend of Montaigne. Charron published his book De la saggese in 1619 and it was pronounced a scandal. Gregory states that it involves the rejection of all claims of dogmatic reasoning and all the values associated with it.[18] Charron maintained that man was not made for truth but rather his fulfillment is to be found in doubt and ambiguity.  The book was a publishing success, going through several printings, even while prelates tried to ban it.

Niccolo Machiavelli, (or Old Nick, the nickname for the Devil, as many people thought of Machiavelli,) was another source of unbelief.  His volume, The Prince, (1532), with its unashamed realpolitik and cynical view of power and human nature, was blamed by contemporaries for spreading atheism and corruption throughout society. George Buckley even connects Machiavellian thinking to the unbelief of Christopher Marlowe, the Renaissance playwright.[19] The warfare developing among the different religions was another significant source of unbelief.  The Socinians elevated reason above all values, but there were other sects vying for predominance, such as the Unitarians, the Family of Love, the Brownists, the Puritans in England, and so on. George Buckley reports on the burnings of Unitarians at Norwich, England, beginning in 1579.[20] Buckley speaks of Pompanazzi, the Italian philosopher, whose writings denied the immortality of the soul and influenced the Paduan School for some fifty years.  The Paduan School’s ideas were taken up by the French skeptics, but so far it is not possible to be sure of their influence on English unbelief. Davidson writes about the thinker, Vanini, who was burned to death at Toulouse for blasphemy and atheism. Davidson states that in one short volume, De admirandis, (1616) Vanini presented all the alternatives to Church thinking that cast doubt on the very existence of god.[21] Davidson believes that atheism in Italy was both conceivable and actual during the period under discussion.[22]

The Rise of Science- 16th and 17th Centuries

The scientific discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon and other thinkers and discoverers of the later Renaissance did not influence unbelief as much as the writings and events discussed above.  Science was taken up by a later era, the Enlightenment, rather than the Renaissance.  Nevertheless, for a great part of the Renaissance, belief and science existed side by side. There existed the doctrine of two-fold truth, the truths of faith and the truths of reason, which managed to save superstition as well as permit the natural observations of the world.[23]  According to Thrower, three names stand out in this later Renaissance period as significant forces for the transition from belief to science: Descartes (1596-1650), Hobbes (1588-1679), and Spinoza (1632-1677.)

Descartes attempted to defend religion, and at first it seemed his Cartesian philosophy was a valuable support.  But with time, a small seed of irreligion, skepticism, became apparent in the philosophy, which undermined religion.  Many historians affirm that in the last analysis Cartesian thought reinforced the disposition to accept the scientific world picture rather than the theological one.

Hobbes never professed himself an atheist, but his Leviathan (1651,) a volume about the social contract (see Ethics, Applied Ethics and Human Rights) was highly influential and secular.  Hobbes’ philosophy was naturalistic and even materialistic.  He offered a naturalistic picture of religion and its origin, locating its power in the desire to know, and the fear of the unknown. However, he believed that religion was necessary for the good of the commonwealth.  He offers a cosmological argument for the existence of god in the Leviathan. Nevertheless, Richard Tuck finds Hobbes, effectively, an atheist.[24]

The debate concerning whether Spinoza was an atheist or a pantheist continues to the present.  But god and nature for him are the same.  He is a monist. Once his philosophy is understood, it can be seen that everything belongs to one system and that system is nature.  He maintained that a unique, self-determining and all-inclusive substance cannot, by definition, be created by anything outside itself. Silvia Berti discusses an impious volume, Le traite des trois imposteurs that was published several times during the last forty years of the 18th Century. But it was first published under the title La Vie et L’Esprit de Spinosa in 1719. The volume contained part of Spinoza’s Ethics, but once a copy of its first edition was found in the 20th Century, it became clear that it was an adaptation of Spinoza.  Attacks on Christ and other embellishments were added to it; there are no such attacks in Spinoza’s work.  The book was influential in the early part of the Enlightenment, but it is not true Spinoza.  The later adaptation made Spinoza sound more politically radical, states Berti, and that adaptation was one of the influences on the radical Enlightenment.[25]

Pierre Bayle, the famous skeptic, said that “the champions of reason and the champions of religion were fighting desperately for the possession of men’s souls, confronting each other in a contest at which the whole of thoughtful Europe was looking on.”[26] The Preface now turns to The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment- Science during The Enlightenment.

Before discussing Enlightenment philosophy, a glance at the sciences and their progress is in order.  Despite the gap between the old Ptolemaic systems of geography and astronomy, vast strides were being made in science, physics, geometry, chemistry, manufacturing and engineering in the last portion of the Renaissance and through the Enlightenment.  Exploration and navigation were thriving, as well. The Gutenberg Press was invented around 1450, and Constantinople fell in 1453.  Both events helped disseminate freethought and new thought to people in Western Europe.

Some of the first observations were practical: farmers began to study and observe environmental tendencies that produced the best harvests. Kepler discovered the first law of planetary motion in 1605. In 1609, Galileo greatly added to the knowledge of astronomy and improved the lenses of the first telescopes. Newton wrote his Principia Mathematica in 1687. Scientists began to make use of both deductive and inductive reasoning. Descartes combined algebra and geometry.  Copernicus (1473-1543) discovered that the Sun was the center of the solar system.

The Enlightenment- 18th Century

The 18th Century is the age of reason above all things.  Three principles were foremost at that period. The supremacy of the individual and the rights he had as a human being were fundamental to Enlightenment thought. Another important feature was relativism. There began to be a belief that differences in morals, beliefs and customs between different cultures were acceptable and of interest. The last and most important principle was reason.  The three principles were the framework that supported the Enlightenment. 

Pierre Bayle’s skeptical ideas continued to be important and his writings were a consequential influence on Enlightenment thought.  His influence waned toward the end of the 18th Century, however, as many of his skeptical positions began to be commonplace and part of the zeitgeist. Religion was openly criticized and the many absurdities of religious belief were held up to ridicule during the 18th Century.[27]

Newtonian physics began to replace the Cartesian world view, both in England and the Continent. Geology began to cast doubt on the mechanistic and materialistic universe posited by Descartes. Richard Popkin, the eminent scholar of skepticism, maintains that from the 17th to the 19th Centuries, many Jewish anti-Christian arguments in published form had a significant effect concerning the weakening of Christian beliefs.  Many Jews had been forced to convert to Christianity and the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions watched them carefully for any sign of Judaism or Judaist practices.  The drive to convert Jews in the 16th and 17th Centuries took up more urgency as many Christians revived the belief in a second coming of Christ and the “end of days.” They were certain the second coming had to be proceeded by the conversion of the Jewish people. Jews who escaped to the Netherlands and reverted to Judaism had been raised and trained as Christians, reading and studying Christian texts in Christian schools. Under Marie d’Medici’s protection in Paris, and safe in the Netherlands as well, they produced arguments against Christianity that were then taken up by “deists and incipient atheists” and used to weaken the dominance of the Catholic Church.[28]  George Buckley maintains that large numbers of tracts of unbelief from the continent arrived in England and can be connected to English unbelief.[29]

18th Century Science maintained a static view of the cosmos. It was believed that the universe began with a single act of creation and that this act fixed all forms of life in the form in which they had originally appeared. Such a concept of a deity- created and unchanging universe was becoming loosened. Voltaire’s deism, which accepted such a fixed stance, began to be put aside.  There were new ideas, which said that given infinite time, matter and motion would combine to produce all types of phenomena, including the present world.[30] Deists such as Voltaire began to be put on the defensive.  The skeptical Philo, a character in Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion (1779,) puts naturalist views forward.  The outworn, static view was now being replaced by the concept that life was constant flux and change. D’Alembert argued, for instance, that conservation of motion could be explained without the idea of divine intervention. There was a sense that god was no longer a necessary factor to account for the world or its workings. 

The stage was set for avowed atheism.  The historian no longer needs to look for incipient and hidden atheism in the deliberately obscured history of unbelief.  Diderot and the Baron d’Holbach were self described atheists, militant and often wrathful against Christianity and the Christian god.

Diderot collaborated with D’Alembert to produce that magisterial collection of thought, The Encyclopedia. He wrote The Interpretation de la Nature (1754) in which he discusses how chaos is impossible because of gravity.  He revived the Lucretian argument that “the order found in nature might come out of the innumerable chances that arise out of the manifold motions of its parts from all eternity having led at length to the present combination.”[31] Michael Buckley, the Jesuit who discusses the history of atheism so astutely, has this to say: “Diderot stripped Descartes of his theological metaphysics, and insisting on the autonomy of mechanics, restates Lucretius.”[32]

D’Holbach, states James Thrower, is probably the first unequivocally professed atheist in the Western tradition.[33] However, La Mettrie expressed similar views in La Homme Machine (1748.) La Mettrie was an atheist as well.  D’Holbach’s attack on religion is devastating and can be found in his book, The System of Nature (1770.) He has three objections to religion. If morality is founded on religion and religion proves unsound and its foundations collapse, morality might collapse with it.  The church supports an unjust social order. Religion is unscientific and supports untruth. Here is Michael Buckley’s view of D’Holbach’s writings: “The System of Nature allows a discussion of the origin of religious beliefs and the validity of theological argument which will allow D’Holbach’s work to present a coherent alternative to religious conviction.”[34] D’Holbach’s view of religion’s origins is that it is based on fear of the unknown and men’s ignorance of natural causes. Nature, not god, is eternal and infinite. Nature is its own end and is complete in itself. Morality will come from man’s own sense of self-respect. D’Holbach lists the peaceful atheists to be found in history-Epicurus, Lucretius, and Hobbes, among others.  He notes that it is religious fanaticism that causes violence, not atheism.  He states that he writes for a future age, that his views are too advanced for his contemporaries.  His optimism for the future is exemplary of the Enlightenment.

David Hume, the classical skeptic, while never claiming he was a non believer, might have been a covert atheist.  His skeptical impact up to the present day is consequential. (See Atheist Philosophy-Skepticism) Scholars have found that the Philo character in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) is voicing Hume’s own opinions.  Philo reviews all the traditional arguments for god’s existence in the Dialogues. Many of the same arguments are still in play today. (See Arguments for and against the Existence of God) Hume analyzes causality and its relation to the cosmological argument for god’s existence. He critiques the teleological argument and the argument from design, as well. He is devastating when he attacks the question of miracles.  Hume concludes that religion is founded on faith and not reason.  He states that religion may not endure if put to the test of reason.

The first avowedly atheist book published in Britain was most likely written by a physician, Matthew Turner, and his friend, William Hammon.  It was titled Answer to Dr. Priestley’s letter to a philosophical unbeliever in 1782. Priestly was a Unitarian and the discoverer of oxygen.  His home was burned during riots and he ultimately went into exile to Philadelphia. The Answer is a statement of complete atheism. (Priestly was a Christian Unitarian.) This book may be the first time a writer has claimed the title “atheist.” Turner writes: “…as to the question whether there is such an existent Being as an atheist, put that out of all manner of doubt, I do declare upon my honor I am one.[35] His avowal will become a self-identifying symbol of pride when people begin to describe themselves as atheists by the middle of the 20th Century. The Preface will now turn to atheism in the 19th and 20th Centuries and beyond, to the present day.

Atheism in the 19th Century, the 20th Century, and up to the Present Day

The importance of science vis-à-vis irreligion picks up its pace in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  Before discussing the intellectual and philosophical aspects of atheism in the modern world, it is important to glance at the scientific discoveries which had serious consequences for religious thought. In 1859, Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, and the reverberations from his discovery that species arise from natural selection are still felt in the 21st Century. (See Science- Biology) and (see Creationism vs Evolution) for a complete discussion of Darwin’s theory and the opposition to it.)

In 1900, quantum theory was proposed by Planck.  Einstein stated the Wave-Particle Duality of Light in 1905 and the Special Theory of Relativity.  In 1906 Oldham produced evidence the earth has a core. There were more discoveries in the 20th Century, such as the first mapping of a gene to a chromosome (1910), discovery of the atomic nucleus (1911), the General Theory of Relativity (1915), and a synthesis of genetics with the theory of evolution (1918). There was the statement of quantum mechanics (1925.) The description of Australopithecus africanus came in 1925, nuclear fission in 1939, radiocarbon dating in 1946, the structure of DNA was described in 1953, and in 1963 the discovery of quasars was announced.  In 2001, came the publication of the near-complete sequencing of the human genome.[36]

In addition, quantum mechanics demonstrates that the micro world of atoms and electrons behaves differently than the macro world where classical mechanics hold sway.  The exact position of an electron in an atom is not known.  An important feature of quantum mechanics is uncertainty. Chaos theory applies to systems, such as weather, that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. This sensitivity is known as “the butterfly effect.” Such small differences in initial conditions yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long term prediction impossible in general.[37]

It becomes evident that relativity and uncertainty were the dominant thought processes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Science and philosophical thinking converged concerning doubt and the impact is felt to the present day.

The 19th Century Romantics elevated feeling and individuality above all things.  The most famous atheist of the English Romantic poets was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who in 1811, wrote The Necessity of Atheism. He was promptly expelled from Oxford.  The most famous religious representative of the time was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834,) who believed god could be found in the religious experience, by going within the individual.  His approach was never submitted to a robust philosophical examination, according to Thrower, and the consequences linger to the present.[38] Michael Buckley has a different opinion.  He maintains that Schleiermacher’s approach was very harmful for religion and theology, moving man inside himself rather than outward to Christ.  The difficulty was that by putting god into consciousness, such a concept could be dispensed with if a naturalist explanation for consciousness were found. Feuerbach did just what was feared- locating the idea of god as a projection of man who had a sense that he could transform himself and his society but found it easier to project such sublime ideals to a god. Feuerbach turned religion into anthropology in his Essence of Christianity (1841.) (See Atheist Philosophy- Two Atheist Philosophers) for an extended discussion of Feuerbach.)

Marx was very influenced by Feuerbach and he, too, equated religion with projection and fantasy wish-fulfillment.  He maintained that religion distracted man from creating a world free of oppression.  Here are some of his elegant words on the topic of religion, which he wrote in an 1844 paper on the philosopher, Hegel. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.  The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for the real happiness.”[39] (See Atheist Sociologies.)

Nietzsche was an early existentialist and one of the most important philosophers of atheism in the latter part of the 19th Century. (See Atheist Philosophies- Existentialism for an extended discussion of Nietzsche.) Nietzsche was a philosopher who could not only think of the death of god, which he proclaimed, but could also feel its effects.  Nietzsche felt the agony, the suffering and the void later generations would experience as a consequence of unbelief.  He could also experience the joy of building something new and creative out of the void.  He proclaimed that “God is dead and we have killed him,” meaning modern man no longer believed in god.  In a god’s place, Nietzsche wanted to build an entirely new value system.  The new values, what Nietzsche called the “transvaluation of all values,” was to be found by a new breed of men, the overmen, who would transcend the loss of the old, outworn, and worthless values. The new men would create a new society based on courage and joy.  Nietzsche attacked Christian moral values in Genealogy of Morals (1887.)

Many English intellectuals had little fear concerning the loss of morals when they lost their religion.  In 1856, when Sir Stephen Leslie lost his faith, he said: “I believe in nothing but I do not the less believe in morality, etc., etc. I mean to live and die like a gentleman if possible.”[40] Thomas Huxley, John Stuart Mill, and George Eliot all expressed the same conviction that loss of belief did not make them lose moral rectitude.  Charles Bradlaugh was an English example of militant atheism in the 19th Century. He was head of the London Secular Party.  He was a monist, in other words, a naturalist.  He said that atheist was the best word to describe freethought and repeatedly stated that he believed there was no god.[41]When finally elected to the English Parliament, he was denied his seat and not allowed to affirm his oath.  After six years, he affirmed and took his seat in 1886.  In Parliament, he was responsible for many reforms, another example of atheists’ sense of responsibility and their moral probity.

Walter E. Houghton’s seminal volume, The Victorian Frame of Mind: 1830-1870, reveals the doubts that assailed ordinary citizens, as well as the intellectual class, in 19th Century England.  Doubt became even more predominant with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859.  The working class had execrable working and living conditions; its lack of religiosity was frightening to the bourgeoisie who feared a revolution similar to the earlier one in France.  Darwin was denounced in some quarters for making the foundations of society more vulnerable than they already were with his theory of evolution.  The public opinion that wanted more curbs on free thought and expression was the same one that was expressing deep-seated fears.[42] The public was aware of the creeping tide of disbelief that they feared would overwhelm the country. Matthew Arnold’s superb poem, Dover Beach (1867) is an elegant statement of secular agnosticism. “The darkening plain” Arnold writes of in the poem is the world of wars and confusion that people were faced with; they had no comfort within themselves or without, as many began to lose confidence in a divine order. Dover Beach is a sorrowful and elegiac statement about the loss of belief taking place in the modern world.

The 20th Century saw the beginning of several philosophies that would help men and women in the endeavor to live with confidence and joy without god, as Nietzsche had tried to encourage in his writings. Existentialism was not without theistic philosophers, but the atheist philosophers of existentialism were the most well known and read.  Jean Paul Sartre, the most famous and influential existentialist, was an avowed atheist, as was the eminent Albert Camus. The problem of god, for Sartre, was a real one.  It involved the loss of meaning in the world, or at least the loss of prescribed meaning. If life had no given significance, Sartre believed man could supply it for himself.  It was in making life decisions and moral choices, as well as choosing projects and seeing them through to their conclusion, that created meaning for each person. Camus, as well, found that although life was absurd one could take up the burden and live creatively and joyously. (See Atheist Philosophies- Existentialism) for an extended discussion of Existential Philosophy, Sartre and Camus.)

Sigmund Freud had significant influence in the earlier portion of the 20th Century.  Freud was an atheist who attacked religion relentlessly. (See Atheist Psychologies- Freud) for an extended discussion of Freud and his works.) Freud’s Future of an Illusion (1927) is an explanation of his theory that the belief in god is the desire for a “magnified father.” Substitute gratification for giving up our primitive instincts and drives came from embracing religion, according to Freud.  Religion, for him, is a form of wish fulfillment.  Life is very hard, and facing death is difficult to endure. Belief in god places people into a form of regression, a return to the “safety” of childhood.  People receive a sense of security believing that they have a god, the father, caring for them.

A.J. Ayer’s logical positivism was another blow to religious faith. (See Atheist Philosophies- Logical Positivism) for an extended discussion of Ayer’s school of philosophy.) Positivists put forward a criterion of meaning for scientific and other language statements known as the “verification principle.” Thrower explains that the positivists believed that for a proposition to be meaningful one should know, in principle at least, how it might be verified or falsified. They found that only sense verification counts as verification that is meaningful. Religious (as well as ethical and aesthetic propositions) were, it was claimed, unable to meet this requirement and were therefore dismissed as nonsensical.[43] A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936), which had great success in England and the United States, made clear that the logical positivist school considered religious propositions meaningless.  Ayer did not take any position-theist, agnostic or atheist- for himself, because he maintained none of the stances made any sense at all.  His ideas were a telling attack on Christianity and all religion.  Although logical positivism is not in vogue any longer, Ayer and his colleagues contributed to weakening of religious dogmatism.

As a result of science, psychology and philosophy’s secular conceptualizations, there is a sense in the present day, at least in intellectual circles, as well as some liberal theological groups, that religion is a choice, a life stance, a perspective, rather than truth received by divine inspiration from a supernatural being. Such secular thinking is beginning to be felt beyond the educated classes to the public of the modern world.  Once the thought of religion becomes an individual choice rather than a necessity for one’s salvation, it is sometimes accompanied by the idea of leaving religion behind altogether.  That is what many modern people are doing, finding they can live fulfilling lives in a naturalistic world.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) deserves mention in the discussion of 20th Century atheism. Russell was a brilliant mathematician, philosopher and social activist during the last century.  His essay, Why I am not a Christian (1927) is still in print and consequential for people beginning to search out books on unbelief.  It is on the New York Public Library’s list of the most influential books of the 20th Century. Thrower states that Russell’s atheism is classic, monumental, and based on 19th Century premises. He maintains that for Russell, the universe is a brute fact.  It just is.  Science adequately explains, or will eventually explain, the universe’s workings, and nothing more needs to be said.[44]

The Preface’s brief glance through the history of atheism ends here, with religion still strong, but being pushed back by every new scientific discovery.  The latest object of study is man himself, particularly consciousness and the brain.  Most atheists believe brain and mind are inseparable, and that thought arises from the physical brain.  Neuroscience is in its infancy, as it were, but it is beginning to make breakthroughs concerning how the mind responds to religious language and thought and what is perceived as religious experience. (See Atheist Psychology- Neuroscience.)

Atheism is surging forward with new books being written by its proponents, and with many atheists taking a more activist stance. (See Atheist Activism and Atheism in the History of the United States.) Atheist books by the biologist, Richard Dawkins, and the philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett, have had brisk sales and have influenced many people in the direction of non belief.  Books on the history of atheism need amplification, however.  There is as yet no major, comprehensive history of atheism in the West, although there are excellent histories of atheism in Britain and France and of certain periods when atheism flourished (See Works Consulted and the Book List below.) There is also no comparative history of atheism on the horizon, which is to be regretted in this global world of the present.

David Wootton has some informative thoughts on the history of atheism.  Our irreligious past is shrouded in some obfuscation.  Wooton does not believe there were no atheists, as has been claimed, prior to the late 1770’s.  He is using the word atheist to mean someone who does not believe in the existence of god.  He cites four excellent reasons to discredit the contention of those who maintain that it was impossible to disbelieve in god before the 18th or 19th Centuries. Evidence of unbelief has been found in accounts of trials and autobiographies. The fact that unbelief was punishable by death makes sure that we will never know how many unbelievers there actually were. Theologians from the past tell us regularly in their writings that they have disputed with non believers.  Finally, much of the intellectual activity of the late 16th, 17th and early 18th Centuries, from Montaigne to John Locke, makes no sense at all unless there was a real (not merely fictional) dialogue between belief and unbelief.[45] The dialogue continues today, and the evidence mounts for the certainty of atheism.

Video of Lecture: Atheism from Greece to the Modern World

Lecture: Atheism from Greece to the Modern World

Video of Discussion: Atheism from Greece to the Modern World

Discussion: Atheism from Greece to the Modern World

Recommended Books

The following Books have been chosen for their merit by critics and readers:

Berman, David. (1988) A History of Atheism in Britain from Hobbes to Russell. London; New York: Chapman Hall, 1990.

David Berman raises interesting points in his history of British atheism; he finds that atheist history has been distorted.  His research has found that there are many denials of the existence of early atheism by historians in the field. Such negations help keep the picture of atheism cloudy.  The denials cause a doubt to arise; why have the writers bothered to continue repeating that there was no atheism if none existed?  Why would the issue come up so often? Berman believes there was a consequential attempt to suppress atheism in the 1600’s and early 1700’s by denying that there was any atheism during those periods. He calls attention to the fact that writers from those earlier eras attempt to denigrate a “non-existent” atheism by hedging.  They state that if atheists did exist, their word and honor could never be trusted. Then they maintain that no atheists exist. Berman uses atheism in the modern sense, the non belief in a god’s existence.  He believes there was speculative atheism, which is the result of thinking about the question of god and faith.

Berman states that an inference can be made that when legal acts to suppress atheism begin, atheism has grown stronger and is seen as a threat. The first two acts in Britain were in 1666 and 1667-8. By the period of the Restoration, Berman finds that there were atheists who denied their unbelief.  The Earl of Rochester was a practical atheist for most of his life, living as if god did not exist.  He was not alone, but associated with avowed atheists.

Anthony Collins was a speculative atheist who emphasized the use of reason.  Berman is reasonably convinced that Collins was an atheist rather than a deist.  There is a problem with positively indentifying atheist thinkers in early Britain because many of them called themselves deists.  He believes that a significant number of such men advocated deism as an alternative to Christian doctrine.  Berman maintains that Hume, the skeptical philosopher, was an atheist, but that he concealed it by writing speculatively and skeptically concerning miracles and revelation, non material aspects of Christian doctrine. He makes a good case for Hobbes’ atheism, and the same may have been true about Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher. Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) may be a crypto-atheist work, according to Berman.

One of Berman’s most interesting chapters is the fifth, in which he discusses the birth of avowed atheism, 1782-1797. He has found the putatively first avowedly atheist book published in London in 1792.  It was titled: Answer to Dr. Priestley’s Letters to a philosophical unbeliever. Berman has two aims concerning his discussion of Answer. The first is to demonstrate how recent avowed atheism is.  The second is to rescue the volume from its obscurity. Berman believes that no other volume exists earlier than Answer, in which the author states that he is an atheist.  Historians have yet to find one. Berman made this claim for the book earlier in two papers, and so far his contention has not been disputed.

The authors of Answer were probably a Matthew Turner, a physician of some reputation, and a friend. Turner was known for the fact that he either perfected or contributed to the perfection of the art of copying on glass. His friend, William Hammon, likely wrote some of the parts of Answer. (See Preface for more of the story.)  The authors of Answer deal with the existence of god, his supposed omniscience and omnipresence, first cause, and the problem of evil.  (See Arguments for and against the Existence of god.) Berman discusses Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet. The tract Shelley wrote in 1811 titled The Necessity of Atheism was a very early atheist volume as well.

As in America, 18th and 19th Century Britain saw atheism connected to freethought.  Berman discusses important figures in the movement such as Richard Carlile, Charles Southwell and George Holyoake, who stated that theists could not prove god’s existence.  Bradlaugh refused to swear the Parliamentary oath, but offered to affirm it.  He was denied his seat in Parliament for 6 years but was finally seated after being elected several times.Berman ends his tantalizing and sometimes speculative history with the atheists G.E. Moore, J.E.McTaggart and Bertrand Russell.  Russell’s Essay of 1927, titled “Why I am not a Christian,” is still cited by atheists as having had a great influence on the genesis of their unbelief.

Berman is a clear and accessible writer.  One does not need a background in atheist studies or philosophy to follow his succinct and provocative points.  The volume is an excellent history of British atheism. It has helpful endnotes but no bibliography.  Once again, the question of when the history of atheist thinking began has been raised.  It remains a vexing issue.

Buckley, Michael J., S.J. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

This volume is a very provocative book, written by a Jesuit intellectual.  Buckley begins with the question of “How did the idea of atheism emerge in the modern world and take so firm a hold?” He dismisses the speculation concerning Socrates and the early ancient philosophers having been atheists; he rightly finds them more akin to skeptics and agnostics.  He echoes other theist authors who insist that atheism can make sense only when defined against theism. It will be seen below, in James Thrower’s Western Atheism, that such an assertion is not robust. Buckley believes atheism became entrenched with the beginnings of modernity, which he maintains was initiated by Galileo. The copious discoveries and research of the new scientists contributed significantly as well. He is of the opinion that some of the new scientists tried to reconcile science and theology.  Newton and Descartes, among others, attempted to “save god” by creating a coherent picture of the world that would make the concept of god necessary.  The problem of God, according to the Louvain theologian, Leonard Lessius (died 1623) was a philosophical problem, not a theological one. He drew that conclusion from the Summa of Thomas Aquinas.  Theologians began to believe christology and religious experience were not strong defenses.  Such low salient attempts to defend faith carried the seeds of destruction within them.

Diderot and D’Holbach easily turned the physics and philosophy of Descartes, et al, into “instruments of negation.” They directed people’s vision to a mechanistic universe that was its own explanation and maintained that god was projection of man’s fears.  Both of these atheists created a worldview void of transcendence. (At this point in the book, many atheists will breathe a sigh of relief.) Buckley maintains that Friedrich Schleiermacher gave up the cosmos to the physicists and turned within to the depths of human consciousness to create a new theism. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is called the father of  modern liberal theology.  He tried to reconcile the Enlightenment critique with Protestant orthodoxy. Buckley holds that the attempt triggered the new atheism, running from Feuerbach to Freud. (See Preface above.)  Buckley then turns back to the philosophy of Blaise Pascal and the idea of Christ, as well as the religious experience to be found in Christ.  This is surely shaky ground, given what we now know of Jesus. Some historians believe that he was likely a composite of early gods and not a real figure, let alone a god incarnate. (See Historicity of Jesus.) We modern readers are also aware of the non-convincing nature of the individual religious experience.

At the Origins of Modern Atheism is a brilliant and clever book.  Buckley is rungs on the ladder above Plantinga and Swinburne, the two leading theologians of the current day, in terms of his depth and intellectual acuity. (See Arguments for and against the Existence of God.) The book is very well written and accessible for the advanced atheist reader. A scholar beginning the study of atheist history would profit from reading Thrower’s Western Atheism, discussed below, before assaying Buckley.  At the Origins has a fine bibliography and excellent end notes.  The volume is a penetrating look at the origins of atheism from a different perspective, that of a brilliant theist historian. Atheist thought during the Enlightenment emerges as convincing and consequential in Origins. Of course, such an outcome was unintended by Father Buckley.

Geroulanos, Stefanos. An Atheism that is not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. (Cultural Memory in the Present.) Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

The Atheist Scholar program has discussed humanism (See Atheist Philosophies- Humanism) many times-its goals, its philosophy, history and proponents.  But what of noted philosophers and thinkers who have found humanism a failure?  There are intellectuals who have looked forward to an atheism no longer framed by a humanist philosophy.  Stefanos Geroulanos, a noted intellectual historian, has traced the tangled threads of atheist anti-humanism back to its early roots in the 1930’s in his erudite volume.

Before discussing the emergence of specific anti-humanism with regard to atheist history, it is necessary to turn back to Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher, for whom humanism was nothing more than a secular version of theism.  Heidegger, an existentialist philosopher, also believed that humanism attempts to ascribe humanity with a universal essence.  Humanism privileges humanity above all other forms of existence.  Althusser, a French philosopher, believed that everything about the human- beliefs, desires, preferences and judgments- are the result of social practices.  Both Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, famous post modernists, believed in the decentered subject, that it was language practices and power that made the human.

The strength of Geroulanos’ book is the patient search for not only the famous anti-humanists, but for the lesser known thinkers, who nevertheless helped significantly shape atheist anti-humanism.  He begins with the 1930’s “Bourgeois Humanism and a First Death of Man,” detailing Alexandre Kojeve’s negative anthropology. Part 2 discusses the post war decade, focusing on “After the Resistance,” “Atheism and Freedom after the death of God,” and finishing with “Man’s Suspension.”  

Geroulanos is most astute when explaining the stance of the French intellectual, Maurice Blanchot, who saw the way to an endless refutation of god; he considered belief in god an oppression.  Blanchot criticized both traditional atheism and its religious critics.  Here is Geroulanos quoting Blanchot from Work of Fire, (1949,) 296. “The death of God is less a negotiation aiming in the infinite than an affirmation of the infinite power to deny and to live to the end of this power.  In the Death of God, it is not atheism that counts (whether positive or not), but the experience of man as freedom or, more exactly, the fact that in one and the same experience is disclosed the absence of all recourse to an unconditional being, along with the structure of human freedom as unconditioned ability to separate oneself from oneself, to escape oneself, to free oneself by means of an infinite questioning.”

An Atheism is a brilliantly written, thoughtful book that presents the reader with the history of a modern atheism that has separated itself from humanism.  The volume has an excellent and extensive bibliography and fine end notes. It is not recommended for a reader who has not had experience reading post modern philosophy and/or atheist philosophy.  It will be highly rewarding for readers who want to extend their scholarship in atheist history beyond the boundaries of humanism.

Hecht, Jennifer Michael.  Doubt: A History. The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. New York: HarperOne, 2003.

Jennifer Michael Hecht has performed an excellent service for the secular community by writing this large and erudite, but at the same time, accessible and chatty volume of the history of doubt.  Doubt includes Eastern doubt concerning religion, as well as Western thought, making it an illuminating and informative volume. It is of great value for the atheist and other secular readers.

Hecht begins with a set of questions designed to locate readers’ commitment to certain concepts that separate atheists from agnostics.  She then moves to ancient Greece, discussing Socrates, the 5th Century philosopher, who put the meaning and principles of so many words and beliefs to the test. What does one mean when he says “virtue?” What does one mean when she says “honor?” Socrates lived with doubt and embraced it.  The chapter on the Greeks discusses the epicureans, the stoics, and the cynics, all schools of philosophy that had a secular orientation, but not necessarily one that was atheist. Pyrrho was the first skeptic, whose system was preserved by Sextus Empiricus, who wrote in late 2nd and early 3rd Century C.E., Rome.  Skeptics questioned everything, beliefs and concepts, and concluded that one should neither affirm nor deny anything. Lucian of Samosata is given space in Doubt. Lucian (120 C.E.-190 C.E.) mocked all philosophy and Christianity as well.

There is an excellent chapter on Jewish doubt and an explanation of how the Jews of Alexandria began to convert to secular Greek Hellenistic culture until the Maccabee revolt put a stop to such assimilative practices around 162 or so B.C.E. Hecht discusses Christian doubt, Medieval doubt, and provides a history of secularism with her excellent research and fine style.  Her book includes ample quotes from major doubters as less well known skeptics.  She moves the reader through the Enlightenment and Reformation, on what becomes a whirlwind tour of disbelief.  Doubt devotes a chapter of the book to the history of the printing press and its effect on skepticism. The chapter includes a chilling but illuminating discussion of the Inquisition.  Hecht has included excerpts from trials of “atheists.” The reader learns that some people were put to death for the specific crime of not believing in god.  Such reports from trials corroborates the inferences of Berman, Wootton and other historians of atheism that there were many instances of non belief in god prior to avowed atheism in the late 1700’s.

Hecht writes about Thomas Jefferson and doubt in the White House of the United States.  She discusses skepticism and secularism in the modern world as well.  The reader encounters Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, Clarence Darrow and Albert Einstein.  The volume’s final chapters include pieces on existentialism, Bertrand Russell and Margaret Knight, a British proponent of atheism.  Hecht blends historical periods smoothly with the inclusion of individuals who did not believe in received religion and their words and thoughts.  She creates a rich history of secularism in the process.

Hecht’s panorama of doubt is an important addition to secular literature.  She closes with a paean to living joyously, despite the struggles and difficulty of life.  Her book has taken the reader on a journey, East and West, from ancient Greece to the contemporary world.  She is a lively and accessible author.  Atheists just beginning the study of secular history will profit from her volume, as well as secular readers who want a review of material they may have already encountered.  Highly Recommended.

Hunter, Michael and David Wootton, eds. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. New York; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Hunter and Wootton, scholars and historians, have brought together an impressive group of contributors to their volume on atheist history.  Both editors have also contributed articles to this compilation.  The introduction discusses the difficulty and pitfalls in attempting to record and discuss atheist history prior to the late 1700’s. We have been reminded of this fact before and it is an egregious insult to our history.  Pious historians ignored atheism, while writers with a religious or political agenda cast the label “atheist” on many thinkers who diverged from Christian dogma, but were not necessarily what we think of as atheists in the modern sense of the word. We define the word as a belief in no god or gods.  The editors have chosen scholars who attempt to deal with the methodological problems involved in identifying early atheism.

Wootton’s chapter covers the attacks made in the post war years concerning histories of irreligion, particularly by the scholars Lucien Febvre and P.O. Kristeller. The attacks were a powerful inhibitor to scholars attempting to write about atheism.  Davidson’s study is replete with the history of irreligious ideas in Italy from 1500 to 1700.It is ironic that there were such indications of irreligion in a very Catholic nation, but apparently lack of belief extended to the citizenry as well as the scholars.  Tullio Gregory claims that 1700’s France had as many as 50,000 atheists.  Gregory writes about Pierre Charron’s book, De le sagesse. Charron was a friend of the skeptical Montaigne, and his book prioritized reason and helped the spread of secularism.   Richard Tuck discusses Hobbes, the author of Leviathan ( 1691), and his lack of religiosity, which Hobbes regularly denied. Tuck points out that Hobbes maintained that the head of state had ultimate power over religious matters, relegating Christianity to a merely civil religion.  Richard Popkin discusses the Theophrastus redivivius,(1659) which culled anti-Christian sentiments from authors such as Hobbes, Vanini, and Charron.

Silvia Berti’s chapter establishes the fact that the book Traite de trois imposteurs was printed with a life of Spinoza, the philosopher.  She also discusses the subversive network that linked freethinkers and provided material for an open assault on Christianity in the late 17th and 18th Centuries.  David Wootton writes about Aikenhead, a student who was executed for his irreligion in Scotland.  David Berman writes of two notorious British freethinkers, Blount and Toland.  Berman believes a number of texts of the times were written in “bad faith” and had carefully coded subversive messages of non belief.  Alan Kors discusses the authors of the Enlightenment, when such figures as D’Holbach and Diderot attacked religion.  While both men were strongly influenced by earlier irreligious thinkers, Kors points out that they drew implications from ostensibly orthodox scholars, as well, such as Descartes, Locke and Newton.  The concepts of naturalism, mechanism, and sensationalism had large implications for atheists but orthodox ideas also had influence on the rise of atheism.

Hunter and Wooton’s book is an important addition to atheist history.  Some readers will find the writing dry; others will find it exciting and accessible. The editors have not provided a bibliography and the index is merely a name index.  But each author’s chapter citations provide excellent endnotes.  Atheism is an outstanding addition to the history of disbelief.

Thrower, James. Western Atheism: A Short History. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Thrower’s Western Atheism deals with European irreligion. Although the book is short, its scope and breadth, as well as its conciseness and elegant style, make it an essential addition to the history of atheism.  It is divided into three historical periods: classical antiquity, Western atheism to the 17th Century, including the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and modern atheism, which discusses the Enlightenment and the 19th Century until the present. Thrower is particularly strong in the area of classical disbelief and the portion of his book devoted to antiquity is the most interesting and thought provoking.  He presents a convincing case for the beginning of a naturalist world view arising in Greek Ionia, among the Milesian philosophers in the 6th Century B.C.E He believes their thinking was very influential on the atomists of the future, such as Democritus.  

Thrower then turns his attention to the Middle Ages and the discovery of the 4th Century Greek philosopher Aristotle’s writings. Aristotle’s works had been lost to Western Europe, and the early Middle Ages was dominated by the thinking of Plato and neo-Platonism.  The 14th Century was called the skeptical century.  St. Thomas of Aquinas had helped stop the spread of secularism but Dons Scotus and William of Ockham, theologians attempting to save Christianity, probably harmed it.  They separated faith and reason and opened the door for faith to be discarded.

Thrower discusses the Renaissance and rise of science in an interesting manner.  He describes the earlier part of the Renaissance as classically oriented, looking backward to the Greeks and Romans, such as Lucian and Lucretius and their secular works.  He maintains that the second part of the Renaissance was more empirical, and more scientifically oriented.  Skepticism had a great deal of influence, especially with the spread of such works as the Essays of Montaigne (1580). Montaigne’s thinking can be traced back to the Greek skeptic, Pyhhro, and was a revival of that philosophy. (See Atheist Philosophies- Skepticism.)

Thrower discusses three seminal thinkers of the 17th Century.  He maintains that Descartes, who in trying to help religion’s cause with his philosophy, hurt it by making matters close to faith subject to rational inquiry.  Spinoza denied a first cause and identified god with nature, a monistic stance which was alien to religion.  Hobbes denied being an atheist, but his great Leviathan was a depiction of society as a social contract and religion as a enforcer of order. 

Thrower then turns to an account of the French Enlightenment and the atheism of Diderot and the Baron D’Holbach.  D’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770), is an openly atheist volume.  Such key philosophical thinkers as Kant and Hume are discussed in the Enlightenment chapter.  Thrower explains that theism had to find a defense for religion, as the science of nature was threatening it.  Theologians established religion within moral and religious experience, which was a greatly weakened stance.

Thrower does not devote a great deal of space in his short volume to the 19th and 20th Centuries, but he touches very succinctly on the important figures and their philosophies, such as Nietzsche (See Atheist Philosophies- Existentialism), Marx (See Atheist Sociologies), and Freud (See Atheist Psychologies.)  He concludes with the logical positivists who saw the concept of god as meaningless nonsense. (See Atheist Philosophies- Logical Positivism.

Thrower’s Western Atheism discusses atheism on its own terms.  Too many historians have defined unbelief as though it is dependent on, and has risen out of, theism. He puts atheism in its rightful place philosophically.  The author has an elegant style and makes the position of the various thinkers very accessible.  Western Atheism is the only book of its kind in recent years.  There is still a need for a comprehensive, comparative history of atheism.  Thrower’s Western Atheism, however, is a must read. Atheist students of the history of irreligion will not find a better book with which to begin to understand unbelief’s intellectual development through the centuries. The volume has a very nice, select bibliography, useful end notes, and a good subject and name index.      Highly Recommended.

The Atheist Scholar gratefully acknowledges the Preface to Atheist History’s dependence on James Thrower’s Western Atheism, both for its factual and intellectual information, and also for its organization of material.

Further Reading

Peter Dear. Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700. (1978); Allen G. Rebus. Nature in the Renaissance. (1992); J. Brownowski. The Western Intellectual Tradition. (1963); John Burnett. The Early Greek Philosophers. (1930); John Greene. Darwin and the Modern World. (1963). Marshall, Paul and Nina Shea. Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide. (2011.) 

Julian Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford, 2003,) provides a short explanation of atheism’s connection, or rather, lack of it, to the National Socialism in Germany in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, and to Soviet Russia of the 20th Century.  Both Germany and Russia had strong ties to religion.  Atheist scholars interested in charges against atheism will find Baggini’s discussion informative.  He cautions that fundamentalism of any sort is a danger to human freedom and that the political aim of atheism must always be for a secular government rather than an atheist one.


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