A Short History of Atheism
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A Short History of Atheism

Gavin Hyman

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A Short History of Atheism

Gavin Hyman

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The last few years have seen a remarkable surge of popular interest in the topic of atheism. Books about atheism by writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have figured prominently in bestseller lists and have attracted widespread discussion in the media. The ubiquity of public debates about atheism, especially in conscious opposition to the perceived social threat posed by faith and religion, has been startling. However, as Gavin Hyman points out, despite their prevalence and popularity, what often characterises these debates is a lack of nuance and sophistication. They can be shrill, ignorant of the historical complexity of debates about belief, and tend to lapse into caricature. What is needed is a clear and well informed presentation of how atheistic ideas originated and developed, in order to illuminate their contemporary relevance and application. That task is what the author undertakes here. Exploring the rise of atheism as an explicit philosophical position (notably in the work of Denis Diderot), Hyman traces its development in the later ideas of Descartes, Locke and Berkeley.
Drawing also on the work of contemporary scholars like Amos Funkenstein and Michael J Buckley, the author shows that, since in recent theology the concept of God which atheists negate is changing, the triumph of its advocates may not be quite as unequivocal as Hitchens and Dawkins would have us believe.

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I.B. Tauris
Chapter 1

The ‘Appearance’ of Atheism in Modern History

In any discussion of the ‘appearance’ of atheism in the West, it is important to distinguish between two distinct spheres in which this occurred. On the one hand, it is possible to trace the emergence and development of atheism in modern thought as an intellectual phenomenon among writers, philosophers, artists and other elites. On the other hand, one may trace a parallel development of atheism in history as a cultural phenomenon, whereby atheism becomes a possible option, a viable world-view, whether for society as a whole or for groups or individuals within societies. To trace the contours of both these developments is to tell two quite distinct stories, each with their own beginnings and histories. There may be parallels and points of contact between them, but the time and manner of their respective developments are quite distinct.
It is also worth noting at this point that the story of the appearance of atheism is part of a wider story of the appearance of ‘unbelief’ in relation to Christianity. For, as we shall see, atheism is but one species of unbelief that emerged alongside, or in reaction against, other forms such as scepticism, ‘free thinking’ and, later, agnosticism. All these varieties of unbelief have their own distinct characteristics, but they are all part of a wider story of the gradual weakening of the hold of Christian orthodoxy on Western thought and Western society in general. As Charles Taylor has recently emphasised, there has been a remarkable shift in Western society, the revolutionary character of which is not always fully appreciated.1 In a relatively short period (in world historical terms) of 500 years, we have moved from a situation (in around, say, 1500) in which it was almost inconceivable for an individual to take a stance of unbelief to one (in around, say, 2000) where unbelief has not only become a perfectly viable option, but a widespread and perhaps even the dominant one. This latter situation is the defining feature of what Taylor characterises as a ‘secular age’.
His impressively detailed survey of the emergence of the ‘secular’ is undertaken to counter what he calls the ‘subtraction’ thesis of secularisation, the influence of which is remarkably widespread, even if not consciously acknowledged. This holds that ‘secularism’ is what is left, the remaining residue, once supernaturalism and superstition have finally been expunged. This, indeed, appears to be the underlying assumption of many of the contemporary popularisers of atheism, as discussed in the Introduction. On the contrary, argues Taylor, secularism is a positive and substantive intellectual world-view, the emergence of which is itself in need of explanation and which can be traced in terms of specific and contingent developments in Western thought and practice. Taylor himself acknowledges that his account is complementary to those of several other scholars who likewise dispute the notion that the emergence of the secular was somehow the result of a process of teleological necessity. Indeed, we shall be invoking some of these scholars in the chapters that follow, as their accounts likewise feed into my own, which contends that there is a deep connection between atheism, modernity and (modern) religion. But it is time now to turn explicitly to the question of the ‘appearance’ of atheism in modernity.
Although we have already noted the difficulties in identifying precisely where modernity ‘begins’, it is instructive to note that the term ‘atheism’ as an identifiable outlook is roughly contemporaneous with the birth of modernity itself. It has often been noted by scholars of antiquity that what we understand as ‘atheism’ would have been unintelligible to the classical mind. Certainly, there were disagreements on the nature of the gods or their activities, and sometimes even the denial of the existence of certain gods. But the notion, intrinsic to the modern understanding of atheism, of immanence – of the world existing quite free of any sort of transcendent realm – would have been almost unintelligible to them. As Jan N. Bremmer has said of Greek and Roman antiquity:
[A]theism never developed into a popular ideology with a recognizable following. All we have in antiquity is the exceptional individual who dared to voice his disbelief or bold philosophers who proposed intellectual theories about the coming into existence of the gods without, normally, putting their theories into practice or rejecting religious practice altogether. If we find atheism at all, it is usually a ‘soft’ atheism or the imputation of atheism to others as a means to discredit them.2
Furthermore, Bremmer goes on to say that such ‘soft’ atheism as existed was constituted not by a resolute denial of a transcendent realm, but, rather, by a form of free thinking that ultimately sought to save the existence of the gods.
It is interesting, then, that Michael J. Buckley traces the first use of the term ‘atheism’ in England to the Greek scholar Sir John Cheke, who invokes it in a translation of Plutarch’s On Superstition, undertaken in 1540. Indeed, the fact that the term was first used in this context is instructive. Cheke himself seems to be not entirely consistent in his use of the term. In his translation of Plutarch, the word is used as a form of accusation, directed against those who think there are no gods. But in his own essay appended to the translation, it denotes the denial of the specific doctrine of divine providence. What ‘atheists’ deny, in this usage, is the belief that the gods intervene in the world, guiding it in accordance with their own plans and purposes. Such varied usages of the term are also to be found in society more generally over the next century or so, leading Buckley to speak of ‘the promiscuity of its definition and application’.3 Thus, in this period, in both England and France at least, the term ‘atheism’ often denoted some form of heresy, although it increasingly came to denote an outright denial of theism as such. This former usage of the term, though different from ours, is still instructive for our purposes. For one thing, it shows how, in the period from, say, 1540 to 1630, the notion of a world-view that was entirely outside a theistic framework was only gradually becoming conceivable. The rebellious atheist was often one who questioned or denied certain central doctrines of the theistic world-view, and only later one who questioned or denied that world-view as such. On the other hand, this earlier understanding already prefigures our later one, in that, within this more limited context, it is already a negative and parasitic term, which defines itself in terms of that which it is denying. In this sense, the structural logic of atheism – as a denial of something else – is already in place, waiting potentially to be applied to the theistic tradition as a whole rather than to one specific element within it. If this structural logic of atheism had indeed already been established, then the real revolutionary turn was the one that allowed for the taking of an external viewpoint, casting judgement on the theological tradition as a whole from a position outside it. We shall consider in subsequent chapters precisely what it was that created the conditions for this revolution to occur.
By around 1630, however, at precisely the time that Western Europe was making its traumatic transition to modernity, this revolution had occurred, with the result that the meaning of the term ‘atheism’ had transmuted its meaning fairly decisively into a form that is now more familiar to us. This had occurred in reaction to the emergence of a group of individuals, small at first but rapidly growing, who were prepared to deny the truth of theism itself. Michel de Certeau has pointed out that in France:
The ‘atheists’ who first occupy the polemic are the ‘heretics’ of every Church, the nonconformist believers and such. But soon the controversy centers on the existence of God. Around 1630 groups of ‘libertines’, erudite and skeptics [s]pring up; they will fade away around 1655 ... before coming back around 1680. ‘Atheism’, which was never spoken of a hundred years earlier, becomes a recognized fact.4
Given that such a stance was barely conceivable a little over 100 years earlier, we should not imagine that the emergence of the new so-called atheists would have been observed with equanimity. On the contrary, they would have been regarded as a threat to the structure and stability of the whole world order. Furthermore, it can in retrospect be understood as one of several symptoms of wider and deeper intellectual and cultural shifts that we would now understand as constituting the birth of modernity. Old certainties and foundations appeared to be crumbling, and people had no clear idea of what, if anything, might take their place. Such shifts, insofar as they would have been consciously perceptible as such, would have been viewed less as an evolution and more as a degeneration, the imperative thus being to halt them at all costs.
Thus, as de Certeau points out, in early seventeenth-century France, the perceived danger posed by atheism becomes almost an obsession, as clear attempts are made to eradicate this dangerous and threatening other. Atheists became subject to official sanctions and restrictions, and, when these were violated, judicial sentences against them were duly passed. Public warnings against the dangers posed by atheism became widespread. It seems that atheism was perceived as a destabilising threat of the same kind as that presented by witchcraft and sorcery, the incidence of which was high throughout Europe in the early seventeenth century. Both atheism and witchcraft were perceived as being fundamentally malign in their origins and effects, and both were suppressed with the full rigours of the law. But perhaps the most significant difference between them was that whereas witches and sorcerers destabilised the dominant order from within by utilising the symbols and vocabulary of that order, atheists destabilised it from without by questioning the truth and intelligibility of the order as such. Thus, witchcraft and sorcery may perhaps be viewed as embodying an indirect and equivocal expression of a doubt in relation to Christianity that atheism proclaimed more openly and unequivocally. Indeed, this is what Michel de Certeau suggests in his study of the infamous case of demonic possession in the convent at Loudun in the early seventeenth century. As de Certeau points out, the first appearance of ‘atheists’ who deny the existence of God is contemporaneous in Europe with the sudden rise in the incidence of witchcraft. For de Certeau, both are manifestations of the doubt and uncertainty that plagued societies as the old edifice of medieval theology began to crumble and give way to something else. In this sense, the ‘witch craze’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was perhaps a transitional manifestation of the traumatic paradigm shift that was occurring at this time. The fading away of the witch craze at the end of the seventeenth century was perhaps a sign that this fearful crossing had been made.5 Henceforth, religious doubt would be expressed in a clear and unambiguous guise, through an atheism that explicitly denied the existence of God.
If one development in the meaning of ‘atheism’ lay in the transformation from it carrying an internal ‘heretical’ connotation to it conveying an external and direct attack upon theism itself, then the next important development lay in the evolution of the term into one that could be adopted as a means of self-identification. For it has to be said that in the French context we have been discussing, and in other contexts too, the term was used primarily in the manner of an accusation or a term of abuse. In the public pronouncements, declarations, legal acts and court sentences of the time, the term ‘atheist’ was used rather in the way that such terms as ‘nihilist’ and ‘relativist’ were later used; namely, as a means to denounce others with whom one disagreed, rather than as a means of self-definition. The next major development, therefore, lay in attempts to reclaim the term as a respectable and acceptable one for atheists themselves, both in intellectual and social terms. The former was achieved before the latter, but both took some time to come to fruition. Atheism as a declaration of one’s own belief (or lack thereof) does not really appear until the mid-eighteenth century, when it became increasingly widespread in the fashionable salons of Parisian intellectuals.
In particular, Denis Diderot (1713–84), whose statue stands in the Boulevard St-Germain in Paris, is widely recognised as being the first explicitly and self-confessedly atheist philosopher. As Buckley puts it: ‘in many ways, Diderot is the first of the atheists, not simply in chronological reckoning but as an initial and premier advocate and influence.’6 He was not always an atheist, for his thought was constantly evolving, and at certain periods of his life he would more accurately be described as a theist, a deist, and at other times as a pantheist. Indeed, even in this evolutionary movement, he was paradigmatic of the Enlightenment mind. Furthermore, he became editor-in-chief of the infamous EncyclopĂ©die, an enormous undertaking and another quintessentially Enlightenment project in its scope and aims. As Buckley points out, Diderot ‘argued his case not by repudiating the mathematical physics of Descartes or the universal mechanics of Newton but by bringing them, as he contended, to fulfilment’.7
He accepted Descartes’s view of the universe as a single physical system, which is nonetheless dynamic in its obeying immutable laws which are assigned to matter in motion. But he believed that Descartes was not sufficiently faithful to his own foundational epistemology, making leaps and assumptions that were unjustifiable in its own terms. Likewise, he saw himself as freeing Newton from an urge to point beyond itself to non-mechanical principles. He saw the revolutionary character of Newton’s discoveries for our whole understanding of the natural world and the way in which this had been advanced in an unprecedented way. But he saw that these had been achieved through a consistently empirical approach to the natural sciences, unhindered by extraneous presuppositions and beliefs. When Newton turned to his discourses on theology, he appeared to be setting these tried and tested methodologies to one side in a way that could only give rise to error and fantasy. Newton had discovered an indubitably successful methodological path; having done so, Diderot believed that it was his duty to follow it without deviation. Diderot thus passed the discoveries of Descartes and Newton through the purging fire of consistency. It was not that he denied their presuppositions or fundamental methodologies; on the contrary, it was precisely his commitment to these that led him to apply them in what he considered to be a more thoroughgoing, unflinching and logically consistent way. In so doing, he made ‘the initial but definitive statement’ of atheism: ‘the principle of everything is creative nature, matter in its self-activity eternally productive of all change and all design.’8
But in making the ‘initial but definitive statement’ of atheism, he also thereby inaugurated the process of establishing ‘atheism’ as a respectable position that one could, with impunity, apply to oneself. Part of his efficacy in this respect was that he clearly could not be dismissed as a malevolent or frivolous mind. On the contrary, it was widely acknowledged that Diderot had been led to atheism as a consequence of his disinterested quest for truth, undertaken with intellectual integrity. Furthermore, he reached his atheistic conclusions by furthering and intensifying the insights of Descartes and Newton – the very thinkers upon whom Christians depended as modern defenders of the faith. Descartes was thought to provide a defence of theism using the weapons of modern philosophy, while Newton was thought to do so using those of modern science. Diderot’s contribution in this respect was to show how clearly these weapons could turn out to be double-edged swords. Indeed, in the French context, atheism’s ascent to respectability was crowned by the French Revolution. In socio-political terms, atheism was suddenly transformed from being an enemy of the state to being almost the official state creed. The newly-built Temples of Reason and the founding of the Cult of Reason bore witness to this in a particularly vivid and tangible way (although there has been disagreement amongst scholars as to the extent of continuing adherence to Christianity below the level of revolutionary officialdom).9
All of this was in marked contrast to the revolutionary experience of the then newly-emerged United States of America. It is often thought the American inauguration of the separation between church and state was one of its most significant contributions to the development of the modern polis, but the significance of this is often misunderstood. Certainly, it was a deliberate attempt to found a new political order as distinct from that of its former colonial masters. The founding fathers believed it to be essential to the new order that the state should not favour any one particular religion or denomination over others. But it should not be thought that this entailed the founding of a religiously ‘neutral’ state or, if it did, this was so only in a very specific sense. The new constitution did not envisage a public political space that was devoid of religion; on the contrary, it was saturated with it. But the point was that the religious dimension of the state should be limited to the tenets of ‘natural’ religion; that is, those elements of religion (and we were at this time, of course, talking exclusively of Christian religion) that were shared by all churches and denominations. Thus, the religious foundations of the state should be ones that could be shared by everyone, while the absence of an established church meant that everyone was also individually free to ‘supplement’ this natural religion with their own denominationally-specific religious beliefs and practices. This was the fundamental purpose behind the separation between church and state, rather than that the sphere of politics and government should be a religion-free zone.10 Thus already, in the American and French Revolutions, we see the beginnings of what has become the notorious split between a ‘secular’ Europe and a ‘religious’ America. In the USA, there was nothing remotely resembling the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution. Consequently, the new USA was as inhospitable to atheism as France was the contrary.
But if the French Revolution made atheism officially respectable in France, it appeared to have precisely the opposite effect in Britain. The British reaction to events of the revolution was one of horror, and this was to be found not only among the aristocratic elites. Memories of Britain’s own act of regicide were still relatively fresh, and the experience was not a happy one. In the British mind, the French Revolution was marked by violence, extremism, murder and immorality, however unbalanced such a characterisation was. The fact that many priests had perished with the peers loomed large in the public consciousness, and it was inevitable that an indelible connection would be made between atheism on the one hand and immorality, lawlessness and far-left revolutionary politics on the other. As a consequence, the old seventeenth-century usage of ‘athei...

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