Atheism’s modern history

A Short History of Atheism by Gavin Hyman. I. B. Tauris, 2010, 232pp.

Yes to God? For many believers, this has not been obvious for a long time. No to God? Neither has this been obvious for a long time to unbelievers. Hans Kung, Does God Exist?

Atheism has a long and fascinating history. In ancient Greece, as Diogenes Laertius informs us, men such as Diagoras of Melos, Theodorus of Cyrene, and Protagoras—the sophist of Plato’s dialogues—could be described as atheists for statements or actions which implied an impious incredulity. Recent scholarly work, however, immediately qualifies this statement: as the entry for “Atheism” in The Classical Tradition (2013) points out, it isn’t clear if these three ancient Greeks were atheists in today’s sense of the term. Arguing about the nature of the gods was unquestionably a staple of ancient thought: in Cicero’s De natura deorum, Diagoras, Theodorus, and Protagoras are mentioned as examples of men who did not seem to believe in the gods. Moreover, coherent theories explaining the origins of the gods were readily available to ancient Greeks and Romans. This included relatively well-known theories such as Euhemerism, the assertion that the gods were little more than heroic men who had been deified.  But is such an explanation of the origins of Greek polytheism easily translated into our understanding of atheism?

Between 1550 and 1750 early modern Europeans used the word atheism in a much more diffuse set of ways than we do today. When Cicero’s De natura deorum was translated in the seventeenth century, for example, there was often little difficulty in equating Diagoras’ or Theodorus’ impious unbelief as atheism—doubt about the Greek gods was often understood to be a rejection of religious belief altogether. When it first entered the vernacular languages of Europe in the early modern period, the word atheism implied not simply an intellectual denial of God’s existence, but almost any non-orthodox understanding of God and any non-orthodox practices which were taken to imply a denial of God’s existence—deviants, whether religious, social, or sexual, were conveniently portrayed as inversions of Christian belief and practice. Very often atheism was a synonym for a disturbing “other”: in early modern England accusations of atheism were closely linked to anxieties about the “foreign imports” of so-called Machiavellianism (Italy) and libertinism (France).  Atheism was thus a rhetorically polemical term used in a period of intense confessional dispute. Between the Reformation and the Enlightenment, however, the meaning of atheism became more narrowly defined, in large part owing to the arguments and orientation of several early Enlightenment thinkers which attempted to separate moral practice from intellectual belief in a broader effort to clarify the best means by which to “search after truth” (as in John Locke’s Essay concerning Humane Understanding or Pierre Bayle’s Pensées sur la comète du 1680). Yet it needs to be stressed that their early Enlightenment separation was a highly controversial minority view, and that the social, cultural, and political context of Europe remained for the most part extremely hostile to atheism and atheists for centuries to come.

Many accounts of atheism’s history tend to begin from the moment in which belief and practice were separated in the “search after truth.” Patrick Masterson’s lucid study, Atheism and Alienation: A Study of the Philosophical Sources of Contemporary Atheism (1971), sketches a history of arguments about atheism from the birth of modern philosophy in the work of René Descartes, through the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Ludwig Feuerbach, down to the twentieth-century philosophical movements of logical positivism and existentialism. Masterson’s is a succinctly written dialectical narrative in an ironic mode. He seeks “to show how the viewpoint of the cogito, reinforced by the impact of modern science, has inspired the philosophical itinerary in the course of which the traditional conviction that the alienated man is the man who does not believe in God has given way to the view that belief in God is a profound source of human alienation.” In these philosophical terms Masterson narrates the predicament captured by Hans Küng in the quotation above.

Gavin Hyman’s A Short History of Atheism begins at the same point as Masterson’s but draws on more recent historical, sociological, and philosophical scholarship to suggest that modern atheism and modern theism emerged from the early modern world together, as two sides of the same coin. By highlighting works such as Michael Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987), Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2006), Michael Allen Gillespie’s Theological Origins of Modernity (2009), and John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (2013), Hyman introduces the reader to a trenchant set of scholarly claims which ultimately suggest that both modern theism and modern atheism have been shaped by the historical dynamics by which European Christendom was transformed into a series of liberal, secular, nation-states. According to Gillespie’s Theological Origins, for example, “the process of secularization or disenchantment that has come to be seen as identical with modernity was in fact something different than it seemed, not the crushing victory of reason over infamy, to use Voltaire’s famous term, not the long drawn out death of God that Nietzsche proclaimed, and not the evermore distant withdrawal of the deus absconditus Heiddegger points to, but the gradual transference of divine attributes to human beings (an infinite human will), the natural world (universal mechanical causality), social forces (the general will, the hidden hand), and history (the idea of progress, dialectical development, the cunning of reason).” In other words, to Gillespie modern atheism is more like a rival theology than an incontestable truth.

This claim mirrors an early modern anxiety about atheism which was born in the wake of the Reformation and the Renaissance. For scholars such as Gillespie, the processes of disenchantment, desacralization, and secularization by which the medieval world became modern (merely?) transposed the Christian God’s divine attributes to the natural world. For the theologians, philosophers, and scientists of early modern Europe who worried about atheism, this transposition was more straightforward but unquestionably similar. Perceived mechanical materialists such as Thomas Hobbes were seen as having revived the atomist, materialist, hedonistic thought of Epicurus and Lucretius, which explained the origin and operation of the world, as well as religion, on natural terms alone. To their critics, thinkers such as Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza were atheists because they transferred the immaterial powers of God’s divine attributes to matter in motion. It would seem that 350 years later scholars have given this early modern counter-argument a sophisticated Hegelian twist.

Is the difference between modern atheism and modern theism a difference over the location of the powers by which our universe operates? Hyman’s very useful book does not ask this question in this way, offering instead an interesting summary of where philosophy and theology have gone “after modernity,” after the mirrored opposition between transcendence and immanence.  But even before we consider the question of God from a postmodern perspective, perhaps what we need is a deeper consideration of atheism’s history in the full breadth and depth of its contoursnot just its intellectual history traced in a rather speculative Hegelian mode, but also its social, cultural, and political history. This concrete history is arguably just as important as the philosophical history Hyman and others have traced, particularly given the longevity of anti-atheism in social, cultural, and political terms, not to mention the prominence with which the religiously unaffiliated (the so-called “nones”) and atheists have understandably garnered in recent years.

Perhaps what we now need is a concrete sense of how the processes of disenchantment, desacralization, and secularizationeach of which have occurred at different speeds, in different directions, and with greater or lesser degree, depending on their contexthave simultaneously shaped our understandings of and attitudes towards unbelief and atheism. This means engaging existing scholarship on the history of atheism and encouraging much more research. Perhaps the critical stories we can then tell about the conditions of our beliefs – be they stories of immanence, transcendence, or otherwise – and their mutually mediated status as historically inflected interpretations can engender a greater level of narrative humility, a politics of respect and recognition, and also a sense of clarity about how traditional religious believers, “nones,” and atheists can relate to and work with one another in spite of what can seem like our insurmountable differences.

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