Atheism’s origins

Atheists: The Origin of the Species by Nick Spencer. Bloomsbury, 2014, 320pp.

Nick Spencer begins Atheists: The Origin of the Species with a fairy tale. The story he recounts is an abbreviated version of the tale championed in nineteenth-century Europe whereby progress in scientific understanding banishes ignorance and with it the pseudo-knowledge peddled by priests. In other words: progress followed science, and science displaced religion. The trouble with this story is that it contains, at best, a merely partial truth. Any airtight or global connection between scientific progress and secularization has been massively challenged in recent years by a wide range of scholars in many different fields.

Spencer wants to tell us what he regards as a truer story. This means recounting a tale in which the complex relationship between atheism, science, secularism, and religion must be underlined. We read, for instance, that the emergence of modern science was motivated by religious convictions. We also read that past atheists were not motivated by science, but were instead driven by social and political concerns. In the end Spencer thinks that the lesson of atheism’s history is ironic. It teaches us that atheism needs religion as its “other.” For Spencer atheism emerged in France and Russia as a philosophical and political force in response to the strong connection between church and state. The contrasting cases of Britain, America, and Germany, where atheism did notapparentlybecome a political force, are supposed to demonstrate this point further.

Spencer is surely right to assert that the history of atheism cannot be fully explained by the history of science; but that is very different from implying that science has little to do with atheism’s history. Even if science does not explain the atheism of Baron d’Holbach and his coterie of Enlightened philosophes, say, it simply won’t do to suggest that it wasn’t an important component in his overall outlook.

Germany, Britain, and America escaped the predicament of political atheism, we are told, by maintaining a more flexible, tolerant relationship between religious and political power. Again, Spencer is right to press the connection between social and political history and atheism; but that is very different from asserting a direct relationship between political religion and political atheism. Just how accurate, precise, or useful is his claim that French absolutism was based on Christian belief, or the suggestion that France lacked a moderate Enlightenment? Are these really the best terms for a comparative history of politics and religion in Britain and France?

At one point Spencer even claims that the reason “deists” such as John Wilmot, Thomas Blount, John Toland, Nicholas Tindal, or Bernard Mandeville didn’t become atheists was due to the fact that Britain’s political establishment was sufficiently flexible and intellectually accommodating. This comes across as an assertion based solely on a broadly construed correlation between the historical trajectory of the relationship between politics and religion in Britain and Germany on the one hand, and France and Russia on the other. It is worth recalling that these “deists” lived in a world which officially proscribed atheism, Catholicism, and non-Trinitarian Christianity, sometimes to deadly effect. There are very good reasons John Locke did not put his name to several of the books he published, including A Letter Concerning Toleration and The Reasonableness of Christianity. As Spencer is surely aware, it is also a matter of scholarly debate whether or not many of the “deists” he mentions, such as Blount, were not in fact closet atheists. Moreover, someone such as Joseph Priestley, who eventually fled Britain for America after having his house and church destroyed in 1791 because of his radical views, certainly didn’t regard Britain’s allegedly “tolerant” political institutions as any guarantee for his religious dissentand he even wrote a work arguing against d’Holbach’s atheism! Spencer rightly maintains that the connection between religion and politics is central to atheism’s history, but perhaps he should have focused more concretely on this aspect of his story. For the fact that the deists he mentions employed theoretically specific political language and participated in political projects which received tangible aristocratic support stands to explain far more about the relationship between atheism, religion, and politics, than a broadly construed comparison between the “flexibility” of Britain and France.

The overall conclusion of Spencer’s otherwise fine introductory book is that the progressivist myth contains a grain of truth: liberal regimes that maintain some structural distinction between religious and political power do not fall victim to authoritarianismbe they religiously or atheistically motivated. But what overarching insight does such an analysis offer, exactly? It is clearly meant to challenge the simplistic formula whereby science + secularism – religion = progressive, happy, just societies. Yet it is simultaneously a well-worn interpretation of European national history wherein the “moderate,” “tolerant,” and “flexible” (Protestant) states of Germany, Britain, and America found the right political formula, whereas (Catholic) France and (Orthodox) Russia didn’t. Perhaps this division works if you contrast and correlate broad categories like religion and atheism. But when you think about the history of how Germany, Britain, and America treated some of their religious minorities, the terms of this distinction begin to seem rather inadequate. Although the substance of Spencer’s narrative on atheism’s history contains a more complex, usefully corrective content, the upshot of his political analysis is a fairly tired reading of European history.

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