The last two years have been good for atheism. A rash of books making the case for unbelief, including Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006) and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), have sold millions of copies. Strident atheist Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, one of his atheistic tomes designed to rescue children from belief in God, was made into a movie. Even pop star Elton John got into the act, calling for a ban on religion. Leaders of the so-called New Atheism are aggressive and proselytizing. They don't just condemn belief in God; they also condemn respect for belief in God.
But how new is the New Atheism? It is said best in Ecclesiastes 1:9: "There is nothing new under the sun." To be sure, explicit and public atheism is a somewhat new phenomenon. But atheism, agnosticism, and good old-fashioned doubt have strong and lengthy histories worth learning. Because atheism is parasitic on theism and even more on Christianity, to learn the history of atheism is to learn the history of the church.
Take the New Atheist creed of "no heaven, no hell, just science," which articulates the widely held division in modern thought between faith and reason. To fully understand the story of that division, it is wise to consider the creation of the world as told in Genesis. We learn from Moses that the Creator is distinct and different from the created world. Where ancient mythologies saw gods as personifications of natural phenomena such as rain and fire, ancient Israel viewed nature as separate from God and man. God created nature and man was its steward. Nature is not to be worshiped, God alone is. Nature and the natural process in and of themselves are not divine. God, apart from a few notable exceptions, doesn't speak to his people through nature but through historic events such as deliverance from Egypt. It is wise to remember as we proceed that this separation between nature and God is a biblical precept.
We know unbelief predates Christopher Hitchens because we read about it throughout the Old Testament-in the Book of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah. In Proverbs, for instance, a man questions whether anyone can know God-a charge that is refuted in the same chapter (Prov. 30:1-4); and from the psalmist we learn, "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Ps. 53:1). Still, the Old Testament discussion of atheism is against an atheism that ignores God's Law and punishment more than against an outright disbelief in God.
Disbelief and skepticism also have roots in ancient Greece and Rome, whose philosophers greatly influenced Western thinkers. Xenophanes of Colophon (570-480 b.c.), the Greek philosopher and poet, criticized the mythological views of gods. He noticed that wherever he traveled, the gods resembled humans. If oxen could draw, he theorized, their gods would look like oxen.
Greek philosopher Epicurus (340-270 b.c.) taught that pleasure and pain are the true measures of good and bad, that death is the end of both body and soul, and that the gods neither reward nor punish humans. His student Lucretius (99-55 b.c.) furthered the view in a poem arguing against fear of death. Neither was atheistic per se, but they believed gods weren't interested in humans. Their Epicurean school lasted for 600 years and enjoyed a strong revival in Europe in the seventeenth century.
Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 b.c.), another atheist forbear, was moved to doubt by despair over the death of his beloved daughter Tullia. He sought to argue that man was a free moral agent whose life was not controlled by gods, and wrote On Duties (44 b.c.) to provide citizens with a moral framework even if, as he contended, nothing in life was certain.
It was into this philosophical milieu that Christianity began to spread. Roman emperors engaged in widespread persecution of the church. Christian teachers began producing apologetic works defending the faith by a.d.150. Christianity was legalized in the fourth century and by the sixth century paganism was actively suppressed. Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I (482-565) placed the pagan philosophical schools, which had been discussing the idea that theology might be too complex for humans to understand, under state control in 529.
Throughout the medieval period, whatever other issues Christianity was engaged in, unbelief was not a major theme. Beginning in the eleventh century, cathedral-based schools developed into universities. They slowly began adding medicine, philosophy, and law to their theological subjects. From the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, the study of logic became a main focus of philosophers as they engaged in critical analyses of philosophical arguments.
Platonic thought dominated Christianity from the time the second-century Church Fathers began producing their theological works. In the twelfth century, Aristotle's major writings were reintroduced to the West in waves. His logical works were absorbed easily and avidly into Christian thought. His more profound philosophical works and ethical, political, and literary treatises were a little more difficult to incorporate as these looked at human life from a purely naturalistic point of view.
Muslim philosopher and polymath Averroes (1126-1198) wrote popular com-mentaries on Aristotle's works arguing that there is no conflict between religion and philosophy, but that they are different ways of reaching truth. The view, later known as the doctrine of twofold truth, had considerable influence throughout the Middle Ages. He taught that religious truth is based on faith, unable to be tested and didn't require formal education. Philosophical truth was reserved for the elite who could study it.
French theologian Amalric of Bena (died c. 1204-1207) developed Aristotle's philosophy at the University of Paris. He taught that God is all-including evil-and all things are one, that every Christian must believe he is a member of the body of Christ to be saved, and that he who remains in the love of God commits no sin. Salvation in the Amalric sense was man's fulfillment in this life alone. Because true believers could commit no sin, Amalric's followers indulged in a few excesses. After Amalric's death, some members of the sect became Brethren of the Free Spirit, an antinomian and individualist movement that spread throughout northern Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries before being condemned as heretical. Amalric's views were so controversial that his body was exhumed four years after his death and burned for good measure. It didn't work. German historian Friedrich Heer called him the father of all militant, non-Christian humanist thinking.
So it was into this thirteenth-century fray that Dominican Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) integrated Aristotle into Christian natural theology. Heavily influenced by Averroes' teachings, Aquinas believed that truth is known through reason (natural revelation) and faith (supernatural revelation). The latter is revealed through Holy Scripture and the church, while the former is available to all people. There is no contradiction and some overlap between the two. He taught that witnessing the natural world can prove the existence of God and his attributes, but other truths-such as the Trinity-require revelation. As a result of Aquinas's work, demand for Aristotle's writings grew exponentially.
This differentiation of theology from philosophy and science began in earnest during the tenure at Oxford of the influential theologian and logician Franciscan John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308). He argued that the theologian and the philosopher study separate subjects and that only theologians should study God since revelation was a matter of faith rather than natural experience. William of Ockham (c. 1288-c. 1347), an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher, furthered the divide by arguing that if faith does not flow from reason, neither may it be destroyed by reason.
It was during this period that the dominant intellectual interest of the time was realigning faith and reason. Certain teachings began to flourish, particularly, as Heer wrote in The Medieval World, that faith and knowledge must be kept severely apart; science is concerned only with nature and natural processes, and theology is not a science. The separation of the supernatural and natural, now firmly established in mainstream Christian thinking, created a situation where reason could tackle the natural world without any input from faith.
Throughout the Renaissance, the separation was strengthened. Scientists studied man and the natural world, and whether or not the scientists had proper theological views was considered irrelevant. The drama of man was less about his salvation than scientific discovery illuminating the world around him. Still, the Renaissance was hardly atheistic and, in fact, the church supported it.
Renaissance thinkers sought out more Latin and Greek texts, scouring church libraries for works from antiquity. The study changed the way people viewed Christianity in two ways. It introduced doubt about distinctive truth claims by familiarizing students with a competitive culture, something further buttressed by exploration during that era, and it introduced an appealing skepticism.
Unbelief began to spread with the help of Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), who wrote such gleeful attacks on traditional morality and the church that some contemporaries thought The Prince was inspired by the devil. In fact, the synonym "Old Nick" for Satan came from the era's widespread condemnation of Machiavelli. Still, his writings were immensely popular and persuasive throughout Europe. French theologian Innocent Gentillet (1535-1588) warned that the era was so infected with atheists that people of no religion were the most esteemed.
Protestant reformer and martyr Hugh Latimer (c. 1485-1555) warned King Edward VI that many Englishmen had stopped believing in the immortality of their souls or the existence of heaven and hell. A survey of local English politicians' religious beliefs conducted during the 1560s by Queen Elizabeth's council of advisors found that nearly half were indifferent or adversarial to the Church of England. Elizabeth's chief advisor Sir William Cecil received a document in 1572 that said, "The realm is divided into three parties, the Papist, the Atheist, and the Protestant. All three are alike favoured; the first and second because, being many, we dare not displease them." (1)
Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) denounced atheism in his seminal work on systematic theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536):
It is most absurd, therefore, to maintain, as some do, that religion was devised by the cunning and craft of a few individuals, as a means of keeping the body of the people in due subjection, while there was nothing which those very individuals, while teaching others to worship God, less believed than the existence of a God….For though in old times there were some, and in the present day not a few are found, who deny the being of a God, yet, whether they will or not, they occasionally feel the truth which they are desirous not to know. (2)
The religious conflicts arising from the Reformation itself, some argued, were a source of atheism. English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) argued in his early seventeenth-century essay "Of Atheism" that while one main religious division created zeal, many created atheism. (3) Some of the Christian sects themselves helped spread agnosticism. One such group, the anti-Trinitarian Socinians, was quite prominent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), attempting to help the cause, argued that faith could not be justified by reason, since God is incomprehensible to man. To prove his conjecture, he said no reasonable person would have been able to determine why God picked King David-a lying, murdering thief and adulterer-to lead Israel. Bayle was so good at debunking religious coherency that readers began questioning their beliefs. Bayle also defended atheists, arguing that it was only superstition that led people to believe they were immoral. His disciples furthered his themes that religion and truth were irreconcilable and that religion and morality had no necessary relationship.
Science divorced from faith continued unabated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Christian scientists didn't necessarily help the matter, crediting God with any scientific uncertainties with which they struggled. So, for instance, English physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) determined that gravity explained how the moon moves around the earth and the earth around the sun, but not how the earth spins on its axis. Only God could rotate the earth, he wrote. When the conservation of angular momentum was discovered as the cause of the rotation, God was completely pushed out of the picture.
By the eighteenth century, the study of all nature, including human nature, was brought under the scientific model. Law, morality, art, and religion were all discussed in terms of science. Unbelievers were outright antagonistic toward Christianity in particular and all religion in general.
French historian Paul Hazard, author of European Thought in the Eighteenth Century, wrote that opponents of religion
…openly preferred a charge the like of which for sheer audacity had never before been heard of. Now the culprit was dragged into court, and behold, the culprit was Christ! It was more than a reformation the eighteenth century demanded, it was the total overthrow of the Cross, the utter repudiation of the belief that man had ever received a direct communication from God, in other words, in Revelation. What the critics were determined to destroy was the religious interpretation of life. (4)
The notion of two truths-one rational, one revealed-in coexistence was no longer tolerated. Here again the Christians did not help matters and were a major source of unbelief. Irish philosopher John Toland (1670-1722) and English author Matthew Tindal (1657-1733) sought to demystify Christianity and establish it on purely moral grounds divorced from revelation. Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation came to be called the Bible of deism. While not rejecting revelation, he argued that natural and supernatural revelation were the same thing with the same purpose: morality and human happiness. If revelation is necessary for human happiness, he theorized, it must be available to all people. Therefore, it must have been revealed in the natural order.
Paul-Henri Thiry, baron d'Holbach (1723-1789), became the first European to describe himself as an avowed atheist. A French author, philosopher, and encyclopedist, he wrote Christianity Unveiled (1761), an attack on Christianity where he argued that the religion hinders moral advancement; and that was subtle compared to System of Nature (1770), where he denied the existence of God and argued that religion arose from fear of the unknown.
Sensing a threat, the Catholic Church in France asked the civil government to censor the book and had theologians refute the work. Still, d'Holbach's views spread through the salons of Paris.
The French Revolution of 1789 moved atheism into the public square. Attempts to enforce the law of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy-which subordinated the Roman Catholic Church in France to the civil government-led to anti-clerical violence. Earlier rulings confiscated the church's holdings in France and banned monastic vows.
When militant atheists seized power there in 1793, launching the Reign of Terror, they attempted to de-Christianize France by replacing the church with a Cult of Reason. Secularization was exported to Italy and, in the nineteenth century when atheists and other anti-religious adherents focused on political and social revolution, they helped spur the European revolutions of 1848, the revolutionary Italian Resurgence and unification, and the rise of the international socialist movement.
The movement was not limited to Europe. English pamphleteer Thomas Paine (1737-1809) came to Colonial America just in time to take part in the revolution. His hugely influential Common Sense (1776) advocated American independence, and Rights of Man (1791)-which served as a guide to the ideas of the Enlightenment-was a major influence on the French Revolution. Age of Reason (1793-1794), an assault on revealed religion, argued that man invented religion:
The opinions I have advanced…are the effect of the most clear and long-established conviction that the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world, that the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty. (5)
Paine's deism was shared by many Founding Fathers.
Throughout the nineteenth century, atheism was on the march. German philosopher Ludwig Feurbach, who initially began his studies intending a career in the church, fell into philosophy and wrote attacks on the notion of eternal life. His most famous work, The Essence of Christianity, argued that God is nothing more than the outward projection of man's inward nature. Every aspect of God corresponded to some need of human nature-for love, for morality. His attacks made him a hero among revolutionaries of his time. Interestingly, he is buried in the same Nuremberg cemetery as Reformation-era artist Albrecht Dürer.
The prominent nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote in his polemic The Antichrist that Christianity's focus on the eternal was disgusting. Those who speak of eternal hopes are "despisers of life, atrophying and self-poisoned men of whom the earth is weary: so let them be gone!" (6) He also penned the infamous line, "God is dead." Unlike many other atheists, however, Nietzsche was concerned that the inevitable collapse of religion would lead to nihilism.
By the end of the nineteenth century, atheism was downright prominent and religion had been redefined to mean something foreign to the Christian understanding. Religion was anthropological, a cluster of beliefs, symbols, and rites. With the scientific fervor to classify everything, religion became a genus in which Christianity was but a species. The scientific classification also settled the issue in favor of atheism. If religion was about human culture, the question of God's existence had been answered.
With so many fashionable economists, philosophers and political theorists espousing atheism, it is perhaps not surprising how the twentieth century turned out. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, religion was repressed throughout Russia. Karl Marx (1818-1883), who believed religion was manmade and served as an opiate for the masses, inspired the revolutionaries.
As Communism spread to more states, so did the state policy of opposition to organized religion and support of atheism. Communist Party leaders justified this by calling religion irrational and parasitical. Churches were occasionally permitted, but only under state control. In general, religion was opposed through unbelievably violent means. Attendance at worship jeopardized one's livelihood or more. By the 1960s, nearly one in two people in the world lived under anti-religious governments. One, Albania, formally became atheistic in 1967, prohibiting all religious observance, closing all religious institutions and persecuting believers. The policy held until 1991. The brutal inhumanity of Communists didn't do much to improve the image of atheists.
After the deadly Communist regimes were exposed, atheism took on a lower profile for a few years, but unbelief and rejection of religion have been present for millennia and popular for centuries. Christians who feel besieged by the atheist onslaught in recent years would do well to know their history. Atheists, it seems, are like the poor-they have been and always will be with us.
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2 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 44.
3 [ Back ] Francis Bacon, "Of Atheism," The Works of Sir Francis Bacon, James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis and Douglas Heath, eds. (London, 1868-1890), VI, p. 414.
4 [ Back ] Quoted in James Thrower, Western Atheism: A Short History (Amherst: Prometheus, 2000), p. 99.
5 [ Back ] Thomas Paine, "The New Testament," Life and Writings of Thomas Paine (New York: Parke, 1908), p. 238.
6 [ Back ] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One (New York: Penguin, 1961), p. 42.