Agnosticism and Atheism The Existence of God

Atheism: A Lesser-Known History

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Tariq Mahmood, Canada

New atheists claim a rich history. Ask one and they will likely explain that the rise of atheism emerged out of our ideological evolution. They love to claim that ancient man believed in and worshipped many gods until he evolved to a point where he began second-guessing his archaic beliefs, after which the fallacious nature of religion became manifest. This evolution of thought culminated in the rise of new atheism, an ideological apocalypse for believers. Of the modern arch-atheists, Daniel Dennett promotes this rhetoric perhaps most confidently. He states:

We no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we’ve outgrown it. [1]

Sam Harris also tries to paint the same picture. While erroneously aligning God with conspiracy theories, he contends: ‘atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.’ [2]

Dawkins picks up where his colleague leaves off in his book, The God Delusion and states ‘I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism. Why should it?’ [3]

Such sweeping statements, bereft of historical accuracy, create very serious problems. The first of these is that those at the forefront of new atheism, such as Dennett or Dawkins, advertise European Enlightenment as the formative years of outgrowing God, which is certainly not the case. Atheism is found in Ancient Greek thought, as far back as Epicurus [4] (341-270 BCE). We then find the Holy Qur’an, a book 1400 years old, replete with verses addressing atheistic thought. These debates are also found sprinkled throughout Islamic history conducted among eminent scholars like Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Shafi’i with the atheists of Baghdad and Egypt. [5,6]

An analysis of atheistic thought leads us to the conclusion that it had become a fully developed idea far before it became mainstream in Europe.

Atheism is not a phenomenon of the European Enlightenment; it existed parallel to religion for quite some time. However, what we do find is a sudden rise in atheism in Europe before the enlightenment.

Europe is ripe with such examples of pre-Enlightenment atheism. About Italy, Voltaire writes ‘Italy, in the fifteenth century, was full of atheists’. [7] The French theologian and mathematician Marin Mersenne claimed that there were as many as 50,000 atheists in France by the early 17th century. [8] In Germany, the well-known historian Jakob Friedrich Reimann wrote in 1713 that atheism had existed in Germany since the twelfth century when it arose due to Averroism and Emperor Friedrich II. [9] A 1572 report presented to Lord Burleigh in England makes a similar statement, revealing that ‘the realm is divided into three parties, the Papists, the Atheists, and the Protestants. Even the Earl of Essex similarly claimed in 1576 that ‘there is nothing but infidelity, infidelity, infidelity, atheism, atheism, atheism’. [10]

It is important to note this because science did not exist as a significant motivator to push people to atheism prior to Enlightenment, which furnishes handsome deductive evidence that other – far less academic – factors were at play.

So, what really lies at the centre of the self-titled ‘intellectual’ phenomenon touted today as post-enlightenment atheism? In reality, atheism did not simply sprout out of a critical examination and refutation of God. It had much more to do with political and social factors. Hence, in many western societies, it was little more than any other socio-political riposte to the establishments of the time. At its core, it was a belief that defined itself in opposition to powerful governments. Atheism was not – as many believe – founded upon the slaying of God by the noble sword of reason. It was sparked, in fact, by a socio-political rebellion against churches which persecuted philosophy and science.

History is overwhelmingly replete with testimony from historians about this. In his book, Atheists: The Origin of the Species, Nick Spencer writes:

Modern atheism was primarily a political and social cause, its development in Europe having rather more to do with the (ab)use of theologically legitimized political authority than it does with developments in science or philosophy…. Wherever you went, to deny God was not simply to deny God. It was to deny the emperor or the king who ruled you, the social structures that ordered your life, the ethical ties that regulated it, the hopes that inspired it and the judgement that reassured it. [11]

Historians have found much of atheism during the enlightenment to have been a declaration of political frustrations. Examples like France, where ‘A rigidly authoritarian Catholic ancient regime…created deep wells of moral indignation on which atheists could draw’ [12] stand front and centre. The resultant revolution was extremely hostile towards the religious, as Nick Spencer further illustrates:

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Clergy were made employees of the state, to which they were forced to swear allegiance. Papal denunciation of this confirmed suspicions that, whatever they said, clerics were merely a treacherous, counter-revolutionary force. By 1792, mobs were lynching priests in Paris and, the following year, the violence was nationwide, if not exactly systematic. Churches were pulled down, their statues desecrated, their paintings stolen, their plate sold off. Those priests unwilling to swear the oath were sentenced to death, as was anyone found harbouring them. [13]

England also witnessed a strikingly similar narrative. Thomas Hobbes stands as an ideal exhibit of pre-enlightenment persecution and demonstrates a direct association between church and political persecution. Hobbes was heavily persecuted for penning Leviathan, a critique of Anglican orthodoxy. Church fathers ridiculed him, [14] Earls denounced his writings, [15] and by the end of the 17th century, Hobbism was almost completely synonymous with atheism. [16] His life demonstrated the reaction of a sensitive government, proving that religion was intrinsically tied to governance in Britain, and any hostility to a particular government’s religion made such a person a target of the religion too. Hobbes did claim he was Christian, but to little avail.

Scientists did attempt to reconcile God and science. For example, The Royal Society, founded to explore science and philosophy, writes in its second charter that the successors of this club are those ‘whose studies are to be applied to further promoting by the authority of experiments the sciences of natural things and of useful arts, to the glory of God the creator‘ [17]. The various churches of Europe denounced this path to belief, which consequently drove scientists away from belief in God, and resulted in an atheistic culture in European science. It is vital to note that this was a denial of the Christian idea of God, not the Islamic concept.

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Interestingly, Marxist philosophy in Russia is also deeply rooted in a seething hatred for religious regimes. Regarding this, the historian Victoria Frede notes the emergence of Atheism from the 1820s to the 1860s:

In Russia, it was less a statement about the status of God than it was a commentary on the status of educated people in an authoritarian state that sought ever more forcefully to regulate the opinions and beliefs of its subjects. [18]

Nick Spencer echoes this:

it was Orthodoxy that soaked Russian society, from Tsar to peasant, and it was the Orthodox Church that was the threat, to politics, to progress and to the people.’ [19]

Doctor Gavin Hyman, a notable religious historian and lecturer at Lancaster University, corroborates this view. He says, ‘Marx had implanted an indelible connection between left-wing revolution and atheism (the seeds of which had already been sown in human consciousness by the French revolution).’ [20]

Contrary to the marketing of atheism which claims that it emerged from the evolution of scientific thought, it is quite evident that Russia used philosophy and politics as its fuel for communism, not science. Vladimir Lenin’s passion ‘sprang from a visceral loathing of the Tsarist state’s Orthodox foundations. Religion was simply not a theoretical issue for him. The only relevant question was what could be done to aid its inevitable demise.’ [21]

Thus, we observe a compelling association between the rise of atheism in many regions of the world and a politically charged thirst for power or desire to replace those in it. This atheism was evidently anti-establishment and thus opposed all forms of theism to achieve its goals.

Examples such as these demonstrate the validity of the famous European saying Cuius regio eius religio, ‘whose realm, his religion’.

What does this prove? European atheism began as a concept almost devoid of scientific thought and evolved in opposition to Christian thought. The renowned Christian philosopher Francis Bacon himself admits that the four main causes of atheism were ‘divisions in religion’, ‘scandal of priests’, ‘custom of profane scoffing in holy matters’, and ‘learned times’. [22]

Of these pillars of Atheism, two directly correlated to the deeply irreligious actions of Christian churches and by extension the policy of their governments. The other two reasons were reactionary, and an indirect result of the Christian scepticism towards science during the enlightenment.

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While science did play a role in the ascent of European atheism, it was overwhelmingly a politically-motivated reaction. History does dictate other causes of atheism, but these are in opposition to the Christian concept of God, not religion in general, as well as governments founded upon claims of God’s support. Stephen LeDrew elaborates this in his book The Evolution of Atheism:

It is only the most recent manifestation of a kind of ‘secular revolution’ that began in that period, which tied religious criticism to a political project to advance the authority of science and scientists, particularly within educational institutions. [23]

New Atheists can point their fingers at whatever they wish. They can use the actions of European governments as their fuel, proclaiming like the Russian revolutionary Father Gapon, that ‘There is no God’ because ‘there is no Tzar’ when faced with Tsarist corruption. [24] They may claim it stems from the treatment of non-conformist ideas, as Francis Bacon pointed out, or may declare the Christian creed as insincere. They may root their belief in philosophical ideas that opposed the Christian thought of the times.

Whatever the case, New Atheists cannot predicate their belief, or lack thereof, solely on a process of scientific and philosophical enlightenment. That which new atheists claim about religious founders (that they used their religion as a tool to gain geopolitical power) is found in their history as well. This is the grand irony in the statement of Dawkins mentioned earlier. It is not only erroneous, but a front to the sands of time. The history of European atheism is rooted in the actions of groups trying to dissent from Christian nations, not to reject a Creator of the universe, but to secure power, whether it be Russian orthodoxy, Catholicism, or Anglican Christianity. Atheists who claim otherwise must forsake their history in the process, and many conveniently do. 

Atheism was not founded upon the concept of reason tackling God; rather, it was sparked by a denial of man-made institutions which claimed to be holy.

Why is this important? If the history of a people is written on lies without due correction, then the present will assuredly be poisoned with it as well, and the future is no less secure. The famous philosopher and historian R.G Collingwood puts it beautifully when he says, ‘The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.’ [25]

About the Author: Tariq Mahmood is a student at the Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology in Canada and an official member of the Existence Project Team.


ENDNOTES

  1. Danial Dennett, the Folly of Pretence, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/jul/16/daniel-dennett-belief-atheism
  2. Harris, Sam. “Letter to a Christian Nation.” In Letter To A Christian Nation, 17. London: Transworld Digital, 2011.
  3. Dawkins, Richard, ed. “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist.” Essay. In The God Delusion, 278. London: Bantam Press, 2006.
  4. Hume, David. “Part 10.” In Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, edited by Dorothy Coleman, 74. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  5. http://haqislam.org/imam-abu-hanifah-and-the-atheist/
  6. Abdul Malik Majuhid, Gems and Jewels, page 71
  7. Voltaire, Oeuvres complètes des Voltaire, Vol. 8, Histoire de Jenni, p. 366, quoted in Blom, Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in pre-Revolutionary Paris, p. 89.
  8. Marin Mersene, Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim … In hoc volumine athei, et deistae impugnatur, et expugnatur, quoted in Alan Charles Kors, Atheism in France, 1650–1729: Vol. 1. The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief, p. 30.
  9. Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670–1752, p. 164
  10. Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism, p. 10.
  11. Nick Spencer, Atheists: The Origin of the Species. Apple Books, Pg 15, 18
  12. Ibid, Pg 23
  13. Ibid, Pg 221
  14. Richard Tuck, The “Christian Atheism” of Thomas Hobbes, in Hunter and Wootton, Atheism, p. 111.
  15. Edward, Earl of Clarendon, A Brief View and Survey of the Dangerous and Pernicious Errors to Church and State, in Mr. Hobbes’s Book, Entitled ‘Leviathan’, pp. 72–3.
  16. Nick Spencer, Atheists: The Origin of the Species. Apple Books, Pg 99
  17. Charles the Second. “Translation of Second Charter, A.D. 1663.” Royalsociety.org, The Royal Society, royalsociety.org/-/media/Royal_Society_Content/about-us/history/Charter2_English.pdf?la=en-GB&hash=A5C7F60AAF0B7D5CDA4200756AFD32D8.
  18. Victoria Frede, Doubt, Atheism, and the Nineteenth-century Russian Intelligentsia, p. 15.
  19. Nick Spencer, Atheists: The Origin of the Species. Apple Books, Pg 341
  20. Hyman, Gavin. “Atheism in Modern History.” Essay. In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Micheal Martin, 31. New York City, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  21. Ibid., pg 342
  22. Francis Bacon, Of Atheism, taken from Francis Bacon: The Major Works, pp. 371–2.
  23. LeDrew, Stephen. Essay. In The Evolution of Atheism: the Politics of a Modern Movement, 4. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  24. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin, p. 130.
  25. R.G Collingwood, taken from https://www.memphis.edu/history/about/history_is.php