Atheists: The Origin of the Species
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The clash between atheism and religion has become the defining battle of the 21st century. Books on and about atheism retain high profile and popularity, and atheist movements on both sides of the Atlantic capture headlines with high-profile campaigns and adverts. However, very little has been written on the history of atheism, and this book fills that conspicuous gap.
Instead of treating atheism just as a philosophical or scientific idea about the non-existence of God, Atheists: The Origin of the Species places the movement in its proper social and political context. Because atheism in Europe developed in reaction to the Christianity that dominated the continent's intellectual, social and political life, it adopted, adapted and reacted against its institutions as well as its ideas. Accordingly, the history of atheism is as much about social and political movements as it is scientific or philosophical ideas.
This is the story not only of Hobbes, Hume, and Darwin, but also of Thomas Aitkenhead hung for blasphemous atheism, Percy Shelley expelled for adolescent atheism, and the Marquis de Sade imprisoned for libertine atheism; of the French revolutionary Terror and the Soviet League of the Militant Godless; of the rise of the US Religious Right and of Islamic terrorism.
Looking at atheism in its full sociopolitical context helps explain why it has looked so very different in different countries. It also explains why there has been a recent upsurge in atheism, particularly in Britain and the US, where religion has unexpectedly come to play such a significant role in political affairs. This leads us to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion: we should expect to hear more about atheism in the future for the simple reason that God is back.
5th Series, 35 (1985), pp. 135–57; David Wootton, ‘Lucien Febvre and the problem of unbelief in the early modern period’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 60, No. 4 (December 1988), pp. 695–730. 51 It is thus to be distinguished from Academic scepticism which positively asserted that no knowledge was possible. 52 See C. B. Schmitt, ‘The Rediscovery of Ancient Skepticism in Modern Times’, in M. Burnyeat (ed.), The Skeptical Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp.
that a messiah was about to appear, recall the Jews to the Holy Land and save all, irrespective of what they believed. Such idiosyncratic beliefs were not unheard of in early modern Europe, and seem anodyne compared to those of Menocchio. What marked La Peyrère out was the way he grounded them in textual criticism, and in his knowledge of ancient and, via explorers’ tales, contemporary foreign cultures. La Peyrère argued for a polygenetic origin of mankind, contending that there were humans
Cerne Abbas in 1594 into Sir Walter Raleigh and his circle of eminent Elizabethan atheists found that they denied the reality of heaven and hell, and argued that ‘we die like beasts, and when we are gone there is no remembrance of us’.12 By 1600, the Bishop of Exeter could complain that in his diocese it was ‘a matter very common to dispute whether there be a God or not’. Seventeen years later, a Spanish ambassador estimated that the number of English atheists was somewhere in the region of
justified by the moral law, he also contended that it was only the existence of God that allowed humans to retain the belief that the highest good was possible. Because humans are frail and finite creatures, and virtue and happiness are not necessarily connected in this world, belief in this reality of the highest good is necessary in order to encourage and supplement our limited and fallible moral endeavours. In this way, morality leads inevitably to religion. This invariably provoked worries
the early 1860s. The atheist movement had long been marked by petty, and sometimes more significant disputes. George Holyoake had disagreed with Robert Cooper and Charles Southwell over whether it was better to be respectable or radical, and Bradlaugh now disagreed with Holyoake over whether secularism necessitated atheism. The two debated under the title ‘Is Secularism Atheism?’ in 1870. Holyoake argued that the two were not synonymous and although Bradlaugh recognized that some secularists