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by Michael Hunter,David Wootton

The rise of atheism and unbelief is a key feature in the development of the modern world, yet it is a topic which has been little explored by historians. This book presents a series of studies of irreligious ideas in various parts of Europe during the two centuries following the Reformation. Atheism was illegal everywhere. The word itself first entered the vernacular languages soon after the Reformation, but it was not until the eighteenth century that the first systematic defences of unbelief began to appear in print. Its history in the intervening two centuries is significant but hitherto obscure. The leading scholars who have contributed to this volume offer a range of approaches and draw on a wide variety of sources to produce a scholarly, original, and fascinating book. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment will be essential reading for all concerned with the religious, intellectual, and social history of early modern Europe.
Download Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment epub
ISBN: 0198227361
ISBN13: 978-0198227366
Category: Science
Subcategory: Mathematics
Author: Michael Hunter,David Wootton
Language: English
Publisher: Clarendon Press; 1 edition (October 15, 1992)
Pages: 320 pages
ePUB size: 1726 kb
FB2 size: 1552 kb
Rating: 4.6
Votes: 607
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Though atheism still is the minority demographically in the West today (the majority is still Asia), the denominations of atheism and unbelief do have a central space in Western societies. However, their origins, on when they became formulated or delineated, remain obscure and of little interest to historians in general. For the most part there is some agreement that the first people who self-identified as 'atheists' came at least from the 18th century. However, I think that the first modern atheists emerged in the 16th or 17th century, not before. In any case, this book goes a little further back than the usual histories of atheism and offers a very realistic perspective from the 16th century to the late 18th century. What prompted this historical collection on atheism to be made was the scarcity of historical studies on the origins of modern atheism and the existence of remnants of atheistic activity around the time of the Protestant Reformation. This book was compiled in hopes of filling in some historical gaps and encouraging more research into the birth of modern atheism in all its forms and abstractions.

The time period covered in this collection is from 1520 AD to 1780 AD and it tries to focus on individuals who overtly rejected religion in various ways. This time period experienced some fears of increased unbelief and there were some systematic attacks on Christianity that occurred as well. Since unbelief is multifaceted and since the sources from this time period come from diverse religious and irreligious backgrounds, it seems there is no single, or unique, history for atheism. The fact that Protestantism was a major secularizing force and pretty much paved much of the way for gradual unbelief to occur, given the right conditions, makes the history of atheism more intermixed with religion than is often imagined. Overlaps in belief and unbelief can be seen in many instances and it is not always clear if rejection or acceptance of some of beliefs automatically meant one was a believer or an unbeliever. For sure, religion usually is quite secular and the secular can still be quite religious.

Atheism as we know it today was not necessarily the same version that was found in the time of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. For instance, accusations and the usage of the term 'atheist' was common and it was used to label unbelief in all sorts of contexts including dissent in general, heresy, disbelief in some Church doctrines (though not all), deistic conceptions, downplaying or diminishing reveled religion, advocating only natural religion, and least of which was actually lacking belief in God's existence. In that time period, Christians called other Christians 'atheists' so the confusion and the obscurity of who really was an atheist, by what is understood today - as a person who lacked belief in gods - is understandable. In fact, deism was likely the most popular form of 'atheism' in this time period. Were there people who did not believe in the existence of God or rejected revealed religion in that time period? Yes, but for sure there wasn't much of a vocabulary to distinguish them from other types of unbelief that also occurred at the time (i.e. heresy, political, personal, social, scriptural, theological). Furthermore, cultures of unbelievers were not really grounded or synchronized in any substantial fashion either before 1500s. However, it is in this time period that a vocabulary of unbelief began to develop in a way that resembles our modern understanding of atheism and unbelief. This formation of abstract atheism, which did not exist before the 16th century, was able to flourish as comprehensive alternative non-supernatural worldview to Christianity and theism.

Though some may be imagining that atheism and free thought emerged from reason and a secular vacuum, it seems clear, from this collection, that atheism was born in religion and was a byproduct of intellectual religious thought. Atheism was not born out of secularity or out of irreligiosity or out of independent thought. Theologians gave birth to it by creating rational arguments for and against theism & Christianity in order to assess the strength of their theology; the Reformation gave birth to it by encouraging individualism, free-thinking, and literacy; Jewish anti-Christian polemics gave birth to it by providing it some arguments against the predominant religion (Christianity); works on social/political structures of power gave birth to it by discussing ecclesiastical space; anthropological findings from Missionary work contributed with globalization and contextualizing if belief in gods was universal or not; the wars of religion and numerous persecutions at the time left much room for social commentary and review of approaches to humanity; etc. Though, the book does not discuss it, the impact of the printing press in the distribution of ideas is also quite important since it allowed for increase in the visibility of works on unbelief to many people. Information is power.

Unlike today, secular and religious concepts were intermixed in the past and were not were not treated as mutually exclusive belief systems. For instance, in terms of the history of the separation of church and state it is recognized that the "secular" was institutionalized by the "religious" historically in the Medival period (the Papal Revolution in the 1050s and 1060s AD). Neither the "secular" or the "religious" was seen as being polar opposite of the other or mutually exclusive, instead they seen as part of the same coin (The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, with selected documents (Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, 21)). The secular-religious overlap can bee seen even in church history in the first century with texts like Jesus saying render unto Ceasar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's (Luke 20:25). Management of both mundane and ecclesiastical authorities was normal and was quite fluid. Other good resources out there are:

The Secularization of Early Modern England: From Religious Culture to Religious Faith

The Original Atheists: First Thoughts on Nonbelief (good book, but many selections are from theists since they are the ones that often laid the foundations of freethought)

Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe

A Short History of Secularism

Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (on the emergence of the concept of religion - the ancients and medievals did not have one like we do today)

The following is a list of all the chapters and some of the contents to be found therein (not exhaustive):


"We have used the term 'atheism' in our title; this seems to us best to encapsulate the articulate assault on Christianity and, often on religion in general that is to be found in this period. But we would readily admit that it is neither helpful nor even feasible to attempt to concentrate exclusively on figures who were overtly atheistic according to modern definition of that term. In part, this is because orthodox contemporaries were prone to conflate with 'atheism' a range of positions that appeared to them to militate towards it, particular deistic formulations of religious belief that played down the role of revelation and an active personal deity." (2); "Alongside the problems posed by the study of unbelief itself, one must place the difficulty of establishing its relationship to the process of secularization that has taken place since the Reformation. Unbelief is not by any means the only cause of secularization. Thus, attempts by orthodox apologists to establish religion on a secure, rational basis often had an unintending secularizing effect, in that the criteria of rationality should oust the sanction of the supernatural. More important has been the effect of religious pluralism, the separation of Church and State, and the view that religion was essentially a private and personal mater, which often contributed to secularization of key areas of public life such as education, even when most individuals retained strong religious commitments." (3); "Irreligion has not replaced belief, and may never do so; but it has established itself alongside it everywhere." (3-4)

Ch.1 - New Histories of Atheism

Histories of unbelief written by 19th and early 20th century freethinkers have some common elements of a progressive evolution narrative which modern scholarship does not support and is now considered naive : that the history of unbelief is linked to the Renaissance (which encouraged secular learning), the Reformation (which, in defending the rights of conscience, opened the way to freedom of thought), and the Scientific Revolution (which encouraged a spirit of rationalism) - all of which would be "supposedly" corrosive to religious thought; in the age of the Reformation, accusations of "atheism" were recklessly used by contemporaries and so literal-minded historians have been misled by their own interpretations; "In truth, there could be no real history of irreligion until one entered the second half of the seventeenth century and began to measure the impact of the Cartesian distinction between mind and body upon the European intellectual community." (17); there were no rational foundations to doubt God's existence in the eyes of pre-Enlightenment theologians. "Yet, because Aristotelian philosophy insisted that objections to every line of argument must be explored, theologians did not hesitate to propound arguments against the standard demonstrations of God's existence. The 'atheist' was thus primarily an invention of orthodox theology: a critical interlocutor, whose task it was to test orthodox reasoning and press for its improvement." (21); 2 factors intervened to transform the balance between the theologian and the imaginary atheist in the second half of the 17th century- 1. cultural findings from missionary venture began showing more and more that not all cultures had a belief in God (no universal consent), 2. undermining all philosophical arguments for the existence of God (Cartesian arguments of not being able to know anything on an immaterial entity based on knowledge from the material world were used against Aristotelians who used the nature of the universe to demonstrate God's existence); "Thus, the stage was set for the atheist - initially a theological fiction - to take a life of its own, to turn the arguments of the theologians against Christian faith, and to lay claim to a positive unbelief. This new atheism appears in clandestine manuscripts of the early eighteenth century, and is the direct precursor of the atheism of d'Holbach and Naigeon. It is the child of philosophical disputes among believers: believers who accused each other of opening the way for unbelief." (23); the modern word 'atheism' is a 16th century invention since specialized vocabulary to describe unbelief was non-existent in the Medieval period; in the time of the Reformation the terms 'atheist' and 'deist' were made; in the late 17th century/early 18th century the terms 'materialist', 'free thinker', 'pantheist' were made; in the 19th century the terms 'agnostic' and 'fideist' were made; "It was generally agreed in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that an atheist was either someone who did not believe in the existence of God or someone who held beliefs which made God's existence irrelevant: someone who did not believe, for example, in the immortality of the soul. This double definition creates (and created) endless confusion..." (25-26); unbelief comes in various forms (i.e. heresy so mere unbelief does not equate to atheism or secularism at all like is often assumed today) and in some countries there was a possibility of execution; there are numerous lines of evidences that indicate that actual unbelief existed from numerous trials and biographies, theologian's admissions that they disputed with unbelievers, and late intellectual writings in the late 16th century and above addressed unbelief directly - none of this would make sense if there were no unbelievers; belief and action were assumed to be correlated until the late 17th century (evil people lacked religious faith and those who lacked religious faith were likely to be evil people, for instance); "The term 'atheist' was thus to be applied to people who were in fact believers, because their conduct was held to imply unbelief." (28); many cases of unbelief come from the archives of the Inquisition which are not always well founded in terms of the accusations therein; "Theophrastus redivivus" was a mid 17th century manuscript which was anonymously written and it was indisputably an atheist document in the modern sense; ambiguous writing and writing between the lines was sometimes a way to express atheism and unbelief; unbelief was an aristocratic thing usually; England had significant contributions to less censorship after its civil war; there were some schools of irreligion where like minded individuals expressed their unbelief and political topics to pass on their views on others; John Locke had an important influence against custom and for skeptical thought even though he was a Christian and he did prepare the ground for self identified atheists to emerge; the period from 1680-1715 clearly was the take-off point for irreligious speculation - "In 1686 Jean le Clerc commented on the new confidence with which religion was being attacked: 'The libertines of centuries past maintained their opinions out of sheer moral depravity, and attacked the Christian religion with nothing more than coarse humor that could only influence those whose hearts and minds were already debauched. But nowadays they use weapons of philosophy and [historical] criticism in order to demolish our most sacred and unshakable doctrines.' (49); unbelief and atheism in the Enlightenment had many sources, but 2 developments after 1660 had wide implications on intellectual activity: 1) Jansenism (religious philosophy involving the concept that self-interest held society together), 2) probability theory and degrees of believability

Ch.2 - Unbelief and Atheism in Italy, 1500-1700

Though there were accusations of prominent atheism and even supposed freedom of speech in Italy which allowed dissent on politics and religion, modern historians doubt the reliability of such accusations because it was impossible before the end of the 17th century; the word 'atheist' was used very freely, loosely, and inconsistently (indicating at least awareness of possibility of serious unbelief in different contexts); "More than twenty years ago Paul Oskar Kristeller suggested that the arguments of non-atheist writers might have helped to form the philosophy of atheist readers. Certainly, in early modern Italy all the arguments necessary for a fully developed atheism were put into circulation by believers. Arguments about God were not new in the early modern period. Philosophers were aware of debates in the ancient world about the nature of divinity, and normally credited Epicurus with an outright denial of God's existence. " (59); Aristotle's works, though prevalent as a fundamental source of European education, had some ideas that were contrary to Christianity (i.e. universe always existed - denial of creation); atomism and spontaneous generation were alternatives to divine creation; skepticism of numerous church teachings was more the affair of the laity than of the academics and Protestantism was a key player in all of this; public expressions of unbelief were not necessarily common since the Inquisition was active; "...'that it was necessary to be seen going to Mass, to prevent anyone else becoming suspicious.' Such a policy was often accompanied by a calculated ambiguity in conversation, and even by the use of hypothetical third parties to advance views that were known to be dangerous. These tactics were the common property of the Italian Reformation; they could serve the purposes of anyone else of unorthodox beliefs - even atheists - equally well. There was, then, within the community of believer, a startling willingness to question traditional beliefs about God, the creation, the world of the spirit, immortality, Christ's divinity, the authority of the Bible, and Christian morality. And since so many alternative theories were already in circulation, among both educated an uninstructed Italians, the materials for a fully developed atheism were, in a sense, already to hand." (71) and this helped atheism become a more plausible option; a few true atheists are discussed; literacy was pretty widespread so ideas traveled around quite a bit; sources of unbelief were from personal experiences, rediscovered ancient ideas, and from contemporary ones; atheism was not popularly believed in

Ch.3 - Pierre Charron's 'Scandalous Book'

Pierre Charron's "De la sagesse" was a scandalous book about skepticism (contra certainty and embracing uncertainty); against custom and appeal to popularity; being for cultural relativism, individualism and moral relativism

Ch.4 - The 'Christian Atheism' of Thomas Hobbes

On Hobbes views

Ch.5 - The Charge of Atheism and the Language of Radical Speculation, 1640-1660

"Historians of mid-seventeenth century English radicalism (political and religious) are fond of repeating an accusation often made at the time - that those whose opinions and behavior put them at an unacceptably ant-establishment, anti-orthodox, or democratic extreme were atheists, even if they claimed to believe in a (Christian) God." (131); "To be regarded as an atheist in the seventeenth century did not require a denial of the existence of God, but the denial of a `divine economy of rewards and punishments, in heaven and hell. Michael Hunter similarly defines the 'atheism' of opinion as it was regarded in the early to mid-seventeenth century: 'irreligion in the sense of a more or less extreme attack on orthodox Christianity from a cynical or a Deistic viewpoint'." (134); radical speculations (kind of New Age-like) usually reduced God and spiritual matters to abstractions and doing so sometimes deified man and materialized the divine; discourse on variant relativistic views of the nature of God, the cosmos, skepticism, pacifism, toleration

Ch.6 - Jewish Anti-Christian Arguments as a Source of Irreligion from the Seventeenth to the Early Nineteenth Century

"Since the mid-first century, Jews have offered arguments as to why they do not accept Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism. In both the New Testament and the Talmud there is ample evidence of this. Strong efforts are made in the Gospels to show the Jews that prophecies in the Old Testament have been fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and strong efforts are made in the Talmud to show that this is not the case. As the Christian Church became more powerful, in both the Western and Eastern empires, these efforts to convince became more forceful, and Jewish answers became more circumspect. In medieval Europe staged disputations occurred, often inspired by Jewish converts. The Jews were offered a no-win situation. If they put forward any strong arguments, they were subject to prison or death for insulting Christianity. If they offered weak arguments, they were subject to sever pressures to convert. In spite of the odds, both sides usually claimed victory, and surviving documents demonstrate how each side provided a record of the encounter that would make them the winner. The Christians often tried to show that, at an earlier stage, Jews had admitted that the Messiah had come, and were now covering this up by changing the texts of the Talmud or hiding documents." (159); in Spain and Portugal were Jews ("conversos") who converted usually by some type of pressure or coercion due to inquisitions however some fled to the Netherlands and reverted back to Judaism; "One further background element that needs to be mentioned is that the drive to convert the Jews took on a new immediacy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because of the increasing conviction on the part of Christian millenarians, Catholic and Protestant, that the 'end of days' was imminent, and that the penultimate event before its coming was the prophesied conversion of the Jews. The results of forced conversion in Spain and Portugal had been so counter-productive that most serious European millenarians were now adamant that the Jews should be brought to convert through genuine conviction. This could only be accomplished by rational discourse and good will projects (and by God's intervention, making the Jews see the light)." (161); protection of Jewish communities allowed some Jews to oppose Christianity more openly; Amsterdam became a haven for Jews which allowed Judaism to thrive as long as it did not disturb the Christian majority; Jewish unpublished writings circulated in Amsterdam which were hidden from non-Jews, but the increasing discovery of this literature by non-Jews intensified the developing skepticism about, and/or denial of, Christianity by deists and proto-atheists (165); numerous Christians and Jews worked together to make editions of non-Biblical Jewish texts to help Jews learn more about Judaism in hopes that they would convert; numerous contributions by Jews on rebutting Christianity and defending Judaism are detailed - these provided part of the irreligious arsenal in the Enlightenment; "The radical Enlightenment bolstered its sceptical attack on Christianity by using the anti-Christian Jewish polemics." (178) since Voltaire, Baron d'Holbach and others used these; "The Jewish anti-Christian literature coming out of The Netherlands and its effects on Christian thinkers are part of the story of how scepticism turned from friend to foe of religion. The forceful arguments, stated in modern form and backed by modern standards of evidence, indicated that reasonable people could not find a real, solid connection between Jewish expectations in the Old Testament and that events portrayed in the New Testament. The theologies that tired to make these two stories part of the same theodicy became less credible. And if Christianity lost its link to the Old Testament, what did it rest on, and what could be its meaningful content? This of course, is just part of the development, and it has to be seen in relation to the role played by the ideas in clandestine works such as Bodin's "Colloquium heptaplomeres", "Les Trois Imposteurs", "Theophrastus redivivus", and the use that deists and incipient atheists made of them in the late seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth century. Perhaps, when all the pieces are put together, we shall be in a better position to understand the amazing change that took place over two hundred years in attitudes towards scripturally based religion, and the reasons for that change. I suggest that one of the factors involved was the ability of Jewish thinkers, schooled in modern Christian thought, to raise the possibility that Christians were misreading the biblical texts, misinterpreting the prophesies made in the Old Testament, and failing to see that those prophesies had not been fulfilled in the New Testament. If one could give this serious consideration, then Christianity was not the fulfillment of Judaism, and was not based upon it. Then one could ask, did it have any genuine historical or theological basis at all? One could even come to the question raised by Napoleon Bonaparte and Bruno Bauer, of whether Jesus ever actually existed as a person let alone as a divine being, and to the question raised by David Hume, Tom Paine, and a host of others, of whether the Old Testament was anything more than superstitious folk-literature?" (179-181)

Ch.7 - The First Edition of the "Traité des trois imposteurs", and its Debt to Spinoza's "Ethics"

On "Traité des trois imposteurs" from 1719, its obscure transmission and manuscript tradition; contains the table of contents of "L'Espirit" (a biography of Spinoza)

Ch.8 - 'Aikenhead the Atheist': The Context and Consequences of Articulate Irreligion in the Late Seventeenth Century

His execution for blasphemy in 1697 in Scotland, context, biography

Ch.9 - Disclaimers as Offence Mechanisms in Charles Blount and John Toland

Like chapter title says

Ch.10 - The Atheism of d'Holbach and Naigeon

Like chapter title says

Overall, it is a great historical collection. Atheists have existed in the ancient period and the medieval period, but modern atheists emerged in the 17th century and above. The time period in the book is when "organized irreligion" began to gain social significance like never before. For those who are interested in the history of atheism, this book does fill in some gaps in such a critical period - pretty much its birth - so it may be worth checking out.
This is a most important book. Any person interested in (the history of) atheism should read it at least once. It opens a whole new world of ideas and perspectives. Yes, atheism has a history, and it goes back a long, long way! You will not find a better guide for this most important period.

The book is unfortunately very hard to find, even in specialized university libraries. And it is expensive. There are large excerpts available on Google Books, but as usual with missing pages and nothing of the second half of the book. All that is frustrating, very much so. I will probably end up buying the darned book because it is so important (and well written), but a book like this should be neither so hard to find nor so expensive. That's the world we live in, I guess.