Lesson 3: The History of Atheism

Lesson 3: The History of Atheism1

To understand a cultural movement, it is often helpful to trace its history, and so we now turn to a brief overview of the history of atheism. One might assume that atheistic ideas would extend back to the remotest parts of human history, but such is not the case. In the ancient world, atheism was virtually unheard of. Everyone believed in a god of some sort. Many lived as if they did not believe in the god or gods they professed, but few indeed would have denied belief in any god. Yet in our time, atheism is a common worldview.

How did the remarkable and monumental reversal occur? History tells us.


  1. Cultural conditions

    1. Conditions in Western Europe before the French Revolution

      1. In 17th century Western Europe, belief in God had become a deeply embedded aspect of European culture, with the institution of the church widely seen as a stabilizing influence on the region. However, the Reformation brought an end to Roman Catholic dominion over the entire region and other forms of Christian expression became popular.

      2. The Reformers and many others reacted strongly against the power, influence, and wealth of the Roman Church, which had become an agent of oppression and exploitation. While the Reformers urged a return to the NT model, others saw Christianity as holding back social, intellectual, and political progress. For some, the best way to undermine the church was to attack the ideas on which the church was based, undermine the credibility of its teachings.

      3. The 18th century (1700s) was an age of revolution. Many saw religion as the enemy of progress, lending a spurious divine authority to the traditions of the past and the corrupt monarchies that depended on them for what little credibility they possessed.

      4. This era is often called the Age of Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) because of the adoption of rationalism and humanism and the application of the scientific method to all things. It was an age of immense scientific advance. Belief in natural law and universal order promoted a scientific approach to political and scientific issues, and gave rise to a sense of human progress.2 The Enlightenment marked the beginning of the modern era (“modernity”3) and set the stage for atheism to gain influence. The dawning of the Enlightenment marked the beginning of the demise of Christianity as the leading cultural influence in Western civilization.

    2. Modern atheism can be traced back to the French Revolution.

      1. If any event signals the dawn of the golden age of atheism in the West, it is the French Revolution of 1789. The Revolution in France was a political upheaval that ended the monarchy and severely weakened the Roman Catholic Church there. There was good reason for hostility toward the crown and the church in France. The aristocracy lived in luxury while the peasants suffered grinding poverty. The Church was corrupt and supported the monarchy. The middle class was heavily and unfairly taxed to support the excesses of both the government and the church. A widespread rebellion against the aristocracy and the church was inevitable. The middle class was intent on destroying both. Since the church supported the monarchy, the church would have to go, too. The wisdom of the day was as simple as it was powerful: eliminate God, and a new future would dawn. Atheism was seen as a liberator capable of overthrowing both the monarchy and the church.

      2. French writers began asserting the idea that one could understand nature by reason and experience, without God. Everything could be accounted for on purely materialist grounds. Belief in God is the product of a misguided human imagination, not the rigorous scientific application of the scientific method. Science liberates humanity from false ideas of supernatural powers or beings. Ignorance of nature gives birth to the idea of God. The “god” for the French became humanism.

Quoting D’Holbach: An atheist is someone who destroys human [fantasies] in order call people back to nature, experience and reason.

      1. Without the restraining influence of the idea of God, anything was possible, including the creation of a new society, liberated from the oppressive rule of monarchy and church.

Diderot: “France would not be free until the last of its kings had been strangled with the entrails of its last priest.”

      1. Some French writers attempted to make belief in God invulnerable to skeptical assault. Rene Descartes set out to demonstrate the existence of God with certainty. Instead of basing his argument on religious experience, Descartes founded his beliefs on philosophy and natural science. Few found his arguments compelling.

      2. Atheism did not become a significant force in British life in the eighteenth century. France and Germany were the centers of atheistic philosophy.

  1. Leading figures advocating atheism

The intellectual foundations for atheism extend back to a handful of influential writers. Ideas originally limited to a small elite gradually percolated downward and outward into society as a whole. Eventually, they became accepted and familiar. Intellectuals became the “secular priesthood” preaching atheism.

    1. In France

      1. In 1748, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie published a work asserting that human happiness depends upon the triumph of atheism, which alone can liberate humanity from tyranny, war, and oppression—all of which have religious roots.

      2. Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet) (1694-1778) is often first on the list of French skeptics to blame for spreading atheism, but he was not really an atheist. Voltaire was a bold critic of the church and a proponent of “natural” religion, but was also strongly defended the idea of a supreme being, who was inadequately and falsely represented by the religions of the world, especially the French Catholic church. Voltaire was joined by many genuine atheists in his denunciation of the church, but Voltaire himself was not an atheist. Voltaire, for all his many savage criticisms of the French religious establishment of his day, did not himself espouse atheism.

      3. Denis Diderot (1713-84) was an influential spokesman for atheism who taught that the principle of everything is creative nature, matter in its self-activity, eternally productive of all change and all design. He said that religions have made the world ugly with their murderous wars and endless dogmatic controversies.

      4. Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789). In 1761 D’Holbach began his written attacks on theologians and religious power. D’Holbach taught that most of man’s woes stemmed from religion. “Ignorance and fear,” he claimed, “are the two hinges of all religion.” He taught that morals were quite possible without religion: “Let … reason be cultivated … and there will be no need of opposing to the passions such a feeble barrier as the fear of the gods.”4

      5. The Marquis de Sade argued (from an insane asylum) that belief in God is just repressive superstition. Obedience to natural desire is what is really important. The first stage of enlightenment is rejection of God. Religion is the barrier preventing humanity from enjoying its vices. Abandoning faith in God is the first step to enjoying life. There is no life to come; only a life in the present, which we ought to enjoy as much as possible. The idea of God is an outmoded superstition that merely gets in the way of enjoying life to the full. Atheism makes sexual experimentation legitimate and interesting.

    2. In Germany and Austria

      1. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), the “father” of European atheism: religion is a human construction

        1. Feuerbach, who started out as a theology student, argued that Christianity trivializes death by diverting believers from their actual relations with other persons and with the natural world around them. Authentic human existence is godless and limited to this life.

        2. Feuerbach followed the philosopher Hegel in teaching that humanity invented the idea of God as a consolation and distraction from the sorrow of the world. God was a human creation. Humanity existed alone; it had brought the notion of God into being as a misguided means of comforting itself during life’s dark and shadowy journey. God was but a “dream of the human soul,” a pure invention, the product of a human mind.

        3. Religion is not a God-given set of ideas but a human construction. Religion tells us nothing about God and everything about ourselves. The idea of God was a dream and the church the perpetuator of this delusion.

      2. Karl Marx (1818-83): religion is the “opium of the people”

        1. Marx was a materialist, one who believes that the world consists only of matter, without spiritual dimensions. Further, Marx believed that every aspect of human life and thought is determined by social and economic factors. Ideas and values are determined by the material realities of life. People’s social and economic conditions determine what they think. The idea of God is a human attempt to cope with the harshness of material life and the pain resulting from social and economic privation.

        2. Religion has no real independent existence, but is merely a symptom of something more real, namely, the material world. God is simply a projection of human concern. Theology is nothing more than a human creation of purely social forces. Religion is a human creation in response to the alienation experienced through the process of production. “Humans make religion.” It is a comfort that enables people to tolerate their economic alienation. Religion is merely the result of certain social and economic conditions. When communism is instituted, religion will vanish.

        3. Religion provides an illusion of happiness. To enjoy true happiness, one must give up the illusion. Religion provides the justification for the status quo; it lends authority to the upper classes to oppress the poor. Religion will die naturally when communism is imposed.

        4. Famous quote from Marx: Religion is the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”

      1. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): religion is “neurosis”

        1. Freud taught that it is natural for humanity not to believe in God. Religion, not atheism, is what needs to be explained. “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”

        2. Religious ideas are “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. … We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an afterlife; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”

        3. Freud became a psychoanalyst precisely because he was an atheist. He believed religion posed a threat to the advance of the Enlightenment and the natural sciences. Freud’s approach to religion rests upon the perceived need to explain why anyone would wish to take the extraordinary step of believing in God, when there is obviously no God to believe in.

        4. “Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities.”

        5. Religion is a “neurosis” civilized individuals must pass through on their way from childhood to maturity.

        6. Psychoanalysis has made us familiar with the intimate connection between the father-complex and belief in God; it has shown us that a personal God is, psychologically, nothing other than an exalted father, and it brings us evidence of how young people lose their religious beliefs as soon as their father’s authority breaks down.

        7. Belief in a personal God is little more than an infantile delusion. Religion is wishful thinking. God is to be seen as a wish fulfillment, arising from repressed, unconscious infantile longings for protection and security. Religious beliefs owe their origins to a childlike feeling of helplessness, which arises in response to external dangers, internal impulses, and a fear of death.

      2. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): “God is dead”

        1. Nietzsche said that belief in the Christian God had become virtually indefensible in modern Western society. The primary emphasis of Nietzsche’s mature writings is that “belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable.” Western culture had not ceased to believe in God on account of unassailable philosophical reasons, but because it shifted mood. God is gradually being eliminated from modern culture. Whether this is right or wrong, good or bad, it is happening. Western culture has ceased to find belief in God plausible.

        2. Nietzsche despised religion in general, and Christianity in particular, with unbridled fury. He said, “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which o means are too venomous, too underhanded, too underground, and too petty.” Nietzsche was the most imaginative and articulate modern spokesman for atheism. He philosophically and ideologically swayed the twentieth-century mind.5

        3. Nietzsche spent the last eleven years of his life insane.

  1. Recent history of atheism6

Within the last few decades, several writers who advocate atheism have come into prominence. Here are a few you should be familiar with:

    1. Anthony Flew: As a professor of philosophy at Oxford and other universities, Flew was a leading proponent of atheism and humanism. Flew earned his fame by arguing that one should presuppose atheism until evidence of a God surfaces. However, in 2004, Flew changed his views and became a deist, believing in an “inactive, inoffensive” god. Some believe Flew’s change of mind was due to a serious mental decline accompanying his old age.

    2. Richard Dawkins: This twice-divorced British biologist and Oxford scholar has sold millions of books advocating evolution and atheism. He has also been active in the popular media as an outspoken voice for atheism and against creationism and Christianity. Dawkins has been labeled “Darwin’s Rottweiler” because of his devotion to Darwinian evolution and his hostility toward biblical creationism. He’s also been called “the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell.” Dawkins’ book The God Delusion had sold over 1.5 million copies and been translated to 31 languages.

    3. Christopher Hitchins: This author, journalist and political activist is noted for his wit, scholarship, and abrasive personality. His 2007 book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything asserts, among other things, that organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” He’s a popular speaker on the lecture circuit and frequently debates theologians and creationists.

    4. Other notable proponents of atheism (in no particular order)

      1. John Dewey, atheistic American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer

      2. Sam Harris, author and scientist, argues that religious fundamentalism is dangerous and theologically unsound.

      3. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, wrote that human reason is wholly inadequate to make any assumptions about the divine.

      4. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, believed all religions led to the “exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.”

      5. H.L. Mencken, American journalist and satirist who famously ridiculed those who believed the Genesis account of creation at the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial.

      6. Bertrand Russell, British philosopher and mathematician, maintained that religion is little more than superstition and, despite any positive effects that religion might have, it is largely harmful to people. He believed religions impede knowledge, foster fear and dependency, and are responsible for much of the war, oppression, and misery that have beset the world.

      7. John Lennon, singer/songwriter, famously sang “and no religion too” in his song “Imagine.” Lennon commented that the song was “an anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic song, but because it’s sugar-coated, it’s accepted.”

As a result of Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and the rest, society’s thinking about religion did an about face, starting with the Enlightenment and extending to the current era. Earlier generations regarded the existence of God as a natural and fundamental aspect of humanity. After these and others,7 atheism became natural and religious belief something to be explained away. God was the product of social and psychological factors. The idea of God was a mere invention, useful in consoling weak and foolish souls who were naïve enough to believe it. God was nothing more than an illusion, created by fearful minds to console themselves in the face of the immensity and meaninglessness of the universe. The idea of God, in their view, was a source of evil in the world, an idea to be destroyed.

Interestingly, in spite of the fact that many of the leading voices in education, philosophy, science, arts and letters, and media advocate atheism or are hostile toward organized religion, the majority of people in the world are religious, while the vast minority would describe themselves as atheists or unbelievers. Americans in particular are confirmed theists, with over 80% of them describing themselves as Christian. Still, the skeptics and critics are having an impact in Western civilization, where secularism is gaining ground.

1 Much of the material in this lesson comes from Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism.

2 The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, 269.

3 Modernity is defined as “a confident, [optimistic] movement, convinced of the supreme ability of human reason to understand the world and hence to master and control it.” McGrath, Twilight, 218. The current age is often labeled “post-modern” because western culture has moved beyond the ideals of modernism.

4 http://www.answers.com/d’holbach.

5 Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism, 25.

6 Most of this information comes from Wikipedia.org

7 One of the leading figures associated with the rise of atheism is Charles Darwin, popularizer of natural evolution. We’ll discuss his contributions to atheism in another lesson.

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