(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In his BBC4 TV series A Rough History of Atheism Jonathan Miller awards the honor of being the first published atheist to France’s Paul Henri Thiery, Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789). As the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on him says:
His most popular book, Système de la nature (1770) (“The System of Nature”), published under the name of J.B. Mirabaud, caustically derided religion and espoused an atheistic, deterministic Materialism: causality became simply relationships of motion, man became a machine devoid of free will, and religion was excoriated as harmful and untrue. In Le Christianisme dévoilé (1761; “Christianity Unveiled”), published under the name of a deceased friend, N.A. Boulanger, he attacked Christianity as contrary to reason and nature.
It is said that the Baron’s salon was a congenial meeting place for all manner of freethinkers, including Benjamin Franklin during his stay in France, but some of his guests were so alarmed at the inflammatory nature of the speculations that occurred that they stopped coming. Even a nobleman like D’Holbach had to be cautious about his views, as atheism was grounds for persecution and even execution, so his works on these subjects were published pseudonymously.
When you read the Baron’s views, one can understand his caution. Here is a sample of his writings, which are bracingly direct and modern:
- If we go back to the beginning we shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them, and that custom, respect and tyranny support them in order to make the blindness of men serve its own interests.
- If the ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, the knowledge of nature is calculated to destroy them.
- All religions are ancient monuments to superstitions, ignorance, ferocity; and modern religions are only ancient follies rejuvenated.
- All children are atheists — they have no idea of God.
- What has been said of [God] is either unintelligible or perfectly contradictory; and for this reason must appear impossible to every man of common sense.
- The Jehovah of the Jews is a suspicious tyrant, who breathes nothing but blood, murder, and carnage, and who demands that they should nourish him with the vapours of animals. The Jupiter of the Pagans is a lascivious monster. The Moloch of the Phoenicians is a cannibal. The pure mind of the Christians resolved, in order to appease his fury, to crucify his own son. The savage god of the Mexicans cannot be satisfied without thousands of mortals which are immolated to his sanguinary appetite.
- Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.
- Tolerance and freedom of thought are the veritable antidotes to religious fanaticism.
- Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.
Pretty strong stuff, especially for the 18th century, and one can understand why the good Baron was wary of saying these things under his own name. But there is nothing in the above list that any modern atheist would disagree with.
Baron D’Holbach’s writings are said to have been extremely influential, perhaps because they said so directly what had been thought secretly for so long in the minds of many thoughtful people. It is very likely that his works were well known to Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles Darwin’s grandfather, who was himself a radical freethinker and who had published his own Lamarckian theory of evolution in the book Zoonomia which was published around 1795.
Although Charles Darwin started out as a religious person and was contemplating becoming an Anglican clergyman early on, there is little doubt that the disbelief of his father and grandfather and brother were factors in his later move away from religion. He knew them to be good and decent people and the thought that they would be punished and suffer torments simply because of their disbelief was impossible for him to accept. As he wrote in his autobiography (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 246):
I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.
And this is a damnable doctrine.
The philosopher Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) said that “The notion that faith in Christ is to be rewarded by an eternity of bliss, while a dependence upon reason, observation, and experience merits everlasting pain, is too absurd for refutation, and can be relieved only by that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance, called “faith.”" Darwin would probably have sympathized with the statement although, being someone who avoided social controversy, he probably would not have stated it so strongly.
It is interesting to see the interweaving of threads of ideas of religion and science and atheism in those times. Was it the atheist writings of people like D’Holmbach that opened up the creative window for Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, and other scientists, freeing them from the constraints of having their science strictly conform to religious dogma? It is hard to say. But the more liberal climate definitely would have helped.
Next in this series: Atheism shifts from the intellectuals to the masses.