The history of western atheism-3: The first published atheist

(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.


  1. George Bohichik says

    Just a random comment:

    The top-selling book, Ben Hur: A Tale of The Christ/1880 was written as a response to atheism following a chance meeting between the author, Lew Wallace, and Ingersoll in a railroad car.
    A factoid that should be added to the following entry:
    Excerpted from: *************************************************************************************************************
    The novel was a phenomenal best-seller; it soon surpassed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as the best-selling American novel and retained this distinction until the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.[1] In 1912, Sears Roebuck published one million copies to sell for 39 cents apiece: the largest single-year print edition in American history. The book was also the first work of fiction to be blessed by a pope.[2]
    Lew Wallace said that he wrote Ben-Hur as a way to sort out his own beliefs about God and Christ. In doing so he inspired many readers by combining romanticism and spiritual piety common in sentimental novels of the 19th century with the action and adventure found in the more vulgar stories of the day. It prompted many clergy to reverse their church’s long-held opposition to novels and actually encourage their congregations to read Ben-Hur, as a result helping it to become one of the best selling novels of its time. It not only helped wipe away any lingering American resistance to the novel, it was instrumental in introducing many Christian audiences to theater and film. [3]

  2. says


    That is a fascinating anecdote. I have not read the novel but saw the film many years ago and enjoyed it.

  3. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    You claim that this is a list that “any modern atheist would agree with.” What evidence do
    you have to support such a claim? This seems
    pretty sweeping.

    I ask because it seems to me that the basic
    assertion of atheism is that there is no credible
    evidence for the existence of god. Several of the
    assertions above go further and argue that that
    all religion is a bad thing.

    It seems to me that these are two different

    As far as I can tell, most of the arguments
    you have made on your blog to defend your
    own atheism on the basis of “there is
    no evidence” side of things.

    I’ve asked you before to consider reflecting upon
    the evidence for the arguments that several
    new atheists have been making recently (and
    that are made above) that not only
    is the idea of god “wrong” but also the claim
    that the world — people in general,
    societies, etc., would be better off if
    there were no religions of any kind.

  4. says


    It is hard for me to imagine that believing strongly in something for which there is no evidence at all can ever be a good thing. It seems to me to make people vulnerable to all other kinds of unjustified beliefs. At best, one might argue that in some situations it is a harmless, like a small child’s belief in an imaginary friend.

    It becomes harder to justify unsupported beliefs when they are held by adults. Would we tacitly support astrology, for example, by refraining from pointing out its weaknesses? What is the essential difference between astrology and belief in god?

    So yes, I do believe that the world would be far better off without religions of any kind. The history of western atheism that I have been running is a precursor to making the case for that.

  5. says

    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.

    Which is, of course, Lucretius’ original argument: “Fear is the mother of all gods.”

    I would add, then, that all the rest is marketing. 🙂

  6. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    Okay I will resist the temptation to comment further until your series and subsequent
    case have run its course — except to say one thing in response to your
    response above:

    You seem to assume that those who are religious have “strongly held
    beliefs”. Indeed you have argued in the past that the strong desire to
    hold onto these beliefs is an important factor in why otherwise
    rational people follow religious practices. I would like to suggest
    that this might not always be true. While it is certainly true that
    some religious persons have strongly held beliefs, it is my personal
    experience that at least a significant fraction of people who consider
    themselves more liberal in their religious opinions also tend to be
    rather less confident about the factual basis of any particular
    religious claims and are even less confident about the conviction of
    their own personal religious beliefs…. they are more agnostic, if
    you will.

    It comes down to what it means to say “belief”. If, for example, I
    say, “I believe that when I release this ball from my hand it will
    fall to the ground” this is a “strong belief”. If I say, “I believe
    it will rain next Tuesday” or “I believe my dog loves me.” then these
    are not “strong beliefs”. I would say that for some persons and even
    some traditions, religious beliefs fall rather more into the same
    category as the beliefs about the weather or the dog and not the same
    category as beliefs about falling objects. In other words, it is
    quite possible, in my opinion, for people to hold religious beliefs as
    tentative working models, valuable in their own context, but held
    lightly so that they might be subject to modification and/or rejection
    in the case that these models lead to conclusions that are contrary to
    experience or fact. I might even guess that these sorts of religious
    views are more commonly held than one might guess because — not
    surprisingly — those who hold their beliefs more strongly are just
    that much more likely to espouse them loudly.

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