The history of western atheism-4: Atheism spreads to the masses

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In his BBC4 TV documentary A Rough History of Atheism, Jonathan Miller points out that by the end of the 18th century, while skepticism of god and religion was gaining ground among the intellectuals and the elites, and was probably secretly quite widespread, the spread of atheism to the working classes was opposed (even by these enlightened people) because the elites feared that it would destroy the basis of their power. It was fine to discuss atheistic ideas around their dinner tables as long as the servants were not present. As James Mills said to his son, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, “There is no god but it’s a family secret.”

Religion has also consistently been used as a tool of oppression, from the colonization by Europe of Asia and Africa and South America, to its use during slavery. It was consistently used to divert the energies of the enslaved people away from organizing to fight for their rights and freedom and directed to accepting their lot as god’s will and hoping for rewards in heaven. The idea that being rich and powerful is a sign of god’s favor is a valuable tool to maintain that status quo.

A belief in the divine right of kings and nobility has always served as a powerful means of social control and a deterrent to democratic ideals, and this had been recognized for a long time. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) said, “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of an evil treatment from a ruler they consider god fearing and pious. On the other hand they less easily move against him believing that he has the gods on his side.” As Voltaire said, “As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites.” Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledged the value of religion as a means of social control when he said “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet”, echoing Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) who said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

The cynical view that advocates that religion should be fostered by political leaders even if they do not themselves believe in it, is an attitude still maintained by some Straussian neoconservatives today.

As long as atheism stayed within the rarefied world of the elites and intellectuals, it did not pose a danger to social order. It is only when atheist views threaten to spread to the general public that it is viewed with concern. What we see currently in America may be a replaying of this historical pattern. The recent success of books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and the resulting public discussions of atheism that they have provoked have caused a similar disquiet.

For example, “common” people like Tom Paine were considered dangerous when they advocated atheist views, especially since his pamphleteering was reaching ordinary people. Actually, Paine is more properly be described as a deist but his stinging arguments that both Christianity and the Bible were false and many Christian doctrines immoral were enough for him to be labeled an atheist.

France in the 18th century was a fertile breeding ground for atheistic ideas because of the corrupt relationship of the Catholic Church with the French nobility. They both lived luxurious and extravagant lifestyles based on forced taxes exacted on peasants and workers. This led to a great deal of resentment and cynicism against religion and the ruling classes, factors involved in the events leading up to the revolution of 1789.

Atheism became more widespread when it started to permeate popular literature because novels reach a much wider and more middle and low-brow audience than philosophical treatises.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was clearly influenced by Baron D’Holbach and in his most famous book Madame Bovary had one of his characters, the pharmacist Homais, say the following: “I can’t believe in an old boy of a God who takes walks in his garden with a cane in his hand, who puts his friends in the belly of whales, dies uttering a cry, and rises again at the end of three days; things absurd in themselves, and completely opposed, moreover, to all physical laws, which proves to us, by the way, that priests have always wallowed in ignorance, in which they would be glad to engulf the people with them.” Later on, Homais debates the local priest and urges him to read Voltaire and D’Holbach. It should be not surprising that Flaubert was criticized for his writings, on the grounds of immorality and impiety.

Another French writer Emile Zola (1840-1902) is quoted as saying: “Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.”

These ideas spread across the channel to England and influenced the climate in which Charles Darwin worked, as I will discuss in the next posting.


  1. Anonymous says

    Hi Mano,

    One quick question: when you say:
    “…Religion has also consistently been used as a tool of oppression…”

    What do you mean by the word “consistently”? As opposed to what, for example?

  2. says

    By “consistently”, I mean that there is a regular pattern that is not hard to see. If one looks at the role of religion in maintaining feudal society, slavery, and colonial societies throughout time, one sees a consistent pattern of it being used to persuade oppressed people to accept their lower status in society, either because the rulers were supposed to be “ordained’ by god to rule or by promising rewards in heaven and making their present suffering seem to somehow noble.

    I am not sure what you are asking for by saying “as opposed tp what” to the word “consistently”.

  3. Corbin says

    Okay, sorry, I am still a little confused. If you
    do not tell me “as opposed to what”, then I do
    not see what extra meaning the word “consistently”
    adds to your statements here. Can you give me a
    a hypothetical history where religion would
    be applied to oppress people in a way that
    would be “inconsistent”? I’m not really
    following what you mean by this word. Can
    you give me a synonym?

    Would “generally” or “typically” be valid
    synonyms for your intended usage of the word
    “consistently”. Or did you mean something
    closer to “universally” or maybe “ubiquitously”?

    Sorry to be so thick here….this is relevant
    to my “favorite question” about the value
    of religion in the world…

  4. says

    The opposite to my use would not be to “oppress people in a way that would be “inconsistent””, but that there would not a clear pattern in whether it was used to oppress or not to oppress. But the history of colonialism and slavery and feudalism clearly point to the use of religion as a means of institutional oppression. Individuals might find in religion a call for justice and liberation but the alliance of religious institutions with political power has rarely, if at all, worked for the benefit of the poor.

  5. Corbin says

    Perhaps I still do not quite understand.

    Would you discount the influence of religious
    institutions on, for example, the pre-civil-war
    abolitionist movement, the US civil rights
    movement of the 60’s and the liberation theology
    movement in Latin America? And would you
    discount the activities of religious charity
    organizations in responding to natural disasters
    such as the the tsunami and the Katrina? Would
    you also discount the activities of local
    relgious organizations who regularly contribute
    food and material support to the poor and
    homeless in the Cleveland area? And what about
    those religious organizations that are currently
    calling for social justice in places like
    Darfur and elsewhere around the world?

    I am certainly not arguing against your notion
    that religious has been — and will continue
    to be — used as a weapon by those who would
    unjustly wield political and economic power
    over others. But it seems to me fairly easy to
    come up with examples in history where
    religious organizations have operated to
    support the poor, to ease suffering,
    and to call for liberation of the oppressed.

  6. dave says

    One only need look to the Amish, Anabaptists by faith, as an example of religion that is positive and good.

    Problem is, atheists don’t like the Amish because they don’t fit into their paradigm of religion.

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