The history of western atheism-5: The religious climate in Darwin’s time

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

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was aware of all the religious debates swirling around him as a young man, although they did not seem to divert him from his passionate pursuit of collecting beetles. In the early to mid-1800’s, England was in a reaction against the radicalism and turmoil following the French revolution of 1789 which had dethroned the religious hierarchy there. The Tories (which later became the Conservative Party) were strong supporters of the authority of the King and the Anglican Church and traditional Biblical teachings of the special creation. They were ascendant over the Whigs (which later became the Liberal Party), who wanted “extended suffrage, open competition, religious emancipation (allowing Dissenters, Jews, and Catholics to hold office) and the abolition of slavery.” (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 24).
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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.”
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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.
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The history of western atheism-2: The beginnings of modern atheism

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

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) may have unwittingly been the trigger for the revival of freethinking during the Enlightenment. Although he always asserted his own fidelity to the teachings of the church, the clarity of his thinking about the mind-body relationship exposed some of the fundamental problems and contradictions that inevitably accompany religious beliefs.

Belief in god has always required a kind of dualistic ‘two different worlds and two different kinds of matter’ way of thinking, but usually left unexamined the thorny questions of how the two interacted. Descartes’ exposition on this duality and his attempts to find a way by which the world and matter of god interacted with the world and matter of people exposed the difficulties with dualism, problems which plague thoughtful believers to this day as they try to reconcile a scientific perspective with religious faith.
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The history of western atheism-1: The ancient origins

In the BBC4 TV program Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, host Jonathan Miller states flatly right at the beginning, “This series is about the disappearance of something – religious faith. . . The history of the growing conviction that god does not exist.”

(The full three hour, three-part series can be seen starting at the beginning here. The price you pay for it being on YouTube is that each hour is chopped up into six ten-minute segments in order to meet the time restrictions. But the video and sound quality are excellent.)

Miller did a nice job of summarizing the rise and fall and rise again of freethinking. Strictly speaking, his is a survey of atheism just in the western world. In the eastern world of two millennia ago, the widespread acceptance of Confucianism, which placed very little emphasis on a god, and Buddhism, which required no belief in god, suggests that atheism was not perceived as negatively as in the west.

The Miller documentary is structured quite traditionally. It is long on voice-over narration by Miller as he walks through various imposing historical churches, museums, and other buildings and gazes upwards at portraits and statues of the people he is talking about, interspersed with interviews with scholars. It is Miller talking to the viewer in an informal, chatty way, interweaving the history of disbelief with his own journey to a comfortable atheism. But what it lacks in drama and glitz, it more than makes up in the low-key, understated charm that is characteristic of good BBC documentaries. The second and third hours are especially good as the pace picks up.
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Jonathan Miller (1934-2019)

The multi-talented Miller died yesterday at the age of 85. His obituary describes the wide range of activities that he was involved with in his life, including being a doctor, writer, and theatre and opera director.

I first came across him as one of the four people (along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett) that made up the sketch comedy team whose performance of Beyond the Fringe broke with traditional British comedy and set the stage for later acts like Monty Python.
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