The Original Atheists: First Thoughts on Nonbelief

The Original Atheists: First Thoughts on Nonbelief

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by S.T. Joshi

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This is the first anthology ever published to feature the writings of leading eighteenth-century thinkers on the subjects of atheism, religion, freethought, and secularism.

Editor S. T. Joshi has compiled notable essays by writers from Germany, France, England, and early America. The contributors include Denis Diderot (a principal author of the


This is the first anthology ever published to feature the writings of leading eighteenth-century thinkers on the subjects of atheism, religion, freethought, and secularism.

Editor S. T. Joshi has compiled notable essays by writers from Germany, France, England, and early America. The contributors include Denis Diderot (a principal author of the multivolume French Encyclopédie), Baron d'Holbach (System of Nature, 1770), Voltaire (Philosophical Dictionary), David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and other lesser-known thinkers.
     With a comprehensive introduction providing the intellectual and cultural context of the essays, this outstanding compilation will be of interest to students of philosophy, religious studies, and eighteenth-century intellectual history. 

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this anthology, Joshi (The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism) has compiled substantial selections on the subject of nonbelief from more than a dozen leading French, German, British, and American thinkers of the 18th century. What sets this collection apart from other recent anthologies, such as Joshi's own Atheism: A Reader and the late Christopher Hitchens's The Portable Atheist, is its strict focus on this particular time period. This compendium contains only one overlapping piece with each of those previous works. Included here are writings from both major figures, such as Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Thomas Jefferson, and lesser-known thinkers, such as Anthony Collins and Julien Offray de La Mettrie. As Joshi notes in his useful and context-setting introduction, although some of the writers featured here were not explicitly atheists or agnostics (at least not publicly), each greatly influenced and laid the intellectual groundwork for future generations of atheistic thought. While there were certainly atheists before the 18th century, this era proved a significant turning point in the history of free thought, thus meriting this volume. VERDICT Recommended for readers interested in the early history of nonbelief and students of 18th-century intellectual history.—Brian Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY
From the Publisher
“This volume is a testament to that courage and to the fact that we modern unbelievers may take pleasure in realizing that we have philosophical and epistemological roots going back centuries.”
American Rationalist

“This anthology brilliantly samples the work of the leading thinkers of the European and American Enlightenments that culminated in our era’s secular naturalism. Especially relevant are the sections by Locke, Jefferson, and Madison that counter the regressive efforts by today’s religious Right to lead us back to the Dark Ages.”
—Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty and a columnist for Free Inquiry

“Joshi’s enlightening The Unbelievers featured his analyses of the defenses of atheism offered by such noted nonbelievers as H. L. Mencken, Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others. What has long been missing from the atheist corpus is a compilation of detailed arguments from the earliest writers on the controversial topic: Voltaire, d’Holbach, Bentham, Madison, Jefferson, and Paine. The Original Atheists has now filled this void and, in effect, completed the magnum opus Joshi started in 2011.”
—William Harwood, author of God, Jesus and the Bible

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Copyright © 2014 S. T. Joshi
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ISBN: 978-1-61614-842-3


The first atheist of whom we know is one Diagoras, who lived in the late fifth century BCE. It is typical that nothing of his works aside from random fragments survives and that he was forced to flee Athens because he declared that there were no gods. Even in the ages preceding Christianity, the enunciation of explicitly atheistic, or even agnostic, views carried with it the threat of both legal punishment and social obloquy. It is therefore unsurprising that, once Christianity gained ascendancy in the Roman Empire (in the early fourth century CE), avowed atheists were few and far between. All that changed with the dawn of the eighteenth century in Europe, and the following question must be asked: Why? More pertinently, Why now?

The answers are multitudinous and complex but can be boiled down to two important developments that had occurred over the preceding several centuries. The Renaissance that began in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries generated two discrete but parallel intellectual movements—the advance of science and the rediscovery of classical learning. The former is perhaps the better known, but it is still worth underscoring. There is scarcely any question that the revolutionary findings of such thinkers as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo had the effect of knocking the earth and its occupants from both physical and moral centrality in the universe. If our planet was only a tiny atom in the midst of a virtually boundless array of stars, galaxies, and nebulae, then it became harder to believe that a god had specifically designed the earth for a chosen species called human beings. Complementary developments in other sciences had the effect of replacing supernatural causation with natural causation: increasingly, God was no longer required to explain the workings of the universe or the creation and development of natural organisms. All this work culminated in the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727), who became a kind of intellectual icon who was thought to have explained the workings of the universe once and for all. It was the deist Alexander Pope who deliberately evoked (and, indeed, gently parodied) religious imagery in describing Newton's achievements:

Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light.

The second development—the resuscitation of classical learning—had a somewhat more indirect role in the growing secularism of the age, but it was ultimately no less significant. In the medieval era, only Plato and Aristotle were read and studied—chiefly, in Plato's case, for the fancied similarities of his ethical views to those of Christianity, and, in Aristotle's, for purportedly supplying the logical foundation for Christian metaphysical thought. The great majority of "pagan" writers from the Greco-Roman period were shunned as benighted figures who had failed to benefit from Christian teaching. Dante may have fetishized Virgil as his spiritual leader in the Divine Comedy, but less superficially Christian writers were under the ban. The Renaissance, however, had rediscovered the thought of such thinkers as the pre-Socratics (including Leucippus and Democritus, the founders of atomism), the Stoics (also in some regards considered forerunners of Christian moral belief), and in particular Epicurus and his Roman disciple Lucretius. The Epicurean belief that the gods lived in the spaces between the stars and, in their perfection, had no concern or involvement with a flawed humanity, was an intriguing hypothesis; it was not surprising that, even in antiquity, the Epicureans were considered closet atheists. It didn't hurt that Lucretius had expounded Epicureanism with extraordinary panache in his long poem De Rerum Natura (first century BCE), with lengthy sections on the utter extinction of consciousness upon the death of the body, the natural origin of human and other life on earth, and other topics that would become the cornerstones of atheistic, agnostic, and deist thought in the centuries to come. His pungent line "Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum" (1.101: "How many evils can religion engender!") was not overlooked.

While there were skeptics and agnostics prior to the eighteenth century, they remained solitary and isolated figures: Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was perhaps the most noteworthy, his pregnant utterance "Que scaisje?" ("What do I know?") becoming the epitome of skepticism. Let us recall that Michael Servetus (1509?–1553), Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), and any number of other figures were executed for expressing heterodox views: any open declaration of atheism would have been a one-way ticket to the stake.

The seventeenth century laid the groundwork for the secularism to come. Galileo's humiliation by the Inquisition in 1633—he was forced to declare that the sun revolved around the earth, even though he knew better—generated outrage at such an infringement of intellectual freedom. At about the same time, Sir Francis Bacon was laying down the outlines of philosophical empiricism with such works as The Advancement of Learning (1605) and Novum Organum (1620). Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651) and other works, proclaimed a resolute materialism that saw even God and the human soul as material entities; as a result, he was frequently branded an atheist, even though he rejected the accusation. In France, Descartes and his followers championed deductive reasoning in their Cartesian philosophy; nominally, Descartes claimed that this methodology allowed for a proof of the existence of God on rationalist grounds, but his searching inquiry into the grounds for belief of any proposition, however self-evident, had broader ramifications than he himself realized. It was at this time that the tormented Christian Blaise Pascal expressed, in his Pensées (1669), a searing doubt about the truths of the Christian revelation that no doubt echoed that of many of his contemporaries.

In the late seventeenth century, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) was a pioneer of skepticism. His multivolume Dictionnaire historique et critique (1695–97) not only revealed a prodigious learning in science, history, and religion, but also expressed severe doubts about the role of religion in political and social life and frankly advocated religious toleration. The work was manifestly a precursor, from many perspectives, to the Encyclopédie (1751–72) of Diderot and d'Alembert.

And yet, in a real sense, the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, whose intellectual luminaries were so numerous and so vocal, had its origin in England. Bacon was manifestly a revered ancestor of the scientific method, and John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) was a grand summation of empiricism in much the same way that Newton's work summed up current thinking on astronomy and physics. Deism, the dominant "religion" of Enlightenment thinkers, also originated in England, with such figures as Charles Blount (The Oracles of Reason, 1695), John Toland (Christianity Not Mysterious, 1696), Anthony Collins (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, 1713), and numerous others. The main thrust of these works was the discounting of the "miracles" of the Bible, which were increasingly seen as implausible and even unworthy of belief: a God who had presumably designed the natural world as a smoothly running machine would, it was believed, never stoop to such legerdemain as stopping the sun in its tracks (as in the tale of Joshua) or even permitting Jesus to walk on water. With Newton and others confirming the unvarying regularity of Nature, God was left as a kind of Epicurean figure who had started the mechanism at the beginning of time and lay back to admire his handiwork without further intervening in human affairs. This line of thought culminated in David Hume's celebrated essay "Of Miracles" (1748), although it was also reflected in Conyers Middleton's influential treatise A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1749).

With the dawn of the eighteenth century, all these tendencies fused into open or at least veiled expressions of atheism. Even if the renegade ex-priest Jean Meslier (1664–1729) was something of an outlier in the ferocity of his condemnation of Christianity and of religion in general, other thinkers were not slow to declare themselves religious skeptics. Among the thinkers included in this book, Meslier, d'Holbach, Diderot, Hume, and Bentham can, with fair certainty, be called atheists; most of the others were deists, secularists, or doubters. It is also possible that some of these, among many others, resisted any public declaration of atheism because of the threat of legal penalties. In many of their writings, these thinkers exhibit an outward respect toward religion in general and Christianity in particular while delivering pungent and fatal blows to its central arguments.

One of the means by which religious doctrine was questioned was by the new field of anthropology, practiced by thinkers in both France and England. A renewed focus on the study of history, reaching back into the earliest stages of primitive human life, suggested that religion and its appurtenances—ritual, divination, and so on—were natural products of a stage of primitive existence whereby human beings were confronted with natural forces whose operation they failed to understand, and which they thereby attributed to the work of superhuman entities. The chapter from Etienne Bonnot de Condillac's Treatise on Systems (1749), printed here, is a penetrating investigation of this subject, and it also was utilized in what is without doubt the most exhaustive treatise on atheism written in that century, and perhaps any century—that is, d'Holbach's System of Nature (1770). It is true that these thinkers could not draw upon much fieldwork in their anthropological arguments, which accordingly remained largely theoretical; but this work—culminating in David Hume's Natural History of Religion (1757)—proved to be remarkably prescient and was substantially confirmed a century or more later when such anthropologists as Edward Burnett Tylor (Primitive Culture, 1871) presented very similar arguments.

The study of history damaged respect for religion in other regards, by questioning its role in the course of human affairs. Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, 1689–1755) praised Christianity lavishly in The Spirit of Laws (1748) but condemned the Inquisition. In England, Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) saw in Christianity the chief culprit in the fall of the Roman Empire. And Condorcet (Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, 1743–1794), in Sketch of an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1795), saw an inexorable historical progression from the barbarism of medieval Christianity to the rationalism of his day.

The one significant obstacle toward a fully viable atheistic view of the universe—or, more specifically, of the operation of natural forces on this planet—was the perceived validity of the argument from design. This argument—that the phenomena of earthly life, and in particular those of the human organism, show such a congruence between means and ends that they must have been designed by an intelligent and all-powerful entity—was what largely prevented Voltaire from becoming a full-fledged atheist. The best that other thinkers—such as La Mattrie in Man a Machine (1748)—could do was merely to assert that Nature (now virtually personified, especially among deists) could in fact have engendered the human eye, the human hand, and other objects that seem superficially to have required a creator-god. Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), simply declared that the argument from design was insufficient to establish the existence of a deity, but that is as far as he could go. It required the theory of evolution to destroy the argument once and for all, although it continues to rear its head implausibly and fallaciously in the contemporary "intelligent design" movement.

The relationship between religion and the state was the subject of abundant discussion among Enlightenment thinkers, especially in France. This is because the Catholic Church still occupied a position of unique centrality within the French polity. The clergy was considered the First Estate, and it had immense wealth and power. Voltaire's polemical works on religion (including his satires, such as La Pucelle [1755], a bawdy satire on Joan of Arc) were repeatedly condemned by the state and the church and were regularly banned, forcing him to publish many of his works anonymously or pseudonymously.

Once again, the French in particular looked to England as a model for the proper role of religion within the state. England had never engaged in the religious wars that, in the seventeenth century, had ravaged continental Europe and done much to create revulsion in intellectuals who were appalled at the idea of waging war over arcane points of religious doctrine. It is true that England (and more particularly Scotland, under the influence of rigid Presbyterians) had participated to some degree in the witchcraft trials that, in Europe, caused hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to be executed. But following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Anglican Church in England was largely defanged, and French philosophes could only look with envy at the relative powerlessness of the established church in England. When, in 1762, the French church engaged in such a spasm of barbarity as the execution of Jean Calas (a Protestant who was accused of murdering his son because he had suspected him of secretly converting to Roman Catholicism), Voltaire immediately responded with the Treatise on Toleration (1763). Admittedly, Voltaire placed no particular emphasis on the need to preserve the separation of church and state; nor, like Pierre Bayle, did he defend tolerance on the grounds of individual liberty of conscience. Following contemporary British example, which gradually removed civil disabilities from dissenters but still prohibited individuals who were not members of the Church of England from holding public office or even from practicing their religion openly, Voltaire presented the case for toleration as a means of maintaining social order: an established church is not in itself an evil, so long as it is not fanatical, superstitious, or intolerant.

These and similar arguments undoubtedly had their effect on a core group of American Enlightenment thinkers as they were nurturing the birth of their country. Notwithstanding the tendentious polemics of certain pious historians, past and present, there is little doubt that such figures as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were thorough skeptics and deists whose understanding of history made it clear to them that the United States must avoid the intertwining of religion and the state, for the benefit of both religion and the state. This is why Madison, in "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments" (1784–85), warned that even the minimal infringement of religious liberty that was being proposed by the Virginia state legislature (a small tax to support "teachers of the Christian religion") was an opening wedge that could lead to tyranny. His thoughts on the issue led to the passage of the First Amendment, the strongest guarantee of religious freedom in modern history.

To be sure, not all thinkers in the eighteenth century were atheists or secularists. The most significant exception was perhaps Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a devout Christian who was nonetheless sufficiently heterodox in several of his opinions that some of his works—such as Émile (1762), advocating religious toleration—were condemned in both Catholic France and Calvinist Geneva. Many American political figures, such as George Washington and John Adams, were pious in varying degrees, although they too recognized the virtues of separating church from state. But it is undeniable that the freethinkers of the French, German, British, and American Enlightenments—both by their challenging writings and by the courage with which many of them defied persecution by religious bodies that had the power to condemn, exile, and even execute them—laid the intellectual groundwork for the atheists of succeeding centuries. Their work remains vital, not least because of the vigor and fearlessness with which it took on the forces of religion and combated them with a bracing mix of reason, passion, and satire. As such, they set an example that we would do well to follow.


Excerpted from THE ORIGINAL ATHEISTS by S. T. JOSHI. Copyright © 2014 S. T. Joshi. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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Meet the Author

S. T. Joshi is a freelance writer, a scholar, and an editor. He is the author of The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism, and he is the editor of Atheism: A Reader; The Agnostic Reader; God's Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are WrongH. L. Mencken on ReligionDocuments of American Prejudice; In Her Place: A Documentary History of Prejudice against Women; and What Is Man? And Other Irreverent Essays. He is also editor of the American Rationalist

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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The Original Atheists: First Thoughts on Nonbelief 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just a book to let you know that people have been on the same boat as you for a while when it comes to religion.