Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Religion

An Excerpt from “The Varieties of Atheism” Edited by David Newheiser

In The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and Its Critics, an eclectic group of scholars working in religious studies offer thoughtful essays to revive dialogue about atheism beyond matters of belief. In this excerpt from the introduction, editor David Newheiser invites us to consider atheism’s diverse conceptual history.

Atheism has been the subject of intense interest throughout the modern era, but it flashed into prominence fifteen years ago thanks to the New Atheists. Against the claim that religion and empirical science concern distinct dimensions of human life, these writers portrayed theism as a competitor to scientific explanation. As Richard Dawkins puts it, “‘the God Hypothesis’ is a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which should be analysed as sceptically as any other.”  At a time when many people worried about the danger of fundamentalism, this claim caught the popular imagination. In contrast to the unruly passions of religious people, the New Atheists promised the dispassionate rationality of scientific understanding.

The New Atheists are among the most influential representatives of atheism today, but their conception of atheism is limited. According to Dawkins, et al., religion is simply bad science, a set of beliefs that can be falsified through empirical observation. Although they worry about the behaviors that follow from religious beliefs, they see belief as the source of the problem, and so their solution is to replace irrational faith with scientific knowledge. Depicting religion as a set of quasi-scientific assertions allows the New Atheists to claim that theism and atheism are incompatible hypotheses. However, just as religious practice is enormously diverse, there is reason to suspect that that atheism is more varied than this dichotomy suggests.

– atheism as accusation –

The English word atheist derives from the Greek atheos, which applies a privative prefix (a-) to the word for god (theos). As this construction suggests, the meaning of atheist shifts depending upon the theos to which it is opposed. In Greek antiquity, the term generally named those who were godless insofar as they lived as if there are no divine laws. The philosopher Socrates was famously accused of atheism in this sense. His opponents complained that “he does not believe in the gods of the state, and has other new divinities of his own.”  Under Roman rule, second century Christians such as Justin Martyr were also accused of being atheos. Like Socrates, Christians believed in some form of divinity, but they were considered to be godless because they did not live according to polytheistic standards of piety.

Modern commentators sometimes distinguish between theoretical and practical atheism, believing that there are no gods and acting as if there are no gods. However, in the ancient world the two were seen as inseparable. In the second century AD, Theophilus of Antioch defended Christians against the charge of atheism by insisting that they are not cannibals.  Both he and his opponents presumed that godless beliefs and godless behavior go together; on this view, cannibalism counts as evidence of impiety. Rather than defining atheism in terms of belief, premodern Europeans saw it as a holistic phenomenon that includes ethics, aesthetics, etc..

The term atheist migrated from Greek to the European languages in the sixteenth century. In this period, it is frequently used by Protestant and Catholic Christians to accuse each other of godlessness. Théophile Gautier comments, “Two savants and two theologians could not dispute without accusing each other reciprocally of sodomy and atheism.”  In the seventeenth century the Catholic apologist François Garasse attributed atheism to a diverse group of people—including ancient philosophers such as Epicurus and Diogenes, biblical figures such as Nimrod and Cain, and Protestants including John Calvin and Martin Luther (who Garasse calls “a perfect atheist”).  According to Garasse, it is impossible for a person to believe that there is no God, and in any case many of the atheists he lists believed in the Christian God in particular. In this context atheism named a godlessness that is primarily moral.

This understanding of atheism continued into the early modern period. In eighteenth-century France, a priest named Guillaume was arrested on the accusation that he was an atheist. Upon examination by a theological expert, he was found to have made unsound claims concerning the nature of God’s ideas about created beings—a subtle question that is hardly central to Christian doctrine. Despite this indiscretion, Guillaume’s examiner noted that “one could not accuse someone of impiety who has lost his way in matters so abstract, unless one found other proofs of his corrupted sentiments.”  On this view, holding heterodox beliefs was not enough to make one an atheist: in the end, the unfortunate Guillaume was convicted not for his beliefs but because of “the manifest debauchery and libertinism of his morals” (including, crucially, jokes on the topic of religion).

From ancient Greece to early modern France, atheist was an accusation directed towards one’s opponents rather than an identity to be claimed for oneself. At this point, however, the figure of the atheist finally took flesh. Philosophers such as Denis Diderot and Paul-Henri d’Holbach were among the first to call themselves atheists, and a century later it was suddenly widespread. Some historians argue that this development brought to light a current of unbelief that had been hidden until this point.  As they observe, people have long held views that diverged from the orthodoxy dominant in a particular place, and such dissent was sometimes suppressed. At the same time, to refer to these dissidents as atheists would be misleading. It is only in the modern period that atheism and religion came to be equated with propositional beliefs; in premodern Europe a different network of concepts was in play.  For this reason, the emergence of atheism as an avowed identity transformed the term’s significance.

– atheism and modernity –

Where some claim that rational unbelief and religious credulity have always been in conflict, the story of atheism is stranger than this suggests. In fact, people came to call themselves atheist through a series of cultural shifts that originated within religious traditions. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation some Christians began to define their faith in terms of propositional beliefs. To justify their interpretation of Christianity against others, they began to seek a justification for their views in objective phenomena. Initially, this allowed each side to seek support from the newly emerging sciences, but the eventual result was that religious commitment became subordinated to empirical investigation. Whereas premodern Christians had argued that divine transcendence is invisible and inscrutable, some early modern theologians made God into an empirical hypothesis that was finally rendered superfluous.

The vaunted conflict between religion and science originated as a result of this theological shift. Medieval theologians understood scientia as an intellectual habit and religio as a moral habit.  On this understanding there could be no contradiction between religio and scientia, for they are not the same sort of thing. In the modern period, however, both science and religion come to be seen as bodies of objective knowledge that make propositional statements that are sometimes at odds. Where premodern religion referred to a piety that was independent of a single tradition, people began to speak of religions in the plural, each of which was understood as a system of doctrinal claims. Through the objectifying tendency of the time, science and religion were made to signify the opposite of what they once meant, and in the process a new attitude became possible—the rejection of religion on scientific grounds.

These changes in intellectual culture contributed to the development of atheism as an identity, but they are not enough to explain it. Alec Ryrie argues persuasively that modern atheism originated in a seventeenth-century crisis of faith that was primarily affective.  Ryrie focuses on Protestant Europe, where many Christians expressed anger at the power and hypocrisy of the church while others felt a deep anxiety about the erosion of doctrinal certainties. In his analysis, this emotional ferment gave force to a moral critique of Christian commitment, which blossomed into the explicit unbelief of later centuries. Some people in this period claimed that particular Christian beliefs were irrational, but according to Ryrie this argument was motivated by morality and emotion rather than rationality alone.

Defining atheism in terms of belief is clearly inadequate to describe premodern atheism, but modern atheism is broader as well. There is a set of nineteenth-century figures who are often presented as paradigmatically atheistic: Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Percy Shelley, Hypatia Bonner, Mikhail Bakunin, the Marquis de Sade, etc. These writers did reject religious beliefs, but that was not the sum—nor even the focus—of their atheism. Some of them were concerned with the rationality of belief and the authority of science, but others directed their critique of religion toward ethics, politics, and aesthetics. These forms of atheism were different from premodern atheism in important respects, but they were likewise driven by motivations that run deeper than reason.

Like the critics of Christianity that Ryrie describes, many nineteenth-century atheists drew on Christian thought in order to criticize particular forms of Christianity. Feuerbach, for instance, argued that God is a projection that functions to reinforce earthly power. By denying God any existence apart from human culture, Feuerbach dealt a serious blow to religious commitment, and he encouraged others to conclude that religion is a tool of political oppression. Feuerbach is therefore an important source for later atheism, and yet his critique of religion was motivated by a moral sensibility that was formed by Christian traditions.  Feuerbach was raised as a Lutheran, and he cited Luther hundreds of times—even referring to himself at one point as “Luther II.”  Like Luther, Feuerbach’s outrage at the moral complacency of many Christians led him to criticize them in colorful terms. Feuerbach was bitterly critical of Luther as well, but his attack on Christianity can be read as an act of Lutheran self-criticism. As Feuerbach himself observes, “Atheism…is the secret of religion itself.”

– atheism in plural –

This brief genealogy indicates that defining atheism narrowly in terms of belief obscures the cultural shifts through which modern atheism emerged, and it flattens the diversity of atheism in different times and places. I have sought to show that atheism is instead a polyphonic assemblage that draws upon religious traditions.  Despite its association with the cool light of reason, atheism today is motivated by curiosity, defiance, delight, anxiety, anger, skepticism, sympathy, and more.  In each case it reflects the particularities of context, whether that context is European (as in the history I have sketched) or otherwise (as atheism grows increasingly global). In order to understand atheism, it is therefore necessary to attend to the intersecting lines of affinity and tension that connect particular atheisms with particular religious traditions.

In his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James distinguishes between institutional and individual religion: “Churches, when once established, live at secondhand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine.”  Without endorsing James’s account of religious experience, this collection expands upon his intuition that religious traditions cannot be reduced to the doctrinal pronouncements made by ecclesiastical bureaucracies.

Although James says relatively little about the varieties of non-religious experience, he notes at one point that “the more fervent opponents of Christian doctrine have often enough shown a temper which, psychologically considered, is indistinguishable from religious zeal.”  Read quickly this sounds like a criticism, but in context it can be seen as a commendation. Whatever James himself thought about atheism, he implies that it is just as vibrant and diverse as religious commitment.

Those who define atheism in terms of belief often acknowledge that it has extra-cognitive implications. On this view, the theoretical conviction that a divine being does not exist may go on to influence the believer’s attitudes regarding ethics, politics, aesthetics, and so forth. The present collection explores a radical alternative: in keeping with James’s understanding of religion, it suggests that atheistic affects and practices may be the cause (rather than the effect) of atheistic beliefs. Just as James sought to unsettle the tendency to identify religion with the pronouncements of its official representatives, these essays show that atheism is constituted by a complex network of which belief is only a part.

James offers a compelling account of the connection between thinking and the rest of life. He writes, “I do believe that feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue.”  Discursive claims are clearly important, but I think James is right that they are secondary in an important sense. He continues a little later, “There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late.”  Rather than reducing atheism to one dimension or another, these essays attend to the deeper sources of a conversation that remains vividly in motion.

David Newheiser is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of Hope in a Secular Age: Deconstruction, Negative Theology, and the Future of Faith.

The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and Its Critics is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.