Although the impression given by some modern writers that atheism godlessness) is a recent historical development, the history of atheism can be traced back to classical antiquity and the Vedic period in India. This collection of essays, however, is specifically concerned with individuals who rejected religious faith in the period between 1520 and 1780. The authors recognise the term "atheism" is a catch-all term for many strands of free thinking assaults on religion in general and organised Christianity in particular, motivated by objections to the perceived stranglehold on thought exercised by the Church in its political and pastoral roles.
It is ironic that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Italy, dominated by the Papacy, was known as the home of European atheism. Non belief was encouraged by the impact of the discovery of classical sceptical thought and the relativism that emerged from the Voyages of Discovery. The argument that if all nations believed in God no rational person could disbelieve was undermined by the discovery of new nations which did not believe in God.
Custom was attacked and with it the role of religion in the political and social structure undermined through secularisation. Thomas Hobbes played a crucial part in this shift by arguing the civil sovereign rather than the Church had proper authority in religious matters. It would be unwise to overlook the fact that Hobbes was justifying the Tudor Reformation instigated by Henry V111. As ever, the argument was over the exercise of political power.
Many anti-Christian ideas came from Jewish polemicists such as Saul Levi Mortera and Isaac Orobio de Castro. It was a tradition fuelled by by Spinoza and continued after the period by Jewish atheists such as Karl Marx. Others would argue that it continues in the mass media but conspiracy theories are fundamentally flawed.
Early attacks on the Aristotelian First Mover argument came from the Cartesians who claimed nothing in the material world could give one knowledge about an immaterial entity. These arguments were documented but others were implied by reading between the philosophical lines and the development of deism as a form of acceptable non belief. Those who openly declared atheism were often attacking the social order and arguing for individual freedom from state control. Non belief was as much a political and social threat as a theological one. The inability of both sides of the argument to untangle the purely intellectual strengths and weaknesses advanced by the other remains intact to this day.
This is a book for anyone interested in the history of ideas. It represents the cultural history of various social groups which find parallels in both ancient and contemporary societies. It is probably too detailed to retain the attention of those who simply want to make the case for - or against - atheism. Presumably it will attract combatants from both sides but for the neutral it will serve neither cause. It will simply reinforce the notion that humankind has the intelligence to address fundamental questions of existence but insufficient knowledge to be certain of the answers. As a historian I found well worth five stars, not for the ease of reading it but for filling in gaps in our intellectual history.
on 5 April 2010
This is a most important book. Any person interested in (the history of) atheism should read it at least once. It opens a whole new world of ideas and perspectives. Yes, atheism has a history, and it goes back a long, long way! You will not find a better guide for this most important period.
The book is unfortunately very hard to find, even in specialized university libraries. And it is expensive. There are large excerpts available on Google Books, but as usual with missing pages and nothing of the second half of the book. All that is frustrating, very much so. I will probably end up buying the darned book because it is so important (and well written), but a book like this should be neither so hard to find nor so expensive. That's the world we live in, I guess.