At Politico, Nick Spencer argues that the possibility of atheism in the modern world, and the relative weakness of atheism in America, has less to do with science than with politics.

Spencer writes, “‘Science’  - if we can treat that collection of disparate disciplines as one single, coherent enterprise - did have something to do with the growth of atheism in the West, but very much less than most imagine. Those three great moments of scientific progress - the Copernican revolution in the 16th century, the scientific revolution in the 17th and the Darwinian in the 19th - were hardly atheistic at all. Copernicus was a priest; Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, devout; and Charles Darwin incredulous that anyone could imagine evolution demanded godlessness. ‘It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist,’ he wrote in 1879.”

The real driver of atheism was politics, “in particular, ecclesiastically backed politics.” The Enlightenment broke out in a world where “Philosophy was stuck in pre-Cartesian days and, in any case, subordinated to theology. The monarch ruled with absolute power that was justified by a fabulously wealthy and notoriously intolerant church. People were still being publically tortured and executed for ‘religious’ crimes as late as the 1760s. This was the environment that bred Meslier and his better known atheist successors, philosophes like Denis Diderot, Baron d’Holbach, Julien La Mettrie and Claude Adrien Helvétius. Europe’s first public atheists were driven from mere scepticism and anti-clericalism to full-blown unbelief not by reason or scientific progress but primarily by a venal and violent theo-political settlement.”

The reason for the uneven distribution of atheism today also has to do with ecclesiastical politics. In Britain, the church made room for moderate, Enlightened religion, making it possible to be both modern and Christian. You could be anti-clerical while remaining in the church. That was not so much an option in France, and so anti-clericalism expressed itself as atheism.

More on: Atheism

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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