An Alternate History Of Atheism

Nick Spencer claims that the emergence of modern atheism had less to do with “slow, steady scientific advance” than the disastrous collusion of religion and politics in early modern Europe:

“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.

In reality, the growth of atheism in Europe and America has much more to do with politics and, in particular, ecclesiastically backed politics, than it has with science, something that is clear even from its earliest days… 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.

Which is one reason why, he goes on to argue, that only about 2% of Americans identify as atheists:

If atheism were a function of science and progress, then surely America, from the late 19th century the world’s most self-consciously modern and scientific nation, would become its atheistic capital. It didn’t—for reasons that go back to its founding.

Christianity was, of course, in the blood of the country’s first Anglophone settlers, but just as important was the fact that many American clergy enthusiastically supported the revolution. They described it as a just war and Christianity became associated with the people’s political emancipation, in a way that it did only partially in Britain, and not at all in France.

At the same time, the nation’s new constitution did not refer to God (beyond the reference to the Year of our Lord in Article VII), precluded any religious test from becoming a requirement for office, and, most famously, in its First Amendment, legislated against Congress making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” … This could be construed as de facto godlessness—indeed it was and is—but in reality it ended up being the nation’s strongest bulwark against atheism, denying the church the temporal power that had done it so much harm in Europe and effectively draining the wells of moral indignation on which atheists drew.