Another Round On The Political Roots Of Atheism

by Matthew Sitman

Last Sunday we featured Nick Spencer’s argument that the rise of modern atheism had less to do with the advance of science than the fallout from the entanglement of religion and politics in early modern Europe. Kenneth Sheppard pushes back with a number of qualifications and questions:

It is an oversimplification to suggest, as Spencer does, that the major scientific developments of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth centuries were “hardly atheistic at all.” Yes, Copernicus was a priest. So was Galileo. Yet David Wootton has argued that Galileo was in fact a closet unbeliever (Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, Yale, 2010). Yes, Bacon argued that his new natural philosophy was really an aid to theology. But did all his contemporaries think likewise? Christopher Riggs has argued that Bacon’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, was an unbeliever for reasons related to the new science (The World of Christopher Marlowe, Faber and Faber, 2004). What about more challenging examples, such as Hobbes or Spinoza? Surely it would be difficult to sustain the claim that their deeply heterodox – and perhaps atheistic – views had nothing to do with recent developments in science? No, the history of science does not fully explain the history of atheism, but it is misleading to suggest that the two are unrelated.

Spencer is right to look to politics as an alternate source for an explanation of atheism’s history, but he does so in rather simplistic terms. Apparently atheism emerged in France because of its supposedly intellectual and political backwardness, was avoided in Britain because of its antipathy to absolutist and revolutionary France, and was effectively negated in America because of the separation of church and state. But this way of looking at the history of France, Britain, and America rests on taking French anticlericalism, British whiggism, and American exceptionalism at their word. What evidence does Spencer offer here, other than a series of declarative statements with fairly thin evidentiary argumentation?

Sheppard is definitely right to point out how complicated this period of history was, especially with regard to religion. In my previous life as an academic, I studied early modern political thought, which led me to explore a number of the personalities and issues he mentions, though admittedly my focus wasn’t on the history of science. But to take an example he mentions that I did study with some care, Thomas Hobbes, I’m still conflicted about where to draw the line between mere heterodoxy and a more subversive atheism, or how to determine when the appearance of piety was, well, just that – an appearance, undermined by the many subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle criticisms he leveled against traditional Christianity, or the way he reworked Christian doctrines almost beyond recognition.

And let’s say Hobbes was an atheist; it’s still worth noting that half of his masterwork, Leviathan, takes on the rhetoric of religion, discussing everything from angels to what Hell might be like. His arguments about the Bible amount to one of the first examples of the historical-critical method – and yet his political vision culminates in a “Christian commonwealth.” Transposing our categories and preoccupations onto the past is always problematic, but it seems to me that it’s especially fraught when it comes to religion in the early modern period. Hobbes is just one example of this. Sheppard mentions others, and still more examples could be multiplied.

So I’m inclined to agree with Sheppard that we should avoid oversimplification, and I’d go further and say that that’s case whether you want to argue, as Spencer seems to, that the emergence of modern science owes much to the work of believers, or, from the opposite point of view, you want to claim modern science constituted a break with our benighted religious past, our emergence from the fog of superstition and credulity. For me, the more I read about this period of history, and the more I’ve realized the complicated ways religion interacted with science, politics, and culture, the more I’ve become resistant to linear narratives from partisans of both faith and unbelief. We tend to want all good things to come from those in the past who seem to be on “our side” – but that’s just not the case.

All that said, I still would argue that Spencer does seem to be onto something when it comes to the impact of politics on the rise of atheism, Sheppard’s questions notwithstanding. The former’s argument reminds me of this passage from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

Christianity, which has declared all men equal in the sight of God, cannot hesitate to acknowledge all citizens equal before the law. But by a strange concatenation of events, religion for the moment has become entangled with those institutions which democracy overthrows, and so it is often brought to rebuff the equality which it loves and to abuse freedom as its adversary, whereas by taking it by the hand it could sanctify its striving.

What Tocqueville realized, much like Spencer, is that when Christianity was put in the service of a political regime – here, he especially means undemocratic forms of government, whether aristocracy or monarchy, or some blend of the two – its eventual fall meant it took Christianity down, too. It became impossible to separate, practically speaking, religious faith from the oppressive and unjust regimes with which they were in bed. When throne and altar are joined, a protest against the former can’t help but implicate the latter.

Tocqueville was writing as someone who thought religion was good for democracy, and so his description is as much a warning as it a dispassionate reading of the past. He was admonishing Christians especially not to put themselves on the wrong side of the real moral, political, and scientific advances of his day. The psychological thrust of his point seems true to me: the more religion meddles in political affairs, or the more religious leaders seem obtuse and retrograde, the more it gives people reasons extraneous to the core tenets of the faith to reject it. Political trends shift without warning, leaders fall out of favor, revolutions happen – why hitch Christianity to any cause that doesn’t directly relate to the message of Jesus? Tocqueville insisted, again and again, that Christians, especially ministers, distinguish between what was and what wasn’t essential to the Gospel. If they didn’t, Christianity increasingly would lose its credibility. It’s hard to see how he’s wrong on this point. It seems axiomatic to me that the horrible behavior of far too many Christians over the last few centuries contributed to religion’s relative decline in the West.

I read Spencer, then, like Tocqueville, to have the present in mind almost as much as the past – or rather, to find in the broad patterns of the past a real lesson worth pondering. Any sweeping statement about “religion and politics” in the past can be quibbled with, as Sheppard shows. And certainly the advance of science makes unbelief possible in new ways as more and more of the world gets explained apart from the divine – I wouldn’t argue against that at all. But I wonder what emotional resonance this has, especially for those outside the confines of elite intellectual circles, compared to seeing priests cozy up to corrupt and brutal rulers in the 18th century, or, today, seeing hucksterish reverends preach nonsense about gay people or the age of the earth? Such actions go a long way toward making decent people everywhere doubt the truth of Christianity, or any religion.