Morten Høi Jensen surveys a number of recent books on the origins of modern atheism, finding in Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origins of the Species the intriguing argument that atheism’s rise was due to “thinkers who wanted to realign the relationship between religion and society,” rather than outright claims that God did not exist:
One of the ironies of Spencer’s narrative, and what gives it a kind of provocative counterintuitiveness, is his insistence on the role of believers themselves in the undermining of their faith. When believers splintered into factions and began questioning each other’s authority, Spencer writes, “they also questioned the texts on which their interpretation was founded, and biblical criticism as an anti-Christian discipline was born.”
In other words, atheism, like a teenage boyfriend, was snuck in through the back door while devout parents were distractedly bickering over biblical interpretation. And once the initial transgression had occurred, religious authority’s undoing was irreversible. Slowly, historians, philosophers, and scientists began to vie with church authorities for the definitive account of human origin and destiny. Even the publication of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), with its claim that, as Spencer puts it, “history was all humanity and accident and irony,” was considered by many to be a subversion of the notions of divine providence. There was no divine intervention in Gibbon’s history, just imperfect human agency.
Spencer finds a parallel argument in Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God:
The English literary theorist Terry Eagleton joins Spencer in seeing the history of atheism not strictly as a refutation of God but as a series of disagreements over moral and political authority. “The Enlightenment,” he writes early in Culture and the Death of God, “may have been troubled by the question of faith, but it was not especially anti-religious.” The philosophes of the Enlightenment viewed religion in practical, utilitarian terms; it was to be contested when it supported political autocracy but tolerated when it promoted civic virtue. Whatever their own hang-ups about religion, these largely bourgeois intellectuals looked kindly (and not a little condescendingly) on the lower classes clinging desperately to their pious ideology. What harm is a little superstition, the philosophes rationalized, if it guarantees social cohesion?
But Eagleton sees it as “imprudent for the rulers to worship Reason while the masses pay homage to the Virgin Mary,” and his book is partly a critique of those who would use religion as a rationale for an existing social order. Thus he examines the variously philosophical and political attempts to replace religious eschatology with what he calls counterfeit theology. “The history of the modern age,” he argues,
is among other things the search for a viceroy for God. Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to time as forms of displaced divinity.