Book Club: Was Montaigne A New Atheist?

A reader welcomes him into the fold:

You ask if Montaigne was an atheist or Christian. Montaigne was most certainly atheist, and his atheism, though concealed for obvious concern about the consequences of opposing the opinions of those “stronger in number.” Montaigne’s atheism shines through in his Apology for Raymond Sebond, written in the wake the French Wars of Religion in which thousands were slaughtered in a sectarian conflict.

montaigneIn his Apology, Montaigne, by placing words in the mouths of others, openly ridicules the promise of heaven and knowledge of divine beings. One example: “The philosopher Antisthenes, as he was being initiated in the mysteries of Orpheus, the priest telling him, ‘That those who professed themselves of that religion were certain to receive perfect and eternal felicity after death,’—’If thou believest that,’ answered he, ‘why dost thou not die thyself?'”

Two more examples from the Apology: “‘Tis Socrates’s opinion, and mine too, that the best judging of heaven is not to judge of it at all.” And: “Nothing is made of nothing, God therefore could not make the world without matter. What! has God put into our hands the keys and most secret springs of his power? Is he obliged not to exceed the limits of our knowledge?”

Montaigne is, of course, cautious, with numerous references to the trial and execution of Socrates for disbelief in the gods, all expressed in a way that undermines any divine authority:

“For that which our reason advises us to, as the most likely, is generally for every one to obey the laws of his country, as was the advice of Socrates, inspired, as he says, by a divine counsel; and by that, what would it say, but that our duty has no other rule but what is accidental?”

Were Montaigne living today and free from the threat of persecution for his beliefs, his detractors would call him a “New” atheist.

Well, since this is a book club, we can now bring on Marshall MacLuhan the author Sarah Bakewell, to address the question. Here’s her response to the email:

Thank you for raising this fascinating topic! It’s one that I puzzled over constantly while writing the book, and I still feel that the answer is open to interpretation. To some extent (as with other areas) it depends partly on what one wants to read into Montaigne, because he is quite capable of pointing us in several different directions at once.

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

By temperament and general world-view, Montaigne was extremely skeptical, and this inclined him towards atheism. But he was skeptical about all claims to a single truth about the world – both religious claims and what we might now call scientific ones. (The modern notion of “science”, let alone “scientific method”, did not exist in his day, which I think is relevant to this debate; it’s dangerously easy to impose our own categories on the sixteenth century).

montaigne.jpgBut “the New Atheism”, as I understand it, is a movement that calls not for the suspension or withholding of belief, but for active opposition to religious world-views. It calls particularly for opposing religion through rational and scientific arguments. This, I think, would have turned Montaigne off, because he was skeptical about the capacity of human reason to give us any certainty about anything at all.

The main thrust of the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” leads in that direction. He sets out to defend Sebond against attacks based on reason, by demonstrating the limitations of reason in general (never mind the fact that Sebond himself was a proponent of “rational” theology). Montaigne emerges in this essay as very much the Pyrrhonian Skeptic – a form of skepticism which casts doubt on the possibility of being certain of anything, even one’s own lack of certainty.

(Also, it seems weird to us, but this kind of Skepticism was quite acceptable to the Church authorities of Montaigne’s time, because it helped to shore them up against Reformists who put more emphasis on rational or privately derived beliefs.)

Having said all this, I always had the impression when reading Montaigne that he was FAR more interested in what went on in this world than anything that might happen in the beyond. He was fascinated by the natural world, by history, by the quirks of human behavior, by social variety – particularly by the beliefs of other cultures, which he seemed to find neither more nor less convincing than those of his own.

I think I’d sum up my impression of Montaigne by saying that he was not necessarily an atheist (still less a New one) – but that he was profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.

Read the whole Book Club discussion here.