Books on Science and Religion #30: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 1

Books on Science and Religion #30: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 1

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 11, 2015

This is the first part of a two part review of an excellent new book on atheism. It tells us atheism’s history, talks about its causes, describes its importance, and reminds us that atheism has a distinguished record of important accomplishments.

atheists the origin of the speciesThe book is Atheists: The Origin of the Species and is written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos. It is a must have if you are building a library on science, religion, faith, and reason. Spencer’s argument is three-fold: (1) atheism is best understood “in social and political terms”, (2) from “the outset, atheism was a constructive and creative phenomenon, and (2) we need to “talk about atheisms rather than atheism,” i.e., “a family of atheisms.”

Spencer starts his story in the Renaissance, arguing that the building blocks for an atheistic worldview were in place very early, but that “it took the massive theological, epistemological and political crisis precipitated by the Reformations to gather those blocks and turn them into a foundation.” 18th century France was where “the first openly and unapologetically atheist arguments” were put forward and atheism became a full-blown creed. It was in France where a “rigidly authoritarian Catholic ancien regime … created deep wells of moral indignation on which atheists could draw.” Britain was more tolerant, moderating atheism’s influence. The separation of church and state in the United States effectively sidestepping it almost entirely. The 19th century was the “moment to be alive as an atheist”.

Here great systems of though rubbed shoulders, explaining the past, inspiring the present and predicting the future, putting religious belief in its right place, and then transcending that place, moving people on to a truer understanding of historical progress, a better grasp of economics, or a more rational form of ritual and practice … [as] progress predicted the death of God as humanity moved into broad, sunlit rational uplands.

In the 20th century “atheism faced and created problems previously hidden or unimagined.” Nietzsche showed atheists to be hypocrites, the logical positivists “gleefully hammered home the final nail in the coffin of God-talk,” only to find “that God hadn’t been in the coffin in the first place. And

the experience of two world wars left many in Europe, particularly in France, doubting the humanist credentials of atheism. … Attempts to build atheist societies populated with new men (and the occasional new woman) in Russian, China, Albania, North Korea and elsewhere ended up humiliating, enslaving and killing on a scale that made previous religious wars look like a playground scuffle.

berlin destroyed“Atheism came out and came of age”, Specter writes, “and it wasn’t pretty.”

European Culture, Christianity, and Atheism

“Religion, in the form of Christianity,” Spencer points out, “was the foundation of European culture … Belief in God determined the way people lived, the way they were governed and the way they structured society.” Christianity was all pervasive, legitimizing government, communities, kings, and justice. It was the foundation of society. It was not just another intellectual activity. It was this structure, not philosophy and not science, that was the cause. Atheism

had only a limited amount to do with reason and even less with science. The creation myth [of atheism] is an invention of the later nineteenth century, albeit one with ongoing popular appeal. In reality … modern atheism was primarily a political and social cause, its development in Europe having rather more to do with the (ab)use of theologically legitimized political authority than it does with developments in science or philosophy.

Even though atheism is ‘parasitic’ in that it is defined by what it is against, it had to “construct as well as destroy,” thus a central theme of the book:

Precisely because Christianity was the foundation, the walls, the streets and the public order of European civilization, atheism was faced with the need to construct a different earthly city if the destruction of the existing one was ever going to be successful.

The Beginnings of Modern Atheism

Spencer dates the beginnings of modern atheism to the Renaissance – both to its politics and to its fascination with ancient Latin and Greek humanism. Politically, the reformation launched the wars of religion where Protestant and Catholicism fought for supremacy, but it also brought about the ‘realpolitik’ in Italy that we associate with Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) and his influential treatises on politics (e.g., The Prince). From the backward-looking humanism of the Renaissance, leading European thinkers of the time learned about skepticism (sometimes called Pyrrhonism). And the authority of the bible was undermined as leading religious scholars indulged in bitter battles about whether or not it was reliable and whether or not it was best translated literally as was the contention of Luther and the Protestants.

220px-Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_TitoWith Machiavelli leading the way, with skepticism and classical humanism providing new models for thinking and social organizations, with religious battles over sacred texts poisoning scholasticism, and with religious wars throughout Europe causing slaughter and chaos, European thinkers began to downplay the ideological side of religion and to emphasize natural proofs for belief in God and the validity of religion. For example, Rene Descartes (1596–1650), widely considered the first of the modern European philosophers, substituted his famous cogito for scholastic versions of the proof of the existence of God.

This started a kind of ‘slippery slope’ slide toward atheism, with the materialist philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), writing in The Leviathan, and the pantheist philosopher Spinoza (1632 – 1677) both advancing ideas widely considered as atheistic. Spinoza, for example, rather airily dismissed all of the Hebrew Bible as due to the good – or bad – humor of the Jewish prophets. But both Hobbes and Spinoza proposed systems of government, thought, worship, and economics to override those grounded in Christianity, illustrating the extent to which atheism could be a positive and creative force as well as negative one. Pierre Bayle’s (1647-1706) skeptical Dictionnaire Historique et Critique captured much of the anti-religious and critical perspectives being voiced about at the end of the 16th century. In become very controversial and very popular. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the

Dictionnaire historique et critique was among the most popular works of the eighteenth century. The content of this huge and strange, yet fascinating work is difficult to describe: history, literary criticism, theology, obscenity, in addition to philosophical treatments of toleration, the problem of evil, epistemological questions, and much more. [Pierre Bayle’s] influence on the Enlightenment was, whether intended or not, largely subversive.

The Enlightenment

Unable to obtain much of a foothold in England and Germany in the 18th century, atheism took root in France where “royal absolutism and ecclesiastical authority” were closely tied together. Exacerbating the situation was a French Catholic Church that “was gloriously wealthy, owning close to ten per cent of land, exercising the right to tithe over most of the rest, enjoying significant tax exemptions, and nourishing popular hostility to Protestants.”

MeslierThe Frenchman Jean Meslier, who spent the whole of his life as a priest, was perhaps the first undoubted atheist of modern Europe. Famously – or infamously – his “long and uncompromising” Memoire left to posterity after his death in 1729 denounced every aspect of Christianity and Judaism. They were ‘nothing but error, abuse, illusion, mendacity, and betrayal. Christianity was ‘gruesome paganism’ and Christ’s disciples were ‘common and ignorant men.’ Anticipating much of what was to characterize modern atheism, he condemned the church’s glorification of suffering, and urged what we now call a liberal view of sex, aspects of materialism, and a kind of early form of communism.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784), editor of the famed Encyclopedie, Baron D’Holbach (1723 -1789), Voltaire (1694-1778), d’Alambert (1717-1783), co-editor of the Encyclopedie until 1759, Helvetius (1715-1771) and the Scotsman David Hume (1711-1776) shared many of Meslier views, but were also extraordinarily gifted and productive thinkers, philosophers, and writers, compiling and publishing almost all of the views that we associate with modern atheism between them. In particular, D’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770) and Good (or Common) Sense, or Natural Ideas vs. Supernatural Ideas are a compendium of almost all of the ideas from New Atheism We will pick up on these topics in the second part of this review next week. For now, we consider the critical reception in the (mainly British) press.

The Reviews

Atheists: The Origin of the Species has gotten good reviews. Julian Baggini, an atheist writing in the Guardian, notes that:

Atheism is now sometimes discussed as though it began with the publication of Richard Dawkins’s ‘The God Delusion’ in 2006.To put these recent debates – or more often than not, flaming rows – in some sort of perspective, a thorough history of atheism is long overdue.

The godless may not at first be pleased to discover that the person who has stepped up to the plate to write it comes from the ranks of the opposition. But Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos, is the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, sympathetic critic that atheists need, if only to remind them that belief in God does not necessarily require a loss of all reason.

Michael Robbins, an American poet who has made poetry hip again, writes in Slate that:

Nick Spencer begins his spirited history of atheism with a fairy tale. Once upon a time, people lived in ignorant superstition, offering sacrifices to monsters in the sky. Then some clever folks used special weapons called “science” and “reason” to show that the monsters had never really existed in the first place. Some of these clever folks were killed for daring to say this, but they persevered, and now only really stupid people believe in the monsters.

Spencer’s point, of course, is that this received wisdom is naive nonsense—it gets the history of science and the nature of religious belief wrong, setting up an opposition between reason and faith that the church fathers would have found rather puzzling. … Few historians take this myth seriously, but it retains its hold on the vulgar atheist imagination. To believe it requires the misconception that religion exists primarily to provide explanations of natural phenomena. (“You seriously believe in God?” “Well, how do you explain thunder?”)

Tom Brown, writing in the Curious Animal Magazine, says:

The dust had barely settled on the carnage of 9/11 before some commentators were calling faith to account. “To fill a world with religion […] is like littering the streets with loaded guns,” wrote the Oxford academic Richard Dawkins. “Do not be surprised if they are used.” The American neuroscientist Sam Harris, meanwhile, started writing his bestseller ‘The End of Faith’ the very next day, in which he claimed, “We are at war with Islam” and not just the extremist wing.

As Nick Spencer points out, such broadsides against religion are nothing new, but it’s certainly the post-9/11 rise of religious fundamentalism – and the subsequent backlash – that gives this comprehensive new study its impetus. Just as the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris and, later, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) introduced a whole new audience to anti-religious arguments after the collapse of the Twin Towers, so Spencer feels the time is ripe to set atheism in its proper context.

Can we hope that Spencer’s approach is the wave of the future?

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will finish our review of the history of atheism called Atheists: The Origin of the Species written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos.


This is the 30th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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